Let's talk Latin America

This month we’re reading… Short Walks from Bogotá

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Every month, we tell you which Latin American writings we are reading. Taking many different forms and featuring writers stretching the whole of the South, Central and North America, we bring to you a wide selection of the works that are stirring literary interests. This month, Tilly Compton delves into Tom Feiling’s enthralling journey through Colombia’s complicated history.


‘I daresay, most of the millions of casual cocaine users in the UK don’t know much about Colombia either. They turn a blind eye to the trade that carries their Friday night entertainment from some remote Andean hillside to the toilet pub at the end of the road. The British press, which routinely ignores news from Colombia, bears much of the blame for this benightedness’.

(Extract from the book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the new Colombia)


Short Walks from Bogotá (2012) is a compelling and at times unsettling account of the complex and tangled history of Colombia, a country that very few understand. Beyond the stereotypes of crime and cocaine, Tom Feiling takes us on a journey into Colombia’s unknown, venturing through hamlets and villages to get closer to the origins of its history and better understand an ongoing conflict which has shaped the country that we see today. Following individual stories of those deeply affected by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revoluciones de Colombia) and the Paramilitaries, Feiling uncovers the lives of people whose identity has been both ‘demonised and ignored’ and involuntarily pushed into darkness in a world where ‘no passport raises more suspicion at international airports than a Colombian one’. Whilst more of a political journey than that of a typical travel writer, Feiling doesn’t fail to adopt a poetic license to unveil the country’s unimaginable riches in an illustrative yet elegant style, roaming through the rural and the urban to create a story that is representative, colourful and deeply rooted in humanity.


When struck by a headline printed on the cover of Newsweek whilst queuing at his local newsagents to buy a pint of milk, Feiling’s curiosity to rediscover this newly claimed ‘stable, booming and democratic country’ leads him to return to a nation he once spent many years in, beginning his journey in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. In an attempt to re-accustom himself with the intricacies of the political scene, Feiling addresses the complications that come from being a journalist, including the difficulties that arise from trying to pierce a hole in the presented façade of a paranoid city. Drawing parallels with George Orwell’s 1984, Feiling describes the whispers and murmurs that protrude the city against the stark headlines of the politically driven newspapers, stating that whilst Colombians were delighted to see a tourist defy their country’s awful reputation, ‘they wanted me to see the sights, not go rummaging through their dirty linen’. He describes how he would, however, get occasional clues to the stories that complicated the official line on the country’s ‘war on terror’, encouraging him to head out of the big city into the realm of discovery.


It is through these individual stories that Feiling uproots within the 11 chapters of the book, from encounters with Latin America’s last Nomadic tribe to interviews with ex-FARC guerillas, that the reader is able to gain a rounded insight into the political scene of the county, despite his seemingly left-leaning political stance. His strategic alternation between heavy conflict narrative to descriptive every-day life activity allows the reader to return to the lighthearted style of a travel narrative, before clawing them back into reality. This balance tactically avoids the naïve glamourisation of a country so rich in political history, as well as providing foreigners with a glimpse of the beauty that Colombia holds.


It’s important to note that this book was published in 2012, and since then, many questions regarding its relevance have been made. In the last 7 years, Colombia has progressed massively; namely, in 2016 a peace-treaty between the FARC and the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos was signed to bring an end to conflict in the region. Yet, this is not to say that new Colombia is free of all problems. Despite the developments between the FARC and the government since 2012, Feiling’s book maintains an important role in addressing the key issues of race, class and identity; three crucial topics which deepen our understanding of this fascinating nation of Colombia which we see today.


‘Despite the ragged contours of its national history, it seems destined to emerge from its years of solitude in the years to come. The world is in for a treat when it does’

(Extract from the book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the new Colombia)


Photo: Isaac Norris