Jun
07
2009
2

Observations on Colombia

It’s been fun watching the tracker count down the latitude these last few weeks as I near the equator. I’m now only 1 degree North!
As I prepare to cross over into Ecuador, here are some random things I’ve noticed or learned about Colombia in my time here.

Re-reading this list, I realize a lot of it is just plain bitching. I thought about deleting a lot of it, but I’m really trying not to censor myself on the blog – for it to be an accurate record of my travels, it needs to be truthful. The fact is, I really do like this country, or I wouldn’t have spent the last four months (how did that happen?) here, as longtime readers have hopefully been able to tell from past postings. There are just some things that get on my tits.

There is an astounding variety of original music being produced and consumed in Colombia. This was especially noticeable coming as I did from Central America, where everyone solely listens to Mexican pop – there is next to no original music being produced in those countries. It’s the complete opposite here. You turn on the television to discover eight music video channels, only one of which is MTV. All the rest are locally produced videos, with each channel specializing in a different genre. On the Atlantic coast, they play cumbia; in the northeast, vallenato; in the Andes, bambuco. Only three of dozens more distinct musical styles native to Colombia. Then there is the embracing of other musical styles, from salsa to reggaeton to rock – all recreated in local style.

Being a still somewhat “developing” country, Colombia has not signed on yet to the consumer culture of the U.S. as it relates to throwing something away when it breaks and buying a new one. In the center of every city in Colombia you’ll find an enormous array of repair shops, each specializing in a different appliance. Radios, TVs, cell phones, fans, lamps, stereos, computers, DVD players, clocks, toasters, everything gets repaired, reused, recycled. I keep thinking of how we could get first-world “trash” into the hands of the third-world who has the incentive and the ability to use it. A win-win for everyone, including the planet.

I had a fun time walking around Manizales trying to get my travel speaker fixed (which died two days after receiving it from the States). The cool thing was that I knew I actually had a chance of getting it fixed. If I were living in any North American or European city, I would have said forget it – it’s going to cost more to repair it than to buy a new one, even if they’d agree to look at it for a reasonable fee. Here, they didn’t want any money unless they were actually able to fix it. In the end it turned out to be the main chip which they didn’t have a replacement for, but I was impressed with the attention to quality and the skill of these tradesmen as they metered and tested the electronics.
Now electronics might be beyond the ability of most people to repair, but when a simple appliance breaks in the house, or the gutter needs repairing, or the door is falling off it’s jamb, I posit that most North Americans will call a specialist, whereas most Latin Americans will do the repair themselves. George impressed me in this way in this story I told from El Salvador.

It was only fairly recently that we lost the ability, or incentive, to repair things ourselves. Until the mid 70’s, every home in America had a workbench. You’d put your broken hairdryer on it, and dad would repair it. We had one when I was a kid, and I’m not that old. With the technology revolution we invented the media toolbox, but forgot about the physical toolbox. This is one of the reasons I question the race of countries towards becoming “developed” nations. A society ends up losing a lot that they don’t realize they’re losing in this race.

What’s encouraging for America is the resurgence of the DIY culture that never went away in developing nations. Beginning most notably with the Whole Earth Catalog in the 60’s and building steam today with things like Make Magazine and the Maker Faire, and spurred along by the down economy, people are realizing again the intrinsic value in making or repairing things themselves. There was an excellent essay in the Times a few weeks ago about this subject.

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Written by in: Colombia | Tags: ,
Jun
04
2009
2

Archaeological Sites

Riddle me this: why is the explorer spelled “Columbus” but the country is spelled “Colombia”?

From Popayán I made a quick loop to visit two of South America’s most important archaeological sites. For being UNESCO World Heritage sites, surprisingly little is known about the civilization that left these remnants. Although radio-carbon dating has been done, archaeologists can’t even agree on what centuries we’re talking about. I’ve seen anywhere from 500 BC to 1600 AD, although most accounts place it from the 1st to the 8th century AD. Regardless, the civilization predated the Incas and was long gone by the time the Spaniards arrived.

San Agustín is famous for some 500 large carved stone statues that were laid to rest with the deceased. These statues are in the shape of animals, warriors, and faces, average around 2 to 4 metres tall, and weigh several tons. It’s estimated only about 10% of the ruins have been excavated. The iconography bears some similarity to the Mayan ruins I saw in Guatemala, and indeed some archaeologists theorize both groups are related, along with those who built Ciudad Perdida. According to one of the tour guides I met:

The San Agustín people treated women as equals and superiors (they had female leaders), they had a grasp of advanced mathematics, they attempted complex surgeries and they were obsessed with the idea of life after death. People were ritualistically sacrificed, burned alive and sometimes buried alive under the influence of hallucinogens.

The journey from Popayán to San Agustín is less than 100 km, yet takes six hours due to the bumpy dirt road. The scenery is beautiful – lush green hills fronting dramatic mountains. Near the end of the ride the bus suddenly stopped, the driver pulled (only) me off, and told me to get in the back of the pickup he had pulled up next to. Although 90% of the time they do have your best interests at heart, there is that moment of, “am I being kidnapped?” Turns out nobody else on the bus was going to San Agustín, so he flagged down a passing truck to drive me the rest of the way. He paid the driver, I got dropped in the center of town, all was fine. Actually, more than fine – assuming it’s not cold or raining, riding in the back of trucks is my favorite way to travel. It was coming on dusk with the mountains in silhouette and the sweet smell of flowers in the air.

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Written by in: Colombia | Tags: ,
May
30
2009
2

Cali to Popayán

Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, is known as the salsa capital of the country, if not the world. [Salsa the dance form, not the chip dip!] I didn’t get a feel for this famous party atmosphere since I wasn’t there over a weekend, but I did get enough sense of the place to form a positive opinion. It has excellent weather (perhaps even better than Medellín’s), although it can get hot and humid. Being closer to the coast there are noticably more black people here, giving the city a dynamic feeling. There are a lot of attractive plazas and parks. Overall the city is not as organized with the infrastructure as Medellín nor does it have the great views of that city, but it’s still quite pleasant. Cali is also known for “medical tourism”, i.e., a lot of people come here to get plastic surgery. Certainly a lot of the locals have had boob jobs and what-not. The city also has a dramatic history – besides the drug kingpins of the late eighties and early nineties, other dramatic events of taken place. To wit:

On August 7th, 1956 around 1 a.m., seven Colombian army trucks filled with 42 tons of dynamite exploded near the train station, destroying eight city blocks. A nearby army barracks was instantly destroyed, killing all 500 soldiers. Windows were shattered for miles. More than 1,000 people were killed and several thousand injured.

After Cali I came down to Popayán, a pretty colonial city founded in 1537. It’s known as the “white city”, since all the buildings are painted alike.. which by the way, makes it difficult to find your way around since there are no landmarks – everything looks the same. The central historic area of the city is so clean, whitewashed and quaint, it looks almost Disneyesque. It turns out that it was in fact recently (re-)built in the colonial style, since most of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1983! But I was relieved to find there is a real city beyond the old town. I went for a run up to some hills overlooking the city that afforded nice views.

It’s like being back in some of those Central American colonial towns.. I’ve seen more gringos the last few days than in the previous two months. Due to all the tourism, they have an impressive tourist infrastructure for such a small town – maps, pamphlets, etc.. perhaps due to it’s fame as having the second-largest Easter celebration (Semana Santa) in the world. This is where my buddies in Barranquilla recommended I come for that week.. I’m only two months late!
One nice thing that comes along with tourists is the variety of restaurants to cater to them. Just when I was getting sick of eating the same Colombian basics for every meal, I arrive in a town with an Italian restaurant owned by a Swiss woman, a Chinese place, and several good cafes. Bliss.

One thing I don’t like about Colonial towns is the architecture. Wait, let me rephrase that. The architecture is gorgeous to ogle for an hour.. but after that, you realize it’s not very functional. The design in those days had all the buildings facing inward.. perhaps for security? The upshot being that most hotel rooms face inward, meaning no privacy or natural light.. what windows there are are small.. and it’s difficult to tell what a club/restaurant/shop is like from the street without actually going in and looking around. Sometimes you just want to do a walk-by, know what I mean?

There are an insane number of old churches for what was a very small town. What did they need all of these churches for? It’s not like each one is a different denomination, they’re all Catholic. Maybe they were like the Starbucks of their time – not wanting townspeople to have to be more than a few blocks from any given one.
There are many religious reenactments on television, fitting..
Fully 15 of Colombia’s presidents have come from Popayán. I wonder what that says about the town or about Colombian politics.

The hostel here is excellent. It’s run by a friendly Irish couple who founded HostelTrail, a network of Latin American hostels. It’s clean, modern, efficient, with free WiFi and nice computers, laundry, everything one could want.

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Written by in: Colombia | Tags: , , ,
May
25
2009
3

Mountain Tripping

This past weekend Eloisa and I had a nice time hiking and staying in cabins up in the woods in the Otun Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary. After organizing and working a multi-day conference then going out dancing with the participants, Elo caught a night bus from Bogotá to meet me in Pereira. Naturally she arrived exhausted, but impressively rallied through the day’s adventures. We caught a chiva for the bumpy road to the park. Chivas are wonderfully idiosyncratic buses of rural Colombia. Painted in outlandish colors, they are open-sided (great for experiencing the scenery), and made almost completely of wood!

Since Elo works for the Parks Department she was able to get a discount at the cabin we stayed at the first night, called La Suiza. Like Switzerland. This was a former hacienda that became part of the park system fairly recently. The tourist services (hotel, restaurant, etc) were set up and run at first by a Big Evil Company, but it’s so out of the way that it got no business so they handed it off to a local collective who now run it. Good ending to the saga.

The park is “home of the howler monkey, puma, spectacled bear, tapir, bus, mountain solitude, turkeys, barranqueras, toucans, eagles, among others.” Wild buses, delicious. Unfortunately we didn’t end up seeing much fauna, although a European couple we met saw a monkey and some exotic birds they were pretty psyched about. An interesting couple – they’re English teachers working for one company who rotates them into different countries every couple of years. They’re just finishing up a year and a half in Bogotá and are headed to Bulgaria next. That will be a change! Nice to think about as a fallback profession if I have trouble getting work in the theatre.

The morning after arriving we walked over the Otún River, which provides drinking water to all of Pereira and other nearby cities, to an incredibly high and impressive waterfall. For what is a nondescript small stream coming out of the woods it suddenly plunges 90′ straight down, creating a hypnotically impressive spectacle. Then it carries on downhill being the same mild-mannered little stream. If the weather were warmer I would have loved to try standing under it. I wonder if it would injure.

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Written by in: Colombia | Tags: ,

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