The zoo, the savannah and my first car bomb
Trip Start Oct 20, 2006
11Trip End Nov 07, 2006
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First we hit the zoo, which boasted a wide variety of species from all over Colombia, amidst an impressive jungle environment. There were lots of animals I had never seen before, plenty of killers and a nice collection of crazy monkeys.
Next we took off east towards the obelisk on a protuberance in the middle of the savannah, nicknamed the "belly button" of Colombia since it is placed smack dab in the middle of the country. It's the perfect place to take in a beautiful sunset, which I'm discovering is something lots of people like to refer to as "a gift from nature", and of course, have some more alcohol - this time some aguardiente llanera which is a 20 proof brew that tastes like anis.
On the way back to Villavicencio the most unexpected thing happened. We were just getting back into town from the 1.5-hour trip to the obelisk, all of us a bit buzzed from the aguardiente, when suddenly we heard this huge explosion. The lights on the lefthand side of the road went out immediately and I instinctively covered my head and jumped the instant I heard the bang. Looking at the surprised faces of the women on the other side of the minivan in which we traveled, I said, "what the hell was that?" Zuly said it must have been a firecracker. I thought to myself, if that was a firecracker, I'd hate to hear a stick of dynamite in Colombia because the explosion was so loud but so swift I knew it was something bigger. Then about 20 seconds later we pulled up upon the seventh barricade which is an army base in Villavicencio, as the FARC is very present in this area making the war here a very tangible reality. Then we saw exactly what the "firecracker" was. As soldiers ran all over the place, pounding cars and ordering them all to turn around (we were about the fourth or fifth car to happen upon the scene), I looked out the window to see the remains of what I´d later discover to be a minivan, but all I could see of it was an axle with two wheels attached surrounded by a sea of small debris. The van was completely disintegrated; I had never seen such a thing - er, that is, apart from the daily footage of Iraqi democracy in action. There was no fire and no smoke, just pieces of the van everywhere and wounded soldiers on the ground. I would later find out that one soldier was killed while six others were wounded.
After all the uneventful hours spent traversing the "red regions" of Colombia, I had finally seen up close the tactics of the FARC. Surely this was terrorism, plain and simple. Some of them apparently just pulled up in front of the base, jumped out of the van and ran, detonating the bomb from a remote they carried with them. This is a common tactic of theirs as they had realized a similar bombing here only three months earlier. In addition to an actual attack (dastardly attack, to rob the words of Geraldo Rivera), I saw a lot of communities of displaced people in and around Villavicencio, many of them settng up the most rudimentary houses in shanty towns along the roads and on the hillsides. Though the locals refer to these mass movements of refugees as "invasions" they have accepted them as the swarms of displaced peasants become "urbanizations".
Colombia has more displaced citizens than any western nation, and knowing that they are often the poorest of the poor is heartbreaking. The FARC unjustly appropriates their lands or runs them off under threat of death, often killing many of them as I´ve read about the almost 700 mass graves being investigated right now across the country. But those who support or even endure the FARC have the additional threat of the paramilitaries, often referred to as death squads, who recently left some heads impaled on stakes as a warning to other people in the countryside. As some here have stated, knowing that the government supports a lot of the paramilitaries means they are sponsoring many of the massacres that plague this war-torn nation.
Well, I ended up going out that night to the discos, receiving many long glances as next to no tourists venture to this part of the country. I was also subjected to some intense stares by some of the soldiers and police who were searching many places for possible FARC members and looking for random violators porting arms and the like. We polished off a few more bottles of aguardiente and I got pulled on to the dancefloor more than I wanted, handling the salsa no sweat but struggling to dance vallenato and cumbia, though being out there with some fine muchachas while full of alcohol made it plenty of fun. I was a real spectacle but enjoyed the attention and opportunity to learn a few more steps, not to mention hear some more of the music, which is excellent. (I know this sounds bad, but Mark Anthony makes some great music if you like Latin beats. On the other hand, his wife sucks.) One thing is for sure, Colombians really enjoy life every chance they get and go all out on Friday and Saturday.
Sunday was a more tranquil day, as we headed out to a local river to swim a bit, and eat a picnic of chicken, plantains and potatoes, sans utencils once again.