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Today, in Bogotá. An old essay I found.

An old essay I found for a Telegraph competition. I applied too late.

I was 7 days into my stay in Bogota.

A faintly dismal grey seemed to constantly pervade the city. It was not unlike back home in England. Rain broke out routinely, ranging from drizzle to tropical storms. The streets could flood within minutes. My feet were often wrinkled thanks to the holes that the ragged pavements and heavy rain had worn through the soles of my cheap, formerly white trainers.

The noise outside my window was at times unbearable, depriving me from sleep. If it wasn’t traffic, it was the clicking and clacking of bottles and cardboard being collected by zorreros: people from vulnerable areas of the city that would come to more affluent areas on horse and cart to collect recyclable waste for money.

I awoke drearily each morning, my desire to explore sucked out of me by fatigue. This was far from the tropical paradise you might imagine Colombia to be, and still people talked about the dangers. Don’t go here, nor there, they said.

On that 7th day, however, as I lay asleep in my room in Chapinero, a determined sun came boring through my window. It peeled my eyelids back. I squinted to make out the view from the window. I saw miles upon miles of urban landscape. I could see more of Bogotá than I’d seen all week. I could see all the way to the distant buildings of the west of this city of 8 million people. I could see all the way to Monserrate, the spectacular church that sits atop a mountain. I could see all the mountains that surround Bogotá, dutifully taking care of the city.

Things changed for me then. This was a new dawn, a new Bogota, a new Colombia. Now I wandered the streets with giant, excited strides that found me in the bohemian cafes of La Macarena; the high-end cosmopolitan shops of Zona T; the buzzing bars of youthful Chapinero; the leafy streets of the quaint village of Usaquen. And I spoke to people. I spoke to people and instead of warning me of where not to go, they opened up to me with beaming pride in their city. All of a sudden the museums, the galleries, the restaurants were mine to explore, lit up by the brightness of this new day.

I sat having a coffee in a small, quirky bar. I heard French being spoken between a Parisian and a Bogotano; I saw Germans huddled in a corner drinking a beer; I saw Americans gingerly practicing their Spanish with locals.

This, I found, was Bogota today. It had crawled from behind the dark clouds that kept me from exploring it before. It was now my duty to forget the past I had endured – it had endured – and allow the city to surprise me.

And it continues to.

The sun hits Bogotá
The sun hits Bogotá

Beer in Bogotá – A Post for HSBC’s Expat Explorer Blog

A guide to the best places for a beer in Bogotá – an article written for HSBC’s Expat Explorer Blog

As an expat one of the most challenging things about living abroad can be leaving behind certain rituals deep-rooted in your culture. For many an Englishman, this will be cradling pint after pint in a dingy, carpeted pub that sells beer at room-temperature. Not to mention decent home-brewed ale, or the atmosphere when a good football game is on.

Read more here

Marving Gaye – What’s Going On (40th Anniversary Edition)

Old review of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye I wrote for

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

It’s difficult to overestimate the quality and impact of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On. It was voted as best album of all time by the NME and British newspaper The Guardian, and it rests at number 6 on the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list. The album was not only a departure for Gaye himself, but for Motown and for soul music in general. It received instant critical and commercial success, breaking records upon its release.

The album was recorded on the back of a period of depression for Gaye, who lost close friend and recording partner Tammi Terrell in March 1970. During this period Gaye remained shrouded in obscurity, refusing to record or perform for some time. The breakthrough point came shortly after he met Al Cleveland and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson (of the Four Tops), who had begun work on a song entitled What’s Going On, which took on political and social issues as its subject matter. The composition of the song was completed with the help of Gaye and, after some persuasion, Gaye himself recorded the song.

Motown owner Berry Gordy Jr. initially branded the song too political, certain it wouldn’t appeal to commercial audiences but, upon its release in January 1971, the song became Motown’s fastest selling single to date, prompting Gordy to demand an accompanying album. That album, of course, was to become What’s Going On. Upon completion of the album Gordy again protested, claiming the album was too political and its commercial potential rendered impotent by its song-cycle format. Once again, of course, Gaye stood his ground and got the album released. Once again, of course, Gordy was proved wrong.

A popular soul musician, especially on the Motown label, standing up to record executives was virtually unheard of at the time, and it’s a credit to Gaye that he followed his vision through so determinedly. It’s also fortunate for us as listeners, because with What’s Going On, Gaye created something both timeless and deeply relevant to the period in which it was released. Gaye approaches subjects as diverse as political corruption, the Vietnam War, environmentalism, and social inequality, but the real coup of the album is that these subjects are never broached with the heavy-handed swipe of an activist. Rather, Gaye’s deftness of touch leaves questions unanswered, sentences unfinished and problems unsolved. What’s Going On, then, is political without being a manifesto; a maze of pleas and confusion that don’t so much hold a mirror up to society as ask people in general to hold that mirror up themselves.

What’s Going On also heralded a new period in soul music. The elements of jazz and classical instrumentation that are weaved throughout the album lend it a weight beyond its political focus and the unique use of a song-cycle was revolutionary for a soul artist. On top of all this, Gaye’s vocal performance demonstrated a maturity and skill few knew he had, despite his obvious talent in previous recordings. What stands out about Gaye’s vocals is the genuine sense of exacerbation he manages to transmit throughout each song, adding firm punctuation to the atmosophere created by the lyrics. As a contrast to his later album, Let’s Get It On, wherein Gaye’s emotional and sexual tensions often boil into yelps and screams, with What’s Going On Gaye is calmer, more reflective and at times even conversational, making the “brother” he often appeals to feel like it could be the listener themselves.

As for the rerelease at hand, bettering an album that’s already close to perfect is almost impossible. Production has been tweaked by modern hands and the second CD comprises a slew of extras (including unreleased instrumental outtakes and non-album tracks). It’s interesting to hear some of the alternate versions, especially a revealing early mix of What’s Going On. The lack of instrumental adornment gives the song an increased amount of intimacy and, given the lack of extra production, you can almost imagine you’re hearing Gaye directly in the recording studio. Being able to seperate a song so ingrained in our culture from its normal presentation is both eye-opening and liberating.

The package also comes with 2 essays and a vinyl copy of the ‘Detroit Mixes’ (an early draft of the album that was dropped by Gaye so he could oversee the production process). Considering the price, it’s a box-set that will probably only interest die-hard fans and collectors, but for those to whom these things appeal (and for those who have never heard the ‘Detroit Mixes’) it’s undoubtedly worthwhile.

Following the release of What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye went on to become one of the biggest stars in the world and to this day his image and his songs loom large over the musical landscape. His is an undeniable, raw talent that transcends the time in which he was alive and will last for centuries to come. What’s Going On is not only a remarkable album, but an opportunity to discover a seminal artist at the peak of his powers; an insight into a true modern genius of pop music.

5 Things I Didn’t Know About Colombia Before I Moved Here

Travel to Colombia is defined by shattered expectations: forget what you thought you knew and prepare to be surprised.

Blog post for See Colombia Travel:

Plaza Bolivar, Bogota
Plaza Bolivar, Bogota

1. It’s very international

As I sit here in a cafe sipping my tinto, behind me I can hear a Colombian joking with an American. A French girl teaches a local and when they stumble upon any confusion they revert to English, which is widely spoken. To my side are a couple of Irish girls enjoying some pastry. Across the room there’s a German guy browsing the internet on his PC. Nestled in the corner are a couple, one English, one Colombian. They sail between languages seemlessly and without realising. When I leave and walk up the road I can head to an English pub, an Argentinian parrilla, a Mexican taco stall, a French cafe, a Spanish tapas bar and even a Serbian bread shop. Colombia, and especially Bogota, is surprisingly multicultural and its internationality is worn proudly.

2. The beer is good, pubs are popular

While Colombia might not boast the range of beers that you’ll find in Europe, I’ve found the standard to be just as high. Moreover, you can find yourself relaxing in Bogota in the environs of a classic English pub, sipping a pint over some popcorn (well, something had to be different) while The Clash can be faintly heard through gaps in conversation. For the best places, try Bogota Beer Company and The Pub.

3. The hospitality of strangers

The warmth of Colombians is something that is well documented, so I was expecting to meet some nice people. What I didn’t quite expect was how readily people would give you things, invite you to things, and welcome you into their homes. As a friend pointed out to me, rarely do we buy Aguardiente and, yet, at almost every party I go to I’ll be offered more shots that I can handle. Moreover, you’ll find if you move here you’ll be offered more free meals at new friend’s houses (and their parents) than you can shake a stick it. Friends and food, great.

4. How progressive the cities are

It’s great that in places such as Villa de Leyva, Cartagena and Santa Fe de Antioquia you can meander through the streets like a true flâneur, plucked from modernity and plunged into the past. What’s really surprising, however, is that some cities are at the epicenter of progressive politics, culture and industry. Medellin’s rapid transformation is impressive enough aesthetically, but once you really get involved in the city you quickly begin to realise that this transformation has spread everywhere, and it’s an incredibley modern city. Bogota, too, is an advanced (and advancing) city, full of ambitious projects and politics.

5. The variety

I knew Bogota was a bustling metropolis and that Cartagena was full of charming colonial streets. What I didn’t know is that here I’d find snow-capped mountains, desert lands, beautiful Caribbean beaches, the Amazon, expansive green fields and much, much more. Colombia is characterised by its amazing diversity, and it really should be seen to be believed.

Review of Bogotá

Bogota by night

Many people still travel to Colombia, and especially Bogota, with their expectations way out of line with reality. I recently went to the dentist and had to tell them I wouldn’t be back for the next scheduled check up as I was living in Bogota. ‘Really?’ she replied. ‘Is it just mafia and everything everywhere?’. When I picture myself back in Colombia’s capital city, with the high-rise flats, the swanky restaurants and the dogs wearing designer coats I can’t help but have a chuckle to myself. I’m not saying life’s completely peachy in Bogota, but it’s certainly safer than many other big Latin American cities I’ve been in and you can achieve a good style of life just by choosing the right area to live in.

To be fair, Bogota has surprised even me. I arrived and, like many, wasn’t blown away by what I saw. It seems the whole city is under construction and for first-time visitors, most of what you see isn’t far away from the traffic-choked chaos of the centre. This, I feel, is why many people leave Bogota after only one or two days. But this city is one that rewards patience. Once you start to really discover the city, you’ll find independent bookshops (cll 45), smart little cafes (La Candelaria), hidden bars (Chapinero), clandestine parties, amazing galleries (the Botero Museum is a favourite) and international-standard restaurants (Zona G). Moreover, you’ll find areas of unexpected beauty such as Usaquen, Parque Chico and Parque Simon Bolivar. Culture and art follow you around the city in the form of elaborate, innovative graffiti. Travel to Bogota unveils a city full of character, but it’s a place that might require you to work just a little harder than usual to find it.

There are also myriad options for people that love the outdoors and adventure sports. Just outside the city you can find Guatavita, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, the mountains of Suesca and much, much more. Not to mention the unforgettable Andres Carne de Res – a one of a kind night out on the outskirts of the city.

At each corner in central London you find a piece of history; an architectural marvel. This might not be the case in Bogota (nor in any South American capital with the exception of Buenos Aires), but what you will find is the excitement of a city that’s pulling itself quickly up the ladder and teeming with enthusiasm for the future – a far cry from the jaded expressions on most European faces.

Bogota is a city that bursts with culture that you can find and access with just a little work (rather than London’s frequent out-pricing or hipster-elitism). A city where the youth seem to rule the night and, often, the day. A city where people from all over the world come to live to enjoy the life, not to be seen to be living there. A city that investors are clambering to get a piece of. A city of such radically different faces it would be a challenge to keep yourself orientated if it weren’t for the beautiful, imposing mountains that surround the city’s boundaries. A city that’s so young you can still mould it to the experience you want out of it. Bogota doesn’t have a nickname, and yet it’s a city that genuinely doesn’t sleep.

Bogota isn’t the most beautiful city in the world or even Colombia, but if you stay longer than just a couple of days, you’ll quickly find out that it’s one of the most exciting.