Forwarded from Anthony

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jun 8 09:39:47 MDT 2000

Hello everybody:

Here’s another installment on my never-ending, but only so often,
travelogue about Colombia.

We just ended a puente (bridge) - the local name for a three day weekend.

Three day weekends here are sacred. Some of them have something to do with
some Saint’s day - although no one ever remembers which saint, and some of
them have to do with some battle fought in the wars of independence - and
only a very few know which battle.

Those things are not really considered to be important - even among
churchgoers and patriots. What is important is getting the hell out of town.

Despite this country image in the outside world -and the exaggerated fears
of a lot of the middle class here - of endless war, drug lords, constant
dangers of roadblocks and kidnappings, etc. - more than 2 million people
leave Bogota for the countryside every time there is a three day weekend.
The same thing happens on a smaller scale in every other city.

And in the small towns, people start to party Friday night - even if they
don’t go out of town.

We don’t usually leave town. In fact, Bogota is at its best when 30% of the
people leave.

No traffic jams, no smog. The many beautiful parks are not too crowded. The
museums are empty, the concerts are crowded, but not too crowded. Even the
ciclovia (the closure to cars and buses of the city’s main streets on
Sunday: bicycles, skates, and skateboards only) is less crowded on a three
day weekend.

But this time we left town.

We were invited to a quinceañera, the fifteenth birthday party of a young
lady. Here, as I think in all Latin America, a young woman’s fifteenth
birthday party is a very big deal. This is the traditional dividing line
between being a girl and a woman. Although these days most young women
don’t start thinking of having kids or getting married until they are quite
a bit older (sex is probably another thing, however.)

We probably met this young lady before, but I don’t remember the occassion.
She is the niece of my wife’s brother’s wife. Her family apparently decided
that for this occassion they should have the biggest, bestest party
possible - so they invited anybody they had ever met in their lives.

Actually, that’s probably not true. We were invited because we (my wife’s
family) are middle class people from the big city, and that makes us
important to them - because they are middle class people from a country
town. Maybe you know the fable about the city mouse and the country mouse.
To have a bunch of out of town cars parked in front of your house is a way
of getting one up on the Jones - or Montoyas. Even better if some of your
guests speak English.

I went out of curiosity, because I usually like parties, and to remain in
good standing with my wife’s family, all of whom went

We all went, despite a case of the jitters on the part of my in-laws caused
by a faxed rumor spread all over town that the FARC was going to launch an
offensive of roadblocks and kidnappings of weekend tourists. This rumor
incidentally, was exactly the opposite of what the FARC is doing -
publicizing its intent to stop kidnappings and attacks on infrastructure -
and its agreement to exchange cease-fire proposals with the government on
July 3.

We left Bogota around three Saturday afternoon - after having waited out
the gigantic traffic jam that began Friday afternoon and continued through
Saturday morning as the hordes evacuated the city for the resorts and the

The party was scheduled to take place in El Espinal, a hot, dusty farm town
in the valley of the Rio Magdalena. It was supposed to start at 9:00 P.M.

The drive was really pleasant.  El Espinal is about 100 miles due West of
Bogota - and about 8,000 feet down the mountain - almost at sea level
though very far from the sea. Since climate here depends a lot more on
altitude than on the time of the year, our little drive took us through a
lot of different climatic zones.

You start off driving an hour or so through the city, from the North East
where we live, to the South West, where the highway to the west leaves the
city. This drive takes you through mile after mile of industrial zone and
working class neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods consist of huge blocks of
brick apartment buildings, some very drab - others not so bad looking, and
huge areas of build-it-yourself houses - also made out of brick and cement.

The latter are more traditional than the apartment blocks - and they are
pretty interesting. They might start with one room, and grow to fill the
lot - and then grow upward two or three stories. All have electricity,
running water, and sewer connections. (Although there are neighborhoods
where perhaps a million people live, that do not have all - or even any -
of those things.)

As you hit the SW corner of the city, you run into cow pastures and huge
greenhouses. The greenhouses are where the cut-flowers this country exports
en masse to the USA are grown, and they really are the closest thing to a
farm factory you can imagine.

Then you reach the edge of the mountains, and start to climb. The highway
alternates among two, three, and four lanes.

Everything here is green, like a perpetual spring in California.

After the first "peaje" - toll booth- you hit dairy country. High alpine
country with lots of Holstein cows. But, to someone from the USA the dairy
landscape looks a little bit off, maybe because of the banana trees which
seem to do well even in this cool climate.

After a bit you head downhill. This is the resort road., which roughly
follows the gorge of the Rio Sumapaz as it hurtles downward to meet the Rio

The first big resort town is Fusa - or more completely, Fusagasuga - with
the emphasis of the "ga". Fusa is a big town, with about 100,000 residents.
It is the closest warm weather town to Bogota, so lots of Bogotanos go
there. Many own "fincas" - small , or not so small, farms which are their
weekend retreats.

Having a finca here is something like having a "dacha" to a Muscovite. A
lot of the fincas are owned by big city people with a lot of money. Some
are just vacation homes, ranging from cabins with cold water only, to
luxurious private retreats with several swimming pools, a horse stable, etc.

A lot of small fincas are owned by poor and working class people - the
family farm that never left the family even when the family left the farm.
Many fincas in every range are still working farms - maybe with a half a
dozen cows, or maybe with a few acres of coffee, or maybe a horse ranch if
the owners are rich.

But those who don’t have a finca still can find a place to stay - the town
has lots of hotels and resorts of every size and style, and almost every
price range.

After Fusa the road heads down a very long, windy, and steep grade into the
gorge of the Rio Sumapaz. Along the way you pass under a sharp and
foreboding overhang of rock called the devil’s nose. The gorge is
beautiful, but the traffic jam at the bottom, where the highway narrows to
two lanes, is always awful.

Once out of the gorge you find yourself in a semitropical forest - coffee
and sugar cane country.

Then you hit Melgar. Melgar is considered to be the poor man’s Cartegena
(Miami is considered to be the rich man’s Cartegena.) Melgar is a lot
hotter than Fusa. It is hot and humid. And it is full of resorts, hotels,
and nightclubs. (I wrote about CAFAM Melgar once in another piece of this
travelogue called "social democracy in Colombia.")

A few kilometers past Melgar you enter the valley of the Rio Magdelena. It
feels a lot like the Central Valley of California as you come down from the
Sierra Nevadas in spring time. The grass here is never dry and yellow -
it’s always green.

Really, it reminds me of the Central Valley in the 1950’s , before I5 was
built, and before I99 was turned into a freeway.

There are mountains to the East, mountains to the West - and in between a
hot, lush oasis of industrial agriculture. The roads are long, straight,
smooth two-lane affairs heading from the edge of the mountains to the
mountains on the other side, or along the edge of the river - to a northern
or southern horizon. The roads are full of big semitrailer rigs, and buses
- as many of them as private cars and taxis.

Taxis? Here you can take a taxi from one little town to the next - a
service that is essential in a place where most people do not own their own
car. Taking a taxi usually is a sign that the rider is a step higher on the
social ladder than the rest of the local citizenry who take the bus.

You are now in the department of Tolima - the rice bowl of Colombia. Once
you cross the bridge over the broad, swift, and very muddy Rio Magdelena,
the road begins to slice through rice fields - and continues for several

Then you hit the North/South highway that runs along the eastern edge of
the flood plain. We turn south, towards El Espinal, still traveling through
rice country, although now the bright green rice is broken by occasional
fields of corn and sorghum.

Along the highway you begin to see the rice silos, and lots of little
roadside stands selling lechona. Lechona is Tolima’s culinary claim to
fame: whole pig stuffed with lentils and pork, and then roast.

Then you hit El Espinal. It reminds me of Turlock, California before the
movie American Graffiti.

About 80,000 people live in El Espinal. The town is flat, laid out in a
perfect grid, where every lot appears to be exactly the same size as the
one next to it (and probably is)

It is hot, and dusty. The buildings are low, mostly one story - brick,
cement and stucco. Roofing runs to corrugated steel or corrugated plastic,
although you can find some thatched roofs here and there, and also some
buildings roofed with traditional red tile.

The pretty pastel paints used on the buildings - and the trees planted
along all the streets, are about the only things that keep this town from
being unbearably ugly.

The town is alive at night. Like in Turlock, cruising is a major feature of
life in El Espinal. Only cruising in El Espinal is a lot different from
cruising in Turlock. First of all, here its called a "paseo".

More important, most of the cruising in El Espinal is done on little
underpowered motorbikes or bicycles. The streets after dark are full of two
wheeled vehicles. More interesting is the fact that very few of these
vehicles are ridden by a driver only - most have passengers. Not just one
passenger, but two or even three. Several times I watched whole families:
Mom, Pop, little kid, and baby - riding around and around in circles around
this hot dusty town.

Just like cruising in Turlock, everyone stops now and then to chat with
friends, cousins, etc.

And along the route there are ample numbers of bars and clubs open until
the early morning hours. Our hotel was next door to one, and across the
street from another.

The Hotel Leska itself was an interesting place. It is a tall building by
the standards of El Espinal: three stories. No architect ever designed a
building like this one - which seemed like something Garcia Marquez and
H.C. Escher might have thought up if they had ever had the chance to get
drunk together (maybe with help from Sara Winchester).

There seemed to have originally been two or three separate buildings, which
were all remodeled and joined together to form one building, with
staircases added to reach the top stories. Still, most of the rooms had
private baths and televisions, and there was a nice swimming pool and a
bar. (Although the bathrooms had only cold water, and in ours the sink and
mirror were in the shower stall.)

More important than the bathroom and the TV was the large ceiling fan,
which kept the temperature in the room bearable (barely) in the oppressive
heat of this town. It was about 40 degrees centigrade most of the time we
were there (over 100 F).

I am sure it is the towns like El Espinal that most people in the United
States think of when they think of Latin America: hot, dusty, not very
modern, places. Places like Turlock in the 1950’s. Places like the small
towns of Mexico and Central America in the 1970’s.

Places as far away from the life of the big cities of South America, as
Turlock was in the 1950’s from big city life in the USA. (Turlock has since
been transformed into a burgeoning, and relatively cheap, bedroom community
for far-away silicon valley to the West, and Sacramento to the North. Its
shopping malls, apartment houses, and tract homes could fit in any suburb
from Dallas to Seattle, even though it is still hot and dusty.)

We checked into the hotel, dropped off our bags, changed our clothes, and
headed for the party.

This was a major affair. Invitations stated "corbata y larga" - tie and
evening gown. Tie, meant just that, in El Espinal Colombians can not
require men to wear a dinner jacket when it is 100F at 11:00 PM. (I guess
the British in India did wear formal jackets in such weather - although
with short pants.)

The restaurant in which the party was held reminded me in some ways of
restaurants I have been to in San Francisco’s Chinatown. There was a lot of
marble and wood paneling, along with a structural steel roof, and an
eclectic mishmash of photos and decorations on the wall. The furniture was
all Spanish colonial: hand tooled wood and leather, with cast iron
fittings. Nothing matched anything else.

At the front of the restaurant was the band - a band which played salsa,
and traditional Colombian music, and then -with a costume change - turned
into a Mariachi band to serenade the birthday girl. (Serenades with
Mariachi bands are de rigeur at big birthday parties here - they sing happy
birthday in English, las Mananitas (from mexico), plus traditional
Colombian birthday songs).

At the back of the restaurant was a small discotech - called a miniteca -
featuring rock-n-roll, trance (a version of techno), and other music
popular among fifteen year-olds. The only people dancing to salsa were the
old(er) folks.

Another way you could tell this affair was a big deal was the booze:
Scotch. Here, the local booze is aguardiente - fire water. It’s like a dry
anisette. I like it better than Scotch, but people with pretensions here
look down on aguardiente like leprosy - even if that’s what they drink at

For some reason, whiskey here is the one (and almost only) high class hooch
- but whiskey here equals Scotch. Bourbon? what’s that? Old Granddad? Wild
Turkey? Canadian Club?  Forget it.

Why this is so I can only guess. The USA is the dominant trading partner of
Colombia in almost every sphere of trade - but not in the market for booze.
My speculation is that the Brits cornered the market here as a result of
prohibition and its aftermath - and started a tradition that has endured.
But this is just speculation. (Vodka - both Russian brands and Absolute
[from Finland] - has made an important inroad into the local booze market.
Vodka is now the booze of choice for many local yuppies,  competing with
imported wines for the yuppie slice of the market.)

Food at the party was something like the Colombian version of the banquet
at Howard Johnson’s or the Holiday Inn. Rice, cole slaw, chicken, roast
pork, fried fish in an awful cheese sauce (I think that’s what it was), and
a slice of flan for desert. All served at the same temperature - I think
they kept it warm by putting it outside.

About 200 people attended this affair. As far as I could tell, attendance
was mostly drawn from local country club and wannabe country club members,
with a few VIPs imported from Bogota (us!).

Sinclair Lewis - if he could have - would have felt he knew this town the
moment he set foot in this party.

We danced, drank a little, engaged in small talk - which I can avoid by
exaggerating how poor my command of Spanish is - and then returned to our
hotel to swelter the rest of the night away.

The next day we went back to the party - but at a different location. The
same cast of characters, minus a hundred or so, had moved on to the
birthday girl’s grandparents house. There, in front of the house the
official city band of El Espinal was playing papayera music, and the guests
were dancing. At first they danced on the sidewalk, but soon moved into the

[Papayera is music with rhythms drawn from the Atlantic coast and the hot
interior valleys of Colombia, played by bands consisting of clarinets,
drums, horns, and a tuba. It’s something like a cross between the little
bands of southern Italy, John Philip Souza, and what people in the USA
think of as salsa.]

In a town like El Espinal, where very house stands on a lot the same size
as every other lot - competing with the Jones takes imagination. Hiring the
city band to play in front of the house was another way to show that the
family has money, that the family is important, that the family counts for
something. So was taking over the street for a private party.

And having cars parked in front with Bogota license plates, and a few
English speaking people in the crowd, only added to the neighborly game of
social one-up-manship.

Still, the party was pretty good. On this day beer was served. Good thing,
because it was hot as hell. Some of the guests danced in the street all
afternoon. Eventually a whole lechona - that is a whole stuffed and roast
pig- arrived, and the guests ate.

We left late in the afternoon, and headed for Ibague -the capital of Tolima
- where my brother in -law lives.

Ibague is a city of about 400,000 people. It’s closer to El Espinal than it
is to Bogota culturally, but far enough away from El Espinal for city
people to feel comfortable.

If El Espinal is like Turlock, Ibague is like Stockton. (Forgive me, those
of you who do not know California.)

The road from El Espinal to Ibague takes you out of rice country, through
miles and miles of mango orchards. On the way you pass by rice silos, crop
dusting airports, cement factories, and other more or less industrial - but
rural - enterprises.

As you approach Ibague you start to run into coffee warehouses, more rice
silos, brick factories, and other more or less industrial enterprises.

We stayed overnight at my brother -in laws house. He lives in a very
beautiful house in a closed and guarded private housing development - with
lots of security guards,  two swimming pools, a tennis court, baskteball
court, community center, etc.

Lalo is a dental surgeon, and his wife is a dentist. Only they have a
problem. Lalo has not been paid for eight or nine months by the government
run hospital where he works. They are broker than church mice. Only their
credit cards keep them floating precariously amongst their social equals -
many of whom are also floating with the aid of Mastercard, Visa or Diners

Lalo is the president of the dentist’s union. In Ibague they are a pretty
conservative bunch. They are hoping that somehow they will be paid - and
they don’t really want to rock the boat.

Elsewhere in Colombia the unpaid medical doctors, nurses, dentists, and
health care workers are not so deferential. Every month or so some hospital
goes up in flames - more or less figuratively. After going without a
paycheck for many months, hospital staffs finally lose patience - even
though they continue caring for their patients - and they occupy the
hospital building. Next the police come in and try to kick them out.

Then you get to watch the battle on the nightly news. Doctors and nurses
beating up on riot clad cops - the cops use rubber bullets and firehoses -
the doctors use firehoses, firebombs,  clubs, and fists. So far the police
seem to be losing in these battles - but the doctors still have not been

This is how the government of Andres Pastrana is keeping up with its
payments on its international debt obligations - it simply doesn’t pay it’s
payroll to the Md’s, dentists, and nurses here at home.

Despite this, and despite the many guests crowding Lalo’s house, we had a
nice time. We went swimming, watched Juan Pablo Montoya win some race in
Milwaukee, ate pizza, and departed in good spirits.

The trip back was swift and easy for three quarters of the way. The entire
personnel of the national police transit department (more or less the
equivalent of the highway patrol, except that here the police are part of
the military - and mostly are teenaged recruits without much training, and
on foot rather than in a high powered cruiser) was mobilized to smooth out
the return trip of the ten million or so weekend vacationers on the roads
(about 25% of the country’s population).

The police were lined up on the sides of the highways, one every 500 yards
or so. Mostly bored, but when a car broke down - they were there to help.
And when traffic was congested in one direction - but not the other - they
closed the road to traffic going away from Bogota - and opened up all lanes
for traffic going to Bogota.

[I strongly suspect that the cops were out in force also to reassure
motorists that the roads were safe - no danger from the FARC or ELN, and to
show that the government really is "in control".]

But all of this effort could not untangle the traffic jam that developed at
the entrance to Bogota. It took us three hours to drive 150 miles from
Ibague to the outskirts of Bogota, and three more hours to drive thirty
miles through Bogota.

But, we made it home before midnight, and went to work at 5:30 the next day.

More later

Louis Proyect
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