Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bogota and Growing Up with Pablo Escobar

Santa Fe de Bogota gets a bad rap. I only heard the negatives before arriving: dangerous, dirty, polluted, cold and dreary. Some travelers avoid the capital entirely, never stepping out of the airport while en route to Medellin or Cartegena. That’s a shame. Bogota might not have the romantic architecture of Buenos Aires, the dilapidated charm of Montevideo, or the sunny clime of Santiago, but if I were to choose a place to live among the South American capitals I have visited, I'd take Bogota in a heartbeat. I'd be pressed to think of a major city abroad I'd rather spend the next few years. And with half my reason for returning home having just evaporated, I've added the real estate section of El Tiempo to my daily reading list.

Bogota is a city, like the country as a whole, clearly on the upswing. The mayor and police force have made great strides in security, and anywhere of interest to a foreigner is perfectly safe in daylight hours. The cabs are a cheap and safe means to access the vibrant nightlife. And Bogota has a strong cosmopolitan current, more of a San Francisco chic than the Miami vibe of Cali and Medellin. The student population and twenty-somethings tend to have an artistic and intellectual aesthetic which I find much preferable to the plastic and silicon set that dominates the other major cities here (and a good portion of Latin America for that matter).

I stayed in the neighborhood La Candelaria, the expansive colonial old town nestled at the base of the mountains towering over the city center. La Candelaria has been sufficiently spared the 20th century: narrow cobbled streets, many of which are closed to traffic, and bright colonial facades representing distinct colonial styles from across the country. This motley array rivals the beauty of the (tiny by comparison) San Telmo district in Buenos Aires, and without the sense that it has been preserved for the sake of the tourists. The museums, led by arguably the best gold museum in the world, are outstanding. Colombia pays a great deal of respect to its artists and writers, and many of their homes have been preserved as monuments to their work and times. Even better, all the sights can be taken in peace as the crowds of camera wielding tourists have yet to flock here.

Even the hostel was outstanding. On a hill that overlooks the museums and government buildings, Hostel Anandamayi is set around two large garden courtyards strung with hammocks and with an even larger garden in the rear of the building. The 8 bed dorm room I shared with two other travelers was in a cavernous room with clean hardwood floors and a fireplace that we put to use on account of the freezing alpine nights. In the evenings I pulled a comfy leather reading chair up to the fire and caught up on the books I've lugging halfway around the country: The Poet of Tolstoy Park and then Under the Volcano. The Confessions of Nat Turner is next on my list.

I assumed the new guest in the hostel on my second to last night, blonde haired and blued eyed, was European. In the standard traveler’s greeting, I asked him where he was from, and was incredulous when he replied Colombia. He explained his mother was German, but he had been born and grown up in Medellin. After a short conversation about my travels, Roman transformed into a self appointed ambassador for his country. He swung around his laptop and started showing me hundreds of pictures from the countryside and the heterogeneous citizens of Colombia. He was full of travel advice and potential itineraries. More fascinating were his stories about his childhood in Medellin.

For the past 5 years tourists have begun to trickle into Colombia past the quick visit Cartagena, though a bleach blonde Scandinavian or a dreadlocked whitey-Rastafarian will still draw stares in the smaller cities and towns. When Roman was a child in Medellin 25 years ago his European genes drew bewilderment about town. He remembers times when old ladies would crowd around him to touch his hair and look at his eyes up close. Sometimes older boys would challenge him on the street. It wasn't until he opened his mouth to speak that they realized he was a native paisa. Quite the opposite of my experiences here; I’m assumed to be Colombian until my Yanqui twanged Spanish droops from my tongue.

Now 34 years old, Roman´s childhood coincided with the wild-west Mafia years in Medellin. Assassinations, bombings and kidnappings were so commonplace that everyone had a story about a friend or relative, or even their own experiences with the urban Mafia and the guerilla groups dominant in the countryside. Roman recalled the first time it angered him. For ages the violence had been reduced to small talk at friend and family gatherings. One evening he realized that this was because they had come to accept that the violence as commonplace as the eternal springtime weather.

Still, not until Roman attended University in Berlin did he realize what a special childhood he had lived. People were fascinated that he came from a place with such mystique. His birthplace made him more exotic in Germany than his coloring had made him in Colombia. He quickly tired of the typical first encounter in Germany. He would first be asked if he had any cocaine, second if he had ever seen Pablo Escobar.

Of course he had seen Pablo Escobar. Everyone in Medellin saw Escobar because Escobar was everywhere. In the 1980's Pablo Escobar was the de facto mayor of Medellin. Roman remembers one time going to the shopping center with his mom and seeing Pablo seated under a small tent in the parking lot behind a table stacked with bricks of money. A line wrapped several times around the center of people waiting to shake Escobar's hand and receive a hundred dollars or so from his cash mountain. Another time Roman remembers passing through a road block set up by Escobar’s men on the outskirts of town. Heavily armed henchmen were checking all the cars while Escobar sat in the backseat of his Bentley. If the thugs didn't like someone, they yanked him out of his car and into the woods.

I asked Roman if the violence ever made his parents worry about raising their children in Medellin. Yes, there was one evening, Roman remembered, when a nearby explosion shattered all of the windows in their apartment. That night his parents said, “enough, tomorrow we will get plane tickets out of here."

The next morning came and his parents shrugged. Just another cartel bombing, only the windows had been broken. So they cleaned up the glass and went about their day.

His parents couldn’t leave Medellin for they had fallen in love with the country. Neither of them were born Colombians. Roman's father is from Chile and was working in Frankfurt when he met Roman’s mother. They decided they wanted to live together in Chile, though right around the time of their move Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, and given his father’s family alliances, they decided it was unsafe to return. So they chose Colombia instead. By the time the terror of the 80´s was in full swing, they had been living in Medellin for nearly 15 years and it would have been prohibitively expensive to buy their way back into the German health system. Though Roman believes that last bit was just an excuse. The real reason for staying was that they couldn’t just up and leave the family and friends they had acquired over the years, and they were truly happy despite the very real risks of the times. His parents, like Roman, are nature lovers and Colombia is one the most beautiful and climatically varied places on earth, an outdoorsman’s paradise.

After five years in Germany, Roman came to a similar conclusion that his parents had made and decided it was time to move back home.

"In Germany, I had some close friends, and Berlin was great, but there were a lot times I found myself lonely," he said. "In Colombia, I am never lonely. That's what is so cool about Colombia. You can’t be lonely here."

Roman is proud to be Colombian and loves his country. He is a believer in President Uribe. Five years ago he couldn't have made the trip from Medellin to Bogota by car. Now he and his friends travel anywhere in the country, even the remote and long isolated Pacific coast towns inhabited by the descendants of runaway slaves.

Roman is in the overwhelming majority of the eighty percent of Colombians who support Uribe. His legacy is truly remarkable. Before his reforms, many Colombians feared the army as much as the rebels and drug traffickers. Corruption was rife, and it was nearly impossible to travel without doling bribes to soldiers who did little to make the journey safer. Most of the army recruits were young men who hadn't finished grammar school. Their lack of education, coupled with what seemed a hopeless fight against rebel outfits flush with cocaine dollars, left them undependable at best and at worst a danger to the people they were supposed to be fighting for. Now there are strict educational requirements for entering the army, and soldiers attend many hours of additional education and seminars. Uribe's platform focused on the elimination of corruption in the armed forces and the government, a never ending struggle and one rarely achieved by a politician. Uribe has delivered on his promises. Reduced corruption has paid clear dividends in everyday security and economic vitality.

The change in the military alone is amazing. Soldiers are friendly and helpful and do their jobs with efficiency. The majority now see the army as a force for the good of the country. As recently as five years ago, when soldiers used stop to check a vehicle they would start taking apart the car piece by piece until offered a bribe. Now soldiers only check documentation and make an honest search for weapons. I've been searched for weapons, along with all the other male passengers, twice a day on average when traveling. It's a quick procedure. We file out of the bus. They search our bags and pat us down. We’re back on the road inside of five minutes.

"Sometimes I’ll give them 10,000 pesos (5 USD) for beer money because I am happy to see the change," Roman said.

Roman sees the guerilla conflict as intractable. There is just too much money in the cocaine trade to ever truly weaken the rebels. And he laments the lost promise of Plan Colombia. Originally, Plan Colombia was designed as a multi-national aid scheme to improve rural transportation links and provide crop subsidies to poor farmers willing to make the switch from coca to other crops. Unfortunately, though the Bush Administration has promised billions for Plan Colombia, the aid is conditional, and the bulk of it is allocated to obliged military acquisitions. US aid also come with mandates for controversial fumigation of the countryside and the portion remaining for agriculture requires the purchase of expensive herbicides and non-regenerative seeds from Monsanto and other US based agricultural firms. It’s similar to Vietnam; no amount of herbicide/napalm is going suppress the cocaine trade and the billions that flow to rogue groups inside and outside of the government. Short of outright drug legalization in consuming and producing countries, it is unlikely we will see an end to the evils of the cocaine trade.

Problems aside, Roman articulates the same sense I got when making plans for this trip--that after decades of turmoil Colombia is a place truly on the make. Problems remain, but the world is taking notice and offering a hand. And the beauty and warmth of the people here will not be a secret for long.

Roman is an articulate advocate for his country. If he’s not already drawing salary from the Ministry of Tourism, he should be. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, January 24, 2008

San Agustin- Casa François

I have been in Bogota a week now and about the only negative here is the shabby internet cafes. I might have to wait till I get back home to finish posting my Colombian entries. I left off last week promising the story of Francois, owner of a idyllic guesthouse on a hilltop overlooking San Agustin.

One of the many benefits of the improved security situation in Colombia is that San Agustin and its enigmatic monuments are once again accessible to the greater public. Though less than 100km from the white walled colonial town of Popayan, it is a tortuous six hour bus ride over the mountains on rough dirt roads. It had rained the day before I departed, so the trip was seven hours through the mud.

I was treated to a typical South American journey. The dirty short bus that gasped and shuddered up to the terminal an hour and a half late was already full, a peasant in every seat and the aisles stacked with sacks of various goods. Two bird cages, also occupied, were resting precariously on the dry goods just behind the driver. It did not appear there was room for me or the Swiss woman who also had a ticket in hand for the 7am, now 8:30 bus. There was no way I was willing to risk a later departure; it is still not safe to travel after sunset. The ticket agent squeezed the Swiss woman in between the driver and a passenger riding shot gun, and I was offered a sack of corn where I was ear level with the parrots.

Still, I was glad I had taken the second bus of the morning. Two hours into the trip we passed the 6am bus broken down in the middle of the road on a steep and muddy incline. A couple hours later the rain started and before long we reached our first impasse. All the men on board, myself included, got out and helped another bus in front of us that was stuck in a mud hole. We dug up large rocks from the shoulder and threw them into the stretch of mud-bog until there was a sufficient bridge for the vehicles to pass.

The ride was worth it. San Agustin is one of the most spectacular sites in Colombia. The town is set in a hollow one rise of hills away from a gorge containing the headwaters of the Magdalena River, Colombia´s longest running almost a thousand miles north before emptying into the Caribbean near Cartagena. Several hundred shades of green make up the hills and gorges dropping off into the river. At scattered sites around the town lie the remains of a people that disappeared around the time the Spaniards first planted their flag on South American soil. Little in known about these people, though archeologists suppose that the statues left behind can be attributed to several different pre-Columbian groups. The hundreds of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic stone monuments sprinkled over the hills are thought to be funeral markers.

San Agustin is the kind of place one could linger for some time. This is exactly what Francois decided. He came to San Agustin seven years ago, long before a tourist footprint existed in the town due to the FARC control of the area. Francois had previously been living in Nicaragua, and did not consider the rebel army much of a threat. So he dropped his backpack and opened what quickly became the town's most popular bar. In time he earned the money to purchase a dilapidated farmhouse.

On the afternoon he went into town to settle his deed, there were three men waiting for him on the bank´s front porch. One of the men greeted him and asked if he`d care to join him for a drink. They directed him to a jeep, blindfolded him, and headed off on one of the bumpy roads winding into the hills.

Francois admits he was little nervous in the back of the jeep, though not panicked. The local commander of the FARC had visited his bar and by word of mouth Francois had gathered that he had liked it. Maybe this would count for something, he thought, as he was led out of the jeep and into a farmhouse. His escorts helped him to sit in a chair, and then undid his blindfold. He found himself seated before a spread of juices, cakes and other sweets. A group of soldiers sat around him at the table. One of the soldiers he recognized as the commander, who said,

"We want nothing from you only that you know that we exist."

Though he crossed paths with guerrillas several times while hiking in the mountains, he never once was hassled after his welcoming party to the region.

With seven years of construction experience in France, Francois set to transforming his crumbling homestead into a comfortable home and guesthouse. With knowledge of carpentry, masonry, and electricity, he did most of work himself, only slowed by the time he needed to purchase materials. And the materials are eclectic. He added a second story to the farmhouse with a guadua frame, the largest variety in the bamboo family. In the masonry of the enlarged kitchen and extra guestrooms, he added all sorts of recyclables to the stucco additions. The glass bottles he inserted into the kitchen wall add colorful light during the day, and various plastic objects can be found throughout the main house and the guest rooms. A cabana stuck on ten foot high guadua stilts is the four bed backpackers´ dorm. The room has thirteen sides, producing a round room with five pairs of large wooden shutters and a double door opening out to vistas of undulating hills and mountains.

I arrived to Casa Francois at sundown. By luck the Swiss woman was a old friend of Francois and convinced me to climb the hill and have a look at his place. The other inhabitants of the cabana, a guy from Norway and another from Canada, were rolling their evening joints while staring out into the darkening landscape. I settled into a hammock on the porch and appreciated the quiet. The parrots had squawked in my ears the entire ride from Popayan.

I spent three days hiking trails to the monument sites. The most spectacular of the lot were carvings made directly into the rock face of a gorge that bottomed out into the Magdalena. Four waterfalls were visible along the opposite wall of green and impossibly steep fields of coffee bushes.

I would have stayed much longer than I did if it hadn´t been for a resident kitten who had lathered the beds and blankets with her dander. I got very little sleep, sneezing the night away on my hilltop paradise. This was probably for the best. I saw most of the major archeological sites, and my bunkmates were so stoned for the duration of my stay that they had little to contribute in conversation.

So I caught a 5am bus to Bogota, a twelve hour trip through the mountains and then along the opening of the Magdalena Valley. We passed through the Tatacoa Desert one of the smallest by area in the world, an 80 square kilometer stretch of sand and scorpions where the sky is blue straight above though mountain-blocked clouds are visible in all directions on the horizon. Then the long creeping climb up into the high plateau of Santa Fe de Bogota. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, January 18, 2008

No Worries

The difficulty with posting on the road isn´t just the hassle of working with clunky computers I haven´t seen the likes of since college. With a lack of editing there is always the potenial that things don´t come out right. After my last post about uncle Hugo, I received several mails from people concerned about my security.

When I suggested that the FARC was intellectualy bankrupt, I did not mean to suggest they are now in the business of grabbing anyone they see with money off of the streets and holding them for ransom. Rich Colombians are a target of the FARC, foreign tourists are not. And there is a clear distinction from the FARC´s point of view. The FARC pursues persons it considers responsible parties for the political situation in Colombia. Almost all of their hostages are Colombians, and the few foreign nationals are also somehow involved in the country´s politics. The three Americans held by the FARC, for example, are likely CIA operatives, either field directors in the greater Plan Colombia, or intelligence types working to subvert the leftist groups still hiding out in the jungle.

And my lament for Chavez´ meddling was purely for Colombia´s sake. There is nothing that Hugo could do in the short term to change for me the security situation on the ground.

For the record, Colombia is and should continue to be a safe country to travel in. Now, if I told you I was heading to Caracas, well, then you could start worrying for my safety.

When I arrive to the big city this weekend, I will tell the story of François, a Frenchman (obviously) who decided to make his home in Colombia six years ago. His experiences here with the rebels will illustrate what little interest they have in foreign nationals. Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hugo the Clown

I remember looking up a word last January when giving my opinion of Chavez to my Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Clown: n. Payaso. Hugo the Clown can entertain; I have enjoyed some of his more puckish moments. Deriding George Bush as the devil before the stiff suits of United Nations General Assembly was classic. Even better was his assistance a few years back to poor Americans with the gift of cheap heating oil. There he stole a page from Eva Peron's guide to political theater. With thousands of her own citizens destitute, Evita showed up Washington by sending clothing and other supplies to poor children in the United States.

With the exception of Dr. Patch Adams, who gave an electrifying speech one October night at Wesleyan and then proceeded to a student lounge where he continued his happiness sermon well past midnight, clowns frighten the hell out of me. And Hugo is one dangerous clown. Chavez has Venezuela well down the road to economic collapse. Inflation is rampant, and Chavez willfully fritters his country's oil wealth by meddling anywhere in the Hemisphere that will lend his red beret air time. All the more tragic for a continent that in most quarters has emerged from decades of economic stagnation.

Though Chavez has initiated many projects for the poorest Venezuelans, most are myopic stopgaps. Hiring Cuban doctors to work the understaffed Venezuelan clinics might alleviate current suffering, yet by not investing resources into medical schools, hospitals, and other public infrastructure, these gains are only for the short term. Venezuela might be better off if Chavez kept away from serious policy initiatives altogether. His proposed education reform, a Bolivarian Education System, would mandate a Marxist (genuine Marxists would be insulted with the comparison) curriculum light on practical applications and heavy on Hugo worship. The initiative threatens to shut down any private school that resists a classroom centered love fest for the great leader.

Worse, Chavez poses a real threat beyond the Venezuelan border. In his most recent foray into foreign policy he has parleyed his leftist credentials to insert himself as an intermediary in the Colombia's conflict with the FARC. The headline negotiations had focused on the release of Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her son Emmanuel, born to a rebel father, three of the more than seven hundred hostages believed to be in FARC custody. Both Hugo and the FARC looked foolish when it turned out that they were not in possession of Emmanuel. FARC stalled, claiming security concerns, then the three year old boy turned up in an orphanage in Bogota.

After Clara and Consuelo's orchestrated release last week, Chavez revealed his hand. Yesterday he asked President Uribe and the Colombian government to stop classifying the FARC as a terrorist group and recognise it as an oppositional force with political ends.

What exactly are the FARCs political ends? Long ideologically bankrupt, the FARC has resorted to kidnapping and the cocaine trade merely to keep its soldiers afield. Not even the rank and file are fooled. When given the chance the men, women and children that comprise the stock of FARC forces often seek to desert their dead end cause.

Chavez clearly would like to use the FARC as another spearhead in his 'Bolivarian' insurgency. While he may have little credibility in many Colombian eyes, he does have a Leftist following and may yet sow tensions in a country weary of conflict. Meanwhile, six more Colombians were kidnapped Sunday while on holiday in a remote region of the Pacific coast. The guerrillas chose six out of the 19 tourists, and released the remainder. They selected their captives based on whom they felt had the most money for ransom. Ideological, in a fashion.

Stay tuned. Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A night in Cali. A day in Salento.

The locals I meet always want to know who I am travelling with. When I tell them I am travelling alone, eyebrows raise. The men usually say, "How Brave!"

The women ask, "But what does your mother think?"

There are hundreds, if not thousands of backpackers making similar treks through Colombia these days. The security situation has improved dramatically, and that is no longer a secret in the travelling community. With normal precautions anywhere but the most remote mountain trails or the sultry jungles along the Pacific coast and the Amazon Basin are under government control. This is not a limitation for me. I am not an alpinist, and I have no interest in hacking my way under a dense canopy shrouding a foreboding array of noxious vegetation, disease bearing insects and venomous reptiles. Nature is competition, and I have no illusions as to how I'd fare in nature´s big leagues. The only way I´d travel through the rainforest would be in a bulldozer, with air con.

I didn´t understand all the hype surrounding the Colombian cities I´d heard so much about in my research for this trip. In Medellin I spent my first couple of days wandering around the sites only impressed by the lovely spring-like weather. Most people don´t travel here to visit the museums. In Colombia, nightlife is the draw. And Colombian cities are transformed after dark. Medellin´s Zona Rosa doesn´t open its metal blinds until after dark. Poblado begins to bustle after 10 pm or so, when the patio restaurants fill up and the young and the rich crowd the sidewalks and pack the ubiquitous bars and discos. The students and starving artists bring their own booze and drink in the park squares within view of the action. In Cali, clubbing is the official pastime. The beautiful people throng into large halls of smoke and lasers and pounding bass lines. One club resembled the inside of an enormous space dome, everything in white, with no corners, throbbing lights, together created the illusion of an unending plane of gyrating bodies, bouncing silicon. The dancing continues into dawn (so I am told).

As much as I enjoyed the city spectacle, I have been more impressed with the Colombian countryside. I visited the small town of Salento, which save for the motorcycles and the odd car, is stuck in the 19th century. Town life is centered on the wide open Plaza, de Bolivar, or course, and there are vistas of green mountains in every direction. I was looking forward to my first full nights rest in the sleepy town. My hostel in Medellin was off a major thoroughfare whose motorists cranked a constant din through midnight and resumed their roar at 5 am. No cars to contend with here. Yet in Salento, it was even worse, I was bolt awake at 430 am when the roosters anticipated the dawn with their moronic shrieks. (My new Colombian friends seemed astounded that roosters had never before been a part of my morning ritual)

East of Salento stretches the Cocoro Valley which is said to have no parallel on earth. First imagine a fertile valley of Swiss pastureland, add dark green patches of tropical forest, and then sprinkle in the impossibly tall and slender wax palm, Colombia´s national tree, onto the open pasture that remains. Finally pour a thin shroud of mist and let it trickle down from hill tops.

I met a Colombian couple, Diego and Claudia, on the road through the valley. They asked me the usual questions and were astounded by solo trip. They complimented on my Spanish, which I got to practice without interruption as neither of them could speak a word of English. In Cocoro the three of us toured a fish farm that serves the Valley and beyond with sweet pink fleshed trout that we had for lunch just up the road from the farm. My fish was served in an iron skillet bubbling with a milky sauce of garlic and peppers. The fish was accompanied by plantain pounded into a thin sheet and fried golden brown. From the restaurant we took horses into a national park bordering the village. I would normally prefer walking, but heavy rain from the night before left the paths thick with mud. Besides, it was easier to contemplate the scenery when I wasn´t the one doing the walking.

Diego and Claudia were very excited about visiting Colombia´s two much hyped theme parks, both within an hour of Salento. They suggested I travel with them for the rest of the week. I had been planning to head on to Cali, but I wasn´t on a schedule and was looking forward to the opportunity both to see what Colombians do on their holiday and to practice Spanish intensively. So I agreed. The three of us met on the Plaza de Bolivar the next morning and caught a bus for Armenia, from where we´d catch a bus to the first of the two parks. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, January 4, 2008


Just a short note to let everyone who is interested enough to tune in know that I am safe and sound in Medellin. If only becasue the name Silicon Valley is already taken this place should be known as the Silicon Basin. The number of augmented chests could support a Hooters franchise on every other block in the city. The tallest building I saw on my first day of exploring was a hospital devoted exclusively to plastic surgery. Granted there is some surgical tourism that takes place here, but the majority of the young women in the massive registration hall appeared to be locals.

They call Medellin the city of eternal spring. The weather is beautiful, the surrounding hills verdant, and the ghost of Pablo Escobar has little to say in a metropolis that has made a dramatic turnaround from its days of cartel notoriety. The central plaza and an entire floor of the city museum are devoted to the corpulent sculptors and bright paintings of Paisas most celebrated son, Fernando Botero. The city also boasts Colombia´s first metro. The clean and convenient trains run on elevated tracks that afford excellent city views. Recycle bins can be found on many sidewalks which are noticeably cleaner than any I´ve been in Latin America--much cleaner than the sidewalks I tread in New Orleans earlier this week.

There might be a volunteer opportunity for me teaching English in the Bogota schools. The YMCA is the sponsor. I interviewed with their regional coordinator this afternoon. They would organize a homestay in exchange for my services. A much better way to work on my Spanish than another round of language classes. Click Here to Read More..