Two Generations of Donovans in Colombia

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South America » Colombia » Bogota
October 3rd 2012
Published: October 4th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

When I was a kid, I remember my dad spending quite a bit of time in Colombia. For those of you that don’t know, at that time he worked for Baker Hughes which is where I started my career. It’s too bad he didn’t have a blog back then because, like me, he also traveled internationally quite frequently and came back home with great recounts of his adventures abroad. Colombia back then was a much different place. I remember he told me that he used to carry two passports; his government issued US document and a fake Canadian version just in case he was kidnapped (sorry, Canadian friends, but at the time, you Canucks commanded less ransom potential). He told me about how on the front page of the Bogotá newspaper they had a daily count of how many homicides occurred the previous day in the city. It was usually north of 30. The FARC, or the revolutionary guerrilla army, was terrorizing the country and hostage situations were abundant. All that aside, he still had an affinity for the country and its people, so when my first opportunity came about to go work there in 2008, I was genuinely excited and intrigued to discover what he appreciated so much. As it would turn out, I found myself back in Colombia four more times in the next 18 months.

The ideal way to write this entry would be co-authored with my dad, as it would be really interesting to get a first hand foreign perspective on how things changed in the country over the last thirty years. And while it’s unfortunate that I only have a few recollections about his trips, there are definitely certain things I know that have changed during that period. The country is monumentally more stable now. GDP growth is expected to average 4-5% over the long term. One could make a case that if you had to choose only one Latin American country to invest in, Colombia would be your best option. The amount of foreign direct investment flowing into the country is impressive, aided by government support and abundant natural resources. President Santos hopes for peace with the FARC by next year. They’ve even successfully implemented amnesty programs that provide jobs for guerrillas who turn in their guns.

I’ve only spent time in the capital Bogotá and Bucaramanga, a beautiful city located on an Andean plateau, so my impression does not represent the whole of the country. However, I was (naively, perhaps) at first visit surprised at how cosmopolitan of a city Bogotá is. It’s a crowded, bustling city as most South American capitals go, but there are some wonderful developments in the city. Of course there is the historic, old part of the city, La Candelaria, where the Presidential palace and many other impressive Spanish colonial-style buildings are located, but the city is also home to some of the best restaurants and nightlife I’ve found anywhere. (I love the food so much that if you come to my house on a weekend morning, there’s a good chance you’ll find me making arepas….it’s also quite possible that I’ll try to serve you a shot of aguardiente in the evening )!

As with my colleagues, the people work impressively hard at their respective jobs. Late nights in the office are commonplace. In many countries that are “emerging” economies, the locals seem to recognize this and invest whatever is required to take advantage of the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, their country, and future generations. It really is inspiring to be around. That’s not to say that all is fixed. There are streets in Bogotá that are well known boundaries. Bogatenos don’t stray from the safe blocks, and the remnants of previous times are still evident in office building metal detectors at the entry, heightened security (especially around elections), and cabs that provide you a security code. (To me, it seemed to err on the overly protective side, which is fine in my opinion). Note: we did have some rebels set fire to our chemicals as they were being delivered to the oil field. But gone is the homicide count in the paper, and people move freely about the country. I say this genuinely, it really is an enjoyable place to work.

What I can only suspect to be the common ground between my dad’s experiences and my visits is the respect and enjoyment of the people and culture. I made some lifelong friends working down there who were quick to take me in and show off both cultural aspects of their country as well as extend an invitation to their personal lives. I think in the US when we have foreign visitors, it’s easy to finish up work for the day and just head home to our daily lives. But I was amazed at the accessibility my friends offered into their worlds. Had I not had this experience, I might not remember Colombia so fondly. Yet still today, when I mention working there to friends back home, there is often a preconceived notion of the dangerous Colombia of years ago. I’m happy to provide an alternate view and encourage people to go for visit before it gets overrun with tourists. There are many places I would still like to visit like the walled city Cartagena, Medellin, or the Caribbean island of San Andres. Sure; be careful, but do that wherever you go in the world. And find someone with Colombian friends. Chances are they’d be happy to give you a local contact who just might make your visit even better.

I had a strange twist of fate on my first visit. After the first day of working with my newly acquainted colleague, he mentioned my surname. He then curiously asked if I knew of a ‘Joe Donovan’. I replied that he was my dad. My colleague smiled knowingly and told me that he had worked with my dad quite regularly 25 years ago and had always respected him and enjoyed their friendship. Talk about history repeating itself. At that point it was my turn to work with him. I hope I didn’t let him down.


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