As promised, here’s the Colombia wrap-up post (finally! I’m glad to be done with it). After 2 months down there, it feels good to be back in the States. I’ve gained a new-found appreciation for American cities: they seem suddenly so clean, spacious, and organized—and the skyscrapers in downtown LA have never looked so beautiful to me before. And the people—they are so diverse! And weird!
I wanted to start this post off with this map, in order to give the non-geographically inclined amongst you an idea of what kind of topography it consists of, and where I have traveled within it. As you can see from my crude, multi-colored route-lines, I’ve only traversed a 1/3 of the country at most. Yet this is about the most that the typical traveler will see of this country, including most Colombians themselves.
The reason for this is that almost 1/2 of the country is immersed in Amazonian jungle, south-east from the Cordillera Oriental range of the Andes wherein Bogotá is nestled. And this is your first clue to the deep, dark, complicated and mysterious heart of Colombia. Even when you’ve traveled across most of the main sightseeing circuit as I have, you are left with some kind of sense of having missed something, that there’s something you didn’t quite grasp about the country and its people. Especially when you consider the on-going civil war and drug trafficking that is so strangely invisible, yet so widely publicized.
And that’s because few travelers (for good reason) venture deep into the jungle, wherein the natives dwell still in their traditional manner, and the birds, insect, and animal life is some of the most diverse on the planet. The jungle that harbors also the rebels and terrorists and drug traffickers.
Take a look at that map again, and note that the majority of the populated areas are located within the three Andean ranges that sprawl upward towards the coast. This means that traveling by land is always a harrowing, at times breath-takingly vivid experience. And the few roads that connect the towns and cities are rarely more than two lanes, which means that you’ve got trucks, buses, cars, bicyclists, horses, cows, and people on foot all vying for the same limited stretches of tar. This explains, in part, some of the loco driving in Colombia, because if you don’t drive aggressively and pass at any and every given opportunity, you’re gonna get stuck behind an over-sized truck hauling some industrial machinery.
However, at a certain point, my understanding of the crazy driving ends, and I just think that many drivers in Colombia are just plain horrendous. For example, they don’t have any concept of a middle-ground; it’s either full-speed ahead, or slamming on the brakes. What’s especially ridiculous about that is when they are driving on small city streets with stop lights up ahead, yet they will still achieve full speed before reaching the stop sign, thus assuring the hardest possible braking. This can’t be good for the life of their cars. And yet, oddly enough, all the drivers exhibit the utmost of care and caution when approaching potholes or bumps in the road. They will slow to a crawl and inch over the holes, obviously concerned for the welfare of their vehicle. And then once over it, immediately hit the gas and blast full-speed ahead, until encountering an obstacle, whereupon they slam on the brakes again.
As a pedestrian in Colombia, it is your responsibility to yourself to get the hell out of the way of any approaching vehicles. As in, you will be killed or maimed if you don’t, because the cars will not look out for you. Even the dogs in Colombia understand this, and you will be amazed at the dexterity with which dogs will look both ways and cross the street in high-speed traffic. It makes you realize that American dogs must really be coddled, that they haven’t yet evolved this awareness of the danger of automobiles.
I’m quite thrilled to be done with fearing for my life while walking on the streets. Even when on the sidewalks in Colombia, you still have to be on the look-out for rogue motorcyclists, who will jump the curb at full-speed to circumvent traffic and barrel directly towards you, either skirting you by inches, or forcing you to leap out of the way. This doesn’t occur frequently, but it does happen. Look out.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason everyone is so lackadaisical there in regards to human life and frailty might be due to the great health-care coverage that they enjoy as Colombian citizens. It’s like, hey, no big deal, I just fractured my skull and broke some ribs. I’m covered!
Another thing to mention about the vehicles in Colombia is that they mostly run off of diesel, except for the propane powered engines. You’ll witness buses and trucks belching dense thickets of sun-blocking diesel fumes into the air as they chug up the Cordilleras.
I have read frequently about how clear and well annunciated Colombian Spanish is. Now, some Colombian Spanish is clear and well annunciated. But on the whole, and in general, most Colombian Spanish I heard was most decidedly unclear, nor well annunciated. I don’t know to whom everyone else has been speaking to. It’s been consistently difficult for me to understand anything that people have been saying to me in Colombia, because it’s either been too soft, too fast, or some combination of both. It also doesn’t help that they’ve only been speaking directly to my girlfriend, rather than to me, and she understands even less than I do. Even when I would lean forward and try to enter into the conversation, demonstrating my little tidbit of Spanish-speaking ability, they would continue to ignore me and speak to her. After a while, I just stopped even trying, and let her negotiate the speedy barrage of unknown words on her own.
I have also read many gushing statements on how friendly the Colombian people are. I don’t know that I can be quite so effusive. Now, my extended Colombian family was extremely hospitable—beyond hospitable. But the strangers on the street, the workers in restaurants, hotels, etc, were, on the whole, and in general, more on the rude side of the things.
This isn’t to say that you won’t meet some very nice Colombians in bars and clubs and otherwise. But rather to note that in the many daily transactions (just as in most places in the world, of course), you may be subject to being shoved out of the way, ignored, or having small children yelling in your ear.
Also, there are absolutely no bars on blatant staring down there. I know that I’m freakishly blonde, but I still don’t appreciate being stared at for a half-hour when I’m just trying to eat my breakfast. After a while, both my girlfriend and I would just glare back at people until they got the notion to look somewhere else.
Random thought: could it be that an overabundance of red meat in the Colombian diet contributes to machismo and aggression? Maybe a few more vegetables on their plate, aside from the little sliced tomato and shredded lettuce, might do a body good.
Waaaay too much fried food, lads, and not even usually fresh nor hot when served, unless you’re in a nicer (i.e. not on the street) joint. Anyone know the stats on the rate of heart failure in Colombia?
I don’t mind eating too much meat for a little while. I just wish the dishes could have been spiced up a tad more. Just a bit more variety. Something that would go slightly above and beyond meat, french fries, beans, rice, and patacones.
But at least, of course, there were the juices. I will truly and dearly miss my jugos de níspero, maracuyá, lulo, and guanábana. And coffee. My favs were the períco—or pintado depending where you be—which is coffee with milk. As opposed to café con leche, which is milk with coffee. There’s a difference. Of course, there’s always just the straight-up cups of tintos, if you want to old-school it, and get with the peops on the streets.
Sex seems to be a non-familial issue in Colombia. Colombians are comfortable with their sexuality. So on a long-distance bus ride, for example, the family film for the trip might be “American Pie: Beta House,” Wherein there is a naked sex scene within the first five minutes, continuing with boobies unabated from thereon. Or in a hotel, you might be flipping through the channels and go straight from CNN to GIANT VARICOSE PEEPEE THRUSTING IN VAGINA. This is a hotel where families were staying. Also, sex shops abound in Medellín and Bogotá, with 30 different types of dildos. I didn’t know that many types of dildos existed.
I also am convinced that Colombians watch way too many novelas on television, because they get a little too caught up in moments of passion in public areas. They will not hesitate to stick their tongues down each other’s throats and dry hump in public areas such as in front of museums, or in parks, or next to you in a bar or restaurant, or on street corners. It can be a little gross sometimes.
Colombians furthermore don’t stigmitize plastic surgery nor excessive make-up. You’ll see a number of surgically enhanced boobies, even on men, especially in Cali and Medellín.
There are also a lot of “love hotels” everywhere in Colombia. Make sure you don’t actually stay in one.
There ain’t no public telephones nowhere in Colombia, so when you want to make a call, you either go into a place with telephone cabinas, or you pick up a cell-phone from a dude standing on the street with a placard around his neck that says “minutos.” He will have 2 or 3 different cell-phones, one for each different type of carrier, which is made evident by the first 3 digits of the cell-phone number.
If you’ve ever despaired at the general lack of cell-phone etiquette in the United States, then fear not—Colombians are ten times worse. They all have cell-phones with annoying ringtones, and they will happily chat away at full volume in public places. Your bus driver will be chatting on his cell-phone as he whips around a dead-man’s curve in the Cordillera Central at 80 kph. Entire families seated together at a restaurant will be chatting into all their respective cell-phones.
I was amazed at the general lack of business ethics and acumen in Colombia. Overall, most Colombians running their restaurants, internet stores, cafés, and tiendas didn’t really seem all that concerned about making money. I say this because at the time I traveled in Colombia, it just so happened to be concurrent with the time of the year that most Colombians go on vacation, December 15th – January 15th. This meant that many places were just completely closed that entire time, such as restaurants listed in my guidebook. Now, I’m not one to begrudge someone for taking a vacation—however, when you are running a business, I imagine that you are probably trying to make some cash. But most places just go ahead and shut their doors on Sundays, festivos, siesta time, or just whenever they dang feel like it, apparently. It’s rare to find a shop with hours posted on it, but even when you do, don’t expect them to adhere to those hours. It’s just a bit perplexing, because I don’t understand why you would intentionally give up tons of business. On Sundays, for example, there are loads of people walking around in the streets. But little is open. See the market potential there?
A Summation of the Country as a Tourist Destination
It’s a beautiful tropical country. If you are into hiking, cycling, that sort of outdoorsy thing, then there’s plenty for you in Colombia. If you are into drinking a lot of aguardiente or rum, or dancing, or hitting on Latino men or women (or being hit on), then there’s plenty for you in Colombia as well. I sometimes feel like since I didn’t party very much in Colombia, I kind of missed out on one of the defining national past-times.
However, if you are looking for a relaxing, stress-free vacation, most definitely do not come to Colombia, unless you’re set on shelling out the big bucks.
My recommendations for quintessentially Colombian souvenirs: hand-woven Arhuaca mochilas; tropical fruit jams; emeralds—but only if you’ve got some money to spend and an ability to distinguish quality; and finally—of course—a few bags of good coffee.
This post is getting a bit over-long, so I’m just going to end it with a brief list of my best and worst times in Colombia.
The Best of Times: gorging on juicy red beef at Andres’ Carne de Res outside of Bogotá on Thanksgiving; chilaxing on my cousin’s finca in Armenia; gorging myself on strange fried meats (such as smoked cow lung) on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city in Cali; walking back from the Parque Nacional del Café in the pouring rain; dancing and drinking with my cousin and friends in Armenia; trekking through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida for my birthday (I know, I made it sound like a nightmare—but I love that kind of shit); drinking fresh níspero juice on the waterfront in Santa Marta; eating a three course meal in Cartagena, accompanied by 2 bottles of Chilean wine, for Christmas dinner; frolicking in warm mud with the consistency of chocolate cream in a mud volcano, and then getting bathed like a newborn babe by an old woman in a lagoon; walking along the river in Medellín at night admiring all the Christmas lights; eating pasteles in La Candelaria; walking around the amazing rose garden at the Botanical Gardens in Bogotá.
The Worst of Times: the infamous 31 hours in an orange truck from Armenia to Santa Marta (the more I think on it, the more skeptical I get on why a truck would deliver oranges all that way, given the price of oil, and the fact that oranges grow rampantly and well on the Caribbean coast; some questions, perhaps, are better left unasked); getting scammed in a restaurant in Santa Marta; getting sick in Parque Tayrona; the Islas del Rosario “tour” in Cartagena; going to a Botanical Garden in Medellín in which there were no flowers—in fact, just going anywhere in Colombia only to find it was in the process of renovation, or just plain closed; getting soaked to the bone by nasty street water in downtown Bogotá; and finally, the plane ride home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my escapades in Colombia as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about them, and thanks for keeping up, or reading a few posts, or reading just this post. This blog will now cease as a journal of my daily mundane existence, excepting for the scattered updates of my physical whereabouts, as I am now engaged in the act of trying to decide, in an as thoroughly researched and thought-through process as possible, where the hell in the United States I wish to settle down in for the next foreseeable chunk of my future. Tally ho!