The week flew by so fast it was impossible to process fully at the time. After a week back in ‘normality’ I tried to reflect on what I had learned and how I would remember Colombia.
The issue of Human Rights is commonly viewed in a rather derogatory fashion here. One’s first instinct is to regard an invocation of the Human Rights Act to be some weasel attempt to avoid conviction, eviction or deportation.
Partly I believe this is due to human rights cases being badly reported in a (deliberately?) sensational manner (you have to despair when even the Home Secretary makes absurdly inaccurate remarks blaming a cat for preventing deportation). Partly I suspect it is because it is easy to sneer (via sensational and inaccurate reporting) when we take so many basic human rights for granted.
We take it for granted that we can join a union if we wish. If we are the victim of a crime we expect the Police to investigate it and the criminal to be brought to justice. We go to court to evict pesky (but unarmed) squatters and have no genuine fear of bias in the court system.
We may whine about the nanny state, complain about the taxes we pay and rail about the incompetence of the government, the opposition and, well, pretty well everyone else really but the truth is most of us are generally pretty safe and comfortable in our cosy ‘first world’, wealthy democracy. The fact we can make those criticisms fearlessly proves it.
Intellectually we know things are different elsewhere but we can largely ignore it as it is a jolly long way away. Going to meet those differences in the flesh doesn’t make any problems here go away but it does change one’s perspective.
It is genuinely disturbing to hear from victims directly of violence and murder as a result of union activities. To listen to a mother who witnessed the murder of her father for the family small holding weep for her children and their lost future; and understand that no action is being taken about the crime. To learn of lawyers being imprisoned, threatened, beaten and killed because they choose to represent such victims.
Confronted with the blatant denial of some of the most basic of human rights, some of the concerns we have here do seem trivial. Would it really matter if someone unwittingly made my credit history public? Perhaps it would but if I had the gall to complain in Colombia they would laugh me out of the country. They’d be as scathing as Anna Scott in Notting Hill, “Our perspectives are very different”, but they’d have good cause.
So, if there is an enduring lesson from my trip it is the loss of that glib naiveté. Human rights do matter. The fact we have had to spell them out in the first place evidences the consistent abuse not just in Colombia but all over the world. And, actually, even if our perspectives are very different we still need to uphold human rights here as well as anywhere else because if we shirk here, we condone shirking everywhere else.
Forgive me. When I first promised to do a ‘wrap up’ blog post I had no intention of being so pretentious. I planned a fluffy ‘memories and anecdotes’ piece full of little jokes. There are indeed plenty of moments which will live as fond souvenirs of an intense but exhilarating trip. But a week after my return they seem superficial and ultimately are about me and not about the important people, the Colombians.
Objectively, most of the time spent there was actually artificial. Not because I mean to suggest the people we saw and the stories they told us were not genuine, but because, by special arrangement, we were hearing about extraordinary events in some people’s lives. Those events are part of the lives of some people but not all and they do not reflect ‘ordinary’ life for the majority of the population.
I was lucky enough to stumble on an unexpected slice of ‘normal’ life in Cartagena. While strolling around the town admiring the beautiful narrow streets, I climbed the old city wall and was confronted by an amazing scene below. On the grass beneath the walls and bordering the Caribbean Sea were seemingly hundreds of school children running, playing and, to my eyes at least, incongruously, flying innumerable kites.
I’m sure the photograph will not do justice to the uninhibited exuberance on display but I was spellbound and now, as then, the scene seems to encapsulate Colombia. The excited shouts of the children mirrored the constant chatter of people everywhere, the heat of the Caribbean sun was bested only by the warmth of everyone we met and the beauty of the city, the walls and the deep blue sea was just one of any number of stunning vistas across the country.
It is a tragedy that this land has been beset by horrific conflict and abuses but let none of that detract from the fact that the Colombian people remain not just fiercely proud of their great country but also unfailingly gracious, welcoming and amazingly cheerful. In the end that is my enduring memory.
Oh, but did I mention the salsa? The salsa beat that throbs everywhere at all hours of day and night? No? Ah well, another time perhaps …