It’s been more than three decades since Tim Hudson bounced across this country’s back roads in an old Bluebird bus and ended up in the historic coastal town of Cartagena Colombia.
Recently while riding in a much nicer bus and rounding the bend of the “old city” banked by colonial-era, stone-fortified walls, Hudson saw something he didn’t recognize — a new part of the city built in the last decade, with high-rises and condos that service the booming tourism industry.
“None of that was here before,” he said.
Hudson returned to Colombia as part of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a Defense Department outreach program that exposes business and community leaders to the U.S. military around the world. Participants spent the week touring a handful of countries in the U.S. Southern Command area of operations.
Now the president of the University of Houston-Victoria, in Victoria, Texas, Hudson first traveled to Colombia when he was 21 years old after finishing his undergraduate degree in history. After college, he said, he and a few buddies decided to head there to learn Spanish. They met some local people their age and decided to ditch the classroom Spanish lessons, choosing instead to travel the countryside, going town to town learning the language “sobre la mesa” and “en la calle,” or on the table and in the street, he said.
With a rucksack carrying a change of clothes and a few dollars stuck in their shoes, Hudson and his friends boarded rickety old buses that took them across the diverse countryside he grew to love.
“We were riding on these old buses,” Hudson said, “so we didn’t really have control over our itinerary, and it would take the long route over the mountains and zigzag roads, and I saw things that I really wasn’t expecting to see — all sorts of species of birds and animals, changes in geography in short distances from the ocean to the snow-capped mountains. The array of landscapes here is really spectacular.”
Hudson said he didn’t worry too much about his safety traveling then.
“I guess I was just too young to be scared,” he said. “I remember being scared I would run out of money, scared I’d run out of water, scared I wouldn’t get to a place that I really wanted to see, but not frightened for any other reason.”
Hudson and his buddies spent about 10 days in the northern coastal town.
They walked on the beach, took rides on the fishing boats, did some shrimping, hung out in the plaza and talked with the local people. They lived in a small room on the beach, with a ceiling fan spinning off-rhythm and a bathroom that didn’t function all the time.
“It’s such a wonderful place. At that time you could get a little beachside room very inexpensively. [It is a] fantastic, beautiful part of Colombia,” he said.
Today he toured the Colombian naval base and coast guard headquarters here. He stepped on the wooden deck of the historic sailing ship “Gloria,” the Colombian navy flagship that serves as the first training ship for Colombian sailors.
Along with the other 47 JCOC participants, Hudson also toured a modern warship that was docked where the group was given a demonstration of the high-speed “Midnight Express” patrol boats used to chase down narcoterrorists. The majority of the Colombian navy’s ships are gunboats used for patrolling the country’s rivers and coastlines.
Hudson said his trip to Colombia after college catapulted him into a career in international relations. He returned to the United States to earn a doctorate in geography and later worked for the U.S. State Department, where he “used the heck out of” his Spanish.
“It just really transformed my world view in a way that was very positive, because I met so many wonderful people,” he said. “Seeing it, smelling it, tasting it, meeting the people in all these small communities in Colombia, a place with just spectacular geography, made me realize I wanted a career and a life in international affairs.”
He has since traveled to 60 different countries, but this region remains among his favorites, he said.
“Colombia is full of wonderful people who are very smart, very giving, very open. They have a wonderful view of life,” Hudson said. “People always say, ‘What’s your favorite place?’ I say that’s not the right question, because it’s all about the people in that place.”
Hudson said he came on the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference because he is curious about the role the U.S. military is going to play going forward in the broad sweep of U.S. foreign relations.
“I know a lot about it in the past — the good, bad and indifferent. But I’m really curious about what that role is going to look like in the 50 years ahead of us when we genuinely live in a globalized economy,” he said. “I came to learn about how people are thinking about their interactions with other parts of the world. I’m really gaining a lot of insight into that.”
Hudson said he believes the support here by the U.S. military is good for both countries in the long run.
“From what I’ve seen, I think that’s a very positive relationship and probably a win-win. It’s good for both parities, good for both countries to develop the trust relationships to work together on what is essentially a mutual problem,” he said.
Besides the tours, briefings and equipment Hudson has seen on the trip, he also has had the opportunity to talk to the young Colombian soldiers.
“I think they genuinely appreciate the training, the equipment and the ability to really get on top of [the drug trafficking problem] they feel has done Colombia a disservice as a country and marked them in a way that’s inappropriate for what this place really is,” Hudson said.
Hudson also was able to talk with some businessmen who are seeing a different side of Colombia as a land of opportunity, a place that’s going to continue to improve, and a country where investment is worthwhile.
“To me that’s all positive, particularly if it leads to social development,” he said.
During his stop Hudson made time to sit on the steps of an old church he remembered from his travels to feed the pigeons alongside a small local child. He struck up a conversation with a woman who was selling silver in the old town square.
The downtown is a little cleaner, he recalled, maybe a little more modernized. Some of the old buildings have been restored.
But, he said, what he remembers most has not changed.
“The people are the same — fantastic people [who are] just so easy to talk to, [with a] wonderful, kind of view of life and the world. That is pure Colombia, and that hasn’t changed. Thank goodness,” he said.