April 7, 2006: Bogotá, Elections, and the FARC

Friday, April 7, 2006

Hi Folks,

    I’m back on the warm sunny beaches of Miami, and in the congested traffic of the concrete sprawl you never see in the postcards, pretty much over my latest case of culture shock and almost ready to plant myself in my new home in San Francisco.

    For those of you who don’t already know, I took a little detour from Merida. Instead of heading back to the northeast of Venezuela, I hung a left and began what was supposed to be a week-and-a-half long jaunt to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Despite the robberies (for those of you who didn’t get the robbery story, it’s attached to this email), I loved Colombia and after I finished with the police reports and all that, I felt that I really couldn’t just go back without seeing more of the country. My friend Alejo from the World Social Forum invited me to come visit in Bogotá, and I’d heard a lot of good things about the city, so I splurged on a plane ticket and headed to the airport.
    The Santa Marta airport, by the way, is my new favorite airport in the world. It’s small and quick and on the beach, so you could walk out the front door and go for a swim. Its food court has an outdoor patio overlooking the ocean, and an open-air central area. If I was ever going to be stuck in an airport for a few days, I would want it to be this one.
Another reason I wanted to go to Bogotá is that it was almost election time, and I was curious about elections in Colombia. Elections are a different sort of a deal when you’re in the midst of a civil war. Nobody knows what might happen. As a precaution, military presence had been increased for weeks and the government banned alcohol for the entire weekend. All the bars were closed and the shops had little signs up explaining that no alcohol would be sold until Monday.
Of course, in our usual spirit of playful rebelliousness, my friends and I (it turned out that there were quite a few of us who knew each other from Caracas or Merida) celebrated by making rum and fruit cocktails in the blender and dancing at a friend’s housewarming party. We also found that our corner market would sell us whatever we wanted as long as we could hide it in our jackets and backpacks before leaving the store.
Election Sunday itself felt very quiet. Too quiet, it seemed, for the numbers of people on the streets. I wandered along through the Candeleria district, grateful for the lack of traffic. Solemn-looking men and women with hands on their hearts glared down at me from campaign posters on walls and billboards. Before long I arrived at a barricaded street, the first of the polling places on my little exploration, which, as in the United States, was simply a school or similar public place converted for the day.
I slipped past the armed military guards toward the crowd in the middle of the road. As usual, I didn’t exactly blend in, but I tried to hang back inconspicuously across the street from the school to watch. Five armed men in military uniforms gave a thorough pat-down and search to each person waiting in line as they entered (“They don’t do that in the U.S.?” Alejo later asked in surprise). Three women in yellow uniforms marked “Department of Transit” directed voters to a list of candidates on the wall, and after lingering there a while, the voters disappeared inside the building to cast their votes. Before long, two of the military guards were watching me, so, since an American tourist so interested in watching their polling booths might not receive a warm reception, I moved on.
That night I watched Colombian television for the first time. It was a boring hour of commentary and numbers, men and women in conservative attire who looked just like the newscasters everywhere else in the world. The fact that the FARC had blown up five buses in protest of the elections, three of them right there in Bogotá, received minimal coverage. Just a picture of the shell of a bus and a few words, then back to speculations of election results. Life went on as usual, except with a bit more security on the bus lines. One of my friends had his water bottle confiscated, while another walked on with a guitar case unsearched.
My Colombian friends weren’t surprised at the choice of news coverage. Not only were some sort of attacks expected and normal there, but it was also known that the major news media, as in the U.S. and most countries, is owned by corporations with government connections, and therefore has an interest in making a current administration look like it more or less has a handle on the country’s problems.
One friend saw it all as something like a big chess game, or a dance, with FARC and government and all the various factions working to maintain their power, cooperating or fighting as needed at any given time to serve their interests, the common good of the people having been long ago relegated to the confines of speeches and the ideals of new recruits and fringe groups. The practicalities of maintaining position determines the next step of the dance. He did vote, and for candidates he thought would be great, but he said they didn’t have a chance of winning. As I watched the brief clip of the charred bus, I wondered how many other FARC actions had taken place across the country but would never be heard of by the general population.
I stumbled upon one of them by accident only a week later. After the elections were over, and the same old faces were perched back in their comfortable political nests, I left Bogotá with a friend for a week of exploring Colombia’s famous coffee-producing interior, a picturesque world of green rolling hills, brightly painted colonial houses, friendly people, and of course, really good coffee. As we sat down with the owner of our hostel and a topo map of the area, he recommended some trails into the cloudforest and up onto the ridges, and suggested that we might want to spend the night at a remote little hospedaje along the way.
“You used to be able to stay here,” he said, pointing at a dot labeled Estrella de las Aguas, “but the FARC burned it down last week in protest of the elections, since they sometimes housed soldiers there. Everyone’s been a bit on edge ever since. But I don’t think you’ll see any FARC. I’ve only heard of foreigners running into the FARC once around here, an American and an Australian guy. They spent the night talking politics and then went on their way in the morning.”
I asked about the rumors I’d heard of FARC kidnapping tourists as fundraising. “No, they don’t do that anymore. They sometimes kidnap rich Colombians, but not tourists. They don’t have any hope of finding support from the US government, but they do still hope to gain support in Europe, and kidnapping tourists isn’t good PR. But it’s a good idea to avoid them anyway. The FARC won’t bother you, and the military won’t bother you, but in case you find them both in the same place, you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.”
Of course we couldn’t resist heading out to Estrella de las Aguas, a twelve-kilometer hike up muddy trails into the mountains. We arrived in mid-afternoon, just as the rain started to fall. Andrew had good raingear, but, back in San Francisco, thinking I was heading to the tropics, I hadn’t packed for the cold rain of 10,000+ feet of elevation. We were sitting in the shelter of the caretaker’s lodge, which the FARC had left intact, looking over the wreckage and hoping for a break in the rain when we saw the man with his gun pointed toward us. Another appeared behind him, and they motioned for us to walk to them.
I’d never been held at gunpoint before. As I walked toward him, I realized I sort-of half had my hands in the air, probably from having watched too much television as a child. I quickly put them back down, feeling silly and hoping they hadn’t noticed. I called out a friendly hello, or at least, I hoped I sounded friendly. Andrew did the same and as we got closer the gunman lowered his big automatic rifle, or whatever the thing was, since we were obviously just harmless tourists. He asked a lot of questions, and soon he and Andrew were chatting away, most of the conversation too fast and full of slang for me to understand.
They had three big, beautiful dogs with them and I quickly made friends with two of them as the rest of the army brigade showed up, wet and exhausted after a week in the wild. They asked us what the military was like in the United States, if it was difficult to go there to work, and whether we were a couple- all the usual questions. After a while the rain broke, and we decided it was time to head off. We said our goodbyes and splashed down the muddy trail, the two big dogs following along uninvited, and the rain before long doing the same.
I hadn’t even realized I was cold, let alone hypothermic. It’s funny how survival mechanisms work. I felt strong and alert on the trail, but the minute I sat down safely at the hospedaje I felt like crying. Especially when the owner pulled out his whip to scare off the dogs, who, thinking we were the lead of the group, had never turned around. Yes, we had officially stolen Colombian military dogs.
The hospedaje didn’t have electricity, hot running water, or even a fire to dry my clothes. It took more than two hours under a pile of wool blankets before I stopped shivering. At least there was hot chocolate and dinner. One of the dogs had disappeared after the whip incident, but the other loyally found our dorm and planted himself at our door. The old couple who ran the place refused to let me buy him food, saying if I fed him he would stay there and eat their chickens, but I knew he was no stray and would follow us when we left, and he didn’t seem the least bit interested in the chickens.
I stole him some eggs.
The next day dawned gray but beautiful, and Andrew and I parted ways, him taking the long unknown route and me following the shorter recommended way so I could make it back to town in time to hit the dessert shop. I was determined to sample the famous coffee desserts. It was a beautiful hike with my new canine friend, and I found him a home just short of town with another army brigade.
    There were a lot of other nice things in Colombia- the organic coffee plantation, the butterfly refuge, the artisans and musicians in Salento, the diversity of Bogotá- but this email is long enough without the details. I never made it back to Venezuela. Long bus rides or expensive flights just seemed kind-of silly when there was so much to explore nearby, and friends I wanted to spend time with there. I feel like I’m not done with either Colombia or Venezuela, and already my mind is wandering to the places I’ll go next time.
    So now I’m back in Miami, finishing up a little project here and itching to head back to San Francisco. Almost a year and a half ago, I was at a party with some nice folks at a beautiful apartment in the Mission district, and I commented that they should write to me if they ever have a room open up. A year later, I got an email, and met them for dinner one day last December. I hadn’t exactly been planning to move back, but it was too perfect to turn down. And they’re even ok with me subletting my room to go travel, so I might just have what I’ve been wanting for a while now- a home to come back to. I’m excited! My new house has a guest bed and everything, so y’all should come and visit!

Love and adventures,