Monday, April 25, 2005

Polite and quiet Colombia...??

In the terminal at Ipiales, near Colombia's frontier with Ecuador, a mother makes the sign of the cross in front of her daughter who is about to get on the minibus headed for Cali. An hour down the road, I can see her logic; I 'm making involuntary signs of the cross myself as our driver leans on the accelerator and prepares to overtake another truck on yet another blind mountain corner. Forget guerillas, kidnappings, gun-wielding drug dealers - by far the greatest danger in Colombia, as far as I can tell, is from normal citizens' approach to highway etiquette "Is this guy crazy, or does everyone drive like this here?" I ask the guy in the seat behind me. He grins from under his broad panama hat and shrugs his shoulders. "This is normal".

Staring into the Russian roulette of the blind bend, we gradually inch past the truck; around the corner the next oncoming vehicle is thankfully still some distance away. The driver glances complacently across at the pretty girl he's selected to occupy the seat next to him in the front of the van, then, moustache twitching, leans forward once more onto the accelerator.

The fact that this is a near-universal driving style is probably a blessing in disguise. Vehicles rounding blind corners *expect* to find someone on their side of the road. Most people honk as they head round the bend. Not everyone is as lucky as us, however. On the road to Cali we see the results of two multi-vehicle accidents, as well as an overturned truck-trailer which has spilled its load of sugar bags all over the highway.

Meanwhile, the scenery is utterly spectacular. As green as Colombia's famous emeralds, the hills of the western cordillera are separated by wide valleys and dizzying ravines. We drop into hot lowlands and climb over cloudy hilltops. Ubiquitous banana plants tumble down the hillsides with their floppy fronds, while the pasture lands at higher altitudes bear resemblance to the prettier parts of Northland, New Zealand. On the roadsides the red-tiled roofs of cottages are framed by sunflowers and bougainvillea, with chickens pecking on the grass outside.

Colombia's fame precedes it like no other country in South America. Images of drugs, danger and violence are triggered off by its very name, and when I email my current location friends and family react like Kathleen Turner's timid romance novelist in Romancing the Stone. "You're where!?!" I'm not immune to the prejudices, and have to suppress a chuckle as we pass lorries with big "Made in Medellin" signs on the back canopy. Later, I find that such reactions aren't restricted to ignorant westerners, but extend to customs officers in neighbouring countries. On returning to Ecuador, I'm subjected to extensive search and questioning by Ecuadorean officials - the first time in about fourteen border crossings in South America I've been given more than a cursory glance. Then, boarding a flight from Peru to Argentina, the sight of the Colombia stamp in my passport provokes a flurry of questions and sharper-than-normal review of my bags from the Peruvians.

But nothing is ever quite as you expect; what I see of Colombia turns out to be considerably more laid back than reputation, or the British Foreign Office, would have it. Strongest first impressions, apart from the driving, are people's almost old-world politeness - in a shop or restaurant you're greeted with a bright "A la orden!" ("at your service!") and farewelled with an effusive "con mucho gusto!" ("it's a pleasure!") before you even have a chance to say "gracias". And the food - you could get fat quickly and happily in Colombia. A regular lunch is big, cheap and hearty, while the stomach-stretching bandeja paisa features five kinds of meat, plus eggs, rice and beans. Plus fried banana with every course – you even get it in your soup.

Everyone's heard stories of tourists getting kidnapped in Colombia by leftist guerrrillas who roam the countryside. But to find a guerilla these days, you'd really have to go looking. The dollars poured in by the United States as part of its "War on Drugs" seem to have given the Colombian army the resources to dominate areas where guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries previously roamed freely. While my Lonely Planet warns that even a stretch of the main highway between the frontier and Cali may be under guerilla control, all we see are a series of army patrols every 50 km or so. Some people whisper that there's collaboration between the army and the guerillas to maintain the conflict and keep the dollars flowing in, and I hear stories of a colonel ordered to pull back when his platoon had surrounded and trapped a group of guerillas. The civil war has been going on so long that a whole generation has been born into the guerilla lifestyle , and no one can explain to me exactly what the conflict's ideological basis is, if it still has one.

Nevertheless, many people seem to be cautiously optimistic about their country's future. "Alvaro Uribe is a good president" says Beatriz, who with her husband Hildebrando runs several small businesses in Cali and around. "He's actually interested in the good of the country, not just in lining his own pocket". Not everyone agrees - I see graffiti criticizing "Fascist Uribe's" privatization policies under a bridge in north Cali. Nil, an anthropologist specializing in Afro-American history in Latin America assures me that “Colombia's biggest problem isn't the guerrilla war - it's corruption”. I question him about other people's view that Uribe is an honest president and he shrugs. "Maybe, but he's in the same pot with everyone else". But even he grudgingly agrees that things are probably on the improve.

The city of Cali sprawls on either side of the river Cauca in a wide valley between the western and central cordillera, dominated by the cultivation of sugar cane. It's neither truly ugly nor pretty - the centre is dominated by bland seventies tower blocks, but it's green in a kind of shaggy, unkempt way. The climate is delicious, the equatorial heat moderated by 1,000 metres of altitude and a breeze which springs up from the river in the aftenoon.

Apart from its fame as the Second City of cocaine, behind Medellin, Cali is also renowned for its nightlife. But either I'm missing something, or this too is exaggerated. Along the 6th avenue in north Cali are a string of gaudy discotheques with flashing lights, tinted glass and overeager doormen hustling for customers. Closer inspection, however, reveals that even on a Saturday night they're largely empty. "I would never go out there anyway" says Monica, a recently graduated clinical psychologist. "Those places are where the lower classes go - and the narcotraffickers. As a girl, you don't really want to attract their attention" I go with her and some friends fifteen blocks north to the "Zona Rosa" where there are a number of bars with cover charges playing a mixture of rock, salsa and electronica But even there, the rumba doesn't quite match the all-night drinking and dancing marathons to be experienced in Peru or Argentina.

Maybe everyone is still recovering from the Feria de Cali, the city's major festival which runs from December 25 – January 1. Or maybe it's just not as wild as it's cracked up to be. A more typical experience seems to be a Saturday afternoon in Chipichape, a popular shopping mall in the converted railway station, where people sit around sipping cerveza michelada, beer served with lemon and salt spread round the rim of the glass. In a well-stocked bookshop the attendant cheerfully spends ten minutes helping me get beyond the Garcia Marquez volumes and find the "contemporary" novel I insist on reading. We skim through a range of tales of political corruption and drug-related violence. "This one used to be banned" she says hopefully.

The next week, on something of a caffeine addict's pilgrimmage, I head up to the coffee-growing region three hours north of Cali. Beatriz gives me a lift up as far as the town of Tulua, where she has a restaurant. On the way we're stopped by, successively, the army, the police and traffic police. The first two are probably looking for "guerrillas and drugs" according to Beatriz, but the traffic police just want to check if we have our lights on. It's now compulsory to drive with your lights on in Colombia, as research has shown it reduces accidents (mind you, so does staying on your side of the road), and the police routinely hand out instant fines for failure to do so. Hildebrando has apparently managed both to collect a couple of tickets for having his lights off, and flatten his car's battery by leaving them on. Beatriz shakes her head and says something about "revenue collection"

Some things don't change - I laugh and tell her about people's frustration with speed cameras and quota-filling traffic police in New Zealand. But although she gives hard stares to the series of nervous and scarily youthful-looking officers who stop us, she supports the principle of the checkpoints. "It's good that they're concerned about security" she says.

Back in Cali, on a Sunday afternoon Beatriz and Hildebrando take me on a drive through the south of the city and up to Cerro de Cristo Rey, for a panoramic view of the valley. Sprawling out into the sugar cane fields to the southeast of the city are the new settlements of desplazados, people who have migrated from rural areas, often as refugees from ongoing violence in their homelands. The settlements are home to the grim reality described recently by Martin Amis and mirroring that of Medellin's hillside comunas depicted in novels and films such as La Virgen de los Sicarios and Rosario Tijeras

But while most Colombians have been touched in some way by their country's troubles, they don't exactly appreciate the almost voyueristic focus that they receive in the outside world. Monica gets mad when I show her the Martin Amis article. She is currently applying for two jobs - to work with traumatised desplazados or in a government programme designed to address inter-family violence, a huge problem in Colombia. She also has plenty of stories from her time as an intern in the public hospital. But she's still upset about the obsession with all the worst things about her country. She mutters something about "ignorant foreign journalists", and I have a hard time explaining to her about the brilliance of London Fields and The Information.

Everywhere you go in South America people want to know "what do you think of (insert country/region/village)?" But in Colombia they have an additional question. "What do people in your country who haven't been here think about Colombia?" I have to tell the truth; people think it's dangerous, they're a bit afraid to come and visit. My questioners nod their heads sadly. What exactly, it seems they're wondering, does this beautiful and welcoming country have to do to beat its bad press?

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