Intrepid Den: Bogota rocks but with an EARTHQUAKE, not music!

Here’s the next entry by Intrepid Den where she is now in Bogota. Gotta have balls to go there alone!

Three in 30 years, and I get to feel it – welcome to Bogota! I arrived at night on a totally civilised flight from Mexico City. On arrival, all I wanted to do was have a cigarette but as soon as I walked towards the door, a big moustachioed man took me by the arm, took my huge bag by the handle and started leading me off. I’ve been told, I’ve read – never get in anything other than an official taxi. We were half way to his car, him flashing his “tourist” badge at me when I just said NO! I’m not sure if it was because I was desperate to smoke and wasn’t interested in going ANYWHERE right that minute, but he took my massive declaration of non-participation seriously and just turned around, with massive bag, and walked me back and put me in a taxi. “I want to smoke first”, I almost screamed (OK, I’m addicted, but this was getting on for 8 hours!), the taxi driver just said, “it’s OK to smoke in the taxi.”! Welcome to Columbia. It didn’t even matter that he had no idea where he was going, and obviously, neither did I, I was happy. The address seemed to be missing a number, but when we pulled up outside the address which looked exactly like the photo on Airbnb, there was Marcela to greet me!

She helped me in with my bag to a wonderful big airy, tiled floor lounge, scattered with cushions rugs and hammocks, she helped me up the varnished wooden stairs onto the varnished wooden landing and she helped me into my room which is lovely but has bars on the windows – but that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous (does it?). She made me some coffee and took me out into the garden so that I could smoke (again) and I was aware that all around the roof was barbed wire – but that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous either (does it?).
Marcela, my host for 3 days, is a university lecturer, she’s lived in Germany and speaks English and she is really sweet. She just wants her guests to enjoy themselves. I thought I was the only one staying here, but there is a German girl and a Dutch man – I got talking to him and his ENGLISH friend, who is a journalist and who just up and left to live in another country and report on crime, health and music(!). The Dutch man, Bram, said he’d walk me into town in the morning. And so after talking with Marcela and turning down her offer to go to the market at 6am, I retired to my room, put a super huge furry blanket on my bed – it’s COLD and then I broke open the duty free brandy…
Marcela just can’t do enough to make my stay perfect. In the morning, she made me a huge pot of coffee (not as strong as I would have made it but then maybe it’s me who’s weird) and when Olga, the house keeper arrived, she made me a “maize” bread (I still can’t eat it no matter what it’s called) with fried onions and tomatoes, sitting atop a slice of cheese, which I also can’t eat (I am so tired of allergies!). I had to scrape the cheese off whilst she wasn’t looking, wrap it in a napkin and put it in the bin – the cat was sitting there looking at me, I wondered if I should give it to her but something in my mind told me cats can’t eat it either.
So, breakfast over, I thought I’d have the first shower for nearly a week – the hostel in Mexico City was great, but the idea of wobbly shower walls and the possibility of someone just wandering in had no allure whatsoever. And the funniest thing is that for about half of the world, plumbing and electricity just seem to go together – live wires in the shower, plugs that spark EVERY time you plug them in – do we in England worry too much or are we right to worry? Surely half of the world can’t be wrong – i.e. the ones with the bare wires like spaghetti running everywhere. Who cares. I washed the grime of Mexico City off and with my (empty) money belt hidden under my trousers and trusty debit card on board, me and Bram – the Dutchman – all 6’2” of him began our walk into town.

It’s 2600 metres above sea level here, the air is thin, the pollution is thick and it is hard to breathe. Nevertheless, we walked and talked. He works for an NGO looking into the environmental and social implications of the mining industry – no prizes for guessing that one of the biggest culprits is a British company in cahoots with a South African one. They send in their own para militaries to “ethnically cleanse” the areas which have gold, gas and emeralds, paying back handers to the government – obviously, these are the indiginous people, and once they’ve frightened them off, they move in and start mining. I could weep. This has been going on for centuries and whilst a few people stamp their feet and stand up for the Amazon and everywhere in the world that minerals still exist, the people with the money just roll in with their bulldozers (what a word!), rape the earth and make an awful lot of money. Please excuse the rant, but this is capitalism and that is what people are voting for without realising just how heinous it is. It’s not about you and your house and your mortgage and your university fees, this is about raping the earth of everything it has and shouldn’t have to give, until there is nothing left!!! He said he gets threatening text messages all the time and he also said that the Columbian people have more or less given up the struggle and have become introspective, whilst the dispossessed have had to move from rural to urban areas, with no education and invariably, just get involved in the drug trade, with the cartels, in collaboration with the government, all make a very good living.

He left me on a corner, filled with dread, dreaming of the safety of Mexico City. I walked on alone, towards the old part of town “La Candeleria”, expecting to be mugged at any moment (as he had been – all 6’2” of him). But that is, of course, not what happened. Maybe I look scarier than they do, but once again, I was helped all day. I’d give them far too much money – with £1 = to 4000 pesos, it’s easy to lose a nought along the way.

So what’s Bogota like? It’s like a fiery ball of chaos cupped in the harsh hand of the mountains, whilst clouds tumble over like an alchemist’s jar. For 95% of the people it is a grim place to live, poverty is everywhere and it’s only the 5% who live in the north of the city, who have any quality of life. It’s cold, it’s wet, it looks slightly more sophisticated than Mexico, but it lacks the colour and verve. The architecture is a total jumble – beautiful old buildings from the 1600’s sit beside the obligatory high rise of all sorts of shapes and the main square, devoted to Bolivar, who did much to fight off colonial rule, is full of pidgeons and people feeding pidgeons – these are flying rats! I was reminded of Mary Poppins, “Feed the Birds” and all that, but it is pretty revolting. There is the usual boring high street but lots of cobbled streets that run east full of museums, theatres, the opera house, churches and a mini cathedral that looks like a very ornate wedding cake. At one point, I was walking past the parliament building and was told I couldn’t walk on the pavement and had to walk in the road! There are police and soldiers everywhere – not that I minded, but it just doesn’t have a feeling of joy – anywhere. Maybe years of FARC and centuries of colonial rule have simply worn them out.

I realised I was starving, not for the first time, and came across a restaurant with a “menu de dia” at 6500 pesos – even I could translate that. So I climbed the old wooden staircase into a lovely old cantina style room, simple wooden table and chairs and sat down. Obviously, there was the usual language barrier so I just pointed at someone else’s lunch and swiftly, I was served a bowl of potato and pea soup followed by chicken, rice, vegetables and chips of both normal and sweet potatoes – and all for £1.50! I followed it with coffee in a square with music playing – not mariachis, but loud speaker type stuff and was surprised to think that I felt the earth move. I DID feel the earth move! Shock registered on everyone’s face and a feeling of impending doom, but just as casually as it had arrived, it shuddered to a stop. A moment of realisation and then everything went back to normal and ladies in high heels continued to totter by, men and women selling everything on the side of the road continued selling, business men in sharp suits and sunglasses continued to trade, tramps continued to rifle bins and pee in the gutters and I continued home. Despite the totally useless map of the city, I found my way and you know what? I am staying in a really nice neighbourhood. The shop keepers are all curious as to where I am from, they help me, they laugh with me and in the little bar nearby, we even ended up nudging one another. Back at the house, Nicholas, the young man who lives in another self contained flat in the garden, asked me why English people never learn the language before they go abroad – I ran him through just some of the countries I’ve visited and it amounted to 20 languages – how many does he want me to learn!!!!!!

Day 2

I intended to go on a cycle tour of the city (I ride bikes all the time, so not such a shock) so once again, headed into town. Somehow, I got my calles and my carreras mixed up and after walking for an hour, I was in totally the wrong side of town. The side of town Bram had warned me about. Big dogs with muzzles that obscured their entire faces like something from a sci fi film about the end of the world and marauding bands, trotted alongside their dangerous looking owners and I don’t know who was more surprised – them to see me wandering in their neighbourhood without a gun, or me to admit that I was totally lost. I turned around and hurried back, but not too fast as to seem scared, more in a totally eccentric manner like a mad dog and an Englishwoman.

I missed the tour so simply wandered down a few streets away from the historic centre and it was totally awful. This is Bogota. Full of worn down worn out people, trying to scrape a living selling total rubbish, going through bins, sleeping rough and not a smile in sight. There is no music, no life, no nothing except misery. And all because the rich need to get richer. I’d had enough. I walked home and as agreed, myself and Marcela spent my last night together in conversation. Once again, we sat in the little garden, I got my brandy out and we talked and talked and talked! I wondered why we hadn’t recognised kindred spirits in the first place but isn’t that often the case (apart with Andree in San Agustinillo). She told me that Columbian men, descendants of Spanish conquistadors, who were often freed prisoners, were terrible fathers and all wanted to have several children with several women and that family was not the sacred preserve of most Latin American countries. She said that it remained in the psyche from the time of Cortez, when rape and pillage of the indiginous women was common, and somehow, this had just continued. Bram came out to join us, as did Nicholas, and in the end, it turned into something of a little party, but we all agree, Bogota has big problems but I was th
e only one getting out of there for good in the morning. Marcela and I hugged and once again, I felt that I’d arrived as a guest but left as a friend and in the morning, when I saw Bogota fall away below me from the plane, I couldn’t help but know, that I will NEVER go back there! And so to Cartagena on the Caribbean …

Buenos noches, as it is here.

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