Sightseeing in the age of Covid-19

While my headline in a little tongue- in -cheek In the spirit of the famous Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, our topic today is a bit more serious. I decided to spent yesterday downtown at some historic sites. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, Colombia has quite a few public holidays. Over 20 in fact, so at least once a month (and sometimes twice) there is a festival Monday, where offices and businesses are closed.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. It was a lovely day, the ciclovias are open, and people are out. But this post is a little different than my usual posts on fantastic restaurants, delicious fruits, amazing natural beauty, indigenous cultures, artisanal crafts and life in Bogota. This is a post for people who want to know more about the hearts of Colombians.

A friend and I decided to go on a history tour with Descubre Bogota. Our guide was Jose Ayala, and our tour was about the some of the famous and ultimately tragic figures in Bogota’s history. I knew it would be sad, and I knew it would be hard to hear. I know because I come from a country that has it’s own painful past – and we often struggle to reconcile with it. We also struggle to change course, from “that’s the way it’s always been (no matter how ugly or unfair” to trying to do better, and move forward. Like Colombia, my country has faced a lot of upheaval that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

I’ve read quite a bit about Colombia in the past 12 years, but I still take every opportunity to learn more. I will never been an expert – I don’t have a poli-science bone anywhere in my body. But it doesn’t mean I can’t try and learn. It’s especially important for people from the United States, because many of us never step out of our bubble, yet would be mortally offended if a visitor from another country didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy or George Washington was.

I don’t expect casual visitors to delve deep into Colombia’s past, but I do feel that they should try and get past all the narco stereotypes. They should know at least a little something about some of the people who represent what Colombia is/ was and can and will be. They should know that Colombians have many of the same ideals that we purport to represent. That seems like an easy concept, but after more than a decade of working / writing/ traveling here, I know that to many people it’s not.

But today we are going downtown to scratch the surface, just a little bit.

(I didn’t have my camera, just my phone so the pictures are not very good).

The first stop on our tour was the Museo National, where Jose talked about the 1000 days war, which occurred just at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the Museo Nacional was a fortress and prison.

Then we proceeded up to the former home of Jaime Garzon, who is a more recent entry in Colombia’s history. I’m adding several links about him for readers to learn more about him, if you are interested. He was journalist and political critic who specialized in political satire. He also played an important part as a political activist and peace negotiator who worked to free many of the FARCs hostages. It was this work that was believed to have led to his assignation. According to our guide (and several other sources), Garzon knew an attempt was to be made on his life, and (possibly) knew that he was going to be murdered in his car that day. (The possibly, is due to a couple of Spanish words I was unsure of during the tour). They say that he carried on with his scheduled activities to keep the assassins’ away from his home and family. The outpouring of grief among Colombians was immense, and overwhelming.

An homage to Jaime Garzon:

Jaime Garzon memorial webpage

Archives in national center

The next stop on our somber tour was to view some of the architecture of the area and to talk about how this particular style of architecture was developed to incorporate nature into the design. It was a pretty amazing building, built in a series of semi-circles (just above the stadium del Toros) but hard to get a photo that real demonstrated the effect up close. (I had noticed the building on the drive to the door, it’s pretty striking).

Much of the rest of the tour was devoted to Gaitan and the more traditional figures in Colombian figures. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (not to be confused with the later politician of the 1980’s Luis Carlos Galan) was a polarizing figure in Colombian politics. A populist leader of the left, he was active in politics from the 1920’s until his assignation in 1948 outside his office building. He was a very skilled public speaker and drew extremely large crowds due to his fiery nature. Many believed he would be the next President of Colombia. His murder on April 9th, 1948 like that of John Kennedy in 1963, where the suspected assassin next made it to trial. Like John Kennedy’s murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, the complete motivations of Juan Roa Sierra were never known, and there are multiple theories that link the murder to outside entities including Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union were behind the assignation. Others claim US involvement which is not such a far-fetched idea, given the now known history of US interference in Latin American affairs.

I’ve been looking for some English language information to link to, but please note, much of what I have found, particularly historical footage, shows a pretty obvious bias. Others are equally biased in other ways. I chose the one here because, because it’s one of the few in English that show Gaitan and let modern day views see his dynamic appeal.

His death set off a series of protests and riots called the Bogotazo that left between 500 to 3,000 people dead (figures vary) and parts of Bogota destroyed.

It also directly led to a ten year civil war called, “La Violencia.”

Obviously not a small topic – and covered by many many scholars, journalists and political analysts far better than I could.

There were several more stops – one being the Palace of Justice. This is a story that has been widely covered, pretty much everywhere, including the series ‘Narcos” that I personally detest. (I recommend watching Pablo: el Patron de Mal, if you want to watch that stuff.)

The last stop, outside the Palace of Justice in the Plaza Bolivar is the most pertinent for many people. It’s fairly quiet today, with a intermittent heavy rain. But it’s been witness to almost everything Jose talked about on the tour – and visible in most of the film footage – from the 1940s to last week. (Look thru the next several pictures and then click on some of the links and videos).

“Those who don’t remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” We hear this quote endlessly recycled but we don’t talk about what it really means. It’s not about ONLY remembering the past, it’s about learning and moving away from the actions of the past. Yes, this requires knowing about our most painful chapters, whether it be a nation, a family or an individual. But it also requires changing course. Knowing is not enough – action is required.

That is what Colombia, the USA and so many nations have struggled with this last year – the realization that we need to change course, and then trying to find the path to do so.

Now I don’t have a strong opinion on the current Colombian protests – I don’t feel like I have a deep enough understanding of all of the issues to do so. But I do understand what’s we’ve been seeing.. It’s the same as what we saw last year at home.. We are watching a nation – and it’s citizens try and find their path forward – and I respect that.

For readers who would like to know more about the current protests in Colombia, I highly recommend the Colombia Calling podcast along with Colombia

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