Putting the Fun in Funicular

We continued along toward Monserrate, the mountain we would ascend to an additional 2,000 feet.  We passed the tallest buildings in Colombia, with Michael remarking “they’re also regarded as the ugliest.”  I liked them.

There was an international arts festival geared up to begin, and troupes of actors, jugglers, stilt walkers, and mimes suddenly filled the streets.  Michael ran into a friend and they settled into a lengthy catch up chat.  We were grateful for the rest and opportunity to take snaps.  Part of the backdrop was some colorful high rise buildings, which Michael said were expensive new apartments.

I was surprised to see topless women among the performers.  They were painted white, but they were topless.  No one else seemed to notice them.  I didn’t take photos only because I couldn’t get a clear shot without potentially seeming creepy.  When we asked Michael about them later he said he hadn’t noticed them.

I saw a woman breastfeeding in a grocery store in Nairobi once, but that’s not the same.  I’ve seen women sunbathing topless in France and men playing nude soccer in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, but that’s Western Europe.  Maybe the Catholic Church really has lost its sway in Colombia.  Maybe these women were from another country where toplessness is no big deal.  Maybe in this particular neighborhood, “anything goes.”

There was a group of police officers nearby but they were all absorbed in their cell phones.  Is it sad—or progress—that young, male cops were more interested in their phones than in naked women?

“In Minnesota,” I commented, “The police would arrest topless women.”  That’s our Puritan background.

We moved on, passing through a neighborhood with art deco touches, like this door.

There was this contrast between the lovely old deco building on the right and the newer high rise on the left decorated with an eagle mural.  The contained stream in the bottom right flowed for many blocks.

We continued to slog uphill, Lynn and I moving slower and slower.  Finally, we reached the bottom of the mountain where we would catch a ride to the top in a funicular or a gondola.

“Do you mind if I leave you here?” Michael asked.  “I’m running behind.  It’s 2:00 and I’m supposed to meet my next tour.  I’ll give you the money for the tickets; that’s included in your tour.”

Of course we didn’t mind, and he was gone.  I see his posts on Facebook now and feel reassured that he’s not doing anything foolish provoke the authorities.  At least, not on Facebook.

We were herded in to the funicular with hundreds of other tourists.  Since I’m not an engineer, I always marvel that these things actually work.  As per normal, all sorts of disaster scenarios flashed through my mind, including, This would be a bad time for raw-fruit-induced diarrhea to kick in.

The breathlessness was worth it.

There was yet more slow walking uphill at the top of the mountain to reach the restaurants.  We stopped to take photos.

We picked the closest restaurant and were not disappointed.  White linen, stellar views, good wine, and the first of many ceviches.

We had a leisurely lunch, then wandered toward the cable cars, which of course were up yet another hill.  But again, the views were breath taking—no pun intended.  We waited for half an hour with a hundred other people and no one complained; we were all gazing out the windows at the views.

Then, the descent.

At a junction, the car lurched and everyone went “Aaargh!!” then laughed sheepishly.

At the foot of Monserrate we hailed a taxi.  When he dropped us off he played a shell game with money and we were fairly sure he ripped us off.  But so what?  He got 18,000 pesos off of us—$6.  It wasn’t worth fighting over.

We had dinner that night at a Peruvian-Colombian restaurant where we were entertained by a jazz trio and two tables of fighting couples. The one nearest us—Germans, maybe?—sent her food back to the kitchen, complaining loudly that it wasn’t good, then sniped at each other and stalked out.

“I’d rather be alone!” Lynn said, speaking for us both.

Monstrances and Rolling Stones

Michael was, literally, a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Colombia’s war-torn history.  That’s an overused term, “war torn,” but it fits.  We whizzed through a museum complex that featured fine art, massive coin-minting equipment, and gold objects. The complex itself was beautifully designed—simple, clean lines to show off the art and artifacts—and featured serene courtyards with gardens and fountains.

I would have loved to stop and just sit, or walk slowly through to see what all was on display.  But Michael had an itinerary he was holding to, and he seemed disdainful of the museums because they held items from the days of The Conquest and were sponsored by big banks.  I could have that last part wrong.  He was throwing so much information at us.  He showed us a collection of Catholic worship items; I believe one would be a called a Monstrance.  This is a picture of a Monstrance from an online search.

The one in the museum made the one above look bland.  We weren’t allowed to take photos, but it was encrusted with emeralds and pearls and adorned with gold filigree and gold figures from biblical scenes.  I don’t know what Monstrances are for, and I don’t care.  Lynn and I had seen one in Spain that was even more … monstrous. We were well aware that the gold, pearls, and emeralds had been plundered local, probably by enslaved indigenous people.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Michael.  “On the one hand it tells the story of the rape of our land by the Europeans and their church, but I think many people look at it and just think it’s a pretty object without knowing how blood was shed to make it.”

True.  I wondered what “regular” tour guides would say about it.  I could imagine some people I know exclaiming, “Oooh, look how gorgeous that is!  The Colombians sure are great goldsmiths!”

We were receiving a great education from Michael, but for three hours he had been marched us through the city in the heat and sun.  The hotel staff had said the water was okay to drink but when I went to fill my water bottle it smelled so strongly of chlorine I decided to leave it behind.

And the altitude was winding us.  I had gone from 700 to 8,660 feet above sea level.

Just in time, Michael brought us to a covered market full of stalls selling fresh fish and seafood, beans and peas and spices and veg and fruits.  This little store outside the entrance to the market sold medicinal herbs.

I think Lynn and I both exclaimed, “Ahhhh….” as we entered, both because it was a respite from the heat and a feast for the eyes.

We stopped at the stall of a fruit vendor Michael knew.  “You can sample seven fruits for 6,000 pesos,” he informed us questioningly.  Did he think we were going to say no?  Six thousand pesos is $2.00.

I cannot tell you what the seven fruits were, only that they were delicious and revived us instantly.

“I keep thinking of that advice you read over and over in guide books,” I murmured to Lynn as we watched the vendor peeling and slicing the fruits.

She nodded.  “Only eat fruits you have peeled yourself.”

“But they’re so good!” answered, as sticky juice ran down my hands.

“Jorge has triplets,” Michael said by way of introduction of his friend.

“Oh, how old are they?” I asked in Spanish.

“The oldest one is 16,” he replied.

Hmmm.  Maybe Michael had meant “three children” by “triplets.”  I was too busy shoveling in fruit to ask a follow up question and besides, Michael and Jorge were clearly having a bit of catch up on the local gossip or something that didn’t need to include us tourists.

Then we were off again, and now we were walking slightly streets that led slightly uphill which normally I would have found invigorating.  But Lynn and I had to stop every now and then to catch our breath.

Michael took advantage of one pause to point out a vendor who had purportedly renamed her stall in honor a famous visitor.

Some Cold Truths

When I mention I’ve been to Colombia, I get two reactions.

One: “Cool!  That’s the hot new destination!”

Two: “Isn’t there a drug war there?”

Number one is true, while number two used to be true.  As usual, I had intended to brush up on my destination’s history but never did it justice.  I read an article here and there about the peace process and upcoming elections.  A former coworker had just moved to Bogota, where her husband is teaching at one of the universities on a Fulbright Fellowship.  She was sending me photos and updates, including that her husband had been tear gassed twice.

Tear gassed. Her take on it was that Colombians, despite no longer living under a state of war for the first time in decades, still have plenty to protest.  Below is a cut and paste directly from Wikipedia.

“The Colombian conflict began in the mid-1960s and is a low-intensity asymmetric war between Colombian governments, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), fighting each other to increase their influence in Colombian territory. Two of the most important international actors that have contributed to the Colombian conflict are multinational companies and the United States.

“It is historically rooted in the conflict known as La Violencia, which was triggered by the 1948 assassination of populist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and in the aftermath of United States-backed strong anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960s that led liberal and communist militants to re-organize into FARC.

“The reasons for fighting vary from group to group. The FARC and other guerrilla movements claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice through communism. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability, and seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. The paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups have been accused of engaging in drug trafficking and terrorism. All of the parties engaged in the conflict have been criticized for numerous human rights violations.

According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) and more than five million civilians were forced from their homes between, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons. Seventeen percent of the population has been a direct victim of the war. 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by Unicef.”

The drug “lords” have been portrayed in recent Netflix series like Drug Lords and Narcos.  I intend to watch to see if they are glorified, and what mention is made of the US demand for cocaine which drove their business.

Michael recounted how his grandmother, as a child, had hidden in a trunk while her parents were murdered by some faction or other in the war.  He teared up.  He described in detail an incident in which he clearly felt his life, and the lives of his fellow activists, were in danger.  Again, he got emotional and wiped away tears.

 

“You’re traumatized,” I exclaimed, and gave him a gentle hug.  “You’ve got to get help and take care of yourself.  Traumatized people do risky things.”

 

“You’re different from most tourists,” he said.  “You’ve heard about the war and you know about the disappearances.”

I told him I work for a torture rehabilitation center and gave him my card.  Lynn mentioned she works for Oxfam, but he had never heard of it, despite it being one of the largest NGOs in the world.

This was when Lynn and I decided to friend him on Facebook.  He is surely being monitored by adversaries, and if they see he’s got XX “friends” in other countries it could be protective.  I don’t know.  I felt powerless.

Next was a memorial to Jorge Gaitán, believed to have been assassinated by the CIA in broad daylight on a crowded street.

Walking in Bogota

Our itinerary said we would have a private city tour “after breakfast.”  What did that mean, and how were we supposed to locate our guide, or vice versa?  Breakfast at the hotel was from 7-10am, so Lynn and I had a leisurely couple cups of coffee and caught up on life events since we’d seen each other in Scotland.

The standard breakfast in all four places we stayed in Colombia included: eggs however we wanted them, arepas or toast, juice, fruit, and coffee. Arepas are little round flat breads—slightly chewy inside and slightly crispy outside—made of ground maize (corn).  They’re standard fare in Colombia and Venezuela.  The fruit selection usually included fresh papaya, pineapple, melon and, at the first hotel, ground cherries.

It got to be 9:30 and there was no sign of a guide so we moved toward the lobby to figure out Plan B.  And there he was, waiting for us.

“I expected you at 9:00,” he said.  We explained the itinerary had been nonspecific.  It wasn’t a big deal, and we were soon on our way.

Michael was wearing bicycle gloves and carrying a bike helmet.  This was our introduction to how integral bike culture is in Colombia’s cities. Bogota, for instance, shuts down its main streets every Sunday for people to cycle from 7am to 2pm.  Since the next day was Sunday, we witnessed this as we were being driven to the airport.  There were thousands of people out bicycling—young and old, families and groups of teens.  Some stopped to chat or picnic on the grassy medians, but mostly they were peddling.

“Maybe that’s why you don’t see many fat people here,” I commented to our driver.  I said “fat” rather than “overweight” because I wasn’t sure how much English he understood.  He laughed and replied, in Spanish, that all the gorditos—fat people—lived on the coast, where it was too hot to exercise and they ate lots of fried food.

“I’m a student, a biker, and an activist,” Michael told us by way of introduction.  He appeared to be in his early 20s.  His English was great and very, very fast.  As he led us down the street it became clear he was an activist first and probably a biker second and student third.

Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena are home to impressive collections of public art.  Some is government-sponsored, but much of it is in the form of murals depicting political-socioeconomic themes.

“We don’t consider ourselves Colombian, or Ecuadoran, or Bolivian, or Peruvian,” Michael explained.  “We are indigenous, and we’re trying to make our voices heard but a handful of wealthy families own the country and control everything.

“For instance this is the Pachamama, the mother earth,” he said about this mural.

“That shop over there,” he indicated, “sells all the herbs used by indigenous healers.”

“Lots of tourists are coming now to try Ayahuasca.  It’s said it can cure any problems of the soul or mind or heart.”

“Maybe we could try it this afternoon,” I joked.

He didn’t think that was funny, and Lynn had wisely not joked along with me.

“It’s a medicine meant to be used only by shamans for spiritual purposes” Michael said, as he hurried us along.

“The Spanish and other Europeans tried to erase the Andean people.  Slowly, we’re coming back.  See that man up there?”

“It’s one sculpture of a man who is not a conqueror.”

“He’s juggling, on a unicycle?” Lynn observed.

“Much of the art is designed to be non-threatening, so it won’t be taken down,” Michael explained.

We entered Bolivar Square.  Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad de Bolívar y Palacios—or just Simón Bolívar, the liberator of the above-named countries plus Panama.

If this had been Rome or Paris or London, this square would have had tens of thousands of tourists jostling each other for selfies and photo opps.  But this is Colombia, in the early stages of tourism.

We stood in the square for a long while as Michael related the recnet history of double crosses, coups, war, and massacres.  No wonder people prefer to bike instead of attending church in the splendid but empty cathedral.

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Getting There

Colombia is somewhere between the backpacker and cruise ship stages of tourism.  The tourist vanguard—backpackers—are there en masse.  They’ve been reporting back on how great it is, and now people like Lynn and I have gotten interested.  But it’s not yet to the point, thankfully, where cruise ships and tour buses are belching tourists by the thousands.

Lynn had used Rebecca Adventure Travel for another trip.  It’s an unfortunate acronym, but RAT specializes in socially responsible tourism.  Since we consider ourselves responsible types, we worked with them to design an itinerary.  The company is based in the Netherlands and started out with tours in Ecuador.  They’ve now added Peru and Colombia.  We went back and forth about how many nights we wanted to spend here and there—they were extremely flexible.

The price was $1,660 per person.  That’s a lot of money.  However when you consider that this included three internal flights,  nine hotel nights, breakfast every day, four-hour tours with our own guide in three cities,  rides to/from the airport, and a five-hour drive from the national park to Cartagena, it was a good deal.  The airfare from Minnesota was $1,200.  Yes, Colombia was as expensive to reach as Athens or Paris.

At some point we were handed off to Responsible Travel.  As the name implies, it also specializes in responsible travel.  They are based in the UK and have a US office.  So it was all fairly confusing but at some point if you really want to go somewhere you just have to go with the flow.

Roxana, my Peruvian pal who has lived in Minnesota for 20 years, happened to be on the same flight to Miami as me.  My brother drove us to the airport and when we checked in we asked if we could be seated together.  Neither of us had seat assignments because, as you know if you’ve flown lately, they won’t give you a seat ahead of time unless you pay extra.  Ka-ching for two inches of extra legroom.  Ka-ching for an a seat closer to the front.  Ka-ching for priority seating.

Why would anyone want to get on a plane first?  It’s not like you’ll be in first class.  You’ll just sit in your cramped seat waiting for all the other passengers to board and watching them fumble around trying to stuff their giant bags into the overhead compartments.

But you can pay extra for that if you like.

We were told it would be impossible for us to be seated together because the plane was full.  We went to the gate and tried again.  Same answer.  So we sat and chatted while we waited to board.  Then we heard someone else asking to be seated together, so we sprang up and somehow, like they were playing Tetris or Jenga, the gate agents got it to work.  It was nice to have three hours together with no distractions.  How often do you get that with a friend?

Roxana and I parted in Miami; we would see each other in a few days in Medellin.

The flight to Bogota was uneventful and on time, but I arrived late at night.  I got through border control ok but the baggage area was chaos.

If you’ve ever traveled to Latin America from Miami, you will be familiar with the giant and multiple suitcases people bring—full of gifts and clothes and who-knows-what for family members.  There was no system to tell you which carousel your bag would be on.  Bags were piled helter skelter.  None of the employees knew anything.  After 45 minutes and near tears of exhaustion, I inquired at the American Airlines desk and immediately produced my bag.  “Is this yours?”

What a relief.  There was no explanation for why they had singled my bag out to keep behind the counter but the lock looked unmolested so I just rolled away.

Back

There’s a 1969 movie called “If it’s Tuesday, This must be Belgium.”  It features an ensemble of B List actors who play Americans touring nine European countries in 18 days.

Which is kind of how I felt in Colombia.  There were seven flights in nine days, three major cities, and one major jungle misadventure involving a horseback ride over boulders and a Bataan Death March-type hike which led to a case of possible sun stroke.

I kept having these moments where I didn’t know where I was.  Was I in Italy?  Spain? El Salvador? Oh, that’s right—I’m in Medellin—if this is Tuesday I must be in Medellin.  I kept consulting my damp, crinkled print-out of the tour to re-orient myself.

After seeing Israel and Portugal and Cuba on group tours with packed, dawn-to-midnight itineraries, I swore I would never travel that way again.  And those are small countries.  Colombia is twice as big as Texas and has twice as many people.  Colombia is five times bigger than the UK!

The thing is to know what you’re getting into and to set your expectations accordingly.  I knew I would probably not get enough sleep and have to push myself.  I knew I could do this for nine days. I gave myself permission to say “no” to some things that were on the itinerary and not feel guilty or like I had wasted my money by not doing something I’d already paid for.

And you know what?  It was fine.  It was a great way to get an introduction to the country.

Best of all, it was hot and humid.  I didn’t need to use Chapstick or hand lotion once.  The hacking cough I’d had for months went away.  My hair went crazy curly.  I got sun burned.  I know that’s bad, but I don’t care!

And now, back to reality.  My brother picked me up at the airport.  He had my down puffer coat and gloves ready for me in the passenger seat.  I picked up my car at his house; it was splattered with dirty slush from the snow plows.  I stopped to pick up milk for my morning coffee at Super America and laughed at that name.  A bundle of mail was crammed into the mailbox, mostly junk. The house was cold and dark; I felt grateful for central heating as I heard the whoosh of the furnace responding instantly to me cranking up the thermostat. I left the milk on the front porch rather than turn on the empty fridge just yet.

I often come back from trips with goals for things to do/do differently.  After being in a jungle, my return goal is to more than double my plant population—from 17 to 40.  None of my plants had died, which I took as a good sign that I could achieve my goal.

It was midnight.  I had been in transit since catching my ride to the airport in Cartagena at 10:30 that morning.  I leaned against my bedroom doorway and gazed lovingly at my bed.  My bed!  Oh, how I had missed it. Every bed in Colombia had been like sleeping on a wooden plank.  In Medillin, the beds were so creaky I had to wear ear plugs so I wouldn’t wake up every time I rolled over. In the jungle, the mattress was narrow and only inches off the floor.  I kept waking up to pull my arm back from the edge of the mattress.  I had seen giant cockroaches, spiders, and grasshoppers; and geckos, in the bath when I turned the light on.  I assumed they were lurking in the dark under my bed, just waiting to run up my hand.

I thought about unpack but I couldn’t face the smelly, dusty clothes I’d been wearing for nine days.

I did pull out a few special gifts I had bought for my son, the cook.  For instance, this snack that was sold on the street—Big-Bottomed Ants.

I’ll write a lot more about Colombia, but for now, here’s one thing they want you to know: