Turn the Colombian beat around

‘The sky was all purple; There were people runnin’ everywhere;
Tryin’ to run from the destruction; You know I didn’t even care’
— Prince, 1999

A Colombian soldier  on security duty in 2012 in La Macarena. Photo: US Special Operations Command South

A Colombian soldier on security duty in 2012 in La Macarena. Photo: US Special Operations Command South

Colombia in the 1980s was the place Canadians liked to visit. So it seemed only natural in 1989 when working abroad in Toronto that my flatmate and I decided we wanted to party like it was 1999 for one week in the Caribbean resort of Cartagena.

Our plane took off on November 27, 1989. Almost three hours in the captain made an announcement. The plane would be diverted to the United States. The air space over Colombia wasn’t safe. He was waiting for further instructions.

Twenty minutes later the captain announced our plane would land in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Those on board who wanted to stay could, or return to Toronto via New York that day.

The speed at which the flight attendants found out what all passengers on board wanted was amazing. We were told our holiday in Cartagena could be transferred to a resort in Puerto Plato, north of the capital. We would stay at a 4-star resort for the week and guaranteed a flight back on our nominated return date. Wow!

Colombia it seemed was under terrorist siege! All foreign aircraft heading to the region had been cancelled after a domestic Colombian flight was destroyed by a bomb. Five minutes into Avianca Airlines Flight 203 took off from Bogotá an explosive detonated killing all 101 passengers and six crew on board. Another three on the ground lost their lives. No one in Colombia was partying in 1989.

On landing in San Domingo and transported to our 4-star resort sanctuary in Puerto Plato we discovered the bombing of Flight 203 was the deadliest single criminal attack in the many decades of Colombian  violence. The Medellin drug cartel planned the bomb in hope it would kill presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo. He wasn’t on board and went on to become the 28th President of Colombia, from 1990 to 1994. Gaviria was also successful in leading the fight against the cartels.

Life's a beach at Puerto Plata.

Life’s a beach at Puerto Plata.

That night, Prince’s chart-topping apocalyptic song 1999, released in 1983 and again in 1985, was on repeat play on the turntable. Guests on the Puerto Plato resort were urged to party like they didn’t care. The Dominican Republic was a Caribbean cartel-free safe haven.

From then on I always wanted to return to Colombia but it never felt safe. It has only been in the past few years that the Bacrim [Bandas Criminales]— aka Colombia’s narco-paramilitary gangs — have been in decline and touted as the reason behind Mexican cartel activity ramping up instead.

Though this doesn’t mean organised crime or violence on the streets of Colombia will go away, there is a renewed sense of purpose among locals that life in their country has much to offer, and there are plenty of people hoping to share in that sentiment by teaching Colombians English as a second language as a way of raising the bar on communication.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and blogger who is also ESL accredited and hopes to visit Colombia some day soon to bring business English skills to locals. 

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