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Crepes and Waffles work to empower women

Where do you turn as a struggling single mum in country that has no welfare state? Crepes and Waffles, is a unique restaurant chain that was opened in 1980 and only employs women and often single mothers. The unique company was set up by a couple who had the idea straight out of University to help empower women by providing them with reliable employment and a substantial pay cheque at the end of the month whilst they can still find time to study and look after their families. With a Crepes and Waffles on every corner, it is clear to anyone who visits Colombia, that this chain is successful with it’s ethics, employees and it’s ice cream. Listen to this podcast where I find out from Norma, manager at Crepes and Waffles, how she sees herself as a role model for the women here striving to be independent.


Crepes and Waffles chain restaurant in Colombia Photo by Hannah Smithson


Women’s Link Worldwide help protect human rights

In the developed world we sometimes take our right to choice rather than chance for granted. In a country where sex education is minimal and the Catholic church have considerable control over educational establishments and traditional attitudes among society, the fight to bring awareness to controversial issues such as women’s reproductive rights and abortion in Colombia is a tough one.

Women’s Link Worldwide  is an international human rights non-profit organization working to ensure that gender equality is a reality around the world and at home in Colombia.

They strive to advance the acknowledgement of women’s rights as a human right through the implementation of international standards and strategic work with the law to close the gap between rights on paper and rights in reality.

Katherine Barnes is a representative of Women’s Link in Colombia and explains how they are working to promote women’s rights and family planning.

Music  by  Kevin MacLeod  is licensed under a  CC Attribution 3.0.

Conjugal visit

Girls at a local prison in Cartagena queue up for the conjugal visit Photo by Hannah Smithson


UN praises Colombia for tackling teenage pregnancy

For the majority of people in developing countries, basic resources and access to family planning services are inadequate. The most recent United Nations (UN) State of the World Population report 2012 estimates that 222 million women around the world still lack access to reliable services, information and supplies. This especially puts adolescents, the poor and ethnic minorities at risk of unintended pregnancy.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warns that much more financial support and political commitment is needed to meet their international Millennium Development Goals for improving maternal health and reducing infant mortality by 2015.


In September 2012, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director and Under-Secretary General of United Nations visited Colombia and highlighted the high figures of teenage pregnancy in the country: one in five women between 15 to 19 years old has been pregnant.

“Colombia has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. This is an obstacle for the development of the country”, he said. More alarmingly, 64% of those pregnancies are not intended.

Since 2006 UNFPA has been supporting the Colombian government in designing a model for ‘youth friendly health services’, including counselling, contraceptive methods, HIV testing, right up to prenatal care. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection has been implementing this model, with continued technical and financial support from the UN.

Dr. Osotimehin visited the capital Bogota, touring two hospitals with ‘youth friendly services’ to see how the country is progressing towards achieving some of the international development goals and said:

“I am pleasantly surprised by the government’s commitment to the prevention of teen pregnancy. This program of youth-friendly services is an example for many countries in Latin America.”

Speaking at the launch of the most recent state of the world population report, Dr. Osotimehin makes the case that access to family planning is a human right and points out that for just one dollar for every person on earth, everyone could realise this right. He highlights that UNFPA’s participation in the Youth Friendly Services Program helps train professionals from health teams and provides technical expertise in the delivery of mass communication strategies to make sure everyone is aware of their rights to services.

Unchallenged though, Dr. Osotimehin says the lack of family planning and increasing teenage pregnancy rates especially amongst adolescents perpetuates poverty, gender inequality and can lead to population pressures in developing countries that are already struggling to meet basic human needs.

Are the UN on track?

Sylvia Wong, Sexual and Reproductive Health Specialist at UNFPA in New York, explains why teenage pregnancy prevention and improving maternal health continue to be important goals for the UN:

“We know that complications for pregnancy and childbirth is the number one killer of girls who are between 15-19 years old in developing countries worldwide and if you’re able to prevent the pregnancy in the first place, that would reduce her risk of maternal death.”

The UN has been criticised for their slow progress for meeting their goals by 2015. Sylvia tells me that the UN is on track but that it could be better.

“There has been some progress, but I don’t think the progress is good enough because there are still too many women who are dying from a preventable death”, says Sylvia.

Colombia’s case study

Sylvia highlights Colombia as one of the countries where there is good practice in place when it comes to sexual education and sees it as very ‘progressive and innovative’.

“Colombia is doing quite a lot in recognising the issue of adolescent pregnancy and getting at the root causes of some of the issues; so they are buttressing work on education, especially comprehensive sexuality education and ensuring access to services for young people,” says Sylvia.

Girls at the Juan Felipe foundation regularly receive sex education and self-esteem lessons Photo by Hannah Smithson

Girls at the Juan Felipe foundation regularly receive sex education and self-esteem lessons Photo by Hannah Smithson

Profamilia assess adolescent pregnancy rates in new study

Profam copy

Psychologist Darly Naiyive at sexual health clinic Profamilia works to promote contraception and to provide family planning services Images by Hannah Smithson

An independent study from private sexual health clinic Profamilia, assessed the rates of Colombian teenage pregnancy in the first study of its kind in the capital. Results showed that adolescent birth rates had decreased by 1% in 2012.

Psychologist at Profamilia, Darly Naiyive, says that teenagers get pregnant in Colombia for many reasons, but boils it down to a lack of sex education, strong anti-abortion laws in a very Catholic country, and a traditionally macho culture embedded within society. She explains how Profamilia’s best practice in promoting contraception and providing family planning services can help women struggling with these obstacles:

“Profamilia has been highlighted because we protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights. We see family planning as a right for the women but also the patient needs to work together with the law.”

Human rights lawyers jump in to help fight for women’s rights

Katherine Romero is a Senior Attorney for Women´s Link Worldwide, a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) in Colombia working to enforce women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion, and explains the work she does in Latin America and all over the world.

“Here at Women’s Link we understand that the legality of abortion has consequences among the vulnerable population and adolescent populations because they don’t have any information about how to get an abortion in a safe manner,” says Katherine.

She explains she was part of the legal team that part de-criminalised abortion law in Colombia in 2005. The Constitutional Court in Colombia then ruled in 2006 that abortion is legal in three cases; when a woman is raped, when there is a danger to the mother’s health or when there is a malformation of the foetus. Katherine and her team are now working hard to apply these rights among the women of Colombia, to spread awareness and access to treatment.

“The legality of abortion has a complete correlation with maternal mortality rates in adolescents because they don’t know how to do it in a safe manner.”

Consequently, it can be very dangerous for young women to get pregnant in these countries, Katherine explains. An underlying attitude in all these similar cases she tells me is that women´s bodies are seen as objects that in most cases don´t belong to them.


Photo by Hannah Smithson

“We have a specific exception for adolescents –all sexual relations with girls under 12 years old constitutes a rape. This is the interpretation of the penal code. So if a girl of 12 years or under gets pregnant she has the right to an abortion. But if a girl is over this age and isn’t in one of those three circumstances she doesn’t have the right to an abortion in the eyes of the law”, says Katherine.

Colombia therefore is in a transitional state as Katherine explains: “With our work to implement the constitutional courts decision we are one step forward in relation to Uganda, Tanzania, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile in recognising that all women’s rights are human rights and that the right to abortion in Colombia is for all women. We also make sure that the government and all their agencies have the obligation to give the service.” But she points out that there is still more to be done.

Sylvia from UNFPA praises the work of sexual health clinics such as Profamilia and NGOs like Women’s Link but concludes that improving maternal health and reducing teenage pregnancy are goals that need to stay on the development agenda after 2015.

“While we have seen the global mortality ratio decline over time which is good news, in my opinion it is still too high because even one death because of maternal causes is just one death too many.”

Colombia’s Big Daddy

Leon CBD

Women’s rights topped the agenda at the most recent  World Economic Forum of 2013.  Even former UK Prime Minister  Gordon Brown  acknowledged and blogged about women’s empowerment being  the  hot topic of day.
In light of  International Women’s Day  on the 8th March, Hannah Smithson investigates the global issue of maternal health and rising teenage pregnancy rates around the world. Speaking to the  United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA),  we  find out how providing access to family planning clinics and resources to improve maternal health is one of their top priorities of the  Millenium Development Goals  for 2015.

Hannah Smithson visits a teenage mothers programme at a unique foundation in Colombia to see how developing countries are dealing with the issue. Find out why Colombia in particular is being held up by   UNFPA   as an example of best practice for the rest of the world.

 Watch “Colombia’s Big Daddy” to see how one man, Leon, is single handedly working to empower women in a traditionally macho culture.

Ben Howard wows fans at O2 Academy Bournemouth

Rewind to 2011 and Ben Howard was exciting stuff- he’d toured our summer festivals around the country and was rumoured to be the up and coming star of the year. One year on, Ben Howard and co. have a worldwide following, have covered insanely popular songs on the radio, including their live lounge version of Carly Rey Jepson’s ‘Call Me Maybe’, which has had over six million views on Youtube and his debut albumn Every Kingdom has been nominated for the 2012 Mercury prize after a successful tour in the US.

Ben Howard and band play new EPs at Bournemouth 02 academy in November

Ben Howard and band play new EPs at Bournemouth 02 academy in November

But more importantly, this well respected and highly talented musician came back to Bournemouth to bring his biggest headline tour to a sold out show at Bournemouth’s O2 academy this November.

In the long queue, hoards of fans braved the wind and rain to make it to the show and upon entrance, it was clear by the sheer amounts of people that his initial loyal following of surfers and music lovers had swollen to a huge sea of Ben Howard enthusiasts. Depsite the numbers of people, there remained still a calm and common minded atmosphere. Everyone was there to bask in the beautiful melodies from his debut albumn Every Kingdom.

Guests were welcomed by the raw folk rhythms of Willy Mason on arrival and pleasant sounds from the stage were the signature of the American folk musician who was rumoured to be Ben’s warm up act. A few lively country tunes later and excitement oozed throughout the place as a curious energy filled the room. The three layered hall of the academy filled up to the gods, had eager ears listening and awaiting the first appearance.

A spotlight hit the stage and a familiar figure strolled casually and cooly onto stage with fellow bandmates India Bourne, and the Bond brothers. Ben begins with famous favourites and echos of Old Pine and Diamonds linger as the crowd awaits some of his unreleased Eps.

Burgh Island and Esmerelda have a slightly darker feel to them and the academy listens intently to the world premier of White Lights, written at the same time as Esmerelda.

Ben comments: “I don’t remember it being this big here.”

An encore encourages the last couple of tunes out of the band in which an impressive version of Promise plays out to backdrop footage of driving home. Ben salutes a satisfied and mesmirised ocean of supporters who will come back again again to hear the therepeutic tones of  this unique and inspiring artist.

Taking human rights to new heights

Last week I visited Women´s Link Worldwide and met a group of very intelligent women. Now I wouldn´t call myself a feminist particularly but on occasion I am reassured by the power of women where perhaps they are still seen as second class citizens. This is true of Colombia still. Women work and there seems to be an increasing emphasis for women to become more independent from men who traditionally would rule the roost. But I am witnessing a new wave of females pushing through the old attitudes and customs of this country and coming out on top. I have interviewed a few of these brave ladies but on Thursday I spoke to those that have fought for their rights and freedoms.

Katherine Romero is a senior attorney for Women´s Link Worldwide and agreed to meet me to speak about the work she does here in Colombia and all over Latin America. She graduated with a joint degree in law and political science from the University of the Andes, Bogota, Colombia and holds a Masters in Human Rights Protection from the University of Alcala de Henares, Madrid, Spain so she is certainly a women I want to talk to. I always imagined working in human rights myself and to meet such a successful lady doing such great work was a pleasure.

In 2005, Katherine began work in the field of sexual and reproductive rights as a legal intern with Women’s Link Worldwide on the LAICIA (High impact litigation, the unconstitutionality of abortion law in Colombia) project, forming part of the legal team which liberalized abortion law in Colombia in 2006 and told me she continues to work and direct the sexual and reproductive rights program. This in itself is just a massive achievement as before 2006 abortion in Colombia was completely illegal.

Katherine is a slender lady who wears a colourful, bright yellow top and her vibrant personality is complimented by her modest manner. She sees this as a massive achievement as I praise her successes but also points out that there is a lot more work to be done here in Colombia but more so in other Latin American countries such as Peru, where it is illegal to have sex before the age of 18. This therefore makes getting pregnant illegal too and unlike the private health care system in the US that may save you in this scenario, Katherine informs me that young teenage girls who get pregnant receive little if any medical attention from the state and are often shunned and outcast. Consequently, it can be very dangerous for young women to get pregnant in these countries, Katherine explains as she points out the charts on the walls that detail the laws on reproductive rights around the world.

Map showing the Laws for reproductive rights in 2005. South America is one of the pinkest along with Africa

An underlying attitude in all these similar cases she tells me is that women´s bodies are seen as objects that in most cases don´t belong to them. A look in her eye tells me she isn´t shocked by these values unlike myself who takes a minute to digest the information. Her fairly cool emotions could come across as cold but I sense she is a warm person just accustomed to working with so many girls where this is the case and it does not phase her anymore.

She tells me of one case where she worked with a 10 year old Colombian girl who was raped and under the age of 12 here any sexually activity is classed as rape. But this unfortunate little girl was failed by the state who did not declare her her right to an abortion in this instance and this is where Katherine came in. She helped part decriminalise abortion here which is one mean feight for a women in Colombia.

A few years on and she says the little girl, now only 13 is recovering but is still psychologically wounded by the whole traumatic experience, not surprisingly. I ask if there is enough medical and psychological help here in these cases in Colombia and she says there is some but not nearly enough. Her story shocks me and whilst I know rape happens around the world, to be denied an abortion after being violated in such a dehumanising way to me, seems quite criminal. Hence Katherine explains to me, thanks to her efforts there are now three scenarios where women can get an abortion in Colombia; if they have been raped, if the foetus is endangered or if the mother is in danger. However she recognises that illegal abortions are very frequent here and often very dangerous, where girls resort to going to illegal underground clinics with non-qualified doctors and risky methods of self-aborting.

The teenage mothers line up for morning prayers at Juan Felipe foundation

I remember back to reading an article in a real life magazine on illegal abortion when I was about 15 and it has stayed with me since. I remember thinking about it all day at work and I vowed that I would one day try and find out about this topic and here I am. That was the first time I decided I wanted to be a journalist and write about human rights and try and help by letting the world know what goes on in other parts of the world.

Katherine´s publications include: “Obstacles and challenges following the partial decriminalisation of abortion in Colombia” (in Reproductive Health Matters, 2010), “Strategic Litigation Cases Under the New Law of Abortion in Colombia: Challenges Implementation”

Resolution of Juan Felipe

On my first night in Cartagena I met my guide and translator Juan Carlos Narvarez who turned out to be wonderful. We didn´t recognise each other at first as I had only spoken to him on the phone and seen his photo on facebook and visa versa but optimistically shouted his name and a deep friendly voice answered.

He took me for dinner at Crepes and Waffles where I explained my documentary to him. I was very impressed with his English, despite him explaining that he had stopped studying years ago and at 37 he had lots of energy and enthusiasm to help me and would always find a word to express his meaning even if it wasn´t the first one he was looking for.

We agreed to meet the next morning at 8am sharp at my hostel where we would take the hour long bus ride to Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar, the foundation I have been in contact with in Cartagena. I had arranged a meeting with the Director of the teenage pregnancy programme Leon who had so far been very helpful and replied to my emails straight away.

Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar foundation

The next morning we took the long bus journey out of the city to Ternera, which was in complete contrast to the beautiful old town I was staying in. Days later Juan admitted that he had “exposed me” slightly here and for the first time I was seeing Colombian poverty in it´s nakedness.

The prison that lies close to Juan Felipe foundation. Today was the conjugal visit of the women to visit their partners

We arrived to the foundation exactly on time for our 9:30 meeting with Leon. This cuddly faced man met us and led us into his very refreshingly air conditioned office where he told us the story of how Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar foundation was set up. It was a very sad tale.

Juan Felipe was a four year old baby boy who tragically fell from a builing and his death motivated the Gomez Escobar family and his mother to set up a foundation to help save the lives of thousands of other children in need. The family witnessed the lack of resources in hospitals and clinics around the city and hoped to serve impoverished communities like the ones on its doorstep and to improve the quality and access of maternal health care.

Leon himself was responsible for the second objective of the foundation´s intervention model, to train adolescent mothers through the Teenage Mothers Program and the Teenage Mothers Extension Program. And I couldn´t have pictured anyone better for the job than this incredibly empathetic, generous and helpful man.

Filming the girl´s I.T. class

He explained to us the statistics that helped support the foundations research and told us that in order for the foundation to design a socially committed organization, it needed to study extensively statistics on infant mortality and teenage pregnancy, and to correlate these statistics with global policies such as the Millennium Development Goals. This is when I knew that Leon and I were a perfect match. Previous research I had conducted for my documentary, linked inextricably to what Leon was talking about. The UN Millenium Declaration resolution had eight goals; number three was gender equality along with number five- decreasing infant mortality and number six- increasing maternal health. Leon was my match made in heaven.

Filming a sex education class

After a very long and intriguing interview with Leon, he kindly gave us a tour of the foundation and it was now that I was incredibly impressed with the work they were doing there. There were teenage mothers and pregnant women wondering around all over the place with their baby blue Juan Felipe shirts on and there was a sense of hope and positivity amongst the impecibly clean grounds.

The sun shone through the windows into a room where Leon explained the young women took sex education classes, self esteem classes, sewing lessons, cooking lessons, beauty courses and IT courses. I was so impressed I had to ask how all of this was funded. Leon immediately led us to the entrance of the grounds where there were plaques with lists and lists of companies that sponsored Juan Felipe foundation including well known Colombian banks such as Davivenda, and oil companies such as Repsol and hundreds of others. I was astounded by the amount of support they were getting and suddenly Juan Felipe foundation stood out to me like a sparkling diamond in the rough that was proactively helping the women around it back into education and to a prosperous and hopeful future. I had a moment of clarity. This was what I had come to Colombia for.

Me and one of the little boys from the foundation

A very sad tale that led to some incredibly rewarding and successful work on the part of Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar´s foundation and the work of it´s very friendly and committed staff.

Leon and his colleague then arranged for me to talk to one teenage girl Danis who was 8 months pregnant and another teenage mother Jennifer who had a baby girl.

Both of who had come from completely different backgrounds. Danis was sad that her partner had not stayed by her when he´d found out that she had got pregnant but instead left and decided to have no responsibility for the coming child, leaving Danis nervous about her future and the birth of her baby girl, until the foundation came along.

Juan Carlos translates my questions to Danis

Jennifer´s story is somewhat different. This strong young woman has a boyfriend and family who is supporting her but explained she came to the foundation when she was depressed about her situation. She is only 17 years old and was shocked when she became pregnant despite being very casual about using protection of which she admits she rarely used with her boyfriend when they had sex. She revealed to us that her father was absent when she was growing up and took the path of drugs. I asked if she regretted getting pregnant at such a young age and she said she did at the time but now she has her little baby girl she doesn´t regret it and interestingly said that her little baby girl now fills a void that her father couldn´t.

Jennifer, 17 with her baby girl

Hola Andres!

I have just been to arguably one of worlds best restaurants. And I am not exaggerating. Andres Carne de Res was fine down to every last detail and yet it was not the posh ¨best restaurant in Bogota” I was expecting. It was better.

I was told all week that my friend Tatiana and her family wanted to take me to experience Andres and experience it I certainly did as this is not your normal restaurant experience. In fact we arrived at 2pm (Colombian time) for lunch and didn´t leave till gone 7pm!

Tatiana with our amazingly refreshing and potent Mojito

The place was incredibly authentic from the beginning with fresh strawberries on entry and after an hour of being there I felt like I was in my own conservatory if not a lot bigger and a lot quirkier. With open plan kitchens dotted in between the maze of different dining areas inside/outside, there was an aroma of hearty food being grilled on open fires and fresh ingredients you could see being prepared all around. The food was simple, tasty and traditional and served in rustic non-matching crockery, which I loved.

The atmosphere was simply ecstatic! After ordering our first few dishes, chicharon (which was basically like fresh pork scratchings- incredible) Colombian chorizo and arepas a grand band attended our table and accosted me to join them in a photo as an honorary guest of the house, after singing and playing to “the English girl”. I was flattered if not a little embarassed as one of the hispanic trio grabbed my leg for a rather sexuale photo!

This seems to be the Latin American way!

There were also actors and actresses strolling around, posing as affluent guests and the basics of my Spanish understanding was that there was some kind of Alice in wonderland story going on for the kids, suffice to say it was all a little crazy and- quirky doesn´t really do it justice but it was amazingly endearing and I really did feel like I´d stepped into a fairy tale.

The service was impecible as I noticed an awesome amount of staff that were working there. Apparantly between the restaurant in Chia (just outside Bogota) and the one in the city centre there are approximately 1,500 staff members and as we popped outside for some fresh air mid dining, we witnessed another restaurant next door that served as the servers dining area.Image

I asked if this restaurant was located anywhere else in the world but apparently the owner Andres wanted to keep it unique to Colombia and despite generous offers from multi-million investors he was stubborn in maintaining these two restaurants as the only ones in the world like it and this is why, although feeling like I have just been on an epic journey to some alternate world rather than a restaurant, I am quite confident in stating that this was quite possibly the best dining experience I have ever had.

The decor inside the place was just unfathomable, with trinkets and odd bits and bobs all over the shop this could never be replicated in the same way anywhere else in my opinion. With the popular interior design of bringing the outside in, there were trees growing by our tables that had clearly been there years and years before our table and at night they lit up with fairy lights to create a whole new atmosphere to the day! Suddenly the relaxing cafe music died out and new energetic Latin American music started to drum underneath.

By this point, after various traditional regional dishes such as patacon con queso (like a tortilla with cheese but made from green plantain fried) and hogao (chopped tomato, onions and spices) morcilla (like English black pudding but much better), chunchullo (not quite sure what this was, a little weird), chicharon (the previously mentioned fresh pork scratchings), arepa de choclo (like a sweet pancake with cheese in the middle) and of course the mazorca (which is like corn on the cob barbecued but again better and something I´ve been wanting to try here for a while as they sell it on the side of the road and streets but I haven´t quite been brave enough)!

There was even a gift shop inside, so that mesmerised guests like myself could take a little piece of Andres away with them. I bought my sister a little crafted milk jug with all the Colombian colours painted on and Tatiana completely surprised me with a beautiful frame inside which was the lovely photo we´d had taken after dinner by the resident photographer. I think it is safe to say I will never forget my day at my now favourite restaurant ever, which I noted in the little comment slip our waiter Hussain kindly left us to comment on our time at Andres!

If Andres was my boyfriend he would be perfect: exciting, energetic, a little bit crazy and tastes great!

This is what I think of Andres

Tourist time

I am here in Colombia primarily to make a documentary and for ease, safety and financial reasons, I am basing it in Bogota and Cartagena but if I had the resources and time I would love to travel more of this fascinating country. Unfortunately my budget doesn´t stretch too far and I am really travelling Colombia on a bit of a shoestring.

But in light of working hard all week, setting up interviews and securing access to the foundations and people we want to speak to, Tatiana (my friend, host, translator and fixer) and I decided we were in need of some well deserved tourist time.

So this weekend we met up with two of Tati´s friends and marched our way up to Monserrate, basically a church on top of a mountain. But this church dominates the Bogota skyline and as soon as I saw it I said to Tati we must find time to visit it.

The mountain rises to 3,152 metres above the sea level, which is actually higher than where I lived in a ski resort in France for six months. The church (built in the 17th century) sits quaintly on top and is a shrine, devoted to “El Señor Caído” (Fallen Lord). This too is also a location of pilgrimage and can be reached by an incredibly steep cable car, a rather disconcerting aerial tramway or by walking, the preferred way of pilgrims.

Tatiana and I at the top of Monserrate

On arrival to the top, the views were nothing short of impressive and we strolled around posing for photos and taking in the views of the city.

We then found our way into the church where they were in the middle of a classic Catholic mass service. Apparantly, these go on all day, every day. Those priests must have lots of stamina I think.

Outside Monserrate church

This clearly is a place of homage, judging by the sheer numbers of people who flock to the church, either as tourists or pilgrims but both appreciating the significance of this iconic Colombian location. Tati tells me that her sister and brother-in-law got engaged here at one of the mountain side restaurants. I imagine the beautiful romantic sunset that they must have witnessed over the city.

“I am not a Catholic but I believe in God” said Jose, a teacher I interviewed today for my documentary and this sentiment rang true for myself on top of Monserrate. In some ways I felt slightly out of place during a Catholic church service in Spanish but still I felt a certain peace and understanding stood among many faithful, even as a foreigner. That is the beauty of faith, (not religion)- you can be any creed, colour or culture and you can be accepted and loved.

The service proceeded to bless the masses by sprinkling water onto the congregation and whilst I was glad to be showered with holy water I was slightly concerned for the health of my camera at the same time.

Me and an elder Ecuadorian lady who sold me my beautiful Alpaca ruana at the traditional Colombian market

The priest and congregation then continued to say prayers in Spanish, as I joined in with the final word, Ame´n and then they took communion. I wasn´t convinced it was right for me to join in with this part of the service, not being Catholic, I think I would have felt like a fraud so I decidedly stepped away and made my way towards the exit.  Colombia is a very catholic country.

It almost felt like we were at a fast food restaurant but the religious kind, where the service was like being stood in a fast moving queue and feeling instantly gratified. But unlike McDonalds I did not feel guilty and unsatisfied afterwards. Morelike, contented and peaceful.

On our way snaking down the mountain we stopped off at the Quinta de Bolivar, which is the colonial house and gardens  that served as a residence to Simon Bolivar, in Bogota after the war of independence. It is now used as a museum dedicated to Bolivar’s life.

Bolivar was a Venezuelan military and political leader and is seen as hero, liberator and revolutionary who played a key role in Hispanic America´s struggle for independence from the Spanish empire, and is today considered one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Americas.

The statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Gran Colombia

Following the triumph over the Spanish monarchy, Bolívar participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Hispanic-America, a republic, which was named Gran Colombia, of which he was president from 1819 to 1830. During his lifetime, he led Venezuela, Colombia (including Panama at the time), Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia to independence, and helped lay the foundations for democracy in much of Latin America, with Colombia having the longest standing democratic government in the whole of South America.

I find this very interesting as I read in The City Paper (the only English newspaper in Bogota) that the government are in peace talks with the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) after four decades of conflict and terror between the revolutionaries and the government.

President Juan Manuel Santos is respected by many Colombians for his international exposure as an economist, with foreign investment at an all time high under his presidency and many admire him for his social vision. His next challenge then will be to sit down with the FARC and have an honest and frank conversation to calm a very old conflict.

We stop off for a quick refreshment, Lulo juice and Limonade de Coco drink, both of which use natural Colombian juices which are truely divine and appreciate Chorro (the oldest part of Bogota) with old colonial buildings and decor.

Tatiana, Amilkar and our fellow English friend Sean at La Candelaria

There are street musicians and comedians here, entertaining visitors and providing a very warm and friendly atmosphere to where apparantly hoards of youths flock. It is the coolest part of Bogota I have seen so far.

We also head to the El Museo del Oro (The Museum of Gold) where I find out all about the ancient hispanic culture. Interestingly, ancient South America was dominated by Shamans and chiefs who were adorned with golden armour and accessories that reflected the sun which was seen as a God. The shamans also wore the jewellery to transform into animals. They believed they were actually Jaguars and would often attack villagers who lived in fear of them. Luckily for me this was thousands of years ago.

Our museum tour guide also showed us some of the main attractions at the museum, a pear shaped type urn that is symbolic of the female body and he said which represented femininity. I asked if women were seen as equals back in ancient times and he said that in fact there were a lot of priestesses and queens thousands of years ago and they actually wielded a lot of power and respect, a fact I found fascinating.

Poporro to symbolise the female body and femininity

Juan (our trusty bilingual museum guide) then told us about the raft. Apparantly people come to the museum just to see the raft which in my mind was being painted as a huge impressive ornament. It was hugely impressive but it certainly wasn´t huge as I soon realised when we headed into the next room.

The tiny raft approximately 10cm by 15cm sat in a blacked out room and so was illuminated by it´s golden brightness. It symbolises the offerings of gold and emeralds that the people used to drop into the river for the Gods, to maintain a prosperous year ahead.

The tiny little floating raft symbolises the offerings the shamans and chiefs used to throw into the river for the Gods, to maintain prosperity

After we were led into another blacked out room but this time sealed off and our guide politely asked if we were claustrophobic. “A little” I told him, when suddenly I heard ghostly chanting echoing around the room and lights illuminating the gold jewellery encased in the walls and below our feet on the floor. I wasn´t expecting this but it was a welcomed and very authentic experience of hearing the old shamans chant.

On our way back to our friends house we walked around the equivalent of Colombia´s parliament square, with the presidents house, and the equivalent of the house of commons in the centre. Here I felt like a proper tourist!

The oldest school in Bogota

A lonely lady sits in protest

Finally, our new friends, Sean and Amilkar, decided we had to go to La Calera to see the sights of the city at night on top of the mountain. This sounded a little more scary than our escapade to the top of Monserrate during the day. But when we arrived it was simply better.

A small shacked out cafe perched on the side of the road/clifftop sat there welcoming us to come and try some hot canelaso (a local alcoholic herbal drink which smells a bit funny but tastes great!) A couple of sips later and lots of laughs after, we headed home for an early night.

I never knew how much sight seeing took it out of me.

The Way… to Santiago de Compostela

I arrived to Santiago at 7am from Madrid and waited for my Spanish stallion of a boyfriend, Carlos for two hours to touch down from London. As I excitedly awaited that familiar face to come through customs I noted the happy faces greeting happy faces at the arrivals  lounge and couldn´t help thinking back to the opening scene of the film – Love Actually.

Soon we were off. Carlos´parents and grandmother fondly greeted us and swept us off to Santiago de Compostela.

The city has its origin in the shrine of  St. James the Great and the cities Cathedral. In 1985 the city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cathedral borders the main plaza of the old and well-preserved city, which Carlos´parents insist we explore. Legend has it that the remains of the apostle James were brought to Galicia for burial, although Carlos´father isn´t convinced this is the case but seems to know the entire history of the city and it´s legends.

Apparantly, according to medieval legend, the light of a bright star guided a shepherd who was watching his flock at night to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela. The shepherd quickly reported his discovery to the bishop of Iria, Bishop Teodomiro, who declared that the remains were those of the apostle James and immediately notified King Alfonso II.

Statue of St. James, where his bones are said to lay

To honour St. James, the cathedral was built on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. The legend,  which included numerous miraculous events,  led to the growth and development of the city and the Way of St. James, a leading pilgrimage route from the 9th Century.

A pilgrim gets out her map to find her way around the city. The scallop shell on her back is the emblem of St. James, worn by pilgrims

Rewind 14 days and Carlos and I are making dinner back at our student house in Bournemouth. I say: “Can we watch a film?” and Carlos says: “sure, I have the perfect one but you can´t look.” I don´t quite understand what he means but sit down with my dinner to watch his “surprise film”.

A simply wonderful American drama about an American ophthalmologist (Martin Sheen) who goes to France following the death of his adult son, killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).

Me and Santiago man next to the famous Cathedral that legend has it houses the body of St James and which Pilgrims travel too and lock padlocks onto the gates to make prayers

Tom’s purpose is initially to retrieve his son’s body. However, in a combination of grief and homage to his son, Tom decides to walk the ancient spiritual trail where his son died, in an epic adventure that will make you want to donne your walking boots and set off on a journey of meaning and healing.

While walking the Camino, Tom meets others from around the world, all looking for greater meaning in their lives. He reluctantly falls in with three other pilgrims in particular. Joost is an overweight man from Amsterdam, who says he is walking the route to lose weight to get ready for his brother’s wedding and so that his wife will desire him again. He is a warm extrovert who is the first to start walking with Tom. Tom meets others along the way, each attempting to quit a vice or be inspired to achieve and aspire. Certainly the film hopes to inspire one in the wake of mourning and puts a spiritual, footloose and refreshing spin on a sad tale exploring the universal themes of loss, companionship and faith.

I now realise the meaning of where I am and what exactly the meaning and significance of this beautifully spiritual city is.

Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city each year from points all over Europe and other parts of the world.