Goodbye Southern Cross, Hello Big Dipper
Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
77Trip End Jul 21, 2009
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Where I stayed
Hostel La Candelaria, Bogota
The Airport Mary Loves to Hate
Frequent readers will remember the cheap airfare required us to fly roundtrip from Lima to Sao Paolo. So, to get to Bogota from Rio, we had an arduous 24-hour journey that included an 1-hour ride to the Rio bus station, a 6-hour bus from Rio to Sao Paolo, a 4-hour wait in the airport, a 5-hour flight from Sao Paolo to Lima, a 3-hour wait in Lima, a 3-hour flight from Lima to Bogota and a 1-hour cab ride to our hostel in Bogota.
We didn't want to pay for a hostel in Sao Paolo since we had to be at the airport at 3am, so we took an 8:30pm bus out of Rio, which was incredibly painless and safe, despite arriving at 2am at Sao Paolo's bus stand. I was concerned about finding a taxi to the airport or having some sketchy dudes take our bags as we were trying to exit Brasil. I heard one traveler's tale where an Australian kid had everything, passport-included, stolen as he was on his way to the airport after a year of traveling.
We began our three-country and three-airport hop by waiting in Sao Paolo's International Airport very early in the morning and blowing the rest of our BRL on McDonald's and random stuff. Mary gleefully enjoyed a 4am breakfast of an ice cream Flurry! I later found R$1.20 in my bag, which would have allowed me to buy a large fries. Damn! The airport was also noteworthy as I enhanced my contempt for airport security. They took away the half jar of peanut butter (impossible to find in most of Spanish-speaking South America) and paddleball.
These people are totally useless. They don't find anything when it needs to be found and they take away things that may be used as a weapon. I have twice boarded planes accidentally carrying a 6-inch knife and not gotten stopped. Yet, paddleball is a threat. I hope that lady's child can't speak because he has a mouth full of peanut butter (Aaron Burr!) and smacks himself in the head with the paddle. According to the logic that drove them to take away our beach toy, they should have taken my pens because I could have stabbed someone, my Lonely Planet book because it is pretty heavy and could knock someone out and me because I could threaten to punch someone. It is an extremely broken and wasteful system that exists solely to create jobs. My contempt rose in Lima as the careless security officers almost broke some rock statues and souvenirs I had bought in Bolivia.
This was the fourth time that Mary had visited Lima's not-very-interesting International Airport. The first time, she was there for something like 10 hours. This was the third time she had to pay the egregious USD31 Departure Tax for international flights. This was, hopefully, the final time she would ever set foot in this airport. I expended the remaining Neuvo Sols I had from when we were in Lima a month earlier and enjoyed one of the greatest simple pleasures in life: having a balance of zero in local currency upon departing a country. This time, I did it twice in two countries in the same day. Great Success!
Brief History of Colombia: The Truth is More Frightening Than Any Movie
After arising from a comatose state on my flight to Colombia, my observant mind was set into overdrive as I saw a suit in the customs line carrying a training manual for INSAS, which is a simulated weapons training program.
Colombia is a relatively small country in South America, though it is well known throughout the world, particularly in the US. Other than literary great Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira, when most people think of Colombia, they think of armies, weapons, cocaine, Pablo Escobar, FARC. Essentially danger and warlords. Here is a description of Colombia's torrid history.
Armed insurgencies have been a part of Colombian life since the 1960s. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional(ELN) are the two major insurgency groups, with the FARC having a decidely Marxist tilt and the ELN having more of a liberation tilt. Both of these organizations (as well as the other minor ones) have financed their heavily militant operations through extortion, ransom kidnapping, foreign aid (the FARC was allegedly financed by the IRA, barring Irish Nationals from entering Colombia until recently) and since the 1980s, drugs. Most kidnappings were of wealthy Colombians, foreign aid workers and journalists in the major cities. The ELN would kidnap individuals in the areas they controlled in return for ransom, dubbing the practice war taxes.
The coca plant is grown only in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, with most production coming from Colombia. It was a small farming crop until the explosion of cocaine use in the US (and to a lesser extent Canada, UK and Europe) in the 1970s. With one of the largest markets for a consumer good in the world (nevermind that it is illicit), the cocaine industry in Colombia was one of the largest business enterprises the world has known, and definitely the largest within Colombia. The cartels, controlled all levels of production from the farm plots to the processing "factories" (tarpaulin-tents in the jungles where the chemistry took place) to transportation/smuggling and end-line distribution. They were vertically integrated and organized like the most respected behemoth companies of the world.
The main players, at the peak of the industry in the 1980s, were Medellin and Cali Cartels. The Medellin Cartel , controlling 80% of the global cocaine market at its height, earning an astonishing USD60mm per day and worth anywhere from USD10-100bn, was run by Pablo Escobar. Escobar was, controversially, listed in Forbes Top 10 Richest People in the World in 1989. Cartel money turned Miami into a major boontown in the 1980s, with an unbelievable explosion in S&Ls, construction and luxury goods dealers. The rise of murders and violence in Miami-Dade County led to Reagan declaring a War on Drugs, the creation of the DEA, the eventual reduction in the amount of drug-related criminals and a catastrophic recession in Miami. Check out the documentary Cocaine Cowboys for more on this. But, I digress.
FARC, and other insurgency groups, controlled much of the land where coca was grown and generated massive revenues from the padded pockets of the cartels. They used this financing for purchase of weapons, training and execution of their violent and criminal acts. The army attempted to strike back, but was quite ineffectual. A unified right-wing paramilitary group, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), originally existed to combat the left-wing insurgents, but themselves became violent and crooked drug-financed terrorists. Whoever it was, the FARC, the army or the AUC, there was violence and the citizens of Colombia suffered miserably.
The US and Colombia agreed to an extradition treaty, which meant that suspected cartel members were not safe on Colombian soil and could face Federal criminal charges in US courts. Simultaenous to the violence and chaos created by the insurgency groups, the Medellin Cartel declared all-out war on the Colombian government in the early 1990s. Assassinations of key political and legal figures became the norm, including the infamous attack on a passenger liner (that killed several hundred passengers) because it was carrying a judge.
Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world in the early 1990s. Bloomberg had a monthly index of kidnappings in Colombia that was in the several hundreds at its peak. A man started an incredibly successful business of bulletproof luxury clothing (suits and such). It was crazy for me, driving through the streets of Bogota, to imagine daily terror of cartel and insurgent-created violence and kidnappings. There were no assurances you would make it through a day or that it was safe to be somewhere on the streets of Bogota or Medellin; even if you weren't the explicit target. It is equivalent to walking the streets of Baghdad, Mogadishu, northern Sri Lanka, China during the Cultural Revolution, Argentina during the Dirty War, Pinochet's Chile, etc. Yet, it was not an explicit war or government purge, as in most of the examples mentioned.
Thankfully, things have changed. Arms, security and training contractors have long had a massive market in Colombia. Long before the Blackwaters of the world began training and rebuilding Iraq, US companies have made massive profits from the drug-financed civil war in Colombia. Colombia is the top recipient of helicopters from US defense contractors. Plan Colombia was started in 1998, which is a direct agreement between the US and Colombia on shared intelligence, training and equipment, with the sole objective of reducing drug smuggling into the US. The main effects of the program have been widespread eradication of coca crops and reduction in territory controlled by and the size and effectiveness of the insurgency groups. Unfortunately, 80-90% of the program's funding has been dedicated to military efforts with little money pledged to support of farmers. Some farmers are encouraged to grow crops that are not economically feasible. I wonder when the US government will stop throwing police/military at problems associated with drugs, rather than tackling core issues: using tax revenues from controlled legal substances to reduce demand and legitimate crop-substition for the growers. Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" comes to mind. Apparently, we have learned nothing from Prohibition. Once again, I digress.
Despite myriad problems, the Alvaro Uribe-government, with a huge helping hand from the US, has eliminated the AUC, reduced FARC to the fringes of the jungles at the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador and made Colombia a far-safer place. Kidnappings are significantly down, violence is reduced and foreign investment is up. It is tough to know if/when Colombia will be able to fully govern her sovereign territory as finding FARC in the dense Amazonian jungles lacking in roads and other infrastructure is like trying to find and defeat NVA troops and the Vietcong. We all know how (un)successful that was. However, a couple of years ago, a senior FARC leader was assassinated near the Ecuador border and the raid turned up evidence that the FARC receives funding from Hugo Chavez (which he has vehemently denied). And so it goes; hopefully the trajectory will continue and Colombia will be a safer place. Additonally, this progress will allow the government to focus on other pressing social and economic issues in the country that, one could argue, were at the root of the insurgencies in the first place.
Thoughts Upon Entering Colombia: Perception is not Reality
Based on the above, Colombia sounds like a terrible place. It may have been, but it no longer is. Do not fear traveling here; it is not worse than any other Latin American country. Dispelling prejudgements is one of the main reasons to travel to a place and see for yourself. Shortly after arriving in Colombia, I realized that perception is not reality.
We drove from the airport, in Bogota DC (Districto Capital, though District of Colombia would be entirely appropriate), in a cheap pre-paid taxi (C$20,000 or USD10) for the hour-long journey it took to get to the La Candelaria part of town. I saw police presence everywhere. It is quite common in Colombia for law enforcement to patrol the streets carrying large assault rifles. While guns usually make me quite uneasy, they are pretty comforting here.
The streets of Bogota were filled with nice and large cars of all the major international manufacturers. Downtown was bustling like any major city center, with vendors on the streets, business people chattering away on their phones or typing on their mobiles, cafes full of customers and buses streaming by. There are tons of people with mobile phones chained to their belt and signs that say "Minutos C$200". These are payphones. What a genius concept. Mary is going to start a business like this in Times Square for the tourists out there without cell phones.
The former mayor of Bogota (who is now counseling SF), executed an ambitious project to reduce auto traffic and pollution in the city, including the widening of sidewalks, creation of many bike lanes, restrictions on auto traffic and the creation of the TransMilenio bus service. The express TransMilenio buses are effectively a surface metro, with their own lanes, fixed stations and far-reaching service throughout the city.
After watching some TV at our hostel (C$45,000 or USD22 for private bath and TV), in the old part of town, and going to a few shops, I realized how much Colombia is within America's sphere of influence. TV shows, movies and consumer products are all American exports. Fox in Colombia basically shows the Los Simpson 24 hours a day! Unfortunately, the dubbed voices were too terrible for us to enjoy the world's greatest TV program.
To be fair, I didn't give Bogota a shot, but it is basically a congested, modern and somewhat rundown Latin America city. In a country of 45mm people, nearly 1 out of 5 lives in its capital (8mm). It is not a particularly attractive or unique place. There are supposed to be some nice museums and the night life is supposed to be exquisite, but given we just came from a great city (Rio) and had less than three weeks in Colombia, we decided to bolt the next day.
Following Brasil, we were glad to be back in a relatively cheap country. Internet is C$1,000-2000 (USD0.50-1.00) per hour, a bottle of water or Coke costs C$2,000 (USD1) and food is cheap. Speaking of food, we had entered the land of arepas. Anyone who knows me, knows that ever since I met my close friend Franklin back in college, I have loved arepas (go to Caracas on E7th and 1st Ave in NYC). Colombia arepas are slightly different style than the Venezuelan wonders, but they are still delectable. And damn cheap. Mary and I stuffed ourselves for C$4,000 (USD2) a piece.
We were also given a very spicy salsa that was much more Mexican-influenced than any of the foods of the rest of South America. I immediately sensed the great mixture of influences Colombia has being the bridge country between Central and South America, particularly in her food and music. It is reminiscent of the cross-cultural influences felt in Turkey.
Unfortunately, my stomach was jacked once again that night. When will it end! This is one sense in which I am looking forward to being back in the US without the stress of my old life. The morning of July 2, we grabbed a delicious and fresh falafel lunch at a place downtown that could have easily been a gourmet lunch shop in NYC. It was nice to have a Middle Eastern meal again.
We grabbed our bags from the hostel (I was packed in my small luggage for the rest of my time in Colombia and happy to leave Big Bertha behind in Bogota) and hopped on a collectivo to reach the bus stand. The collectivos (or micros/minibuses) in Bogota are hysterical space-age looking vans that resemble a cross between the Car Designed by Homer and Shaggy's van in Scooby Doo. It was also only C$1,200 (USD0.60) for the 10km journey to the bus station!
Bogota's bus stand is insanely well organized. There are three terimals: Norte, Sul and Oriental/Occidental. Bogota is geographically situated at the center of the country, so basically every long distance bus goes in and out of the city. It couldn't get any easier for a traveler. We were heading north to Villa de Leyva, so we walked into the Norte terminal, bought our tickets for C$17,000 (USD9) a piece and within five minutes were on our way.