To step foot in Colombia for me has always been to step into the past. Not because the country demands it, nor even because the people are in any way nostalgic —they are not— but because my head is so irretrievably lost in history. I cannot look at the Colombian coast without conjuring the drama of the wars of independence, the pirate ships skimming the Caribbean, the final gasp of a decimated Spanish army scrambling to board galleons and escape the last cruel measure of defeat. I see the difficult terrain that separates Medellín from Cartagena, and the tangled scrub that separates Cartagena from Santa Marta. All of it a landscape that was contested and bitterly fought over for hundreds of years before the Conquest. And then challenged all over again in the battles to liberate Gran Colombia from Spain.
Having written a biography of Simón Bolívar and then gone on to tell the story of one thousand years of Latin American history—from the great indigenous empires to the present day—I cannot walk down a street in Colombia or look out at the sea without seeing the hand of history moving across this beautiful and storied land.
So it was for me when I came to take part in the Hay Festival this year.
I began in Medellín, a city I had never visited, but one that tells a vivid story. My parents had lived in Cali many years before, when I was a young Peruvian American, making my way as an immigrant in the United States. I was reminded of Cali as I walked through Medellín: the emerald green, the striking landscape, the rolling hills. Medellín, for me, would be a world apart from Cartagena—the two cities as distinct as a bracing Andean wind can be from a languid Caribbean breeze.
I had been to the Hay Festival in Cartagena six years before, and I had reveled in the colorful, racially diverse, port culture of that city. I had not expected to be so taken by the Festival in Medellín, a city that reminded me of nothing so much as the mountain heart of Peru that I knew so well from my childhood: here were the chilly nights, the brisk street business, the bustling crowds. And here, too, were Colombians whose humanity and generosity were evident at every turn.
More than anything at both Hay Festivals, I was moved by the residents’ genuine response to stories, to history, to opinion, to the imagination. For all the differences between the people of the coast and the people of the mountain, there is an abiding, common interest in books and a deep curiosity about the authors who make them.
Most satisfying to me perhaps was to be in a country that is as steeped in Bolivarian history as I am. The familiarity with the man and his time —the curiosity about a new book that might offer a new perspective— was deeply rewarding to me. I won’t soon forget this year at the Hay Festival.