Down and Out of Colombia

Friday, March 12, 2010

Newly armed with the ability to coin an expression like “Me gustaba frijoles” from my one week of Spanish lessons in Cali, not to mention a parting gift of toilet paper from a friend there, I was zipping along the highway to the white city of Colombia, Popayan. For once, the trip was a scant three hours, so I had no problem leaving after a hearty lunch on the walk to the bus station. Arriving in Popayan, I was less than impressed, but we hadn’t yet gone through the old town and it was raining. So I hopped in a cab for $1.75 and headed into the white-washed old town and the hostel another backpacker had recommended, Casa Familiar Turistica. As it was already late afternoon and the rain was unceasing, I holed up in the room, chatted with my German roommates, and watched a documentary on Ecuador (my next stop) before heading out for dinner. There were very few places open for dinner, so my meal consisted of two sticks of street meat and a way-overcooked barbecued corn on the cob. One thing about Popayan that I noticed pretty quickly was the utter lack of tiendas – little convenience stores – so my Coke craving was satiated instead by a revel. Back at the hostel I got chatting with a French professor here in Popayan and he recommended some things for me to see tomorrow... if the weather cooperated.

It did. The next morning was beautiful and for the first time in a long time – maybe as far back as Cartagena – I went on a serious photo safari of the city. I hadn’t even left the corner my hostel is on before I’d taken two photos and bought a cup of fruit punch from the man on the corner. Popayan definitely looked a lot better in the light and I strolled over to the famous bridge up to the square, admired the buildings and the people, and kept ambling around the city in random directions in a similar manner. Something I had today that I usually eschew was a tourist map which I would occasionally pull out when I was bored of aimless ambling to point myself in the direction of some landmark or other. Here in Popayan, those landmarks are invariably churches and I made my way up hills and pilgrim paths to see them, in particular Iglesia Belen, which is at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The setting (and climate) is entirely different but nevertheless all the whitewash reminded me a bit of Santorini and Belen ins particular had a two-tiered three-bell belfry towering above it. All that was missing were some steep cliffs and the Mediterranean blues below.

When I wasn’t looking at churches, I was generally observing the people of Popayan. Remember that my photo finger was twitching like nobody’s business (but don’t worry, I’ve been extra harsh in reviewing and managed to keep the photos down to a viewable number) and I was looking for any excuse to catch people in their element. I passed a school just letting out and what a zoo of humanity that was. Parents crowded the gates waiting for their kids alongside vendors of ice cream, cotton candy, jugo latino (basically fruit-jello juice with crème on top), and other goodies. I managed to weave through the madness and into the school where I could get a vantage point of the chaos below. I grabbed a coffee (Juan Valez, of course, and actually it was a mochachino) and watched a man spraypainting a sign then sat with some ladies playing Parquez which is basically their version of “Sorry”. And then I wandered up to the tallest hill in the city, El Morro de Tulcan where I was confronted by a lot of military with some big guns and an interest in searching me. No problem, nothing to hide, and I had heard that this area was pretty rife with guerrilla activity especially with the upcoming election. In a small town nearby, two soldiers were killed the day prior and another town has been undersiege for the last few weeks. They were quite friendly and posed for photos and talked about the area after the search. They advised me against visiting Tierradentro for security reasons and traveling this area at night. Then they walked down with me to the museum as it was looking like rain again.

It was just a drizzle so I walked through the museum and down to the river where I hopped the fence and walked along it looking for photos. Then back to civilization, my hostel, a nice dinner, and rest. With my plans for nearby ruins changed, and after some reading about Ecuador (in addition to the documentary) I had a new plan. I would head to Pasto tomorrow (six hours south), look around there for the day, and then the following day (Friday) I would go to Ipiales, see the beautiful church there, then cross the border to Ecuador and make for Otavalo where I would stay for a few days and also get to see the famous Saturday market there. I’d read that Pasto was only a place to stop if you had to but I actually found it quite nice once I got away from the terminal. I dropped my bags at the Koala hostel and wandered around with camera in hand. The setting is the best part – it’s like if somebody plunked a Colombian town right in the middle of the default Windows XP background. I had three kids hanging around me looking for an opportunity to pickpocket me (two on a bike and one there to do the deed and presumably hand it off to them) but a warning from a passing bus driver scattered them like dandelions in the wind. The weeds of society.

I’m not sure what the best course of action would be if they’d succeeded – chase the kids with the bike or grab the one that nabbed your wallet. Obviously they’re counting on you running after the bike to let the actual thief get away. If you chased them, you MIGHT catch them and save a lot of trouble, but if you held on to him and dragged him towards a police officer, maybe they’d come back to rescue? Either way, I didn’t have such decisions to make. I won’t detail my walking around anymore, but there were some nice non-church things like a flower market, an arcade and plaza, and a scenic little stream meandering through town. My hostel had four or five traveling wackos and nobody else so I had no problems being antisocial that night and in fact worked on my blog after dinner. Not writing, but moving. Google is doing a terrible job with Blogger and changing just about everything I rely on for my blog to function. First of all they’re removing the ability for me to host it on my own server. Secondly, even if I move it over to their servers, I have to change the way EVERYthing is coded so that it looks the same as now. I like what I’ve got – I designed it myself (based on a template, true, but very modified) and it’s unique. However, if I am able to convert my code to the new type, there would be a lot of advantages for me in terms of new features. But then, if this weren’t enough, they’ve also added a new ‘mandatory feature’ (AKA limitation) that won’t allow me to show more than a few posts per page. So before, you used to be able to look at, say, Australia, and see a map of every single place I’d visited on the continent, but now you can only see a handful at a time. Grrrr. Anyway, I spent the evening working on converting.

Friday had arrived, and it was time for my whirlwind trip. It was also the time I was to leave Colombia, but I definitely felt the time for that hadn’t come yet. Still, I packed up (after some more morning blog work – the port is coming along slowly but surely and I should be good to go before the May 1 deadline) and I walked to the bus terminal. Ipiales was about three hours south on yet another beautiful drive (I have a feeling that such drives are standard in this part of the world, but it reminded me at times of my journey near Shangri-la) and right on the border and from there I checked my backpack in the bus station’s luggage storage and grabbed a taxi to the church (about 6km from town). I tried to get a collective, but waited for over 30 mins and gave up on that idea. Out of town and situated over a gorge (literally over, it spans the entire thing) is Santuario de las Lajas, a church that was built there in the early 1900s after an image of the virgin Mary was seen in the rock. The church is built into the rock so that the place she was seen actually forms the main altar. I got there just after noon and photographed it from all sorts of angles. Above on three sides and below on three sides, I was scurrying around the cliffs like a madman trying to get it all in so I could get back to town, cross the border, and hopefully make Ecuador by nightfall.

Still, it was worth coming out and seeing this beautiful church and I’m glad I took the time to come and see it. I’ve encountered a surprising number of, well, atheist is the wrong word. Maybe anti-religious people is a more accurate way to describe them. The surprise is because these are such religious countries. Anyway, I’ve grown weary of people saying it’s the root of all evil and nothing good has come from it. Assuredly many terrible things have been (and are being) done in the name of religion and I’m definitely no fan of the organization as such but then again things like this are examples of what great things can be achieved as well. But enough of such talk, I found a collective back to town and after a quick bite caught one just about to leave for the border. For some reason, the taxista dropped us off right on the Ecuador side which meant I had to walk back across the bridge to get my exit stamp from Colombia (electronic and boring) and then cross back to get my entry stamp for Ecuador (the same), which is, according to a little Facebook application that keeps such records, the 50th country I’ve visited. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot or not, I mean I suppose it is, but there are 195 in total and I feel like I’ve travelled a lot to have only seen ¼ of them. Still, here I was with the midafternoon sun in my eyes leaving what lay ahead a whited-out mystery.

Southwest Colombia Photos

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