Tuesday, January 27, 2009

People Watching

I promised myself I would not write about politics on this trip. But it´s hard not to think about what's going on in a country that's had an on again off again civil war since the Spanish left. The past five years have seen a dramatic return to peace that no one could have predicted.

I wrote about this transformation last year, the tireless efforts of an executive who refused a conciliatory stance to the guerrillas, about the enthusiasm of the people who could drive on their highways without fear.

Order is probably a better word than peace, human rights groups would argue. The army is everywhere, and the current Pax Romana has had its share of victims. The "false positives" for starters, innocent villagers shot by the military and then claimed to have been guerillas to up the body count in the war against the FARC. President Uribe, who saw unprecedented levels of high support even a year ago, is slipping badly in the polls, perhaps because he is testing the waters for a constitutionaly prohibited third term or because the links to the para-militaries keep surfacing ever higher in his administration. He might also be losing popularity because people have had enough time to take the new security for granted. The problem with a law and order ticket is that once you succeed, the people want to know-- ok, now what next?

In a country where cocaine is the major industry, order from on high will take a constant and tremendous input of energy. This solution will prove impossible without public support. Unless the narcotraffickers are complicit in the order, it is hard to imagine peace can last. To some extent this could be the reality here, who knows and only a fool or suicidal journalist would want to find out. Short of a near simultaneous legalization of cocaine in both producing and consuming countries, the alternatives are sure to be murky compromises.

From a security standpoint a single mafia is less problematic than competing mafias. United States drug enforcement strategy is to go after cartel leadership with the assumption that their substructures will then be unable to function and lose potency. The result been seen a shift to more atomized criminal networks, increasingly the likelihood of a future of competing mafias and a return escalating the violence. That is, once the populace tires of the overwhelming military and security presence that maintains the current order. And the people are getting weary. For the first time in ages, the homicide rates in are pushing back up in the traditional seats of the drug industry.

So, if you´ve had a desire to travel in Colombia, I suggest you visit now before things change again.


A few of chance encounters in country of over 40 million people should not reflect on a country. That would be akin to judging a baseball player on a single at bat. Unless the baseball player's name was Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds, chances are that one at bat is going to make an out. Still, it's fun to people watch.

Chris and I were getting out of a cab at the bus terminal in San Gil when a woman approached us and asked us if we'd like a ride in a car to Bogota. More comfortable, and only 40,000 pesos (the bus is 50,000). We were both a little cautious but she was a good looking woman with long brown hair, a maintained figure and nice skin. She was about our age and was well dressed. She didn´t look like a kidnapper. We dropped our guard when we saw the car, a four wheel SUV with her boyfriend at the wheel. A young couple wanting to pick up some extra cash on the way home from vacation.

I don´t remember much of we talked about. They were not a memorable couple. He had just started a wine importing company, so far the wines were coming from Argentina. She had just opened a store for baby clothes. They were headed to calle 70 in Bogota, the heart of Alto Chapinero, a tony district full of 30 something yuppies. A neighborhood in Bogota where it is safe to walk around at night.

They asked if we needed to stop for anything and I mentioned it would be nice to get a paper for the ride. The conversation turned to the papers in the country and how some were very ideological. I asked what was the best paper, and he naturally replied El Tiempo, Bogota´s nationally circulated, center-right press. But his description of why it was the best paper was the interesting part.

"Because El Tiempo is just the news," he explained. "It doesn't have a political ideology. It is owned by one of the best families in Colombia."

A paper without political ideology? Could it just be that paper shares his politics, the climate that he grew up in, the 'maybe if everyone else will just be reasonable and let the best families do what is right for the country we'll all be better off' ideology?

Politics weren't their game. No worries here, politics make for boring conversations at best with people one hardly knows. But I assumed that this couple would at least be good at being yuppies.

They invited us to have lunch with them at an Italian place near their apartment building. Bogota is one of the few places in Colombia where the food is consistently good, especially if you are willing to pay international prices for high cuisine.

Their restaurant pick had the international prices, a bit unusual for pizza pasta joint. Good pizza is not that hard to come in Colombia, one of the few dishes they consistently do better than in America outside of New York City.

The pizza looked like it had been baked in its glass serving dish. Flotsam and jetsam of vegetables floating in a mess of cheese and runny sauce. I can't say if the crust was tasty or not. The dough had all drifted to one side of the dish and had set like cement. The dish looked expensive so I did not ask for a chisel,

I don't write up the place for its pizza. I would go back for the decor. The walls were covered with blown up photos of the casts of every 1980's American TV show you wish you could forget. The crown jewel was the flat screen behind our table playing a constant stream of 80's New Wave music videos. An altar toVH1's Dada-inspired golden age.

If I had grown up in the projects and only had music videos to know them by, white people would have scared the hell out me. Just type New Wave Music Videos into YouTube and check out the freak show for yourself. Those people were truly creepy. I would love to interview some of the creators of those videos.

If it wasn't for our new acquaintances and that it was Chris' last hours in Colombia, I might have vegged out all day and basked in the decade of my childhood. We asked the couple for some must dos in the city. Maybe one day I'll write up the place they claimed was an obligation, a steak house/disco/vaudeville circus.


Last week I visited an American school. I had met a teacher from the school at the beginning of my trip and he had offered me the chance to observe some of his classes. Teaching at an American school has always been one of those paths I've kept in the back of the mind and I didn't want to pass up the chance to see the reality of a day in the life of a teacher abroad.

Nothing really to report from my observations. A typical k-12 private school. The demeanor in the faculty room suggested a usual range of teachers,some good, a few outstanding, and a couple of real weirdos--more Unabomber than the kind you'd put in a music video.

The high school social studies teacher was a frail and nervous looking man amazingly white for someone living in the tropics. He did not look thrilled with his current life, and was clearly more interested in fruit salad than in making any new friends. But he was my ticket to the high school history classroom, so I did my best to make conversation. After some prompting by my acquaintance, he reluctantly invited me to watch his class the last period of the day.
When I arrived at his classroom at the beginning of the period, the door was locked with no evidence of anyone inside the room. I waited a good 20 minutes, no one showed. It could be he got his schedule wrong, or maybe he just didn't like being observed. No matter, I had my blog to attend to. I went to the teacher lounge and then to the administrative offices and said my thank yous. The school day was almost over by the time I started walking out the main gate.

Past the gate and on the other side of the campus guard house I heard a girl was screaming at the security officer at the end of the school's semi circular driveway. She was standing next to the open door of a new Mercedes sedan that was blocking the end of the drive. She was an attractive girl, maybe 17, though it was hard to notice anything about her besides loud mouth and her alarming breasts. I would later learn it was her brand new Mercedes that her father had given her because the trauma she had suffered the first day back from break when she was suspended from school for hitting a girl. I didn´t ask what offense she had committed to get the over sized implants.

The guard was trying to get her to move the car, forcefully at first, but with less conviction once she started threatening him. I couldn't follow it all, though I can assure you it was nasty. She repeated several times that her father was her boss, and that the poor man was going to be fired. The girl already had her cell phone out and apparently Daddy answered as in a breath she transformed from monstrous bitch to crying little girl.

I had nothing to do, so I figured I might as well take a seat in the shade and watch whatever was unfolding. In less than five minutes Daddy´s Land Rover pulled up to the guardhouse. He was yelling at the security guard through the driver's side window before he was out of the car. The guard waited for an opening and tried to explain his case, that the girl was blocking the drive with her car, but the father cut him off. Meanwhile parents were starting to lineup their cars and a balding man in a white Polo shirt was exiting the front gate. The man stopped a few paces from me to watch what was happening.

The father was threatening the office. Apparently, it was his security company, and how dare he yell at his little girl. The guard pleaded with the man, how were the parents going to pick up their children with a car blocking the driveway´s exit.

"You can figure that out somewhere else," Daddy said. (or at least something like that)

"Excuse me", the balding man said, speaking to the father, "I'm a director of this school. If you fire this man the school will find another security company and your daughter will find a new school."

No one had recognised the man in the white Polo. I learned that he was the school's chairman of the board, and was in a position to follow on his words. The father told his daughter, crying again, to move the car. He made a curt apology to the Chairman, and made a quick exit without so much as a glance at the security guard.

I was lucky to work in a private school with a reputation for reasonable parents and in a public school where at least no one was looking over my shoulder (ever). In the Delta, you had to go looking for the parents, who, if not too cracked out or fall down drunk to speak, would ask you heartbreaking questions like, "Can you tell me what to do with this child?" In both cases there was respect. Even the worst war stories I've heard from other teachers don't come close to those five minutes on the sidewalk outside the American school.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barranquilla Redux

The sign on the wall reads: This facility has public restrooms, please use them. Do not use your own containers.

Where am I?

Well, start with New Orleans. Remove the Quarter, the tourists, the excellent cuisine. Exchange the columned mansions of the Garden District for Moorish villas of Prado Viejo with more bougainvillea. Uproot the Live Oaks, replant Ceiba trees. Pound more cracks into the sidewalks and elevate them at least two feet above street level. Overlay neighborhoods of shotgun shacks with concrete blocks and corrugated roofs. Swap incomprehensible Cajun drawls for incomprehensible Spanish creole. Turn up the heat by day, add a sea breeze (January and February) at night. Refer to Mardi Gras as Carnaval. Get your Yellow Fever jab.

I present you Barranquilla. Another rotting port town beneath the waters of a dirty river.

First, the river. The Magdalena is Colombia's equivalent of the Mississippi and served as the country's primary commercial artery well into the 20th century. Anyone who has read Gabriel Garcia Marquez will be familiar with Magdalena's importance to Colombian history. In the General and his Labyrinth, Simon Bolivar takes his last journey in South America down the Magdalena to his intended exile. The romantic steamboats of Love in the Time of Cholera plied her waters for generations, and the environmental destruction through the deforestation to feed all those wood burning engines is still in evidence. In many places the tropical canopy never returned, rendering one of the river's silted branches unnavigable for commercial vessels. The setting of Chronicle of a Death Foretold was a victim to the river's strangulation. Cut from its commercial function, time stopped in the colonial city of Mompox. It is now a sweltering time capsule of late 19th century life.

A storied, filthy river. But why again Barranquilla?

It's hard to find a town with any interest these days that is off of the gringo trail. Mompox will give you an idea to the extent of the trail's far reaching tentacles. I thought I got off the beaten path for a moment in Mompox last January. Finally a place for that outstanding adventure travel piece I've always wanted to write. But I had no clips to pitch it with, no matter, within days I found scooped by a Harper's article from that February, "Go Before You Die". the piece was about a writer's trip from Bogota to Mompox in what he called the 'New' Colombia, a place where it is safe to travel just about anywhere. Eleven months later even Mompox has become an established outpost on the backpacker trail.

There still aren't any roads that go all the way through to this South American Timbuktu--you get there by a combination of bus, taxi, boat and tuk tuk--but there is a brand new hostel. Not that I would have cared to stew in the staggering humidity of malarial swamps with all the terrifying insects longer than it takes to see the sites. The churches and graveyards are outstanding, but the best visit is to the villa and courtyard that doubles as a retirement home and an insane asylum where blind man Jose Pupo, both old and insane, will take your hand and ask for the year and date of your birth. He'll then tell you about that day in Mompox, in my case a Friday when in rained in the afternoon. Then he'll break out his harmonica and his old and/or insane colleagues will gather around to dance or at least to rock in their chairs to the music.

This can all be done in a day, or in the Harper's writer's case, a morning--he didn't know to look for Jose. Then the reality of the dead river port creeps back with a sunset that brings mosquitoes but no relief from the staggering heat. No, I've logged my year in the Mississippi Delta, thank you very much.

People know about Barranquilla, but they only come here for the four days of Carnaval. Backpacker Bibles The Rough Guide, Footprint, and The Lonely Planet, all write up Barranquilla as a dusty, noisy cauldron of a place without a single permanent tourist attraction.

Excellent work, ladies and gentlemen. Your readers have listened, and stayed away. I didn't know that some of those South African lads could read. But thanks to your descriptions, I am free to roam this town in total obscurity. The people here aren't clued in to what a backpacker is or looks like.

In a city where many people have never met a foreigner outside of Carnaval, people don't know what to make of me when they do notice. Sure, I speak a little funny, too slow for a Costeña, for a coastal person's patience. But then who from out of town doesn't when they pronounce every last little syllable. When I open my mouth what registers in some people's eyes is not so much foreignness as, 'is this guy retarded?' When my mouth is shut I don't look retarded. So I get asked for directions on the street, which is doubly funny in a country where all the cities are on exactly numbered grids. By appearance I'm just another variation of the many European and Middle Eastern immigrants who chose this town when it seemed like it might have had a future.

Those travel writers were on to something. Aside from hosting the second largest Carnaval in South America, Barranquilla hasn't had much going for it in a long time. Not that it doesn't try, in a developing world sort of way. Following the lead of Medellin and Bogota, Barranquilla raised the money for a rapid transit bus line similar to a subway in that it has special lanes and boarding platforms at stations along the route. The mayor promised that the first line would be ready to open at the beginning of 2008 with more to soon follow. One year later and not only is there not a single rapid transit bus on the street, as far as I can tell there is only evidence of one partially completed station along the route. The city did find a way to spend all of the money.

Last summer a local newspaper broke a story that toxic waste dumps had been discovered on vacant sites throughout the poorer districts of the city. The estimated 10 tons of toxic material had been delivered from a consortium of Colombian hospitals, six in Medellin, three in Barranquilla. The companies contracted to dispose of the material had been making easy money on this fraud for as long as 4 years, maybe longer. Health experts are surprised that there don't seem to be any repercussions yet, at least no deaths have been attributed to the dumping. The mayor demanded explanations, as if he weren't already in on the take.

It is slightly less crazy than it sounds, that the perpetrators could have thought they might get away with dumping 20,000 pounds of toxic medical waste in a major metropolitan area, Colombia's 4th largest city. Every summer and fall the slums of Barranquilla function as an above ground sewer. Barranquilla does not have a drainage system, so when the heavy rains come the city streets become rivers, thus the high sidewalks.

The streets whose swift running rivers have rapids are called arroyos. Dogs, children, cars, buses, and the occasional home gets washed away with the arroyos (check out this footage). Since, like New Orleans, the poorest neighborhoods are in the lowest lying and most flood prone neighborhoods, much of the waste dumped there would be expected to wash out into the river each year. It begs the question how much was actually dumped before the waste was discovered. Then again, in a country run by drug lords, what does one expect will happen to a 'waste management' company for dumping some garbage on a city already acknowledged to be shit hole. Perhaps a fine, if the mayor can pocket a piece of that action too.

So I'm here because it's a surreal place to pick up the paper in the morning. I like dysfunctional port towns and the kinds of characters that wash ashore here, or in Barranquilla's case, to sea.

With every year it gets a little more difficult to learn new language. They say the drop is precipitous after the age of 35 or so, and I'm already losing my hearing. So I´m on the clock if I´m ever going to see my goal of fluency in another language. In the next few months I hope to absorb as much as much Spanish as possible. I figure if I can understand the dirty, half-swallowed Costeña Spanish they speak here, I can understand it anywhere. I don't know if I could survive once the breezes stop (late February or March) and I'm not particularly interested in Carnaval, but for the next few weeks Barranquilla will do me just fine.

There is one place I was immediately recognised. Not just as a foreigner, but as an American. I attended Game One of the Colombian Baseball Championships that opened on Saturday. It was a full house, 8,000 capacity in the single deck stadium. A peanut and cigarette man outside the park produced a ticket for me then ushered me to the front of the entrance line.

For 3 bucks I figure i was headed for the cheap seats. Turns out my 'VIP' ticket landed me on the first row in between the plate and 1st base. Like everything in Latin America, the experience was a little louder and took a little louder than the equivalent back home. The crowd cranked their noisemakers and a couple of sections drummed African beats while the organist blasted an amplified truckers horn to rattle the opposing pitcher throughout the 5 hour, 9 inning affair. The 90 cent beers helped to pass the time, as did the old guys behind me who announced the batters and the pitching changes. They took pride in schooling the Yanqui on the nationalities of the players, mostly Colombians.

My local nine has a couple of links to the game here. AA Prospect Jesse English was at one point on the roster of the visiting squad, though I can not find his name on the recent box scores. New Giant Edgar Renteria's foundation sponsors the Colombian baseball league and contributes to the development of Colombian talent. The talent is not overwhelming, thought the mascot was Big League material. The guy dressed up in the gator outfit managed to be the bat boy, field foul balls, chase around kids in the between-inning promotions, and dance to the organ without once tripping over his ground length tail or passing out inside his foam head on a steamy Caribbean night.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009


There is something eerie about a city of 8 million empty of its people. It is Saturday night in Bogota and there isn´t a single car or person on the streets. We are in La Candelaria, the city´s charming if crumbling historic neighborhood that seems more like an outer barrio for students and starving artists than a central district even on a busy night. Only a few hungry dogs are wondering about. It is a heavy quiet, broken only by the odd short bus blasting full speed from nowhere and not even slowing for the dark intersections. How can the middle of a capital city be so empty and depressing?

The barman where we got our last drink warned us to take cabs tonight, and that was in a much posher area of town. This is the weekend of the festival of kings when many smaller towns have their annual fairs. Anyone with family outside Bogota and with the means to leave the city does so this weekend.

But there aren´t even any cabs about in La Candelaria, and no radio taxi is going to drive from across town to take us a block or two to the nearest open corner joint. Maybe the muggers have taken their machetes on holiday too. But it doesn´t matter. A mugging might be better than this claustrophobic hostel.

I´d choose these foreboding streets to Anandamayi tonight. Not that it´s a bad hostel. I´d recommend it as one of the best places to stay in Colombia. The bathrooms are spotless. The dorm where I have been sleeping for the last 5 nights is cavernous, and until Sarah arrived it was me and 11 empty bunks. The floors in the dormitory are dark, shiny hardwood and the ceiling is an A frame that easily reaches twenty feet high. Last year there was a fireplace in the room that they have now removed for fear that some moron like myself would burn the place down. It is cold at night in Bogota, at 2,600 meters it often falls into the 30´s, and last year I would fall asleep right in front of a full on blaze. This trip I´ve had to steal blankets from the empty bunks. With five wool blankets, four up an one down on the mattress for insulation my teeth stop chattering and the cold on my face is a nice contrast to warmth of the bed.

A cold, beautiful place, what looks like a farm house nestled the middle of a national capital. There are two spacious courtyards, one whose every inch is filled with flowers and herbs, the other has poi pond, lush plants, trees, more flowers and benches to sit and read in the afternoon, or at night to huddle under a blanket and contemplate the moon. The kitchen has a wood burning stove and there is always a pot of tea ready for the guests. No fireplaces, but they do have hot water this year, I´m not sure how I stayed in a place so cold without hot water (by taking showers at 2 in the afternoon).

But it is the people here that we have to get away from tonight. Sarah and I had holed up in our empty dorm room but we´ve both seen the shadows of faces as they attempt to peer through the thin curtains that don´t quite cover the windows on the door.

Perhaps I shouldn´t have introduced Sarah as my cousin. That is their interest, in the cousins. It was the only way she could share this beautiful room with me, the young girl in charge this holiday weekend wouldn´t permit friends in the dorm, and she was sure we were more.

It is sort of true that we are cousins. Our stepfathers are brothers.

For the past few days we´ve been getting those sideways glances and rolling eyes from everyone, the staff and especially the Americans, an older would-be businessman and a younger eagle scout type who are both staked out in the warmth of the kitchen. The older American who claims to hail from northern Wisconsin was the model gringo yesterday. Under a Panama hat he smoked cigars in the courtyard all afternoon while pitching a real estate scheme to a middle aged South African. The latter is a happy-go-lucky type who sails catamarans across the ocean for an Australian company. He seems very interested in the American´s scheme. I can only hope he is being polite. I asked the old gringo about his business and he mentioned something about ´flipping´, something else about a four unit complex in Minneapolis, and having been out of the market for three years, before changing the subject. He is full of shit.

The eagle scout is a nice boy. I wonder how long he´ll last teaching in Bogota. He´s acted wounded since the first night Sarah arrived and we went out to the Zona Rosa, the club and nightlife district. I think he has a crush on her, though I do not think Sarah was impressed that out of the hundreds of places he took us to an American styled brew pub and sports bar. Whatever the matter, the whispering begins as soon we leave the room.

So tonight the dark, empty, freezing streets of Bogota are more appealing than the sideways glances and forced conversation in the warm kitchen at the hostel. But what can happen in a block? Surely the bar down the street is open on a Saturday night just past nine.

The cafe is closed. So is the restaurant another block down the hill. Another block and more of the same. I haven´t been too many places where I didn´t feel comfortable walking the streets, but I´m thinking its best we turn back. We take another street to return the hostel and we pass a bodega that is open. There are a few tables and chairs squeezed into the floor space along the counter. Sarah gets some cigarettes. We order beers and a man offers us a table across from the register. We sit and talk a little. A man one table away is staring at us. His eyes are big and bloodshot, but I don´t notice this at first, only that he is smiling. I smile back to be polite. I imagine they don´t get too many foreigners at the tables of this little corner store. He takes my gesture as an invitation and jumps from his seat to one at our table with a suddenness that does not seem natural nor sane. Now I notice the bulging eyes. I´d peg him for a meth addict were we back home. This being Colombia, he is probably just a coke head.

He tells us he is from the poorest barrio in Bogota, apparently the one that sits just above La Candelaria. Sarah knows this type, says there is a guy like at any party in South America, especially one with gringas. She is hardly listening to him. He is focused on her, wants to dance with her, in what space and to what music I do not know. I try to divert him by talk of football, I ask him about the national team. He says something, then repeats himself, again and again, though I can´t understand him, and can´t help but notice his spittle flying from his mouth and into my beer.

A second man at a table nearer the street is interested in us, in a saner, where are we from?, kind of way. He knows about football and we talk a bit, at times over the head of the coke addict who again is focusing on Sarah.

¨She is my cousin,¨ I tell him.

This makes him pause for a minute. Sarah and I begin talking in English. We are enjoying the fact that we may as well be speaking Thai. It is a rare place these days where English can be used as a secret language, but no one here understands a word of what we are saying. The coke head is now grabbing at Sarah. The second man seems embarrassed but says nothing. I tell Sarah in our code that it is time to leave.

A block away and we notice that the coke head is following after us, but he is either too drunk or too blasted to make anything of his pursuit. We stop in front of the first open cafe we´ve seen all night, with what sounds like a live jazz piano, and our friend waddles by us and on up the hill.

The kitchen is empty save for Eduardo, the boy who serves as the night guard, nodded off in front of the television. We sip tea and look through the cards in Class Struggle. I remember this Marxist board game from my last trip here. The box has a picture of Karl Marx arm wrestling one of the Rockefellers. The object of the game is the alliance of the non-ruling classes to overthrow the capitalist system. The professor who wrote the game recommends it as a classroom tool. I must get one of these games for my friend James, I remind myself.

Finally back to the dorm. It would be so much warmer to share a bed tonight, but Sarah is my cousin. Sort of. Click Here to Read More..