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April 26, 2006


as per my plan i'm back in SF, having arrived just in time to miss the rainy season.
yesterday went into my old job, turns out an ex-coworker got hit last week, so i'm gonna fill in for 2 or 3 weeks, which fits my schedule perfectly. i start again tomorrrow, and though i'm not really interested in going back into messengering full time, it will be nice to do it for a bit, get my legs back into shape.

Youtube is really cool. now when i travel i'll be all multimedia.

i'm heading to New York from the 8th to the 27th of June. Then to Chicago the first weekend of July for my cousin's wedding. and i might sneak up to portland for a messenger race and to visit drew and co.

i still miss colombia.

Posted by bendan at 01:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 07, 2006

Why I Love Colombia

I remember a year ago during my first trip to South America, when my friends and i crossed the border from Ecuador into Colombia. There was a shared moment when our breath caught and we looked to each other. Spelled out in our eyes was the same sentiment, a recognition. We didn't even have to say how we'd felt everything change. In the crisp air, there was a spark, a current that wasn't there before. our eyes opened wider, the skin on my head tingled, and expectant smiles burst forth.

On our first bus ride was from Pasto to Popayan, the supremely confident bus driver piloted his machine like a demon. with practiced ease, he fearlessly passed giant lumbering semis through blind corners, while ascending steep grades. There were knife edge seconds when we missed colliding with cross traffic by scant, blessed inches. When we reached our destination unscathed, i insisted on shaking his hand, and addressed him respectfully, as "Capitan." That 8 hour journey left us breathless, somewhat frightened, and exhilarated. It also marked the beginning of my joyous ride through this beloved country.

Many voyages later, I find myself in Bogota once again. More then a year has past and i'm preparing to fly home, to leave Colombia for the second time. It's natural therefore, that i find myself thinking about this place, this nation. What's more, it happens that people keep asking me for my opinion: Other travelers, recently arrived, curious about what they should see in their few weeks here. Friends and strangers from back home, sending emails, wanting to know if it's worth visiting, if it's dangerous, if it's cheap. And the locals, honestly Interested in my conclusions. they seem fascinated that i speak spanish, that i've been all around their homeland, that I've returned for another trip, and that I'm so interested in them and their history.

It's a complicated thing to love a country that's not your own. there's the temptation to idealize it, to romanticize the foreignness, to focus only on the beautiful, agreeable parts of a culture, and to ignore the ugly, the sad, the unjust. I bear that in mind when i reply to that question, when i inevitably respond "yo quiero a Colombia," that i love Colombia.

After having spent 6 weeks here last year and more then 2 months on this trip, and after having cut a large swath through many of the regions, It's easy to answer this for myself; I have all of my experiences, conversations and adventures to think about. It's more difficult when I'm asked why. I always hear myself sounding too general, too broad; first i try and describe the countryside, how amazingly beautiful it is. And what i want to impart, what i want to conjure up but don't always manage, is this: the feeling of the hilly, jagged, roiling countryside, the colors stark and vibrant and electric (oh the flat pallor of descriptive words), like an outpouring of the soul of a land, of a country that's rarely flat, that's braided with mountains.

Here's a photo of cows sleeping on the side of the road; here's one of the sun setting over the Caribbean sea, the sky over the horizon alight in soft, pink hues; here's another of buzzards sitting regally on a red tile roof in a small town, their matte black neck feathers puffed as if they were wearing tuxedos. I took these photos while walking through "el campo," the countryside, feeling the ground beneath my feet. Still, it doesn't show, how everything here seems carved out of legends, the fecund blackness of fertile soil, the unbearably rich brightness of clouds over ridgetops, the steepness, the defiant slope of it all.

The other factor, the more important one, is that in the time that i've spent here, i've felt welcomed and wanted. That is to say, that the people aren't jaded by white extranjeros humping huge backpacks around and snapping photos; there's no common resentment. Probably it's because there are few of us, no hordes of goggling tourists. And why is that? Colombia has an awful reputation abroad. You know the stories, that it's horribly unsafe, that everyone is a drug trafficker or a kidnapper, that coming here is asking for it. And though at times it's fun to feel brave, to have people see me as daring for where I choose to travel, i must refute these untruths.

my safety equation for traveling goes like this: three quarters of staying out of trouble on a trip is using common sense. Don't walk around sketchy neighborhoods at night, don't flash your fancy camera in public, don't carry large amounts of cash. in short, don't be obvious. I'm good at this, i think. A white gringo doesn't blend in so well in Latin America, but I manage to keep a fairly low profile. The last 1/4th of the equation is luck. I've watched my back here, same as i do anywhere, and i've taken my chances with fortune. So far, i've never been robbed, stabbed, shot, drugged or kidnapped. the truth is, In this country I've never had even minor problems (and I'm superstitious, i'll admit, so knock on wood for me).

Colombians are aware of their bad rap. They know that it's hyper exaggerated and unjustified, and it bothers them. So they come up to me on the street to introduce themselves, and they welcome me, "Bienvenidos a Colombia." They are pleased that i've come, and they are as interested in me, in what i do and in how I live my life, as i am in them.

i've tried to put it another way, in talking about the people. In my time here, i have devoted seriousness and effort to learning about the culture and the recent past of this country. if i were to describe the history, especially the last fifty-odd years of it, the first word that comes to mind is "tragic."

the measure of a person and of a people is what they have had to endure. from the bloody period of "La Violencia" in the 1950's, to the intermittent instability of the sixties and seventies which engendered the guerrillas, who in turn spawned the paramilitaries, to the rise of cocaine mafias and the endemic kidnappings of the 1980's, through to all the uncertainties of the present day, it's been, as they say, a hell of a rocky road.

The reality of this, and what i want to think about the aftermath, divides me. It is impossible to deny the frustration, the sarcasm and cynicism, at what continued to vex and undermine the society: narcotrafficking, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the corrupt politicians, the lack of employment, Plan Colombia, and the recently signed Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (certain to do more harm then good for the "pueblo colombiano," in my opinion).

What i love, what I don't need to glorify because it's already evident, is that despite all the violence, corruption and instability, despite everything, the grand majority of Colombians still don't seem beaten down and trodden upon to me, not like the people i've met in other countries. i feel that they here have usurped the lay of history, rejected how by all rights you'd expect them to be, coming forth as vibrant, smart, breathing, always dancing.

Here are some more photos: 2 elderly men in a street market, bright eyed and formally dressed, walking together beneath the same umbrella in the rain. A crowd gathered around the window of an empanada shop in the early morning, everyone eating and chatting as the city tumbles to life. a "campesino" and his son, traditionally attired in colorful wool, machetes and muddy rubber boots. a group of old friends on the coast sitting in front of their favorite little bodega, drinking beer and looking at the sea. Families, young and old, strolling around a tree lined plaza at dusk, the children skipping ahead, the mother pushing a blue pram, the family dog loyal at the father's side.

I look at these photos, and want them to show more, to do justice, and i can't make them. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an experience, a travel, is worth more pictures then i can say.

Like most travelers, i love maps. I stare at them in wonder, tracing my past routes, looking in wonder at countries and continents that i have yet to discover. These shapes make my blood boil and my feet itch for movement. As a rule, i tend not to return to places I've already visited. The world is too big, and there's too much to see for repeat performances. It's sad in a way, but pragmatic. Since the idea of going back to somewhere i've been before usually chaffs, it must mean something when i say now, as my second trip draws to a close, that i know i will be back here again, probably within a year. I can feel it, the myth, the electricity. it's under my skin.

Yesterday I was talking with one of the few other Americans i've met here. Like myself, he's been bitten by the Colombia bug. The topic of our conversation had us feeling conflicted. We agreed that this country, and especially these people don't deserve the "mala fama", the infamy they've been saddled with. But we also couldn't help but feel fortunate to be able to take advantage of this. We walked along a crowded, bustling street, taking it in, merging with it. We were relishing, as I rejoice in now, and as i will revel in anew on some future day; in the scarcity of other foreigners, in the adventure, and as i've tried so insufficiently to praise, in the land, and in it's people.

Posted by bendan at 08:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 01, 2006

my trip draws to a close

i've been back in bogota for nearly a week now. after we left the coast, ina from germany, Lee and I went to San Gil in Bucaramanga. there we went river rafting, which was fun even though the river was really high and the rapids were tame. i still ensured that we all got dumped several times, good fun.


we also went to this nature reserve called the gallineral, which had the most amazing trees, their roots really looked like chicken feet, and they had this moss hanging from all the branches.


since i've been back in bogota, i've been hanging out with friends, walking around a lot, spending a lot of time in the anthropology library, eating in all the vegetarian restaurants. it's so nice, a full meal for less then 3 bucks.
i fly home in a week from today. i'm kinda looking forward to it, when i get back my good friend billy spaceman will have moved to SF, i'm planning trips to reno, to the east coast, to N.M,, to oregon, and maybe to L.A. i still have a little money saved up, and i don't want to start working until june if i can swing it.
the thing that aches is that i haven't touched a bike since i left. there's a velodrome here, i'm gonna try and visit it today, maybe turn some laps, or take photos at least.
see you soon.

Posted by bendan at 06:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack