While the designations “first world” and “third world” are still widely used to label nations across the globe, the terms “developed”, “underdeveloped”, “developing” have begun to replace them in our continued attempt to place ourselves in some hierarchal order. At university, I spun in circles around the development-definition turntable: Was development simply having access to safe drinking water and basic healthcare, or did it include rights to education? Did development mean increased wealth, westernization, speaking English? Or was it something more like just living a happy, productive life in a way that reflects and celebrates some deep, cultural tradition? Perhaps it meant international free trade agreements or, rather, supporting local farmers in the open market? Highways constructed through the jungle to connect sprawling urban centers, or, instead, preserving natural habitats for people to enjoy for generations to come?
In the past six years, I have been face-to-face with hundreds of indices, rates, goals, protocols, agreements, treaties, measurements, predictions, estimates, abstracts and proposals, each arguing that their definition of development was correct (all this, before even mentioning the word “sustainable”!) All these definitions have taught me is that there isn’t a very good one, and that development means a great deal of things, and measuring it can be messy. For me, my understanding of what it means to develop continues to be informed by my experiences abroad.
While I have often found myself trying to sum up my experiences in Latin America in some two sentences for friends and family who have never traveled here before, it was always a disservice to generalize about this immense region that spans more than a continent. Every single barrio, pueblo, ciudad, departamento, geographic space and climactic zone is infinitely diverse. So far, however, Colombia stands apart from most any generalization about Latin America of which I have been guilty in the past.
The following are some of the pre-question asking observations I have made about Colombia and its development:
In and around Bogota, a sprawling cities housing nearly 11 million people (that beats the Burroughs of New York combined), there are newly constructed 30-story office and apartment buildings, immense networks of paved roads, large-scale construction projects por todo parte, larger, newer cars being driven, and cables, lots of cables (electric, telephone, television and computer cables) making millions of connections. Throughout the countryside, there are plenty of streetlights and the roads are new or well-maintained. We have taken public transport anywhere we’ve needed with ease. In addition, we have been able to drink water from the tap without a problem most everywhere we have traveled so far.
In Medellin, thousands of people and businesses await the tourist influx: newly employed workers wait to assist visitors to their immaculately-landscaped private parks equipped with hiking routes, free bikes to ride, adventure courses and learning centers. These workers travel hours by efficient metrolines and metrocable to heights 2000-feet above the city center to prepare to guide visitors through hundreds of attractions.
What Colombia seems to be missing amidst its growth:
Enough tourists to take part in its natural beauty and burgeoning cityscapes. Colombia appears ready, but apparently many tourists are yet ready for it, in large part because Colombia has yet to shake off its bad rep: you know, that pesky narcotraficante…Pablo Escobar and FARC and coca and kidnappings one? We allow ourselves to be blinded by a haunted past, even while Colombia has undergone a real transformation in the past decade and a half, mostly because the people of Colombia are tired of these associations and are proactive about change and the possibility of ending drug trafficking and guerrilla violence for good.
More about these developments in my next post…