Perfect Strangers in the Land of Guns and Roses – Colombia

Perfect Strangers in the Land of Guns and Roses

I must be out of my mind! Everybody displayed trepidation when I revealed Colombia as my wanderlust choice last year.

Swiss meadow somewhere in Colombia
Swiss meadow somewhere in Colombia
Like a badly beaten-up stock, underdog Colombia for me is just the right choice for my contrarian spirit. Uninformed as I am, everyone who relies more on Western mainstream media for their regular dosage of information, and whose definition of vacation translates to a loll in the Greek island of Santorini or a fun ride in Orlando’s Disneyland, perceive Colombia in a quagmire of incorrigible social tempest.

All too familiar are off-putting words that pop up whenever this country is mentioned - cocaine, kidnappings, terrorism, strifes, and assassinations. It’s not newsworthy unless it has any of these ingredients, a rundown of which is captured in the news front page in the runoff to my trip.

A distant few months ago, heinous kidnappers clamped a bomb on a woman’s neck demanding ransom and blew her up when demands weren’t met. A not-so-distant few months ago, on the swearing-in day of its newly elected President, a newscaster was reporting while reeling-in from a bomb explosion just a block away from the Presidential Palace in Bogotá. And months ago, rebels kidnapped German tourists, although released unharmed.

Negative press reinforced its title as the “Kidnapping Capital of the World” makes one shiver instantly, the Western Media drives home the point - It’s never cool to go to Colombia with its vicious cycle of crime and violence.

Explaining my choice of destination isn’t too easy and I’d rather keep it all to myself, peeved by jokes about dust and weed.

Never enough, haunting images of nightmarish movies about vacation turned haywire such as “Midnight Express”, resurrected and proved tough to shake off, I almost succumbed to the surrounding atmosphere of pessimism.

Fittingly a Land of Guns and Roses, it’s a way to describe Colombia where contrast is much more defining - volatile violence meets abundance of great beauty. Remote terrorist infested steamy jungles meet peaceful cow-grazed Swiss Alps meadows…hot beaches as opposed to icy glazed mountain skyscrapers…blacks versus blonde-haired people… Here, the extremity of description, much like the beast and beauty within, hang in harmonious balance.

As the song goes, “…accentuate the positive…” Colombia’s spectromatic beauty of flora has a literal and figurative connotation. Colombia on the favorable side brims with exotic orchids and gold, second to none in emerald extraction and second to Holland in commercial flower production. Mention of flowers, Colombia boasts of its women as an exquisitely sought after Latin species.

Bane or boon, derisory flattery or complement, it’s one or the other. In Japan, Colombians are building a strong and steadfast reputation much like my compatriot Filipinas, favorite imports in exchange for Toyotas and sushis.

Ever since Japanese women hung their geisha robes to join the corporate world, Japanese men set their sights on Filipinas over other Asians, filling market demands for their much-preferred mixed Asian and Spanish features, talent, plus their acquired American knack for being game. That special thing seen by the keen Japanese eye is what 333 years of breeding in a Spanish convent by playboy friars outstretching their productive extracurricular activities and 48 years of polishing in a Hollywood finishing school are for, after all. Japanese clubs order their showgirls and receptionists in wholesale numbers from the Philippines, legit but nonetheless vulnerable to the exploits of the Yakuza network that traps them into prostitution.

Derogatory called Japayukis, Filipina entertainers in Japan somehow fill today’s void for the feudalistic woman who sold herself to serfdom, originally defining a now corrupted Japanese term, re-coined by Filipinos to connote a woman who has sold herself in Japan for any across-the-board entertaining and hospitality job, decent or not. Nowadays Colombians get attention as the Hispanic Japayukis. With their more highly defined European look, Colombians are hot to the Japanese eye.

Understandably, on the other side of the story, the Philippines and Colombia suffer the usual third world woes, their government simply can’t step up to the surging needs of its burgeoning population, and women bear the brunt, kowtowing to the moneyed and mighty one. That’s one other stereotyped knowledge I am aware of about Colombia before my trip, although definitely interested, not a hundred percent of Colombian women are that desperate.

At that point, these initial perceptions of Colombia are ambivalent thus far. Image of yin and yang, evil and good, either notoriously exaggerated or romanticized, in a cosmic realm of discovery, is within my grasp no matter how short, quick, and superficial it may be.

Avoiding cities like Medellin and Cali notoriously associated with the cocaine cartel, I am courting danger and pushing my luck if I include them in my itinerary, joining the bandwagon of paranoid tourists only in this one instant, expecting something like a more intense interrogation on my return at the customs if they found out I visited these places. But it’s more a reason of tediously sight seeing all too familiar modern looking cities that I avoided them, preferring the likes of Cartagena, which is nonetheless very touristy, as well as the less popular but equally historic Tunja, Villa de Leyva, Barichara, Mompox, and Popayan, places just enough to fill my two-week quickie vacation trip.

Pocket hints of annoyance come at a price of security, thanks to the military and government security guards. I encountered overreacting security checks while sightseeing in Tunja and Popayan.

In Tunja, where a military compound is smacked inside the historic center, long arm gun cradling soldiers subjected me to an interrogation for casually taking pictures near their property. It’s also taboo to shoot even a quaint local courthouse. Guards were too trigger happy to frisk me while curiously exploring my wallet and tinkering with my camera.

Arriving by plane in Popayan, a southern city surrounded by hot communist rebel enclaves, I was the only foreign passenger and was subjected to the rounds of immigration questionnaires, an unnecessary bureaucratic red tape from my viewpoint just like checking into another country once again. Understandably, this city sits in uneasy peace. Police augmented by ROTC-looking lanky rookies displaying their no-nonsense military defense readiness get-up are spotted almost in every street corner. It may surely look like in a blissful state of martial law, better if only they may appear in a more civilian-looking uniform. Down the Plaza, two apprentice-looking police noticed me took a picture of a quaint colonial-styled bank and demanded a stop, cautioning that banks are off-limits to photo shoots. Stupid me for being a naïve dead give-away, revealing my espionage mission standing a few feet away at my target subject.

These are small annoyances of a less touristy colonial city. Weird it may seem, where other historic cities do it oppositely, this city restricts exterior photo-shoots while it has no holds barred open-door policy for tourists to take pictures of its precious sanctums, magnificent interiors of churches.

The Tunja town courthouse that triggered 911 response when I took a souvenir shot
The Tunja town courthouse that triggered 911 response when I took a souvenir shot
Hands-down, Colombia gave me favorable impression. I arrived here through its front door, Bogotá, apprehensive and left it almost emotionally taken head over heels. Here’s why. No other experience would be so heartwarming than being invited by a local to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Claudia, my host, works as a clerk at the tourist information office in downtown Bogotá. We met so many times because I happened to be persistently asking lots of questions. Pervasively afflicting these tourist assistance offices is the lack of English-speaking staff. English speaking Colombians are a premium, easily hired by high-paying multi-national firms, leaving these counters inadequately staffed, that’s what she said. Even then, she managed to get across and invited me to come over to meet her extended family.

A little bit concerned that she might stand me up, I changed my mind when she called up late eve of New Year. It was rather too dangerous to go out in the streets in the middle of this revelry when the phone rung, abruptly arresting my slippery slide into the verge of losing my drive and stamina. I had a slight fever and sore throat from extreme climatic change adaptation. Just the day before, I was perspiring from too much heat and humidity in Cartagena and now I am here chilling in the highlands of Bogotá. While the worse part is waiting for a dispatched taxi to pick me up which, took eternity to arrive.

Meanwhile, I kept clicking the remote control. TV channels offered marathon-long tsunami aftermath coverage on world news channels while local ones covered a well expressed New Year’s message and lecture show by President Uribe, enumerating his accomplishments and plans for the coming year. Seemingly working on an affirmative action platform, he gave the floor solely to a woman-sergeant who began an expressly verbose tongue-lashing and finger-wagging warning at the so-called enemies of the state disturbingly filling the screen and animatedly distracting my weariness while waiting. Her piercing eyes conveying a ready-to-pounce gesture of braggadocio amidst props of macho soldiers in the background nagged my vision. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. A Colombian woman has shown a never seen toughness side, which will never be picked up by world media.

Past 11:00 p.m. and the taxi hasn’t arrived yet, the channels are making a sign off with the National Anthem being played while featuring a video montage of thong-clad women in the national colors of the country - dominant Amarillo yellow with bands of red and blue, frolicking on some great Colombian natural scenery. They make a poignant contrast to the empowering image just projected a while ago. Now scantily displayed women reprised their role over the boob tube as happy sex objects in this basically machismo-ic society, where I am now taking a plunge into and taking a quick peek. Probably, a political correctness faux pas or is it giving a bedtime check to have sex, anyhow the children are now fast asleep. This nocturnal sign offs might be the right signal to test that equipment.

The taxi finally arrived and I was whisked off north of the city where on an open empty avenue conveyance, the Trans Millennia bus still transports commuters stuffed sardine style. Bogotáns have practically retired to their homes to celebrate the New Year in peace surrounded by the warm comforts of relatives, but this batch of commuters must have been caught up with last minute shopping or outdoor merrymaking.

Way too mind boggling, and one other reason for my hesitancy to go out, coming from a country with the same temperament that festively celebrates New Year with a hailstorm of firecrackers and bullets; I was amazed at the eerie quietness of the city, whereas in Manila, inhabitants are all too immersed in this frenzy. Hell breaks loose. Especially male juveniles are out in the streets exploding firecrackers, burning tires and ego tripping, off-duty soldiers and cops are firing guns, virtually converting the city into a veritable war zone, drowning the air with booms and hisses, gunpowder-thick smoke, and police, fire, and paramedic sirens, while transforming pet dogs into trembling gasping fuzzies.

The taxi hit the nail with precision, although I can’t fully decipher the stylish address numbering system in this city, which one reputable travel guidebook even extols it better than anywhere else, anyway my host Claudia was waiting at the guardhouse accompanied by her lovely unattached cousin.

Claudia’s mother lives in this private apartment estate, a look that somehow resembles a decent government housing project with clusters of blocks arranged in one complex. It is nonetheless very middle classy and cozy. She lived separately from her husband, whom we have to fetch some two blocks around, while Claudia, with her husband lives near downtown. The extended family traditionally held celebration at her mother’s house.

My host friend introduced me to her husband Dan and their little boy, parents and sisters and their extended friends, her cousins and their mothers, and other extended relatives. I have to hug, kiss cheek to cheek accompanied by a loud smacking lip sound at each female in the house for it is customary; on the males, just a hug, a shake, and pat in the back is safe. Cultured in the ways of the Spanish, but I have never been accustomed to intense and passionate physical contact like this unless to my favorite aunts. Being Asians, we were generally not used to demonstrate excessive body contact and emotions to everybody especially to strangers. I have never seen my uncles kiss my mother that way, but each of us receive and give pats to the head and shoulders from/to our favorite relatives.

Just in time, the hands of the clock are ticking off to midnight, the radios turned on for a countdown.

Cinco - Quatro - Tres - Dos -- Uno…Feliz Año Nuevo! No sound effects other than greetings were heard. No firecracking, no gun firing, nor machine gun rattling whatsoever - dry and empty. Even the neighbors are quiet.

The author, front right with his hosts
The author, front right with his hosts
Another hugging and kissing exchange encounter just made the rounds and preoccupied everybody’s moment, followed with champagne glass toasting. Since the only one who can speak English is Dan, I’ve had limited interaction with the rest of the family. Their curiosity and graciously put up enthusiasm was satiated by him who made the translations possible. They have never realized how oceans apart we are, still our cultures reveal affinities and how Tagalog, my language contains traceable Spanish words.

My host’s mother displayed proudly in a photo-op menagerie all her grandchildren, who will ensure her perpetuity in the next generation. Colombian families are indeed big, extensive, and cohesive, not much different from Filipino families. Although she is much younger than my mother is, she is one amazing woman to make that transitional contribution in her own little way, to the evolution of Colombia. After all, without her, I wouldn’t be able to meet Claudia.

One by one, members kept disappearing or falling off to slumber, and the break, or better still, crack of New Year’s dawn finally found me sleepy, voiceless, and running out of stories still in this house, but nevertheless elated and honored. I made a courteous move to leave and expressed my thanks for their hospitality. They reciprocated my delight with warm hugs and a statement something to the effect that they are honored to have me as a guest, adding that their house and family is my house and family too. That was just an amazing Colombian hospitality hard to be matched. I made Colombia my home away from home even if it’s just for a while.

This once in a lifetime encounter will not probably be duplicated anywhere else, and I never expected it to happen, least in this country when everybody is supposed to be jaded and hostile. I’ve heard, read, and virtually watched the guns fired, now I’m happy to see for myself the thriving roses of hospitality and kindness Colombia offers to perfect strangers like me.

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