Camp Colombia

Trip Start Jul 30, 2007
Trip End Sep 17, 2007

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation.... Finishing six glorious weeks exploring Camp Ecuador, I decided, with one week left before returning home, to venture north to Colombia...Camp Colombia.

The border crossing was painless. Sunday morning, I left the town of Tulcan, Ecuador by minibus, which takes you to the border crossing; a bridge that overlooks a lush landscape and an Andean river. Nobody in the immigration line as I quickly get passport stamped out in Ecuador, walk across bridge, and get stamped into Colombia. Money exchanged, the journey into Colombia began.

In Ecuador, the massive Andean mountain range forms a single line spine up the middle of the country. In Colombia, the range splits into three separate mountain ranges. The tumultous division is dramitcally illustrated along the road to Popayan, a colonial city some 200 miles north of the border.

The first phase of the journey is defined by lush, verdant mountainous terrain and chilled air. As the range begins to break down into its separate directions, wider, deeper valleys emerge as the road road begins its descent. Soon, deep valleys evolve into dramatic, plummeting gorges, the landscape now barren and desert-like. Villagers set up modest restaurants to serve passing travelers, their worn structures perched precariously on the mountainside edge.

The road weaves down to a river crossing, suddenly rising precipitiously back up, then down again along the sides of these dry mountain monsters. Buses and trucks strain their gears the whole way.

As a passenger, if you close your eyes during this stretch of road youīll soon awaken to a sharply contrasting tropical setting; tall jungle growth encroaching the edges of the pavement. Hereīs where the journey gets interesting.

Approaching a small village, a roadblock bars our buses advancement. A half dozen men dressed in guerrilla camouflage clothing wave our bus to a full stop. They are members of the guerrilla group FURC, a benign offshoot of the more notorious guerrilla group FARC. They are looking for people to volunteer as hostages. I was the only foreigner on board. Seeing my hesitation, they quickly announce that tonight back at the guerrilla camp they were having an outdoor showing of classic Laurel and Hardy movies. Popcorn included. The enticement worked...I volunteered. A covered work truck was waiting for us. To keep their whereabouts secret, I allowed myself to be blindfolded.

The journey seemed endless, bouncing around in the back of their truck. Finally, we stopped, and my blindfold was taken away. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim jungle light. The compound was modest in size. The pungent odors of farm animals and human sweat stung my nostrils. Fortunately, the new aroma of fresh buttered popcorn mullified the pungent odors.
As I started to sit down on a log to watch the movies, I saw her. Caramel-colored skin, statuesque and garbed in jungle camouflage, the Colombian woman who was the leader of FURC introduced herself. It was lust at first sight. The movies could wait. While the other guerrilla men were preoccupied laughing and eating popcorn, we snuck into her large canvas tent and made passionate love.

The next few days flowed lazily like the tropical heat. Good Colombian expresso in the morning followed by hostage versus guerrillas volleyball games. The guerrillas had mistakenly taken a champion Brazilian and Swedish volleyball player as hostages. Our hostage team kicked ass!

Finally Friday arrived, and although nobody in the outside world had paid my dollar hostage fee, I told the members of FURC I had to get back to Ecuador. The Colombian woman  reluctantly agreed. Since they had cunningly confisgated a helicopter from a military installation many months back, they hoped to use it in the near future to haul a lavish jacuzzi from a prominent political figures residence and entice more volunteer hostages with their free jacuzzi. I told them to e-mail me. I also mentioned as a possible alternative source of income for them they might want to get on the ecotourism bandwagon, creating FURC tours. They pondered this new idea.
After saying our goodbyes, they tied a blindfold on me and back through the jungle we went toward civilization.

Thatīs one version of what happened during my Colombian visit. Now, hereīs another....

One of the joys and challenges of travelling is separating fact from fiction, the truth from the myths. Though far from completely safe, guerrilla encounters along the Colombian major travel routes have diminished considerably in recent years. My journey to and from Popayan went very smoothly, without incident.
The occasional robberies on buses do still occur, primarily at night. Are they FARC influenced or just the criminal habits of thieves and thugs. Who knows?
FARC does wield considerable influence in the outlying countryside and villages near Popayan however no tourist, from what Iīve heard, has been bothered. All travelers Iīve spoken with had not encountered any problems and were thoroughly enjoying their travels through Colombia. The usual safeguards and cautions to traveling certainly still applied, especially in the big cities.

Popayan is a very easygoing city, especially in the colonial old town section. Whitewashed buildings, wrought iron balconies, churches around every other corner, Popayan had been the seat of power several centuries ago while still under Spanish rule. Power later shifted to Bogota and Popayan, probably to its benefit, has maintained backseat status ever since.

After suffering a devastating earthquake in 1983, within the last ten years, Popayan has gone through a complete renovation, resurrecting itself to surpass its pre-1983 glory. During my first night in Popayan, I experienced an earthquake tremor while sitting in my hostal. The epicenter of the 6.8 earthquake was over 150 miles away, deep below the surface of the Colombian coast. No damage in Popayan, just a wild rolling sensation.

A university town, the cultural amenities in Popayan are plentiful, as are the women. Yes, the Colombian women are pretty. The cafes are plentiful as well. Their interiors speak volumes, alluding to a rich history: old, dark wooden chairs and tables, hard wood floors and balconies, cracked stucco ceiling with a touch of fanciful; sparkling mobiles dangling overhead.

Sipping my espresso, I gaze toward the opened door and the passing crowd. I can imagine militias and guerrillas running past, protesters marching by, workmen moving their horse drawn work carts and colorful villagers moving their produce on the backs of llamas. Was it yesterday or was it two, maybe three centuries ago. Not too much has changed here in Colombia. And, what great coffee!
(I didnīt mention Juan Valdezīs name once!)

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