My trip to Colombia had been in the planning stages since earlier in 2011. However, with my deployments to Japan, Nepal and the team meetings in Cape Town, it was pushed back a few times. When I returned from Cape Town, the trip planning ramped up and I had dates and flights booked, I was Colombia bound!
Returning from Cape Town on May 18 I only had a few days to shift focus from meetings to doing assessments. This would be my first real security assist visit with the GRRT and my first work in the Latin America and Caribbean Region. I was set to fly to Bogota on May 24 from San Jose, where I would be until June 17.
My contact in Colombia would be the Colombian security focal point, Gersain. I had spoken a few times with Gersain in preparation, but was looking forward to meeting him. At this time, my Spanish was very limited, so having an English speaker was going to be helpful. Now I am proud to say that I am fluent in Spanish.
Gersain had made all the necessary pre-arrival arrangements. I would be picked up at the El Dorado International Airport and taken directly to my hotel. Arriving shortly before 1400 on the 24, I was met as planned and Gersain was also there to welcome me to Colombia.
On the way to the Suites Jones Hotel, we discussed the planning moving forward. One of the biggest things requested was preparing for a regional forum and conference to be held in July. Since Colombia is rated as a high risk environment, extra attention was required for incoming international staff.
World Vision Colombia works in ten cities across the country. My goal was to visit the largest Areas of Developmental Programming (ADP’s). This would mean a great deal of internal travel to places like Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, and South Region. The idea was that I could talk with the staff, see and assess the working environments in which they perform from a security perspective.
My initial internal travel was arranged as:
- Bucaramanga: Delays on this route are frequent, it is a risky venture to travel on the same day, so we flew.
- Barranquilla: There is no direct connection from Bucaramanga therefore we would return to Bogota and leave the following day.
- South Region: Traveling to Cali on June 6 (first flight to Cali, and early June 7 to Santander de Quilichao and Guambia (by car). Returning to Bogotá from Popayan.
This would be a hard journey but at the same time a big opportunity to enhance the potential achievements of my visit. Obviously, this agenda would change, and I have learned over the years to remain fluid to change. For example, the South Region ended up reversed, flying into Popayan and out of Cali.
My first week in Bogota was full of meetings with the team. The most memorable meeting was with the National Director, Edgar Flores. During our meeting, he definitely was security conscience. Edgar had told me of a story of a previous National Director who was assassinated on an elevator in Colombia. Edgar still had the former ND’s briefcase as a memory of how dangerous our work can be.
The briefcase, full of bullet holes was kept in Edgars office. He had shown it to me, explaining that the previous ND had held it up defensively, hoping it would stop the bullets, which of course it did not. If you are interested in seeing the effects of bullets, I recommend this video. The contents of the briefcase remained in tact and never removed.
During the weekend of May 28, I was able to tour a bit of Bogota. I decided to take a walk to the center of the city from my hotel. Bogota is much cooler than San Jose, being higher in altitude and the beginning of the winter season. Nonetheless, it was nice to explore the Colombian culture first hand.
We made a trip to an ADP just outside of Bogota prior to our trip to Bucaramanga. This ADP was situated on the side of a mountain, which made access quite difficult. We had to park our vehicle at the bottom and walk up through the community. Here we met some very nice people who were just living day-to-day, like many in ADP communities.
On the trip back into the city, Gersain treated me to a typical Colombian meal of chicken, potatos, yuca and salad.
On May 30, Gersain and I started our whirlwind tour of Colombia. We started by taking a short flight up to Bucaramanga, where we would be for 2 days. In Bucaramanga, we visited a couple of ADP’s and I learned a little about the culture of this area. Bucaramanga is situated in the Santander province just North of Bogota.
Landing at the Bucaramanga airport was the most thrilling I have had, before I learned about Tegucigalpa, Honduras. On the approach to Bucaramanga, one can look out the window of the aircraft and look a long way down. Then, without warning, you are touching down! The airstrip is literally at the top of a mountain.
During our visit, I recall Gersain telling me to take off my watch and jewelry as we entered a couple of ADP’s. This was a practice that I would continue for the remainder of our visits. One of the ADP’s we had visited was the Sector la Union Café Madrid. Here I met a local cobbler who made shoes. My trip to Bucaramanga can be summed up in the photo album that was put together for me by the Bucaramanga team.
Next on the docket was a quick run up to Barranquilla, the home town of popular musician Shakira. First, we had to return to Bogota from Bucaramanga then fly up to Barranquilla. We arrived on June 1 and stayed until June 3.
Barranquilla is located in the Atlántico Department of Colombia, East of the more popular Bolivar Department where Cartagena is located. Again, we visited a couple of ADP locations here and Gersain introduced me to the local culture. What I was enjoying about Colombia is that each department was like a different Latin American country. The cultures, food and even dialects were unique amongst themselves.
But, it was here in Barranquilla that I discovered one of the true natures of World Vision. The Christianity and Evangelical truisms of bible distributions was clearly evident here. Much to my disappointment years later, this would also surface again in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake.
On the final day, the Barranquilla team treated us to a wonderful seafood lunch. I cannot recall the name of the restaurant, but the food was amazing. It was not one of the hot touristy type of restaurants, more off the beaten track by the docks.
We returned to Bogota ahead of the long weekend in June, and planned our next trip to the South Region the following week.
Next Story – Colombia Tourism and South Region