Athens of the South

One hundred and seventeen foreign volunteer English teachers in my program have just finished our ten-day orientation in Bogotá and been scattered to the Colombian winds.  

Some have flown off to major cities like Medellin, Barranquilla, or Cali.  Many have been sent to smaller cities like Tunja or Valledupar.  Some have been put on buses to tiny rural villages that rarely see foreigners, let alone ones come to live among them and work in their schools.  I am assigned to Bogotá, the capital, which lies on the high Sábana de Bogotá plateau in the Eastern Cordillera of the northern Andes Mountains.

Two British friends and I have decided that today we are going to climb Monserrate.  At almost twice the altitude of the already high-altitude metropolis, it looms over Bogotá among the mountain peaks that border the city to the east. A winding trail makes its way up the side of the mountain along with a cable car and funicular railway to the top.  Anyone can decide how easy or how difficult they want the climb to be.

Today we have chosen the hard way.

Almost as soon as we start the climb Ellie starts complaining of feeling lightheaded and dizzy.

“It’s hard to breathe,” she says, taking little gasping fish breaths.  Zoey looks at her with concern, holding Ellie’s arm as she leans against the low retaining wall on the side of the trail.

“We don’t have to do this today,” I say.  “The mountain isn’t going anywhere.”

“No,” Ellie says. “I’m fine.”

It is a mantra she will repeat over and over as we climb the unbelievable trail.  The path is never flat, often steep, and made of large uneven paving stones that threaten to twist your ankle with every wrong step.  Along the side of the trail vendors have set up shop, hawking water and sugary drinks and little bags of chips or peanuts or candy.  Twice we pass through what could almost be little villages hanging off the side of the mountain.  Improvised lean-to’s provide shelter for outdoor grills and plastic chairs.  Empanadas, arepas and heartier dishes are being served.  You could just as easily stop to eat and take in the view as continue the shin-tearing climb up the mountain.

Almost as soon as you begin to climb, you can see how high up you are going to be.  When you reach the trailhead you are already at roof height of several of Bogotá’s downtown skyscrapers.  At the many viewpoints you can see the city spreading out below you under the gray mountain skies like a red brick sea.  Colombia’s cities, seen from above, always seem to glow with the dull red ochre of its ubiquitous brick buildings.

Seen from above, Bogotá is immense.  It climbs into the steep hills along its eastern and southern edges, and spreads out north and west into suburban and industrial sprawl.  One of the largest and most developed cities in South America, with a population of around eight million people, Bogotá is a thriving metropolis.  It is thoroughly modern, from the shiny nouveau riche north side to the buzzing cosmopolitan centro to the poor neighborhoods of the south.  And as the gateway to Colombia and South America, Bogotá is keenly aware of its status as a world capital.

In the centro, closer to Monserrate, tall buildings poke out of the red brick ocean like weird extraterrestrial spires.  The enormous tower of BD Bacatá looks the most alien of all, with its bizarre angles and protrusions that seem to have been built just to make it reach that little bit higher.  It is the tallest building in Colombia at 246 meters and second tallest in South America behind the 300-meter Gran Torre of Santiago, Chile.  Begun in 2011, Bacatá is still under construction and scheduled to be finished in 2017.  

These are interesting times in Colombia.  The government has recently signed a peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, the largest and most well-known of the guerrilla military-political groups in the country.  The peace deal puts to an end, at least with one group, an internal armed conflict that for the last fifty years has racked the Colombian countryside and sometimes its major cities.  The infamous drug cartels of Colombia have long since been brought to heel and cocaine production is a fraction of what it once was during the turbulent anti-narcotics wars of the 1980’s and 90’s.  Everything that has given Colombia such a bad reputation in the international press for so many years is beginning to fade into the background.

That isn’t to say any of it has gone away completely.  Guerrillas and paramilitaries are still very much a presence in the further-flung regions.  While the FARC may be disarming, the country’s second largest guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), is still active in the south.  More peace talks are underway but progress is slow.  Even the peace deal with the FARC barely made it to approval.  The first version was voted down in a national plebiscite by just 51 percent.  The second version, weighing in at 300 pages, featured many more concessions by the FARC and had to be hustled through the National Assembly in an rapid and much-criticized process.

I remember watching on the news as Colombia’s (and one of the world’s) most significant peace processes in the last century was being brought to conclusion.  Pictures of smiling officials from both sides shaking hands, signing documents, even embracing were splashed across the front pages of newspapers and evening newscasts all over the world.  Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s current president and instigator of the process that lead to the final accord, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

In Bogotá and other cities, enormous marches for peace were held.  Tens of thousands of people filled the streets, chanting “La paz” and “Si” for the peace accords.  Buildings lit up their windows saying with giant block letters reading “Si.”  When I arrived months later for the English program, I saw apartment windows still emblazoned in masking tape with big faded letters spelling out the Spanish word for yes.

Although approved by Congress, the process of implementation of the peace accords has proven just as messy as writing and getting them passed.  For just one example, disarming guerrillas have been arriving in designated concentration zones just to find that the government’s promise of temporary housing and basic infrastructure for reintegration into society has gone rather unfulfilled as of yet.  Like with many things in Colombia, people have had to take the situation into their own hands.  

The other morning I listened to a radio story about a restaurant in Medellin that was sponsoring demobilized FARC guerrillas to come work in its kitchen for de facto job training.  The reporter mentioned how one of the regular cooks was an ex-soldier who had his leg blown off by a guerrilla mine.  I had a vision of two old veterans, kitchen knives in hand, staring at each other across a shining stainless steel prep table and across sides of a conflict and across battle lines that went back fifty years and then back again to the time of independence and then back again to the day that Spanish galleons first landed on the virgin beaches of what we now call Latin America.

Will those two sides in Colombia’s ancient conflict use their knives on each other?  Or will they bend to chopping vegetables and figure out how to put the past behind them?  Time will tell.

I cannot pretend to have a firm grasp on the history and politics of Colombia.  Since the times of Spanish invasion and colonialism to the wars of independence waged by Simón Bolívar and General Santander and so many others to the liberal-on-conservative conflicts of the 19th and 20th century to the drug wars and domestic conflict that led into the 21st, the story of Colombia is often described as “turbulent.”

The word is far from adequate.  

From the moment you step off the plane at Bogotá’s El Dorado international airport you are confronted with a history that is still very much alive.  Main streets, thoroughfares and barrios are named after famous heroes and martyrs of the revolution and Colombia’s many wars.  Some are even named after famous dates, resulting in the curious Latin phenomenon of neighborhoods with names like “19th of July.”  Statues of Bolívar, the Liberator, feature at the center of what seems like almost every public park in Colombia.  The rest have busts and statues of other notable personages.

After the airport you board the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s ill-fated and unpopular rapid transit bus system masquerading as a metro rail.  One of the main TransMilenio stations in central Bogotá is called Héroes.  Passing Héroes, from the bus window you see an enormous cubical block of brown stone rearing up over the carretera.  The ever-present statuary likeness of the Liberator, mounted on his trusty steed, stands before it.  On its sides are inscribed the names of all the most famous martyrs and heroes from Colombia’s history.

Even the name of the airport makes reference to Bogotá’s distant past.  A nearby lake was the source of the legend of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold.  Indigenous Muisca kings would coat their bodies in gold dust and dive into the lake, emerging symbolically cleansed.  The Spanish conquistadors, nothing if not predictable, once drained the lake in search of the legendary treasure, finding only scattered trinkets.

What the conquistadors failed to realize, and what the rest of the world is only just now waking up to, is the fact that the real treasure of Colombia is not gold or silver, not emeralds or coca leaves.  The real treasure of Colombia is its natural beauty.  Its land.  Its mountains, forests and jungles.  The deep valleys, wide eastern llanos and tropical beaches.  To the north, the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean lap at the coast of Cartagena and Cabo de la Vela.  To the west, the Pacific surges and pounds against both shimmering resort beaches and long forgotten rocky shores alike.  In the south and east, below the pinnacles of the Andes, the mighty Amazon jungle begins.

Back in the hills above Bogotá, near the top of Monserrate, Ellie looks ready to collapse.  She is breathing hard.  Her pale face is bright pink in the overcast and diffuse equatorial sunlight.  We stop every few meters to let her catch her breath.  Zoey and I feel it too.  The already thin air of the high plateau is even thinner up here at twice the altitude.  I’m dizzy and it’s getting hard to breathe.  All of us are taking shallow gulps of air.  Spots of color swirl at the edge of my vision.

Adding to the hallucinatory experience are little alcoves along the last stretch of the trail, filled with religious figures and multi-colored candles, their flames dancing in the shadows.  Gold laminant flickers and shines on the robes of the Virgin Mary, San Judas, Michael the Archangel.  Vendors hawk medallions, fresh candles and small icons to carry with youto the summit.   Overhead, the white spire of the Basilica del Señor de Monserrate reaches toward heaven.  Looking down, the world below seems to spin.

Many people climb Monserrate as a kind of penance.  Achieving the sanctuary at the peak, saying a prayer or hearing mass is said to cleanse and purify the soul.  Masochistic exercise junkies love it too.  When we finally reach the top, we collapse on some steps and watch, gasping for air, as a man in a spandex jogging outfit does sit-ups against the wall of the cathedral.

We lean on the low retaining wall and look out over Bogotá along with hundreds of tourists who crowd the wide square at the top of the mountain.  Many of them are well dressed and put together.  They did not come up the way that we did.  The long lines waiting for the cable car and railway back to the bottom attest to the far less torturous method of achieving the summit.

“We made it,” says Ellie, lifting a bottle of water to her mouth with a shaking hand.

“YOU made it,” says Zoey.  She looks relieved that her friend reached the top without having to be carried back down.

Alcanzó,” I say, and they both look confused.

“You two have got to work on your Spanish.”

They laugh and shake their heads.  Neither of them speak much Spanish.  Like so many of the volunteers, they arrived barely speaking the language.  Mine isn’t great, but after almost a year in Latin America it has improved much.  I still have a long way to go, but Colombia is the perfect place to learn.  Colombians speak the “purest” form of Spanish in Latin America, at least according to them.

This has some truth to it.

When I got off a plane from Nicaragua, where the language is half slang and made-up vocabulary and the accent is often impenetrable, I noticed right away how sharp and clear Colombian Spanish was.  At least to my ears.  I turned to a Colombian I had met on the flight and said, “I can understand people here!”  He just laughed and fired off an incomprehensible stream of verbage and left me feeling helpless and lost.

At the top of Monserrate, it would be easy to think you could see the whole country from here.  The sweeping views take in the vast expanse of the Sábana de Bogotá, though far more lies beyond the distant hills.  But the Sábana is only a fraction of Colombia, and hardly representative of the rest.  The near-impenetrable geography (three mountain ranges, two oceans, innumberable swamps, river valleys and jungles, as well as one great endless eastern plain) has for centuries kept whole regions of Colombia somewhat isolated from each other, creating a kaleidoscope of unique climate zones, regions and cultures.  

From all accouts, this is a place as unique and varied as any country could be.  People and cities and plains and jungles and strange animals and bizarre tropical fruits and all the most unusual sights and sounds and tastes and smells and feelings that any gringo adventurer could ever ask for.

The three of us gaze with wondering eyes across the city to the far hills, feeling the cold summit wind, breathing hard, bodies aching from the climb.  Beyond those hills, we imagine, lies a whole world to be discovered.

Beyond those hills lies Colombia.

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