Colombia - is it safe?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The first thing any friend or family member says when you tell them that you're in Colombia is either 'oooh... be careful', or 'oooh... snort plenty of coke for me'.
Alas, I'm not writing to you to talk about my Gran and her drug problems.

Despite all of the assurances that I would regularly see police informants being gallow-dropped out of helicopters, my first few days in Bogota was spent feeling surprisingly... safe.

The city centre and the (average) suburban calles have a relaxed, sun-bathed tranquility about them; shop owners and apartment porters are keen to have laid-back, languid chats at any time of the day.

It shouldn't come as a big surprise - The Colombia Tourism Board are currently running a titanic international advertising campaign, utilising reassuring slogans such as the somewhat defeatist - Colombia... the only risk is that you'll want to stay.

But despite the relaxed feel of the streets of what was once 'The Murder Capital of the World' (an honour now fought over by Caracas, Venezuela and Johannesburg, South Africa), the locals, both English and Colombian, were quick to warn me of the perils that lay ahad.
"It's not as dangerous now... but this is still a very dangerous city", said one. "The higher you go in Bogota (towards the mountains that surround the city) the more dangerous it is", said another. "If you see someone with a tattooed face, run", added a third.

And despite the fact that the locals seem of a kindly temperament, any Bogota building of value, be it public or private, is surrounded by a 12-foot razor wire fence (with optional electric current). Even more disconcerting is that a number of these fences in the city centre actually have scraps of rotten clothes hanging, limp and shredded, from the razor wire.

This combination of easy going, flowery streets, friendly people, stern, serious warnings and heavy duty security creates an odd feeling; not one of either safety or danger, but one of being stuck in a calm, tenuously balanced limbo; the eye of the storm.

Subsequently, I began to get more paranoid during my last days in Bogota.

My first feeling of unease was whilst sat in a suburban park at dusk, waiting for my Couchsurfing host (an English teacher called David) to return home from work. A group of dog walkers had conjugated around a grassy mound behind me, and I began to feel ' watched '.
I caught a fragment of the muttered conversation- the word yankee.

Was this it? Did Bogota's criminals now operate under the guise of innocent, rubber ball-throwing dog walkers? Picking up their shit in perfumed bags, before forcing it down the throats of rival drug smugglers?

I heard soft, plodding footsteps on the grass behind me, and span around to find myself face to face with ... a smiling old woman.

'Donde eres?' she asked, before explaining to me that her son was in London, and that it's like myself and her son have changed places. I respectfully declined her invitation to go to her house for dinner, and her invitation to meet her daughter, but walked her to her home, before heading in the direction of David's apartment.

My second brush with uncertain peril came through the Couchsrfing website.
Upon logging onto the site in a new city, the local members can see that you, a traveller, are 'nearby'.
In some cities, such as London, Madrid or Paris, you're commonly disregarded as just another turdy tourist.
In others, like Istanbul, Marrakesh, and Bogota, the locals seem very keen to meet foreigners, and to practice their English. The visa restrictions are tough on aspiring travellers in these countries; if they can't travel the world, they'll let the world travel to them.
I received a few invitations for 'a coffee or a drink' in Bogota, one of them from a (suspiciously) beautiful girl with no peer references, no profile information, and only one couchsurfing 'friend', who was equally modelesque, and thus equally likely to be some kind of sinister honeytrap.

The couchsurfing website is built on trust, so it would have been wise to decline the request... but, as you may suspect, I'm drawn to danger like a mosquito drawn to sweaty ginger skin, so I went to meet them both.
They were as dangerously seductive in person as they looked in their pictures. I spoke with them politely, braced for any invitations to dive bars or back alleys, fully expecting to be kidnapped, bundled into a van and ransomed off by FARC guerillas. I knew that the British government refuse to pay hostage fees, but I have seen 'Rambo', and thus know everything there is to know about surviving in dense jungle.

In the end, though, we went to the cinema and ate tacos.

As a relaxing, pleasant week in Bogota came to an end, and I arrived at the house of my new host, Katerina, in the city of Medellin (the former stronghold of drug lord Pablo Escobar), I was told that Colombia's second city was much safer than Bogota. It seemed I wouldn't have my little flirtation with danger after all.

I slept peacefully on my first night in 'the city of eternal spring', as the crickets chirped merrily around the humid hills that surrounded Katerina's elegant villa.
I woke to semi-consciousness in the morning, still half-dreaming about a dead and sightless Pablo Escobar, driving around the house on a motorised lawnmower, banging into things and generally being a nuisance.
As I became conscious I also became aware that the sounds in my dream were taking place outside the house; bangs, doors slamming open, people shouting and the monotonous scream of some huge, mechanical engine.
The sounds grew nearer; the shouting now echoing around Katerina's hallway. I sat up in bed, half-naked and bleary-eyed, but wide awake.
I didn't have time to reach my clothes before the door was barged open, revealing a uniformed man - stood framed against the light of dawn- holding what looked like a huge, gatling machine gun.
My body tensed; the test had arrived.
If I possessed the 'killer instinct', I could get to the door and plunge my thumbs into his eyeballs before the machine gun powered up.
If not, my body would be ridden with bullets, and my best underpants would be ruined, forever.

Katerina appeared in the doorway behind the man.
"They are fumigating the house for Dengue Fever", she shouted above the din of the machine's engine.
"Put on your pants and get outside, quick."