These I have loved…

What is it, I wonder, that makes you fall in love with one country rather than another?  (I’m talking about working in these countries, not just visiting as a tourist.)  I’m trying to think if there is any country I’ve visited over the years that I wouldn’t want to go back to – and I think the answer is no, but what is it that makes some get closer to your heart than others!

The first one I went to after starting CidaCo in 2000 was Colombia.  Over three years, we worked in both Bogotá and in Manizales – two very different places, giving quite different impressions of Colombia, but each in its way inspiring that aching feeling that is a mix of love and regret, a desire to be part of,  and to be able to participate genuinely in the life of the city. In those days, Bogotá was fully impacted by the lawlessness arising from the battles between the guerrillas and the government:  we travelled in bullet proof 4×4 cars (courtesy of the British Council) and we were mostly chaperoned; most notably, we couldn’t just hail a taxi on the side of the street but instead had to ask the shop owner to call one for us and wait there till it arrived, for fear of kidnaps which were prevalent then.   But, despite this, we actually met nothing but kindness and charm amongst all the people.  We went to amazing restaurants where the food was superb.  The shops were sophisticated and beautifully laid out.  We had an unforgettable visit to the Gold Museum where we practised our Spanish, both reading and speaking – people were very patient! – and we had a fascinating day with the Chamber of Commerce who, in those days, were just awakening to the significance of the creative industries and were hungry to learn more.  You can’t set up a business in Colombia without registering, expensively, with the Chamber.  Thus the creative industries operated largely in the ‘grey’ market and the Chamber was beginning to suspect that they were missing a trick.  They’d brought in some very good academics to help them design new solutions and we had a robust debate about the parameters those academics were setting for the development of the sector!

The most intense experience was when we were taken at the unearthly hour of 9am on a Friday morning to meet the performers in the Circo de Ciudad, the City Circus.  Circo de Ciudad was originally set up by the redoubtable  Clarisa Ruiz, at the time the Director of the National Theatre but later to become the Minister for Arts (what is it about the Latin Americans – they seem to think that the Arts are important enough to make an artist the Minister!).  As National Theatre Director, she also worked with homeless and poor young people, teaching them circus skills to build their confidence and self esteem.  She secured European funding to buy a Big Top and then she did a deal with the Government that the young people would be allowed to run and perform in their circus so long as they also did a certain amount of basic skills’ learning and took the public exams when ready.  They train and train in their Big Top, located in one of Bogotá’s city parks, and their skills are absolutely extraordinary, breathtaking!  At that terrible early morning hour in the park, they all gathered round to talk to the three of us (me and my freelance colleague, Lee Corner, together with another extraordinary Colombian woman, Paula Morales, then of the British Council Bogotá).  They then put on a short version of the show that had us utterly amazed at first and then, finally, really moved by the passion and pride so clearly evident in the performance.  They now tour Colombia’s main cities with their Big Top, and have even been around Europe, whilst they build their knowledge, skills and aspirations  to be doctors, lawyers and writers.  If ever some bloodless bureaucrat needed evidence of the reality of the power of creative practice, they should go to Circo de Ciudad.

Manizales was as different from Bogota as it is possible to be – compared with the sprawling mass that is the city of Bogotá, one of the largest cities in the world, Manizales nestles in the valley between mountain peaks in the Andes Cordillera, in the Caldas region.  Flying into Manizales airport is a heart-in-the-mouth experience, as the mountains tower on either side of you much too closely – you can almost see right into the mass of shacks and dilapidated dwellings that cluster up the steep sides of the mountain in apparent defiance of any law of gravity; and when the plane does finally land, it ‘parks’ literally outside the big glass doors of the airport lounge – no need of jet-bridges or passenger coaches here!

Famous as the coffee growing region, Manizales is a little town surrounded by coffee plantations of enormous size and scale.  The town itself is a lot of narrow streets, with a central area around the Cathedral.  It’s vibrant and friendly – we were able to walk through the streets unaccompanied – no need of taxis because everything is close by but certainly no fear of kidnap.  We went to an exhibition of students’ work which was packed with both students and visitors and had a real buzz going on.  We worked with more amazing people like Octavio Arbeláez and Beatriz Quintero at the Knowledge Hub, who, with the Universidad de Caldas and the local authority, were establishing the Incubadora de Empresas Culturales (Cultural Business Incubator).  They wanted to know as much as they could about how we set up CidaCo and how it worked but, of course, in the process of that knowledge exchange, we also learnt so much that influenced our later thinking.

We later went to the slopes of the volcano, Nevada del Ruiz, which was awe inspiring, and to a coffee plantation, which was  fascinating and where we fell in love with the Colombian horses, who dance rather than walk because their breed grew up on the steep sides of mountains where every dainty step counted!  Throughout, the atmosphere was of friendliness and warmth.  There was also a hunger to know what we did and how we did it – what was originally advertised as introductory 2-hour seminar by the two of us for 25 people,  had, by the time we arrived in Bogotá, spontaneously turned into a full day’s symposium for an audience that climbed eventually to 370!  That was our first introduction to Bogota – we’ve never forgotten it and, even as I write this, I feel the yearning to go back, to see where the creative sector is in the current economic miracle that is Colombia and to re-engage with some of the people who were so inspirational in our early days in CidaCo.

Since then, working in CidaCo has taken me all over the world but perhaps more of that another time!

ANAMARIA WILLS                              Twitter: anamariacida    Facebook(s): Anamaria Wills & CidaCo