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Leaving Colombia

5 Mar

My journey was so quickly planned that once I got to the bus station I couldn’t even remember the name of the place I was heading.

It’s name – once I remembered – was Cucuta, the most popular border stop between Colombia and Venezuela. Despite this particular recognition it’s also rarely used by travellers. An incident in which two elderly Germans were kidnapped by the terrorist group ELN in November last year has put the border crossing on a blacklist for many foreign offices. Quite why two elderly foreigners were walking around a hill in the middle of nowhere is still unknown [supposedly they will be set free in March 2013 so we can find out why then] but it has given the border a reputation.

The plan once I got to Cucuta was to take the colectivo across the border to San Cristobal in Venezuela and find out if there was any planes or buses to Caracas. Unfortunately trying to book any of these things online is a problem as it’s impossible to book a flight with less than 48 hours notice and the bus company websites are simple to say the least.


18 Feb

“I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult leading into the unknown… this has been a full, rich year. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do.”

Everett Ruess


30 Jan

It’s two weeks before Carnival starts in Barranquilla and already the city is buzzing. Surely only Christmas can rival carnival for the way it takes over an entire city. On every house there are masks hanging on the walls, coloured paper decorations strewn across the exteriors, cumbiamberos – complete with straw hats and red neckerchiefs – propped up outside. Every stereo in the city is turned up to full volume, a mixture of hard carnival-ready cumbias (from the likes of Alfredo Gutierrez and Anibal Velasquez) and Joe Arroyo’s legendary salsa pipes pounding from the speakers. Every cultural institution (of which there are many) has switched to carnival fever. If you want to go to to a museum and see something un-carnival-related you’re out of luck. Every event is adorned with the word “carnaval”! The city has only one agenda, this is holiday season, time for the big verbenas, for the fiestas, to revel in the musical offerings that Barranquilla has to give.

For a good article on what Colombia carnival is all about check out this offering from Gina Vergel: El Carnaval de Curramba: Barranquilla Carnival

Idle Chit Chat

25 Jan

“We took them down. All the leaders, all their families. We took them down. Now, there’s just one leader left. We know where he is. He’s in the West now in the mountains. We assassinated his family, one by one we took them all down. He has no-one now. That’s why he’s trying to arrange a peace deal… But, I’m tired of helping other countries. I don’t know why we have to stick our nose in, solve other countries problems. It was the same in Afghanistan. They’re crazy there. There was this one guy, he had two RPGs, AK-47s, assault rifles. We took him down. Our entire unit swarmed in, assassinated 15 or 16 of them. They didn’t stand a chance. If you’re gonna pull that kind of shit on us then we’re gonna take you down… But, I don’t like America. I don’t want to go back there, it’s grimy. The people are grimy. When I retire maybe I’m gonna come and live in Colombia.”

Small talk with US army members can be a little intense.


20 Jan

I’m sat in the food court of a shopping centre in Medellín. In front of me a woman – early 50s, pretty flowery dress, long, dark, glossy hair, pale, carefully made-up skin – is sending a message on a pink phone. Next to her is a little one-year-old, cushioned in a pink and brown pushchair that looks so ridiculously comfy I’m tempted to jump in there myself.

To my left a more elderly lady is on the phone. She has darker skin, slicked back black hair that’s greying around the temples; two reams of pearls flow around one of her wrists, a gold bracelet round the other, and a thick silver chain sits around her neck. She’s dressed in pink.

Sandwiched between these two women is a couple, both also wearing pink (there seems to be a theme). In the twenty minutes I’ve been here they haven’t smiled once. Presumably whatever’s in the three bags around their ankles isn’t enough to raise a smile.

It’s this side of Colombian life, this side of life in any country that I don’t understand. People, couples, families work hard all week – in many cases through jobs that they can barely stand and with people they will easily forget about when they decide it’s time to leave – and they reward themselves by spending their Saturdays in a shopping centre like this. They spend money on things they barely need, eat generic fast food in the food court, finding themselves stuck with only each other for company and nothing to say, and so they sit in silence.

Do they not realise they could be at a football match, walking through a forest, drinking a beer with a friend, or even making plans for more exciting adventures than “shall I buy another pink blouse today?” It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

Nuqui Festival

18 Jan

The excuse I used to visit Nuqui was the Nuqui Festival. If you want to find out what I thought about the festival check out this article at Sounds and Colours

Buenaventura to Cali

16 Jan

The difference between Nuqui and Cali could not be more pronounced. Black faces are replaced by white, wooden walls by brick, dust with concrete, health suddenly becomes an issue. The streets are alive with traffic, people walk around with a sense of purpose. I am suddenly the only person in flip flops.

One thing remains the same though, the streets are dead at night. This is the one things I always remember Cali for. After 8pm the majority of the city shuts down, the people stay in their homes and will only venture out by taxi. The only oasis’ of life are the bars which are dotted randomly and scarcely around the city. Once they close at 11pm or midnight you will be lucky to see anyone on the street, just a stream of taxis taking people from homes to clubs, and vice versa.

Nuqui to Buenaventura (Part Two)

14 Jan

Of course arriving late has it’s disadvantages. All the beds and mattresses that fill every inch of floor space in the sleeping quarters had been taken. My envy soon diminished though, as it seems as if you do have a bed you must use it constantly throughout the whole journey. For 22 hours the “bed” people rarely moved, lunch and dinner being the only exceptions.

I walked around the boat, finding new spots to watch the views, hypnotised by the waves, making notes or reading my books. Whenever I looked into the quarters all I saw was a sea of people, crammed in, sweating, barely alive. The ceiling was too low to stand up, the floor too packed to plant a leg that the only people who tried to make an exit were the toddlers; feeling a draught of cool air coming in from the deck they would make a run for the exit only to be pulled back in by a hand lurching out of the pack. Every person in that room had been transformed from person to cargo.

Night-time was the main drawback. I staked out a section of bench, just wide enough to lie down on and made it my home for a few hours. Situated next to the engine room I vibrated my way to sleep before waking half-an-hour later, uncomfortable and in pain, and then I switched sides.

We arrived in Buenaventura at 6am, 22 hours after leaving Nuqui. I spent no time in Buenaventura, getting a cab straight to the bus station. Cali would be the next place I would lay my head.

In some ways I think I should have stayed in Buenaventura for a few days but the city looked ominous. What was once an important port (pre-Panama canal) was now a scrap yard. Roads, shops, cars and people seemed to roll into one, creating a cacophony of sounds that could alert a blind man that he’s in the wrong place.

One of the main reasons I wanted to stay was to visit the Pier. It was here in 2011 that citizens and tourists gathered round to watch the tsunami hit the shore, the forewarned aftershock of what happened in Indonesia. Sitting in deck chairs, drinking beers and selling sweets, they waited for it to come. It never did, and the party was cut short. They would have to wait a while longer before something/anything came along to cleanse their city.

Nuqui to Buenaventura (Part One)

11 Jan

I’ve now officially passed part one of my pirate diploma. The boat to Buenaventura was leaving at 8am. This being Colombia, and specifically Nuqui, I presumed this meant the boat would be leaving around 8am. How wrong I was. Arriving at the embarcation point – essentially the house of Yiyo (who owned the boat) – just before 8 I saw a gaggle of people on the side of the river waving. Turning the corner to see what they were waving at confirmed my fears. The boat had left and was now beginning to power up the river. I burst through the crowd, shouting “Buenaventura”; it was half question, half letting people know that I wanted to be on that boat. The crowd started shouting “rápido, rápido” but it was unclear what I could do faster to get on a boat that was now mid-river. Then I had an idea. There was a boat a bit further down the river, harboured, it looked like it might just be jutting out into the river enough for me to use it as a gangway onto the boat. I ran down the bank, slipping in the mud, hauled myself onto the boat and ran to the end. Yiyo stood at the front of Nuquimar, the boat I wanted to be on. I looked at him for ideas. With little else he could do he called for the boat to slow down. However, there was no way it was ever going to come close enough to my boat for me to pass across.

Then I heard someone shouting at me from behind; these Colombians sure are resourceful. He gestured for me to follow him and then shouted at another Colombia, who ran over to his motor boat. I saw exactly what was happening and so suddenly, I was on the river. Within seconds we were parallel to the Nuquimar. I chucked my bags over the side, jumped up to grab the hand rail and pulled myself in. I had been told the boat to Buenaventura leaves every 15 days. This wasn’t a trip I was going to miss.

Key Stage 2 Level 3 of the pirate diploma involves taking hostages, so I’m thinking of transferring my skills – disaster management perhaps?

And Mum, before you send me an email, I am aware this probably isn’t covered by my insurance.

Nuqui In Photos

10 Jan

I’m not a big photographer. I find it distracts me from what is actually happening in front me, instead of talking to people, interacting with what’s going on, I’m hiding behind a camera, thinking about how to get a good shot. Then when I get home I look at my memory drive, fresh with 100 photos from the previous day; I copy the photos to my hard drive, but then they languish there for weeks before I get round to picking out the best ones. It’s not a greatly enjoyable or efficient process, and one I generally skip.

However, the beauty of the digital age is that there are thousands of people who like taking hundreds of photos a day, organising them and then putting them on the web for all to see.

Below are some photos of Nuqui by Luis Perez. They are not the most professional photos you’ll see, but they give you an idea of what Nuqui is all about: