The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks South America
My Employer: So, Dermot, do you know your hours?
Dermot: No, but I e-mailed them to you earlier and it’s on your computer.
My Employer: Well, Dermot, that’s great, but I have to tell you: I don’t have a dime on me and I can’t pay you!
Thus ended my employment in Colombia – to be honest, I saw it coming a mile away. Even on the bus to my employer’s house I was saying to my Canadian colleague (Leigh) ‘I bet you he won’t have my money’. Sure enough, my prophesy came true – but I certainly wasn’t expecting what happened next – after my now former employer told me that he didn’t have ‘a dime’, he then turned to Leigh and said ‘Leigh – can I borrow some money from you?’ (thankfully, Leigh didn’t have any as I wouldn’t have been able to accept money taken from him, though I suspect that my former employer needed the money for himself).
Alas I knew that this was going to go badly. On Day Two in Colombia I realised that the company was not what I had hoped (or had been promised) and immediately tried to find work elsewhere (no-one travels across an ocean and then turns around after two days because of a ‘bad feeling’). Alas I did not have enough qualifications (I don’t have an MA) or the schools were not hiring until June for the academic year starting in July or August. The other schools said that they did not employ people who were not North American. These schools were run by Americans and they employed Canadians under sufferance when they couldn’t find Yanks.
I was interviewed before I went to Colombia so my employer knew what he was getting. However, like most Americans he was fixated by my accent. He didn’t say anything before I went to Colombia, but would introduce me to my new students and say that it would be difficult for them to understand me. Naturally some of them freaked out at first and I had to try and show them that not everyone sounds like they come from Alabama (which is where my former employer originated). However, as Americans are latter-day imperialists (whilst denying this fact - and not facing up to their imperial responsibilities that come when one blows up and enslaves the world), Americans feel that everyone should speak like them, act like them and be like them, without ever questioning why. What they do not understand they then simply mock. If you happen to be really different to them then you’re totally screwed.
Of course it would be wrong to say that all Americans are evil. There are lots of nice, educated Americans out there! These are their names: Bret Carbone, Anna Lacey, Renato Blain (actually Cuban), Peter and Mischa Willis (and their daughter Greta), John and Andrea Blanc (and their daughter Claire), Heather Valenzuela, Heath Ku?era, Aaron Bilotta, Shannon Cole, Gwen Hamilton, Beth McCune, Melissa Hooper, Ben Nease’s American wife Daniela and maybe my paternal grandfather, but he was only an American citizen after arriving at Ellis Island in the 1920s, fighting in the Second World War for the U.S. and then living there for two decades … oh, and maybe also some of my paternal aunts who have American passports. If I’ve missed one or two people from the list then I apologise...
Actually a Canadian friend of mine feels that Americans are very sensitive about their position in the world at the moment as they’re clearly coming to the end of their run of power, hence my former employer’s mental ideas about the way I spoke.
The United States calls the shots in Colombia, due the fact that Colombia is the third largest recipient of US aid (behind Israel and Egypt – I don’t know where Afghanistan is on that list) to the tune of around $600 million a year. This is called ‘Plan Colombia’, and the United States is funding the ‘War Against Drugs’ … but more of that later. The so-called ‘War Against Drugs’ is not the cause of me quitting my job. If any of the $600 million had made its way toward me I would still be there!
As I left my former employer’s home, he said that he could get me work if I stayed for another six weeks. The fact is that he had promised me a certain amount of hours a week, which meant that I would be paid a certain amount of money a month, plus that I would have my visa sorted out for me. I never got the hours that I was promised. I never got the money that I was promised. I was never paid on time. My employer called me ‘pedantic’ when I questioned him about this. They then didn’t want to pay for my visa or provide any paperwork for it. In Colombia, if a foreign worker has a working visa then his employer has to pay for his or her flight home. It should also be noted that in Colombia one has to obtain a stamp for the working visa outside of the country, so I was going to have to get a bus to go to Quito in Ecuador to get that stamp. I was also having to pay about £100 or so to get it, all so that I could go and work fewer and fewer hours for the company. I could not get that visa by myself as I did not have a sponsor. In fact, the whole time I was working in Colombia I was essentially working illegally. My hours were cut down to practically nothing so I handed in my notice.
Bogotá is expensive and all the time I was there I was haemorrhaging money. When I sent an e-mail explaining that I was only working until Easter I got a very nasty reply back criticising my lack or professionalism and egotism. Actually, my employer thought that I was just walking out on them as he hadn’t read the e-mail properly. I had given a fortnight’s notice and when I told him to look again he wrote back saying ‘what a great teacher I was’ and asking me to stick around – no chance! As soon as Easter was done I was out of there!
On Easter Monday I took my bag and caught a bus to Cali. I stored the majority of my possessions in a friend’s flat in Bogotá (this friend is called Diana Martinez. Without her in Colombia I would have been in real trouble. I can’t thank her enough) so I had very little to carry with me. Large bags are the bane of the traveller’s existence. I arrived in the bus station in Bogotá before I departed to Cali with great excitement. It’s always so exhilarating when you are at a bus station and you can go anywhere. I always have to fight the temptation to keep pushing onwards and onwards to the south of Chile. I have to remind myself that it would cost a fortune and take days – plus that I would have to turn around and catch the same bus back to from where I started in the first place! Still, it is great to see a list of destinations written up in front of you and knowing that if one stepped onto a bus then one could go anywhere. I went on Monday night to Cali and slept on the bus. I prefer to travel this way so that I can save money on accommodation and not lose any precious time travelling in the day.
Cali, Valle del Cauca
||I arrive in the morning and feel the difference in temperature almost immediately as it is 1500 metres lower in altitude than Bogotá. Cali is warmer and more humid. It is the third largest city in Colombia after Bogotá and Medellín (the second largest) with a population of 2.5 million. It is infamous for the Cali Cartel which controlled a lot of the cocaine trade in the 1980s and early 1990s Cali is famous though for being the salsa capital of Colombia
The people of Cali look different to other Colombians. There seems to be a special racial mix, where people have coffee-coloured skin, but also blue, green or brightly grey-coloured eyes. The people from Cali are called Caleños (or Caleñas for the feminine) and believe themselves to be the best looking and sexiest people on the planet. I’m afraid that I didn’t agree, but that sort of thing is just a question of taste. If you like women with giant arses then maybe you should pay the city a visit. I went to the hostel and asked other travellers what there was to see in the city. I was very surprised that the answers were all so negative!
|I went out for a walk, saw some parks, saw a small historical centre but that was it – there really wasn’t anything to see or to do. It was quieter than Bogotá because it is a quarter of the size of that city but there still wasn’t anything really happening. It may be the salsa capital of Colombia (a nation that prides itself on its dancing abilities) but the salsatecas don’t really kick off until a Friday or Saturday night. I was there on a Tuesday and wasn’t prepared to sit around waiting in a boring place wasting money. Dancing salsa isn’t really my bag, anyway.
Cali has a reputation for being a bit rough (it certainly has the statistics to back up that claim but yet again I saw nothing. In fact, I found the city dull. No-one came to shoot at me to make my time there more interesting and I wasn’t stupid enough to go to the rougher areas looking for trouble. What is true though is that it is closer to the Pacific than Medellín or Bogotá and this is a how a lot of the cocaine leaves the country, from the ports up to the north to either Mexico or just directly to the United States. The right-wing paramilitaries control the trade, have connections with government and are a hell of a lot more dangerous than the FARC or any other bunch of lefties (no matter how detestable they might be). At least the Cali Cartel when it existed (and Escobar’s Medellín Cartel) improved the cities with social spending (and social cleansing of street children, prostitutes, the homeless and homosexuals. No-one gave a damn if they were shot).
I met an Australian who lived in the city and was there in the years when the country was in chaos. At one point there were under two hundred legal foreigners living in Colombia (not counting foreign embassy staff). The Australian told me that when he would get on a bus to other cities then all of the passengers would groan because having foreigners on the bus meant that the security checks would last a lot longer. The real problem for him was when the bus was stopped and some of the ‘security’ were not official, which on occasion could lead to him being roughed up. Thankfully Colombia has been transformed.
I ate well in the evening. I wish I could remember the name of the food but it was like a deep-friend empanada with rice, chicken and a hardboiled egg inside it. That was my highlight of Cali! The next morning I got a bus to the coffee-growing area of Armenia. Time and money were my great enemies on this trip (as with life) and so I had to keep moving.
In fact money seemed to be a big problem as none of the cash machines in the city would recognise my credit card. I called the bank in England but they said that nothing was wrong. I made sure that I had enough cash to get to Bogotá if my card didn’t work in Armenia and I left Cali.
||The first thing I did when I arrived in Armenia was check that my card worked. It did so I got myself a meal at the bus station of Bandeja Paisa – the local dish. I suppose if it had still failed to work I would have had to forsake eating and get an overnight bus back to Bogotá. Armenia is a cool place. It is big enough to be a small city but small enough for people to be friendly and helpful. It is in the heart of the Zona Cafetera so coffee is grown everywhere, plus bamboo, plantains, bananas and a multitude of fruit is also grown.
I stayed in a new hostel called ‘Casa Quimbaya’ which was run by two sisters. When one makes an emotional investment as well as a financial investment that person will really go out of their way to make sure that the business works well.
Rather than mope around town plazas I decided to do something that I had never done before: paraglide. I really don’t like heights but I try not to be a slave to my fears. That’s why I went on zip-wires in Peru and Mexico (the former had the longest set of wires and was 150 metres up at one point). However, I really don’t like rats but I’ve never felt the inclination to get into a bath of them or get cosy with them in some way. They make me feel sick.
I went paragliding from a set of hills that were 700 metres overlooking the city. I went up in a jeep that had to cross all sorts of lanes and paths. There was an older American also going to jump and he noticed something that I wouldn’t have ever understood without someone to point it out to me: as I have said before, there are soldiers and police everywhere in Colombia. En route up to the top of the hill we saw three soldiers manning a checkpoint, one of whom was in a military raincoat and hat. That was normal as the weather in the Zona Cafetera was very wet. What the older American noticed was that under his rainjacket was an automatic rifle, and on the end of that rifle was what he called a ‘muffler’ – a silencer for a machine gun. That chap in his raincoat would lie out in the hills waiting for hours, maybe days, to shoot his prey. It was a rather disconcerting thought. (The American who was with me used to be in the army so understood about guns. He also was a helicopter pilot who used to work in Antarctica. When Werner Herzog was making ‘Encounters At The End Of The Earth’ the American flew him in his helicopter).
For a long time it seemed that I would not be able to jump that day. The American was going to jump solo but didn’t as there was too much water in the air. One can’t jump if it is raining. I’m not sure if rain actually completely prohibits parachute jumping, otherwise certain wet countries would be safe from assault from paratroopers. Ireland is pretty wet but I seem to remember the Paras shooting lots of people there though I guess they got the ferry from Glasgow or Hollyhead. I actually thought that I was going to jump solo until I overheard a conversation with the American and the guide about steering the parachute. I didn’t know that this was possible and was then told that it was a tandem jump, which was better than me jumping off the side of a mountain into some electricity wires. The Colombians taking me thought that I was either brave or stupid.
There was a blanket of cloud in the sky, but suddenly the Colombian instructor saw a window of opportunity. With his helper he laid out the parachute and we were ready to go. We were strapped together so we would have to run simultaneously. Unfortunately we had not agreed upon the word for ‘go’ and he started running and I fell flat on my face, being dragged along the grass and mud by the parachute. The helpers quickly helped us up and laid out the parachute again.
||I was told that I was to run with my thumb behind me so that when I was in the air I could wiggle myself into my seat. We started running and it seemed that with only a step I was in the air – but I couldn’t move! I presumed it was because I was too fat and wasn’t able to life myself into my seat. I later found out it is because I my shoulders are broader than the average South American, but I was left dangling 700 metres above the ground. The guide was sitting behind me and excitedly dived into some cloud.
It was an unsettling experience until the guide was able to help me into my seat. Then I relaxed a bit and was able to enjoy all that was below me: coffee, flowers, trees, parrots, bamboo (thank God I didn’t land in that!) and bananas. The wind was good and we were able to go further than originally planned. The adrenaline was able to shake me up out of my usual borderline depressive lethargy and I was a functioning human being for the rest of the day. Obviously I need a new challenge everyday to keep myself in good spirits. I could do with some practice landing as I landed roughly!
|The next day I took the bus from Armenia and went to the small village of Salento, which was only about an hour or 30 minutes away. It was a very chilled place and as a result very relaxing. I had a walk around by myself, exploring the countryside but alas I missed out on the opportunity to go horse riding. The town was going through something of a water shortage as the water company were doing some work and had disconnected the water supply. It was only supposed to be for 24 hours and it had been that way for 48 hours when I got there.
A lot of hostels had water butts to catch rainwater but that is no good for having a shower. I knew about the problem before I arrived and thus decided not to stay there that evening, something which I later regretted as the place was lovely.
Due to the amount of stormy weather in the regions Qunidio and Antioquia, the skies were overcast the clouds threatened to storm. I dodged the rain and ate the nicest Bandeja Paisa that I ever ate in Colombia. I climbed up a hill path with little monuments to the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. I ventured off the beaten track and came upon a soldier with gun the size of his own body. Most of the soldiers one meets in Latin America are national servicemen and look about eighteen or nineteen, unless there is a military coup and then it’s the Special Forces who are running the show (Chile in 1973 is a good example). Professional soldiers can be less friendly when you bump into them (I was never able to photograph any of the security forces, be they private security or of the state, during my entire stay in Colombia. Their objection to being photographed is due to being targeted by the FARC or right-wing paramilitary groups – who are essentially the drug cartels).
The teenage soldier asked me who I was and where I was from, so playing dumb I told him and then asked him where he was from too. He actually lived around the corner with other soldiers in an encampment. They would sleep in their tents at night and patrol the coffee plantations and the foothills during the day and probably sometimes at night too. He said I couldn’t go any further and so I cheerily waved him ‘good day’ and beat a swift retreat.
|Salento is full artisans who make and sell trinkets for the tourists, so I bought a pair of earrings for my friend Diana in Bogotá. Then I strolled down to a place called ‘Plantation House’ at the edge of the village. It is both a coffee plantation and a hostel, giving tours of where the coffee is grown and how it is manufactured. It is owned and run by an English chap who moved to Colombia, therefore most of the explanation was in English. I was ignorant about the whole subject of coffee and was excited to try the freshly made drink at the end of the tour, only to be disappointed as I had forgotten that I don’t really like the stuff in the first place!
The coffee addicts on the tour though were in heaven though. The plantation itself also makes a coffee wine with the leftover water from when the beans are washed. I tried some during a meal at the end of the evening with some people I met on the tour (we were also trying to take cover from a fearsome rainstorm). I then got the bus out of town (reluctantly) and back to
Armenia to get my bags and then to get the bus to Medellín.
My plan was, as usual when I travel, to sleep on the bus and wake up in Medellín. However the bus was stopped by some soldiers in the middle of the night and they were not that friendly. I was woken by one of them shining a torch in my face and asking abruptly - ¿extranjero? - which means ‘foreigner’. I nodded sleepily and the soldier simply said gruffly – pasporte -. He looked at the photo and then looked at me and gave me my passport back. Alas some of the other passengers didn’t have such an easy time, being taken off the bus and having to empty their bags for inspection. Again as a foreigner I got off lightly.
I arrived in Medellin earlier than I had anticipated at around six in the morning. I can’t be sure of that as I was in a bit of a daze having not really slept properly since being woken up in the middle of the night by the army. I sat on a bench for some time until I could gather myself together and get a taxi and go to a hostel. I used to be able to get a good night’s sleep on a bus but alas it seems no longer. Buses in Mexico and Chile were of a higher quality.
I went to the Casa Kiwi which was unfortunately full of drunk Aussies falling into bed from the night before. I didn’t want to hang around so took the metro into the centre of town.
Unlike Bogotá which has an appalling infrastructure, Medellín is an oasis of modernity and relative calm. Admittedly it has 2.7 million people living in it as opposed to the 8 million in Bogotá, but the roads are good and the metro system is fantastic. If anyone were to drop litter in the station or on the train then people would take offence and intervene. The system has been expanded so that it goes into the poorer parts of the city too.
||It would be prohibitively expensive for the trains to run up the sides of a mountain (Medellín is in a valley) so with the same ticket one can hop on cable cars that take you up high and so simultaneously give an excellent view of the city. One Paisa (an inhabitant of Medellín) saw that I was lost and took me to where the cable cars began. People are proud of their city.
This was not always the case in Medellín. It was, for a time, the murder capital of the world. The Medellín Cartel fought both the Colombian government and Cali Cartel. It was led by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was killed by Colombian Special Forces in 1993. There was a tour of his hacienda available but I didn’t want anything to do with it. However, part of the reason that Medellín has such good infrastructure is that Escobar pumped in millions of dollars to clean up the city and thus keep the local population loyal to him. Bogotá has eight million people, many of whom are refugees from the violence that existed in Medellín and Cali. Whereas though cities have become safe, I wouldn’t really want to go to Arauca in the jungle or some of the places on the Pacific Coast which are synonymous drug-trafficking, paramilitarism and the FARC.
I strolled down to Plaza Botero in the centre of the city where there are many sculptures by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero (himself from Colombia’s second largest city). Tourists can mill around and touch them
One area in which Medellín triumphs is the fruit juices that can be bought on a any street corner. If you can name the fruit they will mix it up for you there and then. You can have it either with water or with milk (I prefer the former) and it is always delicious. I don’t think that I drank any alcohol in Medellín purely because the juices were so delicious.
A day later I bumped into some Germans whom I had met in Armenia. I took to them see the cable car, then we went to a football stadium and generally just explored the city. Medellín is a big and vibrant city. One would need some weeks to get to know it properly. If I had to live in Colombia then I would live in Medellín, providing that I had a job that paid me well. Medellín has a habit of raining in the afternoon, as storms seem to brew in Quindio and Armenia as it so hot and humid. After the seeing the football stadium it began to rain and we made our way back to the hostel. I spent the evening planning out an entire South American trip for a travelling Swiss couple who then rewarded me with chocolate.
One thing that should be mentioned is the women of Medellín. Colombians rant and rave about how beautiful they are. Well, there are two parts to this story: the attractive women in Medellín are of an extremely high quality, but there is a lot of bad make-up and cosmetic surgery on show which is not attractive. I think though as a gringo living in Medellín one would do all right for one’s self.
||The next day I left Medellín for Guatapé, also in Antioquia. One could drift around Medellín indefinitely but time and money were my enemy. I caught a bus with the Germans to Guatapé which is about two hours away from Medellín. The Colombian countryside, especially in the coffee growing area, can be so lovely as it is so green. I noticed that chickens move around freely on the farms. Obviously there are no foxes in Colombia!
The reason that Guatapé attracts visitors is because of a giant rock that is surrounded by lakes. The scenery is something Alpine or like Bariloche in Argentina, but minus the winter snow. Soon there will be a lot of construction in that area and it will ruin what makes it beautiful.
When we arrived I found a hostel that was run by an English chap. The Germans weren’t staying the night (I made that mistake in Salento) and so I dumped my bags at the hostel and we made our way to the giant rock in a strange buggy that acted as a taxi. It started to rain from the moment we arrived and we thought about eating something until the weather improved. However, the rock of Guatapé is the very model of a tourist trap, with overpriced meals being sold and various fees being charged for entering the area and then for going up the 649 steps to the top. Thankfully the rain stopped and we made our way up the rock.
The rock actually has two names: Guatapé and El Peñol as it is in between the two towns of that name. Both towns claim the rock for themselves and thus it has two names. Guatapé is a bigger town of the two.
The steps both up and down the rock seem to have been designed by Escher but the view from the top is super. One can see out to all the lakes that surround the rock. It is unlike anywhere else in Colombia and so far is unspoiled by tourism Like everyone I would like to have a holiday home there and this is, of course, the thing that will destroy it for everyone.
We walked back to the hostel which was several miles longer than we hoped. We needed to find some place to eat in the town and then a friendly Israeli showed us the way – just in time as huge electrical storm erupted with pelting rain. We ate the usual massive meal of beans and then I said farewell to the Germans and walked back to the hostel with the Israeli in the rain. It turned out that he was staying in the same place as me.
In the hostel there was a Spanish couple as well as the Israeli but also something quite rare in the world of travelling: a Palestinian. She was a Palestinian doctor of Israeli citizenship as she wasn’t born in the Occupied Territories. When I described Colombia as a security state akin to Israel in my last written piece it would seem that I was nowhere close to describing the struggles that Arabs citizens have to deal with every day in Israel. She was a very nice, interesting woman, as was the Israeli guy who walked with me back to the hostel. Interestingly they got on very well, chatting in Hebrew.
|The next day I went out on the lake kayaking. It had been a long time since I had been in a canoe and I had forgotten the technique of doing it. The kayak was also for two people which made it a little difficult to steer. Later I saw a local club of children on the water who shot along at a rate of knots. I was able to copy what they doing and that helped me remember what I used to do on the sea. I did though did get very burnt in spite of the suncream that I used. Even though the sky became clouded the reflection of the light on the water was too much for my Irish skin.
When I would take a break from canoeing I would chat to school children. They would climb into the trees and pick the fruit that grew in abundance. Most of them had no idea where England was but it gave me a chance to practise my Spanish. They were shocked when I bumped into some Swedes and a Dutchman that I had met in Medellín. Our heights compared to the tiny Colombian primary school children must have made us seem like giants.
That evening I saw the biggest bug in the street that I have ever seen. A girl and her boyfriend saw it crawling on the ground. Though they were both freaking out about it, she didn’t it want it left in the street to die – so she made her poor boyfriend pick it up and put it on the grass. He used a tissue and was very, very uncomfortable during the process. According to the girl the insect was called a ‘cucarrón’ (though I thought that she said ‘cucharón’, which means like a ‘big serving spoon’ … which would seem appropriate due to the size of thing).
The next day I cycled 12 miles (20 km) to a nearby town (alas I don’t remember the name). It had been some time since I had cycled. Downhill was easy but uphill was difficult. As I arrived it started raining heavily and I had to take the bus back to Guatapé. That evening I took a bus back to Medellín with the Palestinian and the two Spaniards and then an overnight bus to Bogotá.
Back To Bogotá
I had to haggle to get my money from my former employer. I got my money and that was us done. I stayed overnight with my friend Diana. I shaved off my fortnight’s beard so I didn’t look like a total tramp, though with my long hair it wasn’t not so much of a problem as one is allowed to look like Jesus in South America I then get the overnight bus to Bucaramanga on what turns out to be the worst road I’ve experienced in Colombia. It’s supposed to be a major highway between the capital Bogotá and Bucaramanga (a major city) and yet the bus driver is negotiating potholes … in fact, most of the road seemed like rubble in places.
The reason I went to Bucaramanga was to visit an old friend with whom I worked in Mexico. Dan Goheen worked at the American School of Pachuca and is now working at an American school in Bucaramanga. He tried to find me work there but alas they only hire North Americans: preferably from the United States and reluctantly Canadians, which seems to be the policy in all of Colombia. Australians, British, Irish, New Zealanders and South Africans are more or less locked out of the language school market.
Bucaramanga is a city of over a million people. After waking up on the bus (and feeling bad), Dan met me at the bus station. After meeting his Colombian wife Elena and their seven year old daughter, Marcela, at an outdoor roller-skating track we went to a golf course where Dan is a member. I had not had breakfast, save for a fruit juice at the bus station, so we proceeded to then drink beer. Dan has a special talent for being friends with bank managers, chiefs of police and also waiters and so had the waiter us bring food (starting with patacones and then steak) and then bottles of coke, as in a locker Dan had stashed a flask full of rum! Marcela was swimming in the pool at the club and would shout ‘look at me’ and we would wave down to her as we discussed life, death, the universe and everything. It made for a relaxing mood.
Dan pointed out to me that a common snack in Bucaramanga is fried beetle. I neglected to try this as apparently they get stuck beneath one’s teeth. That evening we had a barbecue (steak again).
I don't know if Dan’s wife is from there but she certainly needs to be tough to keep him in check!
The next day I wanted to buy her some chocolate to thank her for her hospitality. I went to the supermarket and was amazed to discover that you can drink beer in a supermarket and then pay for what you drank afterwards! There are even tables are chairs for you to sit and relax and do it. Therefore Dan and I started drinking beer before visiting Dan’s American school.
The school was really American. They teach them about how Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi is only taught because of their influence on Martin Luther King, and then never understanding the individual but simply venerating his actions. One was also expected to know that a quarter of a quarter was 6.25 cents as opposed to one-sixteenth expressed as fraction, because in America 25 cents is a quarter.
Dan showed me all the fruit growing in the trees. It grows all year round but it’s just left to rot. Dan told me that he used to pick the fruit but the students used to laugh at him, not understanding why anyone would do that … which made me sad, actually. At the top of the trees one could see where the fruit bats had had a little nibble of the fruit before flying off.
Elena was pleased with her chocolate. We took their daughter Marcela swimming again. We stayed watching her from under an umbrella to protect ourselves from the sun as we knocked back more beer and rum. It is a long time since I have drunk so much! Back home Dan introduced me to aguardiente, a Colombian alcoholic spirit but I had to call time on my drinking after just one shot as I had a bus to catch. I ate another hearty meal, this time of fish prepared by Elena. We ate with a nice girl who was studying with Dan’s wife and apparently she had just given birth to a child and the father had scarpered. Alas Dan told me that that sort of behaviour was common. I said my goodbyes and Dan drove me to the bus station. It’s a shame that I don’t get to see him more often but then again it’s probably better for my liver. My father has always been disappointed in how little his children can drink, but our hangovers are just so awful. Anyway, it was a super weekend.
Cartagena, Bolívar Department
My bus to Cartagena went via Barranquilla home of Shakira, but I knew that she wouldn’t be home so I bypassed the city. Looking out of the window I made the right decision because the place looked like a dump. Barranquilla is well known for not having any drains, so when it rains the city has torrential floods and people die
After what seems like an interminably long journey I arrived in Cartagena and was immediately hit by a wall of heat. Cartagena is in the Caribbean so the climate is very obviously different to Bogotá. When I left the capital city it was raining heavily and I had my heavy anorak. Now it was something of a handicap as I had to carry it with me. As I was leaving the bus station I was hassled by several big black guys trying to sell me things, only for me to be moved out of the way by a security guard and ushered into a waiting taxi.
Cartagena is very black. It was at the heart of the slave trade during the colonial period. The old city is very attractive but its central square was a slave market. It is also the only place in Latin America where I have ever been offered drugs. Once the sun goes down the city becomes very seedy. I was constantly being hassled by prostitutes or local men trying to sell me cocaine. A few weeks before I visited Obama had been in town for the ‘Summit of the Americas’. A lot of his Secret Service agents had partaken of the local women and then allegedly refused to pay the next morning, causing a major hoo-ha. In all of Latin America I have not felt as uncomfortable as I did in Cartagena, with maybe the exception of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay (but I wasn’t stupid enough to hang around that place at night). The problem was that I am European, or a gringo or whatever you want to call me. In my experience, it’s not really Latin Americans who buy drugs but gringos. Latin Americans don’t have enough money for drugs and their culture is more about dancing. The gringo culture is about intoxication and not dancing. If I had been black, American indigenous or Latin-looking then no-one would have hassled me.
After spending time in the Americas it’s clear that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a total waste of time. It has destroyed Colombia and is now destroying Mexico. It has had no effect whatsoever on levels of consumption of drugs in Europe, the United States and Canada, in fact, in the last thirty years drug use seems to have become increasingly commonplace. As long as people want it then they will buy it and Latin America especially will suffer. Criminalising usage has done nothing but imprison millions and fail to aid those who need medical help. Trying to have a reasonable conversation about it is impossible with our idiotic television news with its own agenda and extremist opinions, or the printed press which just seems to be out and out evil. The only thing more infuriating than the ‘war on drugs’ seems to be the ‘war on terror’, though thankfully this no longer seems to be discussed in such insane terms. (Unless Romney Wins - Ed).
I stayed in a hostel full of drunk Australians. Australians have a habit of dressing like tramps whilst travelling, thus making even an Englishman in Magaluf seem upmarket. If one ever feels overweight then one should visit the States and stand next to a fat American. If one feels underdressed then just find an Australian and stand next to them. I did see the Palestinian girl again but she was moving on to pastures new.
My breakfast the next morning was accompanied by blended banana juice, which was really lovely. I used to have either that during the day or passion fruit. Like Medellín the fruit juice was excellent, but unlike Medellín one couldn’t get the same variety and the fruit was sold indoors, rather than in the street.
That day I went to a volcano. With me on the trip were some of the most vulgar Australians I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. It’s a shame because I rather like Australians but these particular antipodeans seemed to distil all that is objectionable about that race. Anyway, this volcano was a special volcano: one could climb into it and have a mud bath! The heat bubbling up would keep you afloat.
When we got there it was another example of the tourist trap: pay to get in, pay to have a ‘massage’, which essentially meant the locals gave you a rub down in the mud (and a chance to molest the women) and then pay to be washed in a river afterwards (labelled an ‘ecological shower’). You had to pay to take photos, so I refused to be photographed there. This was fine by me as the Aussies were really pissing me off and I didn’t want to remember them in my photos. The Aussie women though did get upset when Colombian men started groping them in the volcano. I went to the river and had local women wash the mud off me and we all headed back to the hostel.
Back in Cartagena I bumped into the Germans whom I had last seen in Guatapé. We went into a restaurant and a voice called out my name. I saw a chap from Cork with whom I had dined in Salento. We all ate together. Studying the Irishman’s face I could see that he had been chewed up mosquitoes. He had slept without a net in the Tayrona National Park and the mosquitoes had feasted upon him. The Germans were staying in the same hostel as me, the Irish chap in a place over the road. That night there was a most almighty thunderstorm and the rain poured down violently, with water rushing down the streets.
In the hostel I met a chap from Montreal who had arrived in Bogotá the same day as me (the 14th of February) and had more or less the same experiences as me as well. He had quit the school where he had worked and was now travelling around Colombia before heading home (our visas lasted for 90 days). I also listened to the different languages being spoken in the hostel: a lot of Hebrew and surprisingly a lot of Norwegian. Norwegian is much more musical than its Scandinavian counterparts: Swedish and Danish. I then became wistful and nostalgic for northern Europe: the changing seasons (the seasons are more or less the same along the equator), the long summer evenings, the humour of the people, the organisation, the sense of society and meritocracy, the infrastructure, even the angst. One should never trust nostalgia and our home has many shortcomings but compared with many places in the world it is a paradise. For my own tastes I would rather the weather were better and living were cheaper, and I do lament the end of meritocracy in Britain (having spent a lot of time in the Third World I have no desire to see the UK resembling some banana republic). For many people paradise is lying on a beach and doing nothing. It’s not really my cup of tea.
I got up relatively early the next morning and checked out of the hostel. The Palestinian girl recommended to me that I visit Playa Blanca by boat and sleep overnight in a hammock. I paid for the trip, as did many other tourists, but then we were told that due to the storms last night we could not make it to that beach. A lot of driftwood was in the water, the sea itself was very choppy and it would be too dangerous to approach Playa Blanca. Instead we would go to another beach, go snorkelling and check out some old colonial fort. We would then return to Cartagena that evening, which would mean that I’d have to find new accommodation.
Once we were out on open sea it was very, very rough. Many Colombian tourists on board were totally drunk (they were travelling with cans of beer in a cooler) and the men operating the ship did not care that everyone was thrown about the boat as we bounced over large waves. The wind picked up so the overhead covers were taken down in case we would capsize. However, this meant that we were exposed to the sun and my Irish skin burns very easily. We are used more to overcast weather so I slopped on the Factor 50 and held onto my hat to stop it blowing away into the strong wind.
We arrived in shallower water and we went for a swim. Then we went to another beach. Then we went to another beach after that. I sat in the shade as the sun was intense. A Colombian man spoke to me in English and said that he worked for an English language school in Bogotá. He claimed that he could get me a job but naturally I didn’t trust him. Then we went out on the open sea again and I had to use my life jacket to cover up my bare legs from the sun (I was in my swimming trunks). We were all bashed around as the drunk Colombians screamed with laughter as they cut their knees.
We arrived by an old colonial fort. As soon as we arrived we were been hassled by locals trying to aggressively sell us trinkets. I met a young girl who was about five years of age and we had a very basic conversation where she asked me where I was from and that sort of thing. She then walked over to her father and he said (in Spanish) ‘go back to him and don’t come back until you’ve sold something’. It was like a Caribbean version of a Dickens novel.
Some of the people in the group had paid for a meal with their tour and got something very basic. Throughout the meal, locals were hassling us to buy their junk. There was a strange conversation between one of the locals and the chap who offered me a job but it was out of earshot. To be honest, the coastal accent of Colombia can be very difficult for me to understand.
I walked away from all the aggression and saw an Argentine couple who were part of my trip. We had a very frank discussion about class and race in Latin America (which they initiated). Class and race are intertwined in that part of the world. Argentineans consider themselves European and therefore better than everyone else in Latin America (they’ve got some things right but they certainly don’t know how to run a country).
The Argentinean couple were shocked at the behaviour of the local people in Cartagena, how they were so aggressive, how they had no self-respect, how they were essentially criminal, but also how whites and blacks addressed each other. According to the Argentineans, the chap who tried to offer me the job in Bogotá had essentially talked down to the people who were trying to sell him trinkets. In turn, they spoke to him and everyone else in a very confrontational and rude manner. The whole situation was very ugly and I was glad to leave, though it meant going on the open sea again and being bashed about on the wooden seats.
When I got back to Cartagena I checked into the hostel over the road where the Irish guy was staying and booked myself onto a bus to Taganga, near Santa Marta.
The next morning I caught a mini-bus to Taganga. The driver of the bus was chatting to a local organiser in the front seats as we drove around Cartagena collecting people. I have only touched upon this before, but I found the Spanish in this area of Colombia nearly impossible to understand. All the regions have their own accent: Bogotá is quite nasal, Medellín is very soft and many people pronounce the ‘s’ like a ‘sh’, but the Spanish on the Caribbean coast is like something else entirely. When they speak together I can understand nothing! They don’t say the letter ‘s’, like the Chileans, but having some familiarity with Chile I can generally catch the drift of what they’re saying (unless it’s a load of guys at a party and they are drunk). I could understand nothing of the two guys in the front of the mini-bus. It was like a different language altogether.
Taganga, Magdelena Department
Taganga is just beside Santa Marta in the Caribbean Region of Colombia. It is much more relaxed than Santa Marta, probably due to being a fraction of its size. I stayed in a lovely hostel called ‘Casa de Felipe’ which has the best food in Colombia. I don’t just mean good grub, I mean the food there was haute cuisine. They had a French chef and a trainee who was half-Portuguese, and among the food I ate was a freshly caught sea bass. This was the best sea bass that I have ever eaten in my whole life. It was just incredible. It is always a pleasure to find something of such good quality as you get older. Just as you think that you have found the standard for good food, someone else comes and raises the bar. It was also bizarre to find it in a hostel on the Caribbean coast of Colombia!
On my mini-bus to Taganga there was an American chap who had been doing his elective in Cartagena. He was put in the same room as me as we had made no reservation. In the room was an English guy, a Swiss girl and something else that I had not encountered before on my travels: a Chinese girl. I have seen Chinese tourists abroad but I had never come across one as a traveller. She spoke excellent English and was studying to pass her scuba exam. It wasn’t enough just to pass though, she had to come top of the class!
The next morning the American doctor asked if I’d like to accompany him to a nearby waterfall. It wasn’t that ‘nearby’ and there was a long trek up to see it. He then went for a swim in the lagoon, only to come out of the water with little worm things on him. I brushed them off and was glad that I didn’t go into the water myself. We ate bananas and mangos as we went because people were selling them to us en route. They were probably just picked around the corner and they were very yummy.
||The evenings were spent eating at the hostel. The American went back to Cartagena the next morning so I spent the next day visiting Playa Grande, which was just next to Taganga. It wasn’t really that big, so I spent the rest of the day drinking fruit juice and not doing much. The Caribbean is really nature’s Prozac: I was lying in a hammock wondering what I was going to do in England and how I would manage for money, but instead of my usual depression I felt very relaxed due to the climate. It’s no wonder that no-one is motivated in that part of the world!
The evenings were spent eating at the hostel. The American went back to Cartagena the next morning so I spent the next day visiting Playa Grande, which was just next to Taganga. It wasn’t really that big, so I spent the rest of the day drinking fruit juice and not doing much. The Caribbean is really nature’s Prozac: I was lying in a hammock wondering what I was going to do in England and how I would manage for money, but instead of my usual depression I felt very relaxed due to the climate. It’s no wonder that no-one is motivated in that part of the world!
The next morning I decided to go to the Tayrona National Park. I met a young Irish couple who had just come from there and they were covered with bites. The fairer the skin, the more the mosquitoes come to bite you. I made a mental note to get a mosquito net when I could. I already had repellent.
The Chinese girl wanted to come with me, but when we went to the cash machine she had the same problems as I did when I was in Armenia. I took her to Santa Marta in a taxi to find a machine from a different bank (Taganga only has one cash machine). Despite her various academic gifts (she was going to study in the States and had come top in her scuba theory exam) she wasn’t very practical in an emergency.
Tayrona National Park, Magdalena Department
We bordered a bus for Tayrona. On the bus were two Germans (not a couple but I think the guy had designs on the girl with him) who then made the journey with us. The German chap had done his M.B.A. in Hong Kong and was enthusiastic about all things Chinese, whereas my knowledge of China is patchy once one gets past the old revolutionary politics (my favourite has always been Zhou Enlai) and the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Most Chinese think we know nothing of their country so the Chinese girl was amazed that we were able to chat and ask questions.
When we got to the campsite we had to pay again to get in, which was a drag. I found some Americans who had a spare mosquito net and bought it from them. I ate some prawns and rice cooked locally and chatted with my companions. I sprayed myself with repellent and went to bed in the hammock and covered myself with the net. It took a while to get to sleep but the hammock was comfortable.
I woke up the next morning because of the heat. My face had not been eaten by the mosquitoes but my arms and legs were covered with bites. The white parts of the top of my legs and the underneath of my arms seemed to have been particularly juicy. I explored the area a bit, had something to eat and avoided going to the toilet as they were some of the worst toilets that I’ve seen in Latin America. In fact, I didn’t see them, I just saw the mess from the distance and smelt the awfulness. I bought a ticket to go back to Taganga by boat rather than get the bus.
The boat journey was wet and rough and I quite often got a face full of water, arriving back in Taganga after about an hour. My travelling companions headed towards Cartagena whilst I went back to hostel to sleep for the night. I then got very ill, with one of the worst stomach complaints that I’ve ever had. I was worried that it might be mosquito-related as my joints hurt as well. Some of the symptoms of Dengue Fever are similar to the ‘flu. One cannot vaccinate against Dengue nor is there a cure. Thankfully it wasn’t Dengue but the next day I stopped eating so that I could travel. The sickness I contracted was probably food poisoning from the food that I ate in Tayrona Park. I suspect that the levels of hygiene were rather relaxed.
I got a taxi to the bus station the next day. The taxi driver couldn’t understand why I wasn’t flying to Bogotá. Most people in Colombia fly the long distances as the roads are so bad. The reason I didn’t fly was that I had no money!
The journey was long … about 20 hours. There was a Norwegian chap travelling. He had finished university and had been journeying through Latin America. He seemed very well-adjusted and positive. I am impressed by the positive nature of Northern Europeans, especially when they are teenagers. French and English teenagers seem to be so maladjusted (in ways different to one another) whereas the Germans, the Dutch and the Scandinavians always seem so positive, right up until their mid-twenties. I don’t know when all these people find the time to commit suicide as they are (especially the Swedes) supposed to be dreadfully depressed. Everyone on the bus was staring the Norwegian as he was so tall and blond. He was very exotic to them.
We arrived at the main bus station and I realised that the Norwegian had no idea where to find accommodation so I took him on a bus to find some hostels. He very kindly gave me some bananas and we chatted about Norwegian writing systems and how our cultures viewed Vikings differently.
More travel stories
I realised that when we got off the bus we had gone a bit further past our intended destination, and then realised that it was a rather rough neighbourhood and we looked like the personification of tourists, especially the Norwegian looking very tall, blond and wearing shorts. We moved with speed out of the bad area (fortunately it was early in the morning and most of the dodgy people were asleep) and then amazingly stumbled upon the Presidential residence. I had not been there before and had had no idea that it was beside such a rough neighbourhood. We had our bags checked by security to make sure that we weren’t terrorists (we were very unlikely looking terrorists) and I then took the Norwegian to La Candelaria where all the hostels are. I then went back to Diana’s flat.
Over the next few days I changed my flight and continued to get sick. Thankfully the illness burnt out when I got home to England. It was sad to say goodbye to my Colombian chums but I had arrest the haemorrhaging of cash that was my life in Bogotá. I never liked that city, though I pretty much liked all of the rest of the country. I never saw the Amazon, which was a pity, but had I neither the time nor the money. My favourite place was the Coffee Zone. Colombians use overstatement a lot (everything is super!) but I highly recommend that place. I liked the look of Cartagena but not what went on in that city.
It is a shame to me that Colombia still has such a dreadful reputation for narco-conflict and kidnapping. Thankfully, that is more or less in the past. You are more likely to die of boredom in Bogotá! To be kidnapped one would have to get a plane to the Amazon, the get a military helicopter to an area with narcos, then hack through the jungle with a machete and then, maybe, someone might kidnap you. Alternatively one could try a similar type of journey but to the border with Panama. What is happening in the north of Mexico is far worse (plus Mexico is run by criminals). Venezuela is a security nightmare, with seemingly a genuine breakdown of law and order in many of its cities. As Chávez gets sicker, so the country descends with him. I heard horror stories of people being robbed by the police and not being able to venture out around Caracas because of the gangs, plus not being able to withdraw money from cash machines as Venezuela is now beyond the Pale to international banking. However, it is still Colombia which has the terrible reputation. Having a Colombian passport is a major handicap when travelling.
At Bogotá Airport I was recognised by a Swiss girl whom I had met in Taganga. At least I had a bit of company on the flight home. We changed at Madrid – she had to fly to Zurich and me onto Heathrow. We kept each other company as we were noticing the cultural difference of Europeans at the airport compared to the Latin Americans that we had left behind.
My parents did not know that I was returning. It had rained in Folkestone and I was welcomed by air perfumed with the smell of the wysteria growing over my front porch. The house was empty so I weighed myself and found that I had lost a stone and half in weight (9.5 kilos) due to the altitude in Bogotá. Not bad!
© Dermot Sullivan September 2012
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