Colombia, is it safe? Hell no and fuck yes and maybe and here, have a drink.

4 Dec

I came across this beautiful blog post, and since it is hosted on Myspace, and was posted in 2007, I want to reproduce it here to preserve it. The original blog post can be found here:

Sam’s brother comes for a visit. He’s twenty years older than Sam, and he’s an engineer at a nuclear power plant. His questions revolve around safety.

“I just want to be sure my little brother’s safe down here,” he says. Well, given his profession, the safety obsession makes sense.

He’s pleased to see Sam has an extended family in Bogotá, us ragtag group of expats that look after each other in such a dangerous, unseemly environment.

“So what’s the biggest risk you guys face down here?” he asks me over the pounding music in the bar.

“Honestly?” I reply, “Getting hit by a bus.”

Sam laughs, but his eyebrows go up as he heartily agrees. I’ve almost absentmindedly strolled into traffic a few times, and that’s definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. Anything else can be explained – oh, he was caught in a crossfire, gut-stabbed by a drug-addled mugger, pissed off the wrong guy in the wrong place, the grenade ignited the propane heater on the deck of the bar, these things happen – but hit by a bus while jabbering on a cell phone? Fuck me, that’s no way to go.

El Cocuy, Colombia

El Cocuy, Colombia

Everything in Colombia is a contradiction. I’m fond of saying I’m so fond of Colombia because it’s like the entire world condensed into one country. It’s a land of tremendous opportunity and limitless destruction, paradise and damnation, say what you want about the place and it’s probably accurate in some way. Nothing is true and everything is permitted, and vice versa. But everyone wants to know the same thing about Colombia:

Is it safe?

Fuck’s sake. You might as well ask, is Earth safe? Like everything else here, the answer is simultaneously: hell no and fuck yes and maybe and here, have a drink.

I just finished a book called “Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures).” It’s about three people who work for the UN during the nineties, from Cambodia to Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti and Liberia. After surviving and witnessing the worst things humanity has to offer, one of the authors ends up visiting a girl working in Valledupar, Colombia. A group of paramilitaries drop off their girlfriends to lounge by the pool at his hotel, and the sight of obnoxious bimbos waiting for their murderous boyfriends to return from a hard day’s killing nearly drives him to suicide.

Every place he’s been grimmer than the last, and it takes Colombia to nearly finish him off. All the violence and supernatural brutality the guy’s seen, and it’s a pack of Colombian tramps that pushes him to the brink. Makes sense to me. Sheer brutality will get to you, but it’s the dissonance that really fucks you up. It’s the creeping suspicion that everything, everything ever, is deeply fucked and insane and there’s nothing to be done for it but dance. Wait, how can that be right? We’re better than that. Yes? Fuck.

Last year, a university professor who was a little too outspokenly leftist, he vanishes. Months later, they find his skeleton in the park downtown, the park that goes all the way back into the mountains. Or rather, they find parts of his skeleton – a spine here, a leg there, a jaw missing all its teeth over yonder – and the police conclude with a straight face that he fell. FELL.

A group of top Colombian anti-narcotics police gets ambushed and executed by a Colombian army unit. The case bounces around in the courts because no judge is dumb enough to try it.

A sleepy college town on the border attracts juvenile thugs from all over the country. The city is overrun by teenagers with guns. The town fathers get tired of the punks running rampant, fighting, dating their daughters, so they hire paramilitaries to clean it up. The police hand over names and addresses, and paramilitaries in civilian clothes and civilian cars drive around town rounding up the punks one by one. There’s a cemetery outside of town where more than three hundred young people lie quietly buried. Problem solved.

I’m visiting an office where war refugees come for help. The UN gives the agency supplies to give to the refugees, but no aid has shown up for months, and no one knows why. The basement holds dwindling pallets of cooking oil marked as “gifts from Germany.” Families line up outside – and they look like regular people, like you and me, which shouldn’t be a surprise but somehow it is – and they fill out forms with checkboxes for the things they need. You can check the boxes for food, bedding, work, clothing, medicine, whatever, but the only thing the agency has to give you is a small bag of basic food supplies, and that’s running out.

An American girl showed up at the agency recently. She’d come to Colombia with her boyfriend, but then her boyfriend got hooked on the stuff and he’d beat her and locked her in the apartment. She escaped and, without any money or way home, went to the US embassy for help, and they sent her to the refugee agency, all made up and blond and perky. The Colombian refugees in line with her must have been baffled.

A South African woman is there. She speaks no Spanish. She’d signed up for work through a South African agency who smuggled her all the way to Colombia to work in a factory, but when she arrived, the “work” that was promised was denied because she just learned she was pregnant. It took weeks to figure out how to get her back home. She’d spent all of her money just getting here for the non-existent job opportunity. No matter which way you look at it, no part of the story makes any kind of sense, but she’s softspoken, quietly elegant, undeserving of whatever it was, and you desperately want for her to be alright.

I sit in the office and flip through the forms submitted by refugees. Half of them are fleeing from the guerrillas, half of them are fleeing from the paramilitaries, a few of them are fleeing from the Colombian army. Most of them are families, terrorized and brutalized by one or more sides of a neverending conflict. They’re fleeing their homes and ending up here for reasons that would never exist in a sane world. One man lists his reason for fleeing as simply: “wife joined the FARC.” Fuck. And you thought your divorce was ugly.

Colombian FARC child soldiers

Colombian FARC child soldiers

Or go visit a safe house for former child soldiers. Ever see a 14-year-old who’s tired of killing people? If it gets to you, no problem – an hour later, you can be drinking ten-dollar cocktails in a hot, high-tech nightclub with girls who look like supermodels and want to sleep with you.

Is it safe? Is it safe?

Borges said that to be Colombian is an act of faith. I say that’s true of just being human. But, OK, probably more true in Colombia.

The guy who sold his business and his apartment, losing everything, and just barely raised enough cash to keep from being kidnapped and killed. The couple who fled to the US after being threatened and stayed there four years, until their final appeal for asylum was denied and they were forced to return in fear. These are ones who lived.

The guy driving out in the plains with his boss until they hit a FARC checkpoint and were kidnapped. But the army was too close, and the FARC had to let some less valuable hostages go. They told the guy to take his SUV and pick up a wounded guerrilla from a nearby battlefield, and then he’d be free to go. He did, and wound up hiding on the floor of an old woman’s farmhouse while an army helicopter riddled the house with machine guns. When he finally escaped on foot, he passed a small group of grease-painted guerrillas hiding in the bush beside the road. One of them held a finger to his lips – shhhh – and a little later he ran into a large army unit, most of them scared kids. They asked if he’d seen anything. Yeah, six of them, half mile back, go get ’em, boys. A few months later, his boss was set free after a ransom was paid. They lived, but it was a little touch-and-go.

The ones who didn’t live… well. And all of this, it happens for no reason whatsoever. It’s not even like there’s a bad reason, like wars over race, religion, politics or resources. It’s simply fucked because it’s fucked because it’s fucked, which if you ask “why” deep enough is at the root of war and violence, anyway… it’s just right here on display in Colombia without excuses. Other places may have more terrible and extreme violence, but Colombia’s must be the most pure – it’s war for the sake of war in the middle of paradise. Take a hit of this and tell me, do you think humans are inherently bad or inherently good? The proper answer is: hell yes, fuck no, maybe, and here, have a drink.

Another example.

Jonah was a small-town kid in his early twenties. He spoke the best English of anyone in town. He gave classes. One day his phone rang, and a voice said: go to the bus station tomorrow morning with some clothes and little money, and be smart. Be smart, as in, do as you’re told, don’t tell anyone anything, don’t leave a note, just fucking do it. He ended up on the coast with a group of paramilitaries, acting as tour guide and translator for tourists. They told him up front that they only needed him for two weeks and then he was free to go.

But Jonah, you’d have to know him. He played guitar beautifully and was the sort of guy who’d go streaking through town just for something to do. So there he was, living out in the jungle with this group of soldiers, and all was idyllic. These guys didn’t want to fight anyone. They were all just lounging in hammocks, enjoying the quiet life. Every day, Jonah would wake up in his hammock and walk thirty feet to bathe in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall. Shit, rich tourists spend thousands for eco-tours like this. A group of hikers were kidnapped in this area in 2003, and according to what Jonah had heard, a few of them were really pissed off, a few of them scared, but a few of them had been back to visit their former kidnappers. This probably isn’t true in the literal sense, but it’s a true war story.

At the end of his two-week kidnapping, true to their word, they told him he was free to go – but they enjoyed having him and, entertainment being scarce in deepest jungle, his guitar, and if he wanted to stay, he was welcome.

He stayed for three months, until he realized his family would assume he was dead and fun is fun, but enough is enough. Of course, it wasn’t like he was able to contact people from the middle of the jungle, let them know he was OK. When he got back to town, the Colombian authorities were anxious to talk to him. They called him in for an interview every week for months. They wanted to know where he was, who he was with, what he’d seen, trying to squeeze intel out of him. Every week, he made up a completely new story. He never gave his kidnapper buddies up.

Is it safe?

If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

You hear story after story after story. Walk into a bar, every Colombian in the place has a story. Even when they’re not entirely factual, they’re still true. Magical realism didn’t come from here for no reason.

And these aren’t even the really out-there stories. Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you some stories. On second thought, if at the end you think is it safe is even a rational question, drinks are on me.

This horrorshow is ongoing, the curtain never drops and there’s no intermission.  Somebody comes out of nowhere from behind and jams a needle in your neck, just meaning to knock you out with a drug so they can rob you easier, but they miscalculate the dosage and you die right there on a filthy sidewalk. Somebody else flies an airliner into your office. Somebody else bets on the sex of your unborn grandchild, and cuts the baby out of your daughter’s womb with a machete just to see who won. Thirty thousand feet over your head right now, there may be a big blue frozen rock of urine from an airplane with your name on it. These things happen. Fuck me, that’s no way to go, either. Almost none of them are. And then what?

I’ll tell you the worst thing I’ve heard yet.

Bogotá, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

Ciudad Bolivar, they say, is the worst area of Bogotá. My Colombian friends, no sissies, they’d tell me over and over: man, you can never go there, not ever. You set one foot up there, and you’ll be lucky to walk out alive. Which, of course, just told me I had to go there.

The first time I went, I got V to hire a taxi to drive us around there. The driver carried a pistol and refused to stop anywhere. V sweated like she was running a marathon. Everything looked normal to me, though – schoolkids running around in uniforms, people working and washing clothes and walking back from the market, hardly the tin-shack shantytown with open sewers and AK-47-wielding thugs I’d been led to expect.

The next time, I did some volunteer work at a school. At least this time, I got to walk around the area and ride the bus. My contact there listed off the problems they faced, all the usual problems of poverty – broken families, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, absent parents, gangs, you name it. We had lunch with the kids, and one tiny girl sat next to me. I don’t know how old she was. Was she four? Five? I can’t remember. I drew a picture for her, and asked her to draw one for me. We sat for a half-hour taking turns drawing on the same sheet of paper. Every drawing she made, she’d insist that I draw a frame around it. Every drawing I made, she’d draw a frame around it. We passed the paper back and forth, drawing houses and animals and people.

She was so adorable and sweet and happy. I could go back to the school every day, if I wanted – maybe teach the kids English or computer science. And it would be a helpful thing for the kids. But it was impossible to look at this perfect little girl, born into the worst part of town in a country permanently fucked, where the class system is rigidly enforced, and not think: holy shit, no matter what I do, this kid will never have a chance.

Maybe that’s too harsh or too elitist or too cynical or whatever, everyone’s got a chance, and this girl’s still got it better than billions of other people… but for this child to live a life free of the poverty she was born into would take something I can’t see. I can’t look a kid like this in her oversized brown eyes, when she’s giggling and smiling a broad smile full of perfect little teeth, and she’s so polite and gentle and she leans against me for comfort, I can’t look at her and not want to protect her from everything and give her everything and see her mature and be successful and happy. I struggle to sit there and know that I’m going to walk out of her school and back to my privileged life and leave her behind in a world of shit and there’s nothing I can do, nothing that isn’t a weak stab at a colossal fucked-up system, a band-aid on a sucking chest wound… that’s the way it is, kid, some of us were born lucky and you’re just shit out of luck, better luck in the next life… how do relief workers do it, day after day?

Finally, I told her I really have to go and do some work. I had to be sure to leave Ciudad Bolivar before dark, after all.

Don’t go, she begged.

I have to, I said, it’s important.

But, she said, everyone’s always leaving me alone.

Don’t ask me if it’s safe.


One Response to “Colombia, is it safe? Hell no and fuck yes and maybe and here, have a drink.”

  1. The Sanity Inspector November 9, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    This was a delight to read, thanks so much for rescuing it from the wreck of the SS MySpace & reproducing it here. I’ve submitted it to StumbleUpon, so maybe it will get some more exposure.

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