Sunday, March 11, 2007

From the depths of the jungle it came (Colombia, Part Three)


Avenida Montes, La Paz

I´m peering out of my hostel window over a scene of barely controlled mayhem. A herd of indigenous Aymara city dwellers have ganged together, creating a human cordon across a three-way intersection. Occasionally police on motorbikes turn up, dismount, wander nonchalantly over to the protesters, kiss some of them hello, and then stand around aimlessly watching the screaming motorists. A taxi tries to sneak by the blockade by driving up on the pavement directly below my window, peeping out from behind a tree, and nearly makes a getaway before one of the ringleaders (a woman dressed in typical indigenous shawl and wonky hat) notices and leaps in front of it. Soon it´s surrounded by indignant protesters who all but shove the cab back where it came from.

This is but one of the many highlights of my first day in La Paz, Bolivia´s capital city. There´s a huge festival taking place, the biggest of the year, and the whole town has become a hotbed of Super Soaker-toting nutjobs and children specially trained to lob water bombs at anyone who looks remotely like a gringo. Everyone is a potential enemy - every window a possible snipe position, and I can only venture out into the streets with a raincoat and hope for the best. Fortunately, I look Argentinian/Colombian enough to avoid major-target status, while my two companions (an Irish woman called Kerry and an Australian fella by the name of Mike) take direct hits every 20 seconds. I walk ahead of them, wrapped in my raincoat, and watch as two girls ignore me and pelt them with party foam and water). I laugh a lot.

Later, I see a woman walking towards me through the market with a multi-colour shawl on her back. Indigenous women typically carry their babies this way throughout Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the material securely knotted across their chests. I glance into the shawl as she passes and see, not a baby, but a monkey. Little, beady monkey eyes peering out at me. Furry face contorted in glee. I recoil in shock and awe.

Later, I see eight miners crucified across the windows and pillars of the San Francisco cathedral in the city centre, a huge poster plastered across the exterior proclaiming:

5 meses trabajar sin comida
(5 months´ work without food)

Jump forward a week. I´m not actually in La Paz, I´m in Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m, and home to the once-greatest silver mine in South America´s history. There´s not enough air here and the hostels all smell suspiciously of insect repellent, but I think it really might be all downhill from now on. After this I´m heading onto the ´hallucinogenic´ (Lonely Planet´s wording) salt flats at Uyuni, then onto the wild-west environs of Tupiza and finally, the long-awaited mecca that is Argentina. And steak; monumental, voluminous, indescribable mountains of cheap, cheap steak …

So, having messed with your temporal sensibilities I´ll leap further back in time and regale you further with my travels in Colombia.

I woke up on my first day at the Macondo hostel in San Gil drousy and dirty. The air in the room was stuffy and humid and I´d been disturbed during the night by my traveling companion, Israeli Debbie´s weird, provocative sleep moaning. As I awoke I heard what sounded like blues, something like John Lee Hooker or Kenny Brown, emanating from my neighbours´ room on the second floor outside. Assuming it was a stereo, I wandered out and half-climbed the stairs, peeped over the lip of the floor and discovered that the sound was actually coming from Anthony, who was strumming away to himself as his girlfriend, Christine, sorted through her things. I climbed back down again and went back to my room, feeling like a voyeur.

They were the only guests staying at the Macondo, a cavernous ex-private school with an internal courtyard decorated with hammocks, wicker table and chairs to the right and a large wooden table next to the kitchen at the back. Arriving the night before, we´d gone straight for dinner at the local pizza restaurant – Debbie´s choice, and probably the worst meal I ate in Colombia. I ordered a Hawaiian and received a plate of grilled biscuit dough smeared in pineapple puree, topped with canned ham, mushrooms and bland cheese as white as a fat lady´s thighs. By the end of the meal my plate was a mess of mushy cake fragments and discarded scraps. I considered telling the waitress that I hated her, but decided not to.

Returning to the Macondo, I entered and went straight for the kitchen for water, offering a jovial "Hello" to the couple at the table. Ant watched me pass with an amused, goggle-eyed look - long hair, baseball cap and unkempt beard all present and correct. At first I mistook his unreadable attitude and unblinking, myopic stare for arrogance, but quickly realized that he seemed to find everyone he encountered an object of surrealistic mirth. We spent the night talking Colombian politics with the dreadlocked, oddball Australian owner, Shaun, and the resident language teacher, Flo. Debbie and Christine sat with us at the table and mostly listened.

Both from Perth, Christine and Ant had recently walked the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek in northern Colombia, embarking from Santa Marta, which was where myself and Debbie were headed next. They heartily recommended that I do the seven rather than six-day trek, which I later realized, after naively taking their recommendation, was probably their idea of an amusing practical joke. It turned out to be one of the most physically exhausting experiences of my life (a t this point I was still feeling uncertain about the Ciudad Perdida trek and almost tempted to go directly to Cartagena, but their enthusiasm clinched the decision).

As we sat round the table that night, Ant told us how they´d been sat down by one of the guides on the fourth day of the trek and given what sounded like a politically biased, pro-Paramilitary talk about the events of the mass-kidnapping that occurred at the Ciudad Perdida in 2003. Colombia´s most socially acceptable mass-murderers, the Paramilitaries had supposedly put the boot into the ELN (a rival paramilitary group), and its attempts to extract money from the various Israeli, Spanish, German and British families involved in the kidnapping. You may remember seeing one of the two Englishmen appealing on behalf of the ELN in a pre-recorded video broadcast by the BBC news (upon release, the same bloke admitted that the worst thing about the three-month ordeal was that the kidnappers didn´t understand the offside rule). Incidentally, two Australians - also part of the tour group - were almost kidnapped, but left behind at the last second for being too fat.

Shaun was full of conflicting conspiracy theories about the incident, and indignantly concerned with the plight of Colombia´s inhabitants (as many ex-pats tend to be about matters that they don´t really, actually, quite understand). His overriding belief was that the Ciudad Perdida tour groups receive anti-guerilla protection from the Paramilitaries, and that the official cover story of the kidnapping is a construct of the Colombian media - and a pro-Paramilitary propaganda exercise. Apparently, the Israelis in the group received special attention because of the ELN´s misguided believed that, as military graduates, they would be experts in weapon manufacture. So basically, the kidnapping was about weapons, not money. Or vice-versa. Or neither…?

What this discussion ultimately boiled down to was Shaun´s overriding conviction that by paying for a trip to the Ciudad Perdida, you´re actually giving money directly to the Paramilitaries. Being largely ignorant of guerilla activity in Colombia I had no idea whether this is true, and was inclined to believe that Shaun´s talk was largely paranoid and gratuitously conspiratorial (although when Ant mentioned that the trek included a tour of a working cocaine factory I started to wonder if he didn´t have a point).

Later the conversation turned to the book I was reading: William Burroughs´s ´Yage Letters´ - a search for the healing shamanic drug Ayhuasca on a journey through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Shaun then told us about his own Ayhuasca experience near Iquitos, Peru. Traveling with a friend to the isolated northern jungle city, they gained the confidence of a local shaman and were taken to a stationary floating raft somewhere off the Amazon, ingesting the vine with some other travelers. Without wanting to repulse you with excessive detail, Ayhuasca is famous for making you lose control of your bowels and stomach almost simultaneously – the result being a total cleansing of the body. After enjoying this initial process of total self-abasement, Shaun entered a waking dream populated with spiraling snakes and animal forms; later, he swore that he saw (among other things) the dark silhouette of a boy trying to climb onto the raft. The shaman also saw this thing but somehow managed to keep it at bay (Shaun told us that his younger brother had died when he was still a child, which would be consistent with the indigenous belief that Ayhuasca is a portal to the spirit world).

Later, Shaun returned to Bogota and came down with Lychmenosis - a rare flesh-eating virus that he contracted through sand fly bites during his time in the jungle (on our first night he proudly displayed the nasty scar on his leg where the parasite had eaten through to the bone). The Colombian authorities kept him for almost three months in the hospital, the condition being so rare that few other countries would have known how to treat it. After his release he spent another few months recuperating in an annex opposite the Platypus hospital (where I began my journey), looked after by travelling wunderkind and hostel-owner Germann. Then, with nothing better to do and considerably more time in Colombia under his belt than he`d intended, he opened the Macondo hostel in San Gil. And then came down with Dengi fever. The moral of this story? Answers on an e-card please!

So, after my early-morning musical awakening the next day, the four of us banded together and made our way to the local colonial town of Barichara, a place of undisturbed tranquility and hot, dry sun, where we sampled the local delicacy - grilled Cabra (goat). Afterwards we hiked for an hour and a half to Guane – a minature replica of Barichara that created the peculiar illusion of having walked an impossible circle. Of course we hadn´t - Spanish colonial towns all seem to be the product of one tried-and-tested mold.

The scenery on the way was fantastic; starting at the top of a valley, we descended with a breathtaking view of the mountains on the opposite side, vibrant green in the intense afternoon sun and hazy through the lingering humidity. We encountered a few locals coming the other way along the earthy path, and a tree festooned with old-man´s beard - an ethereal, ghostly white parasite that sprouted from the branches like seasonal decoration.

Returning to San Gil in a local taxi, we ordered what was to be the first of many grilled chicken dinners. Chicken in Colombia is excessively salty, grilled or fried, and always served with papas criolla (boiled potatoes with the skin), rice, a few slices of tomato and a few wedges of boiled yucca - a super-bland root vegetable - a bit like potato - and the staple diet of Colombia.

I seem to remember the rest of our time in San Gil spent mostly eating fruit cocktails in the bustling local produce market, shopping for hats, and trying to work up the motivation to go paragliding. I didn´t of course. I did, however, bask in the natural rock pools, learn Spanish with Flo and the Ozzies, and spend a night at a club with our new friends and patron Shaun (who, after returning to the hostel very drunk later that night, bemoaned his horrible lack of money, success and prospects. He was hugely in debt by Colombian standards and no one, not even his brother, wanted to bail him out). The next day he had the most revolting hangover I`ve ever seen; it hurt to look at him. Even his dreadlocks looked nauseas.

Despite the general oddness of our host`s demeanour, I remember San Gil as beautiful and secluded, with a pristine town square and bemusing excess of trendy shops. From there we took a long night bus to Santa Marta and the neighbouring seaside town Taganga: jumping-off point for the Ciudad Perdida jungle trek...

1 comment:

Alex said...

Christ you're boring Mark. Why don't you get out more? I joke of course, you sound mighty busy!

Meant to get in touch before, but been busy busy. When did we last talk? You know I left Future, yeah?

Been back to Bristol at all, or been in south america all this time? I've not been up to much in particular, just learning a lot of new design tricks. Still drumming, drawing and drinking though...

Anyway off to bed now, got an interview for an even newer job tomorrow! Gotta keep movin'!

Chat soon,
Alex.