- Long time no see
- The never ending armed conflict between the FARC and the government
- Andean food – a mix of three continents
- Rumba, Vallenato, Reggeaton, Salsa, Merengue – my first dance lesson
- Birthday party – Columbian style
- Bogota´s cultural treasures
- Birthday in paradise
I am in Panama City now, the capital of Panama, where I met my girlfriend Cecilia who I will be travelling with for the next 5 weeks! This part of the trip will be completely different from the last month, as the climate is finally tropical and I am surrounded by infinite paradise beaches and two oceans. Although it was a short stop-over, Columbia was a very intense and memorable experience and I would like to share the treasures I found in this country with you.
Long time no see
As I wrote already in the last mail on Valparaiso and Santiago, the flight to Bogota was absolutely crap! I had to puke and could not really enjoy the stunning scenery outside of my window seat. I felt quite dizzy and sick for at least two more days and the heave Columbian food was not necessarily helping with it.
When I arrived in Bogota I finally saw Nana again, a girl who came to Germany 5 years ago for one exchange year in my school. When I realized that my flight to Panama from Santiago stopped in Colombia I wrote to her and we managed to arrange everything!
5 years is a long time and we definitely needed these four days to catch up. Nana is constantly surrounded by Colombian friends and these 4 days have definitely proven that my Spanish has definitely reached the level I was aiming at, as I ended up discussing politics, history and work in Spanish in a round of ten people, not the easiest challenge considering I didn’t know how to count to 20 a month ago.
The never ending armed conflict between the FARC and the government
Most travelers avoid Colombia. The reason for this is quite obvious: negative news coverage for past 30 years. In the mid-70s, urban guerilla groups emerged who had clear political intentions and tried to compromise the legitimacy of the rulers. The peak of these insurgencies was the 1985 storming of the Colombian Palace of Justice, where more than 120 people were shot, among them a dozen Supreme Court judges.
To make things worse, Colombia became one of the world´s biggest producers of narcotics, and the money of the drug lords (the most notorious of course Pablo Escobar) was used to buy arms and sustain their own wars against the state. This has been going on for quite a while now; a conflict that has not only destabilized Colombia, but also all of the Central American countries which path the way to the drug hungry Americans, the main consumers of Colombian narcotics.
Several presidents (if they didn’t get shot before) tried to get a grip on this by negotiating cease-fires, passing a more liberal constitution, releasing imprisoned FARC fighters (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), etc. None of this worked. In 2002, Alvaro Uribe got elected, whose father was killed by these militias. He pushed through a national security plan characterized by brute force measures (sometimes questionable) which did lead to an improvement in Colombia´s security. Military is displaced along most of Columbia´s roads and the domestic war fought with heavy American machinery against the guerillas is an everyday feature of Colombian politics.
I was a little bit shocked by how even my friends avoided certain parts in the center during the day and how they just move around very very carefully. I do think that Colombia is not as bad as many think, nevertheless the war against the FARC seems impossible to win. You can kill as many as you want, as long as the Americans demand for tons and tons of drugs persists, new people will rise the ranks of the guerilla and keep on fighting the government.
Andean food – a mix of three continents
With this said, let us now come to more pleasant features of everyday Colombian life, those characteristics that are really part of the culture. My friend Nana really tried her best to make me get the proper Colombian experience. First of all, this meant one thing: comer! She brought me to several restaurants and I got to taste this very interesting mix of cuisines.
The indigenous Muiscas used to cultivate many vegetables that are part of our Western culture today, which were brought to Europe from Latin-America in the 16th and 17th century, among these potatoes, tomatoes, corn, avocadoes and bananas. All of these and many more such as the yuca root are important ingredients for the traditional cuisine. You usually get very heavy dishes, with plenty of meat (often different kinds), rice, potatoes and then an exquisite hint of ripe avocado or baked platano, which is a very big kind of banana, less sweet and only used for cooking.
Then, as in all of Latin-America, the parilla or BBQ takes over on Sundays! We went to an amazing restaurant just outside of Bogota in a lush valley. You tick a piece of paper with all the stuff you want and 5 minutes later you literally get a basket full of bbqed food, ranging from rips and chicken, to blood sausage and deep fried intestines, to fried yuca root and guacamole. Everything is shared and eaten with bare hands. Very very awesome stuff! Too bad that the capacity of my belly and the limited amount of time reduced the plates that I could taste to very few. But Nana made sure that these few were awesome!
Cumbia, Vallenato, Reggeaton, Salsa, Merengue – my first dance lesson
But what is Colombia really famous for? La musica of course! In London I never really go to clubs where they play Latino music and the reason for this is mainly that I just can´t dance it. Therefore I was very pleased when Nana told me that I would not only get plenty of chances to learn, but also a variety of “professional” Columbian women to teach me.
Music simply has another meaning in Latino-America than in Europe. These societies are quite conservative and religious in many ways, but the music expresses how sentimental, romantic, warm and sexual they are. There are at least 5 kinds of music that is composed, listened and danced in Colombia: Cumbia, Vallenato, Reggeaton, Salsa, Merengue. What I loved was that despite the clear influence of European crap-pop and house, the young people here stick to their classics and everyone, young or old, knows 100s of traditional songs by heart.
Nana said that if I am in Bogota and want to experience proper Columbian Rumba (partying) there is one place and one place only to go to: Andres. This restaurant/bar/nightclub/museum (the last is not official) is just unique. Quite outside of Bogota (although they are opening smaller ones in the city too now), a pair decided to open a restaurant where every table is different to the other, as in the decoration around the table is a strange, peculiar, artistic composition of thousands of objects and sculptures. Add to this a menu that has simply all Columbian dishes and drinks, little live bands going from table to table and a music mix that boasts the very best of all the different kinds of music.
But first warming up of course. In Colombia the national drink is Aguardiente, an anise spirit which tastes absolutely disgusting in my eyes. They do not mix it and everyone has shots all night. You might have a glass of water and some lemons, but you essentially drink shots.
We were 2 guys and 4 girls, all of which dance since they were born basically. I am pretty sure that I was the only one on the entire dance floor who did not know how to dance. But with the perfect instructions of the girls I got into it and I just loved it. Salsa, Vallenato, Reggeaton – bring it on! It´s just so much more fun to dance than the music I am used to. I mean I love going out in Europe and I love electronic music, but dancing salsa is so much more intense, varied, fun. I really loved it and I liked how everyone, young and old, was dancing to the same music and asking each other for a dance.
When I am back in Europe I definitely want to learn how to dance salsa that is one of my aims for the next years. It looks beautiful, it is so much fun and the music is just awesome!
Birthday party – Columbian style
On Friday night it was the birthday of Nati, the flat mate of Nana. I was told that we would have a house party and I kind of expected something similar to what I have experienced back in Europe. Not in Colombia.
What they do here for birthdays (as in not always, but because it´s quite cheap they do arrange it quite often) is to hire a Vallenato band for a couple of hours. They come by the house at the ordered time, set up their sound system and play Vallenato full power in the flat.
So at half past 11 these four guys come in singing happy birthday and then for 1.5 hours they played the very best of Vallenato, a music that is always, and I mean ALWAYS, about el amor and which is very traditional here in Columbia.
We were only around 15 people and the room was not that big, but for those 1.5 hours Nana´s flat turned into the most awesome club I could imagine. If the people are really into it, the group might pass one mike to the crowd for some live karaoke! Muy chevere (the word I heard most in Colombia and can be translated 1-1 with Top).
I loved it, it was just a birthday like I had never seen or heard of before. I imagined this in Italy, England or Germany: the police would know on the door after 10, 5 and 1 minute (respectively). Here: nothing. Nati loved it and I will not forget this, just awesome!
Bogota´s cultural treasures
I did not only drink, dance and eat though… With Nana I also visited the Gold Museum, which tells the entire history of metal production (especially gold) with a focus on what is Columbia today. I find it amazing how these tribes managed to produce beautiful golden artwork as soon as 9000 BC, a time when in Europe they probably didn’t even know what metal was. Especially what they produced with a very complicated and sophisticated method using wax matrixes astonished me with the beauty of the crafted objects.
The museum also told the significance of all of the symbols. These tribes believe in an underworld (rats, snakes, basically everything that lived in the soils), and intermediate world (occupied by humans) and a divine upper world (birds, the sun, gods). The chief of the villages was a mediator between the upper world and humans, which is why they always wore shiny gold (reflects the sun rays). It was very interesting and the amount of objects in that museum was astonishing.
Later, we headed to the National Museum which is located in a former prison. It collects historical objects, such as the uniform of Simon Bolivar or paintings depicting the history of Colombia. I was surprised by how modern all these museums were, comparable to European ones, which is usually not the case in developing countries. Moreover, they are all for free and often with free guided tours too. Top stuff really.
And last but not least we headed to the Catedral de la Sal with Juanca, a really nice friend of Nana´s. During the creation of the Andes, a dried salt lake was pushed together into the shape of a hill. Today, this salt mountain is used for salt production and for religious purposes. They basically digged a via cruces and a huge cathedral into the mountain. It looks really impressive, however, it is completely over-commercialized and at every corner in the cathedral they try to get some money out of you. It was nice to see, but it will not be one of the things I will remember of Columbia, considering how awesome the comida and rumba is.
Birthday in paradise
Cecilia and I actually managed to meet up. I had to use all the Spanish I learned to convince the immigration to let me into the country without an onward ticket.
Panama City is completely different from what I expected. It looks more like Hong Kong than Lima or Bogota, really weird. But it is also distinctly Caribbean, which I will just love.
So tomorrow is my birthday. The plan is to head to the San Blas Archipelago, 2.5 hours in a 4×4 through the jungle northeast of Panama City. It is inhabited by the Kuna, an ethnic group with plenty of autonomy and a distinct culture. It looks absolutely breath-taking, paradise. As I said already many times, paradise that not have internet, therefore I will not be available for my birthday and will write again once back in the cities.
Hasta luego viejos