MY MOTORCYCLE DIARY: Or, Seven Days Through The Amazon On The Back Of An Ass

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Our own Boss Phawker, man of the world and leader of the local ruling junta, is vacationing down South America way. This is the first of his dispatches.

metweakedcropped.thumbnail.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA
SOUTH AMERICA CORRESPONDENT

TABIO, COLOMBIA — Let’s just dispense with the cocaine jokes right now, shall we? Yes we shall. That is NOT why I am down here. As fate would have it, my Uncle William, a retired neurologist, is married to a wonderful woman from Colombia named Stella — that’s Aunt Stella to you and mostly me. And they have built a fairly spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright-ish home in Tabio, a sleepy and picturesque hamlet about an hour north of Bogota, perched on a hillside with a panoramic view of the Andes just across the rolling green pastures and misty hollows below. And they invited us down for a spell.
Tabio is still a largely agrarian community, and most everyone has cows, chickens and sheep, and my aunt and uncle are no exception. Everything we eat was either walking around or growing nearby just a day or two before winding up on our plates. People here are mostly poor by U.S. standards but seemingly content, and they all have sturdy brick bungalows with terra cotta roofs and plots of land for the critters. Nearly everyone is good-looking, trim, stylish, very friendly to us gringos and accepting of our pigeon Spanish.

Yesterday, we took a day trip to nearby Subachoque, where the locals were celebrating one virgin or another (there seems to be an endless supply of venerated virgins in Colombia) with a fete in the town’s square. From there, we set off to go hiking in the ‘cloud forest’ at the peak of nearby El Tablazo mountain. The top of El Tablazo is also the home of a military radar tower, and as we reached the summit we were greeted by three soldiers in knee-high jackboots brandishing M-16s. Apparently all those smiling campesinos waving to us on our way up the mountain stopped smiling after we passed and rang up the authorities.
A little bargaining on the part of my Aunt Stella in the native tongue, and the next thing you know we have three uniformed and heavily-armed guides giving us the nickel tour of the ‘cloud forest’ — which is basically a forest above the cloud line. Strange and beautiful beyond words, the hike damn near killed me, between the altitude (12,000 ft) and the brisk pace set by armed men nearly half my age. At one point, they showed us a cave where a kidnapping victim was kept for nearly three years.

Ah yes, the kidnapping. Snatching high profile political targets and wealthy business types has become a significant source of income and bargaining power for FARC guerrillas (narco-trafficking being the other primary source of funding). At last count, FARC was holding some 180 prisoners. Because the country is so sprawling and the terrain so rugged, the government cannot maintain control over the entirety of Colombia’s considerable square mileage, and as such they have ceded certain regions to guerrilla control — mostly in the south where the Amazon begins, and in the north where the Colombia bumps up against Panama.

My Aunt Stella has been directly effected by La Violencia. Her family used to own a coffee plantation and her brother was killed by the guerillas back in the mid-60s when the insurgency first flared up. Things are much more stable these days, but they don’t mess around here — the cops in Bogota carry submachine guns. Still, as my uncle is quick to point out, you are far more likely to be killed or kidnapped in the USA than in Colombia.

However, you are far more likely to be a victim of petty theft in Colombia than you would be in the US. And this we learned first hand today, but that is a story for our next installment…

Adios, for now.

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