Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Addicted to Colombia

Colombia is addictive. I met many travellers there who intended to pass through quickly and ended up changing their travel plans so that they could spend much longer there. "Come for a week, stay for a month" could be the tourism department's motto. It's got to be one of the most underrated travel locations, possibly my favourite country. I didn't have the luxury to stay for months in Colombia but I everywhere I went I ended up staying longer than expected.

I reluctantly dragged myself away from Bogota, to travel by bus for 10 hours to Medellin, another big Colombian city. For safety's sake, it is recommended to only travel during daylight through Colombia, because if guerillas want to rob or kidnap people, they usually strike at night. But travelling by daylight is better anyway, because from one end of the country to the other all the countryside is spectacular. The entire journey from Bogota to Medellin was through jungle-covered mountains with ravines and rapidly-flowing rivers.

The government in recent years has been trying to ensure that the most important highways are safe, to encourage Colombians to travel again within their own country. The road to Medellin used to be very dangerous, and to make it safe, the last 100 km has soldiers stationed every 200 metres or so. For hours I could always see at least one machine-gun toting soldier in camouflages where the road meets the jungle. At first this freaked me out a bit, until I realised that because of the soldiers it is possibly one of the safest stretches of highway in all of South America.

In Medellin I only intended to stay for a couple of days, but it is such a mellow city in a spectacular natural setting in a valley in the Andes. I stayed until the last possible moment. It is near the equator, but at 1500 metres or so, the altitude-moderated climate is perfect virtually every day of the year. The locals call it the "The City of Everlasting Spring", always warm without being too hot or humid. Colombia's greatest living artist, Fernando Botero (who I had never heard of until getting here), lives in Medellin, and the city is full of his sculptures of fat things. In many of the plazas are his trademark sculptures of fat naked ladies reclining, fat men in suits, or fat conquistodors on fat horses. Really fat, completely obese, like the worst McDonalds' junkies you see in TV shows that like to reveal how fat Americans are. Along with the eternal spring and obese statues was a fantastic night life that kept me out until 4am too many times.

I finally dragged myself off for another 10 hour bus ride through more breathtaking scenery, this time to Cali. The Garden of Eden could have been in Colombia. Everywhere, everything is deep luscious shades of green, the coffee plantations, the sugar fields, the jungle on the mountains. I had intended to spend more time in Cali, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world and home to Colombia's best parties. However as I had a flight to catch in neighbouring Ecuador too soon, I could only stay one night, but fortunately it was a Saturday. I met up with some other travellers and went to a nightclub, only intending to stay briefly so I could leave early in the morning. I told myself, "it will not be another 4am morning"...and then I went home at 4:30am. I overslept in the morning, but somehow got to the bus station to continue the journey through... well, yet more inspiring scenery.

I stopped for the night in Popayan, an old Spanish colonial city. Nearby are many coffee plantations, and the owners of the plantations built this city a little higher where the air was cooler. All the buildings in the centre are painted gleaming white, old churches stand on hills, and the Andes provide a nice backdrop. By now I was really tired, from constant travelling and too many nights of short sleep, so I contemplated just resting for a couple of days. Unfortunately I just didn't have time, as I still had about 15 hours of travel ahead of me to reach Quito, Ecuador in time for my flight.

I tried to do the entire 12 to 15 hours of travel in one day. I set the alarm for 6am, ignored it when it went off, got up at 7am, and managed to be at the bus terminal in time for an 8am bus. I drifted in and out of sleep on the bus ride. The bus broke down twice, but I still was on target to reach Quito by midnight. The border crossing with Ecuador took some time, and then I caught another bus onwards. We were soon stopped by the military. As a backpacker who hadn't shaved for a week and who had just come from Colombia, it was no surprise that they searched my bags thoroughly. Naturally there was nothing for them to find. But then the real shock came...

I had been so worried about checking the Colombian news daily that I had ignored all Ecuadorean news. But it turns out that for more than a week, much of Ecuador has been basically shut down by protesting indigeneous people, angry at an impending Free Trade Agreement with the USA. Schools are shut, petrol and food supplies are limited, and the roads in and out of Quito are blockaded with burning tyres and drunk, angry people. I got about 100 kms from Quito and then couldn't go any further. I thought about taking a taxi to the blockades and walking past them. But locals told me that as a tall foreign-looking guy in this land of short Andean people it would be dangerous for me. So here I am now, 2 hours of travel from Quito, but stuck. My plane leaves tomorrow night, and I don't think I will make it. I'm supposed to be flying to Lima, Peru, where my girlfriend is flying from Germany to meet me, so it's a pretty bad situation. Luckily I am stuck in a nice town (whose name I forget immediately anytime I hear it) and I have English language television shows in my hotel room.

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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

892 Flavours of Venezuelan Ice Cream

Spaghetti Bolognaise, Germany, Black Bean,, Titanic, Power Rangers, Jurassic Park, Swiss Cake, Tuna - these are all flavours available in an ice cream shop in Merida, Venezuela. For 15 years the Guinness Book of Records has awarded it as having the most flavours, currently 892 but always increasing. I tried 9 different flavours (although not all on one visit!) and all of them, except Cheese, tasted good. An old Portuguese guy invents these flavours and hobbles around the shop, proudly showing honorary diplomas and photos of him with what I assume are famous Venezuelans who visit his shop.

Merida is a touristy town in the Andes, and I've been here for a couple of days. Other than the ice cream shop, the major attraction is the world's longest, highest - and probably most expensive - cable car. It starts in humid heat at 1500 metres and ends up beyond the clouds amongst patchy snow at 4700 metres. Getting up to the top and back again took me four hours. I don't have much faith in Latin American engineering feats, so I was glad to find it was French-built.

Before coming to Merida, I visited a large part of Venezuela near Brazil called La Gran Sabana. I looked up Gran in my phrase book - it means "big". And Sabana means "bedsheet". I'm not sure how it earned that name. This big bedsheet is an elevated plain some 1500 metres high, bordering the Brazil's Amazon region. It's mostly scrub land, but punctuated irregularly by isolated table top mountains that are cut off from the surrounding land and have therefore each developed their own species of plants and animals. Plenty of rivers plunge off these table top mountains, creating a smorgasbord of spectacular waterfalls, around which small areas of lush forest abound. The most famous of these waterfalls is Angel Falls, which drops almost 1000 metres, the highest waterfall in the world. I didn't see Angel Falls, because it is only accessible by an expensive plane flight, and the promotional photos I saw of it didn't look very impressive, just a thin stream of water disappearing into spray half way down. But I saw enough waterfalls to satiate my desire for several years.

The most interesting waterfall I saw was only some 30 metres high, but with some guidance over the slippery rocks I was able to walk _through_ the curtain of water into a cave that runs behind the waterfall, then after following the cave for a bit, walk back through the curtain in the middle of the river, with the strong current and the force of the falling water trying to knock me off my feet.

I'm not sure if overall I like Venezuela. Despite the scenery and the friendly people, some of the cities have a palpable sense of danger, with plenty of petty and not-so-petty crime. Rumour has it that corrupt policemen like to plant cocaine on tourists and then demand a bribe to not arrest them, and hearing about this has caused me think twice before going out at night. Which is a pity, because Venezuela has contributed more Miss World and Miss Universe winners than any other countries, and going out to night clubs is supposed to be a good way to see evidence of future potential winners.

And finally, for those of you who often complain about how expensive petrol should definitely consider moving to Venezuela. It's one of the world's biggest producers of oil. At 4 cents a litre for petrol, you can fill up your tank with whatever loose change you have in your pocket. Despite this, the driver who took me and others in his Landcruiser on the Gran Sabana tour _still_ managed to run out of petrol 15 km short of a petrol station. For the sake of some 10 cents of petrol and a bit of forethought, we got stranded on the highway while our driver hitched a ride to the station and back.