The zoo, the savannah and my first car bomb

Trip Start Oct 20, 2006
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Trip End Nov 07, 2006


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Sunday, October 29, 2006

OK, so I left San Agustín for Bogotá on what ended up being another amazing 10-hour busride via Neiva through the cordillera. Spent a wild night in Bogotá, which was very enthusiasticly celebrating Halloween. As I expected, the capital didn´t dissappoint and kept me from getting any sleep. Early Saturday my Colombian friend from the US came to pick me up at my hotel and we departed south for Villavicencio. We literally flew down the mountains for 2.5 hours and arrived in a sultry Villavicencio just in time to meet our hired driver for the weekend, Juan, and the rest of our crew, which are relatives of my friend Ana.. (Name was changed and photos of my friend and her family were removed at her request for fear of exposure and possible retaliation!?!) 

First we hit the zoo, which boasted a wide variety of species from all over Colombia, amidst an impressive jungle environment. There were lots of animals I had never seen before, plenty of killers and a nice collection of crazy monkeys. I don´t know, maybe it´s their carefree attitude and endless hijinks, but I think monkeys are some of the most interesting and surely the most entertaining residents in any zoo. After a few hours visiting all sections of the park we headed out to a roadside grill to get some local fare. This is cattle country and I was hankering for a nice slab of beef and some Colombian beer, which is actually quite good. The locals make this huge skewer with the entire flank of the cow then stake it in the ground to cook before a big fireplace. Then they cut it up into huge pieces and serve it on a slab of wood with some little potatoes and yuca. As I soon learned, many people here don´t use utencils, which I don´t mind, but when you´re eating greasy pieces of meat it can get quite messy.

Next we took off east towards the obelisk on a protuberance in the middle of the savannah, nicknamed the "belly button" of Colombia since it is placed smack dab in the middle of the country. It's the perfect place to take in a beautiful sunset, which I'm discovering is something lots of people like to refer to as "a gift from nature", and of course, have some more alcohol - this time some aguardiente llanera which is a 20 proof brew that tastes like anis. We polished off a bottle as we watched the sun set over the Andes, and excellent it was. Thinking back on all the places I´ve already visited it´s hard to believe how varied but constantly beautiful the landscapes and geography of this country are. I´ve already traversed all three cordilleras, jungle, cloud forest, been through two of the three biggest cities and now seen the savannah. It´s not easy getting around Colombia as the bold terrain makes travel long and sometimes slow, but boy are there plenty of nice views to take in along the way, making the hassle of some bus rides well worth the effort.

On the way back to Villavicencio the most unexpected thing happened. We were just getting back into town from the 1.5-hour trip to the obelisk, all of us a bit buzzed from the aguardiente, when suddenly we heard this huge explosion. The lights on the lefthand side of the road went out immediately and I instinctively covered my head and jumped the instant I heard the bang. Looking at the surprised faces of the women on the other side of the minivan in which we traveled, I said, "what the hell was that?" Zuly said it must have been a firecracker. I thought to myself, if that was a firecracker, I'd hate to hear a stick of dynamite in Colombia because the explosion was so loud but so swift I knew it was something bigger. Then about 20 seconds later we pulled up upon the seventh barricade which is an army base in Villavicencio, as the FARC is very present in this area making the war here a very tangible reality. Then we saw exactly what the "firecracker" was. As soldiers ran all over the place, pounding cars and ordering them all to turn around (we were about the fourth or fifth car to happen upon the scene), I looked out the window to see the remains of what I´d later discover to be a minivan, but all I could see of it was an axle with two wheels attached surrounded by a sea of small debris. The van was completely disintegrated; I had never seen such a thing - er, that is, apart from the daily footage of Iraqi democracy in action. There was no fire and no smoke, just pieces of the van everywhere and wounded soldiers on the ground. I would later find out that one soldier was killed while six others were wounded.

After all the uneventful hours spent traversing the "red regions" of Colombia, I had finally seen up close the tactics of the FARC. Surely this was terrorism, plain and simple. Some of them apparently just pulled up in front of the base, jumped out of the van and ran, detonating the bomb from a remote they carried with them. This is a common tactic of theirs as they had realized a similar bombing here only three months earlier. In addition to an actual attack (dastardly attack, to rob the words of Geraldo Rivera), I saw a lot of communities of displaced people in and around Villavicencio, many of them settng up the most rudimentary houses in shanty towns along the roads and on the hillsides. Though the locals refer to these mass movements of refugees as "invasions" they have accepted them as the swarms of displaced peasants become "urbanizations".

Colombia has more displaced citizens than any western nation, and knowing that they are often the poorest of the poor is heartbreaking. The FARC unjustly appropriates their lands or runs them off under threat of death, often killing many of them as I´ve read about the almost 700 mass graves being investigated right now across the country. But those who support or even endure the FARC have the additional threat of the paramilitaries, often referred to as death squads, who recently left some heads impaled on stakes as a warning to other people in the countryside. As some here have stated, knowing that the government supports a lot of the paramilitaries means they are sponsoring many of the massacres that plague this war-torn nation.

Well, I ended up going out that night to the discos, receiving many long glances as next to no tourists venture to this part of the country. I was also subjected to some intense stares by some of the soldiers and police who were searching many places for possible FARC members and looking for random violators porting arms and the like. We polished off a few more bottles of aguardiente and I got pulled on to the dancefloor more than I wanted, handling the salsa no sweat but struggling to dance vallenato and cumbia, though being out there with some fine muchachas while full of alcohol made it plenty of fun. I was a real spectacle but enjoyed the attention and opportunity to learn a few more steps, not to mention hear some more of the music, which is excellent. (I know this sounds bad, but Mark Anthony makes some great music if you like Latin beats. On the other hand, his wife sucks.) One thing is for sure, Colombians really enjoy life every chance they get and go all out on Friday and Saturday.

Sunday was a more tranquil day, as we headed out to a local river to swim a bit, and eat a picnic of chicken, plantains and potatoes, sans utencils once again. I learned the local game of tejo, which is similar to horseshoes but instead of a horseshoe you toss a weight into a slanted slab of wood packed with clay, in the middle of which is an iron ring with four paper footballs placed on the four cardenal points. The folded paper is actually packed with gunpowder, so if you hit one your toss is followed by an explosion that made me hit the ground the first time I nailed it. If you get the weight in the middle of the ring you get six points, and I ended up getting two myself, winning the first game by beating everyone to 21.

I had to depart for Bogotá in the evening as my friend needed to be back in order to do some research for her university in Florida. I stayed another night in the capital before heading out west for Armenia in the coffee-growing region. I´m there now after an eight-hour bus ride which included many stops by the military. I will write some more when I get a chance.
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