short walks from bogota: journeys in the new colombia
In Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia, I travel the length and breadth of Colombia painting a vivid portrait of one of the most maligned, yet least understood countries in the world.
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The Colombian government claims to have won its ‘war on terror.’ The FARC guerrillas have been pushed back into the remotest mountains and jungles. Kidnapping and murder rates are a fraction of what they were in the 1990s. For the first time in 20 years, Colombians feel safe to travel between the big cities, and to invest at home what they long invested in Miami. Long regarded as a near narco-state, Colombia’s tourist board now assures visitors that ‘Colombia es pasión’, and that ‘the only risk is that you’ll want to stay.’
Much of this change of fortune is down to ex-president Alvaro Uribe, who stood down in 2010 after eight years in power. His ‘hard hand, big heart’ policies struck a populist chord with Colombians desperate to live free from the threat of kidnap, robbery and extortion.
To his defenders, he restored the good name of a proud country. To his critics however, he is a tyrant and an American stooge whose ‘democratic security’ policies were cover for collusion with drugs traffickers and paramilitary death squads.
With a handful of questions, I wandered from the Amazon jungle to the Caribbean coast, crossing deserts and delving into barrios across Colombia. Those I met along the way bring to life the hidden wars and fragile peace of a country that finally seems to be emerging from years of violent introspection. They talk of the guerrilla war that has been slow-burning since 1964 and the vicious paramilitary backlash that is only now coming to an end.
But Colombians are anything but hopeless. In fact, they rank third on the Happy Planet Index. Their country is the most bio-diverse in the world, with boundless potential as a food exporter, clean energy producer and tourist destination.
Interest in Colombia has long been confined to fans of true crime stories, human rights activists and runaway narco-tourists. But no longer: in the decade to come, Colombia seems certain to come into its own. In turn shocking, funny and fascinating, Short Walks from Bogota combines history and reportage with the best of travel writing to bring Colombia to life.
Extracts from 'Short Walks from Bogota':
Extract from Chapter 8, ‘NN: No Name.’
The head of the local association for the disappeared was Teresa Castrillón, a middle-aged woman with deep-set eyes, who I met at the town cemetery the following morning. MORE
She wore rosary beads and a small, worn wooden cross around her wrist. Over the past twenty-five years, Teresa’s mother, uncles and nephews had all been killed or disappeared. Her father and brother had been killed together. She read out their names from the list of the murdered and disappeared that had been painted on the wall of the cemetery. ‘Julio Sierra Taborda, killed on 13 February 1985. Jesús Sierra Taborda, killed on 12 December 1984. María Ovidia Taborda, killed on 10 November 1988 … ’
The list had been painted in a mock-parchment style in shades of brown, complete with cracks in the margins of a curling scroll. I tried counting the names, but there were too many. I did a rough calculation: there were thirty names in the first column and seven columns, which meant that over 210 people had been murdered or disappeared in Puerto Berrío since 1985. The population of the town was 6,000 – perhaps 8,000 if you included the outlying farms.
Most of Teresa’s family were cattle farmers. Perhaps they had been targeted because they owned land coveted by other landowners? But why would anyone have wanted to kill her husband? He had worked in the local bank – perhaps he’d been killed because he was a member of the bank workers’ union? Or perhaps he’d turned down somebody’s application for a bank loan? His killer’s motive was as much of a mystery as the location of her husband’s grave. Teresa was resigned to the fact that she would probably never find answers to any of her questions.
What was beyond dispute was that her dead relatives were not the ‘collateral damage’ of Colombia’s ‘war on terror’. The last guerrillas in the Magdalena Medio had been driven out in the early eighties. The last of the critical journalists, teachers and trade unionists who might have been suspected of collaborating with them had either left or been killed a long time ago too. In these parts, at least, Colombia’s dirty war was over. But the tactics devised to fight that war had since been adapted for day-to-day business practice. They might be used to secure a building contract, drive down the asking price for a farm, or extort money from the owner of a supermarket. Terror had become a last resort in all kinds of disputes.
I asked Teresa if she knew who was responsible for killing her relatives. ‘I see them all the time,’ she said. ‘They were the men in sunglasses that you saw lounging outside the café earlier today. They’re the ones on the big motorbikes that always get waved through the Army’s checkpoints on their way back from the finca at Quebrada El Suan. Everyone knows that it’s a paramilitary base.’
There was little trace of indignation in her voice. Although Teresa had long since given up hope of seeing the killers brought to justice, when President Uribe passed the Justice and Peace laws in 2005, she thought that the demobilization of the paramilitaries would at least bring some peace to Puerto Berrío. The fighters of the local AUC front turned in their weapons and prepared to be ‘re-inserted’ into civil society. The government paid them a monthly stipend to tide them over while they looked for legal work. Some signed up for courses in computer science, catering or bricklaying. Others owned and drove most of the taxis in Puerto Berrío.
But the law of supply and demand ensured that the killings went on. On the second of the three days that I spent in the town, a teenager was shot and killed by local vigilantes for selling marijuana. Teresa told me that for a week of the previous month, bodies had been showing up on a daily basis. People whispered about the new paramilitary groups that had risen from the ashes of the old, under the relatively innocuous name of bandas criminales – criminal groups.
A friend of Teresa was on her way out of the cemetery. She’d been laying flowers on her husband’s grave. ‘If God wants it, you have to go,’ she said languidly.
Extract from Chapter 9, ‘From Valledupar to the Cape.’
‘One dark night, Francisco el Hombre was riding his donkey home, playing his accordion, when, from under a big tree at the side of the road, he heard the sound of another accordion. MORE
As Francisco got closer, he saw that it was the Devil himself, playing like a virtuoso. The Devil challenged Francisco to a duel and they set to playing. After a while, the Devil looked like winning. Afraid of what the Devil might do to him if he won, Francisco had no choice but to get down on his knees and pray. Hearing the Lord’s Prayer, the Devil fled back down to Hell.’
Such was the world that ‘the most famous of all vallenato accordionists, Francisco Moscote, later known as Francisco el Hombre’ lived in. It was a name I had heard before, since he makes several appearances in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
‘People were very credulous back then,’ said Tomás, the vallenato historian I was sharing a bottle of rum with. ‘The best drummers used to carry the head of a woodpecker in their pockets as a charm to help them play better. Some of them would make their drums from the hide of a black dog because they thought it had magical powers.’
Anyone from the developed world unconsciously guards the boundary between fact and fiction, myth and reality; but Tomás, an educated and erudite costeño, was more circumspect. ‘My father knew Francisco El Hombre,’ he said. ‘He met him in Atanques in about 1925. People told the story of his duel with the Devil even after he died in 1945, by which time he was over one hundred years of age.’
Robert Johnson, the Mississippi guitarist who is credited with pioneering the blues, was also said to have duelled with the Devil. But when Johnson realized that he was being outplayed, he didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He sold his soul in exchange for the Devil’s talent. Blues was the music of lost souls: the Devil’s music. But vallenato’s best-known practitioners never claimed to have sold out to the Devil. They admitted defeat, kept their souls intact and contented themselves with their less than diabolical talents.
Given the choice between the Devil’s music and that of the good Christians of Valledupar, I preferred the blues. It might have been wretched, but it was also raw, whereas vallenato – or at least its modern incarnation – had always struck me as being worryingly wholesome, like the music played on American radio stations before people cottoned on to the dirty rhythms of rock ’n’ roll. It was upstanding, defiantly old-fashioned, and reassuringly Colombian.
But just when I was ready to write off Francisco El Hombre as a chicken-hearted goody-two-shoes, I stumbled on a second, less upstanding version of his story. By this account, Francisco wasn’t just a master of the accordion, but also its discoverer, having found a squeezebox in the treasure chest of a ship that had sunk off the Caribbean coast. This accordion gave him the power to bring the dead back to life. Every man wanted to drink with him and every woman was driven mad with longing by his songs. When Francisco moved on to the next village, those left behind would swear that they had seen him at the crossroads at midnight, exchanging his soul with the Devil.
My favourite version of the story however was an amalgam of the good and bad Franciscos, according to which no deal was ever struck. The Devil had indeed tried to drag Francisco to Hell, but he had saved himself by offering Old Nick a swig from the bottle of rum he was carrying. The Devil knocked off the bottle in one go, and staggered back to Hell, drunk and alone, never to return.
Aside from the remnants of magic and myth, something else that had struck me about vallenato was the absence of female voices. It wasn’t just that women were barred from taking to the microphone. Having commandeered the stage, the man on vocals seemed to spend much of his time singing about the treachery of women and the stoic resignation of the men they left behind. Vallenato delighted in the expression of male heartbreak. When I first heard them, vallenato lyrics had seemed the epitome of noble selflessness, but in time, they came to seem a front for self-pity, and even faintly menacing.
‘Vallenato is pretty masculine,’ Tomás said with a sagacious nod of the head. ‘Men have always dominated Latino culture. Traditionally, women were for bearing and raising children, and they were expected to be submissive. But there have been some good female accordionists. Rita Fernández played the accordion well. And of course, at the turn of the twentieth century Armina Vásquez was up there with the best of them.’
Tomás caught himself and smiled. We had finished the rum and he was getting lost in lore. It was time for bed. I’ll say one thing for vallenato, though. While it was always sentimental and often sad, it had no room for existential angst. The juglares del vallenato didn’t allow their despair to stray from the province of love. Colombia’s music, like its people, was never hopeless, which was a sentiment that had quickly come to seem a western luxury.
Extract from Chapter 10, ‘The Emerald Cowboy.’
Eishi Hayata is an esmeraldero,and was until recently one of the most powerful men in the emerald business.MORE
He is also the only foreigner to have made it big in Muzo, the humid village in the mountains of Boyacá, sixty-five miles northwest of Bogotá, from whose seams 80 per cent of the world’s emeralds are hewn. When I’d tried to track Eishi Hayata down in 2001, I was told that he was in Hollywood, hawking around a script of his life story. Since then I had seen no trace of him – until the day I happened to be in the office of a professor at the Universidad de los Andes and saw a poster for Emerald Cowboy on the wall. The professor told me that he was a good friend of Eishi Hayata – I was in.
In the interim before we were due to meet, I went online to see what I could find out about Emerald Cowboy. Apparently, the Japanese emerald don had approached Jason Priestley to play the part of himself, but the BeverleyHills 90210 actor had turned the script down. Eventually, tiring of looking for backing in Los Angeles, Eishi decided to make the film himself. He named himself as executive producer, and even took the lead role, at least in the present-day sequences. I was impressed by his verve, but I hadn’t seen the end result. The New York Times had – and wasn’t. Its reviewer wrote, ‘Emerald Cowboy must surely occupy a unique place in film history as the most solipsistic film ever made … The movie is crushingly mundane and is unlikely to attract any audience beyond close relatives.’ No matter: I was looking for somebody who could tell me more about Colombia’s emerald miners, not a film-maker.
Although most bogotanos were now winding down for the Christmas holidays, the emerald traders along the Avenida Jiménez were still huddled under the awnings of the shops around Plaza del Rosario, carefully unwrapping squares of white paper to inspect the tiny stones inside. They held them to the light with tweezers, searching for imperfections and the highly prized dark-green ‘garden’ at the heart of every stone.
I threaded my way through the crowd of buyers and sellers thronging the pavement outside the Henry Faux building and took the lift, a scrupulously maintained brass-trimmed relic from the 1950s, to the fifth floor. Eishi Hayata’s office was behind a reinforced steel door at the end of a long, echoing corridor. I knocked as loud as I could and a small eye-level panel in the door slid back. A large, impassive face appeared close to my own. I told its owner my business; he gestured for me to wait and slid the panel shut. A moment later, the door opened and I was ushered into an adjoining room.
I could hear steam hissing from an urn in the kitchen that filled the air with the sweet aroma of eucalyptus tea. Eishi Hayata was sitting at the dining table, which had been cleared of lunch, looking out of the window at the street below. He was wearing a dark blue suit that had grown shiny with age and wrap-around Armani shades. When he took them off, his eyes struck me as being at once expressionless and slightly child-like. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it back over his head. It was still thick and black and looked unwashed.
He told me that it was the day before his seventieth birthday. ‘No be a stupid proud, but I think I can say that I am one of the last adventurers in this world,’ he said brightly. ‘But not now,’ he said with a derisive flick of his fingers. ‘Now there is no adventure. Maybe only killing – but that’s not adventure.’ I recognized the quick, impatient gestures: he had been in Colombia for a long time.
See also twenty things you probably didn't know about Colombia.