Colombia – Last Stop & the 1980’s

Colombia was my stop for the last three weeks. Unfortunately I had a pretty overwhelming ‘excited to be back in Canada soon’ attitude. But despite that it’s an amazing, vibrant country.

Medellin was a gorgeous city. It used to the world’s most dangerous city in the late ’80’s according to Time Magazine. Time probably used to be a somewhat less brain-dead publication back then I bet. There is a Pablo Escobar tour that was apparently interesting, but I passed on it. You get to wear Pablo’s hat and talk to his brother. Pablo the notorious drug baron was a big reason for the notorious past – his paid his thugs $600 for each cop they killed and all police & officials had the choice: “Plata o Plomo” which is silver (aka cash) or lead, as in bullet. But history is history so credit to the brother for making a living off it. Now the murder rate is just over 2000 per year, which is still substantial given there are 2.3 million people in the town.

In comparison, when I got to Edmonton, the big news was that the Calgary newspaper ran this charming photoshop as a headline:

There have been 33 murders in Edmonton this year in a city of 1.0 M making it the murder capital of Canada. The rolleroaster in West Ed mall has killed some people before, in the 80’s I believe, likely on Pablo’s orders. But I survived it yesterday….

Back to Colombia, the next stop was Cartagena via an overnight bus. Picturesque colonial town. But it was outrageously hot in the mid 30s. The town itself is very ‘touristy’ which I never like because it means a ton of touts are always on your case. Oh well. There are some interesting forts like this one, plus the old city walls.

Cool fort. A big flag, cannon everywhere and a good view.

Next was Santa Marta. I stayed in a hostel that didn’t have air conditioning. There was a pool though but you can’t sleep there. I only lasted one night before running to the hills. Wow, 1980s like crazy here – even in the allusions to music. I made it to Minca, a little town an hour out. It was 600m in elevation and in a cloud forest so it was much more temperate.

Getting there was fun. There was a bus stop that was just an unmarked street corner. People wait around until there is a group of four or until some guy in a car shows up and drives everyone up. The cars are every half hour or so. In the mean time you just hang out on the street corner and have a beer. It’s not usually what I’d do, but it was decidedly non-sketchy. Well, it was not ideal because I was hugging the door to stay as far away as possible from a lady with something gross going on with her arm. I tried to take a photo of the car but it does not do it justice. In Minca I dropped my camera in a river by a waterfall. I was really lucky though, the memory card survived! And I steal the majority of my travel photos form Google Image searches anyway so not too much difference there!

The rickety red Minca car reminded me of the cars in the meadow in Green Lake (around 70 Mile House, BC.) These are bullet riddled and squashed and doorless. So not a perfect comparison, I mean the Minca car had doors. And more headroom. And I was not on its roof. Whatever, close enough.

...Same paint colour....

I took my last bus, a 22 hour mess to Bogota. The final total was 16,147 km. The drive got air on a few speed bumps, made some screeching stops and was the worst I’ve seen to date. I only had two long trips but both were terrible – the Colombian buses were much worse that those in Argentina, Chile and Peru. On the plus side we got to get out and have food at a Colombia truck stop sort of place.
I got some food and a girl started talking to me in English. She looked like she might be a local. I said she had great English. Turns out she grew up in New York. She had a good line for me:

You know, you have amazingly bad Spanish. No offense. I could barely understood what you said! Plus you didn’t even get the empanada you ordered!

Well, two for three isn’t bad, so take that. I did the the sausage and the water that I ordered…!

Though I wish I didn’t get the sausage. It was pretty bad even by a Colombian truck stop standards. So I bought M&Ms instead.

In Bogota I had an amazing hostel and proceeded to stay there for seven days. It had three courtyards. Three! And hammocks. And a kitchen area with tea on all day, that stayed warm on a cast-iron wood stove. It’s called Anandamayi Hostel.

The only downside was cleanliness. Excessive cleanliness. My toiletry bag is a plastic shopping bag now, so I would leave it outside the dorm so it would not make noise at night when I’d stay up in the kitchen (laptop ally – awesome people there but we mostly worked on our own things most of the time!) So the staff collected the bag and somehow lost half of the stuff in there. So this is the 3rd toothbrush I have lost in SA. Gah. Ditto with food. My leftover pizza got chucked after 8 hours in the fridge. I was planning on eating it for breakfast but no go… oh well, small price to pay.

Four of us went up to the mountain overlooking Bogota. I got a sunburn by accident and felt like Kramer. Being a sunburned gringo is an unfortunate look. Plus, like what Kramer says, ‘Jerry, my face is my livelihood.’ Or not.

The hostel was awesome partly because it was such a ‘grown up’ place. Everyone for the most part was late 20’s and up, which made it a tranquil dorm. With a few exceptions. My first night these three kids came in late, at 2:00am. It was after the bad bus and not sleeping thanks to the terrible driving so I was pretty comatose. But the kids ran around the dorm, quite literally. Then a girl roamed about, creepily. And the two kids pushed their beds together and giggled horribly until 5am. They got hushed time and time again and just laughed more. It was like a weird dream for me at the time but only from being ultra-tired. Someone politely asked them to get private room if they wanted to do this sort of thing, given it was 14 person dorm room. Anyway, I was less comatose in the morning and… it wasn’t a dream! They were still making a ton of noise. I walked up to the boy’s bed, leaned over and said ‘You’re a @*^%$ disgrace! GET A ROOM!!’ The girl hid. He muttered something but also hid. It was great way to make friends because everyone was ready to kill them. They got kicked out later that day. The lady who owned the hostel had trouble at first – there was my story of ‘kids’ who need to go, someone else reported ‘rude Israelis’ and someone cited ‘bad drug addicts.’ In reality they were none of the above, but they got turfed. Probably good – there was a big muscle-bound guy from New York there who had a neck vein pop out when talking about them so there is no way they would have lasted a 2nd night.

One day I was walking through Bogota. Close to a main intersection downtown there were twelve or thirteen riot cops on the corner. I shuffled by them without paying much attention. Then the was another group a block later. Then another. I had gotten a coffee in the mean time and asked the coffee guy what was up. It was just a protest that was supposed to start later sometime so the police were just getting in place. Ahem. Cough. See Vancouver and London? You don’t just have to let the looters run wild. It would be way tougher to pull a prolonged riot there, shades of fascism notwithstanding.

Anyway, I was waiting for the coffee and the third group was right outside so I watched them a little be more closely. Maybe it was not going to be the apocalypse for the potential rioters after all? It was a group of seven women and five men. They had full riot gear on…

mandatory riot control equipment

Four were texting. There was a pink Blackberry in the mix. Nobody had guns. The boss man, he had a Rambo-style ammo belt of tear gas canisters and a launcher, but he was chatting up one of the lady cops at the time. The women had big gold hoop earrings. The men were laughing and joking. Hmm. Ok, maybe the protest was a ‘we love the police and are protesting their low pay’ sort of thing. Regardless, I had no camera. But even if I did I wouldn’t have a photo because still, it’s still probably not too smart to antagonize the SA police with that sort of thing.

I went to a salt cathedral with my English friends Holly and James. It was an hour’s drive out of town and we got to talking about road carnage. We had a cab – well just a boyfriend of one of the girls working at the hostel that thought he may as well make a few extra dollars. We got passed by a truck with huge spikes on the nuts of the wheel. Probably 3″ of protrusion. Sort of Ben Hur style. This was common. Then a school bus raced by us, passing like a psychopath on a blind corner. It pulled into the school a few kilometers later. Gotta arrive on time. Or dead. But just not late!!

mellow out little dudes!

Principal Skinner: It’s a miracle nobody was hurt.

Otto: I stand on my record. Fifteen crashes and not a single fatality.

Later I was telling some laboriously lame story about the boonies. How Highway 16 is rather terrifying at night and I slow way down on blind corners in a feeble attempt to avoid drunken coyboy hat wearing men in 1985 Ford F150s in the wrong lane. I was getting polite nods and occasional acknowledgement every so often (long car ride, ok). So I was talking about how some people calculate how many laws they break driving at one time (two is ok, three is pushing it, never four!) when in a split second, the electric aura of fear became palpable. I look up thinking my story really is just not working. Or working too well. I am a gripping, powerful storyteller. With a knack for pitch-perfect voices. Or not.

Instead we were in the wrong lane, having started a lame pass attempt on a near… a blind corner. Come on. There is a truck coming on fast…. and really close. In our rightful lane there is a bus. Uh oh. So our guy jams the breaks and slides over to straddle the centre lane, honking like a mad man. We didn’t crash. It was chaotic though. Really scary. And ironic above all.

My invention to solve this is a centipede bike. Solely for the South American market. It will be a motorcycle towing a sidecar, which in turn tows another sidecar, repeating indefinitely. Every few sidecars needs a steering wheel and some training wheels to stay up. And the people need crash helmets. Then this abomination of a vehicle can careen over the centre line, effortlessly passing everyone that it can manage. It will have a cattle catcher mounted on the front however to better contend with other competing Centipede Bikes coming the other way and trucks in the process of straddling the centre on aborted passing attempts.

This is what it will look like. This awesome protype is patented.

Anyway, the Salt Cathedral was gorgeous. It is in a working salt mine and the subterranean architecture was amazing. We did a tour that was bound to be tame in comparison to Potosi and Choco Loco’s rein of drunken terror in Bolivia. It was. But it was still a blast. The coloured lighting was masterfully done I thought – it lent an awesome air to it all.

There was even a good rendition of Michalengo's David

Our 4’10” tour guide pulled out all the stops. She’d have us shut off the head lamps and walk though the pitch black for some passages. Super safe but still surprisingly exciting. Then we got to pick-axe the salt walls Zoolander-style. I lost my undershirt in the last mine unfortunately so this lessened the comparison to Zoolander. Not that I can find a good picture of this online though. Anyway, the salt would ricochet out wildly when the axes hit, so my gold sunglasses that I found on a plane came in handy for some of us. They are smaller than the ones that I lost so less salt-fragment protection (SFP?) but still better than nothing.

Zoolander in the mine

(Announcer): …for the past four years, male modeling has had a shadow cast over it by one man and five syllables: Der-ek Zoo-land-er. [Zoolander slowly counts the syllables off on his fingers]

Then Holly had to light dynamite. The group was solemnly ordered to run when it started to explode. We were 20′ away from the fuse.

BOOm!!!! The hidden speakers roared. Fun touch. But the guide had trouble turning them off so the mighty explosions continued for a little too long.

Anyway the rest of Bogota was fun. But I was glad to fly out on Friday.

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