In early 2017, after a few months in South America, I landed in Bogota, Colombia. After checking into my hostel, I joined a city walking tour – my first introduction to Bogota and Colombia.
Maria, a young street artist, was also working as our guide. She was very enthusiastic about introducing us to her city and blended her stories with the right amount of history, culture, and humour. Maria was keen for us to know her country and her culture. She was immensely proud of her roots.
During the tour, someone raised questions on the TV series Narcos and the infamous Pablo Escobar. I remember Maria getting quite emotional about this series and the impact of Escobar on Colombian society. She wasn’t happy with the Netflix series. She felt it glamorised the cocaine trade.
She emphasised that foreigners don’t understand the negative impact of the trade on Colombian society, including the deep association of Colombia’s rich history to one dimension: Cocaine. She wanted us to learn about the deep cultural roots of Colombia. She wanted us to understand the numerous tribes that made up pre-Colombian society. She wanted us to travel around Colombia and experiences the deep biodiversity of her country. She wanted us to embrace the entire spectrum of Colombian society. We were encouraged to look beyond our media and politics within our home countries.
Having visited across within Colombia, I got a sense of what Maria was trying to convey. We toured Communa 13, a community that covers more than ten different neighbourhoods in Medellin, all of which was transformed by the introduction of Street Art. During the 80s and 90s, Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities, with an average of 380 killings per 100,000 people. By 2010, the locals completely transformed Medellin.
Our tour guide, a former drug dealer and street artist explained how the transformation has helped bring tourists to his community. The residents set up small businesses once the tourists started to come. The government also installed a cable car which increased accessibility to the city. Many of these positive developments have meant that older issues with drug trafficking and gang violence were not prevalent. Peace is back on the streets of Medellin.
When we were in Minca, located in northern Colombia, we went to the nearby forests to visit some pools and waterfalls and experience the local wildlife. Our guide mentioned that FARC, a rebel group fighting the government for decades, had occupied parts of the forest and its surrounding villages.
Formed in 1964, the FARC represents the military wing of a communist ideology. It has carried out bombings, assassinations and hijackings against various social, economic and political targets in Colombia. There have been numerous confrontations between the government forces and the FARC rebels in the last fifty years, which destroyed properties, severe injuries, and death. On June 23rd, 2016, FARC signed a permanent ceasefire agreement with the government. It paved for a final peace treaty, signed on September 26th, 2016. These peace initiatives with FARC brought in tourism and trade to the region. Though there was peace with FARC, there were ongoing issues with another group ELN. It doesn’t seem to have dampened the locals’ spirit and the influx of enthusiastic tourists visiting the country.
In Cartegena, located on the Caribbean coast, Afro-Caribbean culture influences the city. The village of Palenque, founded by escaped slaves in 1603, represents the African cultural roots. During the colonial times, Cartegena was a hub for the African slave trade, a historical fact, generally overlooked by tourists visiting Colombia.
In Bogota, the capital of Colombia, Street Art is spectacular. The street artists who guided us through Medellin and Bogota showcased the country’s numerous economic and political issues. The street artists are spearheading the political and social voices for millions of Colombians. Like every country globally, Colombia is flawed, but the locals’ dynamism and enthusiasm were refreshing, a far cry from the ‘Colombia is dangerous.’
It was a reminder that the reality projected is not the reality experienced. The locals expressed the same sentiments in many countries. Locals in Kenya, Rwanda, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Argentina and many more have the same views of how foreigners don’t take the time to learn more about their respective countries’ history, people and culture.
The Vietnam war defines the perception of Vietnam. In the geopolitical war between the Soviets and the Americans, millions of people in South East Asia were affected. There was a significant bombing of parts of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Soviets had their propaganda machine running too. In the name of defending democracy, the Americans justified the destruction. In Vietnam, the same war is called the American War. The story here is about fighting for freedom from the imperialist Americans. The story was about defending the land against the invaders. Regardless of the propaganda, the destructive effect of the war impacts Vietnam to this day.
The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, details the war’s effects from the Vietnamese perspective. Numerous displays detail the impact of the bombings. The Orange Gas displays are particularly distressing and gruesome. I was taken back by the horrific nature of the photographs but profoundly appreciative of the Vietnamese for showing us the war’s brutality. I have been to a lot of museums and galleries on my travels. I consider myself a history student and am very interested in our past, but nowhere have I seen exhibitions with a sense of boldness in their storytelling. The War Remnants Museum, showcased the horrific truth, a far cry from the watered-down exhibits around the world. War is never pretty, with death and destruction crushing communities. I am very thankful to the Vietnamese for showing us their side of the story, with the rawness and intensity of war’s realities.
Hanoi is the city of entrepreneurs. There are both young and old making a living in every nook and corner – selling wares, food, tours, and more. There are many young Vietnamese who are becoming technologically proficient and joining the global workforce. I stayed at a hotel for a few days towards the end of the trip. There the receptionist, Thu Trã, mentioned that she also ran a homestay/AirBnB. She and her boyfriend rented two apartments, one for themselves and one for their hospitality business. It is this entrepreneurial spirit which I have noticed in Vietnam. After Mexico, Vietnam is the country I loved the food the most. At almost every corner of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, there were stalls and small shops selling everything from Ban Mi to Egg Coffee.
The story of Egg Coffee is quite inspiring. In 1946, there were significant milk shortages in North Vietnam the communist part of today’s Vietnam during the French War.Nguyen Van Giang, a bartender at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, substituted eggs for milk to make coffee when the hotel ran out of dairy supplies. Giang then started his cafe, which still exists in Hanoi. Today, you find egg coffee everywhere, but the original establishment, Giang Cafe founded in Hanoi’s old quarter, is still trendy among both locals and tourists.
During my stay in Hanoi, there were impressive outdoor concerts, just like festivals in the UK. People drank a copious amount of beer, danced in the open and enjoyed the artists on stage. It didn’t feel like a communist/socialist country. It could have been Singapore, or Korea or Germany. It was the same with the numerous street markets, full of stalls selling wares, food and drinks with street artists plying their trades hoping to make some money. It could have been London, with buskers performing for the public at a street close to Borough market.
Of course, not everything is fun and games in Vietnam. Income disparity is a sad reality, with millions of Vietnamese struggling to make their ends meet. In 2019, up to forty Vietnamese died in the UK, packed up in a truck, trying to make it to the country illegally. Incidents such as this are a reminder of the issues of Vietnamese society.
The Vietnamese war dominates the psyche of the country. As a result, the government strictly controls everything. In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon, though the locals still call it Saigon), my tour guides to the Reunification Palace and the Chu Chi tunnels had to be careful in their responses to tough and sensitive questions. Discussing sensitive topics such as human rights were not welcome. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), near Hue, is also a tragic reminder of the past – communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. The Vinh Moc tunnels near the DMZ, which were big enough to house families during the war, are a reminder of the difficulties under which the locals lived. However, today, their smiles, laughs and enthusiasm override any lingering effects of the war.
In most’ developing’ nations such as Sri Lanka and Kenya, safety and poverty and the perception that these countries need ‘help all the time’, defines the ‘absolute realities’ of the country. Genuine humanitarian efforts and the fact that some countries do need help have unfortunately created the perception that this is true all the time. Countries such as Kenya have problems with income disparity and extreme poverty. Still, it is not true that the countries haven’t built their resources to create a better environment for their citizens. Much work is indeed needed, but these countries have come a long way in the right direction.
Kenya is one of the richest and one of the most entrepreneurial countries in Africa. The company M-Pesa, started by Safaricom, a Kenyan telecom operator, is an example of that entrepreneurial spirit. M-Pesa was one of the first companies to introduce mobile payments connecting the country immediately, helping connect millions of farmers, labourers and workers to the digital age. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that numerous case studies have been done on M-Pesa by many business schools.
The Elephant Orphanage under Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi is an example of Kenyan social and conservation-oriented spirit. Set up by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick in 1977, it houses elephants (and other wildlife) who have either been harmed by poachers or who have lost their mothers. To date, more than 250 elephants have been rescued and raised by the orphanage. Every day, tourists and locals line up to see the elephants feed. The rangers bring out the elephants starting with the youngest calves and then ending with the young adults. When I visited the orphanage, there were about ten elephants that were being fed by the rangers. While not being fed, the baby elephants played in the mud, mock fought each other and behaved like silly toddlers. It was one of the most heartwarming sights in Africa. There are many Kenyans and Africans who take conservation and protection of the environment seriously. Among the locals who experience the elephants, children from various schools had the biggest smiles and the loudest cheers for the elephants – some of these kids will likely join in the conservation fight one day.
Sri Lanka, for decades, had a civil war that devastated the country for decades. The LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers, was a Tamil militant organisation based in the North-Eastern part of Sri Lanka. It aimed to secure an independent state of Tamil Eelam, for the Srilankan Tamils discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority. Similar to the violence in Colombia due to war between the government and FARC, Sri Lanka had decades of bombings, assassinations, destruction and death. Safety was a concern for the tourists. During the year 2009, after 26 years of fighting, peace was restored in the region, with LTTE’s overwhelming defeat. The defeat meant that tourists could come back and enjoy the hospitality of the Sri Lankans. Unfortunately, in 2019, co-ordinated suicide bombings by Islamic terrorists devastated the country again. But that has not stopped the tourists from visiting the country.
In early 2020, I spent a month in Sri Lanka, where I spent a few days in Jaffna, the central city in the Tamil dominated North of the country. In the past, Jaffna and its surroundings served as a primary base for many LTTE activities, though today, the area is peaceful with minimal indication of a civil war. It felt like a South Indian city, full of life, mouth-watering smells of curry and rice, and many temples. However, roadblocks set up in places and army camps remind you of the civil war that devastated the country.
The Easter bombings by the Islamic militants did increase the sense of fear and unease in the country in 2019. However, when I travelled, taking local transport everywhere, I never felt there was a problem at any point in my journey. The locals were relaxed, welcoming and engaging across Sri Lanka.
Coming from India, I thought I was back in a familiar land again. It did not matter whether they were Sinhalese or Tamilian. All that mattered to me were the sights and the food. Sri Lanka has some of the best food I have tasted: from the simple rice and curry to kottu to the spicy Jaffna crab curry. Sri Lanka has had its problems. Some of the issues persist. But it is a different country today than it was a couple of years back.
Each country has a perception built over time, and that perception does not hold today. We have perceptions of communities within a society, clearly demonstrated by the divisive fractures seen worldwide. After the Brexit vote, many Remainers branded the Leavers as racist, uneducated and stupid, and the Leavers branded the Remainers as elite, arrogant and traitors. There was no effort to bridge the gap between the two groups. It was of the same nature in the United States after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
However, we live in a golden age. The accessibility to exploration has meant an explosion of choices to see the world and explore societies. It is straightforward and for most people in the West, at a minimal hassle. Visas are easy to come by, the currency is in their favour, and low-cost packages are available. Many can make a last-minute decision to travel and then be in the mountains of Nepal within a week.
You don’t need to leave your house to explore the world.
Social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube have enhanced our connection to the world. The Influencer community has added a new dimension to travel: Showcasing your World and your life to everyone else. These new forms of media have added connections to faraway cultures at a click.
There is, however, a fair bit of noise among the wide range of resources available. If one can take a step back from all the noise, one can develop a deeper connection to all the moments experienced during travels, through the lens of curiosity.
It requires a lot of effort. One of the issues is that the effort needed to overcome the friction of perception is tremendous and not worth the time and costs required. People are exposed to and thereby reinforced with their own biases through multiple platforms, including social media. It is not easy at all to make that change.
I started my travels with very minimal effort in diving deep into the multiple histories and cultures. I accepted my perceptions of a place and a community as a reality. I did not even consider an alternative view. Over time, I took the time to watch documentaries, read books, to understand people, and the effort paid off. This approach of childlike curiosity, as I would call it, has served me well. It helped me understand locals’ sentiments a lot more, appreciate the issues within a society by not judging them through a lens of a western-influenced mind, and be more empathetic to communities. At some level, it helped me get closer to the world. Today, it requires each of us to be curious: Curious enough to want to learn more. There are many resources available today, and being curious involves time and effort, but the reward is priceless. Be Curious – you will be better off eventually.