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Captivated by Colombia

Warnings, negative reverberations, nervously uttered comments under breath, anxious, twisted little smiles of good luck…..these were the pre-trip accompaniments before leaving for five weeks in Colombia last November.

Sew credit cards into your bra, be careful of a spray which can induce a stupour whilst you are robbed, don’t talk to strangers or let them show you the way.

These were the additional ingredients handed to me as armory against possible travel problems in Colombia.

On approaching Bogotá’s tarmac the middle aged priest next to me, originally from another part of Colombia and on his way to the Amazon, told me it would probably be hard for us to breathe with  Bogotá’s altitude.

Armed with phone numbers, duplicates, a mobile phone, an airport contact, local names and addresses I landed at Bogotá, steeling myself against so much warning and possible distress.

But the heartening  fact is that sometimes things work out. I didn’t suffer breathing problems, nor did I need to call any of the contacts. My Colombian friend/ Spanish teacher and I met at the women’s wash basins, our planes having landed  only minutes apart.

We emerged through customs without hassle and were met by a loving array of family members who drove us through the sodden streets of Bogotá to a very handsome hotel.

We shared drinks and introductions in this impressive hotel, used for conferences and related exhibitions of very sophisticated technical and medical equipment.

The  following days in Bogotá showed me its multitude of look alike towering orange brick apartments and surrounding poor barrios but co-mingled with a fascinating mix of riches and poverty.

Everyone seems to strive –  be it selling mobile phones, cramming cars into impossibly small spaces, driving horses and carts through fume ridden traffic – the striving is relentless and impressive.

At traffic lights it was not uncommon to see three men forming a wavering tower by standing on each other’s shoulders, the one at the top juggling balls before the lights turned green– all  in the hope of some coins –  an impressive show of striving and surviving.

And this attitude was prevalent in the countryside. We saw country folk doubled over, climbing steep hills and mountainsides carrying eucalyptus branches on their backs to light  fires and wood stoves.

Every toll booth, of which there are many across Colombia, gave an opportunity for vendors of sweets, biscuits, sugared peanuts, fruits and other  wares to sell to passengers in waiting vehicles.

And when the vendors were turned away, it was rare to see loss of hope in their eyes.

The striving was apparent in Medellin where each morning we would hear the cry “Aguacates, aguacates” as the peddler rode with his produce around the streets. Sometimes it would be pots and pans, at others fruits and vegetables.

Even on a seemingly remote coastal walk through the mud and slush of nonetheless beautiful Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta, we rounded several massive granite boulders and small inlets to stumble across a small tienda selling food and drinks.

Opportunities for enjoying food and drink abound in Colombia with the eating of roasted meat  one of the country’s abounding passions. The colour green doesn’t seem to feature much as an accompaniment with the preference being for potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.

The land is fertile beyond belief in the mountainous regions surrounding Bogotá and Medellin. In the latter the mountains sometimes only leave a thin wedge of sky after the eyes traverse vertical walls of green…

In Boyacá, north of Bogotá, the tortuous winding roads deliver such fabulous revelations as thundering crystal waterfalls and 360 degree views of ravines and mountains, as though seen from an eagle’s eyrie.

So many delicious fruits grow in these regions of Colombia…they are huge and juicy. In fact largeness seems to be a  feature of a country where the people themselves tend to be slender and charmingly eager to please.

The avocadoes are huge, the mountains are unbelievably grand, huge yellow, orange or black and blue butterflies dart through the forest in the Santander region.

Deliciously huge and chunky drinks of Salpicón are  welcome with so many fresh individual fruits competing for space in this tasty beverage.

The beauty and largesse of this country is also witnessed along the Medellin River at Christmas with a huge display of Christmas lights seemingly slung across and along the river like a colourful electric forest. Each year there is a different theme and this structure of storybook Christmas lights is mirrored on either side of the river.

The largeness of nature’s themes is reflected in the massive Cauca River in Santa Fe de Antioquia and the River Foncé in San Gil, Santander, is large enough to white water raft with thrilling twists around, into and over huge rocks.

Colombia is colourful. The pueblito of Ráquira, north of Bogotá, is bursting with colourful houses, indigenous inspired murals, hanging clay beads, stacks of colourful woven baskets and brilliantly be-tasseled hammocks swaying from verandahs.

Cartagena on the Caribbean coast is not only an architectural and historical haven but it is also a feast for the eyes. Red geraniums burst from balcony held pots, pink houses, yellow, blue, green….they all proclaim joy and daring as they face each other over old cobblestoned streets..

But down in the street a vendor is slashing yet another fresh coconut with his rapier like knife…Someone else is selling rows and rows of locally designed and made hats. Fabric handbags swing in the breeze, competing for the visitor’s purse.

Dispossessed families carry placards in the median strips of Bogotá, declaring themselves victims of “La Violencia”. A little girl tries to sell bunches of fresh flowers but gets distracted by a scattering of petals.

A man with soot on his face in a Medellin Street asks for money, a toothless woman in a church in Cartagena puts out her hand for coins.

A blackened beggar on church steps at the top of a plaza brings out his white dove companion….

Animals in this country co-exist in interesting combinations. Goats and chickens around one rural corner, two tethered cows and a dog around another. Drive on further and there are piglets rifling among housing ruins, round another bend is a woman with a black plastic cape and a traditional hat, soaked from the relentless rain.

Pueblitos reveal their charming churches at the head of their plazas, all with different styles and decorations. They overlook their little squares which may be filled with grass and trees or perhaps cobblestones or maybe statues and white marked palm trees.

The squares are a mecca for the people and the church draws
many through its doors. Surrounded by the church’s riches and extravagant icons they kneel in faithful prayer….and this scene is replicated over and over across the pueblitos and their plazas in Colombia.

Receiving a gift

Poor children in a rain rutted street here, a rural farm there, make do with a lid for a toy or maybe one ball between them. They come over to our car to receive a  Christmas gift – probably their first ever. They have not been cowed by the message “Don’t Talk To Strangers”. They run down the street  beaming, clutching their unexpected prize.

Mariachi in Bogotá, African influenced tribal rhythms in Santa Marta, local hymns, Ecuadorian music by Medellin River, pop music, fireworks every night during December, the faithful crow of dawn -announcing roosters………………Colombia’s heart keeps beating its fascinating rhythms of music, poverty, riches, colour, indigenous influences, religion, traditions and striving.

As my Colombian friend’s sister wisely said” “Anything is possible in Colombia”.




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