By Kay Dixon (RPCV 1962-1964)
We grin at each other; I gently squeeze Kevin’s hand. The pilot announces, “We are making our final descent into El Dorado International Airport, Bogota, Colombia.”
We are nearly there, returning to Colombia where our relationship began more than fifty years ago. Colombia captivates both of us. This is our third return visit to our magic kingdom.
It’s nighttime in Bogota, just as it was when I arrived with Colombia 3, my Peace Corps group (seventy of us) in the fall of 1962. Our airplane circles down onto the lighted runway. Through the window, just as previously, the city lights twinkle across the vast blackness. The plane bumps down onto the tarmac, the airport jetway connects our plane to the terminal. My first plane ride to Bogota was not this way. Half asleep, we all gathered our belongings and lumbered down wobbly airplane stairs. As we dragged ourselves across the tarmac, boisterous cheers rose up as the earlier groups of Peace Corps Volunteers in Colombia welcomed us.
Tonight, an attendant greets us and whisks us through Immigration and Customs. Outside the terminal, we meet our driver. Soon we are darting at high speed among cars, trucks and vans down the freeway into the city. It’s late at night but the traffic is still heavy. Our driver points to a Transmilenio BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) station with a long queue of people. “This is new?” we ask, admiring the sleek modern platform adjacent to the freeway. He confirms it.
Soon we turn away from the center of the city into a suburban neighborhood en route to our hotel. The driver stops beside a desk, chair and open patio style umbrella under a streetlight. Two uniformed men greet us, “Welcome to Hotel Sofitel.” Gold braid and brass buttons accent their elegant black tuxedos with matching top hats. They gather our luggage as they direct us down a broken sidewalk next to an open road construction project. “What is this?” we wonder as we step over the concrete slabs avoiding muddy puddles and road ruts.
Some things never change, we think. We may be staying in a nice part of the city, but construction is ubiquitous. One of our daughters is arriving in a few days and her first impression will be a construction project. She is a world traveler. We are anxious to show her Colombia. Construction projects are not unknowns in our family, having lived in Saudi Arabia for five years when the whole Kingdom was one massive building boom. I am just sorry this will be her first impression of Colombia.
When planning this adventure, as always Kevin’s thoughts turn to food. He drools thinking of “Beef steak a caballo,” his favorite Colombian meal. Well done grilled beefsteak with a fried egg on top. Just thinking of this combination creates unpleasant spasms in my digestive system.
The hotel’s breakfast buffet showcases Colombian fresh fruits, cheeses, delicacies – a gastronomical delight. There is even an omelet chef. But Kevin is not interested. He asks for the breakfast menu. Our young server provides it. Kevin studies the offerings, then turns to the server, “I don’t see beefsteak a caballo here.” The server is puzzled. He has no idea what Kevin is asking. Does Kevin’s poor Spanish perplex him? What kind of a dish is this, steak on a horse? In Spanish, I explain the dish to him. “Un momento, por favor.” He returns with the chef who knows exactly what Kevin is requesting. Shortly Kevin is served his beefsteak a caballo.
Kevin notices that the server’s name badge shows his given name is also Kevin. Kevin shares that is his name, too. The connection is intimate and immediate, hermanos brothers. Three days later, departing the hotel, the hotel wait staff surprise us with a small going away party including parting gifts. Friends and family are inherent to the Colombian people.
Our first full day in Colombia is Sunday, a great day for a walk. The air is cool and the sun is shining. We smile and greet people walking on the side streets among the modern high-rise brick condos, office buildings and pocket parks. This is not the Bogota I remember. Previous visits, the weather was rainy and dismal and its neighborhoods were not safe places to walk about.
We reach a nearby eight-lane boulevard; the wide landscaped park median separates the traffic moving in opposite directions. At the corner lights, we pause. As the light turns red, traffic stops and several young boys jump onto the street waving shammy cloths and aerosol cans of window wash. Drivers signal them to their cars. The teenagers rapidly clean the windshields, step to their open windows, collect the peso for their work and sprint away just as the light turns green.
The next time the light turns red, a troop of three acrobats and jugglers and one aerial artist bolts into action for their audience of stopped vehicles. Their performance is perfectly timed to the rhythm of the lights; just as the green lights are about to appear, one of the troop moves down the lanes between the cars holding his hat as passengers drop in their coins.
Ah, the ingeniousness of the Colombian people.
To introduce Bogota and Colombia to our daughter, we have arranged a guided full day city tour. We begin at the public market, wandering among the maze of stalls showcasing the variety of native vegetables, fruits, meats, fresh fish and flowers available – a country with copious amounts of locally produced food. Traveling through the city, the street art sculptures and colorful murals decorating buildings and corners charm us. Clearly, the city is upbeat.
We stop for a brief visit to the Plaza de Chorro de Quevedo, the city’s oldest square. This is the tour’s acknowledgement to the historical sites in Bogota. Multiple groups of tourists and young people roam about. An English teacher with a small group of Colombian students approaches us. Could they practice their English with true English speakers? Soon, we are morphed into teaching PCVs, engaging with young people intent on learning.
My yearning to return to Colombia again has been driven by my weekly grocery shopping that takes me past the displays of fresh flowers from Colombia. The myriad of varieties teases me. The Colombian flower exportation business to the United States generates more than one billion dollars annually. Many of these floral products come from the Department of Antioquia, the Department (state) where I lived for two years. Not only do these flowers remind me of Colombia, they also remind me that I have not experienced the Feria de Los Flores, the annual flower festival in Antioquia. Living there in the 1960s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we learned when Colombians are celebrating, they are not working. Hence, we could not work either. We used that time to take our vacation days for personal travel or Peace Corps planned group-training sessions.
We have arrived in Medellin early in the week of the Feria. The highlight of the festival is a parade at the end of the week. We have several days to meander through the city, to introduce our daughter to Colombia and reminisce.
Of course, I want to visit “my” barrio where I lived and worked for two years, Barrio Antioquia aka Barrio de la Santísima Trinidad (neighborhood of the Holy Trinity). At that time, the area was the second largest red light district in South America, noted for vice and violence. Its notoriety as a barrio of ill repute continues to this day, although today’s reputation is related to the place for drug dealing. My pictures of the apartment and its address provide guidance through this neighborhood of 40,000 + people.
Santiago, our tour guide, agreed to take us there, but he mandated we obey his rules. As we drove into the center of the neighborhood, “Roll down all the windows on the car so curious local people can see us.”
When we pass a cluster of men on a street corner, one approaches our car and we stop. Santiago explains and shows them my pictures. One of the men remembers Peace Corps had been there a long time ago; he had sold them produce from his vegetable stand. Then, as men do, they kibitz and point in multiple directions to determine the location of my apartment.
Often, when PCVs return to their work sites in later years, the people welcome them back. This was not the situation in Barrio Antioquia. The people we had worked with, mostly young people, had migrated from the neighborhood. Furthermore, due to the ongoing civil war and violence, to protect themselves they and their families also disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Readers: Let me explain my project to help you understand what the stakes were. In the early days of Peace Corps, all projects were experiments, including our assignment.
In Colombia during the sixties, the urban population was flourishing as campesinos migrated to the cities for improved living standards and work opportunities. They built their tin and cement block shanties on the mountainsides and tried to eek out a living. The Peace Corps’ intent was to place PCVs in these barrios to help the people to organize themselves and seek resources from city governments.
That was not the case with my assignment. Our three – person team’s placement was politically motivated: 1. Satisfy the mayor’s request to place PCVs in the city’s center of vice to show his intentions to improve this neighborhood. 2. Foster good relations with the American community residing in Medellin.
The American community was made up of the American Consulate’s office staff and several independent businessmen developing commerce between Colombia and the USA. Peace Corps needed to gain their respect and trust.
We soon realized community action programs were not viable in our neighborhood, but it was silently mandated we would continue to live and work there. One key hindrance – Barrio Antioquia was Medellin headquarters of the ousted Colombian dictator Rojas Pinilla. His lieutenants railed against us weekly in community meetings, “Yanquis, Get out of Colombia. Peace Corps is not wanted here. You do not belong here.”
Needless to say, we were handicapped city slum workers unable to initiate community action programs.
Fostering good relations with the American community came through a citywide baseball league. The ex-patriot community (local business men, college professors and the Consulate’s office) entered a team in the league. Coca Cola sponsored this team. Local Peace Corps Volunteers rounded out the team. PCV Kevin Dixon quickly became a local sports hero leading his team to the league championship. Weekly his picture appeared on the sports pages of El Colombiano, the Medellin newspaper. While his Peace Corps assignment, along with his Colombian counterpart, was to develop the physical education department at the University of Antioquia, his more significant contribution came from the good will generated through the baseball team.
Today, Kevin’s a bona fide philatelist, a connoisseur of stamps, in particular stamps from Colombia, an interest that began when he was a PCV. He was hoping to find a stamp collector in Colombia, some one to trade or buy stamps from. Very few people, anywhere, collect stamps these days. A hobby from a bygone era. One of our tour guides, Tatiana, inherited a stamp collection from her late grandfather but she had no knowledge of stamp collecting. Our travel agency tasked her with locating a stamp dealer, but she had not been able to find anyone. How many travelers are stamp collectors and want to trade stamps when on holiday? It was a rather unusual request.
With Tatiana, we had talked about the impact and devastation left behind after the years of violence and civil discord. During those years Medellin developed a network of underground tunnels with shops for people to move about with less danger. Leading us through one of these underground malls, Kevin lags behind studying messy window displays. What is he looking for? The passageways are hot and clammy. No AC here. Tatiana and I have limited interest in these shops; they are featuring mostly antique chotskies and knick-knacks. Then, Kevin stops us in front of a dusty window displaying an old clock along with multiple paper currencies taped to the glass. “Come on. Let’s go in here.”
Dutifully, Tatiana and I trudge behind him. We exchange greetings. ¡Ola! Kevin has found a stamp dealer. It is late Saturday afternoon; tomorrow is the festival parade. This is Kevin’s only opportunity to meet with him. Tatiana must be tired, she has been with us all day but she will not let us meet him alone. No, we return to our hotel, Kevin gathers his stamp data and we taxi back to meet with the dealer. For more than two hours, Tatiana serves as translator and the dealer’s bookkeeper as he and Kevin review multiple volumes of stamps. Now, she too is pleased as she knows where to take her stamp collection. A true Colombiana, she has deep reverence for her grandfather’s collection and her responsibility as our tour guide.
Throughout Colombia, the paisanos of Antioquia are lauded entrepreneurs. Medellin is aptly named the City of Eternal Spring. The year-round climate is ideal for living and working. Theories assert that geography and environment contribute to the wellbeing of the people who reside there. In Antioquia, inhabitants use its inherent resources to prosper. Coffee and flowers are their leading legal exports.
Back in the sixties, I don’t remember the details of traffic. I am sure we thought it was congested. Our experience then was mostly rickety bus rides. Today’s traffic overwhelms us – bumper-to-bumper at all times. So glad we have drivers this time around. Sixty years ago, we navigated on public color-coded busses with an occasional late night taxi ride. Today we used Google Maps and cell phones.
The city of Medellin has an extraordinary comprehensive transportation system: two rail lines, a tramcar line, five cable car lines, and hundreds of small feeder metro buses. It is the only rail-based Metro system in Colombia. The system bridges the disparate poor city and rich city quarters. Now the people living high in the mountainside barrios can use the cable cars to commute to and from jobs in the city center. The fare is minimal for a round trip ride.
On this visit, we saw government supported community centers successfully operating in lower class neighborhoods. Multiple local programs initiated to protect and enrich the lives of Antioqueno youth are ongoing. Barrio Comparsa, developed in the 1990s, offers programs to enhance creativity and to function with other people and with the natural environment. Currently Guatemala and other countries in Central America are replicating this model.
At the height of the violence (1990s), the Medellin Mayor’s office initiated a music program for young people within its poorer neighborhoods. The program was designed to minimize teenage gang activity. Now 26 schools across the city offer free music lessons on week day afternoons. Students attend regular school in the mornings and in the afternoons are bused to one of the music schools. There they have the opportunity to develop their musical talent, either vocal skills or to learn to play a musical instrument provided by the school. Regular concerts are held where the students perform for their families and friends. More than 4000 students currently participate in this program.
Today Medellin is recognized as a tourist destination. More impressively, Medellin is identified as one of the best places in the world to retire (World’s Best Places to Retire, International Living 2018).<(p>
Colombia is a very special place to Kevin and me. We met here as PCVs nearly sixty years ago — wide-eyed, optimistic and naive — responding to the challenge of what could we do for our country. To return and see how, despite multiple hardships, Colombia has developed and is thriving, we felt our minuscule investment richly rewarded.
Peace Corps Connect’s Next Step Travel program planned and coordinated our trip. Arrangements were made with www.TrueColombiaTravel.com. Incidentally, two former Peace Corps Volunteers formed this agency.
Kay Gillies Dixon served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Medellin, Colombia, from 1962 to 1964. Kevin Dixon, her spouse also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia. His first year placement was at the University of Antioquia in Medellin; in his second year, he was placed in Santa Marta.
Kay published her memoir Wanderlust Satisfied through the Peace Corps Writers. Copies are available at Amazon.com