If you came to Colombia without paying attention to the news, or if you hadn’t told anyone where you were going and listened to them freak out about it, then you would have no idea that there was an ongoing civil war. Colombians themselves don’t seem too keen on discussing it. I’m quite certain that many of them would rather just ignore it, and remain just as blissfully unaware as many of us Americans are of the increasing divide between rich and poor in our country. There’s also a certain kind of hardened exterior that Colombians have in general, due to the fact that over half their population lives in poverty. Life here is certainly never easy. The cities never seem to sleep, and everyone is running on caffeine or maybe a little aguardiente. Everyone is just trying to get their little piece of the action, whether it be selling tintos, shining shoes, or standing still and pretending to be a statue on the street corner. Many people’s occupation (including children), apparently, is just to walk the streets all day long and beg for money. These beggars are shameless, approaching you with the hand outstretched, the begging face on, the pleading voice, and most of them will immediately curse you out loudly when you deny them money, which doesn’t make you any more inclined to give them any.
You can tell that the economy, at least for a certain selection of the populace, is booming. Just look at how many high-rises are still being added to the already condensed, busy skyline of Bocagrande in Cartagena. But this growing economy is young and uncertain, and is overshadowed both by the United States on one side, with its questionable infusions of ‘drug war’ money, and Venezuela on the other, with Chavez’ seemingly psychotic manipulations of markets. And the ongoing civil war further increases this shredding and upset from two completely different angles: the right-wing paramilitario on one side, and the rebel guerillas on the other, with the Colombian government somewhere in the middle trying to quell the violence, stablilize the economy, and somehow eradicate (or at least make a show of eradicating) the cocaine trade, which is complicated by the fact that cocaine is largely grown and trafficked by both the rebels and the paramilitary. And now that I’ve seen a cocaine manufacturing plant and realized just how easy it is to make the paste, and considering just how easy it is to grow the plant itself, as it grows like a weed, it seems like a pretty hopeless task to continue to attempt to just eliminate the crops. The fact is, as long as rich Americans continue to stuff that shit up their noses and continue to pay high prices for the stuff—even though it’s easy to grow, easy to make, and is cut endlessly with crap (like flour) before it reaches those high-end nostrils—then it will continue to be grown and traded, because it makes some people with guns and connections a lot of money.
So with an awareness of what’s going on here, somewhere, in Colombia, it makes it all the more remarkable just how invisible it all is. As a tourist, you are in absolutely no danger, unless you go into the lesser visited outlying rural regions where the paramilitary and/or rebels are in control. And even then, simply if you act like an idiot and put yourself into dangerous situations. (As they say here, “No dar papaya“, which is a saying that means, “Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations.) Colombia is safer to visit, I would venture to say, then most major cities in the United States. At least here in Colombia, you don’t have to worry as much about some random unhappy Joe with the inability to socialize mowing you down with a semi-automatic. There’s enough official-type dudes with guns standing idly about here to prevent such occurrences. If you’re gonna get shot, it’s probably gonna occur somewhere out in the jungle, not in the middle of a city street. About the most danger you feel as a tourist is that a taxi driver (or a restaurant in Santa Marta!) will rip you off because you don’t know the appropriate price. Or that someone will steal your wallet or I-pod when you’re sleeping on a bus. That kind of thing. I’d worry about that on a Greyhound in the States, too. And in the States, I’d also be worrying about getting an unwanted reach-around in the bathroom at the bus station (maybe even from a US Senator!), whereas here in Colombia, you have to pay to use the bathroom, so it’s not a concern. Which as my girlfriend observed, may be annoying at first, but then you realize that charging to use a public bathroom is actually a good thing, because the bathrooms are cleaner, and more importantly, because there aren’t random sketchy people in there shooting up or trying to hump you as you urinate.
It’s been hard for me to get a handle on any deeper sense of the situation here in Colombia as I haven’t had any deep political discussions with anyone, and because it’s not, as I’ve said, visible in any immediate sense. I do know that the Colombian military isn’t exactly the most scrupulous in the world, as the military boys out in the jungle on the Ciudad Perdida tour sold and smoked pot with some other trekkers that I’d talked to in Parque Tayrona. And considering also that we were told to hide our valuables from them when we were staying in their camp. Not the most disciplined of soldiers, which makes you question as well just where the boundaries between the paramilitary and the military lie. But these are questions I can’t possibly get any insight on myself without some research from other sources. Boundaries are never quite clear here in any sense, and sometimes one wonders if there really are many observed laws at all, especially when there’s money involved. It’s like the Wild West out here in many ways, and not only in regards to the traffic.
At the moment of this writing, Colombia is making a visible attempt to broaden its tourism industry and to beautify its cities and fix up its roads. This means that for me, a lot of Colombia has been closed or in a state of active renovation, which has been highly annoying, but I can tell you that if you came here in a few years, it would probably be much nicer. For example, the Museo del Oro in Bogotá is being renovated, and I really wanted to see it. They have a little throw-away exhibit at another site, but it’s nothing much to look at. On all the major roads, the road is actively being worked on, which has meant a lot of bumpiness and one-way controlled traffic. In Santa Marta and in Bogota, many sidewalks are half-complete, and you have to step around people working on carefully placing colored bricks into patterns. The whole waterfront walk in Santa Marta was being worked on. It looked like it would be nice someday, but while we were there, it was just one big obstacle course. The Botanical Gardens in Medellín were being renovated, and there was absolutely nothing there to look at when I went. I’m sure they will be very nice in a few years. I’m still a little bitter that I had to pay 2 bucks to go into a park where there were no plants to be seen. And on and on. There’s a lot of public projects being done here, which further reflects the rising economy.
So that’s my thoughts and impressions of Colombia as a whole, in addition to the other lists I’ve made of the little details and quirks. I’ll add more thoughts as they arise.