'So how was it?' asked several people, on our return from Colombia yesterday.
I had been invited to give some talks at the Hay Festival in Cartagena - one of the innovative and imaginative extensions of the British Hay Festival - now in its third year. The visit was preceded by a few days in Bogotá, where I talked to ELT groups and helped launch a new Masters course in English didactics at the University of La Sabana. The British Council made it all possible and looked after us extremely well.
Before we went, our friends and colleagues expressed the hope that we would not be kidnapped. That is the bad image which Colombia still has, even though it's largely based on events that took place years ago. Problems there still are, of course, down in the south, and there are still some no-go areas in the cities. But these are city problems, not Colombia problems, applicable as much to London and Liverpool as to anywhere else. Be sensible, follow local advice, and you'll be fine - as indeed we were.
More than fine. We had a great time, Hilary and I. Colombia is a truly beautiful country. Bogotá, at 10,000 feet, nestles at the foot of a swathe of hills covered with luxuriant vegetation. From the top of one of these, you can see the whole city below you - a rare sight, in my experience. This was Monserrate, a pilgrimage church which we reached by a funicular railway. Thousands of people make a visit, especially on a Sunday, and - as pretty distinctive-looking tourists - we were noticed and warmly welcomed. I received a new identity there too (see below). Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, is a walled city - the largest former military emplacement in the Americas, the guidebooks say. It's a splendid location for a Hay-type festival, with several fine large old buildings acting as venues for talks and gatherings. Enthusiastic audiences, as always at Hay. And the massive walls give the place an intimacy not too far removed from that which you get at the festival site in Wales. It's slightly warmer than the average Welsh day, though, it has to be said - around 30 degrees, more or less.
We were only in the country a week, but we managed - thanks to our various hosts - to visit many of the major tourist locations, such as the extraordinary Salt Cathedral 50 km north-west of Bogotá (a church, chapels, and conference centre deep within a salt mine). We walked around La Candelaría in Bogotá, the oldest part of the city, and all around Cartagena. There was a great deal of security about, but we never felt threatened. And that is the main purpose of this post: don't be put off by the bad press. Colombia is well worth a visit. And the news is slowly getting out. Indeed, on our first day in Cartagena, we found ourselves in the midst of crowds of visitors from three cruise ships which were visiting the city - the first such ships for some time.
A statistic: the daily newspaper El Tiempo carried a report while we were there that some 880,000 people in the country now speak English. That's about two per cent only, but a huge increase on a decade ago. When I first went west of the Andes (in Peru), a few years ago, I was struck by the relative lack of an English language 'presence' compared to Brazil and Argentina. It's very different now. And there is huge interest in learning English - hence the new course at La Sabana (itself, incidentally, one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen, a modern and tasteful development of an old hacienda estate).
And my new identity? We were waiting in a zig-zag queue for the funicular on the way down. A girl of about 4 years old was being carried by her mother just ahead of us. As she passed me she couldn't take her eyes off my beard (which, for those of you who do not follow the lookalike competitions on YouTube, Facebook, and the like, is longish and white - well, silvery, as an Aussie journalist once put it!). As she went past a second time, she said to her mum, 'Papa Noel'! I gave her a wave. The third time (it was a long queue), she told her little brother that Papa Noel was here. Within a few minutes, the news had travelled around the funicular. It was true. Papa Noel was in Monserrate. It was a miracle! The answer to a (child's) prayer. At the foot of the funicular, the little girl stroked my beard, and went away very happy. As did I.