November 23, 2003

Bogotá, Colombia

Beautiful and dangerous, Colombia has grown on me like no other country on this trip. Violent yet cultured, congested but vibrant, polluted though aesthetic, Bogotá to me is the quintessence of Colombia.

I planned to stay in Bogotá a few days simply to see the city and then move on. I've been here over a week now and for the first time on this trip I'm sorry I don't have the luxury of staying in one place as long as I'd like to.

In Bogotá, fantastic people, brilliant entertainment, incredible art, history and culture mingle with crime, political insurgency, corruption and overpopulation. Colombia has its problems, no doubt, but we hear of none of this in the rest of the world. Bogotá is not the off-limits city the media would have you believe it is.

That said, you do have to watch your step here. I arrived in Bogotá a few hours after militants threw two grenades into a popular bar in Bogotá's hip Zona Rosa district killing one and injuring 72. The incident received little press here - this is media policy regarding politically-motivated violence. I learned about it from another traveler who by chance happened to leave the bar an hour before the attack. Two nights later I was at the same bar, and but for a bit of shrapnel in the large sign out front, and the removed patio furniture (damaged in the blast), you wouldn't know there was any trouble there. The place was busy - business as usual in Bogotá. It's still unclear who was the target of the attacks: the son of newly elected president Alvaro Uribe, or the many Americans who frequent the bar. As a foreigner, I would have had trouble entering clubs in city without the help of local friends because the clubs fear admitting too many foreigners (or more accurately, foreigners who might be mistaken for American) might make their club a target for militants.

Far from complacent about the situation, most in Bogotá would opt for less trouble given the chance, but nevertheless they live life passionately and refuse to let the trouble interfere with the serious business of enjoying life.

Though the non-mugging, non-guerilla folk here are nicest you'd ever want to meet, they certainly take a proactive approach to self-preservation. For example:

The military presence here is phenomenal, ranging between young soldiers serving their mandatory year of military service, to career military patrolling with some very scary weapons. Kidnapping for ransom is the guerilla's second largest source of income after drug production - and a huge concern for business people here. In Mexico, I traveled for a while with a Colombian who now lives in France because his father, an airline executive, received a fax one day requesting a "donation" to a political group. The fax detailed the movement of his family for many days prior. The executive moved his family out of the country and now carries out business from Panama.

Stories like this are common here, and business people take precautions. As I stood waiting to cross the street to a bank, a SUV screeched to a stop at the curb in front of me. Two men jumped out clutching very large bulges under their suits and escorted an elderly businessman from the truck into the
bank. They were obviously allowed to enter through some other passage, because when I followed them in I couldn't even get through the mantrap to the teller area. The bulletproof mantraps are metal detectors too, and will not open for you if you set them off. You have to wait for a guard to come search you, then only after putting your metal objects in a locker (including firearms, should you be carrying any), you are allowed in the bank.

The backpacker's hostel I've been staying in keeps a large machete inside the solid double-doors. Officially, it's for breaking up firewood - at 2300 meters, it gets cold here at night - but it gets used more as a sidekick for guests venturing out at night to run errands in the neighbourhood. This sounds funny except it's come in handy several times - for myself included.

Unlike most cities where security guards are most concerned with what is coming out of shops, guards here check bags and purses coming in for weapons and explosives. Being frisked, searched and sniffed is commonplace. Before entering carparks near important buildings, expect to have at least the underside of your car examined with mirrors.

I write this as much for my own benefit as anyone else's; I've been at a loss to describe what it is I love so much about this country. The beautiful geography, climate and culture are given, so it must be the people. While it's easy to describe what to privileged western eyes seems to be insanity, it's much harder to put my finger on what makes these people so alluring. I think it's their passion. Colombians seem to live, love, hate, fight, talk, dance and do absolutely everything else with passion. I have to say, for all the problems this country has, I'm more than a little envious of them.

Posted by dhuska at November 23, 2003 09:20 PM