Posts Tagged With: Bogota

Cali To Quito: The Earth Moved

Oh, the rush of sitting in a bus stuck on a dark mountain road, being pelted by a torrent of rain, when suddenly part of the mountain comes crashing down, mud sliding beneath the idle bus, rocks and boulders bouncing around you like beach balls. The sound alone of the mountainside sliding down in the darkness is enough to make start wondering what will you do to escape being pushed over the edge of the cliff by the force of the moving earth or being buried alive. I and some 30 others was a sitting duck on this road trip to the border town of Ipiales, Colombia, and the mountain was shooting at us. When it rains this heavily, walls do tumble and fall. I’ve seen the aftermath of mudslides and hillsides giving away. In Colombia, the land is scarred with such after effects. I just never imagined I’d ever witness such a horrific force of nature, let alone be standing in its path. Before family and friends get to worrying, we escaped harm, with a truck ahead of us taking the brunt of of nature’s beating. But what a night it was.

I left Cali, Colombia, Friday evening. I was excited to see Quito, Ecuador, my destination on this leg of my journey. I’ve been to the Northern Hemisphere. I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere. How cool would it be to stand at the Equator, the exact middle of Earth?

The bus left late – nothing unusual there – and it began to rain when we left Cali. Nothing unusual there, either. It is rainy season in Colombia, and it has been raining quite a bit. Before I arrived in February, I saw news reports of floods, of houses being washed away or falling off hillsides because of landslides. It seemed no part of the country was immune from the torrential rains. Not even the Tatacoa Desert near Neiva, which was unusually green in some parts because it got heavy amounts of rain.

So I came to Colombia during the rainy season, but I knew on this journey I would hit bad weather somewhere.

The road from Popayan to Pasto twists as it climbs and snakes even more at higher elevations between Pasto and Ipiales. I’m not sure which stretch of road we were on when we hit stalled traffic, but I overheard the bus driver tell an inquisitive passenger that this stretch of road scares him. He then shared a story about boulders the size of buses have rolled off the mountain and that landslides were fairly common. He didn’t have to remind anybody of that; road signs did that, but there was evidence of earlier rock falls.

I woke up when I felt the bus come to a complete stop. I was seated in the first row with a clear view out the large windshield. There was a truck in front of us, it’s orange warning lights flashing in the dark. Ahead of it, more vehicles, all standing still, their engines off. The only sound I heard was the rain pelting the bus and the thunder that followed lightning. It was eerie, so surreal, so scary for anyone out here alone.

The bus driver put a plastic shopping bag on his head, retried a flashlight and head out into the rain. He disappeared into the darkness as he headed up ahead to investigate what was the hold up. He returned, soaked, and told the passenger who asked that rocks, mostly small ones but a couple of large ones, were blocking the road. He said some truck drivers were trying to remove them. He added that there was no emergency work crews or police in these parts at this hour. It was shortly after 3 a.m. Luckily we still had communication, as the driver got on his cell phone to report the situation. And so we waited.

This bridge between Colombia and Ecuador is all it really takes to go from one country to the next. Hardly any border control, basically left to the traveler to stop and get proper passport stamps

Then came that sound. It was a sound of something cracking. And before anyone could react to ask what it was, we knew what it was. Watery mud slid under the bus. And rocks fell, bouncing off the road, some breaking into pieces, others rolling between us and the truck ahead. The bus driver turned on the engine and a woman on the bus seated behind me freaked out. Those who were sleeping through this pause in the trip, awoke wondering aloud what was happening. The driver said we had to get out of this zone. But we couldn’t move. Cars and trucks stranded in both directions. The driver started to honk the horn, as if to send a signal that it was no longer safe to wait. “Vamonos!” he let out. “Let’s go!”

Then, as if by some miracle, I saw the headlights of an oncoming truck. Traffic in the opposite direction began to flow. The truck drivers were successful in opening the road ahead, if only partially. When it was our turn to go, the bus had to squeeze by some pretty hefty boulders partially blocking the road, and drive over rocks. We spent a good 10 to 20 miles performing this maneuver, sometimes coming close to the edge of the road and the mountainside or cliff, to get around the fallen rocks. Didn’t get much sleep on the bus that night.

When we reached Ipiales, sleepless, tired passengers emerged. A man approached and tried to sell me breakfast as I got my backpack. I declined. I had survived the trip on water and Oreo (with double stuff, of course) cookies. I needed a bathroom. I needed a bath.

I made my way to the bathroom – 600 pesos a woman at the door demanded – and I splash water on my face and felt like crap. I needed more sleep. But I had to push on. From Ipiales, I would need to take a minivan – they call them colectivos – to Rumichaca, the Colombi-Ecuador border post. About a 10 minute drive. Once I cleared customs on both sides of the border, another colectivo to the center of Tulcan, a border town in Ecuador. From there, I’d have to find the next bus out to Quito. Simple, right?

On both sides of the border you are accosted by dozens of men holding stacks of dollars – the money exchangers – aggressively asking if you want to exchange your Colombian pesos for U.S. dollars. If you don’t already know this, in Ecuador the national currency is the U.S. dollar. Facing a serious currency and financial crisis, Ecuador dumped its currency more than 10 years ago – the sucre – and adopted the dollar as its official currency.

So these money exchangers literally surround you, and of course you need to exchange money. Supposedly, you get a better rate in Colombia than in Ecuador. Some merchants on the Ecuador side of the border- including the colectivos – will accept Colombian pesos, but their preference is for the U.S. dollar. Others say you can keep your pesos, thank you.

For those thinking about crossing the Colombia-Ecuador border, let me say this loudly and clearly: EVERY PERSON EXCHANGING MONEY ON THE BORDER IS OUT TO CHEAT YOU.  THERE IS NOT A SAINT AMONG THEM. That’s how they make their living. They don’t charge an exchange fee, so how else do you think they turn a profit?

These men are more often than not successful in taking your money, with some fast finger work on a calculator. They are like magicians. So here I go again with the caps: BRING YOUR OWN CALCULATOR TO THE BORDER AND USE IT! Your calculator will produce a more favorable return on your exchange than their calculator. Trust me on this.

Leaving Colombia, a different world awaits on the other side

The guy I chose to convert my pesos into dollars pulled out his calculator and told me the rate he was offering. It was 1,990 pesos = 1 dollar – which to me sounded like a very good rate. So I said okay. But when he input the amount of money I wanted to exchange divided by the 1,990 rate, his calculator showed $325, the amount in dollars I would be getting for my pesos. Since I had read about these kinds of trickery at the border (thank you Google), waited until he did his computing before I produced my own calculator. I would beat him at his own game: He gives me what sounds like an excellent rate, does the math on his calculator, then shows it to me. If I were to show him I had a calculator before he started his shenanigans, he would likely offer a lower rate or maybe just walk away to steal from some other sucker.

So I reached into my pocket and pulled out my iPod Touch, which has a calculator. After I did the math on my calculator, the amount came out almost $100 higher. The man, as his two partners in crime talked nonsense as a diversion and distraction tactic – “hey, where you from?” “that’s a really cool shirt” “You’re gonna love Ecuador, you should check out…” – was clearly disappointed that I had a calculator and did my own math. He was busted. He gave me the higher amount I had come up with plus an extra dollar because I owed him a dollar in the exchange and I did not have change. So in the end, he ended up the loser – by a dollar – on the deal. No sweat, he said, and moved on to rip off someone else.

At the border I met some other foreign travelers and told them what happened. They had all exchanged money, too. Concerned, they asked me to do their exchange on my calculator. Every single one of them had been cheated out of anywhere from $10 to hundreds of dollars. What could they do? They were already on the Ecuador side of the border. You have to be smart about your money, and you might think a calculator doesn’t lie, well in the hands of crooks and thieves it does.

I made my way on foot across the bridge that spans the border between Colombia and Ecuador and went directly to customs. I got in line but it was not moving, and growing longer instead. The customs office doors were also locked, though there were customs agents inside. Soon word came that the computer system had crashed and they had been working for at least two hours to fix it. Then as hundreds of people waited patiently in line, a stampede toward a nearby copy center was set off by a customs agent who announced the system was still down and to move ahead with the processing we’d have to provide a copy of our passport. People dashed off to the copy center and started a line there. But patience waned when customs again created confusion by telling people inside the office only those who were seated would be attended, so everybody should take a seat and they would be called by row in the order they were seated. Some people at the end of the line managed to snag seats in front. Not fair, a woman screamed. Others openly protested, screaming at the customs agent who threatened to have then tossed back across the border.

After some more impatient pushing and shoving that erupted outside, misinformation by Ecuador customs agents, rushing about and forming other lines to make requested copies of my passport, I was officially allowed into Ecuador 5 hours later, a process that would normally take minutes.

One bright spot: on the van to the Tulcan bus station, where there are buses to Quito, a man who looked to be at least 80 years old and could barely walk without his cane, serenaded us on the bus with his guitar and a beautiful folk song. He had a raspy voice, and coughed a bit between the lyrics, but the music was soothing – a pleasant way to enter Ecuador after the customs debacle. By the way, when you’re hanging around a border crossing for any length of time you meet the most interesting people. I spent most of my time there with a trio of travelers – a guy from Bolivia, his French girlfriend and their Argentine friend. They were traveling across South America, broke – no money – and working odd jobs here and there to keep traveling. They joked they only had 80 cents among them and that would likely only get them to the next town. I gave them some Oreo cookies. They told me lots of funny stories about their travels. They were penniless, but happy.

Just a walk across the border

On the bus to Quito I tried to get some sleep but the bus made frequent local stops and at every stop vendors entered trying to sell everything from food to pirated movies, some more aggressive with their sales pitch than others. One woman placed a bag of marshmallows on my lap as I was seeking music on my iPod. She said I didn’t have to buy, that I could at least have a look.

And so went to journey from Cali to Quito. But I must say during daylight, the landscape to Quito is very scenic, with breathtaking mountains, deep canyons and rushing rapids. Then, a break through the clouds – the Andes!

Quito, you may be cold and wet and dreary and way up in the clouds, much like Bogota, but you are all panoramic splendor and natural wonder. And now I am at the center of the world, glad to be here and ready to explore.

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Seven Things I’ve Learned About Colombia In 2 Months

I know two months aren’t enough to learn everything about a country, even if you’ve spent those two months traveling across the country talking to people from every walk of life, in small towns and big cities to rural regions. But some things jump right out at you. Those things are usually the sore thumbs – the bad – but if you are a positive thinker the good also leaps forward.

So here’s my very short take about Colombia:

1 – Colombians use the word marica way too much. The word means gay and it can take on an offensive tone depending on how it’s used. More commonly, it is used in much the same way Americans use the word “man” or “dude”, as in “hey man, we went to a fantastic party”, or “damn, dude, where have you been?”

So it is used as emphasis or exclamation. I’ve heard men, women and even children use it, but it’s mostly from young men and women. They call each other “marica” and throw about the word without even thinking about it.

La Negra Puloy: This image is everywhere during carnival. Women - and men - dress like the iconic doll

When I was in Tayrona in northern Colombia, four Colombian twenty-somethings were engaged in conversation and one of them used the word 62 times in less than 2 minutes. I quit counting at 62.  Every other word he uttered, as to emphasize his point, was marica.

My first day in Colombia, I kept hearing the word. At first I thought it was a common woman’s name – no joke – but then I realize it was not. So I asked. And that’s when the meaning of the word was explained to me. My host in Bogota, Mauricio, says not all Colombians like the word. His mother, whom I met, thinks it’s ugly speech.  But its usage in common speech has been around for a long time, I’m told, and it won’t be stomped out anytime soon. I’m still trying to find out how the local gay community really feels about the use of the word. Some say they don’t have a problem with it while others say they’re offended by it, but just ignore it. When you come to Colombia, it’s the one word you will absolutely hear every day, hundreds of times a day.

WHAT POLITICAL INCORRECTNESS?: Costumes in Barranquilla carnaval. You should have seen the ones mocking George Bush and Osama Bin Laden

2. Pedestrians have no rights. Crossing the streets here, even in a crosswalk, you will get mowed down if you think you have the right of way. Cars, buses, motorcycles – even bicycles – do not stop for pedestrians. You simply have to wait or risk your life by darting into traffic to force cars to stop. But don’t try that. You will lose that fight. Just be patient and wait for a break in traffic.

3. Are human beings really this friendly? Colombians are the most helpful, the most friendly – to each other, but especially to foreigners. Ask for directions and often they will go out of their way – write it down; draw you a map; walk with you to the location.

In some cities, such as Medellin, they are even more friendly and helpful.

Recently, I was walking home after the bus dropped me off in an unknown area. All along the way, when I asked one person for directions, it would suddenly become a group effort as others stopped to offer their input as to how best to reach my destination. And as I continued on my way still uncertain if I was headed in the right direction, I asked a couple of guys walking their dog in the opposite direction. They volunteered to accompany me to my destination. I tried to talk them out of it, as it was a good 10 blocks out of their way, but they said they were more than happy and it was no problem. “Tranquilo” they said. When a Colombian says tranquilo, they are telling you it’s no trouble at all. That’s a word you like to hear when you find yourself in a bind.

Sign in El Poblado section of Medellin says to yield, but doesn't specify to whom. Oncoming vehicles? Pedestrians? Yeah, right.

4. Rumba! Okay, this one may be unfair because all the world loves to party. But I think Colombians really love to party and drink. Their poison of choice is aguardiente, the national alcoholic drink. But beer is the popular and cheapest choice. Aguila and Club Colombia beers lead the pack, I prefer Club Colombia, costs just slightly more than Aguila, but the difference between the two beers are noticeable. Aguila to me is too light, like water.

If Colombians love to party, Colombians in Barranquilla and along the coast spend most of their lives partying. It’s become somewhat of a national joke, that people on the northern coast don’t work, are lazy, and just want to rumbiar – party. I like the people on the coast. I like their spirit. They are happy, even if they have little, and are about enjoying life. People in Bogota, however, have a more “professional”, serious approach to life, though they like to get their party on, too, every once in a while.

When I was in Supia, the woman who owned the restaurant where we ate dinner, joked with me that I was a coast person. I didn’t see it as a problem, in fact, I took it as a compliment. We laughed about it. But in Medellin, my hosts said to be referred to as a person from the coast is not a good thing, for the reasons explained above. To be sure, there are regional differences among Colombians, in much the same way there are regional differences among Americans in the United States. One country, but we poke fun at each other, some of it good natured fun, some of it a bit on the mean side.

5. Say what? Leave your political correctness at home. In Colombia and in many other countries, for that matter, political correctness does not exist. So to American ears, some things people say sound downright racist.

Several times a day in Colombia, somebody calls me “negro” – pronounced NEH-groh. It’s common for people to refer to each other by their physical attributes, including race. So a white, blonde person is known here as mono, which is also the Spanish word for monkey. A fat person is sweetly called “gordo” – and no offense is taken, unless of course it is said in anger or to inflict hurt. Some who are of mixed race are called on a daily basis “moreno” or “morena” if it’s a woman. And iconic images here with exaggerated black features are common, such as during carnival in Barranquilla when La Negra Puloy makes her annual appearance.

If you are easily offended, stay home. You will see and hear things you don’t like, but you have to realize you are not in your own country.

In Barranquilla, for instance, I went to a house party and was introduced to several people, all of them Colombian. One of them, a middle aged white woman, after saying hello, the very next words out of her mouth were: “I have a black son.” I was taken aback by her need to share that information so eagerly and so quickly, with no other conversation between us. She then added: “He’s a lawyer”.

Well, I congratulate you ma’am! 🙂

The many faces of Colombia's people, as represented here in the Museum of Gold in Bogota.

I suppose it was her way of trying to connect with me. We have something in common, I guess she was trying to say. Like all other “politically incorrect” things I see and hear, I let it go and moved on. Pick your battles, but truthfully, there’s no battle here.

6. Security! Colombia is safe, people! Two months and counting and I have not been kidnapped by guerillas waiting for me at the airport. Or bombed into oblivion. You will not see any guerilla forces unless you go looking for them. The military and police are everywhere. Security guards are everywhere. Just don’t go wandering into bad neighborhoods, like you would not do in the United States, and you will be fine. In fact, you will enjoy yourself immensely in Colombia because the people here will go out of their way to see to that. They actually want you to have a good time and leave happy. Of course, humans are humans, and there are a few bad apples, but generally speaking, you will love Colombia and Colombians. I am finding hard to leave, especially Medellin. What a great city!

7. Diversity.  Outside the United States, there is no country as diverse as Colombia. And I’m talking diversity of people, culture, geography and landscape. Colombians come in every shade and ethnicity. And the country has snow, desert, hot and cold weather, mountains and valleys, two coasts, a Caribbean flavor, jungles, big rivers, and every sort of environment you would want.

As I sit and write this in a food court in a shopping mall, I see before me a sea of different hues. I will very likely lose  that soon as I step foot in Chile and Argentina, for instance. The diversity is what makes this country so appealing. It comes in all kinds of flavors.

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Personal Space

I’ve said it before but for the record I’ll say again that there is no such thing as “personal space” beyond the United States. This notion that you own the air and a certain distance – 360 degrees around you that should not be violated – is an American invention and unwritten rule that billions of people in other countries find incomprehensible, ignore daily, and are perfectly okay with it.

Every day in Colombia, I’m reminded of this. I am standing on the train, there is plenty of space all over the place, and yet a woman chooses to stand right in front of me – face to face – and I’m screaming in my head “PERSONAL SPACE INVASION!!!” and she is seemingly not having a problem at all with the fact she’s standing practically nose to nose.

If you want "personal space" try an isolated and desolate beach, such as this one in Tayrona Park, Colombia

Sticking with the Metro for another example, I sit down and there is an empty seat between me and this man yapping on his cell phone. He decides, what the hell, the seat is empty so he’ll just stretch his free arm across it. Only problem is, as he talks on the phone he also talks with his hand laying across the back of the seat and that hand has gone way beyond my “personal space” touching my shoulder. I shift away a bit but I’m pinned in by the glass to my right. Each time I feel his hand, I look over annoyed but he doesn’t get it. Finally, I gesture for him to move his arm back to where it belongs, in his own space. Still yapping on the phone, he looks at me as if clueless of what I’m trying to say. He finally gets it and moves. We do stupid things while on cell phones, so this may just have been a function of his cell phone distraction, but still.

Next day I’m sitting in an empty coffee shop and four people walk in. Instead of choosing to sit at a table far away, they choose the table next to mine and proceed to make a nuisance of themselves by shifting the table closer to mine to accommodate more of their arriving friends. Pretty soon I’m pretty much pinned in. I guess they liked this table next to mine much better, but I who grew up with the whole personal space thing just don’t get it.

What personal space are you talking about fool? It's carnaval! The Carnavalada, Barranquilla, Colombia

On a park bench later that evening, I’m chilling, watching the world go by. Several other park benches are empty and guest which bench woman chooses? It happens on the bus. It happens in restaurants. It happens everywhere. The reality is personal space is not an issue with the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s because much of the world lives in confined spaces to start with. They are crammed into cities, share small huts with large families and must coexist in such close proximity. I’ve seen it in Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and now South America.

Truth is, like the cold showers I’ve had to endure every day, I’ve grown sort of used to giving up my personal space. Unless the person is being obnoxious like the guy on the train, I embrace the fact that people are comfortable enough with each other to stand so close to strangers. But I still in my head hum that anthem of personal space by The Police: “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…” Hmmm… those guys are Brits, aren’t they? Maybe we as American inherited the whole “personal space” thing from the Brits.

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