Colombia – known for its gold and emeralds, coffee, art – and drug industry. Its capital city of Bogotá, 4th highest elevation in the world, is the 3rd largest city in South American with a population of 7.2 million. Today’s Bogotá, despite a history of criminal activity, has seen an increase in visitors – and has become a magnet for international foodies.


Street crime is high in Bogotá, though local perception of insecurity ranges from 50% in the city’s gang-influenced south to 23% in its northern region. Over the past 20 years, Colombia has increased its security – though its current peace plan, backed by US, is in question; the nation also has an estimated 1.3 million refugees from Venezuela, with security issues near their shared border.


At Colombia’s deepest cultural roots are the ‘pueblos indigenas’. The pre-Columbian (pre-European) peoples, comprise 102 ethnic groups, 70 of which reside in the Amazonian region. Together, they number 1.4 million or 3.4% of the country’s population, with the Wayuu as the largest group. Their cultures are widely varied; they have suffered discrimination by the dominant culture throughout the centuries and are today represented by the Organización Nacional Indigena de Colombia [ONIC].


As with other South American countries, Colombia has a rich history with gold – both as a resource, strongly desired by the Spanish conquerors, and as a source for art as well as worship by early indigenous peoples. Gold artefacts provide much early cultural information, from the shamanistic religion to the warrior tradition and more.


The Muisca culture, which inspired the El Dorado myth of a land of gold, continues to this day as a cultural thread of Colombia. An especially advanced civilisation with an elaborate spiritual tradition, once with a territory of 25,000 km sq and a population upwards of 3 million, their descendants are present even today – though only an estimated 14k remain.


With the Spanish conquest of Colombia came Catholicism, and the country remains deeply Catholic to this day. Constitutional reform in 1991 granted religious freedom; while 70% are nominally Catholic, only 25% are practicing.


The Spanish occupation of Colombia remains the strongest cultural influence today: multi-active, family- and group-oriented, with a relaxed sense of time – and a legacy of a caste system. In addition, as with much of South America, following a tumultuous 20th century, liberation theology and liberation as well as leftist politics remain relevant. Indigenous cultural underpinnings are still seen in art, cuisine, and more.


Art and creative expression are highly valued in Colombian culture, stemming from indigenous peoples through the Spanish conquest and to modern times. Vast amounts of pre-Columbian visual art remain, along with an astonishing array of gold work as well as indigenous handcrafts. Today’s artists are also very well represented.




Lebanon, a civilisation more than 7000 years old, has been ruled by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and French, developing a unique culture influential in the region. In the 1960s known as a financial capital, its civil war (1975-90) ushered in instability and terrorism.


Beirut’s multicultural history can be seen at the al-Omari Grand Mosque, converted from a Byzantine church and built over Roman baths. Today Lebanon is 54% Muslim, 40% Christian – and 5.6% Druze, an esoteric tradition indigenous to the region.


The Ottoman influence can still be seen in Lebanon, under its rule for more than 400 years. Today, Lebanon and Turkey have a cool yet civil relationship, despite controversies regarding Israel, Iran, and Armenia.


Lebanon’s civil war included PLO attacks on Israel, an Israeli siege of Beirut, Syrian involvement, and occupation by a US/France/Italian force. As recently as 2005, a former prime minister was assassinated; another war occurred in 2006, with a series of conflicts through 2008 – and a collapse of government in 2011.


In the capital city of Lebanon, Beirut, associated with instability and destruction for decades, one can still see post-war ruins – in the midst of a strongly redeveloped city and high-end luxury. Lebanon has struggled to rebuild and regain a sense of stability, including a recent economic peak – now again in decline.


Beirut’s American University, founded in 1866, was ranked #1 in the region in 2018. An estimated 2/3 of all students attend private schools, and deficits in the public system have been noted by a recent Minister of Education. Literacy is 93.9% — ranking at 65th globally – and their once stellar reputation for academics is floundering.


The ongoing presence of Hezbollah, accompanied by a failing economy and flailing government, have brought about an increased unrest in the society. Recent demonstrations by protest groups, countered by acts of police brutality, indicate an overall insecurity among the country’s inhabitants.


The people of Lebanon are resolute; their complex and stoic culture, built over thousands of years and despite multiple occupations, has carried them through the exceedingly difficult past 5 decades. Recent suppression of free speech and activism, however, are worrisome.




Sweden, ranking among the top countries for quality of life, is defined by both Germanic and Nordic customs — with more than a dash of Russian influence. It is strongly oriented to the sea, nowhere more apparent than in Stockholm. Swedes tend toward secularism, egalitarianism, humility, and minimalism.


A constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, Sweden has fully integrated the so-called Nordic social welfare system. Its government maintains a high degree of transparency, and its citizens cite strong trust in same. King Carl XVI Gustaf is the ruling monarch, since 1973.


The 4 fundamental laws of Sweden further serve to define its culture: the Instrument of Government, the Act of Succession, the Freedom of the Press Act, and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. The country maintains a social democratic system domestically and a doctrine of neutrality internationally — and hasn’t been involved in a war since 1814.


Despite Sweden’s recent history of neutrality, egalitarianism, and humility, the country’s roots are anything but — as the Swedish Viking Age lasted for well over 3 centuries, and must be considered as one of its cultural underpinnings. Seafarers with a sense of their place in the world, Swedes tend to balance the modern humility with a deeply rooted self-confidence.


Secularism was adopted by Protestant Sweden in the 19th century — though until 1860 it was still illegal for citizens to convert from Lutheranism, and the Church of Sweden wasn’t disestablished until 2000. Prior to the 11th century, the traditional Norse religious beliefs were still followed — and a shamanistic tradition kept until the 17th-18th centuries by the indigenous Sami.


The Sami, indigenous of Sweden as well as surrounding countries, predate the influence of Swedes and other Nordic peoples and as such represent the country’s deepest cultural roots. Long oppressed by the now dominant culture, with only 10% still living as reindeer herders in Sweden’s arctic region, the nomadic Sami nevertheless recently (2016) won a 30-year battle with the government over hunting and fishing rights.


More than 85% of Sweden’s population today live in cities — nearly 1 million in Stockholm — though less than 3% of the total land is developed and nature is held in high regard, including a wealth of environmental technology industries. The population is young and diverse: 15% of its 10 million inhabitants were born outside of the country, and 20% are minors.


Sweden, for all its liberalism and egalitarianism, has also struggled with fascist groups — notably, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement [NMR]. In 2018, the group campaigned in the national election for the first time; in May of this year, a neo-Nazi march was attacked by counter- demonstrators. This extremist movement appears to be gaining in strength, bringing into question the model of “the good Swede” — and what it means to be Swedish.




Moldova, the least visited European country with the poorest economy per capita and lowest Human Development Index, remains somewhat of a mystery to the modern world. This former principality was annexed to the Russian Empire and ultimately made a Soviet satellite, since 1991 a parliamentary republic — with a neutral status yet ambiguous relationship to both EU/NATO and Russia/CIS today.


In Moldova, 93.3% of the population identify as Orthodox Christian; due to the country’s complicated history, both Russian and Romanian Orthodoxy lay claim as the national church. There is, however, no state religion, with freedom regarding same constitutionally guaranteed. In practice, more than 58% attend church infrequently and another 10% not at all — though 80% claim a high degree of trust in the religious institution.


Moldovans suffered terribly in the Soviet era, with routine deportations to Eastern Siberia as well as arrests and executions, a major drought and export policy-induced famine, and more. The Soviets also established a “Moldovan” identity separate from that of Romanian. A movement for democracy began in 1980s, with independence by 1991; the eastern area of Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova at the same time, though unrecognized as such to this day.


Soviet mass deportations of Moldovans to Siberia, in 1941, 1942, and 1951, resulted in more than 100,000 deaths. Deemed “enemies of the state” and sent for “re-education,” these purges included political and religious figures, academics and other intellectuals, entrepreneurs — and countless children. Considered an “open wound” still today, an annual commemoration takes place each July.


The Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine had a devastating effect also on neighboring Moldova — so much so, that more than 30 years later many are still struggling with its consequences. More than 80% of the country was contaminated; 672 died from involvement in the liquidation process, while more than 2500 became disabled. The health impact is expected to continue for several decades.


Moldova today is slowly becoming a tourist destination, for its wine production and natural scenery. Though the nation is highest in Europe for alcohol consumption and related disease, and until recently ranked globally as “unhappiest,” things are beginning to improve. Economic and banking upturns were seen in 2018; a change of government in June of this year has resulted in the introduction of reforms: reinforcing democracy and rule of law, decreasing corruption, and addressing human rights concerns.


Moldova has a long cultural tradition, overlapping with that of Romania, and including the full range of the arts. Fine arts, performance, folklore, and especially literature are well represented. A rich heritage includes archaeological sites, monasteries and churches, fortresses, dwellings and artifacts, from as far back as the Paleolothic Era; the people’s rootedness and self-expression run very deep indeed.




Kosovo is a tiny landlocked country in Europe’s Balkan region, in an area inhabited by humans for 10,000 years; earliest cultures in this area include Starcevo and Vinca. The area was occupied by Romans, then by Slavic migration, an identity predominant today; other major influences have included Bulgarian Empire, Byzantines, Ottoman rule, and Yugoslavia — first kingdom, then Communist, and Serbia.


The statehood of Kosovo is denied by Serbia, which lays claim to the area; Kosovo first declared its independence in 1990, and fought a bloody war with Serbia for more than a year (1998-99), finally declaring full independence only in 2008. To date, 112 UN states recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, including all Balkan states except Serbia; another 11 have withdrawn their initial support.


The people of Kosovo are typically seen as a mix of Albanian, Ottoman, Romance, and Slavic cultures. While more than 95% identify as Muslim, the society is secularised and freedom of religious belief — including the absence thereof — constitutionally protected. Kosovo ranks 1st in Southern Europe and 9th globally for its religious tolerance.


The war for independence, fought a mere 20 years ago (1998-99), remains very much in the social consciousness. This one is dedicated to all those who went missing during that time — an estimated 1600, still unaccounted for. Earlier this year, an exchange of remains was pledged between Belgrade and Pristina — though with little action thus far.


The Heroinat Memorial may be Pristina’s most poignant remembrance of its war victims. A powerful tribute to women who were subjected to rape as a war crime, it is made of 20,000 pins — the estimated number of women victimised. Many women fought in the war, more in the resistance movement. Like all such memorials, this provides a public space of mourning and tribute.


The Mother Teresa Society established support services in Kosovo as of 1990, in the period leading up to and including the war for independence. Interestingly, in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, a Mother Teresa cathedral was built in 2007 and finally consecrated in 2017. Only 2% of the population is actually Roman Catholic.


Daily life in Pristina and elsewhere in Kosovo keeps to its traditions even as it continues to modernise, as seen in its street markets. Here the men are seen working side-by-side with the women, the market typically situated near a mosque — both at the centre of village life. Gender roles remain more traditional, however; women have the right to work, vote, and own property — but still own less than 10% of businesses.


The now defunct Christ the Saviour Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pristina serves as a visual reminder that the conflict between Kosovo and its former overlord is far from resolved even now. NATO actions in support of Kosovo during its independence war have been questioned; Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty. Last year, an ethnic-Serbian politician in Kosovo was murdered; Serbia blocked Kosovo’s entry into Interpol, after which the latter raised tariffs of the former. Peace talks were resumed this year — though without progress. And so the conflict continues.