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April 1998

10 April 1998

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen probably more theatre (certainly more good theatre) than in the preceding 4 years. The biennial International Theatre Festival of Bogotá is truly a major world theatre event with 76 theatre companies from 40 countries playing in 17 venues over a period of 17 days. The majority of the productions are contemporary, usually experimental and avant garde, (which is exactly what we like), and range from dance to mime to straight theatre to circus to religious. So, we have been making the best of the opportunity, and have seen several productions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and from the cerebral to the frivolous, and some which were just plain weird!

As much as anything else, what has impressed me most has been the excellent advertising and media coverage (compared, for instance, to Caracas where we were lucky if we even found out about events afterwards), and also the general pride and enthusiasm the festival had awoken in the city. There are daily interviews with artists (on the rock and pop radio stations as well as the more expected classical stations), posters and banners throughout the city, an excellent internet site, and there is a genuine feeling of excitement and of occasion.

Any headway we may have made on Elena's potty training has been completely reversed in the last couple of weeks - now she runs off to hide whenever she wants to do pooh instead of going to the bathroom, and claims not to know why she does it. She now talks so well that one can have a sensible conversation with her (either in person, or on the telephone), and yet on some subjects she makes no sense at all, which is immensely frustrating. She can lurch from being a sweet little girl to a raving monster in seconds, and expects us to take it in our stride when she changes back seconds later. Basically she is thoroughly spoilt from getting her own way too often, and clawing our way back from this position will be a fraught and painful process.

In the run-up to the May Presidential elections in Colombia, the posturing, making and breaking of alliances, and all the other associated machinations are progressing apace. None of what can be considered the serious candidates are particularly extreme, or even particularly interesting, which is probably no bad thing, and Samper's protégé Horacio Serpa, nominally the candidate for "Change" (in actual fact the candidate for the status quo), looks likely to walk away with it, although not by a huge margin.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, where the elections are still nearly a year away, the election shenanigans have been going on for sometime already, and the two main candidates are Irene Sáez, ex-Miss Universe from 1981 (but now a seasoned middle-of-the-road politician despite her lack of experience at the national and international level), who, until quite recently was the clear favourite, and Hugo Chávez, revolutionary and leader of the 1992 military coup (although somehow still eligible to stand for the Presidency), who in recent week has been striding ahead in the polls. A distinct contrast with the Colombian hopefuls!

23 April 1998 Back to top

Villa de Leiva, Colombia (Raquirá, Monasterio de la Candelaria)
Photo: Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Apr 98.
Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Apr 98.
Another rash of visits (from half of Julie's family) provided our excuse for experiencing a little more of Colombia and its remarkable diversity. Yet another visit to Villa de Leiva, where we are now well-known at the Hostería La Candelaria, did not really count as an experience, but neither has its charm palled for us, which is rare in itself, particularly for me, an addict of new experiences and usually bored and restless on a second visit.

On this occasion, we went via Raquirá, a colourful little old town,
Photo: Raquirá, Boyacá, Colombia. Apr 98.
Raquirá, Boyacá, Colombia. Apr 98.
known nationwide for its pottery, in particular a huge selection of red earthenware pots of all sizes and shapes, with ludicrously low price-tags. During the week, when there is no market, it is a pleasant relaxing spot in which to pass an hour or so. We also detoured on a slippery mud road up into the surrounding desert to the Monasterio de la Candelaria. Dating from 1597, the monastery has a pretty old chapel, beautiful gardens and many old paintings.

Tayrona National Park, Colombia
The second trip was a little more interesting, despite something of a disaster which I had not noticed was waiting to happen - but then disasters are what experiences are all about, no? We flew to Santa Marta, and were met by none other than Edwin, my crony from the Ciudad Perdida trip, and who this time managed to provided us with slightly better transport
Photo: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Apr 98.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Apr 98.
(which is not to say comfortable, and the driver did have to stop to make "minor adjustments" to the engine every time the gradient of the road changed, but it was definitely "better"). We retraced our route along the Troncal del Caribe road, in the shadow of the cloudy Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and I think I recognized most of the pot-holes. Apparently 900 huge trucks a day carry coal along this route from Colombia's massive coal-fields in the north-east to be shipped from Santa Marta, and almost to a man the truck drivers exhibit a rather cavalier attitude towards life and death, presumably on the grounds that they were extremely unlikely to come off worst in any accident. After an hour or so, and a stop for some excessively large juices, we turned to the left rather than right, into the other National Park of Magdalena state, Tayrona.

Tayrona National Park, although dwarfed by the neighbouring Sierra Nevada, nevertheless extends along over 50km of spectacular coastline and the jungle-covered foothills of the Sierra,
Photo: Ecohabs, Tayrona Nat Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
Ecohabs, Tayrona Nat Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
including some pre-Colombian remains of the Tayrona people. Despite being one of the most-visited National parks in Colombia, the only accommodation within the Park, (and we passed very little else outside it for that matter) are the so-called Eco-habs - round, thatched huts reminiscent of the Tayronas' own houses - which I had booked for us. I knew that they overlooked the beach at Cañaveral, and I knew that they were reasonably basic, but what I had not bargained for was the number of steps needed to get to them, especially as most of the nearer ones were already inhabited.

Neither had I anticipated that Julie's mother's asthma was quite so bad, and she was already taking the maximum dosage of her medications. Either way, there was no way that she could have climbed up and down all the steps, even to the closest available Eco-hab, and we soon realized that we would have to come up with an alternative plan. So having installed them in the restaurant, I set off with a precocious young local (who would probably end up as a local tourist guide, if not running the country), to find some accommodation without steps, and preferably not too far away. As luck would have it, I found one surprisingly close, a little further down the main road (I am still not sure what a luxury hotel was doing there in such an isolated spot, but I was not going to argue the toss), and booked her in straight away, despite the expense.

Then it was back into the Park in the rickety old Jeep they had found for us (even the luxury hotel did not seem very convinced that they would be able to find anything approaching a recognizable taxi in those parts, so I tried to ignore the lack of doors, dials, functioning gear-box, etc). And then Helen and I set off back again towards the hotel with mother-in-law squeezed in next to the huge lady who described herself as a "friend" of the driver, and who was along for the ride. On the way out of the Park we also managed to pick up various other friends, associates, paying customers and hangers-on (literally!) and ended up with 14 of us in, or on, what was actually a very small Jeep. However, as it was obviously the only public transport for miles around, there was not much we could say (even if we were paying about 20 times what everyone paid - those who paid anything!).

The driver's son took over the driving at one point, still with the "friend" wedged in the front, but we did eventually make it to the hotel. Not that we had much time spend there: by the time we had filled out all the forms, installed the guest in her room, and thrust a double-whiskey in her hand, it was already nearly dark, and we had to get back to the Eco-habs before they closed the Park for the night, all of which was looking more and more unlikely. So there we were travelling an unknown road in an isolated part of a dangerous country, with a man we had never seen before, in the dark, not even knowing whether we would be able to get back to our accommodation and relative civilisation. It seemed a little rash, to say the least, even at the time, but there did not seem to be much in the way of alternatives at that point, and we just had to trust to luck.

Which held! We collapsed into the Park restaurant, (Elena was already fast asleep by this time having played on the beach all afternoon), demolished a couple of beers, and climbed the steps (un-lit - I had only brought a torch as an afterthought, but it proved essential) to our Eco-habs.

It was only in the morning that we were able to put things in perspective, and that what had seemed as though it may turn into something of a nightmare may not have been so bad after all.
Photo: Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
Our Eco-hab looked out over sandy coves, rocky headlands and lush jungly forest, and having the most isolated of the huts we felt ourselves alone in Paradise. Of course, almost everything we had brought was already damp and smelly from the humidity and our own sweat, and we still had to go down all those steps to get so much as a cup of coffee, but we were already aware that Tayrona was quite a special place. Bright scarlet and black birds flitted about in the undergrowth, and I saw a couple of capybara bolt away as I passed by (Iain spotted a snake which from his description was almost certainly a coral snake, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, although I did not like to tell him at the time). Julie's mother was safe in her luxurious (and flat) hotel, and even if her Spanish was almost non-existent, there were always people around who had a smattering of English, and she is far from as retiring person. So, all in all, we felt ourselves to be in a better frame of mind to enjoy the Park.

Elena, of course, had been up at dawn (if that!), and had already paddled (the waves and currents were too strong for swimming), made her sand-castles, and covered herself from head to toe with the coarse sticky sand of the area, way before normal people had even considered getting up for breakfast. Edwin arrived, late and unrepentant, and we set off on the day trip as we had planned, although without a baby-sitter, we had to take Elena with us, knowing full well that she would not be able to make it all the way. But luckily we soon encountered Pepe the donkey, and jumped at the chance to over-pay his owner for Elena to ride him as we walked through the lush jungle parallel with the coast to the next large bay called Arrecifes, which boasted two restaurants and a handful of rooms to rent and very little else.

The coastal scenery was tremendous, with wide expanses of white-sand
Photo: Arrecifes, Tayrona Nat Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
Arrecifes, Tayrona Nat Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
beaches, fading into the distant rocky promontories in the hazy spray from the huge breakers which pounded the whole coast. There were signs explaining in graphic detail how experienced swimmers had died there, and nowhere on the whole coastline did we ever see so much as a fishing boat, due to the dangerous swells and rough waves. We walked along the beach and one or two other enchanting little coves, littered with huge rocks and natural debris (these were wild beaches and definitely not manicured for the tourists), until arriving at a place called La Piscina (Swimming Pool), one of the only beaches in the area safe for swimming, due to a coral reef which protected the whole bay from the fury of the waves.

The arrangement was that I, having already been to the Ciudad Perdida and seen something of the Tayrona culture there, would stay on the beach with Elena while the others continued into the hills to another important (although much smaller) Tayrona centre called Pueblito. I did not feel too put out, and when the others told afterwards of the exigencies of the four-hour walk from La Piscina (apparently at least as difficult as anything on the Ciudad Perdida hike), I actually felt that I had had the best deal. I and Elena thoroughly enjoyed our time on the beach - fifteen minutes making sand-castles, then five minutes in the sea, then fifteen minutes building sand-castles, etc, etc. We fed on fruit, and drank large quantities of water in the hot humid conditions, and thought from time to time of the aching muscles and sweaty shirts of the others.

After a frantic clamber over the rocks where everyone got soaked in the returning tide, Pepe was waiting to take Elena back from Arrecifes (she insisted on riding without holding on and whooping like a cowboy), which was just as well as everyone was worn out after their exertions, and we arrived back just before dark.

Meanwhile we had made another mistake in leaving the lights on in our Eco-habs thinking that it would make the dark climb easier for us. All it succeeded in doing, however, was attracting every insect for miles around, especially some little brown flying beetles, which were liberally scattered over the whole area including all over the floor, our bedding, clothes, etc, and which insisted on flying into the torch-holder and clinging on with their hooked feet. There was nothing we could do but switch all the lights off and hope they would go away, while sweeping round with the torch and a piece of paper from time to time for stragglers and squashed bodies. I did not like to mention it at the time, but I also came across a couple of 7cm cockroaches, and a 20cm-long earwig-type insect, which thankfully slinked away through a hole in the floor as soon as I found it. We did get some sleep that night, but I was still clearing away stepped-on bodies the next morning.

The next day was a day of relaxation and relative luxury visiting Julie's mother in her hotel,
Photo: Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Apr 98.
which went well, despite heightened stress levels when Elena managed to do pooh in the swimming pool. Our final morning consisted of more walks along the beach (where a couple of exhibitionists insisted on bathing naked right next to us, in the dangerous breakers which were still coming in), and lots more making sand-castles, before a quick visit to the small Tayrona museum, (which would have benefited from at least a little light), and the bumpy ride back to sweaty Santa Marta airport. What started as a disaster had actually turned into quite a pleasant sojourn in a beautiful place, even if most people were suffering from aching muscles, upset stomachs and colds by the time we left.

Back in Bogotá, if it was not kidnappings by ultra-leftists it was murders of human rights activists and journalists by ultra-rightists, which was turning into a popular pastime again after a decade or so of hiatus. Business as usual. The annual US State Dept report showed that over a third of terrorist attacks in 1997 occurred in Colombia, even if that was less than in previous years. The Colombian army admitted quite openly just recently that it had neither the resources nor the strategy to defeat the guerrillas, and seemed to have given up any hope of doing so. According to a poll, 80% of the population believe that the country is going to the dogs (95% in rural areas). Inflation is way above targets, and unemployment has reached record levels. Then, just to cheer everyone up, a bizarre air-crash occurred where an Ecuadorian plane crashed into the mountains which skirt Bogotá for absolutely no apparent reason killing all 43 passengers and 10 staff, (it happened the day after Helen and Iain flew home, and a couple of days before Julie's mother was to fly back!).

30 April 1998 Back to top

Elena continues as erratic as usual, with potty training regressed back to well before Square 1. On one particularly memorable day, she managed to pooh her pants, pee all over a shop, break a mug, scribble on the walls with felt pen, and bite and pinch Julie on two separate occasions - the rest of the time she was perfectly happy and equable! What can one do?

Elena's third birthday (just one of a rash of birthdays among her school-
Photo: Elena's third birthday, Bogotá, Colombia. Apr 98.
Elena's third birthday. Bogotá, Colombia. Apr 98.
friends in recent weeks), went off passably well, although it was a much more low-key affair than in previous years (probably no bad thing). Perhaps the highlight was when one of her friends pulled down his pants and started spraying pee everywhere - all of a sudden he seemed to snap out of a trance, and was mortified to see what he had just done! And we think we have problems with Elena! We contracted a clown and puppet show, (both of which seem to be de rigeur here for toddlers' parties), not that either was very good, but it passed the time and more or less kept the kids occupied, even if not amused.

Elena received another batch of useless throw-away plastic things, tending distinctly towards the Barbie/beauty parlour theme this year which is an ominous sign, although we were gratified that she spent most of her time playing with her new wooden train set at the expense of the gaudy plastic baubles. Her sugar consumption took another steep hike, even though she is still ploughing through the legacy of Easter and a visiting grandparent. We are having to hide and ration anything sweet. She now sleeps in her own "big girl's bed", and we are insisting on her feeding herself, after we realized that we were still treating her like a baby: she has never shown any inclination to escape from her cot, and she has always been more than content to have someone spoon in her food for her. We are hoping that this emphasis on being a "big girl" will help her control her bowels a little more effectively…

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