Saturday, January 31, 2009

Time Travel: Colombia

I’m going to time travel for a few entries because I’ve been a lot of places in the past six months. Today, in fact, is my six-month anniversary of fast-tracking going places I’ve never been before. So I’m going to go back to my second trip, because I didn’t take any pictures or go anywhere particular the first time. The first trip, for the record was to Costa Rica. I hope I get back there someday.

Trip number two was Colombia, where I have now been twice. But the first time I actually saw something besides the airport and the hotel.

This probably isn’t a worthy travel goal, but one of the things that I liked about Colombia, once I got over the State Department Report to US citizens traveling internationally, was how people looked at me when I said I’d been to Colombia.

“You went where?” they said.

“To Colombia,” I said, “the country, not the city in Ohio.” I paused for effect. “It’s a beautiful place.”

“Weren’t you scared?” they said.

“Not really,” I lied. “It’s not like they say,” I added, truthfully this time. I like for people to think that I have more courage than the average person, but I don’t. The people of Colombia are gracious, kind, welcoming, and intelligent.

The most asked question I got in Colombia was, “So…did they tell you we were dangerous?”
Hands clasped behind my back, I looked at my new shoes, and debated whether or not to cross my fingers and lie or to tell the truth. “Yes,” I said finally, deciding on the truth, “they did say it was dangerous. The State Department doesn’t recommend traveling here, but,” I added, “I don’t find it like that at all.”

Maybe I shouldn’t start my description of this country with its biggest detractor, violence, but that is where all conversations on the subject of Colombia begin, so let’s get it out of the way.
It is true that the country ranks high in criminal violence, but the United States is also in the top 25. Nevada topped the list of most dangerous states for 2008, and that doesn’t seem to stop the influx of visitors to the gambling capital of the US. Oddly enough, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon don’t even make the list of the top 50. That may be more a function of crime reporting than the actual prevalence of violence. Colombia is also home to one of the most notorious terrorist groups in the Americas, but they have been beaten back into the jungle since President Uribe implemented his program of democratic security. The key to safety in Colombia is common sense.

Bogota is possibly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Perhaps I feel that way about it because it has so much in common with Colorado Springs—snuggled up against the mountains, 2000 meters above the sea. But unlike Colorado it’s not a semi-desert. The trees are lush and growing so close together that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. Flower bloom from cracks in the sidewalks and spring from the foundations of the buildings. It is the sort of place where you could believe that Jack of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk threw a handful of seeds out his window and woke the next morning to find a vine that climbed into the sky and disappeared into the clouds.

The city is home to a wonderful museum dedicated to the fantastical painter Botero, who painted everything fat—women with huge thighs, horses with broad chests and legs as wide as Greek columns. He paints the fear and hatred that swell inside us until it becomes larger than we are, too big for us to contain.

Correction: I previously implied that Botero was from Bogota. He is from Medellin, another city I hope to visit one day. Thank you for the post clarifying that point. I don't know who it was so I cannot give credit where credit is due.)

Then there is the Museo de Oro that intertwines the history of a lost people with the obsessive grip that gold has over the conquerors. The Incas wore gold and paid cash in salt. That in fact is the origin of the word “salary”—sal, salt, salary. The salt of the earth was, for the Incas, salt. For the conquerors it was gold, but the Inca caciques wore gold. They attached it to their heads and ears and noses and hung massive plates of gold from around their necks. They coated their buildings in gold so that as the sun rose over the mountain peaks, their cities shimmered like honey in rising light.

And then, perhaps two hours from the capital city, hidden deep beneath the earth is the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. On a path that takes you three hundred feet below the surface are carved the Stations of the Cross. The journey culminates in a cathedral that is carved from the crystallized salt and can hold 8000 people. The cross behind the altar is a trick of light and imagination. From a distance it appears in 3D, a rounded column that stretches from floor to the immense, high ceiling of the cathedral. Traveling into the mine, I imagine Jesus during his three days of darkness, wandering in the heart of the earth. You can almost feel the weight of the world on your shoulders as you slip deeper and deeper into the mine. It is a place for leaving behind cares and worries, for letting the earth take hold of your fears, and for knowing that all will be well.

Salt and gold mines are not the only wonders of the place. If ever there was a place that deserved the title Emerald City, surely it must be somewhere in Colombia. The country is the source of the most stunning emeralds found anywhere in the world. According to a geologist that I met on the plane coming home, emeralds shouldn’t even be pressed into existence here. They are a wonder among gemstones. Most emerald deposits occur near volcanoes, but there aren’t any volcanoes near the Colombian emerald deposits.

“Why is that?” I said.

“No one knows,” he replied. “It’s a mystery to be solved.”

The whole of Colombia is a mystery. I don’t know if it’s a mystery I wanted solved, but it is a delight to step into the midst of it, to surround myself with the mists rising from the green mountains, to breathe, and to allow myself to be amazed.


Anonymous said...

Botero comes from Medellin, not Bogota !


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