We first locked eyes in northern Peru. I was a wanderer, a traveler, free to kick my feet on the dusty streets of the market. He was behind bars, desolate and longing for the freedom that I simply took for granted.
And then, just days later, I found myself roaming the majestic hilltop of Kuelap, home to the ancient Chachapoya, or ‘cloud-people’, who resisted the bloodthirsty Inca for centuries. There, at the foot of their crumbling circular dwellings, lay tiny tunnels where the Chachapoya kept his ancestors enslaved below their beds.
Then, at last, we embraced. A friend and I were famished from a hike to a secluded waterfall, and took shelter in plastic chairs on the dirt floor of a small restaurant. It was the grandmotherly owner/chef/waitress who tossed him onto our table. He landed gracefully.
He was more beautiful than I had expected, but also smaller and slimmer, more rat than cat. I gently caressed his back for a few moments — but he, knowing his fate and that of millennia of his ancestors in these mountains, swiftly tap-danced his way to the edge of the table. The señora threw a weathered hand over his loin and returned our friend to the kitchen.
That evening saw the end of our Peruvian affair. I’d like to think I was motivated more by history than hunger. After all, without the Eurasian staples of chicken, cow, and pig, what other domesticated sources of protein did the pre-Colombian Andes have? It fell to this petite creature (with the help of llamas and alpacas) to feed entire civilizations from modern-day Chile to Colombia. So who was I to reject savoring a piece of history, fried with a side of cheesy potatoes?
Maybe I should have. Bland and bony, it’s hard to picture him providing much pleasure or protein to the Incan legions who conquered the Andes and then defended them against the Spanish. I liked him better alive.
Postscript: We met again on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia. I, to my credit, was less cruel this time. I gambled 1,000 pesos that he would enter the purple box. He entered the red one.
Off the Gringo Trail, Chapter 1.
“Hola.” The small boys in school uniforms had finally worked up the courage to approach me, a strange-looking man in a town of indigenous faces and colorfully-adorned women carrying the day’s haul on their arched backs. I was tucked away in a dark corner of the bus station, now surrounded by wide eyes.
“¿Usted es musico? You’re a musician?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I had been playing Sublime songs on my mini-guitar for the past hour, waiting for a delayed bus.
“Ok, great. Do you know Nirvana?”
“Uh, wait, Nirvana? Like the band?”
“Ha!” The shock bolted from my mouth. An hour before, a woman sitting next to me hadn’t understood me in Spanish, so a man had to translate into Quechua. Just hours before that, I was sitting on a lakeside bench surrounded by llamas, talking with a peasant teenager about her parents’ struggling potato farm on the side of a mountain. This mini-guitar tends to put people at ease and give them an excuse to approach foreign-looking me and just talk. She wanted to know what the United States was like — I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
I was overjoyed with my new diminutive audience. “Yeah, of course I know Nirvana. Do YOU guys know Nirvana?
“Yes! We love them. Can you play ‘Come As You Are’?”
“Ha, I’m not sure I remember how. But do you know this one?” I played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. They hadn’t reacted by the first chorus. I stopped.
“Just one second, sir. I will go get the lyrics.” Good lord, what is going on here?
The group leader returned with a printout of the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’. Apparently, their English teacher had been using the song as an exercise in class. I held myself back from inquiring as to the value of being able to say “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” as a 10-year-old in rural Peru.
My fingers fleshed out one of most popular basslines of the last 20 years, and thus began what I’d like to think is the first and only grunge singalong session with the descendants of the Inca in Abancay, Peru.
We talked and laughed a bit, and the boys finally disappeared back up the stairs to catch their bus. A tiny girl who had been lurking behind them took this as a cue to make her approach. She was maybe seven, in shabby clothes, with a splash of dirt covering her beautiful pink cheeks.
She shuffled her tiny feet towards me, reached out a tiny arm, and tried to give me a coin.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a hat out, and I wasn’t ready for this.
“No, no, gracias! That’s very kind of you, but please, it’s not necessary.” Blushing, I escaped quickly into a rendition of ‘Badfish’.
She crumpled her forehead, stared for a moment, and disappeared.
Ten minutes passed, and she was back. Again she shuffled her tiny feet towards me, leaned on a concrete pillar, and waited for a break between songs. I stopped.
“Do you like this music?” I asked her.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Umm, I don’t know.
“Pero, em… ¿Usted no tiene casa?
But, um, you don’t have a home?”
I wasn’t part of the world she knew. She likely had never seen, and definitely had never interacted with, a person as physically different as me, a person with no local blood or dress, but rather light skin, light hair, a large nose, bizarre clothes, and an accent that doesn’t come from any of the surrounding regions. She may have never seen anybody play music just to play music. And she had certainly never needed to grasp a concept as alien as leaving everything and everyone on one side of the planet to simply explore and see and spend money on another side of the planet.
I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
2012: Six months in Colombia and five months backpacking through South America.
How does one sum a year abroad?
I threw it all into one big list when I got back from Asia. Here it goes with South America.
PLACES VISITED: 67
Los Angeles -> Bogotá -> Cali -> Tumaco -> Medellin -> Rionegro -> Florencia -> Caquetá countryside -> Tuluá -> Buenaventura -> Golfo Tortugas -> Cartagena -> Villa de Leyva -> Santa Marta -> Tayrona -> San Gil -> Bogotá -> Quito -> Canoa -> Montañita -> Guayaquil -> Máncora -> Zorritos -> Chiclayo -> Chachapoyas -> Kuelap -> Gocta/San Pablo -> Trujillo -> Huanchaco -> Lima -> Ica -> Huacachina -> Nazca -> Andahuaylas -> Pacucha -> Pampachiri -> Bosque de Piedras -> Abancay -> Cuzco -> Aguas Calientes -> Machu Picchu -> Puno -> Lake Titicaca -> Arequipa -> Arica -> Iquique -> San Pedro de Atacama -> La Serena -> Santiago -> Valparaiso -> Viña del Mar -> El Yeco -> Buenos Aires -> Bariloche -> El Bolsón -> Lago Puelo -> Mendoza -> Maipu -> Mina Clavere -> Nono -> Córdoba -> Puerto Iguazu -> Iguazu Falls -> Rosario -> Colonia -> Montevideo -> Punta del Este -> La Barra -> Piriapolis -> Montevideo -> Los Angeles.
NATIONALITIES MET: 39
Colombian Venezuelan Filipino German Austrian French Australian American Canadian Peruvian Ecuadorian Chilean Belgian Danish Dutch English Scottish Finnish Italian Spanish Croatian Bosnian Irish Icelandic Mexican Japanese Argentinian Brazilian [Basque] [Quebecois] Uruguayan Paraguayan Portuguese Swiss Ukrainian Israeli Malaysian Costa Rican Chinese
Mountains: 13 different parts of the Andes.
Beaches: 19 (20 if you include an Argentinian river beach)
Things lost/stolen/magically vanished:
Frisbee. Camera. Swim trunks. Towel.
Weight lost/stolen/magically vanished: 10 lbs.
Stomach issues: Lots.
Mosquitos killed with hotel bibles: 137.
Mumford and Sons – “Babel”
Noah and the Whale – “Last Night on Earth”
Jorge Drexler – Various
Kele Goodwin – “Hymns”
Passion Pit – “Gossamer”
Radical Face – “Family Tree”
Gustavo Santaolla – “Diarios de Motocicleta”
BEST JAM SESSIONS:
Irish singalongs with Irishmen in Huacachina
Teaching Peruvian kids in Chachapoyas
Playing with indigenous instruments in Argentina
Oktoberfest in a beer-hall in Lima
Halloween in hostels and streets and bars in Cuzco
Thanksgiving with a real turkey in Santiago
Christmas with vegetarian food and gifts and la novia in the cold Andes of Argentina
New Years with local wine and besos from the novia in Mendoza
WEIRDEST FOOD EATEN:
Fried large-butted ants (Colombia)
Fried guinea pig (Peru)
Fresh fish with coconut sauce (Pacific coast Colombia)
Fru-fru Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurants (Lima)
Fruit I’ve never heard of (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.
I just hung out with an assassin. Two actually.
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.
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.
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.