Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sneaking into a Colombian Army Base

I am in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. A civil war here has been running for 50 years. There's leftist guerillas in the jungle, private armies funded by businessmen, farmers, and drug lords, and the government's army. Add to that the instability caused by the cocaine industry and you get Colombia's well-deserved reputation for violence. Until recently elections and court cases often went in favour of whoever blew up the most buildings and killed the most people. Unsurprisingly there are not many tourists here.

This weekend elections are being held for the president, senate, and chamber, and so things are pretty tense. There are soldiers with machine guns and bullet-proof vests just about everywhere. From 6pm tomorrow there will be a 4 day ban on the sale of alcohol, to stop booze-induced political violence.

Despite all this, Colombia is much safer for tourists than you would think, as long as you stay out of the guerilla controlled areas in the jungle and listen to local advice. Over the last couple of years things have become far more settled, so much so that the US government website giving advice for travellers states that last year "only" 1 American citizen was kidnapped!

I did my research before coming here, and plan to stick only to safe roads and cities. My research turned out not to be very good, because the first road I tried to travel along when entering Colombia was closed, due to a bridge being blown up a few weeks ago. The detour around a small mountain range added many hours to the trip. I've decided to stay put in Bogota until after the election, insteadf of taking risks on the highways.

It's a pity Colombia has all these problems because it is a fantastic country. The mountains and coast are beautiful, it feels relaxed (or as relaxed as a country at civil war can be), and people are friendly. The day after I arrived I found myself being shouted (für die Deutsche: "to shout someone" bedeutet einladen) in a cafe by a couple of young Colombians and being invited to hang out at their place. Someone else has invited me to go travelling this weekend to a region known as the coffee zone, where the famous Colombian coffee is grown, although due to the election I won't be going.

The highlight so far in Colombia has been a city on the Caribbean coastcalled Cartegena, founded by the Spanish not long after Colombus first came this way. It is situated on an island just off the coast. and it's enormous sea walls built to keep English pirates away from the gold and silver Spain was harvesting are still in place. They surround a city of old colonial buildings with grand churches and theatres and a disused bull-fighting ring. Walking along the sea walls in the evening when a strong sea-breeze is whipping up the waves you can half imagine Spanish sailing ships are likely to appear on the horizon. If you know the Robert de Niro movie The Mission, where he is a Jesuit priest fighting for the rights of Native Americans to have souls, then you've seen this city, because it was used for scenery.

Twenty minutes walk away from the colonial centre, on an extension of the island, there is a row of resort-oriented beaches. Some people say Cartegena is the most beautiful city in South America. I haven't seen every city in South America so I don't know if it is true, but it is probably the best I have seen, especially when walking through at night.

Colombia doesn't attract your usual travellers. Notable are the people who come here simply to sample as much of the local mind-altering produce as possible, and I am not talking about caffeine. I try to stay away from them as much as possible because you can't have a conversation that makes sense with them. One of them, an idiot from Germany, tried to convince me that the former drug lord, Pablo Escobar was a good man. Pablo Escobar, who was possibly the richest and most violent criminal in history, who ordered the deaths of untold journalists, politicians and judges, as well as other people who didn't see things his way, who blew up a passenger jet in order to kill one of the passengers (who by chance actually wasn't on it: see, who caused Bogota to earn the title of the most violent city on earth during the 1990's, who was once estimated by Forbes magazine to be the 7th richest person in the world by controlling 80% of the world's cocaine market, who can compete with Hitler and Pol Pot as the 20th century's most evil men. The idiot German's argument was because Escobar built a couple of schools and hospitals in his home town.

One nicer person I met was Susan, a 66 year old recently retired American day care centre manager. She proudly proclaims that she ran the most liberal day centre in America, talking the children on peace marches. Sounds a bit odd to me, I think most 3 year old don't care about politics unless it involves lots of finger painting and afternoon naps.

I also met Juan, an American soldier who finished a tour of duty in Iraq only two weeks ago. He saw a lot of front-line duty, and is understandly somewhat tense at the moment. Hanging out with him challenged some of my ideas about American soldiers, because he was smart and knowledgeable and quite moderate in his views, and witty too. He joined the army as a way to obtain american citizenship. As we walked through Cartegena one night a beggar started pestering us. Juan was born in Central America and speaks fluent Spanish, so he very politely talked to the beggar and said goodbye. The beggar kept following, so Juan spoke much more sternly and told the beggar, "You are not respecting me. I like to be treated with respect. Now leave us alone." The beggar still persisted, and, well, my Spanish is pretty weak but I think what Juan said, with his chest stuck out, and only inches from the beggar's face, was, "I don't want to have to kill any more people, but if you don't leave now I will have no choice." The beggar left _very_ quickly. I chose not to ask Juan any details about the people he has killed.

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