West on Books: Colombia Rediscovered
Reviewed by Richard West
Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent spate of travel articles on Colombia, hitherto a pariah country of ab ovo civil war and bad Karmageddon-esque drug creation, using, exporting, and killing. Most of us have avoided it or thought of Colombia as an imaginary land like Swift’s Lilliput. Now it seems the government has, perhaps temporarily, quelled the internal revolution and the drug violence has ebbed, though there seems to still be the occasional el paseo de los millonairios, the millionaires’ stroll when Senor Gorganfeller is driven across town with a pistol stuck in his ribs as his ATM accounts are emptied. Given the new interest in the country, two travel narratives appeared late last year in London, both purchasable via www.amazon.co.uk.
The best by far is Tom Feiling’s Short Walks From Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia, whose first book, appropriately, was The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World. Feiling’s Colombia remains a “sunny place for shady people” as General Sir George Erskine described Kenya in the 1920’s. Consider: it still leads the world in cocaine production, planted mines, most internal refugees (four million, one in ten), home of FARC, the world’s largest guerilla army, and has the world’s worst human rights’ record thanks to deaths and disappearances of Colombians by government-supported para-military forces—173,000 murders the past 25 years. Oh yes, Colombian chefs have an aversion to using herbs and spices.
Anything positive besides the sun still moving 15 degrees an hour? Well, Columbia is the world’s most biodiverse nation, and it makes sensational juice-drinks, especially mango and passion fruit. No country has more species of birds or frogs. Its lakes and rivers contain more freshwater than those of the U.S. and Canada combined. Colombian women are legendarily beautiful, perennial winners of beauty contests. Feiling’s report also is a winner, a perfect blend of now, history, opinions, and research.
Not so perfect is Michael Jacobs’ The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia. The waterway being the country’s main riverine highway, the Magdalena, a river Jacobs describes bittersweetly as “an open drain, albeit still a very enticing drain” thanks to years of sewage, waste, and as the last resting place for one-third of the civil war’s victims. His trip along the sluggish river, the color of cream-tea , is a bore with its unchanging jungly banks dotted with poor villages.
Once on land for the last half of the journey the book greatly improves. With Dr. Francisco Lopera, one of the world’s Alzheimer’s experts, Jacobs visits the sad village of Angostura, home of the paisa mutation, a form of the terrible disease found in the central cordillera of the Andes. Later on his way by horseback to the river’s source, his party is stopped, questioned, and held for a time by an armed outback group of FARC . Luckily, no harm’s done but the interruption was very unpleasant.
Confession session: given all the other upper shelf places on earth and because the place still seems like a Frankenstymied golem, I’ll remain an informed Colombian armchair traveler thanks to these two books.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.