Luke's South American Diary
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October 1997

5 October 1997

Elena has been going through an independent phase recently, by which I mean even more independent than usual. This usually manifests itself in a complete refusal to allow anyone else to help her put on and take off her clothes, which given her current inefficiency in this area makes for some long drawn out sessions, which no amount of advice can expedite. In addition he has developed what can only be described as a mania for changing, or at least pretending to change, nappies on her toys, complete with graphic commentated cleaning sessions. In fact, despite her complete lack of progress on the potty-training front, she seems to be going through a very anal phase, with whoops of laughter at any mention of bodily functions, or at any surreptitious farts. Her cold has become a permanent feature, with a constant stream of green goo hanging from her nose (like a Belfast urchin), and her 5.30am waking hour is beginning to take its toll on all of us.

My own time has been spent more and more tootling around on the Internet, which, as could have been predicted, has already become something of an obsession with me. Julie has already started to complain than the phone is always busy (the second line I ordered some time ago is unlikely to become a reality for some time, so I have agreed to keep a cellular phone switched on while I am tangled up in the Web). But there is just so much to explore… Certainly, since sending out our e-mail address we have heard from people who never got around to writing to us all the time we were in Venezuela.

15 October 1997 Back to top

Last weekend we went to the wedding of one of Julie's employees - as we had the poshest car of anyone she knew (she being just a lowly, poverty-stricken messenger), she had asked if we would not mind providing the wedding car, and so I ended up as driver too. It was a rather sordid, desultory affair, quite honestly, the only real signs of enjoyment and merriment occurring when the whiskey, which was imbibed in great quantities by all and sundry, had had time to take effect. But it gave us a chance to see some parts of Bogotá which we would otherwise probably never have seen (not that there was much to recommend them, frankly), and a rather voyeuristic peep at how ordinary people live here. Everyone seemed excessively grateful, however, (especially as we had provided much of the money for the wedding too), and the bowing and scraping became worse the more people drank.

A few days later, we witnessed the kind of weather Bogotá can have. Out of nowhere, a major hailstorm suddenly unleashed itself, and within minutes the ground was white over as though it had been snowing, the roads were up to 20cm deep in water and littered with broken-down cars and buses. The traffic had slowed to a crawl, and my car was literally rattling under the force of the thunder. It was all quite impressive, and God knows but that we needed the water, but I could live without too many more storms like that.

Since then the streak of dry weather seems to have been broken, and it now rains pretty well everyday, much more as we were expecting (although not all day as people would have had us believe). However at least we have also left behind the cold snap, which had offended us so when we first arrived. Our apartment is much warmer than the hotel anyway, and, contrary to our fears, there is no need for heating - in fact, the study, on the sunny side of the building, and where I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, can become unbearably hot in mid-afternoon.

23 October 1997 Back to top

At last the mega-stress of the grand opening of Julie's office is over, and theoretically things will now settle down and she will have a bit more time. The occasion was marked by a visit from some of the highest echelons of the bank in Toronto, including the vice-chairman, and so Julie was understandably keen that everything go well, particularly from a security point of view (a kidnap attempt on the vice-chairman is not a great career move). As it turned out everything went swimmingly, and everyone was bowled over with Colombia, with Julie and with everything he has achieved here.

Photo: Monserrate cable car, Bogotá, Colombia. Oct 97.
Monserrate cable car, Bogotá, Colombia. Oct 97.
Their visit also gave us an excuse for a night visit to the Restaurante San Isidro up at Monserrate, one of the most expensive and one of the most spectacular I have ever been to. From the coffee liqueur at the bottom of the cable car, to the view over the lights of Bogotá from the top, and the comforting fire in the old colonial building which houses the restaurant, absolutely everything was just so (or at least it would have been if we had been fish-eaters!), and everyone was well impressed.

The military presence on the street has been increasing noticeably in the last week or two in the run up to the local elections. Throughout the country, the FARC, the biggest and most active guerrilla group, have been working overtime to disrupt the elections in any way possible, which includes threatening local candidates, kidnapping or just killing them when they do not acquiesce, and intimidating the electorate (a couple of towns registered just two votes!) - whoever would go into politics in this country? Their other legacy was blowing up two of the largest power stations in the country, which is likely to result in electricity rationing and blackouts throughout the country, including Bogotá. The ELN, the country's second main guerrilla group, for their part, contented themselves with kidnapping two of the OAS representatives who were in Colombia overseeing the electoral process. Given that these are only local municipal elections, the presidential elections in 1998 should be more than interesting. . .

31 October 1997 Back to top

San Andrés, Colombia
Our first real weekend away, courtesy of the bank's informed policy of
Photo: San Andrés Island, Colombia. Oct 97.
San Andrés Island, Colombia. Oct 97.
regular paid trips for ex-pats in supposed "hardship locations" was to the small Caribbean island of San Andrés, actually located between Jamaica and Costa Rica, and nowhere near mainland Colombia. The official language is Spanish, but the local rastas communicate in some unintelligible patois, and are much more comfortable in English than Spanish (the island belonged to England for much of its history). The attitude of the inhabitants is most definitely Caribbean and not Colombian, with none of the courtesy and urbanity of Bogotá - laid back in the extreme, and making no attempt to hide the fact that they are out to rip you off (this last even enough to ruffle Julie's normally serene outlook).

The waters are apparently some of the clearest in the Caribbean, and the climate hot and humid - I spent most of our four days in a pool of sweat. We were there during the short rainy season, but the down-pours, although heavy, were short, and if anything merely provided a relief from the heat and humidity. Down at sea level and back into hot weather, all of our coughs, colds and sore throats, which we had begun to think of as permanent occupational hazards of life in Bogotá, magically vanished within a day of our arrival (only to recur within a day of our return).

We stayed at a quiet beach resort away from the only real town on the island, in the kind of place we had spent most of our lives trying to avoid:
Photo: San Luis Beach, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
San Luis Beach, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
all-inclusive, wrist bands, beauty contests, pass-the-banana competitions, organised sports, etc. But the buffet was excellent, (always a prime consideration, both with Elena and with us as vegetarians), there were three swimming pools in addition to the great beach just across the road, and, being election weekend, there were very few other guests to bother us (or us them, for that matter). Despite being one of the choice beach resorts for Colombians, there was a notable absence of the "body beautiful" syndrome which would have marked a Venezuelan resort. Colombians are short and dumpy, usually with large haunches, and even the rest of the clientele - who hailed from various other Latino countries, with an almost complete absence of Americans or Europeans, who apparently stopped coming some years ago after security scares - were not of a type to make us self-conscious.

Elena slept in a bed, even slept well one night, and none of the nights were
Photo: Elena on the beach, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
Elena on the beach, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
complete disasters, so Julie managed to relax and reduce her stress levels a little. Most of the rest of the time, Elena (and Julie, actually) was more than content to shovel sand on the beach, or swim in the pools, where she attracted many admiring glances (on which she thrives) after the initial shock of having to remember how to swim. She even had her hair braided rasta-stylee, which, as she herself pointed out, made her look like a girl. All in all she behaved very well, and my usual apprehensions were unfounded this time.

On the grounds that we were unlikely to be back there, we booked up for the main day trip which almost every visitor seems to do, which was an appallingly-organised boat trip to a couple of tiny off-shore islands. The first was a complete waste of time - known as the Acuario (aquarium) with was basically a small sand-bar built over with sordid, shanty-town-style huts, where the locals insisted on foisting on us expensive and unwanted food and knick-knacks, while the hordes of other visitors stomped around the sand-bar looking for non-existent fish. We waited patiently for the delayed boast to take us away from it, and onto the main attraction, known as Johnny's Cay.

This last was more salubrious, despite the still large numbers of revellers, being a
Photo: Johnny Cay, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
Johnny Cay, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
small coral island with a lovely beach stretching round most of its perimeter (only a matter of fifteen minutes to walk all the way round). We managed to find a quiet shady spot where we could play with Elena without getting too burnt, and watch the hummingbirds and lizards dashing around. So although we never did get the guide, the t-shirt or the constant cold drinks, and despite the delays, the day was more or less worthwhile, and Elena did well to keep up.

After the disastrous organisation of the first trip, we were not expecting much from the second trip for which we sign up, the so-called
Photo: Hoyo Soplador, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
Hoyo Soplador, San Andrés, Colombia. Oct 97.
Vuelta de la Isla. As it turned out, this went very well, and we had an informative and leisurely tour around the Island of San Andres, covering all the main sites of interest, from the old Methodist chapel on the highest point, (with views over all the island from the vertiginous belfry), to the secret cave of the pirate Henry Morgan (a seedy tourist trap with little to recommend it), to the impressive natural phenomenon of the Hoyo Soplador, where the huge waves at the southern tip of the island are channelled subterraneously along to a hole in the volcanic lava, where it spouts upwards with a roar of wind, like a geyser. Possibly the highlight for us was the undeveloped west coast of the island (all the beaches are along the north and east coasts), where the road ambled its way between the strange volcanic coastline and some lovely old houses (many, as we were told, the impounded properties of drug barons from Medellin and Cali), backed by the coconut-studded hills along the centre of the island.

But the big news in Colombia, after election-fever died down, was
Photo: Elena's Halloween party, Bogotá, Colombia. Oct 97.
Elena's Halloweeen party, Bogotá, Colombia. Oct 97.
Halloween, which may not sound much like big news, but it was celebrated here like nowhere else I have ever seen, outdoing even North America in its tackiness and excessiveness. Elena went to three parties (and we turned down others), and so, what with winning first prize for her butterfly disguise at one, we more or less got our money's worth from her costume, (and it may even fit next year). The emphasis was very much on slick, bought costumes, nothing home-made, and on lots and lots of sweets and candies, to the extent that even Elena, who rarely gets a crack at a bag full of sweets, got tired of them. Once again the papers reported an improvement in their statistics with only 96 murders in Bogotá over the Halloween weekend!

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