Colombia: Bogotá and Out

The day had come to get on the deathbus to Bogotá. This wouldn't be my typical deathbus, those overnight specials I usually dreaded. No, this one would be by day - but I questioned how well (what was left of) my back would do. Back bend, back bend, back bend, I told myself.

Ominously, the journey would start with a cramped, shared car to Pitalito. Not that that was the exact plan, but the pseudo-taxi would only take off when the two of us (who were waiting and ready) agreed to squish ourselves into the front seat: three seats would be paid for in the back if we did so. Sigh... okay. It wouldn't have been so bad, either, except that the three turned out to be only two people, one just a wee fat.

Our new nemesis stretched his legs in comfort as us two up front cursed him under our breath for agreeing to the situation. We felt slightly swindled, only moving because of our generosity in accepting the situation. Natzle... fratzle... mumble... grumble. Now the glutton was behind us, reclined in palacial comfort, seemingly even rubbing it in with his sprawled posture and hands clasped behind his head. It must have been an odd sight from outside the vehicle indeed, seeing the front so jammed and the rear so oddly spacious. All for that selfish bastard (and his tiny friend who had arranged it). Ha-rumph.

At least the scenery to Pitalito was lush, and this seating foolishness only lasted half an hour. It provided ample time to reflect on road conditions in Colombia, if nothing else. As usual, there were many "No Mas Estrellas" (no more stars/collisions) signs regarding road deaths, for example. Those occurred primarily due to drinking and reckless driving... while here, as usual, I was in another reckless vehicle.

Why was it that every vehicle I availed myself of in Colombia passed all of the other ones?, I wondered. Passing on curves, over double lines, speeding through hairpin curves, accelerating to pass uphill (with no foreknowledge of what lay ahead) - these had all become scarily routine. Just a regular ol' deathwish. I understood the signs only too well... but WHY? (Cut to fist lifting to sky in defiance... for naught).

No one could pay me to ride a bicycle or motorbike in this country, that was for sure. Even walking the edge of the road felt quite hazardous at times. Was it a point of honor for drivers to brush near unmotorized victims-in-waiting? This deadly game I couldn't understand for the life of me, literally, figuratively - you name it.

Machismo stupidity was how I always chalked it up, but still. I mused that the greatest joke was the plethora of stickers found on the rears of vehicles, stating 80kph as a max speed. The reality of that, however, was either a) it was impossible due to road conditions and traffic, or b) it was blatantly ignored.

Bus-bound for so many hours (nine in total), but more positively, I had a chance to further reflect on Colombia's beauty. This seemed appropriate in beginning the long bus journey from Pitalito to Bogotá, a trek undertaken specifically to bail out of the country. What had I gotten out of this trip?

A number of things, actually. For example, with 1% of Earth's land area, 10% of the planet's biodiversity was also found in Colombia. Wow! Here I was watching it yet again in motion, too, with the lush mountains of San Agustin steadily giving way to a widening, drier valley as we approached Neiva - the crossroads to the SW from Bogotá. Soon the river Magdalena would broaden as well; the mountains became ever more red and sparsely vegetated. Increasingly I came to think of the Lake Powell area - THAT was no slouch in the Ansel Adams corner of the world. Yes, Colombia had been a beautiful destination - no doubt about it.

Rising heat, though, also meant that we began to sweat in earnest on the bus. A/C? Where'd THAT go? All the while, too, I expected my back to be less than happy - there'd be no surprise there. It WAS disturbed, but I stretched it at every available opportunity when I could exit the bus. That happened several times, relatively sufficient, but I also ultimately resorted to putting my shoeless feet on the seat while in the bus. With my hands clasped around my feet, I could feel the tension slip away in the affected areas. Varying position was as important as anything else.

Fortunately, I had been promised the best seat on the bus up front at the trip's start. Even more fortuitously, I actually received it - I enjoyed ample legspace for the first time in four months of buses! As usual, though, that came with a caveat: the promise of being able to recline was thwarted almost from the start, chiefly by the driver's assistant sitting behind (and sometimes hovering over, much to my discomfort) me. Sigh.

Meanwhile, just when the heat was getting unbearable, we began our climb of the last 100km to Bogotá. Hope started to return to the sweating aisleways of my brain. Yes - a breeze! Some coolness! Along a river (as almost always was the case for the roads between cities), we climbed ravine after ravine, steadily approaching from the south and southwest of the monstrous city.

When we got to within 20-30km of the metropolis, the temperature dropped significantly, too. Mist and clouds increased accordingly - yep, Bogotá was nearing. Finally, within 5km of the city proper, the air began to smell bad. Ah - THAT clinched it! Or... was it when the smog became visible, too? We HAD to be almost there! Visions of an anonymous stage of Dante's inferno came to mind soon enough.

A far cry from the prosperous north I had witnessed in leaving Bogotá, only some four months ago, the south of the city was an abominable clusterfuck of factories and adhoc housing. This looked every bit the Third World, in contrast to North Bogotá and in spite of the random luxurious splash. That was only found in a Carrefour or other odd office building. Mostly, though, black fogs spewed from vehicle and building alike, and an open fire in a small field added to the impression. Good... gravy.

Not that there wasn't ANY hope. A license plate schedule was clearly posted above the main roads, for example, stipulating which number a car's plate could end with for a given day. THAT should help, no? No - the reality spoke volumes: lots, I mean LOTS of cars were jammed alongside us. Moreover, I had heard of many cases where people owned multiple plates for a single vehicle to avoid the restriction, anyway.

People all the while were everywhere bustling through this grime and grunge, safely at least with traffic near to a halt. But, even when we found ourselves moving again, various of these daring souls still darted through. Buses and cars only belatedly would decide to brake in response (intentionally late, I always felt). Indeed, a passive aggression marked the entire scene, leaving only one saving grace to all this horror to bear witness: another stunning display of Bogotá's grafiti adorned wall after wall.

Just like I had seen in the Candelaria neighborhood's walls, months earlier, the creativity and quality of the grafiti was quite impressive. Here again I thought "Wouldn't it have been nice to have a camera?" What really, really impressive displays of skill and imagination! Then again, unscrupulous folks had ruined many of them, too, plastering over great stretches of them with political campaign materials. No respect!

I was further surprised, too, when I got off the bus to return to Candelaria. After hostel-dumping my bags, I strolled about the hood again... and saw that some of the amazing grafiti from before had been replaced over the months... with more great grafiti. No complaints, but this once again left only photos I couldn't take to preserve the artistry - for history, if not the artist's posterity.

In the interim of my trip's length it seemed that the number of tourists in the area was greater than before, too. I noticed an increased number of hippies and artisans hawking their talents (or lack thereof) on the streets than previously. Had Colombia's increase in tourism already begun in earnest, and in such a short time? Had the high season been extended by a month or two? Did I care anymore?

Yes - I was already was thinking of coming back. But then, too, the answer was no: I was on my way out of the country! Thus, for example, it was also the case that even as Platypus Hostel found itself packed, I didn't find MYSELF in any mood to make new acquaintances.

Events in the country were still of interest, however. These included the work stoppage taken against Bogotá's TransMillenio (rapid transit-like) bus service. It was bursting at the seams, with its massive 26th Street project a well-known catastrophe of contracting, but it was making a positive difference, too.

A number of youths had been paid off to do the hollering and protesting, taking to the street to vociferously complaining about new rules. These new edicts would eventually force more of the ancient polluting buses off of the road: THAT was the real cause of the stoppage. But, with an easily projected 20-25+% decrease in pollution resulting, not to mention lower corruption in centralized transport (by removing cash from the system), the change was overdue. I sided with the city.

On a larger scale in the news, a referendum failed for President Uribe to run again for a third try: unconstitutional. While Uribe was a respected leader, especially with regard to the improvements in everyday security for the first time in years, a respect for democracy had proven greater. This seemed like a healthy approach to me, even if security was still the big question in my and everyone else's minds. For that, fortunately, no candidate had any plans to stop the current campaign. The militarized roads and greater vigilance in the countryside would continue.

Drawing extra attention to the election in a strange way, too, were the two earthquakes in Haiti (a 7.0, with massive destruction and loss of life) and Chile (8.8 on the richter, with some destruction and little loss of life). A bigger finger could not be pointed to corruption and democracy. No one missed the difference, which I overheard in conversations on the streets or written about in the papers.

I'd not be in Bogotá long to ponder these things more, however. Indeed, I enjoyed a final Sunday in Bogotá in lackadaisical fashion, making my way down Carrera Septima (7th Ave). On Sundays it closed to traffic, and the city found its lungs again at least in this small area. This I could handle.

The closure consequently made for a kids' wonderland, with what passed for street theater (any jackass with a megaphone, true, but also the odd talented musician or showman), too. Bicycles were out in great number; there were street vendors, chess games on the sidewalk, and yard sales that posed as antique sales. The city seemed to find some balance for a change, if only fleetingly so and in a limited area.

All of this formed a backdrop for me to finally check out the nearby Museo de Arte Moderno, where I took in an exceptional exhibit on political cartoons and censorship. The many examples focused on Colombia and Latin America, then expanded to international themes consistent with all forms of censorship. The rest of the museum was an adventure in abstract art that I was able to skip in two minutes time. As usual, it was both hit and miss with a modern art museum - but the hit really was a hit this time around.

But that was it for the sightseeing. Then... and then... another day dawned: it was time to finally leave this land. For now, anyway. Colombia had hosted me well for four months, but I was ready to let the healing finish in my back and lungs, too. I'd be back, though - THIS much I knew.

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