Colombia’s resurrection: Criss-crossing freedom and enchantment

colombia-columbusLanding at the Rafael Núñez International Airport in Cartagena de Indias, on Caribbean Sea’s Gulf of Darien, Jesus, our driver, took us straight to the city’s historic centre to exchange our dollars for pesos – so we could pay him. With Cartagena, it was love at first sight. It was a realm of enchantment — brightly painted Spanish and Italian style houses with balconies of mahogany wood, surrounded with palm-fringed plazas and towering statues of the city’s discoverers and founders. Everything about the place was utterly captivating, making Cartagena a fair vision of heaven: a multitude of bronze sculptures full of spirit and expression that line its cobbled roads; it’s ancient churches, imposing fortresses, bustling markets with gaudily dressed ladies selling tropical fruits; it’s endless stretches of beaches lapped gently by the bluish-green waters of the Caribbean Sea, and, above all, the friendly demeanour of its smiling people.

For three days we explored the nooks and corners of this world heritage site – and in the evenings enjoyed the serenity of our shack, 16 km away from the city, past the mangroves and backwaters, in Manzanillo village on the sea shore.

Hotel Kohsamui, a three-room establishment run by Maria Fernandez Suarez, is more of a home than a hotel. Her husband, Captain Suarez, has been a commercial pilot for 35 years. Working intimately with weather, he has seen climate change. “In earlier days, we could fly into the weather or just make a small detour around it. Nowadays, the circuit, the arc, the diversion around the bad weather, the storms is huge. The immensity of the storms has increased here in South America. Remember the Air France plane that crashed in the Atlantic flying from Rio to Paris? It had flown into a tropical thunderstorm. The pilots could have gone around the weather but they did not have enough fuel for so large a deviation. Jet fuel is the most expensive cost component for the airlines – and most companies scrounge on filling planes with more fuel than is required. I have definitely seen climate change in my 35 years of flying,” said Captain Suarez, one evening, after landing from São Paulo.

colombia-1From Cartagena we drove through the coastal plains, vast stretches of degraded land taken over by industrial and urban expansion. Grasslands were occupied by the Indian brahma cattle that seem to dominate all of Latin America. Palm plantations for extracting oil have been introduced lately. Passing small towns and villages, we drove towards the central highlands, our progress halted by a massive landslide that had occurred in the mountains, the northern end of the Andes. The Andes splits into three ranges or cordilleras: the Oriente, the eastern section; the central highlands; and Occidental, the western part. Delayed by the landslide and subsequent traffic jam, we reached Medellin at 1 a.m. – seven hours behind schedule.

Drugs, Revolution and Freedom
Maria Yoloma, formerly information technology adviser to the President of Colombia and now working with IBM, picked us up from our hotel and took for a Sunday morning walk. All of Medellin seemed to be up and about. Half of the 14km-long main avenue was closed for vehicular traffic and reserved for walkers, joggers and cyclists – and they had turned out in large numbers. A marathon for breast cancer awareness had brought thousands of citizens dressed in pink aprons tumbling and floundering on the road. Volunteers were conducting a signature campaign seeking constitutional amendment to allow former two-term president, the restless Alvaro Uribe, to contest parliamentary elections. In the compound of a mall ladies were stirring up their blood through vigorous aerobics. In the foyer of another mall, the mass was being held and the padre had the sympathetic ears of the large assembly. The two churches we entered had standing room only. Every known breed of dog had assembled for a canine show in the compound of the southern bus terminal. After decades of living in fear, the favoured people of “Paisaland” were enjoying political stability, freedom and peace. Maria’s father, a rancher in Eastern Colombia, had been killed by the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group that claimed to represent the will of the Colombian people, for refusing to pay extortion money. In 2008, millions of Colombians came out on the streets to tell FARC that it did not have their support. Maria and her family had also participated in the demonstrations wearing T-shirts with the slogan: “No more kidnapping, no more lies, no more deaths, no more FARC.”

colombia-2Maria’s sister was to drive us to the Arvi nature park, high up in the mountains surrounding Medellin. A full time interior decorator and a part-time poultry farmer, she was busy pedalling eggs at her church. By 1 p.m. she had got rid of her stocks and drove us up the mountain at F-1 speed, stopping on the way for lunch. I ordered the traditional Antioquia dish, Bandeja Paisa: beans, minced meat, egg, rice, plantain, chorizo sausage, pork ribs and arepa – but could struggle through only a fifth of it. The Eco-tourism park offers 20,000 hectares of wilderness for trekking, kayaking and other adventure sports.

On the way back we called on the handsome Señor Eduardo Zapata Ramirez, a fourth generation flower cultivator, a man passionate about his occupation, in the village of Santa Elena. Every sq cm of his small plot, of about 300 sq metres, was adorned with flowering bushes and trees. The walls and the tiled roof of his humble abode were ornamented with flowering creepers. Breathlessly, he introduced us to every one of his 70 varieties of flowering plants, showed us the trophies and medals he had been awarded at Medellin’s annual Festival of Flowers, brought out his daughter studying advertising, her eagerness undiminished to continue the family tradition. A man working with so closely with nature was well placed to observe climate change. Señor Ramirez had observed the following changes over the years: the length of the rainy season had decreased but the rainfall was more concentrated; the soil freezes after rains; hailstorms are more frequent; incidence of pests and diseases had increased.

Pablo Alvarez-Correa took us on a walking tour of Medellin, shared entertaining accounts of Colombia’s history, and showed us the fabulous sculptures in La Alpujarra and Botero Plaza where the master, Fernando Botero, workd’s highest paid living artist, has gifted dozens of his most exquisite and gigantic works to his hometown. We walked through violent neighbourhoods that were off-limits when the drug mafia, the Medellin Cartel, called the shots; rushed through Simon Bolivar plaza, thick with drifting whiff of weed, before we got stoned; and avoided eye contact with the revolting prostitutes that work in front of a church.

colombia-3After years of suffering, Medellin is greeting back on track. Compassionate and inclusive public policies are taking the progressive people forward. We rode the cable car over Medellin slums that connect the poor and the labour class to the Metro system – saving them 2-3 hours of commuting time each way. The barrios, underdeveloped communes, are located on hillsides that can’t be accessed by any other public transport. The cable car plus the Metro ride to any part of Medellin costs less than a dollar. Elsewhere, on the mountainside slum of Comuna Trece, a 385-metre escalator has made life easier for its impoverished inhabitants. Mega libraries and state-of-the-art education centres have been established in under-privileged areas. Due to such initiatives Medellin was given the 2013 award for “The Innovative City of the Year” – beating New York and Tel Aviv.

Leaving Medellin for Cali, the narrow road wound its way up thickly wooded mountains. The sharp, unprotected vertical drops, deep into the valley; the heady turns; the frequent braking; the massive trucks approaching from the opposite direction made the stomach feel queasy and didn’t inspire me to have my box breakfast – even though the scenery was delicious.  Going down the pass, we drove into thick clouds that entirely erased the view. Lower down, quaint villages, banana and bamboo trees, palms, flowered fences, ferns and all kinds of creepers, vines and grasses made the landscape lush green. The Indian brahma cows were busy eating the landscape, fattening themselves for the butcher. Several times our progress was halted by trucks loaded with cows being taken for slaughter. Waterfalls poured down mountainsides. Thick groves of bamboos, heavy with feathery flowers drooping like plumes, quivered in the breeze, magnifying the charm of the scenery. Signs warned of rock falls and head-on collisions – but our driver continued to defy the speed limit of 40kmph. Crossing Manizales, 215km from Cali, we drove into Pereira where pineapples were being sold by the wheelbarrow. Thereafter, we descended into the broad valley of the Cauca River, luxuriant with swaying plantations of sugarcane.

Salsa Time?

Cali is known as the ‘Salsa capital of the world’ and, unless you are a salsa freak, is definitely avoidable. We spent Monday and Tuesday nights in the town, our sleep written-off by the live band and the revellers shouting the music from across the road. Meeting Señor Mario Andre Gandini Ayerbe, professor of environmental engineering at the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, we went to the bus station to buy the ticket for our onward journey to Pasto. Tickets were available only on the day of travel because the access on the route was uncertain due to the continuing agitation by indigenous people demanding a better share of the development funds. Luckily for us, the Colombian interior minister had temporarily calmed the tempers of the agitators three days ago and we were able to drive through the next day in a minivan steered by a reckless youngster who had a habit of overtaking container trucks on blind curves. It was like playing Russian roulette for nine hours. The passengers, eight of us, sat in deathly silence and none felt drowsy. Close to Pasto, his good luck almost turned bad as a massive white truck charged towards us from the opposite side. Both drivers slammed the brakes and came to a standstill bumper-to-bumper. Luckily, the heavily-loaded approaching truck coming uphill was at a slow speed and could control its momentum. Our guy had to reverse to get past – in cold sweat.

colombia-4After a nighthalt in Pasto, we took another van to the border post of Ipiales. There were volcanoes in abundance, their steep slopes flourishing with farms of corn, beans and potatoes. Before crossing into Ecuador, we drove to the nearby Las Lajas Sanctuary, a picturesque basilica church located inside the canyon of Guáitara River, where another apparition of Virgin Mary had appeared some decades ago. I prayed to Mary for a smooth entry across the border – as we didn’t have a visa for Ecuador. The country issues visas on arrival – but from our experience we had found that visa rules are applied arbitrarily by the immigration officials on the land borders. Perhaps I should have conveyed my message in Spanish because Mary seemed to have registered my request only fleetingly.

The Colombians detained us at the border for over half-an-hour as they discussed our exit amongst themselves, referred the matter to their superiors, and made calls to god knows who. They explained the situation to us but we could not fathom their Spanish. We told them that we had a one-year multiple entry visa for their country but they could not make any head or tail of what we said and wouldn’t let us go. We didn’t mind the wait as the officials were beautiful ladies and the breath of their perfume was intoxicating. Finally, when I produced Fanor’s letter in Spanish, stating the purpose of our mission, they struck our passports with the exit stamp.

No visa for Indians!

The pleasant Ecuadorian immigration staff was camping on the Colombian side of the border. They had never seen an Indian passport at this outpost. The system had to be checked if we were exempt from the visa requirement. However, the “system was down”. They were not pensive and grave like the usual immigration officials but chuckled and cracked jokes all along. I produced a letter from the embassy of Ecuador in New Delhi stating that no visa was required for Indian citizens. This satisfied them enough to welcome us into their country. Thanking Mary, we dragged our bags across the bridge into Ecuador.

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