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Last night was the best dinner of my life

KATE: When I say, “That was the best dinner in my life,” I am usually being hyperbolic. And it’s most often used to describe the food. Today, when I say “last night was the best dinner of my life,” I am not. And while the food was delicious, I refer to the company. Our group had the great fortune of having dinner with two of Colombia’s most amazing young minds. Our first guest is Robert Max Steenkist, an artist by nature and a renaissance man by trade. He has published journals, children’s books, he has established charitable organizations, and his family owns a private school in the region. He is a photographer for work now, we are going to have to find a way to get our hands on his photos. He talks openly and passionately about Colombia and its change, but with an air of sadness. He has certainly not given up, his discussion suggests he never will. Robert told us of Colombian’s distrust of organizations, as he says “they have all failed us, the government, the Red Cross, NGOs, churches.” In that way it is hard to offer help. To do this he suggests, and in our interviews, it is best to present ourselves as us, curious us, rather than students attached to a major university working on a project. Robert will be taking us Wednesday to a coffee Hacienda and bringing us to dinner with many of his friends who work in the industry. We are very interested to hear more about what this major export does for the people and economy here.

The second, a surprise guest, Jose, is the CEO of Compartamos whom we were trying to meet on Tuesday, but whom we could not due to a conflict of very busy schedules. He is the most charming Colombian man any of us have ever met, with extreme charisma and a self defacing humor that put us all at ease in spite of his great accomplishments. The organization he runs, Compartamos, acts as a filter and a guide for outside investments to make sure they find the right home through proper channels, rather than the corruption that much foreign money finds here.

These two gentlemen are privileged among the Bogotanos, but they are very aware of it. We further discussed the stratifications of wealth and the challenges the very poor face; housing, jobs, transportation. Once again the importance and neglect of city planning arose. An over-crowded bus system, and roads that are bumper to bumper at every hour of the day, even while most citizens don’t own cars. This will continue to be a massive problem in the country as it grows and attracts further foreign investment. It becomes a concern to those of us who love Bogota that other cities such as Medallion, which have been able to develop an organized and thought-out infrastructure with an efficient train system, will pass Bogota’s growth and attract more international attention. Perhaps, we wonder, a slow down of growth here would allow time to fix some of the current problems.

In regards to tourism, there is much concern over what kinds of tourists come to a place like Cartagena. The “hedonistic value seekers” seem to be dominating the scene and are bringing rise to less welcome industries at the Caribbean coast. We discussed this in terms of similarity to South East Asia, and discussed ways this could be quelled. Perhaps fast growth of the tourist segments will bring in new types of tourists? Of course this would require the shift in perception that we discuss almost hourly.

To Robert and Jose, that we are here is of huge importance and they have gone so out of their ways to make us not only feel at home, but to help us understand. Beyond all of that we had fun, we laughed at the table reminding us once again that we share the same planet and we have a responsibility to take care of each other as best we can.

As dinner neared its end we couldn’t help but hear the dulcet tones of the American tourist at the table next door. I approached her to ask what brought her to Colombia. What happened next surprised both me and Justine. While this woman’s Colombian dinner guests said how excited we were here, asked questions about our project and said they would be interested to read the outcome, she said “there is no bad perception of Colombia in America, that was years ago”. Again, her Colombian friend had interjections but she was very stern in her position on the subject. We thanked them for their time and departed. Justine and I looked at each other in surprise. On a positive note, it is clear that there is much hope for the future of the American perception of Colombia. We also wondered, is this part of the second wave of American tourists?

I write this over breakfast and I am compelled to comment that the things they do with eggs in this country are mysterious and wonderful.

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