Week One: Colombia

I’m in South America. Coaching, playing, watching and writing about football. And seeing some other stuff, of course.
Every week, I’ll provide an update on what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and various other things.

Hola a todos,

It seems like far longer than a week since I arrived in Bogotá. As with pretty much every country on the planet, Colombians are far more welcoming and far less awkward than Brits and so the transition from grey skies to blue has been easy thus far.
Bogotá was an incredibly colourful city. I stayed in a hostel in La Candelaria, the historic ‘barrio’ of the city with old buildings and graffiti aplenty. The silhouettes of the mountain emphasise the colour even more.

What I did in Bogotá (2 days):

– a free bike tour (included trying some local food: picadas (chorizo and deep fried potatoes, three local fruit juices all of which were slightly odd, and ice cream made from ingredients only found recently due to the peace process with the FARC allowing scientists to discover more species of plants and fruits)
– visited Santuario Nuestra Señor de Carmen
– struggled with a hangover at an altitude of more than 3000 metres
– went up Montseratte mountain for this amazing view
– went to a Copa Colombia football match between Bogotá FC and Santa Fe (local rivals)
Bogotá was great although very touristy. And very safe. There were four private armed military on the street of my hostel but even away from that, it was a very welcoming place with stupidly cheap food (£1.75 for a two-course lunch).
Early on Friday (March 15th), I got an Uber (another thing which is stupidly cheap in Colombia) out of the city and towards Soacha. It’s a district just outside of Bogotá which has the highest concentration of migrants from La Violencia and the guerilla warfare of anywhere. More than 50% of the people who live there are immigrants from the countryside. Rates of gangs, domestic violence and poverty are massive.
The reason for going to Soacha (and I say this because everyone in Bogotá who I mentioned my trip to Soacha looked absolutely bemused because of its reputation) is to work with a brilliant charity called Tiempo de Juego. They were started by a Colombian journalist who had studied the violence in Cazuca, a small neighbourhood in Soacha where 100s of the homes are ‘illegal’ and don’t have access to water or legal electricity. The charity initially aimed to prevent children from going into gangs, but now also focuses on educating parents and children on gender equality. It’s amazing, and it’s partly supported by Juan Mata’s Common Goal movement.
I was picked up in a minibus with the charity’s logo on the side, having waited on a street corner while various Colombians eyed me up. And suddenly I was immersed in people who spoke no English. I spent the next 6 hours desperately trying to keep up with what they were saying and just about managed to, but my head felt ready to roll off by lunchtime. But, after that, I went back to the flat where I was staying, with a couple of girls who work as coaches in the charity in a full-time role. I hadn’t really experienced the friendliness of Colombians until I met them and the people at the charity, but they are the kindest people imaginable.
In the afternoon, things were much better as I trained with one of the older girls teams that Tiempo de Juego has. At an altitude of roughly 2800m, my lungs struggled. It’s possible to play football, but after any single sprint, you can hardly breath. But it’s needed, because the people I’m staying with have fed me huge amounts of local Colombian food.
I’ve played a silly amount of football, got very sunburnt and Soacha has restored my faith in non-elite football. 100s of kids playing football all the time in the most unsuitable of locations, walking down the street and always seeing someone in a football shirt tapping a ball down the road with the outside of their boot.
There are pitches everywhere, some funded by FIFA and other big charities, and some much more basic, with a couple of lines on a wall and a large patch of dust in between.
Colombian food has been very nice, but there’s not a huge amount of variety. Lunch and dinner (and sometimes breakfast) usually consist of rice, potaotes and some form of meat (which is not always disclosed). More importantly, it’s been seven days without a cup of English breakfast tea, and that’s far too many already.
I leave Soacha on Friday and head to an old colonial town (described as ‘sleepy’ and ‘beautiful’ by my new Colombian friends) called Barichara en route to the Caribbean Coast which is about 19 hours away in total by coach. At least it’s cheap…

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