The Beauty and the Beast in Colombia

Jokes from drug-smugglers explain everything.


A retired Colombian cocaine-smuggling submarine captain once told me a joke:

God was bent over his workbench, hard at work designing and shaping the Earth. Saint Peter peeked over his shoulder:

“Whatcha making there?”

“Oh you know, just another part of the world. Humans will one day call it ‘Colombia.’ “

“It’s incredible! Not one, but two oceans with breathtaking coastlines? Those incredible emerald hills? All of those mountain chains and snowy peaks? Thousands of rivers and rapids and swamps and mangroves? The Amazon rainforest? Enough productive farmland to feed millions? Don’t you think it’s unfair to spoil all of its inhabitants, while giving so little to so many other people of the world?”

“Nah, I’m not too worried about it.”

“Wait, what? Why?”

“Just wait til you see the assholes I’m gonna put in power to fuck everything up!”

This sums up so much of what I’ve seen here in the past 6 months. A country blessed by beauty and warmth, but ravaged during the last sixty years by a pandora’s box of the worst of third world problems: guerrilla movements, political violence, kidnapping, terrorism, bombings, assassination, drug trafficking, corruption, and deep poverty.

Today there’s a lull in much of the country, and it’s quite pleasant to be here, which is a relief considering the terror in Bogota neighborhoods like my own in the 80s. Yet huge swaths of the country are labeled red zones, with too many roving bands of AK47-wielding peasants to warrant a visit from the average tourist (just check out the Table of Contents of Lonely Planet Colombia, in which half the country is conspicuously absent).

But why? Is it the hijos de puta in power, as the Spanish version of the story put it? The corruption? The legacy of the Spanish? American imperialism? Left-wing violent assholes? Right-wing violent assholes? Left-wing and right-wing violent assholes who forgot about their ideology after they got a taste of the profits that sending drugs to the yankees up north brings? Violence begetting violence?

Hell if I know. The paragraph above gets about as close to the meat of the argument as I can muster right now. Throughout the decades, what is certain is that bunch of rich guys keep battling over who get the profits from a well-endowed country of poor peasants, and they bring as many bystanders into their violence as they can.

Things seem to be getting better for Colombians today. Here’s to an asshole-less future.


Hanging Out With Professional Killers

I just hung out with an assassin.  Two actually.

Me with camera. Guy who murders people professionally with gun.

I’ve been living in Colombia the past 5 months, filming, you guessed it, drugs.  This is where I should add, in order not to be slapped by the Colombian friends over drinks tonight, that Colombia is so much more than just cocaine and criminals, that it is an endlessly gorgeous, diverse, and fascinating place that I have fallen in love with, and has been moving beyond Pablo Escobar and daily bombings for twenty years.

That said, a frightening underworld does exist here beneath the shadows, sometimes even in the headlines, and American TV loves to explore it. So a production company sent me out here to produce a new series for National Geographic.  I’m not supposed to divulge the details of the show.  So let’s just talk about assassins.

The female assassin:  Curvy.  Dolled up.  Method of choice — dropping poison in your cocktail at the bar.

The male assassin:  Normal-looking.  Really fucking normal-looking.  Bland even.  A bit stylish.  Method of choice — pulling up and putting a bullet in your head (see photo above).

The two of them are for hire.  You pay the right price — which believe me, is not a lot — and they will ask no questions, concoct a little plan, and kill the guy.  Rival gang members, businessmen, politicians, the guy who’s screwing your wife, it’s all fair game for the right pesos.

I had been arranging the meeting through some contacts for weeks, and it was finally happening.  My crew and I were setting up lights for the interview, when the two silhouettes came through the door.  Why, sir, your murderer friends have arrived.

The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.  I mean, the guy wore my personal sunglasses during the interview to hide his eyes.  I must have shook his hand and man-hugged him six times during a few days of filming.

I was nervous about everything I said, I even tried to put him at ease with warm eyes and a warm smile just so he’d have no reason to come after me and whack me during the rest of my stay in Colombia.

But even worse than my unease was what happened next — it all started to feel normal.  I was asking him questions about his life, and he was answering very honestly.  And the creepiness began to wear off, and he was another guy that I was sitting in a room with and chatting up for my job.

Except, yuck.  Those two bastards represent everything I hate in the world — violence, viciousness, lack of empathy, humanity destroying humanity.  Yet there I sat, quietly, burying my true thoughts, to get the job done and share this story.

Sure, such is journalism.

But it destroyed me inside.

Travel Snapshot: Abandoned Island

Abandoned island in the Pacific Ocean. Near Buenaventura, Colombia.

Regionalism in Colombia

Above Medellin. (photo by stevemeetsworld)

Before I got here, Colombians were Colombians. All of these latino people within these borders hundreds of miles from my home must be just like the others that look like them in the next valley or 200 miles east or down the Andes range. It’s the same country, after all. Sure I could grasp that there would naturally be somewhat of a difference between poor Afro-Caribbean Colombians and mestizo highlander Bogotá metropolitan types.  But really, they’re all the same culture, right?

To Colombians, the differences between them are huge, and they remind you daily.  Take the paisas, from the region around Medellin, in a pretty central part of the country.  In Colombia, a Paisa is a Paisa, this fact is not to be mistaken. He’s a distinct entity, different from the rest, and remarkable for perceived differences in his character.  The male Paisa is, according to these conversations, a good businessman, manipulative, even a con-artist, and the female Paisa perpetually dolled up, flirty, and possibly with plastic boobs and butt.  To the rest of the world, she’s a Colombian; here she’s just a stereotypical Paisa.

And it doesn’t stop there.  To live here is to hear constantly of the Costeños, those that live along the Caribbean coast, with their musicality and their loudness and their laziness (I can’t say if it’s true, but I myself certainly get lazy in their swampy weather).  All people from Cali have been dancing salsa since birth.  Santandereanos are feisty and eat large-butted ants like popcorn.  Life is simpler and just more cowboy in the llanos, or plains.  Chocó is the second wettest place on earth and gorgeous but extremely poor.  And on and on.

I really dig this map. It’s hard to get the feel for just how geographically complex Colombia is until you start traversing all its mountains and cruising its coastlines.

Most Colombians, according to stats I am making up, may never leave Colombia in their lifetimes. Colombia is all they know, they speak only Spanish and live a fairly parochial life in a country separated by rough geography, poor transportation, and sporadic violence.  So they see nations within a nation.  I see a cooked banana where they see 19 different ways of cooking a platano.  These differences obviously exist, I’m just too foreign to tell.

To be fair, my travels through the rest of the world have always been full of these same conversations.  The Vietnamese talk about the cultural differences as you climb their latitudes, almost as if the country is a cultural gradient between Southeast Asian culture and Chinese culture.  Half of the people we think of as Spanish think of themselves as anything but (Basques, Catalans, Galicians).  You hear (bigoted) northern Italians describe southerners as uncivilized and somewhere closer to North Africa, while southerners describe their northern cousins as colder and businesslike, or essentially German.  I’ve heard Germans from the south likewise decry the cold Germans from the north and Germans from the west decry the post-Communist Germans from the east, Lake District English folk badmouth cold and busy Londoners and Londoners badmouth the valley-girl Essex girls.

This regionalism, this us-vs-them-ism, these internal perceptions of differences where the rest of the world sees a single monolithic entity called Country X, is simply a part of human life everywhere.



Travel Snapshot: Palm Fronds

Costeño Beach surf camp, Colombia.

The 7-11 Guy and David Bowie

I just randomly stumbled on David Bowie’s commentary about his song “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which sounds eerily familiar to a post I wrote earlier today.

[“I’m Afraid of Americans”] is not as truly hostile about Americans as say “Born in the U.S.A.”: it’s merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake.” The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.

I love that last sentence.

The 7-11 Guy

At a corner store in southern Thailand…

Austrian Dude:  Wow, these stores called “7-11” I am all the time seeing in streets of Asia.

Me:  Yeah, they’re everywhere in the US too, it’s an American chain.

AD:  No, it cannot be so.

Me:  Yeah it seriously is, they’ve been around forever, but it looks like some guy had the genius idea of bringing 7-11’s to Asia and is making billions of dollars.

AD:  Wow, Scheiße.

Two days later, in a different town in Thailand, passing another 7-11…

Austrian Dude:  What is the name of the guy who brought 7-11 to Asia?

Me:  I don’t know, why?

AD:  I fucking hate him.

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