Monday, January 15, 2007

Colombia - The Second Instalment


Since my last communiqué I´ve been gallavanting across South America like a bison with a rectum full of San Pedro, ducking, diving and avoiding customs officials like some kind of venomous plague. I´m now in Huaraz, Peru, preparing to embark on an epic, ten-day hike known as the Huayhuash trek. Scarily, I have also just discovered that this is the very place where John Simpson (made famous by the incredible docudrama ´Touching the Void´) almost met his maker.

Without wanting to put you off, I´m afraid that this entry may end up acquiring a dimension that may be described as ´large´. Others might call it ´gargantuan´, while still others might attempt a comparison with a long-extinct, elephantine beast (ahem, ´Mammoth´).

So, so, so. Yes. I should start. Where did I get up to? Answers on a postcard. No, no, no. This isn´t right, let´s try again.

Bogota: place of strange contradictions. One street can be lively, modern and vibrant, while the next is deserted, decrepit and devoid of any feeling of life. A grey nothingness. The weather is mostly cold and rainy, and it´s almost impossible to warm up. The air seems to chill to the bone without ever getting really cold. This doesn´t reflect the spirit of the people however; Colombians seem perpetually jolly and optimistic despite the still-precarious balance of their society after years of violenzia, and are incredibly friendly to travelers. In fact, Europeans seem to possess an almost-celebrity status among the youth of the country, who will readily accept you as their new best friend. They are openly reaching out to the world with open palms.

President Uribe seems to have done a good job of appeasing the various guerrilla groups (FARC, Paramilitaries and ELN), and the country appears to be entering a new era of prosperity. Colombians have embraced their newly emerging culture with an almost-alarming disregard for their violent past (and who can blame them?) – hence, Shakira is probably their greatest living national hero. The day before I arrived in Bogota, most of the Platypus crowd had been to see this bastion of Colombian culture shaking her booty at the local arena, and very few were displeased with what they saw.

Another sign of the country´s growing wealth is that many Colombians in their late 20s or 30s have dental braces - presumably because modern dental practice has only become affordable (or available) in the last few years. Men in suits and mature students proudly beam mouthfuls of steel as they pass in the streets and chat in cafes, bringing back contrasting memories of my own experiences at secondary school, suffering such enigmatic nicknames as "train tracks" and "metal mouth". Horses for courses…

Similarly, Bogota and Medellin are now global hotspots for laser eye surgery and cosmetic augmentation. One afternoon when I was relaxing at Hostel Sue with Neske and Jack, an Irish girl walked in looking like she´d just gone one-on-one with Prince Naseem, ran through the courtyard shouting, "Don´t look at me", and locked herself in the bathroom. After ten minutes dousing her eyes with various cleansing fluids and steroid drops, she emerged wearing huge, black sunglasses like a blind Jackie ONassis.

Come to Colombia ! The cheap and cheerful way to better vision…

Did I mention that I ate a lot of steak in Bogota? In retrospect, I´m rather glad that I indulged that particular vice, because the food in Colombia goes from bland and uncompromising to bland and deeply dull. Three food groups seem to exist in the hearts, minds and fields of Colombia: rice, plantains and chicken. Local people are happy to eat this heady combination day after day, with little sign or want of variety or seasoning. Fortunately, I love chicken. I can eat it for breakfast. And so I did, most days that I was in Colombia. Fortunately, their fruit is excellent and makes a laughing stock of anything you can buy in England – especially the mangos. My most enduring memory is of maracuya, a spherical fruit that you crack open to scoop out the insides, which resemble unhatched tadpoles. A very tasty and subtle flavour, somewhat similar to passion fruit, and supposedly very good for the digestion (since writing this entry, I have been helpfully informed that maracuya is in fact passion fruit).

There´s very little else to say about Colombian food, other than that it´s simple, unchallenging and easy on the eyes. The empanadas are great though – if you´ve never had one, think big, stodgy samosas filled with rice and/or potato, chicken and/or beef/dog.

I´m drawn to another memory of my friend Rocio´s Argentinian boyfriend, Pablo. That week at the Platypus was the first time they´d met in the flesh (having originally met on the internet). In keeping with Argentina´s reputation for inordinate cultural pride, Pablo had brought with him a receptacle that looked a little like a giant, stainless-steel eggcup, complete with shiny metal straw. With this marvelous frabtraption he concocted a mouth-numbingly bitter tea (known as maté), which he sat and sipped with superior satisfaction, gaining even greater joy from the looks of revulsion that greeted him every time he offered someone else a sip. "Everyone drinks this in Argentina", he would say, and go back to sipping his bilious slurry like a lord of leisure.

Also that week, my American friend Chris taught me a great song on the guitar, which I have as-yet failed to perfect. It´s called ´Sons de Carrilhões´, written by a fella named João Pernambuco. I´d highly recommend getting hold of a copy if you have a weakness for classical guitar.

But enough of Bogota . After finally agreeing to meet Rocio, Pablo and hopefully Nezke in Taganga on the Caribbean coast, I spent my last day impatiently waiting to leave. I´d decided to see as much of Colombia as possible via a counter-clockwise tour of the country, rather than simply shooting south through Ecuador. There was simply too much to see and do. I was set on trekking to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) near Parque Nacional Tayrona, lured by tantalizing reports of little-known ruins and notorious kidnappings, having seen enough museums and gold-clad churches to last well into the next life.

Incidentally, Bogota has a fantastic gold museum (mostly plundered from small, confused people), and a thriving cultural scene fuelled by the huge student presence. The Botero museum displays bizarre images by Colombia´s most celebrated artist – bloated, spherical people standing in mute poses – along with a surprisingly eclectic collection from artists such as Lucian Freud and Picasso. But I´d had enough of the bars, the MP4 music videos, the trendy bohemian culture, and the 40th-floor penthouse clubs of Bogota. It was time to hit campo.

On my way to San Gil with Israeli Debbie in tow, I was immediately struck by a feeling of liberation – adventure. It took us ages to escape the industrial, concrete grip of the city in our cheap, rickety school bus (Debbie had insisted on taking it because it was cheap), but things rapidly improved as the city fell away and the verdant, rolling countryside took hold. I spent six solid hours staring out of the window at the pastoral scenes rolling by, and never got bored.

Incongruous sites along the way included an estate of peculiar, multi-coloured castles resembling a miniature Camalot, set away from the road - the purpose of which shall forever remain a mediaeval-latino mystery. Later we drove past a peculiar circular diner that would have perhaps felt at home in the middle of a cheap British theme park, set on the lip of a beautiful valley, completely deserted and impotent. Here and there, I spotted a few indigenous-looking types, but these were to prove few and far between.

Colombians north of Bogota (and perhaps all over the country) seem to deeply enjoy wrestling with large animals. Two hours into the drive I spotted a woman dragging a belligerent, semi-enraged oxe along a roadside as her children skipped about, poking gleefully at the beast while she postured and screamed, cursing its impudence. The oxe was clearly unhappy with its lot in life, lolling its head violently against the bank and tramping its feet disgustedly amidst clouds of dust. Later, I saw an old man attempting to push a donkey clearly possessed of a similar spirit of disobedience, screeching to the point of collapse as its owner attempted to rant it up the hill.

Passing though narrow valleys, I was surprised to see cloud skirting the mountains around us, only 40 meters above our heads. We passed through various small towns and suddenly the air was warm and humid. I realized that I was breathing more easily, my mind clear. Debbie sat nervously in the back, eying everyone for signs of insurrection and betrayal. Eventually night fell, and lightning began to flash soundlessly outside as we moved at great speed through the darkness. At one point I hopped off the bus for air and had to hop back on almost immediately, running for the still-open door and diving back in at full pelt as the bus took off again without warning. I´ll never forget the look of frozen horror in Debbie´s eyes as she saw her chaperone almost disappearing into the night forever.

Arriving in San Gil around 7pm, we took a taxi directly to the Macondo hostel, me constantly assuaging Debbie´s fears that we were not being taken to a backpacker sausage factory and that our backpacks were not about to be stolen from the boot. Creeping around the corner of a narrow and incredibly steep cobbled street, the taxi finally let us out at an anonymous door with a piece of paper sellotaped to it, labeled ´Macondo´. As we shouldered our backpacks it opened to reveal a tired, scrawny apparition with blond dreadlocks and no shirt – the ozzie proprietor, Shaun. "You´re Mark, right?" he said. "Yes", I said, and in we went…

Phew, that went on a bit. Next up – San Gil, the Ciudad Perdida and various other pictoral depictions in word form.

1 comment:

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