Monday, 22 June 2009
A whirl of Vice
So, we’re still in Colombia according to my blog...oops!
Actually in Bolivia now (yeah, like two months later), but, hmm, well...suspension of disbelief n’ all that, eh, folks?
Well, so the next stop was Medellin, once the drugs capital of Colombia, infamous for being the brutal harem of cocaine, violence and corruption, the domain of Pablo Escobar and his notorious drugs cartel...they would have it that it is now a prosperous city, boasting an excellent overland metro system which I utilised to its full capacity by buying only two tickets and riding the entire length and breadth of the city for about £1 (excellent value and entertainment...for it even straddles the surrounding mountainous residential areas stacked upon the hillsides within which the city is encapsulated via cable car! No extra cost. Splendid. My Norwegian companion, Murray, did not have a camera, through choice not as a result of a Flynnarific style misdemeanour, which is often the fate of many a fellow traveller (R.I.P. Casio Exilim (1 and 2)...and Nikon...and Angkor Wat photos...sob). But, playing around the marvellously voluptuous and often entertaining sculptures of the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero (born in the city in 1932) in the main plaza in his name and searching for decent ice-cream was all very well, but my goal was to hit the capital, Bogota, for the weekend.
Who would assist me in revealing the immense night of ravedom? Santiago and friends! Hurrah! A bunch of loaded students that didn’t have anything better to do at the beginning of the Easter holidays than show their resident couch surfer the sights and delights of their city. Nice. One. Arriving at the apartment at around midnight to find a few boys and girls slightly loaded on ‘Fire Water’ (horrendous diluted version of zambucca...eugh!), I emerged out of the lift into the plush-as penthouse suite, tastefully decorated, with the kids playing MGMT, wearing skinny jeans and discussing further education at London School of Economics...the discourse enlightened me to a few interesting facts (courtesy of Santiago, being an economics student and all), such as Colombia’s raking in the Genie Index being one of the highest in the world (i.e. the discrepancy between the country’s affluent and poorest peoples is most polarised), of which the top 1% of Colombia’s elite earn 40% of the GDP. Insane. And, do not fret...the penthouse primary earner was an architect. So I was told anyways...
Cruising the sights of Bogota with a slightly sensitive headed Santiago, we ventured out onto the TransMilenio, the super rapid bus system that has its own special lanes dedicated to...a metro with buses but explained through the most complicated system of diagrams, colour codes and assumed tacit knowledge (which I, being there less than 24 hours, cannot claim to smuggle). I love the London Underground tube map...name of guy that created underground...Legend. As it was Saturday and we were planning a rather massive night out, we sort of thought about getting me some suitable shoes for bopping until the sunrise, but gave up, checked out the main plaza with its grand government edificios, as well as the 100 or so displaced peoples that had been moved from the countryside due to the guerrilla and drugs war, and pretty much dumped in the capital, ‘for a better standard of living’, although camping in the equivalent of Parliament square didn’t reveal itself to appear too liberating. We scooted around La Candelaria, beautiful cobbled streets and white stone buildings, with a browse around the ‘Donación Botero Museo, and a saunter around Santiago’s university (the architect of the new space-age engineering department being a chap I shared a room with later in Colombia!)
Diego, Santiago’s pal and fellow Couchsurfing host, together with two British CSers in tow, converged with us in a dingy little bar in Bogota’s Camden, Parque Santander, and got cracking on some ‘Aquila’ (or, for the more beer connoisseur) and ‘Club Colombia’ cerveza (beer) and got what was to prove to be a heavily fuelled evening kick-started!
Rustled up some grub at Santiago’s pad, then out. ‘The End’ was to be the venue for the night’s revelries. Indeed, if this name is familiar to some of you London peeps, that is because it is actually a party that is promoted by the very same dudes that sorted out the nights at the club of the same name in London before it was closed (earlier this year...probably because there was a ban on a-symmetrical haircuts and the trendies quit going). The curfew in Bogota is 3am. But, this underground, dirty gig was situated on the top floor of a 38 storey building, under the facade of a private party in a private apartment...that just so happened to have a massive dance floor space and other rooms with copious amounts of charged beverages. Bouncing on the door were militia armed with somewhat substantial firearms, all of which looked about 17 years old (the chaps, not the guns). Hustled in with the cool kids of the night, the luxury lift swiftly delivered us to the pinnacle, where the lights of the capital lacerated the landscape that oozed out from our epicentre, indulging us in an alveoli-like weave of gold leaf. It glowed all the more avidly as the night progressed, as the waves of electronica fused with the energies roused amongst the densely packed mass of flesh, oscillating between sentiments of all encompassing euphoria and complete immersion in movement. The DJ was intense, and before we knew it, the orb of warmth was penetrating into our molecular mentalities and tempting us back into the sanctity of a peaceful Sunday morning.
Well, after dancing around the apartment complex’s gardens under the caresses of the morning rays as I couldn’t sleep (well, the security guards just left me to it), our Sunday dawdled into meeting the other guys into town, watching street story tellers entertaining the masses with funny anecdotes, juggling in the square and people watching. Ell, Ked and I (the Brits) cooked a good traditional dinner for our hosts...a solid vegetable stir-fry and noodles. Yummy. Typical dish at which Diego was astonished by the little amount of oil and salt that we utilised in its preparation, for many a dish in Colombia is born of the deep fat fryer! Haha. Arepas are fried maize cakes, that are often sold with a solid lump of South American cheese (which is really mild, sort of like goat’s cheese and is basically the only style of queso in the whole of Latin America!) or fried eggs. If you are interested, the main structure of a Colombian meal is arroz con pollo, which is simply rice with roasted chicken, with some kidney beans and some fried plantain (a savour type banana)...and maybe a slice of tomato is you are lucky!! Hehe. Usually, at lunch time, you could get an almuerzo set lunch for $1.50, which consisted of a drink, a sopa (soup) and some variation of the chicken&rice plato...cheaper than chips!!
So, after wowing the boys with our culinary skills (it was actually really good!) we had Venezuelan hot chocolate and watched ‘Apololysa’, a 1980s Colombian produced film about a bunch of wily young drug users in the epoch of deep guerrilla conflict, police corruption, kidnapping and extortion; dark humour with an interesting insight into youth culture...with interesting translation of Colombian street slang!!
A good sleep and a road trip to the famous Salt Cathedral was the order of the next day! After the somewhat scenic route enforced due to closed roads and typical South American directions...”yeah, yeah, it is straight down there...” Why do they not just admit they haven’t got a bloody clue rather than send us off in the wrong direction??! Well, we arrived at Zipaquirá, the home of the famous underground cathedral, set amongst the original salt mines. The first cathedral was created and dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Rosario (patron saint of miners) in 1954, but was declared unsafe, with a new, minimalist salt cathedral opening in 1995. It had incredible carvings in the salt stone, including an impressive (or somewhat surreal) Stations of the Cross, captured in symbolic uses of the rock, including some sculptures of the crucifix being 2m high and over 4 tonnes in weight. The effect of the lighting created a very austere and mysterious atmosphere, whilst being as deep at 150m below the surface, standing in an enormous space where mass is held, was somewhat unnerving. But, a chomp on a chocolate miner in the ‘deepest coffee shop in the world’ soon quelled any misapprehension, and a decidedly dubious 3-D video of the evolution and development of the salt mine network, presented by some robot ensured the evaporation of any religious sentimentality (I had to keep moving my red-green specs off my face to decipher what was 3-D or not...).
My final day in the capital was certainly devoid of cultural activities...unless if imbibing hot chocolate and watching DVDs in your pyjamas all day counts as a cultural enlightenment (I was with a Colombian in Colombia after all)! YAY! One of the simple joys of being in someone’s house instead of a hostel is that you can just make a brew when you want, bum around and generally not worry about too much - including wearing your pjs to the supermarket for more stodgy supplies. Santiago was a wealth of info on the old world of film and music...which I am somewhat annoyingly ignorant. “Flynn, have you seen...” usually receives the enlightened response of, “I think I saw a poster for that on the Underground...” or, “Maybe I heard of it, but...” Such a new media culture vulture, I cannot profess to be. But, if you care, we watched a wicked pair of films, one called “Before Sunset”, set in Paris and in real time (the realism and issues dealt with in the context of a somewhat soppy but endearingly romantic scenario), whilst the other was a low budget British production set in Ireland, “Once” captures the power of how something beautiful can be created and captured in such a short space of time...and is basically about a bunch of musicians and the sound track in actually pretty good (‘Once also being the name of the groupo)!
So, Bogota was a whirl of indulgence, euphoria, sloth and sleep-deprivation with a couple of really interesting and intelligent Colombians, with a half-hearted dash of cultural enlightenment, but still, the true travelling backpacker knowledge seeker has yet to emerge...this Couchsurfing is detrimental to elevating oneself from the state of philistine in the high-brow sense of museums and galleries (although we did venture into a few of those), but is certainly rich at a deeper level of experience with regards to local knowledge, perspectives and relationships. You can easily visit cities and observe the cultural heritage, but nothing is superior to the experience of the present, which, after all, feeds into the trajectory of a history and a culture.