After far too brief a time exploring the wonders of Bogota with our friends Klaus and Secret Agent X, we returned home from Colombia. One of the things that struck me most about the thriving, optimistic, marvelously warm and open nature of the place was how profoundly it conflicts with the usual image it has in the wider world.
A decade ago, the picture was very different. It reported an astounding 3,000 kidnappings per year. The murder rate was through the roof. It was not a particularly safe place to go on vacation for a long weekend.
But, as I said, that was a decade ago. Things have changed. An easy way to illustrate that change is through Bogota's murder rate. In 1998, there were 83 murders committed per 100,000 people. For comparison, last year put Detroit at 46, Baltimore at 45, Philadelphia at 27, and Buffalo at 20.
Last year, Bogota saw only 18 murders per 100,000 people. In a vast city wrestling with crippling poverty, that's a fantastically low number, and an amazing improvement in just one short decade.
The last time we visited a place that had changed so much in such a short time was when we first set foot in our beloved Cambodia in 2006. Just a few short years earlier, the last fringes of the terrifying Khmer Rouge were still at large, kidnapping and murdering tourists and locals alike. Much of what we knew of the place came from other travelers, most of whom advised we get in and get out as quickly as we could.
And so, of course, we fell in love with the place, and spent about 6 weeks there.
I remember checking our email in Sihanoukville back in 2006. Jessica and I, as well as the ubiquitous Klaus, had arrived there following a marvelous sojourn in quiet Krong Koh Kong. We were planning on heading onward to Kampot the next morning, and we wanted to shoot our folks a quick email update letting them know.
It turned out that after receiving our last email, my father had Googled the words Krong Ko Kong and come across an article which included sentences like "Krong Koh Kong, it has to be said, is at the lower end of the sex trade."
The impression this article left him with could not have been more different than the sleepy little village the three of us had been so enchanted by. I decided to check out what he'd find if he Googled the word Kampot, which he'd presumably do when we told him we were headed there next.
Hmmm. A whole lot of references to the 1994 kidnappings of three foreigners. Not really what we wanted him to be thinking about.
We didn't want to worry our parents unnecessarily, and although we knew that the Cambodia of 2006 was not the Cambodia of 1994, we didn't want them to have to trust that. So we began a new policy of never telling them where we were going: only where we'd already been. That way, instead of thinking of Kampot as "the place where foreigners get kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge," they could think of it as "the place where we made a friend named Skip."
We also knew that one thing that made our families feel better about us being in Cambodia is that we were traveling with Klaus. So when we parted ways with him, we didn't tell them right away. In fact, we even did a touch of outright lying, pretending he was with us when he wasn't, so that they wouldn't worry so much.
It should be noted that our parents were incredibly supportive of all the choices we made during our trip, and always trusted our take on things. This wasn't about them being overprotective of us – it's probably closer to the truth to say it was us being overprotective of them.
See, the problem here wasn't Cambodia. It was the perception that Cambodia had in the west, one that by and large it still has today. By 2006, Cambodia was "safe" to travel in by any sensible yardstick, but it didn't feel like it back at home.
Which brings us back to Colombia.
Now, don't get me wrong. Things aren't perfect in Bogota. If you stay in the Candelaria district (which we did – that's where all the cool stuff is), walking around the empty streets at night can be rather uncomfortable. Many of the homeless there seemed unusually aggressive and persistent in asking for money. And there are a number of places (particularly to the south of Candelaria) where you probably shouldn't go.
It's still a big city, after all. There are areas of Philadelphia and Washington DC that I'd never recommend to tourists, too. And like any big city, you can get robbed or hurt if you aren't careful.
But also like any big city, it can feel way more dangerous than it is if you lose your perspective. Just like any place else, you're in far more danger from the traffic than from any hooligan or thief.
If you're at all worried, just stay up in the Zona Rosa or Parque 93, which are pretty much completely safe at all hours of the day. During the day, Candelaria is an absolute joy, and not dangerous at all. Or do what we did, and stay there but be an "early to bed, early to rise" sort of traveler. The place is pretty much dead in the evenings anyway.
Just don't miss out on this amazing city, and this amazing country, because you're judging it on what it used to be. Judge it on what it is now, and leave your fears at home.
A final illustrative anecdote is worthwhile here...
Our trip was hard on our parents, who not only had to say goodbye to us for a year and a half, but were often sick with worry about whether or not we'd be ok.
When we were at the beginning of our trip, preparing to depart for South America, Jessica's dad would occasionally ask us if we wouldn't rather skip South America and just head over to Europe instead. Safe, dependable Europe.
Over the next six months or so, the two of us fell in love with South America. And through our emails and postings, our parents fell in love with it too.
When we were in Ecuador, getting ready to depart for Europe, we received a different plea from Jessica's father. Did we really have to go to Europe? After all, there had just been bombings in London and Madrid. We'd been wandering through South America for more than half the year without any trouble. Couldn't we stay down there instead?
South America, which had been the scary unknown, was now reassuringly known in comparison to Europe. (It is probably worth mentioning that after an incident-free six months in South America, we found ourselves at a Madrid police station reporting an attempted robbery within 24 hours of arriving in Europe.)
The places you haven't been to yet can feel scary. Colombia felt intimidating to me before we went there – now it feels like home. The same is true for Turkey, Peru, Cambodia, and a bunch of other places besides.
It makes me think about the places that feel the same way to me today: Venezuela and Rwanda, China and Russia. I can't help but think after I've left a few footprints in them they won't be so scary anymore.
The best way to conquer your fear of places unknown is to jump on a plane and make them into places known. Do your research first, of course – this isn't a good time to visit Mogadishu or Kirkuk. But don't be scared of Mexico City or Lima because of their reputation. Or Phnom Penh. Or Bogata.
Go to Colombia. You won't regret it.