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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, January 30, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE and TOM McGUIRE

Bogota, capital of Colombia, population exceeding 3.5 million, has the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in South America.

Throughout Central America we heard countless horror stories from fellow travelers warning us of eyeglasses being pulled off their faces or jewelry yanked from their necks, wrists and even pierced ears. These bloodcurdling tales filled us with fear, but our intrepid personalities impelled us to investigate this city to verify or dispel the rumors for ourselves.

We have found Bogata to be a stimulating center of culture with more class than most cities we have visited on this trip. The avenues are a bedazzling spectacle of towering skyscrapers, modern, architecture and sophisticated people fashionably dressed.

The city is exciting and alive, like a Latin version of San Francisco. Discotheques blare from about every corner, and movie theaters showing the latest in Hollywood sensationalism thrive with long lines. Xerox, General Electric and Goodyear light up the skyline as examples of the multitude of U.S. industries invested here.

To safeguard ourselves against any unnecessary assaults, we decided to spend a little extra money for a decent hotel room. For only 20 pesos (about $7) we found a reasonable deal — hot water, comfort, privacy and above all, safety. Another one of the terrifying stories circulating through the backpackers’ grapevine is the dangers and uncertainties in checking into a cheap, disreputable side street hotel.

After settling into our quaint hotel, we prowled the streets with our new friend, Sig. We visited at least three restaurants where he insisted that we order anything we desired, and in between these coffee breaks Sig took us on a tour of the town.

Every wall we passed was painted with political graffiti and slogans demanding justice and people’s rights. A typical phrase we saw read “Contro el imperialismo yanki somos,” which translates as “We are against Yankee imperialism.” Bogota activist students are presently “en huelga” (on strike) against the six-month university tuition fee of $900 which is sky high for their standard of living.

Colombia mines and exports 95 per cent of the world’s emeralds, so jewelry buffs can get incredible deals here if purchased from the right person at the right price.

Scores of men patrol, the streets looking for prospective suckers to buy their phony emeralds. They uninhibitedly approach you like an old friend, then proceed to furtively show you their collection of emeralds for sale. If they’re not authentic then they’re ridiculously overpriced. A resolute “no gracias” usually stifles these sidewalk negotiations.

The gloomier side of Bogota is that it unquestionably has some of the most degenerate people we’ve ever seen. They create sights you just don’t want to look at or confront. Because these people are the scourge of humanity, with ugliness and despair in their eyes, you really get the creeps when they look at you. They crouch in alleys or sleep cloaked in rags on church steps, haunted by the wretched anguish of minute-to-minute survival.

Like costumes, the tattered derelicts wear black pants and a black sports coat. Their clothes are so old and moldy with stench that they look ready to disintegrate. Their filthy faces seem as if charcoal had been smeared on their cheeks. Their hair is matted and unkempt; their eyes have the glossy daze of a Charles Manson. The only element these depraved individuals lack to complete a zombie appearance is froth drooling down their chins.

Bogota’s nights are as brisk as a crisp October evening. It is therefore terribly painful and disconcerting to the senses to see these unfortunate people sleeping on sidewalks like neglected animals. Newspapers and piles and piles of rags serve as protective blankets.

It’s a doubly pitiful sight to come across a woman in such circumstances, surrounded by her whining, hungry children, yet they are found on practically every down-town block.

The face of one vagrant boy became familiar after making daily requests for pesos. Instead of offering
money, Colleen flashed on the idea of giving him a woolen vest she seldom wears. The gift would be much more beneficial to the nameless child than a couple of pesos. His reaction to Colleen’s gesture was to silently grab the jacket and run.

Later, returning to our hotel, he happily ran up to us all decked out in his new bright red vest which looked absurdly incongruous with the rest of his squalid garments. He stroked it as if it were a mink coat, thanked us with an enormous smile before turning away to show it off to his friends.

The prospect of spending New Year’s Eve in the big city seemed appealing to us yet it didn’t occur exactly as we anticipated. We naturally presumed that as the final hours of 1976 eroded into history, 7th Street (the most active) would be teeming with activity. But it was empty and deserted like a staged gunfight set. Our misconception about how a New Year’s Eve in the city should be celebrated is attributed to having watched too many Johnny Carson New Year’s Eve programs that telecast live coverage of Times Square celebrations overflowing with people and noise.

Later we were informed that the custom in Colombia requires the family to congregate during the last hours of the outgoing year. But when 1977 officially arrives, the young people go off to celebrate in their own style. Thus, during the hours before the bells toll midnight, the only people wandering Bogota’s most frantic avenue are the street dwellers and a few tourists like ourselves with no home to party at.

Rather than venture out into the darkened streets past midnight, we stayed in our hotel room proposing toast after toast with crystal clear Aguardiente to commemorate the New Year. Aguardiente is Colombia’s national liquor, an exquisite tasting distilled spirit flavored with anise that is bottled throughout the country.

On New Year’s Day we visited the bullfighting stadium. The coliseum is round with high arched entrances and intricate geometric designs on the walls. Disappointed, we learned that the next bullfight wasn’t until the following week, when Agustih Parra of Spain — one of the world’s celebrated bullfighters — was to dazzle audiences with his mastery.

Since the gates were open, we went inside to have a look. The coliseum is huge with a seating capacity of 30,000. Two matadors were practicing their art — one waved the traditional red cape while the other charged at his adversary holding a pair of bull horns to his head.

Back outside we met an entourage of midget matadors who had flown in from Madrid to participate in the upcoming bullfight. They looked amusing in their official regalia of polished brown boots a fancy suit with tassles and a huge hat with plumes sticking out of it. They asked if we’d be around to see them perform and advised us not to miss them standing on top of one another to kill the bull. At that, they all exploded into munchkin-like laughter.

We have no regrets about visiting Bogota. Many of those horror stories are no doubt true and we did keep them in mind strolling the city’s avenues. All in all, though, we’re glad that we chose to tackle this rough city for ourselves, and after our week’s stay, our traveling philosophy remains intact: “If you don’t go looking for trouble, the less vulnerable you’ll be to trouble.”

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