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.


Angélica Figueroa Rueda said...

Hi William.

My name is Maria Angelica, im a journalism student in the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota. I just read your trips journals and i must say I'm quite impressed, you are really travelling and getting to know my country; best part it's the way you descrive it, so meticulous.
I'm doing a research for a radio show in my universitys radio station (91.9fm Javeriana stereo), and i was wondering if u would like to give me a little interview about your experiences in La Candelaria, especificly in the hostel Anadamayi; the subject of my reportage is foreings apreciatons of bogota's under worlds-night life.
i wish u could help me, it doesn't matter If ur not in town anymore, there are phones and e-mails : )

what do you say? I'll wait for ur answer.

Many thanks

Maria Angelica Figueroa Rueda

Angélica Figueroa Rueda said...

oh! by the way: my emails:

Hope I hear from you very soon ; )