Santa Marta, Colombia
I sit in Santa Marta, the first settlement on the Colombian coast, for a holiday weekend. The beaches in front of me are empty. Vallenatos, Colombian folk musicians, belt out accordion licks and songs of love lost, as the palm trees become silhouettes behind them. It’s idyllic, but an illusion.
Before leaving Bogota, an expatriate named Tom, recounted some recent Colombian history. Five years ago in the zone where coffee plantations meet sugar cane, paramilitary troops entered a small town. As is their custom, they massacred those they claimed were leftists and/or communists.
A nun, a friend of Tom’s, was sent by a human rights group to construct a visual record. She photographed penises. To further disgrace these deaths, soldiers carved off the penises of the dead.
“The most shocking photo,” Tom remembered, “was a dog running down a dirt road with a penis, resembling a dried half peach, hanging out of its month.”
I think about that as I pick up El Tiempo, the paper resting on the table in front of me. The previous night, paramilitary troops attacked a coastal village. They herded the citizens into the town square, read out a list of “leftist sympathizers”, then slaughtered twenty of them.
I set the paper down and think of dogs.
Kidnapping and death are the backdrops of my travels, of modern Colombia. Since 1947, Colombia has experienced varying degrees of civil massacres – the riots after the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, La Violencia in which 300,000 Colombians lost their lives, the drug war of Pablo Escobar, and now the Battle of Four Armies. One event just leads into another in unending, but forgotten, cycle of murders.
I think of this as my plane begins to descend. I am reading a Colombian novel, Our Lady of Assassins. In it, author Fernando Vallejo writes,
Here everything that lives is guilty, and if it reproduces, even more. The poor produce more poor, and misery more misery. And more misery makes more killings and more killings make more corpses. This is the law of Medellín, which will rule from henceforth on Planet Earth. Be warned.
My plane touches down. I disembark and walk into a group of children, a class of deaf students on a field trip. The older students cradle notebooks in their arms and the younger ones look around in amazement. They file onto another plane, a 737. They can’t hear the roar of the cooling jet engines, or the captain greeting their teachers.
Colombia is similar. Misery makes more killing which makes more corpses, but when on the coast, the beauty of the world blocks other senses. One can’t necessarily see or hear the misery, the killings, the corpses. Still, they are there.
Lili and I wanted to escape Santa Marta’s tourist strip – a concrete line of sidewalk vendors and liquor shops. We rode through barrios of houses made of mud, over pothole filled roads, past burrows and screaming cocks, men with machetes, pregnant women on bikes, and almond trees. Eventually, we found a few bamboo huts, a long strip of sand, and the sea that seemed to reach to Mexico.
As we got off the bike, a boy ran toward us. “Beer? Lunch?” He was offering fresh baked fish caught in the bay and the overly carbonated Costeña beer. We went to the sand, marked out our spot and an hour later, we were still waiting for the boy to bring our meal. Finally, he came lugging a tray the size of a boogie board on his shoulders. I chugged on the beers as Lili peeled the blue skin from the fish. We finished the meal and fell asleep. The boy came back. Before picking up the plates, he politely asked, “Would you like to suck the bones?”
Tregua. Truce. The national paper reports the new president and the guerillas are talking truce again. During his four-year reign, President Andreas Pastrana and Colombia’s largest Marxist militia, FARC, talked and talked about truce, cease fires, prisoner exchanges, and an end to the war. During this “peace process”, the president ceded a Switzerland-sized jungle zone to the FARC, rebuffed calls to break off talks, while financing a campaign to nominate himself for the Nobel Peace Prize. FARC and the ELN continued their campaign of kidnapping and extortion.
Last year, Kofe Anan won the award. The same week, the former Minster of Culture was kidnapped by the FARC, then executed. Two days after the murder, Pastrana renewed the agreement that ceded the jungle to the guerillas on the understanding that all mass kidnappings and those of government officials would end. The following day, the FARC kidnapped five police officers and executed two.
Now there is a new President, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Strong hand, strong heart – that’s his motto. Once elected, he called a state of emergency and limited rights of the press, of speech, of due process. And now the paper reports that he is talking with the ELN.
Talking and war. Neither ever ends.
Cartagena. Everything costs pennies including the horse and carriage rides.
“Years ago,” our driver said, “they stretched a chain clear across the bay to keep out pirates.” He talks like a dead man – loud, in a monotone. The ends of his words are rarely pronounced, a sign of the “costeño” accent.
The carriage flails through the cobblestone streets. Few lights, few people but every house has a balcony with vines of flowers hanging over the dies. The trees are in bloom, and around most corners, are small squares with fountains in the middle. The main wall – a massive, slanted barricade – is never far. Nor is the faint smell of the Caribbean and the echos of drunks at play.
As we ride along, the driver continues telling us the history of Cartegena. Founded in 1533, the Spanish brought in slaves to build the barricade around the current center of Cartegena. Most died. Various pirates, from Captain Gros to Henry Morgan, made their way to Cartagena in hopes of stealing the treasures from the Spanish Main. They all failed. Then Simon Bolivar liberated Cartagena from the Spanish. Following him, a host of celebrities of the Latin World, ending with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Botero, came to the city.
We pass a statue of Botero, a fat women with exorbitant hips lying on her side. The driver points to it – the city’s new prize – and to the home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“Most houses, sell for upwards of three million dollars,” the driver says.
Dozens are for sale. I ask him about the economy. He says it’s horrible, twenty percent unemployment and no sign of an end.
“And how is business for you?” He says he works seven days a week. If he is lucky, he gets three couples to take his tour.
We get out of the carriage at the statue of Pedro Claver, Patron Saint of Slaves. I pay the driver thirty pesos – ten pesos more than he originally asked for. Nonetheless, he seems dissatisfied. Maybe it is not enough, or maybe he knows we are his last customers.
It doesn’t matter that the chains are no longer stretched across the bay. The carriage driver knows invisible chains are keeping everyone away.
A stout twenty-year old student friend of Turkish descent, has been telling me about the cruelty of Cartagena during our cab ride to Mr. Babilla, a notorious dance club painted orange and blue, known as a place where women dance on the tables and men fall on the floors. On tap this night was a meringue group and their coterie of belly dancers dressed in red. They were promoting Johnny Walker Red Whiskey. The group played an Arabic-influenced pop song made popular by Shakira, Colombia’s most famous singer. The women moved lustfully. When the meringue ended, the pop began. Mayonesa started to play. It is the song of the year in Colombia, a country of dance crazies. All this at three in the morning, in a stunning city by the sea, in a besieged country with five million war refugees.
I think about the risk I am taking being in Santa Marta. The beaches of the rich face stellar cliffs. The beach here is for the poor. Black boys vault over the incoming tide not noticing or not caring that the water has a petrol sheen. Men sit at tables drinking aguardiente. Their women wait for them. These are the remnants of what was once a tourist spot.
From a stack of old magazines on our hotel floor, Lili picks up a copy of Semana, Colombia’s equivalent to Time. Inside is a story about Colombian children and how they view their country today. Included is a list of words they have defined.
Colombia: It is a football team.
Water: A liquid you can’t drink.
Drunkard: More or less, people who want to kill.
Politician: Someone who makes promises and never takes responsibility.
Peace: Something for people who kill a lot.
Dead: The country.