Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Baby Got Back

Just when we are getting achingly close to the end of the year, the nation of Colombia throws a bunch of puentes (three-day weekends) at us. Where were those in February? Well, after an extra long puente at the beginning of the month, we were rewarded with another last weekend. Avid readers will recall a mishap in the Bogotá airport back in December (see: “The Mob & Me”) that resulted in free bonos, or airline money. My then travel buddy, Christine, and I decided to finally take the airline up on their offer of a free trip and fly to Medellín for the weekend.

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and one of the most unique as far as the people go. Our guide book said that people from Medellín, paisas, are a lot like Texans in that they have more pride for their state than they do for their country. That is not to say they do not like their country, they just like being a paisa better. There is an art teacher at Colegio Bolívar who is a proud paisa and even has his own “Medellín passport.” It is obviously a joke, but it made me think if a better comparison would be Quebec instead of Texas. Either way, paisas are a proud, hard-working, and friendly people.

Aside from being prideful, paisas love to party. Almost as much as the caleños here in Cali, except with a lot less “plastic.” One night out at dinner I ordered a mojito and was told there was a 3 for 1 deal. I said that one was fine but I apparently misunderstood because the waiter basically told me I couldn’t order just one; I had to get three. Okay! Maybe Quebec isn’t a good comparison either. Maybe it should be…Wisconsin!

Medellín is also one of the safest large cities in Colombia. This has a lot to do with the fact that the once powerful Medellín-cartel no longer exists and that enforcement in this region is strong; probably because President Uribe is a paisa himself. Even the homeless and street people were not threateningly desperate! Because of this security, Christine and I did a lot of walking.

We walked from our hotel in the Central District next to the huge Parque Bolívar, to the Museo d’Antioquia which is home to a cornucopia of works by Colombian, and paisan, artist Fernándo Botero. Botero has a thing for fat people. But not in the same way some renaissance artisits liked to paint supple women of the day. Botero likes everything fat – animals, cars, fruit, bouquets of flowers, even houses are bloated. Before even entering the building there are a dozen or so bronze statues in the plaza out front for the enjoyment and amusement of everyone.

One thing I enjoy about Botero’s work is that it can be both humorous and serious. He has created many works, in his distinct style, that portray very topical events in Colombia’s resent history. Often his paintings are of car bombs, earthquakes, class differences, and even the assassination of Pablo Escobar. The best part is that Botero is still alive and kicking and producing more and more art. It is great to see an artist getting this kind of recognition before they are dead!

We spent the rest of our time in Medellín wandering into various churches, looking at randomly placed sculptures, admiring the efficacy of the public transportation system (they had an elevated train like Chicago!), and eating buñuelos. Actually, I couldn’t get enough of these things. They are the closest thing Colombians have to a donut and are basically giant donut holes. I can get them here in Cali but they seemed much more plentiful in Medellín.

One day we took a day trip to a tiny town west of the city on the other side of the mountains. Sante Fe de Antioquia is an old (founded in the early 1500’s) pueblo paisa that has remained relatively unchanged and is a big weekender place for the people of Medellín. It is also HOT. Before leaving we consulted the guidebook and found that it was comparable to the Amazon region. On the ride two-hour ride there we descended a little over 1000 meters, including a drive through a tunnel that took nearly seven minutes! Needless to say, Christine and I got good at drinking juice and walking on the shady sides of the street.

We saw a few nice cathedrals and parks and a crazy old cemetery. The tombs were all holes in the wall with the “head stone” being the cap on the end; no one was buried in the ground. We considered asking some of the grave diggers sitting around having a noon aguardiente bender but decided against it after hearing some wonderfully colorful language coming from them. (It’s nice when your Spanish is proficient enough to pick up on crude language!)

Being such a cultural hub, Medellín and the rest of the area have way more to offer than we were able to see in a weekend. Hopefully in the future I can score another set of free airline tickets to do some more Botero hunting! Thanks Aerorepublica!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brought To You By the Letter "C"

If You Can't Swim, You Don't Go; That's Why It's An Adventure

This last weekend became an extra long weekend when the school decided to cancel classes Friday due to anticipated low student attendance because of a national holiday on Thursday and the following Monday. Good call, school!

I took the opportunity to travel to a fairly remote location in the mountains east of Medellin with two elementary teacher-friends of mine, Tina and Lisa. During the trip, one of them suggested we make a list of fun things that happened beginning with each letter of the alphabet. (There's the reason I mentioned they were elementary teachers.) We never did, however, I thought that might be a fun way to remember this trip...and then I sat down to do it and it wasn't so fun. The main problem being there are 26 letters and some of them are "Q", "X", and "Z". Also, I found an over-abundance of memories for the letter "C". Therefore, this recounting will be all about the letter "C".

Canyon The reserve we stayed at sits along the Rio Claro at the bottom of a beautiful tree-lined canyon. Everywhere we hiked, you looked up and see these amazing rock formations towering over you on both sides of the river. There literally wasn't a bad view anywhere! I'm not one for taking excessive pictures (that's a lie), but I found myself flipping through the photos on my camera thinking "I took 80 shots of the same thing!"

Caminando I'm cheating here and using the Spanish for "walking" but it's with good reason. The bus we took to get to the reserve was a Medellin to Bogota bus which meant that about three hours after leaving Medellin we would get dumped off. That's kind of what happened. The driver realized we were passing the Rio Claro as we were going over it and then proceded to drive for another two kilometers before letting us off and then telling us to walk up another road! As the bus, and our link to civilization, drove off, a semi pulled in to go up said road and, after asking where we were going, the truck driver informed us that, yes, indeed, the river was about two kilometers back down the high way. So, we proceded to walk (caminar) with our huge backpacking packs for two kilometers in the noon-day Colombian sun along a narrow shoulder on a busy highway connecting the two biggest cities in Colombia because our bus driver was a tool.

Caving I've only been in two caves in my life. One was as a daycamp leader for the Parks Department in Roseville when I was in high school. We went to a cave somewhere in Wisconsin (I should know the name of it; I drove by the signs enough times) and I had sore arms for a week from all the kids hanging on me for fear of getting accosted by a bat. The second time was in college when a group of us drove to St. Paul to walk through one of the caves along the Mississippi River for Halloween where people jump out at you. Either way, both of those experiences were pretty tourist friendly and "safe" because there were actually walking paths and ropes to lead us along. Not here!

I need to back up a bit though...our fifteen year old tour guide was a little confused and tried to take us in the exit and decided the water was too high. The reason the "water was too high" was an issue was that in order to get to the cave, one has to swim across the river, current and all. Well, after a few hours (yes, hours) of waiting the boss came by and imparted his wisdom to the group and our guide making statements such as the subheading of "If you can't swim, you don't go; that's why it's an adventure!" Thanks for the confidence.

Eventually we all made it across the river, although me without my water shoes - they got sacrificed to the river. The entrance to the cave was about a twenty minute hike throught the forest and our guide stopped us along the way to point out trees and rocks (there were plenty of both). Then he warned us that should we encounter any ants that we need to "keep our feet moving" because they sting. At that point I remember the group collectively looking at me, the one with no shoes. As we rounded the next ridge everyone ahead of me started running. The ants apparently don't just cross the trail, they follow it! After declining Tina's offer to get a piggy back ride from her, I waited until the "shoed" group was far enough ahead for me to sprint through the forest. About fifty yards later I emerged with only two bites and a soaring adrenaline.

Finally at the cave entrance we turned on our lights and ventured inside. Remember now, there are no paths, no tow ropes. Lisa mentioned that it reminded her of "canyoning" in that we were always in water, but it was in a cave and therefore dark. After walking a few hundred feet we all became aware of one of the most awful noises I have ever heard in my life. Condors that nest on the cave were flying about overhead screaming at us. Shining your light upwards only made it worse. It was a horrible sound. Some Hollywood film crew needs to come down here and record it for their next slasher flick. It was as if they were screeching "kill! kill!" in unison.

At times the water was at our ankles and at times we were literally swimming. There were a few short "water slides" made from the centuries of water running through the cave over the marble rock within. Those were fun! The exit of the cave was a waterfall with a rope ladder attached to it. After climbing down the ladder, we traversed the river again by hanging on to a rope that stretched across it. I guess "that's why it's an adventure," huh?!?

Capsizing On the second day at the reserve we went kayaking. Now the Rio Claro, at least were we were, never really reaches any kind of difficult rapids, however, if the rating scale included a .5 Class Rapids, we went over them. Again, not difficult, but fun nonetheless! The three of us were in two kayaks, the girls in one, me in the other, and we departed with two rafts full of families. At one point the rafts got behind us a ways (that's our story anyway) and, in an attempt to let them catch up, we grabbed some low hanging tree branches. Correction: Lisa and Tina grabbed some low hanging tree branches, I grabbed their kayak. ...and then they tipped over. :)

Children The last thing a teacher wants to see on vacation is a mass of school kids. One or two with their families is fine as long as they don't bother you but a school trip is not acceptable. We were graced with the presence of two different groups, although thankfully not at the same time. The first was a group of about 20 8th grade girls. Against all odds, they were pretty good. Then came the group of about 40 ninth graders. If I had wanted to see my kids all week I would have brought them. Unfortunately they were staying right above us in a very tree house-like lodging. Fortunately Tina had no problem going up and telling them to go to bed.

Campfire The second night at the reserve we met some teachers from our school's sister school in Medellin, Columbus School. They were camping for the weekend and invited us to come to their site after dinner and enjoy the campfire and all things that go along with it. It was a surreal feeling sitting around a fire in the cool night air getting smoke blown in your face by the breeze and listening to the river rush by a few yards away. In the dark I would have thought I was back in northern Minnesota; it was a nice feeling.

Canopying For those that don't know, like my dear mother, canopying is moving through an area, usually a forest, at the level of the canopy. In essence, you're really high and, if you're on a zip-line like we were, you're going pretty fast. This particular canopy had three zip-lines, one that crossed the river and two that followed it. Great fun but it goes by really quickly.

Clear River (I know I cheated on this one too.) There is a reason it is called Rio Claro. It is clean and clear. The guides all told us we could fill our water bottles from the river. We didn't, but it's nice to know we could have.

C you next time! (Lame?)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Scandal? What's That?

This is an Associated Press article, by Frank Bajak, dated May 4th, 2008 discussing an interesting aspect of the political situation here in Colombia:

These are trying days for President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in a region dominated by leftist leaders.

Opposition lawmakers are seeking his impeachment on charges that aides offered political favors for votes. His longtime confidante has joined dozens of allies jailed for alleged ties to illegal, drug-trafficking militias. U.S. Democrats are blocking White House attempts to approve a free-trade agreement because of his human rights record.

In most countries, a president in such a pickle would be on the ropes. Yet Uribe's approval rating — consistently above 70 percent in opinion polls — is the highest of any president in the Americas.

"It's almost as if he's a person with supernatural powers that let him do whatever he likes," said leading newspaper columnist Maria Jimena Duzan.

Uribe's closest political adviser, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said the president's popularity is reward for his dedication and for vigorously battling crime on all fronts, bringing down murder and kidnapping rates.

"Jesus Christ was also condemned to death, and I understand that his historical popularity remains intact," Gaviria told The Associated Press.

Uribe's Teflon presidency has various explanations.

Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Uribe has managed to knock off balance the peasant-based Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — something no president had managed since the FARC's 1964 birth.

He also has seen success in killing or capturing drug lords, including twin brothers who the defense minister said controlled roughly half the country's armed gangs: one was slain April 29, the other arrested two days later.

Then there's Colombia's economy, which grew by 7.5 percent last year and averaged 5.5 percent growth from 2003-2007 as Uribe's vigorous privatization of state-run enterprises spurred foreign investment.

And there's Uribe's style. Colombians love his wonkish, take-charge approach. Statistics roll off his tongue through regular 18-hour work days. He drags ministers and generals to daylong communal councils in dangerous backwaters where he rolls up his sleeves and digs into details.

By far the greatest coup has been Uribe's pursuit of the FARC, most spectacularly with a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, the rebels' foreign minister.

Contempt for the FARC is so widespread that people are willing to overlook ties between Uribe-allied politicians and right-wing death squads formed to counter the rebels.

"The promise that he's going to defeat the FARC is fundamental to his popularity," said political analyst Leon Valencia.

Crime prevention is another big selling point.

"If you are living in a city or on a main road — and that's about 80 percent of the people — you are feeling a whole lot safer," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the liberal Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Colombia's opinion makers generally esteem Uribe. Any time he wants to sound off, he calls a radio network and talks for an hour or two. Most Colombians get their news from the radio, and supporters love his directness, even when he's confronting the latest scandal dogging his government.

He has done that a lot lately. On Tuesday, he responded quickly after 10 opposition lawmakers called for his impeachment for allegedly offering favors to then-Rep. Yidis Medina in return for reversing herself on a crucial 2004 committee vote that allowed him to run for re-election. Yidis surrendered April 27, saying she'll plead guilty to bribery and implicate the president and three close aides.

"The national government persuades. It doesn't buy consciences," Uribe told reporters Tuesday during a trip to the southwestern city of Neiva. He denied offering favors for the vote.

Another scandal assailing Uribe is over mutually beneficial relations between some of his closest political allies and the outlaw far-right paramilitaries that demobilized under a peace pact with his government.

Ten percent of Colombia's 268 federal lawmakers are jailed on charges of backing or benefiting from the groups, and another 10 percent are under investigation. On April 22 his second cousin and political confidante was jailed as well.

The scandal, compounding concerns over the killing of union activists, is complicating attempts by Uribe and his ally, President Bush, to persuade the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress to stop delaying a vote on a free-trade pact.

The raid that killed Reyes earned Uribe international reproach and threats of war from Ecuador and Venezuela. Uribe apologized for violating Ecuadorean sovereignty but refused to say he wouldn't do it again.

A week later, Gallup conducted a poll of 1,000 Colombians — people with telephones in the country's four biggest cities — with a margin of error of three percentage points.

Uribe's approval rating was 84 percent. It was his highest ever.