We all pick up ideas about a country from a lifetime of media consumption, and stereotypes can shape our opinions, persisting even once a country has changed, as Colombia has over the last 30 years.
Lachlan Page talks about how he ended up in Colombia after prioritizing travel first and work second, his recommended places to visit from jungle to coast, tips for safety, whether being bilingual changes your personality, cross-cultural marriage, recommended books, and more.
Lachlan Page is the author of Magical Disinformation, a spy novel with a satirical edge set amongst the Colombian peace process.
- Making travel the priority and fitting work around it, plus volunteering when you have useful skills
- How stereotypes and media representations of Colombia are different from the reality
- Recommended places to visit
- Tips for safety, useful wherever you go
- Does speaking a second language affect your personality?
- On cross-cultural marriages
- Recommended books
You can find Lachlan Page at LachlanPageAuthor.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Lachlan Page is the author of Magical Disinformation, a spy novel with a satirical edge set amongst the Colombian peace process. Welcome, Lachlan.
Lachlan Page: Thanks, Jo, for having me.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s good to talk to you about this. Now, first off, I wanted to talk about your interesting jobs. You’ve worked some very interesting things. Volcano hiking guide, Red Cross volunteer, and language teacher among others.
How has travel shaped your career?
Lachlan Page: I put all the most interesting jobs on there. There are a lot of other jobs that perhaps weren’t as interesting, but I’ve really been interested in travel since I was a teenager, and tried to travel every opportunity I could through my university years.
When I was about 18 or 19, I did a backpacking trip through Europe for two months. Later, I studied abroad in France and the U.K., and that eventually led me down a trail of doing those different odd jobs.
Eventually, when I returned to Australia, I graduated university, did an office job doing market research reports, and from my previous Spanish-speaking skills actually got that job because it involved a lot of reading in Spanish, and then using that information for the market research reports, and one of my bosses was from Costa Rica.
That idea of travel and language definitely shaped that early part of my career. But I guess I soon realized, like a lot of people, that office type of job wasn’t for me.
I set off after that and went to Guatemala and continued learning Spanish. And that’s where through the school I was studying at, I got in touch with a volunteering organization which put me in touch with the Guatemalan Red Cross in a Central Highland city called Cobán. It’s a little bit off the tourist trail. But there’s a very popular river, waterfall nearby called Semuc Champey, which a lot of people go to.
It was in that area and I was there for about three months, two to three months doing volunteer work with Red Cross. And that was based in what I’d studied, which was international business. So, helping them set up spreadsheets and very basic excel type things, but also getting out into the field and occasionally doing health checks, a lot of health information where I was doing more the organizing of the data and things like that, not the actual health aspects.
From there really, I continued traveling through central America and originally had my sight set on Panama. But, as I was going through Nicaragua, I did a volcano trek tour, and when it finished I saw that they’re actually hiring for people to become volcano guides. And so, I ended up applying and pretty much being accepted on the spot.
Did that for six months and then later down the track, I continued in other various jobs before I trained to teach English as a second language.
That’s led me to what I do now, which is, teaching a university in Australia, not in English, but in humanities and business subjects, but focused on international students. Pre-pandemic did a lot of trips in China and Indonesia for that as well.
So, that travel and that idea just led me to various opportunities that you probably wouldn’t have if you just stayed in the same place or even in your own country.
I think travel pushes you outside of your comfort zone and you’re exposed to new opportunities.
That’s probably how it’s really impacted it.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s interesting because, of course, it sounds like you made travel the priority and then did work around it, and obviously kept yourself alive and paying the bills while you traveled as in the travel came first and the jobs came second, which I feel like a lot of us we choose the work first and then we fit travel around it. I can see how you’ve created a career around the travel.
I want to come back on the volunteering. Years ago I tried to volunteer with something and they basically said, ‘Sorry, to be honest, you’re not very useful. We really want people who have medical skills or who can build a well or who can help with bridges.’ And, I was like, ‘Yeah, to be fair, I get that.’ So, you found that your office skills are useful.
I think a lot of people want to volunteer but may also feel like they’re not useful enough.
Lachlan Page: I looked at a lot of volunteer programs and a lot of them are liked that, where you need specialist skills and people still do them and they pay a lot of money to do them. But I knew a lot about that from my studies that it wasn’t always the best way to go about it.
Possibly this volunteer opportunity, if I had done it from Australia saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to come over and do this,’ they probably wouldn’t have said yes, because it’s not something that you would go to all of that effort to bring someone across. But because I was there, because they explained a bit about where they needed help and how I could help with my skills, we found that fit.
And it wasn’t just me. There was a student there of accounting and she had a little bit of knowledge in that area, but she was still studying and I’d just finished studying, so I had a little bit more professional experience than her to be able to help her.
So, it was that idea of my skills were needed rather than I was just jumping in there and doing something because I’m from Australia, for example. But it is a tricky aspect to try and find something where you can really add value with your skills.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes. Exactly. And I think you were right. You were in a place already and then you looked for opportunities, that sounds like what you do.
Let’s talk about Colombia, your first novel is set there. And, obviously, you’ve traveled loads of places.
Why Colombia? What about it captivated you enough to write a book about it and tell us about your trips there?
Lachlan Page: After all that travel that I just mentioned and I started to teach English, I had a job lined up in South Korea to teach English, and so I did that for one year. And at the end of that experience, I thought, ‘Where do I want to go to continue teaching English to continue working?’
Because I’d traveled in Colombia at the end of that trip that I mentioned before, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go back to Colombia and I’ll start there again.’ I spent one year to see how I go. I ended up staying four years, met my now wife there, and we’ve since returned to Australia. But I ended up working, teaching English there and also teaching university subjects and I studied further there as well.
I think initially when I went to Colombia, it was very much off the tourist trail. It wasn’t on the usual backpacking route of South America. There was quite a lot of travelers in the backpacking scene, but not as much as if you go to Peru or to even Central America or Argentina, Brazil, for example. So, it was very much off the beaten track.
A lot of the places you would go to, there was only maybe one hostel to stay in, so everyone ended up at that hostel. And people were very friendly, very curious. And just felt that…you had that new vibe of being untouched, and, I think also Colombian people…and everybody says this about Colombia, that when you go there, you’re welcomed by everybody.
Everyone’s friendly, everyone’s curious, everyone chats to you, and it’s a very welcoming culture.
I think South America in general or Latin America in general is like that, but I think Colombia, in particular, has a special kind of welcomeness that it gives to tourists.
And also, Colombia has mountains, jungle, deserts, beaches, a whole range of the spectrum of all of the kind of landscapes that you find all over the world. So, you can do a lot of things in a smallish area.
Colombia’s a big country, but the one country in that small area you can do a lot of things that you could experience, for example, all over the continent of Latin America. So, I think those two things probably led me to return to actually live there.
And with my book, I mean, I’d always dabbled with that idea of writing a book. I love spy novels, I love travel books, and so, I like the idea of combining the two. I think because I’d lived in Colombia for four years and traveled back and had family there through my wife, it’s probably the country I know the best after Australia.
So, I thought it was really right for a book. There’s quite a few spy novels and action movies that are set in Colombia, but they tend to focus very much on the same story of drugs, cartels, guerrilla, with very little depth that I felt that it didn’t really capture the nuances of Colombia.
For example, people who have lived in Colombia, there’s a running joke that whenever Colombia’s in the movies or books or TVs, it just shows it in a very different light to how it actually is.
For example, there’s the movie ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and they’re in Bogotá and they show it’s hot and tropical with chickens running in the street. Whereas, in reality, it’s very cold and rainy and it’s quite a developed city. It’s on similar levels to a European city, for example, in many ways.
So, I felt like that had to be addressed and the real Colombia had to shine through. And also just, there’s a lot of, let’s say, wacky, crazy stories of little events that have happened in Colombia that you wouldn’t believe are true, but they are.
I included a lot of those in my book, which I think just proves that fiction could be a lot stranger than the truth and vice versa in Colombia. It’s hard to sometimes know that line between fiction and truth. And that’s a big theme, I think, in the book as well.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, lots to unpack there. So first of all, you mentioned the range of natural landscapes.
Tell us some of the highlights of the country in terms of natural beauty and some of the places you recommend visiting.
Lachlan Page: I think for me, my favorite place in Colombia is what’s called the Coffee Triangle, which is an area in West Colombia around the cities of Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira.
It’s where most of the Colombian coffee comes from, so there’s rolling green hills, coffee fincas, small colonial villages, beautiful scenery, and very good coffee if you can find it.
A lot of Colombians drink Nescafé, although that’s changing, and people are trying to drink the actual good coffee from Colombia. The coffee zone, in particular, is a highlight for me, definitely something that’s a very unique Colombian place.
Also, in terms of beaches, the stretch of beaches from Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast running north is probably the most popular area for beaches. There’s a national park there called Tayrona National Park, which is a national park on the coast, and you actually need to hike in about one hour to get to the beaches. So, it’s not like big sky rises and there’s not a lot of development there.
It’s quite a very secluded place and the beaches are amazing. And as you go further up that coast, you get to the Guajira peninsula, which is, probably not so well-traveled as the other places in Colombia, but again, the beaches are very good and it’s like a desert landscape and you can see flamingos, and there’s very good seafood and very interesting aspects with the indigenous culture of the peninsula there.
I’d probably say those are some of the highlights. There’s a lot of other places that I could mention, but I think, for me, they’re probably the main highlights or the things that I find interesting and love to explore in Colombia.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m just looking on the map, on Google Maps as you’re talking. And people can’t picture it in their head, it’s on that northwest corner of South America. But you said that, the Caribbean Sea, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, some of it’s on the Caribbean and then the other half borders the Pacific.’ Right?
Those must be very different coasts.
Lachlan Page: If you zoom on the map, you’ll see roads leading up on the Caribbean coast, but on the Pacific coast, there’s almost no roads going to the coast. You’ll see there’s the Port of Buenaventura which is on the Pacific coast. There’s a city there and that’s one of Colombia’s two major ports.
But all that other coast, there are actually no roads that go there. So, you either need to fly in, or you need to go by boat through different river systems. And some of those areas as well, especially towards Ecuador and especially towards Panama and a lot of that area, it’s quite untouched and it’s had a lot of conflict and still has a lot of conflict.
There are probably no-go zones where you wouldn’t go, or there’s a heavy military and guerrilla presence. I haven’t traveled there, but a lot of people I know have, and it is very different. It rains a lot more on that coast, there’s a lot more tropical…kind of jungley I guess, right up until the coast, on the Pacific coast that is.
Jo Frances Penn: You’ve mentioned the drugs and cartels come up. And then you just mentioned military there and no-go areas. So, let’s address the safety because it feels like there has been a dangerous reputation in the past, like Medellín, I guess it was back in the, what, ’80s really.
Whereas, I think now there’s a lot of really interesting stuff there. Every country has its dangers obviously.
What should people watch out for and what are the ways to behave in order to make it a safe country to visit?
Lachlan Page: I think most of those are things to do with military guerrilla, paramilitaries, those dangerous aspects are in those outer reach areas of Colombia. So, you wouldn’t normally get there as a traveler.
I don’t think that’s really something that people would come across. But I think in terms of all of Latin America, in the big cities, there is definitely crime and sometimes violent crime. It’s obviously improved.
In terms of the dangerousness of a city, they usually use the per capita murder rates and Bogotá now rates below Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore in the US. Bogotá, the capital, is a lot safer in that respect than a lot of US cities, which is an interesting way to look at it, and it really throws people when you tell them that. But there still is a lot of crime.
And so, I think the usual tips like pickpockets, so having an internal pocket or a pocket with a zip is very advisable. I’d say, while traveling there, you wouldn’t have your wallet in your back pocket. Likewise, at a cafe or restaurant, especially if it’s outdoors, you’d have your bag with the loop of the bag or the strap looped around your leg.
Not leaving laptops or phones out on the table, even if they’re right in front of you, because there can be groups that distract you very easily and then they just take it right out from under your nose, so that’s something to be very wary of. Any types of electronic devices that are quite expensive, it’s not a good idea to have them out and shown.
Colombians have a saying called dar papaya, which literally means give papaya or give pawpaw, which sometimes papaya is known. That’s the literal translation but what it really means is don’t kind of put yourself out there in a position where people can take advantage of you easily or don’t tempt fate. So, it’s saying don’t walk down the street opening your wallet with your iPhone and with flashy jewelry.
I think those types of things are advisable. I think also things like with taxis, you have to always be careful in Bogota. There has been holdups in taxis and you’re getting in a taxi late at night and the taxi driver might not be the real taxi driver. So, there’s things like that as well where they have apps or a number you can call to order taxis safely. So that’s kind of recommended as well.
Jo Frances Penn: A lot of these things are sensible things to do in any country. I think when we’re thinking about a trip, then it’s thinking about those things and, as you say, behaving in an appropriate way.
Before, you mentioned colonial villages in that Coffee Triangle. How does that complicated history of indigenous people and colonization, how has that affected the places?
Tell us about some of the interesting places that reflect the history.
Lachlan Page: Obviously the legacy of the Spanish, I guess we call it invasion or conquest of the Americas had a big impact in Colombia. A lot of the architecture, a lot of the buildings you’ll find beautiful cathedrals, ancient forts on the Caribbean coast that were trying to keep the English and Dutch pirates away from the Spanish gold and silver.
A lot of the cities in Colombia have developed and they’ve got new modern skyscrapers and office buildings and apartment buildings. Whereas a lot of the villages which in the past were quite important towns in the new Colombia, but have now really been left behind. And so, a lot of them can feel stuck in a time warp.
For example, Villa de Leyva is a small town near Bogotá that’s very nice. Mompox, which is a town on a river towards the Caribbean coast, it was a very, very important town in Colombia along the Magdalena River, but is now very much stuck in a time warp. It’s often linked to the novels of Garcia Marquez thinking that Mompox was used as a setting for a lot of his novels. So, there’s obviously the architecture I think is very much reflected in that Spanish colonial style.
However, the indigenous culture, as I mentioned up near the coast near Santa Marta, there is a small mountain range called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. And there you’ll find what’s known as the Lost City, which is like ancient ruins of the Tairona people and the various other smaller indigenous groups around there who lived there. And that was only discovered, and I say ‘discovered’ in ’72.
It wasn’t really something that was touched a lot by the Spanish in many ways but is something that is a very interesting indigenous site. And actually, in Bogotá, the Gold Museum has a lot of gold artifacts from the Muiscas people who were the indigenous group around Bogotá and the central Highlands of Colombia. That mix of that heritage between the Spanish colonial, but also indigenous culture that you can explore in Colombia.
Jo Frances Penn: I love cathedrals.
What’s the best cathedral or the beautiful architecture that you would recommend for those of us who love the religious side of things?
Lachlan Page: To be honest, I don’t know a lot of the cathedrals. I think compared to maybe some other Latin American countries, they’re maybe a little bit smaller than some of the other ones, or even the ones in Spain. But I know there’s the Convento de Santo Domingo in Cartagena, so that’s on the Caribbean coast.
Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that looks a bit like Carris in Spain, if you’ve been there or Havana in Cuba, it’s a fortified walled city. Convento de Santo Domingo there is quite an impressive church and convent in the very, very far south.
I actually haven’t been there, but there’s a very impressive cathedral called Ipiales Cathedral. And I forget the name, it’s Santuario something, Las Lajas, I believe it’s called. I actually haven’t been there, but I’ve seen photos of it and it looks amazing. It’s kind of in a canyon, it looks almost looks like, I guess, a German-style cathedral.
Jo Frances Penn: I also wanted to ask you about speaking different languages, because obviously you’re Australian, so to my ear, I can hear your Australian accent. But then, when you’re saying some of those Spanish names, it sounds like your Australian accent disappears.
And of course, you lived in Colombia a long time, your wife’s Colombian, so presumably your Spanish is pretty good these days. This is something I’ve heard from other, sort of, bilingual friends.
How does language change the way you think or does it change the way you think when you speak in different languages, do you turn into a different personality?
Lachlan Page: Yeah. It’s funny, when my wife and I met, we only spoke in Spanish for the first two or three years, it wasn’t until we made a trip to Australia for a holiday and we started speaking in English and she got a bit of practice and now she’s fluent in English, but we still speak Spanish at home. So, we speak it every day, dipping in English occasionally.
I actually also studied, I did a masters in linguistics and so I looked at a lot of these things about, does it change your personality? Does it not when you interact? And I’m not sure if it changes my personality a lot, but what I would say is that when you are speaking in that language, you’re usually communicating with the people who speak that language.
So, I think you kind of adapt to their communication forms, their patterns, and the way they communicate. I think it’s a bit of a Latin stereotype, but I think it’s true, they’re quite outgoing, loud, and very talkative. So, I probably become a bit more like that when I speak Spanish.
I know also in Colombia, particular in Bogotá, they’re quite formal in the way they speak and they’re very indirect as well. So, instead of saying, ‘It’s hot, can you turn on the air conditioner?’ They might say, ‘Oh, it feels hot in here.’ And, ‘Don’t you feel like it’s hot?’
That’s a clue to you that you need to open a window or turn on the air conditioner, so there’s that kind of indirect way. So, I guess in that sense, I think it probably does change the way I interact and communicate with people.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s interesting you say that because I feel that indirectness is very English. When I came to Australia in 2000 and traveled around, obviously I lived in Australia for a number of years. And I often felt like I couldn’t even communicate with Australians, even speaking the same language, because as a British person, we come at things from an angle, like you say, we’re indirect. Whereas the Australian culture is very direct. So, that’s interesting you say that. I wonder if that is a European influence or is that part of the indigenous culture as well?
Lachlan Page: I think probably part of the indigenous culture, but I think also a European thing. Because I think I’ve experienced that in Spain a little bit. And it’s funny the English thing because in Bogotá, a lot of people wear tweed jackets and scarves and ties and they dress quite formally and wear brogues.
A lot of people in Bogotá really like that English culture and have maybe a similar type of temperament in some ways, in Bogotá at least. And you’re right, it is different to the way in Australia. We’re probably a bit more direct and to the point in that sense.
Jo Frances Penn: I also wanted to ask you about cross-cultural marriage, not just cross-cultural, cross-hemisphere because I’m also the same, living in the U.K. My husband, I met in New Zealand and so we have to travel back to New Zealand for family reasons and people are always like, ‘Oh, you’re having a holiday.’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s a family trip.’ It’s like going to see someone else.
Obviously, there are pros and cons of cross-cultural marriages, but how do you find it?
Is Colombia now somewhere where you travel for family trips or can it still be a holiday?
Lachlan Page: It’s a tricky thing. We usually go back every year or two years, pre-pandemic. But whenever we go back, we pretty much have a week in Bogotá where it’s family and friends and things like that. So, it does feel like when we go back, we have to spend probably that week in Bogotá catching up. Otherwise, the family might know you’re traveling somewhere else and they’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you stay with us longer?’
I think that’s definitely an aspect of traveling. I don’t mind going back to Colombia, but sometimes my wife would say, ‘Why don’t we go to Japan or to Malaysia or somewhere closer in Asia?’ Because she loves travel as well, and going home for her isn’t necessarily a fun, exciting trip. It’s great to catch up with family and friends, but it’s not that same kind of adventure that she would like, I think.
So, it’s a tricky situation to deal with. But also, you do feel a bit guilty that you have to travel there and see people and that maybe takes out from other trips that you would otherwise…
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, exactly. And it’s something we always think about too. It’s like, yes, we want to go to Japan or we want to go somewhere else, but we need to go back and see family.
And yet, also, I feel like this is the way we’re going to stop racism in the world is by everyone intermarrying.
Lachlan Page: Exactly. And actually, one thing with that is, to get to Colombia from Australia, you have to go through Chile, Argentina, or you go through the U.S., through Los Angeles, San Francisco. So, we try to stop off at some of those places along the way. And that gets a bit of travel in as well as catching up with family and friends.
Jo Frances Penn: Right. So, this is the ‘Books and Travel Show.’
What are some books about or set in Colombia that you recommend?
Lachlan Page: One is called Oblivion by Héctor Abad. In Spanish it’s called El Olvido Que Seremos and it’s a memoir written by Hector Abad who’s a journalist. And it’s about his father who was a doctor in Medellín during the ’80s, and he was actually killed by paramilitaries.
It’s a very heartbreaking, moving story about his father who tried to make the world a better place or make Colombia a better place but was eventually killed for his social work as a doctor. It’s been made into a Netflix series, which is out, I think, but I’m not sure it’s in all the Netflix all around the world. So, that’s a very good book I think, to read and probably check out the series as well, which I haven’t seen yet.
The second one is called One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis, who’s a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist and has done a lot of work in Colombia identifying plants in the Amazon. His professor was Richard Evans Schultes who spent a long time in the Amazon.
In the book, it’s a dual narrative or a dual biography of what his mentor Richard Evans Schultes has done, and then what he’s now doing in Colombia. And they looked at hallucinogenics and medicinal uses of plants. It’s a good way to get in touch with the indigenous side of Colombia.
Another one is a fiction novel by a Colombian author called Juan Gabriel Vásquez, but there’s an English translation, the novel’s called The Sound of Things Falling. It’s a noir novel about the Colombian drug trade in the ’90s. It involves a law lecturer who’s looking into seedier side of Bogotá and who’s investigating a friend’s murder. And it shows his family and the connection to that murder and how, you know, the early ’90s and late ’80s of Colombia really affected a lot of people in the country.
And probably the last one I would say is another, kind of, nonfiction book called My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind by Silvana Paternostro. And that’s, again, a memoir about her as a journalist leaving Colombia to study in the U.S., and she went through all of the wars in the ’80s in Central America and then later came back to Colombia and looked at Colombia, having lived outside the country, but also as being from the country and looking at that period of the late ’80s and early ’90s where there was a lot of conflict.
And so, they’re probably the four I’d recommend. And also, if I can throw in a cheeky podcast, ‘The Colombian Calling Podcast‘ is also a very good podcast I listen to for all things Colombia. It’s run by Richard McColl who’s a journalist and writer in Colombia. He interviews a whole range of people that have to do something with Colombia. So, I’d also recommend that.
Jo Frances Penn: Brilliant.
Where can people find you and your book and everything you do online?
Lachlan Page: I’ve got a website. So, lachlanpageauthor.com is the best way to go directly there. My book’s called Magical Disinformation so if you type ‘Magical Disinformation’ into Google, it should pop up with all the places you can find it, all the bookstores and online bookstores where it’s available.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Lachlan. That was great.
Lachlan Page: Thanks, Jo. Pleasure.