Bogota’s new beat

[From “Bogota rolling with optimism”, published in the Toronto Star on February 12, 2011]

BOGOTA — Luis Grisales thinks of December 2, 1993 and remembers the rain. It fell on his hometown, Medellin. It fell as if the world had been flipped, the ocean trading places with the sky.

“It was like a flood. It was like the city was being cleansed,” says Grisales, a health-care professional and actor who now lives in Vancouver, a long way from a time and place when he couldn’t leave his home after dark or travel outside of Medellin for fear of kidnapping or death.

He discussed his life in Colombia while helping me prepare for a visit to his homeland, which I discovered has moved ahead too.

The great change for Colombia began to unfold on that late autumn night saturated with rain and the blood of a villain. Pablo Escobar was killed in a hail of bullets and when it was done much of Colombia, it seemed, was able to see a day when it might finally breathe with ease. It took seven more years of being ruled by drug cartels ruthless like Escobar before the 11th-largest nation in the world would truly begin to redefine itself.

In Bogota, its capital, the transformation is tangible.

It only took an instant on a Friday night to realize many people here are doing well. Guests who walk out of the Hotel Charleston Bogota are immediately met with the joyful action of Zona Rosa, the stretch of cafés, bars, designer shops, nightclubs and fine restaurants that draws huge crowds to the northern end of this city of about 8 million.

Music pumps from everywhere. Bars are packed, the pedestrian-only streets that cover three square blocks are jammed with happy faces, party buses cruise around carrying drunken passengers screaming along to pop music. At Andres Carne de Res, things turn wicked thanks to salsa, the nation’s obsession. Before midnight, the five storeys are filled with diners enjoying steaks served on a scorching grill plate. Then many stick around to join the crowds of people with happy feet who come to dance until near dawn. The restaurant/nightclub serves good food, but it is a touristy spot so the prices are inflated. A steak dinner with a couple of beers will run you about $50. The Zona Rosa location is the newest Andres Carne de Res. To get the authentic feel, you’re supposed to go to the original in Chia, about a 30-minute drive outside of the city. If you’re shy, staff members will make sure you join in.

Most noticeably, in this temperate city, is how comfortable people appear. It quickly puts visitors at ease, feeling at risk only when stepping into the unpredictable traffic.

“Things are so much better now,” says Fabio Quiroz, a tour guide for 15 years. “You have to look at 2002, when Uribe became president, that is when the country started to change.”

By the turn of this century, Colombians had had enough. They elected Alvaro Uribe, a Harvard-educated lawyer who vowed to remove the drug lords and guerrilla groups from the lives of Colombia’s citizens. During his eight-year tenure, the FARC rebels dwindled from 20,000 to about 8,000 and the drug cartel members, who once flashed fancy cars and other riches, fled underground or were killed. There’s a touch of Moby Dick in Uribe’s story, though. His father was killed by FARC and his campaign against them had more than a tinge of vengeance. Human rights groups have condemned his government for deaths of citizens who were not proven to be in the drug business or part of FARC.

“I don’t agree with everything Uribe did, but he did tell Colombians that we had to fix things ourselves,” says Christian Posada, a 28-year-old musician who plays at Voila!, one of Zona Rosa’s in spots. “We had to make the changes to our country happen so we could live in the place we want.”

Read the rest of the article in the Toronto Star.

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