Endless emerald green rolling hills and majestic mountains of the Andes were my hypnotising reward for the hours upon days spent bussing around southwest Colombia. Then the salsa – there’s a reason Colombians have a reputation for knowing how to have a good time. And the people are so warm and friendly – this here comment coming from a Kenyan. Strangers greet strangers on the street with a smile, jolly bus drivers holler at each other, there’s a happy vibe even though they know their government is screwing them over. It is so heart-warming for a lonely solo traveller when a random shopkeep calls you “mi amor” or when people hop on the village bus and cheerily greet all passengers with a “buenos días!” Also, it’s really fun to be addressed as “chica” or “mamí” 😉
Some thoughts on Bogotá, a sprawling city of 8 million inhabitants. The inequality in this cold city is so drastic that middle and upper class people may never come in sight of the majority of Bogotá’s poorer population, and tourists definitely won’t. My new and dear friend, Gustavo, and I decided to spend a day at Parque Entre Nubes (‘Park in the Clouds’), which is located in south Bogotá – where the rich people never go. Up until then I had been wondering why Colombia was classified as a “developing” country. It took us a couple of hours changing public buses to get into the heart of the ‘real’ Bogotá. If you’ve visited Bogotá as a tourist, yes, there is a huge homeless population in Bogotá; yes there are shanty informal settlements; yes there are many hidden people who struggle to survive in this prosperous city. The park itself was absolutely beautiful, with sweeping views of the city.
With such a huge population in Bogotá, peeps gotta hustle. The informal sector is so innovative – street performers for example. When the traffic lights turn red, performers will walk in front of the stopped cars and start twirling hoola hoops or juggling balls, and once the lights turn green they will stroll past the cars for donations. Another trick at the red lights is for sellers to place their goods in the drivers’ hands for them to look at, running back to grab them, or cash payment, when the lights switch to green. Then there are the good old musicians performing in buses for tips.
I also noticed that people beg at restaurants, rather than on the street with pedestrians or at car windows – which is an interesting idea. I have a feeling that a lot of restaurant owners back home in Nairobi would rudely tell beggars to leave or ask security to get rid of them – whereas in Bogotá, the restaurant owners usually do give a little something of food or cash.
Some other experiences in Bogotá included:
Visiting the Museo Botero, painter of fat people and fat horses and fat fruits. My fave was the fat Mona Lisa. Google it – can’t include a photo for copyright reasons.
Beyond Bogotá were many more surprises. One was noticing a sex shop on every other street corner in all the cities! Then, in Cali, I was unwittingly pulled into a crazy street performance in the middle of busy Cali highways (you can spot me at 1:17 if you look hard, and at the end). In Salento, I drank freshly roasted coffee (as fresh as it gets, off the farm that morning) at a lush green finca. And throughout the trip, I managed to pull off basic Colombian salsa, bachata, merengue, salsa choke and salsa romantica on the dancefloor.
I knew visiting the Atlantis commune would be an interesting experience, given their history of ‘scream therapy’, and their crazy origins of an Irish woman who travelled across oceans and countries with her tiny kids depending on luck and goodwill for survival. To be honest, it was not my favourite couple of days – they could do with a lot more peace and love on that farm. More about Atlantis soon when I write about the various alternative communities that I have visited..
My favourite place in Colombia was the little Afro-Colombian village of San Cipriano:
Exploring the Colombian Amazon was a true jungle experience, complete with giant spiders (eek!), anacondas, carnivorous turtles, manatees, pink dolphins, and monkeys.
One island we visited called Puerto Alegría made me feel quite uncomfortable, coming from a country where our animals run wild and free, and zoos are a taboo. On Puerto Alegría, animals are captured from their natural habitat in the jungle by the locals, and put on display on a wooden platform for tourists, who can hold the sloths, monkeys and baby caiman crocodiles. The sloths cling miserably to the walls of the wooden platform and the colourful toucans and parrots strut around due to their clipped wings, pecking at piles of rice, while the carnivorous turtles look on. There was a wildcat (ocelot?) on a leash that tourists could post for photos with – I did some spying and realised that this fierce creature was kept in a tiny cage when not out for tourist photos. On the other hand, the locals needs to make money, and there’s no other way that tourists would be able to see all these rare animals that hide in the jungle. There needs to be a better way! How about jungle walks to spot the animals in their natural habitat?
Dispelling a few stereotypes about Colombia:
- Drugs are more taboo in many circles than you’d expect – I was even cautioned against wearing my Bob Marley bandana (with a weed symbol on it) out of respect. Colombia has had a long and bloody history, and drugs have played an integral role in the conflicts. Pablo Escobar is not the hero portrayed in the Narcos TV series, he’s a villain that people think very lowly of. Drug trafficking through Colombia mostly ends up in the US, the largest global cocaine consumer.
- Far from any danger, I have felt extremely safe in my Colombian travels so far. Of course, a solo female traveller must always keep her instincts sharp and wits about her, but Colombia is generally a place of friendly, welcoming, fun-loving people who want peace, justice, and to have a good time in life!
- Colombian food is just not spicy enough. Since coming here, I have not tasted any real chilli! And surprisingly, given Colombians’ love of meat, I have found a good number of excellent vegan restaurants, my fave being La Cocinita Verde, ‘The Little Green Kitchen’ – ogle at some food porn of juicy burgers here.
Trains of thought – the inner journey
During my month in Colombia, I had some realisations about my fear of commitment to a stable norm, and escapist tendencies to ensure I don’t get too used to a stable life in case it gets whisked away – thus one of my reasons for Throwing my Stable Life to the Winds to head off on this backpacking trip of spontaneity. I have been reading the Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle) and gradually realising that we can find peace and joy right now, wherever we are, in whatever situation – you don’t ‘need’ anything, whether it’s material possessions, a prestigious career, a stable relationship, or indeed an exciting life of travel. (That being said, I will still continue to take any and every opportunity to travel till I die!)
Another thought thread that I have been exploring is: Perhaps I am us. You are me. We are all one. I have been thinking about the vibrating atoms that make up the entire earth, connecting us to the air to each other – perhaps we are all one being. Currently a self-destructive being due to the human elements that are misbehaving, but we need not be. The search and questions go on.
A Colombian Playlist for you
And finally, a post about Colombia would not be complete without sharing some hot Latin music. Enjoy, and get ready to notice your booty inadvertently shaking…
- Bomba Estereo (Colombian slang for “bad-ass party”), my new fave Colombian band, from the capital Bogotá. They play “electro tropical” or “psychedelic cumbia,” great dance beats. Check out Somos Dos, Que Bonito (my fave) and Soy Yo (fun video about a misfit kid, and she just don’t give a f***)
- Totó La Momposina, an indigenous Afro-Colombian woman from the Colombian Caribbean with a powerful and hypnotising voice. El Pescador is her most famous song, and you may recognize some tunes in her Curura.
- Louis Towers, an Afro-Colombian rastaman with some chill sounds
- Palenke Soul Tribe, an Afro-Colombian electronic group. I just like this one: El Makako
- Choc Quib Town, an amazing Afro-Colombian hip-hop group. Too many good songs. Some of my favourite include Somos Pacifico, Pescao Envenenao, De Donde Vengo Yo, and San Antonio
- Good old romantic Juanes, with his classics Volverte a Ver and La Camisa Negra. He grew up during the reign of druglord Pablo Escobar during which time he lost close friends and relatives. In A Dios Le Pido, you can really feel the suffering of his country and his hopes for a better future. Juanes is also an activist against landmines and for landmine victims.
- Carlos Vives and his “land of oblivion” – La Tierra del Olvido.
Signing out for now,
Your solo backpacker.
See you in Peru!