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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 16, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

For my brother and me, Colombia was like a good Russian novel — difficult to get into, but very rewarding if you keep striving.

Our introduction to South America was Cartagena, the most beautiful Latin city we have visited on this trip. Its charismatic architecture — white buildings, Moorish arches and black wrought iron balconies —echoes the beauty of ancient Spain. Perhaps because it was the Christmas season, the narrow streets overflowed with people.

Cartagena once was one of the prime coastal cities where Spanish pirates returned from the high seas with their booty. A towering stone wall surrounds the old city where ancient gray cannons peek through the wall’s apertures. The majestic fortress of San Felipe stands as evidence that Cartagena was strongly fortified.

As if still under the influence of the glory days of their pirate ancestors, Cartagena’s people glory in the black market. Every other street vendor is selling cartons of Marlboros at cheaper prices than your local Kroger supermarket. A package of Marlboros sells for 33 cents. You can purchase one cigarette for 3 cents.

Near the market televisions, radios and other non-Columbian appliances are sold openly at drastically reduced price tags. There is just too much contraband for the police to arrest every single illegal vendor.

Cartagena’s warm evenings are conducive to outside eating and “dining” at the market is a unique experience. At a regular restaurant one doesn’t normally sit at the same table with strangers, but since there’s only one table here, everyone eats together under the open sky. Other people stand around waiting for a vacant seat.

The silverware was stacked in a glass on the table and you helped yourself. Out of the huge pots nestled on hot charcoals, a black woman scooped up bowls of beans, rice, fish, potatoes and soup. Everything was good and filling except the soup, in which cooked chicken claws floated morbidly in the broth. They may have no qualms about eating such things, but I couldn’t hack it.

One treat sold in the streets is freshly peeled and fried potato chips. These far surpass Lays or Pringles because the chips are hot as well as free of artificial ingredients. What a delight for potato chip fans!

Cartagena’s beauty makes it a big tourist town, which in turn means high prices. Both of these are extremely evident in Bocagrande – the new and also beautiful section of town. Despite the city’s charm, the tourists and high prices made it difficult for us to initially accept Colombia, so we trekked on into the countryside. Standing outside the northern industrial city of Medellin, we cursed the cars that swiftly passed us by. Finally we got a hitchhiker’s dream ride.

First of all the driver, a Colombian named Sigifredo, volunteered to take us all the way to Bogata, at least a 14-hour drive. And secondly Sig (his nickname) proved to be overly generous with his money (as computer specialist for the South American Chase Manhattan Banks, he could afford to be).

We took two days to drive to Bogata. Sig refused to let us spend our own money. His son is studying at Columbia University in New York and perhaps Sig wanted to take care of us in the same way he hopes Americans are being kind to his son.

We drove through high hills dotted with coconut trees. Sig pointed out that the coconuts on the trees were no bigger than moth balls. They’re called corozoas and despite their smaller size they have the same qualities as normal coconuts. Clusters of cana brava also decorate the hills. The plant is a variety of sugar cane with the stalk resembling huge green feather plumes.

At Rio Sucios, Sig offered to buy us a Coke. The waiter brought three bottles, one with a straw in it and two glasses. Tom and Sig got the glasses while I got the Coke with a straw.

We asked several young boys for the road to Pereiro, but their directions led us down a dead-end street. When we returned they were all laughing hysterically. No apologies were necessary though, after they reminded Sig that the day, Dec. 28, was Dia de Innocentes, literally meaning day of the innocents, Colombia’s version of our April Fool’s Day.

Later Sig treated us to a typical Colombian meal. Sancocho, the soup, was made from the yucca plant with potatoes added. Mazamola consisted of cold corn in a bowl of cold milk. Sig told us that the poor eat mazola in its own corn juice because milk is too expensive. Arepa was a white corn biscuit. Except for a sizeable chunk of meat, the native dishes were far too starchy for my personal diet.

We finished the meal over a cup of superb Colombian coffee. Black coffee called tinto was always excellent here and generally cost four cents in the small towns. The entire bill for our three meals totaled $1.80.

The region we traversed the next day gave rise to the great Andes Mountains. However, since it was
only their beginnings the mountains reached only a mere 7,500 feet. At the top the clouds created a white fog, making the curving road very dangerous, compounded by slow-moving cargo trucks that are forced to inch upwards at 10 or 20 m.p.h. Hence, we awoke very early to travel this stretch before the heavy traffic set in.

Before climbing upward, Sig made a pit stop for fuel and we were astounded to learn that gasoline is only 10 pesos (30 cents) a gallon. Apparently Colombia has enough oil to eliminate costly importation and maintain a low price for its people. Yet the people must pay $6,000 for the cheapest new car — Renaults — for which there’s an assembly plant in Colombia. The tax on foreign cars is 300 per cent, giving a Mercedes Benz, for example, a $50,000 price tag.

The stretch of the Andes we crossed was called La Linea. At the bottom of the road there was a Virgin Mary statue with about 15 sparkling candles glowing at her feet. Sig told us that before making the treacherous climb, many truckers light candles in exchange for the Holy Mother’s protection.

After crossing La Linea, we agreed that a candle isn’t a bad idea. It really was a difficult road. There were no gas stations in the mountains and it was not surprising to see overheated cars stalled and parked dangerously on the side of the small road. A bonfire near several trucks indicated the drivers had to spend the night in the cold mountains. Despite the difficulty of crossing La Linea, it was one of the most beautiful drives in terms of scenery.

In April or May each year, a bicycle race takes place on this road — reserved only for those with the stamina, endurance and energy to conquer La Linea by pedal.

After La Linea, we crossed a long flat valley, ascended another mountain range, and then crossed another prairie-like stretch. At last we came to the final mountain climb. At the top, the capital city of Bogota – one of the toughest cities south of the U.S. border awaits two wide-eyed kids from the Benton County cornfields.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM MCGUIRE

Throughout our southbound journey, whenever we were asked where we were headed, we would reply “Peru.” “Ah,” would be the normal response, “you’re going to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu, the prime tourist attraction in Peru, is an ancient Inca city situated 76 miles northwest of Cuzco and rests at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. These incredible ruins lay hidden from the modem world for nearly 500 years until Dr. Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered this legendary lost city in 1911.

Most tourists take the five-hour train from Cuzco, spend several hours at the ruins, then retreat back to civilization in the evening. We decided to approach Machu Picchu in a quite unconventional manner — hiking for three days on the original Inca trail to reach our destination.

Our exciting odyssey commenced on a rather chaotic note. To arrive at the Inca trail we had to take the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 (Machu Picchu is at Kilometer 112) and departure time was 5 a.m. So an hour beforehand we staggered out of our beds and ambled over to the station where a horde of Indians were already waiting at the entrance gate.

When the man opened the gates, people began stampeding in the darkness for seats for themselves and all their cumbersome belongings. We pushed and shoved just like everyone else.

The train stopped just long enough to deposit the four of us in the middle of nowhere, so-called Kilometer 88. The only activity in sight consisted of several Indian women who were squatting near the tracks like colorful statues.

To reach our trail we first had to cross a crude manmade bridge spanning the turbulent Urubamba River. There was one hut on the other side and its apparent resident approached us. We chatted for awhile about our journey, gave him a cigarette, and in exchange he gave us brittle green leaves and an object that resembled a long slender stone.

The Indian demonstrated to us how to use his gift. Take a fistful of the leaves and wrap them around the small chunk of the stone which is actually concentrated ashes and breaks fairly easily. Put this wad in the side of your mouth and just chew it casually like tobacco. He explained that all natives participated in this age old custom and its effect is good for hiking in the high altitude.

Immediately we realized that he was giving us coca leaves, the stimulant that in its further state produces cocaine. We had seen many Indians chewing the cud that turns your saliva and teeth a fungus green and we knew that the ancient Indians also regularly indulged in the habit. And we figured that since we were doing the Inca trail, we should do it the native way.

The first half day of hiking we were all chomping away on the Indian present. It numbed the entire side of our mouths and made us feel extremely energetic. However, the sensation soon died away, leaving a rancid taste. We abandoned the coca leaves thinking aloud what poor Indians we would make.
The hike through the imposing Andes Mountains was breathtaking — literally. The vista of towering snow capped peaks in the distance was phenomenal.

The entire Inca trail is strewn with forgotten ruins which are appreciated only by those who undertake such an unorthodox approach to Machu Picchu. The second day we stumbled upon a petrified fortress called Sayacmarca (meaning elevated town in Quechua). This remote ruin is perched high atop a protruding cliff overlooking a stupendous abyss. The stonework at Sayacmarca is moss encrusted with age, and the grounds are smothered by unkempt jungle growth. Its desolation was haunting, perhaps because swarms of camera toting tourists haven’t yet scared off the ghosts of the eternal Inca spirit.

Our last night we camped at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the Inca baths. Crystal clear water still flows through narrow channels carved in the rocks. Here was one of the few places in Peru where we enjoyed the luxury of cold, uncontaminated water. Instead of sleeping in a nearby damp cave, we found a simple straw hut erected inside the ruins, a dwelling we were amazed, yet relieved, to find.

The next morning when the clouds lifted we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu atop a mountain six hours away. We didn’t see the vacant city again until the last hour of our hike, as the remainder of our trek led us through a tropical rain forest.

Towards the end of the hike, we had to grope to relocate the obliterated path. Operating with complete disregard for nature and the priceless Inca stone trail, the Peruvian government is foolishly raping the land to construct a fancy hotel at Machu Picchu’s back door. The engineers detained us for an hour while they heedlessly dynamited their own beautiful wilderness.

Oblivious to the perpetual drizzle, we were ecstatic upon arriving at Machu Picchu. However, we were too weary to explore the ruins immediately, despite the inviting temptation they offered.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep in a warm bed, we were ready for the ruins the next day. Machu Picchu stands as a fossilized testament to the ingenuity and cultural superiority of a long vanquished race of enigmatic Indians. It completely baffles us how this city in the clouds was constructed without the aid of modern technological devices. If you could see the astounding engineering and exquisite craftsmanship that went into making Machu Picchu a reality, then you could well understand our amazement and the many, many questions that flooded our minds.

After walking around the magical ruins, we realized that we were confronted with one of mankind’s oddities that must be seen — not written about — to fully absorb the staggering beauty of this fantasyland

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