Saving the Best for Last

Trip Start Mar 09, 2009
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Trip End Jul 06, 2010


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Flag of Colombia  ,
Monday, May 24, 2010

I had always said when I set off on this particular adventure, that it would be indefinite and that I would let life happen. I'd have ideas but no firm plans and if I found my future somewhere along the route,  be it work, a man, a place, then I’d find a way to move there.  Basically I was open to whatever life threw into my path.  But there again after 11 months in Latin America I imagined I’d be more proficient in Spanish and so after 14 months on the road I was starting to be resigned to the fact that maybe my future/ destiny whatever you want to call it was not in Central or South America.  I’d loved Nicaragua but couldn’t really see myself living there; Buenos Aires, but any country that has the Tango as their national dance, full of melancholy, repression, and obsession says a lot about their national psyche.  There is little wonder that there are more shrinks per capita in BA than any other city in the world.  Then there was sizzling, sambaing, stunning Brazil where the men tried to kiss you before asking your name and the economy is booming, ripe for investment and job opportunities, but requiring me to learn another language and not to mention psychotically expensive.  So I had started to think seriously about moving to Melbourne and getting quite excited about it; thinking about being able to regularly see my brother, sister-in-law and nephew, of hanging out with dear friends like Meg and Bondy, Cam, Zoe and Rich, Mcphee, Annelise, to name a few.  And then just when I think I had made up my mind, life throws me a curve ball.  That curve ball being Colombia.

Since arriving a month ago, I’ve had a huge smile on my face and have caught myself on numerous occasions recognising that I am in a very very happy place and completely content and enjoying my life.  I often think we forget to acknowledge those little and many moments of true contentment as they are happening and only remember them when they’ve past us by and it’s too late.  So I find myself caught, mesmerised by this immensely diverse and stunning country.  I have also been travelling with the lovely Lucy who I met in Buenos Aires and travelled around Brazil with.  We’ve also been meeting up and travelling a lot with Bee, a Danish Brit who lives in Sydney and who with met in Brazil.  So all in all the last month has been absolutely fantastic and I’ve been able to share it with great travel companions.

Highlights

Wandering around the indigenous markets in Silvia, near the white washed colonial city of Popayan, where if you’re caught taking photos of the Guambiano people they are known to smash your camera.

Going on a bar crawl in a shopping centre in Cali, yes a shopping centre, but not getting any further than the first bar, which not only gave us cheap silver bracelets, but also pop out hearts and took our photo which they printed out there and then for us.  And if that wasn't enough, the bar staff couldn't do enough for us, making sure we were okay.  Unfortunately we didn't hit Cali at the weekend so missed why it's the Salsa capital of the world and it's night life.

The seductive, racy and sexy Medellin, who knows how to party and where we met some wonderful people, including a museum attendant who stopped us, as we were wandering admiring the Boteros; telling us that we were obviously not Colombians.  Lucy and I searchingly looked at each other, was it because we were speaking English, looked English?  No it was because we were wearing flip flops.  She then proceeded to inform us that only the destitute and homeless wear those kind of shoes in Colombia.  Eventually she relented and said "maybe we’d wear them to do the housework or if on the beach, but they’d be much prettier than yours." It made us laugh so we told her we were heading to the beach!  We met two wonderful women in the uber cool restaurant Carmen to a slightly strange but incredibly helpful photographer Michael from Florida.  And then there was the salsa, the bars, the restaurants, the atmosphere of Zona Rosa and the fantastic Mark and Russell who Lucy and I had met in Bolivia.

The beautiful rolling hills of the coffee region, where we toured a coffee farm and spent the night hanging out in hammocks in the Finca.  And then there was the surreal Valle de Cocora where 60 metre wax palm trees tower into the sky punctuating the rolling verdant hills.  I truly felt I was walking on the set of Jurassic Park and that any minute the ground would start shaking with the impending arrival of a Sauropod. 

The beautiful colonial and little Pueblos of Salento, the picture perfect Villa de Leyva, where Lucy and I met two hilarious Swiss French guys, Jerome and Gregory who had us in stitches the whole time so that for days our ribs and abdomens ached.  And where they were filming a film about the independence of Colombia.

Bogota, where on arrival we went to an exclusive party of a fashion designer in the stylish Bardot in Zona Rosa (what the main area to go out is called in Colombia), courtesy of Lucy’s mate, Piers, a photographer who had been living in Bogota for the last 4 years.  And meeting the fabulous Fernando who made killer cocktails, that’s my excuse for what happened that night.  Meeting the wonderful and lovely Mauricio who introduced me to his whole family, prompting his uncle to ask me “So let me get this right, you’re a backpacker?”  I nodded.  “And yet what? You just turn up in cities and go to parties?” Pretty much correcto senor.  And then there was a visit to Andres Carne de Res with Mauricio, Lucy and Steve, an English guy we’d met in Medellin.  This was an experience difficult to describe, A Disney land smorgasbord of eclectic magic; a restaurant of humongous proportions; a club where everyone ends up dancing on the tables.

White water rafting near San Gil on grade 4 and 5 rapids where I got thrown out of the raft on the last rapid and body surfed through the white water laughing.  A totally exhilarating and energising experience, but over too soon and not a patch on the Zambezi, but a great day out even at the expense of a contact lens.

Then there is the varied landscape, the beautiful verdant rolling hills home to cattle reminiscent of Herefordshire.  The lush tropical rainforests; the thousands of different varieties of orchids, hibiscuses, bougainvilleas, the stunning red Flamboyant flowering trees, the palm trees and ferns and vines.  The rugged mountains and volcanoes of the hideously tiring Los Nevados.  Where we climbed to 5125 feet taking over an hour to ascend 300 metres and walk 1.5 kilometres.  It was a case of walking 5 steps then resting for 5 minutes, never being able to catch your breath as freezing winds blew through our clothes chilling our bones.  At least the 4 girls made it, even the two in shorts (!?!!?) which is more than could be said for the boys, the Loser Dom and the ever appearing Andrew.  I kept bumping into Andrew from Bariloche to La Paz to Manizales in Colombia.

Then there are the birds, brightly painted parrots, hundreds of hummingbirds and beautiful fluttering butterflies.

And I haven’t even mentioned Cartagena, which I totally fell in love with.  There is little wonder why it’s called the gem of the Caribbean.  A stunningly atmospheric, romantic, tranquil, stifling hot, sweaty and sticky city that rocks to the beats of the Caribbean, not just musically but also in the pace of life.   At night it is truly stunning, and there is no let up on the oppressive heat except for the occasional welcome tropical downpours. It's sexy and sultry, a curvaceous woman in a red dress dancing provocatively, hips swaying, back straight, her long hands lifting up her lustrous, heavy, dark hair off her long perspiring neck.

It's heavily influenced by African culture, the music, the dancing and the slight disregard for authority.  There are not only beautiful painted houses, with bougainvillea decorated balconies but thoughtfully designed bars and restaurants, and boutique hotels which we could only gawp at before returning to the tastefully designed Media Luna hostel.  A white washed hostel with dorms decked out in white, surrounding a lovely brightly tiled pool and upstairs, a beautiful roof terrace and if that wasn't enough; there is the lovely, bouncy and flirtation 7 month old Alsatian.

Plastic, Drug and Sex Tourism

Not to worry the folks at home, but occasionally stories about places are true and so it is with Colombia.  The stories of hostile people don’t match the unbelievable friendliness and charm I have encountered and as for the danger, at the moment it is just stories of muggings in Bogota, even though they are of a rather disturbing regularity they are at the moment just stories.  Leading me to being not convinced it is any more dangerous than other places I’ve been, like Salvador de Bahia where the Lonely Planet guaranteed I’d be mugged or Bolivia where most travellers convinced me I’d be robbed and where I was certain that my luck would eventually run out... none of which occurred.   One truth is the huge propensity of plastic surgery making Colombian women some of the most beautifully enhanced women in the world especially in Medellin which is allegedly the plastic surgery capital of Colombia, where girls as young as 15 have nose jobs and breast augmentations (read enlargements).  The latest craze is bottom implants making me want to break out into “I like big butts and I cannot lie...” but I just about restrain myself when a rather fine specimen of a pert posterior wanders by.  So Colombia has now become a huge destination for plastic tourism, those wanting top quality surgeries at bargain basement prices.  Seeing some of the results of face lifts, lipos etc I can quite understand why and I am planning of having my eyes done when I return to Bogota in mid June.  No not to have the major bags and fine lines removed, but to correct my appalling short sightness.  Laser eye surgery was pioneered in Colombia and it now boasts some of the best surgeons in the world.

And then there is the fact that Colombia does own 80 % of the cocaine trade and production is increasing annually at 15% to meet the demand from the US and Europe.  And as such attracts travellers and immigrants looking for a drug fuelled lifestyle and Medellin seems to warrant more than its fair share; something about Pablo Escobar.  So when Lucy and I turned up there to meet some friends we were not sure what to expect.  The authorities want to play down Pablo Escobar and almost deny his existence, in an attempt not to idolise him and what he stood for.  The lower socio economic groupings of Medellin still look at him, even after all this time, as some modern day Robin Hood because he helped build schools and hospitals with his drug laundered money.  Those in the middle classes and above see him nothing more than a horrific, terrifying  murdering scum bag.  At the height of his terror a hit (person not drug) cost US$30 and young teenagers ran amuck with guns killing whoever Escobar ordered dead, normally those in authority.  Now Medellin is a fantastic modern city, with clubs, restaurants, bars and the ubiquitous salsa clubs, but the hangover of Escobar’s legacy still remains drawing in the curious and the disturbed tourist.

We met our friends in the hostel, the Black Sheep, Russell and Mark from Liverpool and Etienne from France and over the weekend hung out with them as well as doing our own thing like going sightseeing to museums, botanical gardens and going to one of the best restaurants in Medellin; the stylish and elegantly designed Carmen.  And on recommendations, having picked up the others ended up in a fabulous salsa bar, Cachao, where I not only introduced myself to the owner, but tried to dance the night away in my own uncoordinated and undiluted abandonment.  The next night after a fantastic Mexican dinner we went back to the hostel and were regaled by stories from Mark which went as follows:

Russell earlier in the day had walked into their dorm as their rather strange dorm mate walked out of the en suite bathroom tightening a belt around his upper arm.  Now Russell is the kindest person you could meet, doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body, couldn’t say boo to a goose.  Oh shit thinks Russell he’s been shooting up in the bathroom, but no.  He proceeds to sit on his bed, pick up a needle which he flicks and injects himself.  Russell asks “What you doing man?” To which the guy just looks scathingly at the needle in his arm and then at Russell who bids a hasty retreat. 

Later that day Russell sees the guy again with a knife in his hand and he explains that if he doesn’t get 50 mg of diazepam he cuts himself. Next he calls Russell a Pussy because he won’t do a huge line of coke and it soon becomes clear that he is the resident drug dealer from whom you can acquire whatever you so desire, hash, marijuana, pills, coke or heroin.

He then comes out with classic lines such as “People shoot that’s why God created guns!” and other pearls of wisdom such as “Friends, what are friends in this day and age.”  We were not only entertained but more than a little scared, congratulating ourselves that we had opted for a double private room and not a dorm.  We later found out he is pretty much a resident in the hostel, which has caused us some concern as it's not particularly pleasant (read incredibly disturbing) to be sharing a room/ sleeping in the same room/ having all your worldly possessions in the same room as an unpredictable heroin addict.

Then there is the sex tourism.  The prospect of sleeping with beautiful women draws numerous men from all over the world, many who end up sleeping with prostitutes.  Expats/ Gringos living in Colombia have admitted that the women you really want to 'hook up’ with, don’t want to have a Gringo chaser reputation so tend to ignore the male Gringo and the ones you’re not really interested in tend to be the one’s available.  I’ve heard many a boast from male travellers about the women they’ve scored and the drugs they’ve consumed.  Sadly in hostels throughout Colombia you can find groups of men not just comparing notes, but whose sole purpose of being in Colombia has been to score hookers and coke and they sleep all day and miss out on this fantastic amazing country, which is tragic.

The Sleaze Factor

Even though Colombian on the whole are friendly this being South America, there is a sleaze factor.  On a scale of 1 – 10 it’s about 5 to 6, manageable and not too intrusive.  The general approaches are initially friendly, “Amiga; Senora; Que linda” not many of this hissing through teeth, so popular throughout South America and Africa.  But then proceeds to “Tienes un novio?” Roughly translated “Do you have a boyfriend?” Quickest and easiest response is “Si”.  Unless of course you’re somewhat interested in the questioner.  Lucy has been subjected to numerous advances, some of the most ingenious coming from the Police.

-         “How old are your children?”

         “I don’t have any children.”

         “So what does your husband do?”

         “I don’t have a husband.” Oh no as the realisation of being caught out hits her.

Probably the most disturbing came from a coffee magnate.  We were staying at his Finca for a night, initially he was very gracious, incredibly helpful and couldn’t do more for us.  It soon became obvious that he liked Lucy, but Lucy was not nicknamed “Trousers on Barton!” at university for nothing and thus resisted the persistence of said Coffee Magnate.  Unfortunately we heard that another girl had not been so lucky and was staying at the Finca alone with him.  After all the workers had left for the night, he basically molested her and she had a horrendous time.  This all occurred unbeknownst to us, two nights after we left the Finca and to a girl we knew and yet all the while he was still texting Lucy about meeting us in Cartagena.  When she responded, after finding out about the other girl’s ordeal, that it probably wasn’t a good idea, he replied that he didn’t realise Lucy had deep feelings for him.  Made us piss ourselves, the arrogance of the man!  But on a serious note, I would advise no single female traveller to stay alone at the Hacienda Venecia, which is recommended in the LP.

La Violencia

The recent history of Colombia has been obviously dominated by violence, kidnappings and yup Cocaine, the desire to control the growing, producing and distributing of this little white powder has resulted in untold deaths, displacements and huge misappropriation of funds.  The lines between the guerrillas like FARC and the paramilitaries, basically militia set up to curb the guerrillas, have been and are still extremely blurred, both committing horrendous atrocities.  Both have been heavily involved in the drug trade, the Paramilitaries given licence to be involved in drug cartels as long as they kept after the guerrillas.  And it is estimated that FARC receive over US$200 million annually through the drug trade. The majority of Colombians we have met have had at least one family member kidnapped or killed due to La Violencia.  The guerrillas originally stemmed out of a political vacuum and then realised they could make more money through kidnapping and drugs, abandoning their political communist roots.  The number of displaced people in Colombia is second only to Sudan.   So much has already been achieved through Uribe, a hard line right wing politician, who changed the constitution so he could be elected twice, but failed to change it again so he could serve a third term.  Although murder rates are dropping; security is increasing and huge areas that were once no go, have become safe to travel through even at night, there is still fighting and killings in remote areas, kidnappings and ongoing displacement of families.  Thus the security question is high on the agenda of the two major politicians running for President.  Either the hardliner Santos or the more moderate Mockus will be elected on 20th June and the country is anxiously waiting to see what will happen, not least because Chavez has declared war on Colombia if Santos is elected.  Err maybe time then to reluctantly leave!....
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Comments

Lisa Ferguson on

Babe wow what a great almost finale to your trip. I don't blame you at all for falling in love with Cartagena. I went there for a friends wedding whilst living in New York, and it was just gorgeous...enjoy the rest of your time and hope your destiny is about to open its doors...xx

kalvindale
kalvindale on

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