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Word Travels - Modern Gonzo in Colombia by Robin Esrock
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Modern Gonzo in Colombia
by Robin Esrock / Published February 18 2008
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Here's a colorful carnival in Bogota, here's the mud volcano outside Cartagena, here's the Armani of bullet proof suits, here's a beautiful Maria-this and there's a beautiful Maria-that, so where is all the kidnapping, murder, civil war and drugs? Things change, countries too.
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You're no doubt wondering why, when offered the opportunity to visit anywhere in the world, country number one was Colombia. You're thinking: Kidnappings, Drug Cartels, Civil War, Murder, Unrest, Corruption, AK-47's, Moustaches, Scarface, Fedoras, and food or sex, because you've now been thinking for seven seconds and one of those is bound to come up. You might have read the excellent "World's Most Dangerous Places" by Robert Young Pelton, which gives Colombia a maximum five out of five stars symbolizing Hell on Earth (right up there with Chechnya and Liberia). Yep, Colombia sounds like fun for those who like death with their chocolate. So why I am here? Because two years ago, every backpacker I met in South America who had visited Colombia said it was their favourite country. Every Colombian I have ever met has been friendly, warm, and nothing like their media stereotype. So to reconcile these two images, a country so misunderstood it could be a washed up former teen idol, I had to see it for myself. Pack your bags, we're off to Bogota.

BogotaNow let's start off by saying that Colombia is not Bolivia, or Guatemala, or Nicaragua - Latin American countries that put the banana in the republic. I knew this on the plane from L.A, which was jammed with the prosperous, the well dressed, the big-breasted. Oh, I was still on US soil when the wet rumour that Colombia has some of the worlds best looking women became hard solid fact. The girl behind me in the line could have been Penelope Cruz's better looking sister, and I was delighted to sit below two women loading their luggage, heaving their two considerable portable floatation devices a mere inch from my nose as they did so. Red eye flights are never fun, especially when everything you've read would make you believe your destination is a war zone, and the matter was further compounded by the fact that for the first time in my life, I arrived safely, but my luggage didn't. After somehow managing to drop my laptop from the security check-in conveyer belt, LAX also needed more than two hours to transfer our bags to the next plane, and thus, cold Bogota would meet Gonzo, and Gonzo would be dirty and cold and tired. Cold? Yes cold. 2600m above sea level, Bogota's weather in August is squid damp and dull gray, moreso when your head is in the clouds, and your clothes somewhere else entirely. But adrenaline, the thrill of being back in South America (my favourite continent), and finding a hotel in the cobblestone colonial streets of Candelaria made the weather insignificant. That, and the dozens of uniformed man-boys holding one, two, three machine guns, on either corner of the street. The presidential palace was less than a block away, and in a country at war with itself, leaders take their personal security seriously. Fortunately, this only made me feel more safe, since these man-boys seemed friendly enough, and there's absolutely nothing to be gained from harassing another dumb gringo with a stupid gringo hat.

Barely time to drop off the bags (oh, right, forgot, no bags) and I'm off on a bike to the Cyclovia - a weekly event in which long veins throughout the city of 7 million are unclogged of vehicles, and citizens bring out their bikes. Instituted by a popular mayor several years ago, Cyclovia has been a huge hit in Bogota, allowing the rich (few) and the poor (many) to co-exist in a form of transportation utopia. Together with a friendly Cyclovia guardian named Julian, I rode the streets of Bogota and quickly realized that it's really not that dangerous to explore any city so long as there are heavily armed police/army personnel on every corner. The real danger were the brakes (non-existent), gung-ho bikers with little patience for red-eyed writers, and potholes crushing my emeralds against the hard seat. We passed a bike mechanic who wore an eye patch made from sunglasses. Kids in front, kids behind, expensive bikes, homemade bikes, cheap bikes, stolen bikes. Thin people, fat people, happy people, sad people, friendly people, nasty people, beautiful people, ugly people. Two wheels is a great way to promote democracy, and as a traveller, there's no better way to discover a city. Especially when you ride directly into a massive carnival procession, vibrating with passion as Bogota celebrated its 469th birthday.

But first, Colombia, Colombia. Named after Chris Colombus, the explorer, not the guy who directed Home Alone. Like the rest of Latin America, ravaged by the Spanish, disease, slave-owners, pirates, reggaeton. Prosperous few, impoverished many. FARC me? FARC you! Civil war, death squads, and let's throw in cocaine, just for the hell of it, and what's this, cartels and corruption and assassinations and now you're the mayor and now you're dead and here comes the USA with their war on drugs only it seems a lot more people are dying these days, or starving, and there goes another mayor and a politician who thought he could take on the cartels, and where is the Romeo of Medellin and the Juliet of Cali but hey they got Escobar and Ochoa only who's this new guy who likes to dismember anyone who looks at him funny and the FARC, viva la revolution, take this land but the army took that land and sucks to be anyone who actually lives on the land, or the CEO of a petroleum company because if you think picking your kids up from school is a bitch try bargaining with kidnappers every other week, and here's paradise on the Caribbean but international tourists are so scared they're teleporting themselves to Costa Rica and 10,000 pesos is only $5 bucks and a beer here costs six times more than a beer there but what's this, this oldest democracy in Latin America, things settling down, the cities become safer, cleaner, international investment returning and even the FARC (Che! Che! Che!) are becoming more attached to their villas than the jungle and tourism is picking up and what to do when you have the most beautiful women in the world, Afro-Spanish-Indian cultural soup and the genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who invented magic realism here because it could be invented in no other place on earth.

It's magic to be walking these streets, considered amongst the most dangerous in the world, and feel safe, welcomed. A guy tells me in broken English that his friend, a pretty young girl, likes me and would like to have her cellphone photo with me. A scam? No, the only scam was that I moved on to two beautiful girls on stilts, and hello, a topless girl dances and shakes, painted in green atop something that looks like a paper-mache vegetable. People are smiling and saying "welcome to Colombia" and I see NO other tourists around, which means I'm either doing something very wrong, or most likely, very right. I take a picture of the fairy waifs, the industrial goths, the marching band playing Yellow Submarine, and all around there is a beat and a smile, and really, this is not what I expected of Colombia at all. Systems break down when there's no community, and judging by the amount of groups in the parade, this community is flourishing.

 Read Robin's full Colombia Report at his website: moderngonzo.com

 


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