Image for Travels without a donkey: Bogota

AFTER 11 hours on a plane from Madrid we bounce down in Bogota. To get a real taxi you need to get past the fake taxis who take you to a hotel they are getting commission from rather than the one you want, apparently telling you such stories as your hotel is closed or has even burnt down. We get into a battered custard yellow Daewoo with a grumpy driver. It was quickly apparent that he was on a death wish. I tried to console myself that it was normal to drive like that here, but as he beeped and swerved past other taxis I searched for the seat belt in vain. I couldn’t help thinking of all the more glamorous ways to die in Colombia, like my body riddled with cocaine and bullets, than flying through the windscreen of a custard Daewoo.

Eventually we were in an area that felt very threatening after Spain, passing ragged men pulling carts and lone males staring into the taxi every 30 metres. The streets were very dark as it was about 11pm and there were lots of small noisy groups of young people. The streets were very run down with car wrecking holes and lose bricks everywhere.

Finally we arrived at the hostel with relief as it was 4am for us given the time difference. But there was no relief. Even though we had booked there was no room for us. The guy said he would get us another hostel nearby, which eventually he did, but I was not up for walking there with all of our gear through the streets we had just driven. Tired and carrying all our belonging we would have made easy targets. We managed to arrange a taxi. Finally a beer and a bed.

The hostel owner warned us about fake secret police demanding your documents and cash at gun point before we went to bed. Anna asked him what we should do in this situation.

“Phew, I’ve no idea”, he said.

We woke up to a view of the impressive dark green hills that cradle Bogota, which look particularly beautiful when viewed looking up one of the streets in the old town. We felt the altitude with some shortness of breath, which was surprising as the city is only about 2700 metres above sea level.

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The Cathredral from Plaza Bolivar

The streets are much less threatening by day and when you are rested. There are also police literally every 50 metres in the old centre, it would seem partly to make tourists feel safe, but they appeared to be well utilised by locals for information too. We had been told that Colombia has got safer in the past five years as the current government has worked very hard to “make the people feel safe”, though apparently most of the work has been achieved undemocratically. The tourist presence was all but invisible other than at museums and we attracted much intrigue and open curiosity from passersby. There was no malice or negativity caught up in these stares, just the recognition that we didn’t quite fit in, in downtown La Candaleria.

We visited the Museum of Gold which houses thousands of golden pre-colonisation artefacts and is a wealth of information about the history of Colombia. The mesmerising beauty and mystique of the artefacts leaves one stunned that the Spanish conquistadores could just melt them down in to gold bars. This was both for commercial and religious reasons, with the newly imposed Catholic religion not accepting symbols of other beliefs.

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Pre-Spain Golden Face

As I stared at all the gold and silver I couldn’t help thinking ‘so this is what millions of ‘Indians’ and Africans were enslaved and killed for’. Yes, millions. It is estimated that of the 70 million indigenous people in Latin America when Colombus arrived in 1492, there were just 3.5 million remaining 150 years later. This loss of life obviously does not include the millions of slaves transported from Africa to the region.

Looking at the state of Bogota and witnessing a tiny sample of the desolation of some of its population after arriving from Madrid, it is a stark reminder of who benefitted from imperialism and exploitation. There is nothing in Bogota that comes remotely close to the grandeur of Madrid’s royal palace and El Escorial de San Lorenzo both built in the 16th century with the wealth taken from the conquered continent.

The impact of gold, silver and other metals on the places they are found reiterates the fact that for conquered lands such as Africa and Latin America to be rich in natural resources has been a curse rather than a blessing. Areas that were not ‘blessed’ with gold or silver or tin for example, were not brutalised by the conquerors to the same extent.

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“Church of the oligarchy”

We met a young man handing out flyers for the one year old Columbian Green Party, the elections are in March. We discussed our respective countries and Green Parties. He spoke of the importance of a Green presence in Colombia in particular to counter corruption.

On Saturday we wandered in to the centre where we chanced upon a large protest representing lots of different groups. The protest was against the Government’s rejection of public health. “La salud no es un favour, es un derecho” (health isn’t a privilege it is a right) read many of the banners. Many of the slogans were concerning human rights, peace not violence, pensions and protection for workers.

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Simon Bolivar (statue left) watches over the protesters

The atmosphere was very good natured and it appeared that almost everyone on the street was supportive, though there were one or two faces who looked displeased and from their dress they did not appear to be people who would need public health services. Nevertheless there was a relatively strong police presence, including riot police who marched through the edge of the protest and took up positions outside the Congress building. One of the riot policemen was wearing a vest with about 40 canisters of tear gas on it. The riot police were much more nonthreatening than those at my other two main experiences with riot police, the G8 Summit in Gleneagles 2005 and the streets of Madrid after Real Madrid won the title in 2007, and the protest eventually dispersed peacefully after several impassioned speeches.

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Mellow riot police

As we observed the protest we were wishing we had made t-shirts that said “we are not from the United States” as suggested by a dear El Salvadoran friend before we left Tasmania. Privitisation is in part, tied up with United States of Americanisation. Judging from the huge amount of graffiti around the city the influence of the United States is not popular with everyone in Bogota. Every few metres there is some kind of comment against the seven new military bases the United States are building in Colombia spray painted on a wall or door.

Afterwards we took an almost vertical cable car up Monserrate, a hill next to the city which takes you above 3000m and gives you the best view of Bogota. Some of the vegetation on the way up was familiar, wattle, blackwood and eucalypt. At the top is a peaceful place with a lovely little church.

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View from Montserrate down to Bogota

Bogota was just a stop-over for a few days on-route to El Salvador, but it is with a feeling of wanting to get to know her better that we leave.