Luke's South American Diary
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August 1998

5 August 1998

The inevitable backlash against the peace process in Colombia, and the baptism of fire for the new presidential incumbent, Andrés Pastrana, has begun with a vengeance in the last few days. Fierce fighting between guerrillas and anti-guerrilla forces in 27 different locations throughout the country have already left over 100 soldiers and police dead, over 100 injured, and 120 taken prisoner, as well as four local council leaders kidnapped, in what is considered one of the worst defeats ever for the armed forces. The number of guerrilla deaths has been put at around 200. A car-bomb and two grenade attacks occurred in Medellín (where we are to visit in two days time!), and another car-bomb was defused in time in Bogotá (where we live!).

The targets are mainly army bases and army schools, but as always civilians are involved as well, even if not deliberately. Apparently such a show of power occurs whenever there is a change in leadership, but as much as anything it is also a bloody farewell to ex-President Samper whom the guerrillas blame for a worsening economic situation and increased misery in rural areas. Now all the references in the newspapers to "peace" which had sprung up so recently, have been replaced by references to "war", a word which has been studiously avoided up until now.

10 August 1998Back to top

Medellín, Colombia (Festival de Flores, Cicuito del Este)
With all that as a background, we had booked a long weekend away in Medellín, a city which, although its heyday as the capital of the Colombian drugs trade is now some years behind it, is still by some measures one of the most violent in the world. The weekend was, however, the culmination of Medellín's Festival de Flores, recognized as one of the country's major cultural festivals, although we were actually somewhat disappointed by what we saw.

Medellín is a city of 2 million or so spectacularly set about 1,500m up in an amphitheatre of green mountains in the Cordillera Occidental of Antioquia.
Photo: Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Aside from its setting, however, it does not boast much tourist appeal, and we exhausted its attractions in an hour or so. It is a largely modern industrial city, with few colonial remnants surviving, and once we had seen its small collection of (local boy) Botero paintings and sculptures, relatively little in the way of culture either. The walk up Cerro Nutibara to the Pueblito Paisa, a replica of a traditional Antioquian village, was pleasant enough but nothing to write home about.

For me the overwhelming impression of the city was heat, rubbish, noise and people - people everywhere. Granted we were staying in a hotel right in the centre of town and not in one of the more salubrious suburbs like
Photo: Street market, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Street market, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
El Poblado which have grown up in recent years, but it seemed that every street we walked down was choked with market stalls, beggars and buses, which made just walking around quite a challenge. Between street-hawkers, traffic and the music blaring out of every café, the noise was a major trial, and it continued all night long as far as I could tell. As in Caracas (of which Medellín reminded me very much), the only haven of civilization was on the new Metro, which we took out to a flower and craft exhibition at the Botanical Gardens, and our hotel, where even a freezing cold swimming pool was welcome after battling through the streets.

Photo: Silleta, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Silleta, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
The Festival itself culminated in the Desfile de los Silleteros, an impressive event in itself, although we had great difficulty in finding any vantage point from which to see it properly. It is a procession of campesinos carrying on their backs huge and heavy wooden constructions lavishly decorated with all manner of flowers. We subsequently saw an exhibition of some of the silletas themselves, and we could better appreciate at close hand the work which had gone into producing them, some of which were real works of art.

We also caught a procession of decorated horses and carts, a much more modest and homely affair,
Photo: Campesinos, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Campesinos, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
and actually much more enjoyable due to the lack of frantic, pushing crowds. To see it we had taken a taxi out to a small local park, which seemed to be full of body-builders, and where we attracted many stares - we saw no sign of other foreigners anywhere in Medellín, and obviously in this little park foreigners and blonde little girls had never before been seen. Another exhibition we went to, of mules and fondas (the small brightly painted inns of the region), seemed to be a real damp squib until we realized that we had read the leaflet wrongly, and that it was actually from ten until two in the morning, not two in the afternoon as we had naively assumed.

Photo: Chiva, Marinilla, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
Chiva, Marinilla, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
On our last day, we arranged to get away from the city, and do a tour of some of the small towns in the local area, known as the Circuito del Este. (I had passed through the environs of Medellín some four years earlier, but I had little time to detour then, and was not entirely sure where I was most of the time anyway). Climbing out of the hole of Medellín, through splendid mountain scenery, we passed through a gentler, more wooded, landscape, stopping off briefly at Guarne, Marinilla (with a pretty old main square) and Río Negro.

Then we dropped down through even lusher pastoral terrain to the little old town of El Retiro, my own personal favourite,
Photo: El Retiro, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
El Retiro, Antioquia, Colombia. Aug 98.
with some particularly finely decorated chiva buses in the main square, and many old balconied houses around it. Our guide pointed out one chiva which he said was a classic 1959 model (from its design), and which looked almost brand new, freshly painted and lacquered. There were other attractions in the area but our guide advised against them from the point of view of guerrilla activity - the hills of Antioquia have always been a guerrilla stronghold, and many of the paramilitary massacres we read about in the papers seem to occur in god-forsaken little Antioquian villages.

We might have enjoyed Medellín more had we been less tired (Elena woke us up several times during the night, and behaved appallingly during the daytime too, which added to our stress levels), but I left with no great desire to return in a hurry. My main positive memory of the city is of its buses, beautifully looked after, and brightly coloured with highly polished chrome-work shining in the sun.

14 August 1998 Back to top

I published some very pedestrian old poems of mine on the Web recently, not because I think they are particularly worthy of an audience, but really more as an excuse to design a new web-site. The poems date from when I was a tender twenty years old, unemployed and unloved and living in the depths of suburban Coventry, and are chock full of angst and are incredibly depressing. Other than a few vaguely memorable phrases I do not think that they have much literary merit (I was obviously reading Louis Macniece and Dylan Thomas heavily in those days), and are merely on the Web for posterity, that is to say for the sake of it, along with a lot of other people's unworthy poetry.

Around Bogotá, Colombia (Chicaque, Tabia, Subachoque)
I also decided, however, that I was becoming far too obsessive about the Internet, and made more of a conscious effort to get out and about, despite some rather unpredictable weather. Probably not surprisingly, I discovered lots of beautiful places, all within a couple of hours of home. One such find was Chicaque, a privately-run nature reserve, complete with restaurant, marked trails, lovely scenery and a bonanza of plant- and bird-life, just an hour or so west of Bogotá. I had tried unsuccessfully to find it before, but now I have no excuse not to go there for some fresh air and exercise, both of which I am in dire need of.

Photo: Scenery near Choachí, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
Scenery near Choachí, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
We also explored briefly some of the wealth of scenery in the mountains right on Bogotá's doorstep, taking the road which leads east from Centro and up behind Monserrate into the Cerros Orientales. In very little time, we were up at frailejon level in bleak and murky moorland, a million miles from the frantic city. We were also up in the clouds, however, so although we managed tantalizing glimpses of the dramatic mountain-and-gorge scenery we could not quite appreciate it fully, and eventually we turned back for cheese and aguapanela rather than push on further into invisible scenery.

Photo: Scenery near Fomeque, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
Scenery near Fomeque, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
A few weeks later, when Julie was away, and when the weather looked more reliable, I dragged Elena along for a second look. I do not think that she was overly impressed, but I certainly was. Although the few villages we passed through (Choachi, La Unión, Fomeque) were nothing special, the scenery throughout was nothing short of spectacular, as we moved from one huge vista to another even more sublime, all set off by the blue skies and fluffy white clouds, and all within a couple of hours of Bogotá.

After scaling the pass above Monserrate, it was almost all downhill into the wide green Río Negro valley at below 1,900m, and all around were patchwork fields and green peaks. From the barren frailejon-studded expanses at higher elevations, the vegetation lower down was much lusher cloud-forest with the splendid variety of wild-flowers and flowering bushes which go with the cloud-forest terrain. With a miraculously well-behaved Elena and a stop for cuajada y melao and empanadas, the whole made a wonderful half-day trip, even if I did get lost trying to find the dirt road to the other entrance into Chingaza National Park.

Another day I decided to make the best of a sunny afternoon after so much
Photo: Near Tenjo, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
Near Tenjo, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
dreary weather, and headed north-west from our house towards the ridge of mountains which provide the horizon of the view from our apartment. I found a good dirt road over a pass, and emerged in a beautiful landscape of emerald green fields in a wide valley between two ridges of mountains. I descended into the village of Tenjo (which had caught the news briefly some months ago after a family feud left about ten dead, although in other respects it was a sleepy uninteresting spot), and the much prettier old town of Tabia just a few minutes away down the valley.

After soaking up the atmosphere in Tabia for a while and checking out its thermal baths, I found a road which I thought would lead me over the next ridge to Subachoque, but which in fact petered out in a rapidly deteriorating track in the middle of nowhere, although it did give me a chance to experience the lush and aromatic forest, and treated me to some splendid views of the surrounding countryside. I returned to Tabia to try again, and this time found the road I was looking for, and I crested the second ridge to find… another beautiful wide valley, and more ridges disappearing into the distance.

Photo: Church, Subachoque, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
Church, Subachoque, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Aug 98.
I passed through the rich and varied farmland and idyllic rural scenery, dotted with small farms and grazing horses, down to the old town of Subachoque, which boasts a huge domed church and a beautiful town square planted with red-hot pokers and any number of other flowering shrubs, and surrounded by old balconied houses. As rain clouds threatened in the distance, I decided to cut my losses and take the main road back towards Bogotá, promising myself to return with more time.

Meanwhile, Elena has been going through yet another horrible phase, in which she basically tries, quite successfully, to be as naughty and annoying as possible. The answer to everything is either "no" or a screaming fit; she pushes the limits of her imagination in finding new things to either destroy or otherwise spoil; she is much more likely to hit me than say a civil word to me; having had something forbidden four or five times, complete with lucid and reasonable explanations, she still continues to do it, quite deliberately and willfully; she promises several times a day "never, ever, to be naughty again", and within ten minutes has committed some new unforgivable iniquity. We are gradually taking away from her all her favourite toys and privileges as punishments, but she seems completely oblivious and wholly unrepentant. She even took (temporarily) to wetting her pants again after two blissful months, presumably just to spite us. There are times when I almost expect to see her levitating, spitting ectoplasm and speaking in voices…

Photo: Kite Festival, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 98.
Kite Festival, Bogotá, Colombia. Aug 98.
One thing she did enjoy, however, was the Kite Festival, which was the culmination of the recent annual Summer Festival (I am still not sure how they decide when summer is in this climate). Parque Simón Bolívar was absolutely packed, but it was certainly impressive to see so many kites flying in one place, and to see so many Bogotanos out celebrating.

The other major development recently was the institution of a system of restriction by car number-plates during peak traffic hours in an attempt to curb some of the excesses of rush hour traffic in the city. On two days a week, depending on the last number of the car's plate, the car is prohibited from use during the two main rush hours, which has caused some minor re-organisation in people's way of life, but if it indeed does reduce the horrendous rush hour traffic, it will have been well worth it. So far it seems to be working to some extent in that rush hour traffic is much lighter, except that unfortunately we now have not two rush hours but four, either side of the restricted periods, in which the traffic is at least as bad as it was before, so some manipulation of the scheme seems in order.

And finally some news which may not sound of earth-shaking import, but it has left us quite flabbergasted: Maritza seems to have a man! This is our Maritza who never goes out, who hardly even leaves her room when she is not working. She says she has discovered a new cousin from her huge and far-flung family living here in Bogotá, which may or may not be true. But, either way, a cousin is no reason for the changes we have observed in Maritza: she goes out every weekend, often overnight, dressed up to the nines, and she receives several phone calls a day from some male, which tend to illicit peals of laughter and girlish giggles. And this is Maritza, our Maritza, 44 and a grandmother of several years! Well, all power to her, but we just hope it will not change our working arrangements...

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