A July 1991 trip
to Bogota by Whirlwind
Quote: From Bogota's great heights to the llanas and rain forests below, Colombia has many adventures to offer. I had them anyway.
I was once asked to accompany an expedition of missionaries on an afternoon shopping spree downtown. I didn't end up going, but the missionaries returned early in the evening with tales of seeing an ambulance load up a mafia member who was assassinated gangland style right out in the street with a sawed-off shotgun.
Try to get the Jaguar's share of your money exchanged in smaller bills, or at least the denominations you are most likely to spend at each transaction--you don't want to find yourself stuck with a counterfeit larger-sized bill of peso currency. One positive thing about being out and about browsing the malls of Colombian cities is the trend towards small fast food places accepting credit cards for purchases of their generally inexpensive meals.
Unless you have contacts in the country who can advise you otherwise...
Ride only yellow cabs (don't let some pirate take you to the cleaners). Do your walking in early to mid-morning. I wouldn't advise using public buses unless you are an old hand at Latin America travel.
The man escorted me to a jeep that howled down thoroughfares lined with
freelance mercantes hawking powdered milk, palm trees, vintage gramophones, and practically anything else that one could imagine.
After spending the night in a missionary guest house in Bogota, I was sent "down the hill" late the next morning in the first available jeep on a three-and-a-half hour jaunt to
Our route out of the Latin metropolis took us through the beleaguered barrios of Bogota that accounted for much of capitol’s urban growth as the century drew to a close. The city’s population, often placed at three to four million, sprawled endlessly through chunks of concrete, tin sheeting, pieces of stucco--whatever materials could be had or carried away and used to build makeshift shelters.
One small dwelling was constructed merely of used bricks stacked up on four sides, without the refinement of wood frame or mortar. The
apartments of more middle class areas had flat roofs secured with barbed wire and German Shepherds. A current census of the Bogota might indicate anywhere from three to four million souls residing there. A more accurate estimate including the barrios might suggest four or five times that.
We were speeding along into an entanglement of main roads converging at the outskirts of Bogota when we were ground to a halt. Twenty or thirty head of longhorn cattle were crossing a half dozen lanes of traffic guided entirely by the twelve foot whip and steadied hand of a llanero who was as oblivious to the drivers of the vehicles around him as they appeared to be to him.
The jeep first climbed into the clouds to 11,000 feet before abandoning its ascent and dropping nearly to sea level. Along the way, numerous lengths of thick cable stretched from roadside to mountainside across ravines and hundreds of feet of drop off. Field
workers holding greased chains slid back and forth across them for convenient passage.
Sometimes cattle and other domestic animals would be rigged to make the crossing, bound in heavy gauge wire and rope slings and then sent sliding on their way, they too traversed
In Villavicencio I joined my missionary aunt and uncle and we were all led to a
Jurassic Park style jeep which began the last 45 minutes of the journey back into the foothills of the Andes to our missionary compound destination. Despite my previous months of unsettling mountain travel in Guatemala, given the mud of Colombia’s wet season, the hairpin drop-off Colombian terrain, and the tropical darkness settling early and
swift, I considered the trip to be neither expeditious nor safe by comparison.
I treated myself as on vacation and so spent much of my time sitting out back in the bush sketching the mission's airfield which was propitiously set just above the raging Rio Meta, churned in my ten days there by a 23 inch rainfall. Above the airfield loomed the spectacular peaks of the Andes in a grand array as if some ideal Doric temple backdrop the ancient Athenians could only envy.
Remote Colombia exuded a magical quality. Frogs clung to the concrete and stucco walls inside my dwelling and jumped in panic upon anyone’s approach, sometimes into one’s face. Spiders, horrible in size, patrolled the casa. I witnessed one stepped on turning into a hundred tiny spiders scurrying about the floor. A compound classroom displayed a glass covered presentation case with hundreds of spiders pegged inside--no two alike and each dried into eternal dread.
To the Villavicencio airport we flew from the mission air strip on a midweek
morning. We were already in a cab about to begin the long ride back up to Bogota when it occurred to me I had misplaced something. My sketchbook! My big black sketchbook! I'd left it on the plane. Much to the unease of the others in the cab who entertained the notion I suppose that I could be mistaken for a hijacker, I ran out to the airport entrance and through the security gate, which was actually a wide open access to the air field, secured entirely, should any incident arise, by machine-gun fire.
Knowing little Spanish then, I gestured to one of the machine-guns if I might be allowed onto the field and was waved through, catching the plane with my book while it was yet refueling.
The cab ride back 'up the hill' was much more complicated than the jeep ride
down. Two feet of rain on the eastern exposures to the Andes had precipitated what one could only describe as boulder slides. Stones, many the size of Volkswagens, littered the road to the capitol along most of its path. As if the mountain road wasn't curvy enough, the cab seemed to veer left or right as much to negotiate rocks as curves.
Pulling around a series of boulders that mimicked a semi-trailer rig, we
came to a bridge with a manhole cover sized gap in it's middle and eased effortlessly around the obstacle, the 'blown job' of the resistance. Mother nature had superseded the guerrillas in hampering travel between the llanas and the capitol. Indeed, within two more weeks the road would be entirely impassable due to rock slides.
In Bogota, my aunt decided she did not want her stash of poison arrows tucked
away among her other souvenirs and gave them all to me. I was travelling light and had only one small bit of luggage, a bag woven in Mayan Cakchiquile which was two inches too short for most of the arrows. They stuck out of the bag, the end of which was left unzipped to reveal the cotton swab shafts rather than the razor sharp tips which were for safety's sake plunged into dirty socks deep within.
With all good-byes said, I was on my own as I approached customs at the
BogotaAeropuerto Internacional. Due to the daring feats of the guerrillas, security was tightened and all passengers were being hand frisked and their luggage thoroughly searched. It at this point crossed my mind that attempting to board the plane with poison arrows in full view might constitute a touchy circumstance and I was only minutes away
from being frisked myself.
It was my turn for security check. I first handed my bag over to be searched, which was almost immediately set back down aside for me to claim. As I had to assume a position to be hand searched, I handed my sketchbook to a soldier with a machine-pistol hanging at his side and went through to be frisked. A dozen cotton swabs from the ends of the poison darts jutted harmlessly out of the sketchbook, having the appearance of art paraphernalia. I picked up my bag, claimed my sketchbook, and boarded the plane.
Travel by plane in Latin America has one considerable drawback--carry on luggage. As I boarded my plane I saw every conceivable item dragged up to and stuffed in the craft's stowaway compartments: champagne, statues, golf clubs, knickknacks, and backpacks. A
couple with a child claimed the two inside seats in my row. They stuffed the overheads full and then proceeded to fill any remaining space underneath.
I was able to chuck my Mayan patterned bag into a small space I was allowed
under the seat in front of me, but all the junk of the passengers to my side forced me to roll my poison darts inside a newspaper and leave them precariously stationed on the very
outside of the space beneath my seat.
After the meal was served, the plane hit some turbulence and the newspaper
unrolled. I was suddenly startled by a stewardess who shoved an arrow right up to my face and spouted the ultimatum, 'Señor!'
I arrived in Guatemala on a Saturday and the next day El Presidente Serrano was scheduled to give a big speech simulcast on both TV and radio. Five minutes before the event guerrillas blew a key power grid. A photo of the toppled tower splashed the next day's Prensa Libre. For the first time since arriving in Central America, I was without power.
I was not yet finished with the poison dart dilemma. As I left Guatemala months
later, I still faced the task of getting them through Dallas customs. As anyone returning from the third world finds out, honesty is not always the best policy when filling out a customs declaration card. And because I admitted to having visited a farm while outside U.S. borders, actually a coffee plantation, I was pulled over for the inspection.
'That one,' the Dallas customs official pointed. It was the suitcase with the poison darts from Colombia. In my hurry to pack, I had tossed them all loosely into the bottom rear sateen pocket of one of my two king-sized suitcases. I lugged the baggage up to the counter where it was zipped open. The inspector took no notice of the clearly visible poison darts whose unsecured razor sharp tips had penetrated though the pocket's lining and lodged themselves into the myriad of luggage contents. He merely plunged both hands into the mass of soiled clothes and assorted souvenirs and began a rapid swirling motion in
search of various contraband. I wanted to stop him, but wasn't in any particular big hurry to say, 'Er...watch out for the poison darts, will you.'
Swirling his ungloved hands within inches of the tips of my Macu poison arrows, the customs official suddenly stopped, pulled up his hands and said, 'You’re out of here.' And indeed so I was.
I later heard that two of the mission families I'd encountered at the school compound had family members kidnapped and murdered by guerrillas when a ransom wasn't paid. The mission compound itself was evacuated due to the widening guerrilla war and to my knowledge continues to remain abandoned. I would return to Colombia again several years afterwards, but only to visit Cali.
It was a weather pattern of daily rains when I arrived in central Colombia. Water had ponded up for weeks around the edge of the compound near my Uncle’s cottage and one day a fish leapt out which he caught with his bare hands and later ate for dinner.
Despite the regular rains, the sun was no stranger either. One morning I walked with the smiling sun high into the foothills above the mission compound, crossing along the way an unending line of army ants, some carrying whole leaves intact. Upon my return I was informed of a compound curfew from that moment on--guerrilla activity had been reported within kilometers of the mission.
After my first week at the mission station, the compound was penetrated and a couple of generators were wafted away. Whether they had fallen into the hands of thieves, or neighbors, or guerrillas seeking items to fetch ready cash to support their semi-rebellion,
it was uncertain, however caution continued to prevail and I never was allowed another walk outside the compound.
Instead, I helped clean up my missionary aunt’s first grade classroom, which resembled a medium sized pole shed with windows, but of sturdy construction. The ceiling on the inside was V-shaped to the roof itself and therefore rather high. In my janitorial pursuit, I came upon numerous slats with cotton swab beginnings and razor sharp ends
wedged up along the cross supports.
These darts, of native construction, were said to be poisoned at the tip to paralyze monkeys and other game. At the mission compound they were used merely to vanquish unwanted birds that chanced into the classrooms.
My last full day at the compound, I boarded a twin engine chartered Cessna and flew 200 miles southeast into the jungles beyond the grassy llanas. At 10,000 feet one could see nothing but rain forest in all directions. We landed at a remote jungle airfield
straddled by the Guaviare and Guainia rivers.
I could hardly imagine a more exotic setting than the lower reaches of the Andes, but had found one in the rain forest mission with its stately ceiba trees lining the edges of the airfield and its pineapple gardens supplementing
the missionaries' breakfast table.
In my tourist's daze, I was caught unawares by a half dozen women of the Macu tribe of Southeastern Colombia. The dress of the average female Macu is a set of tight ankle bands, a second set of tight wrist bands and possibly a bone or piece of jewelry attached through the nose. In other words, there is no dress.
They immediately set about tearing my clothes off, presumably in order to touch my unusual white skin. I turned to my missionary aunt just stepping off the plane for aid, only to receive for my trouble a very disapproving look.
For all I knew, any attempt to restrain the native women physically might be met by an eighteen inch dart with a tip dipped in the toxin of a venomous Amazon toad. Launched from an eight foot blow gun accurate at 100 yards, it would not matter that the male members of the tribe were yet some distance away.
With my Milwaukee Brewers shirt ripped off, I commented to the missionaries
meeting us, 'They must be Minnesota Twins fans.' The missionaries laughed. The Macu tribeswomen laughed. I don't believe my aunt laughed. But my crisis was over.
There were no cats or dogs at the mission. The children had monkeys for pets. As they playfully jumped from child to child, I drew caricatures of them with magic markers on scraps of paper and awarded my artwork to my admiring critics.
After a brisk walk through the rain forest, I interviewed a Macu tribesman, through an interpreter, at his home in the jungle--two overlapping vine-sewn hammocks swinging just below a half shelter of dried banana leaves. He seemed mainly curious as to whether or
not my aunt was my dad's sister, which she was, much to his approval.
My plane ride back ran into some turbulent weather, but we landed in sunshine. A rainbow arched across the mission compound from end to end. It was a very spiritual moment. It was the pinnacle of my trip. The abyss lies just ahead.