on 4 January 2013
It's refreshing to read a book about Colombia whose title does not include the words: death, evil, FARC, drugs etc. Just don't expect a hiking guide. The title really is ironic: Tom Feiling definitely does not just stay in and around the capital. Instead, he also goes out to explore places that until recent years might have been too dangerous to visit.
In this book the author's own experiences in Colombia are combined with snippets about the country's history, politics and culture in a very readable and intelligent way. Whilst Feiling certainly doesn't try to paint a romanticised and rosy picture of the country, the underlying feeling that comes across in the book is one of a real love for Colombia rather than an attempt to demonise it. You can tell the author understands Colombia well and this book is full of illuminating insight.
As someone who has lived there, I feel that it is a country whose complex reality is all too often simplified and misunderstood. Feiling has succeeded in writing a much more nuanced account about this complicated, diverse and - surprisingly for some - very human place.
This is a very up to date account of life in Colombia. The author, a British writer, journalist and human rights activist decided to return to Colombia after years of absence, to see for himself if the reports of the renewal of the country were true. Part travelogue, part history, this account is full of anecdotes of the author's travels and the people he met. I found the book to be illuminating about the colonisation of Colombia by the Spanish, its liberation by Simon Bolivar, which I had no idea was assisted in large measure by the British, and the more recent descent into violence, civil war, and dependance on narco traffic.
It is clear from this book that, over the last 10 years or so, life in Colombia has been improving, safety is returning, and tourists are arriving; mainly backpackers there to enjoy sporting activities such as white water rafting and to see something of the greatest biological diversity on earth. Whilst life is much safer since the disbanding of the paramilitary groups, the hard push against the FARC, and the smashing of the large drug cartels it is clear that there is still some way to go before Colombia could be considered to be free of the legacy of the past, and to have fully established a democratic rule of law. it can, despite all the steps in the right direction, be a dangerous place to be.
However the signs are encouraging, and it is to be hoped that the Colombian people, who we are told are the 3rd happiest on earth, can put the past fully behind them and enjoy a safer, more prosperous and more equal future.
The author visits Bogota, and a number of smaller towns and villages, but not Cali, Medellin, or Cartagena; a longer more comprehensive review of life in Colombia, including those cities, would have been useful for a more comprehensive understanding of how the changes are effecting life across the whole country
However, this is still well worth reading if you have an interest in Colombia, or are considering visiting.
When many people in the UK think about Colombia, then they will think about cocaine and violence. A scarcity of informed UK press coverage does little to dispel this impression; indeed, it reinforces it. But things have been changing over the last 10 years, at least in some accounts. Under the tenure of President Alvaro Uribe, elected on a tough law and order mandate, murder rates have fallen, and some areas of the country now enjoy greater security. Tom Feiling, a former campaigns director for the human-rights group, Justice for Colombia, sets out to discover, after a long absence from the country, if anything has changed.
What follows is part travelogue and part political analysis. It is superbly written, skilfully executed. Colombia, he says in one particularly eloquent flourish, `is a project, not an inheritance, and it demands ambition, not stewardship ... [it] was born of hope - first for riches, then order; and lastly for justice.' The idea of the country as a project refers to the earliest days of European colonialism, when the first settlers/invaders carved out what they thought was a new social-economic order, on the backs of the indigenous population. Their descendants, by and large, still rule the place. In many ways, Colombia the country is a fiction - nominal government has little writ outside the capital. In much of rural Colombia, it is as if the social relations of 16th Century Spain never ended. Imagine a feudal order backed not by men on horseback but on 4x4s and armed with automatic weapons.
The injustice of the country's social order, and the absence of an effective state capable of upholding order and the rule and law, has meant that drug lords and left wing guerrillas have enjoyed plenty of scope to play the part of Robin Hood. The country has struggled to produce genuine national leaders, as opposed to a plethora of local gang lords and gunmen. Yet, despite the baneful history of the country, the Happy Planet Index rates the country as the third-happiest in the world. I wonder what sort of premises this index rests on. If you read this book, you are unlikely to want to trade your shoes for those of a displaced Colombian campesino who has been robbed blind by armed men and forced to flee for his life (often leaving dead or missing relatives behind).
The paradox of modern Colombia is that, under the rule of President Uribe, a real modicum of security has been achieved and the state now has a presence many parts of the country in which hitherto its writ never ran. Indeed, the author is able to make the journeys he describes in this book precisely because of this. But Uribe has focussed his efforts on countering left-wing violence. Fighting Marxist guerrillas was accorded a higher priority than dealing with the violence of right. However, though Uribe has dealt with the armed left with an iron fist, and employed peaceful persuasion against the right, focussing on disbanding and disarming their armed formations peacefully, the overall result has undoubtedly been to improve the security situation in the country generally. Even if the one-sidedness of Uribe's solution still allows the Colombian security forces and extant paramilitary forces to commit violence with impunity, the improved security situation benefits all social classes. This is not an observation the author makes - it is mine. However, I feel that he is remiss in his seeming reluctance to acknowledge this explicitly.
This is not to say that Justice for Colombia should shut up shop. It is to say that that the rule of law can only function on the back of an effective state (recall that the author himself admits that he could not have made the journeys he describes in this book in 2001, when he last lived in the country. The roads were too dangerous.) An effective state, able to deliver a degree of security, is something Colombia is beginning to have. Outside pressure needs to be maintained to ensure that it is a state that is not only effective but is just. There is a long way to go. This book will tell you a feel for what needs to be done. Five stars.
on 15 July 2014
Having recently returned from Colombia, and attended all of their World Cup games at dedicated fan areas in London, I was in a bit of a Colombia fever when I was given this book. During my travels, my best source of information on it's far and recent past had been an (excellent) city tour in Medellín, yet that section had been a little rushed and many of the facts had gone in one ear and out the other. However the emotion and passion of the people remained in my memory, and was further evoked upon reading Feiling's book, which is is surely the definitive English guide to the country's recent past.
I won't go into too much detail over the contents, but one section I particularly liked was his observation on travelers through the country. I, like most other travelers in Colombia at the moment, knew little of the country I was entering when I passed through customs in Bogotá. I knew of 2 things: cocaine and guerrillas (not why I went there by the way!). Gradually I began to understand that there is far more to the vibrant, beautiful and passionate country that Colombia is, but if travelers want a great way to introduce themselves to it, then this is the book for them.
on 18 January 2015
Although I found the approach to his subject a little too intellectual, the book and its author manage to convey a genuine idea of the complexity of the situation in Colombia.
A lot of political and historical facts tend to make the reading heavy going. Personally, I prefer a more intimate and immediate experience from a travel writer: when travel writing uncover the depth of a country through personal experience rather than through knowledge of history, politics
on 24 September 2013
I bought this book because I was living in Bogota at the time the writer was there, (in fact I lived a block from the picture on the front cover, 3 years ago) and was interested in seeing his perspective of Colombia, and maybe learning a bit more about the place. The book didn't disappoint but he concentrated a lot on small towns and the violence that has been a part of Colombia for so long in these towns. I certainly expected a lot about this, but I would've liked a little more about the people and places that aren't affected by this so much. Only the parts in Bogota reminded me of the Colombia I knew and in my time in Colombia I met many people not directly affected by the violence.
For me he could've made the book longer and also talked about more places, and more of the big cities. Having said all that, it was an excellent read and it taught me a lot about some parts of Colombia that I knew nothing.
on 8 March 2016
one of the best travel books I've read - deservedly published by penguin and extremely nuanced. I agree it sits up there with normal lewis. I read this as I was traveling around Colombia and it allowed me to have much more interesting and informed conversations with the people I spoke to, and also helped me to better appreciate factors affecting my safety. He speaks with warmth but the scientist in me loves the referencing and the in depth research he has done, which includes, of course, his not very short journeys from bogota into Colombian backcountry to meet people with ideas and opinions about the forces moving Colombia at the moment. Great stuff.
on 3 September 2015
This is a fantastic book, well researched and well written, giving insight into past and present Colombia. I can't say much more than this book is an absolute must-read for anyone going to Colombia for work or travel. I read it while travelling around the country, as a bit of an education into the country and, although sceptical due to the author not being a "well known" writer, I was blown away by the information and the impact the book had on my view of the country. Unbiased, current and not dwelling heavily on the past, while still providing an in depth tour of the country's past. Well worth the price.
on 29 May 2014
I know Colombia well, from extensively travelling its length and breadth from 2002 - present day and spending really enjoyable extended periods well off the beaten track. In every chapter, I learned from Feiling - and shared in his joys (and frustrations) from his exceptional writing and grasp of Colombia's complex paradoxes. This isn't a travel guide so you won't discover new places to stay, eat bandeja paisa or drink coffee. You will, however, gain valuable insight about Colombia and its people within its pages from an author who writes with relish.
on 12 February 2016
This a real primer on Colombia. Topics are covered from a semi-academic standpoint, then anchored with the author's personal anecdotes and observations. I liked this format and was impressed with the ground covered in such a short book: the political scene, anthropology, the plight of the indigenous, cocaine, la violencia, the weather, the food and Colombia's prospects all get a good look-in, among others. The Kindle edition's footnotes (which cause you to lose your place) and the left-wing gloss that pervades the book are its only detractors.