Monday, August 30, 2010

Chaos and Tranquility: 8 hours in Colombia

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts you might have noticed I have a borderline obsession with trying to find the ‘reality’ of life in the places we visit on our adventures. I enjoy the activities available to the South American traveler; sightseeing, adventure sports, hiking and especially scuba diving, and appreciate that these are made possible because of the work tourism industries do to make travelers welcome. However, some special impressions are made by simpler experiences, everyday events, or observations of things that weren't put there with the specific intention that they be observed. Sometimes this happens just watching normal people do what they typically do.

We arrived by bus at the small Colombian town of Popayán, around 200km north of the Ecuadorian border, late on Thursday night. As this was our first destination in the country, I received my first impressions of Colombia the next morning as I walked the streets.

Popayan streetscape

After a simple breakfast I walked a few blocks to the leafy central plaza to get some cash from the machine. The buildings were all colonial and white and the day was already getting quite warm and the streets buzzed with daily activities. There seemed to be lots of strikingly beautiful women about the place, all huge dark eyes, black hair and those big silver hoopy earrings that I like. Street vendors sold fresh fruit from wooden carts they wheeled along the streetside, and people jumped on and off these amazingly decorated old buses that made their way through the grid of neat town blocks.

A Colombian Chiva bus

The Central Plaza in Popayan

White colonial buildings surround the Plaza

Suddenly from behind me there was a sound of rapid footsteps and two voices yelling “Pare! Pare! Pare!” I spun around to see two men in collared shirts running towards me, chasing a tall, shirtless fellow who was running down the street wheeling a bicycle that looked too new and too expensive for him to own it. He was only ten metres away from me and closing fast and I was between him and the street corner he was aiming the bicycle for. Afraid that if I stayed where I was he would slam the bicycle straight into me I skipped out in front of him, onto his non-bicycle side, and in my broadest Aussie accent yelled “Where are you going with the bike, mate?!” at him as he approached. He flung the bike in one direction so it collided with the kerb and ran in another, dodging into a side alley, he was gone in a flash.

One of the pursuers, whom from his dress I guessed was a courier, picked up the bicycle and the other, seeing that his quarry had vanished from sight, holstered the pistol he had drawn from his belt and nonchalantly turned and walked away. I wondered if the bloke might really have shot the thief over a bicycle, and also if my being in the way of his shot would have affected his decision to fire or not, had a genuine opportunity presented itself.

A gaggle of girls laughed and gesticulated at the spectacle. They all wore jeans despite the heat, perhaps it is not socially acceptable to show your knees or perhaps they are regarded as unsightly, but the additional clothing on the lower half of the body is neatly balanced by wearing as little as possible on top, the skimpier the singlet and the more it looks like it has been painted onto your body the better, seems to be the fashion.

National policemen in jungle greens were practicing snap patrolling on the street now, a soft-skinned truck rolled up on the street and a squad of policemen jumped out, patrolled three blocks and then got back on the truck… on the truck, off the truck, and they kept this up all day, round and round the streets that surrounded the central plaza.

I passed by an office building and glimpsed the courtyard inside, which prompted me to stop and ask the security guard in my best Spanglish if I could photograph the fountain; he shrugged and smiled and explained that the building was made up of offices for local government and a few doctors but mostly they were for information technology. The tranquility of the courtyard contrasted sharply with the chaos of the bustling street outside, and was so different from the metal-and-glass buildings that office folks work in back home. Outside a Moorish-style cathedral, lively salsa music was playing vibrantly from a huge set of speakers that had been set up for what appeared to be no reason at all.

Office building courtyard, Popayan

An hour later I was back in the plaza and a stage had been erected and bannered with a ‘victims of violence’ theme. There were a couple of songs and a speech by a tall black man, and stalls had been erected with photographs placed on the ground and the photographs were garlanded with flowers.

It was hot, and now very humid, and Alix joined me and we ate a steak lunch. We ate dessert in a pasteleria (a slice of pineapple pie for him, strawberries and cream in a plastic cup for her) and suddenly the rain hammered down until the cobbled streets were a river, then 10 minutes later it was gone, it was sunny and hot again and the cobblestones were glistening.

A man named Ari stopped us on the street and chatted to us- did we have any coins from foreign countries? He introduced his son Alejandro with whom he was walking and showed us his collection of coins from foreign places that he keeps in a cloth purse in his pocket; it is his hobby and he has been collecting since he was Alejandro’s age, and he hopes that his son will continue this hobby when he grows up as well. We had some coins he did not yet have and Alix gave them to him and he asked if he could pay her for them and she said 'no'.

Later, I climbed up a grassy hill with a statue of Belalcazar on his horse on top of it so I could snap a photo of the town. It was late on Friday afternoon now and still very hot and twenty-somethings were smoking marijuana by the grassed roadside and throwing coins and playing cards into a hat. A girl with Egyptian-style eye make-up and a baseball cap and those silver hoopy earrings that I like threw the queen of diamonds into the hat and everyone laughed and chattered in Spanish.

The grassy hill


Popayan, from the grassy hill

As I ambled back to the hostel I saw the police in their jungle greens again, but this time they were blowing their whistles loudly and a woman was screaming and a man was yelling. The man was waving his arms and pointing to the side of his car, which was dented. The woman was wailing and the police loaded her wooden vendor’s cart onto the police truck, hundreds of ripe juicy strawberries had been upended onto the street, and the police were yelling, too.

Loading the wooden cart onto the police truck

Fundamentals of Law Enforcement- waving your hands and yelling

Tragically squashed strawberries

I walked on, and on my right was the sound of singing, a sweet melodic sound. I followed the sound into the Moorish style cathedral where a woman was singing hymns into a microphone and again I had stepped from chaos into tranquillity and I sat down on one of the wooden bench seats and looked at the Virgin Mary for a minute or two.

The Virgin Mary

I’d been awake in Colombia for around 8 hours and I loved the country already.

1 comment:

  1. Number 23 of 25 of the 25 Things I Learned in Central America is that boobs are okay, knees are not :)