Originally, I didn’t even plan on going to Columbia. It was the fall of 1992 and I was a young man on my first ever traveling adventure. I had worked a few years as a minion of the evil empire and managed to save enough money to take a year off and travel. I drove around the U.S. in a pickup truck for several months and then left my vehicle at a friend’s house in Houston and headed south by bus into Mexico and Central America. My goal was to travel all the way to the southern tip of South America. I had some interest in going to Colombia and then the Andean countries on the way but I was afraid to go there because of state department warnings about the ongoing drug war in Colombia. It was the time of Pablo Escobar and the battle between the cocaine cartels. Images in the media portrayed Colombia as a bloody violent hell on earth. I was young, inexperienced and not very lingual in Spanish. So, after studying all the relevant info, I bought a direct plane ticket from Panama to the safe country of Venezuela. From there, I intended to continue on to Brazil and Argentina thereby skipping Colombia all together. Destiny, however, decided to change my plans.
I arrived in Venezuela in late November of 1992; just in time for the attempted revolution. Fortunately for me, I arrived late at night and decided to go to the small beach town of Macuto on the outskirts of Caracas instead of directly into the city. Chaos erupted the following morning and there were violent clashes between police, military and revolutionaries on the streets of Caracas. It was Hugo Chavez’s first attempt to take over the government of Venezuela. And I was stranded on a tiny beach for a ten day state of emergency while the whole crazy thing unfolded. But alas, that’s another story… for another blog entry. This entry is supposed to be about Colombia and the robbery not revolution in Venezuela. For now, the important thing about the revolution is that it delayed me in Venezuela. Then, while I was delayed, a diplomatic dispute broke out between the U.S. and Brazil. They changed the rules. U.S. citizens could no longer get VISAS for Brazil in neighboring countries. They had to get them at the embassy in their home country. In other words, since I didn’t have a Visa yet, Brazil would not let me in… So here I am, stranded in Venezuela. I have several months ahead of me left to travel. I can’t go to Brazil. Where else can I go? I look at the map. The answer is obvious. I’m standing on the rooftop of a hotel on the border town of Santa Elena near Brazil thinking about this. A very bright star is shining on the north western horizon…. And that’s why I ended up going to Colombia.
I must admit, I was terrified when I first crossed the border from Venezuela. I was imagining gun fights in the street, cocaine crazed maniacs, narco-bombings, revolutionaries, paramilitaries and a vast assortment of dangers and perils. I was a naïve, young, gringo, traveling alone who could only speak a few words of Spanish. I had to be crazy to be going there. I didn’t stand a chance. I’d never make it out of Colombia alive….. Yeah right. And so I learned my first very valuable traveling lesson. The image of far away places portrayed in the American Media is not very consistent with reality. Don’t believe the lie…..go and see for yourself. I loved Colombia. It was a wonderful and fantastic place with super friendly people and a whole lot to see and do. Yeah sure, there were news reports about skirmishes between the revolutionaries and the government. And Pablo Escobar was on the run after escaping from prison so he was a media star. But in my day to day travel through Colombia, it didn’t seem a dangerous place at all. I traveled by local bus and stayed in local guest houses. I met tons of Colombians who took me to parties and invited me into their homes. I made friends, drank booze, smoked weed, hooked up with some chicas bonitas and partied like a rock star all night long in Bogota and Cali. I hiked in the mountains, swam in the ocean and visited some ancient ruins. I had such a great time in Colombia, I stayed for a whole month and not a single bad thing happened. I didn’t get robbed or hustled, or shot at or caught in a crossfire or threatened or beat up or harassed or anything. The entire journey across Colombia was incredibly smooth. Absolutely nothing went wrong…..until my very last day in the country.
The funny thing is, I was on my way to Ecuador….the other safe country. I spent New Year’s Eve in the beautiful colonial town of Popayan and headed towards the border town of Ipiales the following morning. Unfortunately, it was a long bus ride with several break-downs and I arrived in Ipiales a half an hour too late to catch the onward bus to Ecuador. I would have to spend one more night in Colombia. No problem though. I’ve been in Colombia for a month; I’m a pro, nothing to worry about. So I find a cheap room, deposit my backpack and go wandering around town. Like most Latin American towns, Ipiales has a big outdoor market where the locals sell pretty much everything you can imagine; fruits, vegetables, small farm animals, arts, crafts, clothing and a vast assortment of useless plastic crap. I stroll through the market, looking for a snack, taking in the sights and sounds and smells. So much to look at, so much to think about, so much to experience…… I love this traveling life. I stop at a food stall to buy myself something cold to drink. I reach in my pocket and pull out a small wad of Colombian pesos. The total value of the wad is only about 20 U.S. dollars but the substantial bills in my hand make it seem to be more. I’m trying to decide what kind of drink I want when all of a sudden, someone comes through the crowd of people, pushes me hard up against the food stall, grabs the wad of money right out of my hand and starts to run away. Holy Shit! I just got robbed.
It’s a weird thing to be robbed like that….right out of the blue, in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by people, smash and grab. How are you supposed to react? What do you do? In my memory, the whole thing is like a scene from a crazy action movie. The story unfolds in slow motion. Is it instinct that takes over? Why do I respond the way that I do? It almost seems as if the person taking part in the story is someone different than me. But it is me. I act out the story and live the story simultaneously. The universe hands me the script and I have to play the part… I recover my balance and steady the disrupted food stand. I see the shaggy haired guy run away through the crowd pushing people out of his way. For no reason that makes sense in retrospect, I decide to chase the guy. It’s absurd, I risk life and limb for 20 bucks. How ridiculous? I charge through the market like Indiana Jones. Chickens scatter and cluck, tables of fruits and vegetables crash to the ground, I leap over tables and chairs and produce and livestock. The crowd in the market is all yelling “Robaro, robaro, robaro….. go gringo go….”. More animals scatter, more fruits and vegetables fly, people get out of the way or get smashed into. I charge through the market like a mad man chasing after the shaggy haired guy I see in front of me. The evening market is our obstacle course. I am obsessed. I am not thinking. I’m going to catch that guy no matter how much stuff I knock over or smash into in the process.
I chase him all through the market to the other side. He crosses a road and heads up a hill towards the center of town. I keep chasing. He’s about 100 feet ahead of me when three other unsavory looking characters run up to meet him. Now there are four of them and only me. I should stop. I can’t take on four criminals. But they don’t want to attack me. The four split up and run in different directions. I can’t tell which one has my money. Not really thinking, I keep chasing after the same shaggy haired guy. We run through the streets of Ipiales. I’m gaining on him. I’m within 50 feet now. What will I do if I catch him? Beat him up and take him to the police? But he no longer has the money? Do I really want to beat him up? This is crazy? Why am I chasing a criminal through the streets of some border town in Colombia? This is really stupid? I should just stop, turn around and go back? It’s only 20 bucks. The criminal turns right down a long narrow alleyway that runs between several old decrepit buildings. It looks like a dangerous place to go. Do I really want to follow him down a blind alley? I still have all my travelers’ checks, my visa card and my passport on my person. This makes no sense whatsoever. My reason returns, the animal instinct fades and I decide to give up the chase. I stop running; catch my breath and turn to head back to the market…..
But then, the cops arrive. And these are not simple bobbys with wooden clubs and the authority to write parking tickets. These are Colombian cops, four of them, armed with automatic weapons and a whole lot of macho attitude. To make matters worse, I don’t speak Spanish and they don’t Speak English. They come speeding up to the scene and slam on the breaks of their souped up, high end, overland all-terrain police vehicle. Honestly, you should have seen this thing. It looked like a hummer on steroids… it was ready for battle. A cage in the back, weapons and four armed thugs in the middle, and a commanding officer at the wheel in the front. The vehicle slams to a stop in a cloud of dust with the sirens blaring, the side door slides open and four young guys leap out in some kind of military formation with their guns drawn. Now this is the Colombia I’ve read about in the media. This is the Colombia of legend. Maybe this is going to get scary. I could be in deep shit. Am I the one under arrest? But no….. these people are here to help me. And what follows afterwards is so insane that I can hardly believe it happened. But honest, it did. It really did.
There’s some yelling back in forth in Spanish that I don’t quite understand. There’s lots of pointing of weapons and stomping about. Finally, I am herded through the side door of the police vehicle and I take a seat on a bench in the middle section. Behind me is the cage and in front of me is the driver. The four guys with big guns file in and sit around me in a circle. I don’t understand what anyone is saying, I’m scared, confused and totally flabbergasted. The side door slams shut, the driver revs the engine and the vehicle lurches forward. Next thing I know, we are speeding through the streets of Ipiales on the hunt for a gang of dangerous criminals.
Actually, the truth is, I have no idea what the hell is going on. Here I am in a motor vehicle surrounded by heavily armed men as we race through the streets of a small Colombian town. I sort of assume we are looking for the criminals but I’m not really sure. Maybe the cops are the criminals. Maybe they are arresting me; or kidnapping me. Perhaps there’s been some kind of misunderstanding. All I know is that I’m surrounded by guys with guns and the driver is burning rubber and squealing tires as he almost loses control around several corners. Finally, he slams on the breaks and skids to a stop in front of an old falling down three story warehouse type building. The door of the vehicle whips open and the cops with guns jump out. I decide to stay in my seat. The cops talk to several people outside the building who point towards the door. The cops go rushing inside with their guns drawn. Sure enough, they emerge a few minutes later dragging two unscrupulous looking characters by the hair. It’s not the guy who robbed me but it is two of the people who met him on the street and ran off with the money. The cops open the back door and throw the suspects in the cage behind me. Afterwards, they get back in the middle section with me, the door closes and we go racing through the streets of Ipiales once again……
Just picture that scene; me, the oblivious, confused and befuddled young gringo sitting amid four well armed Colombian cops in a vehicle while two criminals shout obscenities at me in Spanish through the cage that separates us. Meanwhile we are making our way around town , siren blaring, looking for the other culprits. Everybody in town seems to know what happened and who did it (it’s a small town) and the cops are provided info and pointed onward everywhere they stop and ask. Sure enough, we end up at a building and the four well armed cops go charging inside. I stay in the vehicle even though the guys behind me in the cage are harassing me through the bars. The cops emerge a short while later with the long haired guy who robbed me and one other suspect. They toss the culprits in the cage with the others and climb back into the middle section with me. The door slams shut and our big happy group heads to the police station. Talk about a great ride for the new travelers’ amusement park. Oh yeah…. Cops and criminals yelling at each other through a cage, me in the middle….. what fun! Everybody should try it once.
We make it back to the police station and the criminals are taken to a jail cell and I am taken to an office. The cops give me a glass of water and a comfortable chair to sit in. A short while later; a middle aged, balding, pudgy man comes into the room and gives me a firm and friendly handshake as he introduces himself. He’s some sort of high ranking police officer and… thankfully… he speaks fluent English. He explains to me that the criminals have been searched but they were not in possession of any stolen property. He says that they probably hid the booty away before the police managed to capture them. If, however, I would like to press charges, the criminals could be interrogated over night. Quite possibly, they could get a confession out of one of them even before the morning…. I had no interest in pressing charges. I did not even want to think about what sort of interrogation methods they might use. I explained to the officer that it was only 20 dollars or so that was stolen and that the Ipiales police department had gone to more than enough trouble and expense on my behalf already. Further interrogation of the suspects would not be necessary. Please release the prisoners and accept my apologies for causing so much concern….
I walk out of the police station feeling a bit overwhelmed. The experience has been intense. It almost doesn’t seem real. I was robbed. I was in a police chase. What the fuck? I lost 20 bucks but I could have lost so much more. I was lucky, very lucky. I walk in a slight daze down hill through the town back towards the plaza and market. I am attempting to process what happened to me. Will this experience change everything? Before I came to Colombia, I thought it was a super crazy dangerous place. I was afraid to come here. But I came anyway and proved the image to be an illusion. In reality, it’s a super wonderful and beautiful place. Nothing bad happened, only good things. But now I’m leaving and this happens so maybe my safe month of travel was just beginners luck. Maybe it really is a super crazy dangerous place. What is the truth about traveling in Colombia?
I round the corner about two blocks from the plaza when the first good citizen approaches me. He saw the robbery unfold in the market and he recognizes me and he wants to apologize to me for how I was treated by a few local ruffians. He assures me that Ipiales is a nice place and that I am welcome there. By the time we walk a block, we are joined by two other good citizens. They too want to assure me that the troublemakers that robbed me are not representative of the people in the town. The town is full of mostly good people and they will all treat me well. And treat me well they do…. By the time we reached the plaza, the small group of good citizens has grown into a crowd. They hail me and cheer me as if I am some sort of hero who has just returned from slaying a dragon. A spontaneous festival breaks out in my honor. Strangers are slapping me on the back and shaking my hand and congratulating me and welcoming me. Two guys argue over who should have the honor of buying me a chicken dinner. Someone opens a bottle of sugar cane liquor, the beer starts flowing, the music starts, and believe it or not, all the people start dancing……. How good is my life?