Colombia…and the End of South America (November 2003)
I dithered and delayed and fretted in Quito for two weeks. You cannot properly ride the length of the Americas without riding through Colombia, yet everybody was telling me that I was insane to even attempt it. My experience of other “dangerous” countries was that they usually turned out to be just fine. But Colombia was unlike anything I had encountered before. Everyone had their own juicy story to scare me with, of kidnappings and extortion and murders and guerrillas and lawlessness.
I usually ignore people preaching doom and gloom but in Quito I was talking with people who actually knew Colombia. Colombians urged me not to cycle through their land, Brits who had lived in Colombia told me that they would only fly between cities, a Dutch chap told of his own kidnapping, the BBC’s man in Colombia told me it was simply not worth it and a risk analysis company specialising in Colombian Security said that I would be stupid not to fly straight to Cartagena. I left Quito feeling more despondent and reluctant than at almost any time since this ride began. The end of South America looked so near and yet so impossible.
In my heart I knew that the risks were small and the rewards much greater, but because so many people had given me so many warnings I knew that if anything unpleasant did happen to me I would feel such a prat for ignoring them all. I also felt that to attempt to ride through Colombia was just too self-indulgent and too selfish towards those who would rather I did not get kidnapped by guerrillas.
Absent-mindedly I crossed the equator once more (I have now ridden in every quarter of the globe) but I had not a drop of enthusiasm left in me- I was too confused about what to do in Colombia. I was also scared. It was proving to be the hardest decision I have had to make. I knew that if I did not ride all that was possible to ride I would certainly regret it for life. I also knew that I would probably regret my stubbornness whilst hungry guerrillas boiled me down into gringo soup.
I crossed the border into Colombia. As you would expect when crossing from safe, stable, touristy Ecuador into a country whose 40 year conflict has left 40% of the country guerrilla controlled, churning out 80% of the world’s cocaine and 25% of the world’s fake US dollars, where three people are murdered an hour and 3000 kidnapped a year (a World Record) the atmosphere changed instantly. I have never crossed a border with such a drastic change. And the change made up my mind: I was going to cycle Colombia. Because from the ultra-reserved, quiet Indian people of Ecuador where forcing a smile or a ‘good morning’ out of somebody was an achievement, I suddenly found myself amongst friendly, fun, energetic people who told me how beautiful their country was and how well I would be treated. The doom and gloom of the last few weeks in Ecuador evaporated immediately. I fell in love with Colombia; I rode across the country; I had an incredible time and now I can only think smugly of what all those tourists back in Ecuador are missing.
I did not ignore the warnings, and I appreciated people’s well-intentioned concerns, but I am angry at myself for temporarily forgetting my good experiences in other troubled lands. Never again will I not go to a country simply because others tell me it is not safe to do so: you have to see it for yourself and decide by yourself.
Without a doubt Colombia has been my favourite country in South America, a country that I would enjoy to live in one day. Peekay’s maxim in ‘The Power of One’ was “first with the head, then with the heart” and that summarises perfectly my decisions over the past month. Besides, the girls in Colombia are, without a trace of doubt, the most beautiful that I have ever met. I love this place!
But my safe crossing of Colombia does not mean that it is a safe country. Far from it. TV news tells daily of displaced peoples, kidnappings, murders, captures, drugs busts and raids. The roads heave with soldiers from the Contra-Guerrilla units, swathed in belts of bullets and wielding Israeli weapons. In some parts helicopters work slowly overhead, patrolling the land and I have never been stopped and searched so often. Soldiers teased me, laughing that I was scared of the FARC (the largest guerrilla group). Damn right I was scared, with a bicycle as a getaway vehicle and bereft of machine guns! I never camped in Colombia (the only country where I have taken that precaution) and I was sure to be off the roads by late afternoon. I rode one afternoon with a workman heading home and on one stretch of the road he would only talk in whispers as we were apparently in a real guerrilla hotspot. Charred tarmac showed the sites of burned out cars.
One weekend elections were held, security was massive, no alcohol was on sale for days beforehand and I was not allowed to cycle – the military insisted I rode on a bus to a safe town. I ate lunch in a cafe with a man my age who had just done three years in jail in Miami for smuggling drugs (“good food, lots of TV, nice uniforms, lots of ping pong, but it got a bit boring after three years…”). Recently he carried two bags containing US$500,000 in fake banknotes (he offered me $100 as a present) to the States but he assured me he has now given up that pastime as his mother was getting a bit stressed!
Three places in particular stand out from my ride through Colombia. Popayan was an oasis of cool white calm in a guerrilla heartland; a University town of immaculately preserved streets of blinding white colonial mansions. Like most of Colombia it was completely bereft of tourists.
In Manizales I was delayed by almost a week. This was partly because of the cool mountain nights, the fresh mornings when clumps of cloud smouldered on damp hills and the roads steamed after frenzied downpours, the fuzzy lines of coffee plantations – dark, shining, verdant green – that wrapped over even the steepest of hillsides, the banana trees that dripped from the rain and the racing, confused rivers that tumbled down the valleys pregnant with the sweet, earthy smell of tropical rain. But my procrastination there was mainly due to an unfeasibly large post-Halloween hangover and the chance to play some golf. It was a beautiful course; a majestic full rainbow leaped from the water hazard on the 3rd hole and came to rest right by Brian’s ball far off in a distant, impenetrable coffee plantation. In the interests of symmetry I struck my ball nicely to the other end of the rainbow.
The third and crowning highlight of Colombia is Cartagena: a perfect place to celebrate finishing a continent. When I was at school we learned about the heroics of Francis Drake. Yet here they call our man a pirate… Drake (and others) caused such havoc here and nicked so much loot from the Spaniards (which they in turn had relieved the local Indians of) that mighty defences were built, walls that took centuries to construct and which today still encircle the old town. The old town is immaculately preserved, unique in South America, and the most beautiful streets I have seen since leaving the Middle East two years ago. The streets are narrow and the colonial buildings are painted in bright jaunty colours. There is an austere white convent, imposing old churches and lots of expressive statues. Baskets of flowers hang from balconies and the small plazas bask in the warm Caribbean sun. Fruit juice sellers serve huge glasses of incredible cocktails and in the early mornings I can usually be found perched on one of their stools, watching the world, thinking back over the past thousands of miles and wondering what lies ahead.
I am leaving South America on Sunday, sailing on a yacht bound for Panama and Central America. Every journey establishes it’s own momentum and the offer of passage on the yacht was too good to turn down even though it leaves me only a few days to celebrate my arrival and try to prepare myself for the next phase.
The mighty swells of the Andes had subsided to choppy waves in Colombia, steep and brutal hills but nothing compared with the beastings of the past months. These too had petered down, smaller and smaller through flat hot plains and Macondo-like villages of playing kids, damp-eyed old people watching the world and the rhythms of swinging hammocks and music. Until one day there was nothing more left ahead of me. Nothing but the gentle lapping of the Caribbean Ocean upon the ancient walls of Cartagena. I sat in the warm sunlight thinking back over all the times I have lived and all the times to be. South America lay behind me. Another continent in the bag. It is becoming ever more enjoyable to look at a world map these days.
The Round the World by Bike expedition was awarded a “Highly Commended” by the Beacon Fellowship in the category of Young Philanthropist. As this does not involve any cash it is not particularly exciting…
One of the main aims of this project is raising funds and awareness for Hope and Homes for Children. As South America lies behind me (eating my dust) I hope that you may be willing to make a donation or to pass this on to any mega-rich philanthropists you may happen to know… Thank you.
A slightly shorter yet equally absurd charity bike ride by someone I am embarrassed to be acquainted with…
A website for you: Tackle Hunger
I am trying to prepare myself before I enter the wacky world of the good ol’ US of A. Preparations began by reading a book called Fast Food Nation, about what really goes into your Maccy D’s burger….. All I can say is “gee…”
An excellent book about the backpacker hordes of South America is the aptly named Gringo Trail by Mark Mann.
Good luck on Sunday, England!
I wrote this in Ecuador, before I entered Colombia:
The recent spate of kidnappings has brought Colombia back onto the front pages of the world’s press. Unrest, organised crime, kidnappings, drugs and civil war have haunted Colombia for decades so this is hardly new news. But I am currently two years into an attempt to cycle around the planet, raising funds and awareness for the charity Hope and Homes for Children and getting through Colombia has preoccupied me more than most countries during my planning. I had hoped to quietly get through Colombia before my ever-nervous mother even managed to find it on her world map. That seems unlikely now. I am currently in Ecuador, bound for Alaska, and Colombia awaits. But the recent story of the spectacular escape from his kidnappers by a young Briton has forced me to re-assess (for the umpteenth time) the wisdom of attempting to cycle alone through Colombia. The escape story is undeniably spectacular and the ending a happy one, but, as I am sure he realises, it could so easily have ended with a bullet in the head. As one World War II pilot observed, “that fine line between bravery and stupidity is endlessly debated – the difference really doesn’t matter.”
Yet, despite the apparent madness of Colombia today, I have decided to continue with my ride northwards and I want to try to explain why. A small part of my choosing to cross Colombia is not wanting to break the chain of my journey (I have ridden 20,000 miles through 33 countries and so am reluctant to take a bus now). However, I already cheated in Tanzania: shamelessly hitching a lift for 100km to get to a television in time for a World Cup football match is hardly the stuff of chisel-jawed, rugged adventurers. I have also conceded that the Darien Gap [the tiny stretch of road-less jungle swarming with guerrillas between Colombia and Panama] will probably prove too dangerous for me to cross and I will probably just try to sail around it. So the seamless continuity of the ride cannot justify my decision.
Similarly I make no pretence that the decision is made out of bravery: last month I narrowly missed an armed hold-up in the mountains of Peru and have no intention of repeating the experience. My new motto is “wherever there be danger – I be not”. Robert Young Pelton, the author of the macho book “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” (like the “Worst-Case Scenario Handbooks” it makes entertaining toilet reading but little more) recently wandered into the Darien Gap and got himself kidnapped, seemingly as a very daft publicity stunt to show how very unusually brave and heroic he was. That does not particularly appeal to me.
People know that the press loves to hype stories, yet still people take all that they see and read at face value. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks my route took me through the Middle East. I received so many warning emails from people about the dangers of those Arabic countries. Yet I have never felt safer than when riding through Beirut and “axle-of-evil” Syria. Sudan has been at war for decades yet the Sudanese people were the most hospitable I have ever met. Mad Bob Mugabe declared that by “Heroes Day” in August 2002 all whites would be removed from their land. I was in Zimbabwe in August 2002. It was a sad, sad ride but I never felt endangered, despite being the whitest white person in the land. And now the pessimistic emails are pouring in once more, well-meaning and appreciated, but mostly from people who have never been to Colombia. Emails from people within the country suggest a rather less Doomsday scenario. I want to see the truth for myself and to reach my own conclusions.
Cycling through a country is an incredibly vulnerable way to travel. Alone, in the middle of nowhere, with a very slow getaway machine you are a juicy target. But I believe that it is this very vulnerability that has helped to get me so far and so safely. The people I meet on the road are incredulous; they may even think that perhaps I am a little mad; but without fail they enjoy the story and do what they can to help me. I am not perceived as a rich, privileged tourist (In Africa only people too poor to take a bus would travel by bicycle) and so I am not treated as one. I believe that, on my bike, I am safer than in a snazzy LandCruiser or a comfy tour bus. However, my vulnerability does mean that if anybody does decide to do anything bad to me then there is very little I can do about it. I hesitated to write this article because I acknowledge that there certainly is a risk attached to riding through Colombia at the moment. The risk is probably small, but the consequences of losing the gamble are potentially unpleasant. Despite rationalizing with myself I am scared (as well as excited and intrigued) about the next few weeks and if I do run into trouble then these words are going to look pretty foolish. But present fears are less than horrible imaginings and I will be relieved once I have actually crossed the border into Colombia and can just get on with it.
My main confidence in choosing to ride through Colombia comes from my experience that there are an incredible number of good people in the world. But good people do not make very interesting headlines and consequently everybody focuses on the minute number of people wishing to do you harm. When I travel through places where tourists do not normally tread I have always been looked after immaculately. Most people are proud of their country or their town and they want foreign people to see them in the best possible light, especially when suffering from an image crisis as severe as Colombia’s. I know that Colombia is a beautiful country, I have heard that the people are the friendliest, most relaxed in South America and I am looking forward to reaching Cartagena, one of the continent’s most magnificent cities. Cartagena and the gentle waters of the Caribbean will signal for me the end of another continent and the beginning of another celebration, Colombia-style.
Before then I sincerely hope that those currently held hostage in Colombia are released soon and I am looking forward to discovering a new country for myself. Besides, surely any nation that produced Shakira cannot be all bad, can it?