Friday, 17 July 2009

Total Recall In Bogota

Colombia has a fairly negative image, not helped by Hollywood. You think of this country, and images of a charged-up Al Pacino spring to mind: a faceful of white powder and a frightening arsenal of weapons. The other negatives concern Pablo Escobar and his legacy. Cocaine. Kidnappings. Murder.

The name Bogota had been filling me with apprehension, bordering on dread, for a month. I'd agreed to meet my best mate up there, as he hadn't been prepared to swap summer in London for winter in Argentina. Can't blame him. I was expecting mayhem outside the airport to rival that of Manila...or worse. And the Chinese Whispers of traveller's tales weren't helping. I think half these stories are either untrue or inflated most of the time, but I heard a couple which curdled my blood and had happened to the people I spoke to. Allegedly.

One concerned a fellow who'd befriended (he thought) a couple of local lads and lasses in Medellin. He frequented the same bar for a few nights, and thought nothing of accepting a lift to another club with the guys one balmy evening. It was only when he jumped in the car that he realised the girls had gone, and two strangers were in their place. Sandwiched in the rear seat, he got more than a little nervous. Driven through a dodgy barrio to a patch of wasteland, he was verbally abused and told to hand over everything. He complied, but started to make mental notes of his assailants' facial features and dress. One of the men turned to him and said "Señor...if you wish to keep your eyes, do not look at me." From that moment on, until he was dropped back at the main road, he studied the floor. Wisely.

A cousin of one traveller I encountered was robbed 3 times on his trip. He left one bar and was floored from behind by a trio who knocked him unconscious and almost stripped him to find his valuables. Dazed, shirtless and bloody, he wandered back to the bar he'd left to call the police. The bar owner laughed when he saw him, shook his head and pulled a large binliner full off spare clothes from under the bar. Happens all the time, he told him.

Then there's the Millionaire's Tour. This involves being kidnapped, sometimes by bogus police, who take you around the town's ATMs while you generously empty your bank accounts to avoid death. Or torture. Or being tortured to death.

The Polish couple I met in Java had an incident here, when a man approached them in the street and pulled out a knife. He picked on the wrong guy. His girlfriend told me "My boyfriend handled it quite well...he picked up a chair from outside a cafe and smashed it over the guy's head." Good work, mate.

The reality of Bogota is somewhat different from the place these stories and characters conjured. The airport is a calm place, and there were no dodgy people anywhere to be seen. Getting an official cab was easy, and I even had one of the aircrew give me her number on the way out of the terminal. Doesn't happen on Easyjet. Welcome to Colombia, indeed.

We arrived in the Candelaria district, the old part of town, and found our hostel. Down a quiet street, there were plenty of dodgy characters about here. It's a poor area, and the hostel owners told us to be wary on the streets, especially at night; tourists are regularly mugged. I decided it best to keep money and cards in the Y-fronts I'd bought specifically for South America...if a thief's prepared to go down there for my cash, then good luck to him. Wouldn't be hard for the police to track him down, either...look for the local with a scabby hand.

The area's fairly bohemian, and there were a few decent places to eat and drink, notably El Gato Gris (the Grey Cat) which did the best food I tasted. It's a cheap city, and a beer rarely costs over 60p. Which pleased Garfield, my sidekick of some years, when he turned up a couple of nights later. Quite surreal to see him walk in after being apart 9 months. And good to have safety in numbers for this part of the trip; we'll number four when Speckled Jim turns up in a week.

We headed out one night with a few girls from the hostel. The bars were shutting as we arrived, we'd wrongly assumed a few would be open til the small hours. Street people scuttled out of the shadows, offering us guidance. You've not seen homeless people like these...they're fucking scary. Smackheads. Crackheads. Scars. Glass eyes. And that's just the women. One toothless man accosted us "I am not a bad guy. I can help you. I am not one of the bad guys." Garfield quipped that he looked like an extra from Arnold Schwarzennegger's Totall Recall. I suggested he'd be too scary-looking. A moaning man with half an arm kept grabbing me. I disentangled myself, musing that maybe he was expecting me to stump up some cash? A cackling woman wandered after us as we made our escape, shouting that she knew a good bar for us. Maybe next time, love. I shook my head in disbelief as one of the girls took out her camera and started snapping away...this was just asking for it. Time to leave, and we decided on a taxi back for safety. Rightly so, as two of the lads had been robbed at knifepoint that evening by two youths who'd jumped off the back of two scooters and put blades to their throats. The Irishman was shaken up, but Rolly, a young English lad, had found it exciting...and explained he'd been robbed in every country in South America. Being quite posh and with ruddy cheeks, it was hardly suprising...I don't think he could walk through Kensington without getting mugged.

So I wouldn't say don't go to Bogota. Just be aware that you are a target, and adjust your behaviour accordingly. You can't afford to drop your guard for a minute, especially in Candelaria. Lose concentration briefly, and you might lose a little more than you bargained for...


Richard said...

Am reading Cocaine Train by Stephen Smith at the moment. This English bloke following his grandfather's trail through Colombia. It's pretty interesting and covers a few truths about life in Medillin, Cartagena and Bogota etc.

Check it.

old8oy said...

Sounds good, mate. You read Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden? A great book. There's another called My Colombian Death I need to look out for...