On the surface, you might not think Colombia and Northern Ireland have all that much in common, but after a chat with writer and former lawyer, Caroline Doherty de Novoa, it sounds like there are many similarities between the two, after all. According to Caroline, some of the landscapes are pretty alike, local grannies are known to whip up very similar dishes and neither Colombians nor the Irish need much convincing to have a good time. Caroline and her partner, Juan, have been calling Bogota home for years and it’s such a pleasure to feature her on the blog today, to chat all things Colombia, what it’s like being an expat and ways to make an impact in Colombia while calling the country home.
Name: Caroline Doherty de Novoa
Country/city of origin: Strabane, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland
Where in Colombia do you live? Bogotá
How did you end up living in Colombia?
I met my Colombian husband in 2004 in Madrid. After leaving Spain, Juan and I lived in London for several years where I worked as a lawyer. In 2013, we decided it was time for a change. We weren’t sick of London—far from it. I still believe it is one of the best cities in the world. But we wanted to shake our lives up a bit. So we decided to move to Bogotá. For Juan, it was a chance to spend time with his family after so many years living in Europe and to give something back to his country by working in entrepreneurship. For me, it was a chance to get to know his home and to spend time following one of my passions, which is writing. It was supposed to be a yearlong sabbatical. But, as is often the way in Colombia, we ended up staying longer than we’d originally planned.
What was your first impression of Colombia?
I first came to Colombia in 2005 for six weeks with Juan. We managed to see a fair bit in that time…the charming Villa de Leyva, the thermal waters in Paipa, the city of Medellin and the old rural towns of Antioquia. I loved all of those trips. Although nothing, not even years of living in Spain, had prepared me for the beauty and romance of Cartagena’s old town. It may be because Juan proposed on the city walls, but it is still one of my favourite places on the planet.
The only place that didn’t bowl me over was Bogotá. Over the following years, we returned nearly fifteen times to visit family. But it wasn’t until we’d been living here for a few months, and I was able to scratch underneath the surface, that I started to like the city. Bogotá is a great place to live, but it’s not the kind of city that you fall in love with at first sight. You have to put in some effort before it will reveal itself to you. And that’s now one of the things that I love about Bogotá—that there is a hidden life and charm to the city that only those who commit to her get to enjoy.
You are the author of the novel Dancing with Statues and one of the editors and contributors to Was Gabo an Irishman? both which explore uniquely Colombian and Irish elements. Are there many similarities between Colombia and Ireland for you? What are they?
Colombians and the Irish have a lot in common—the way they can laugh at absolutely everything, nothing is too sacred—the way they can speak, at length and with great passion, about any topic at all—their joie de vivre, Colombians will dance at the drop of a hat with the same ease that the Irish will start singing.
Both countries have, obviously, had their difficulties. Like Colombia, Northern Ireland had a bad reputation for many years. So I am proud that Northern Ireland is now one of the models of success that Colombia is looking to as it goes through its own peace process.
And the similarities do not end there. The landscapes of the Bogotá Savanna are very reminiscent of Ireland, as is the ever-present rain in this part of the country. And the hearty stews filled with meat and potatoes that are typical of this region aren’t too different from something an Irish granny would make you.
Colombia is the main protagonist (and some would say antagonist) in the book Was Gabo an Irishman? But my story, which lends its name to the title, is also about Ireland. Like most Irish writers who live abroad, I take myself home in my writing time and time again. And if that doesn’t work, a drive out to the countryside just outside of Bogotá will also do the trick.
What would you consider to be one of your greatest successes while living in Colombia?
I helped the Colombian pro bono foundation obtain funding to hire another full time lawyer. This, in turn, has allowed them to help many more people obtain access to justice—people who would otherwise have gone unrepresented. In a country like Colombia, that has such a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, improving access to justice is one of the key ways to level the playing field. When you read the Foundation’s success stories—for example helping a family of limited means bring a case against the Government health provider to ensure their two-year-old daughter got the life-saving medical treatment that the Government was refusing to provide—you realize the impact lawyers can make if they choose to spend even a few hours a month working on a pro bono basis. To learn more about the Foundation, see probono.org.co.
What’s the best way to make friends in Bogota?
At first, go to as many networking events as possible. You can find out about them on Facebook, Internations, Twitter etc. Join clubs or take classes. And then follow-up with the people you connect with. Don’t be embarrassed about inviting someone you just met out for a coffee. Colombians are, in general, very eager to make foreigners feel welcome in their country. And ex-parts are either in the same boat as you or remember what it was like when they were trying to make friends, and so will, again, be very happy to help you out.
Where does inspiration usually strike you in Bogota?
The same place it does everywhere else—when I am out walking or running. I came up with the idea for my next novel whilst running around Cheltenham. And the idea to produce an anthology of creative non-fiction by writers living in Colombia, seen through the lens of García Márquez’s work, struck me whilst running through the leafy streets of the Zona G in Bogotá one bright morning.
It is for this reason that I try to walk everywhere I can—even in Bogotá where people are constantly cautioning you not to. You will often find me power-walking up and down Bogotá’s Avenues, sun-glasses on, umbrella in hand, my mind off in some other place making up stories.
What’s your favourite plato tipico in Colombia?
Changua—a soup made of eggs, milk, cilantro and onion, with big chunks of bread floating in it. I know I haven’t sold it well with that description. But, trust me, it’s delicious.
What’s your favourite arepa topping?
I’m not sure I have a favourite topping but my two favourite arepas are arepa e huevo and arepa de choclo. If I’m honest, they are the only arepas I actually like! I am hoping to learn how to make arepa e huevo before I leave Colombia…although I am told it is not easy!
What’s the most challenging aspect of living in Colombia?
The prevalence of Reggaeton. If you have been lucky enough not to be exposed to it, but are curious to know what it’s all about, then I invite you to google “El Serrucho” by Mr. Black. Now imagine spending a weekend in a beautiful Coastal city and hearing that everywhere you turn.
Do you have some advice to give any aspiring writers in Bogota?
I have tonnes of advice for aspiring writers. But I won’t repeat it here as most of it I’m sure I’ve stolen from much greater writers. However, for those living in Bogotá specifically, I’d tell them to get in touch with the Bogotá tribe. The city is home to lots of writers, many of whom feature in Was Gabo an Irishman? and they make up a very welcoming and supportive community. You can find them and other like minded Bogotá based writers on Twitter or via their blogs. Spending time with other writers can be inspiring.
Also, if you speak Spanish, then there are lots of writing workshops to attend. Carlos Castillo Quintero runs workshops on all sorts of things from creating interesting characters to structuring a short story. Writing is a craft. Like any craft, I believe you have to take yourself seriously as a writer, study it and practice it.
Do you have anything super exciting coming up? And how can people find out more about it?
I am proud to be part of the Bogotá Writers—a writing collective of several Colombians and a few ex-pats, all of whom write fiction in English. For the past year, we have been working on collection called Voices of Bogotá. The book contains 16 short stories, all based in Bogotá. The book will be published in the second half of 2015. You can find out more details at www.bogotawriters.com
I am also finalizing my second novel, which will be out early next year. You can find out more about that at www.carolinedohertydenovoa.com.
Huge thank you to Caroline, be sure to head over to her website and say hi! Do you know any expats and locals doing amazing things in Colombia? Be sure to get in touch!