I did have preconceptions. My head was swimming with images of Shakira and gyrating bottoms, of Pablo Escobar’s face encircled by mounds of cocaine, of angry young men holding guns, of packaged coffee. I had read the foreign office advice warning of indiscriminate terrorism attacks on public spaces and public transport and perhaps I was a little nervous. I’m sorry Colombia – I misjudged you.
I was travelling with my Colombian boyfriend Felipe, a car, a flimsy tent and two hammocks. I do admit that there were some moments of unease. Our experiences in Cartagena unnerved me a little. We arrived in this coastal colonial city at 9pm and we had been driving for eight hours. The air was thick and humid and every time we opened the window of the air conditioned car to ask directions my skin became sticky with sweat. A tide of traffic swept us around the town’s suburbs. Finally we found a car park and were approached by a chubby Colombian youth offering cocaine and marijuana; we politely declined and headed to a road housing a string of cheap hostels. A smell of rotting fruit hung in the air and I saw a man on all fours with his head in a bin liner. He opened a box of discarded chips and started devouring them like a dog. On the other side of the road stood two prostitutes, a tall one and her short friend who had a huge backside hanging out of her leather shorts. Their pimp sat on a step and smoked a cigarette while gesturing towards groups of passing men they should approach. We saw a hostel further up the road and found it to be full. After this we must have tried ten more and each was full. I was beginning to abandon hope when we turned a corner to a darker and dirtier road and saw ‘Hostel’ painted on the wall beside an open door and a vertical set of stairs. There was a sweet, fetid smell of sex and sweat inside. An enormous woman with a hairy lip and glistening black skin sat behind metal bars at reception.
We asked if she had any rooms available. ‘For how many hours?’ she boomed, eyeing me doubtfully. Our fears were confirmed but out of sheer desperation we found ourselves booking a room for twelve hours. The walls were covered in pealing green paint, the broken air-conditioning dripped onto the edge of the mattress and a mirror was strategically positioned in front of the bed. In the morning I met a big breasted prostitute at reception who said ‘Thanks Mamma’ and took a wad of notes from the mustached lady behind the bars. Moments later a perspiring man in tracksuit bottoms emerged from a room and hastily disappeared down the stairs.
I found Cartagena to truly be a city of contrasts. Drugs dealers and brothels lurked in dark corners behind boutique hotels in crumbling colonial buildings. Expensively dressed Colombian ladies strutted like peacocks through the narrow streets whilst European tourists sipped cocktails in the plazas. The old city walls stood proudly in front of the sea where the sun would set and turn the town golden. Yellow policemen on motorbikes circled the town like wasps trying to catch backpackers smoking marijuana.
One night after perhaps sampling a little too much of the local liquor known as ‘fire water’, we remembered that we had to move the car from one carpark to another beside it as the former was closing at midnight. We were driving all of five hundred metres but luck was not on our side and the moment we started the car and turned on the headlights we glimpsed the fluorescent jackets of two policemen in front of us. Menacingly they approached, stood on either side of the car and demanded we get out. Felipe was pushed against the car and searched roughly. Then they opened the boot and all the doors. Unfortunately the empty bottle of fire water lay guiltily on the back seat. Felipe confessed to have had a drink and the policemen became more aggressive. I couldn’t understand what happened next, the voices of the police became louder and Felipe’s became anxious. After ten minutes of angry Spanish Felipe pulled a twenty dollar note out of his pocket and passed it to one of the men muttering, ‘Thanks brother.’ Satisfied with the bribe they moved away and let us put the car in the other car park.
These were however, the only real moments of disquiet and the rest of the month was filled with music, magnificent scenery and exotic fruit. According to Felipe a survey was conducted confirming that his people are the happiest in the world. Quite how one tests for happiness I don’t know but his statement could easily be believed. They are definitely the biggest flirts in the world; a certain lust dances in the air. Tanned cleavages and bottom implants are eyed lasciviously throughout the streets, kissing couples are entangled on benches, and pop songs voicing ‘love me with your mouth’ resonate from clubs. Their flirting is almost indiscriminate and usually without intent, everyone everywhere is ready to tease or find a reason to laugh.
Music is also everywhere in Colombia and the Colombians are never too shy to dance. In the clubs of Cartagena couples dance merengue and vallenato with effortless ease. Students in the plaza of Villa de Leyva tap their feet to drums and gaitas (an indigenous flute) at night. In the streets of Bogota young men strum guitars and in the bars of Palomino hippy girls shake their bottoms to the sound of salsa.
Four times the size of the UK, Colombia boasts an extraordinary wealth of landscapes and scenery. The Andes stretch through the country in three major parallel bands, the Caribbean coast lies in the North West with the Pacific coast just below it. Spanish built white-washed towns are dotted around the country. Practically this means that in Colombia you can find tropical jungle behind white sand beaches, swelling green mountains, and narrow cobbled streets with a mood of the Mediterranean. The guerrillas have almost been completely pushed out and the survivors hide in avoidable areas bordering Venezuela and Panama, so travel is safer than it has been for fifty years.
My only major criticism of Colombia is the police. Corrupt and underpaid they know they can take big bribes off people caught doing the wrong thing. Their determination to find a driver without the right papers or drugs in the pockets of an unwary youth is inexorable. Armed squads wander every town. They have the authority to search whoever they want. For a country battling drugs their vigilance is in some ways positive but undeniably creates an atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety. Walking the streets one starts to feel like a criminal as policemen slow their motorbikes to eye you as they wonder if you’re worth searching.
Despite the menacing presence of the police, there was a great charm and magic in the Colombian air. As I sat eating fish looking over the vast brown Magdalena River, birds of electric blue chirped in a tree while locals loaded a motorbike onto a wobbly wooden boat. A school girl dressed in white came over with two friends and shyly asked where I was from. With big curious brown eyes she asked if I had ever seen snow. I thought of the giant fruits shaped like studded green balloons in the markets and the trees whose branches burst with yellow blossom. The air was warm and heavy with the muddy smell of the river. I was starting to understand what Garcia Marquez had meant when he said, ‘It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.’