Monday, 26 February 2018

Is Colombia dangerous? And a risky trek!

I pose that question because people back home in Europe often express doubts about my coming here. Well, of course, many parts of Colombia are very dangerous, less so now that peace has been made with Farc and they now have a political party in the elections in March. (By the way, the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has reached his limit of 8 years and his party is among many in the elections in March, even more than in Catalunya!)
But the level of crime in parts of Colombia is high and peace was never made with ELN, the other main terrorist group here. And they are now operating across the border with Venezuela where there is a huge problem of immigration - there is chaos with our neighbour which is how Colombians describe Venezuela.
In the whole world, there are places where it is not wise to go at night, Barcelona even. My  time here has usually been in cities but I have spent a lot of time in rural areas too, and I have seen no evidence of crime or violence. Nothing close to it. I guess my most risky time was the weekend which has just passed and I want to tell you about it!
I have mentioned before my friend Mayerlin and she invited me to Santuario which is where she works as a teacher during the week - her home town is here in Pereira which is how I met her, at a social group. We get on really well, so I had looked forward to my time with her. By the way, many of my friends teach English but Mayerlin has a full week teaching several subjects in a a school.
I took a small mini-bus from the Terminal de Transporte in Pereira to Santuario early on Saturday morning, the journey was about 1h40. The bus company is based in Santuario and they simply wait until the bus is full, then off they go. Normally there is one per hour.
Mayerlin was not free till mid-day so I had a second breakfast in the plaza and wandered around the town. 

 When she was free, Mayerlin took me to her house which is where I was to spend the night. There were steep steps up to the front door and it was on two levels. These photos give you an idea of what Santuario is like, perched on a hill top.

We then had some lunch and planned what to do in the afternoon. Mayerlin suggested taking a jeep to a near-by town, so that is what we did. But it only went as far as a region called la Marina, in the middle of nowhere. So my next question was, where do we go from here? We started walking up the road and Mayerlin was thumbing for a lift from passing cars. I said that no way should she do that - she said that she had done it on her own. I said that, once inside a car, one is totally at the mercy of whoever is driving it. For sure, normally it is a kind person who has stopped to give a lift, but you never know.... whatever the country.

Then a luxurious mini-bus came along and we hailed that. We took a seat at the back where there was a young woman with a baby. It was a little surreal because it was all on impulse, rather like "Treasure Hunt" on TV many years ago, if you remember it. The bus took us to Apia which is another small town about the same size as Santuario and we drank tea by the local square which was teeming with people. It was about 4pm, I had no idea how we were going to get back but Mayerlin reassured me by showing me Santuario perched on its hill top on the horizon. I have to admit, I was a little worried that we would end up stranded at la Marina, with it getting dark and with no jeep to take us back home. But I need not have worried. These jeeps are everywhere, they serve as a bus and delivery service in rural Colombia. We found a jeep to take us to la Marina and about 10 minutes later, another jeep took us back home. It was getting dark by that time, so I wouldn't have wanted to be much later than that. 
We had a pleasant evening, chatted to a friend who teaches art and then we went back to Mayerlin's home, had some food, watched TV for a short time and then went to bed. I am sure you realise that this is a very pure relationship, we are friends only of course. 
Mayerlin set the alarm for 5am next day (Sunday) because we were due to take a 30 minute jeep ride at 7am to San Raphael, a small village from which we were to take a walk. We both enjoy standing on the back even if it is not necessary!

I should have known from last year when I went on a hike with my friend Alejandra that this would be no walk in the park! It was a very tough hike through deep forests following a rapidly flowing river which we had to cross seven times.

After the jeep dropped us off by a hotel, we had a breakfast of cheese and chocolate (it has a name but I forget) by a trout pool and then headed off with three women who had also come in the jeep.

I have added lots of photos here, I haven't tried to keep a sequence. This is where we were.

As I mentioned before, the hike was very tough. Sometimes the trail was very narrow, at one point it disappeared completely and we had to climb down a small slope where the ground had subsided. We were away for about 6 hours so I guess we were hiking for about 5 hours. Each time we came to the river, we had to plan how to cross it by leaping across the rocks. As you can see, we had a dog to keep us company and it stayed with us for the whole journey. Once or twice, Mayerlin had to carry the dog across the raging stream. Our objective was the Cascadas de San Rafael which we actually reached but I thought we would have to give up at several stages. At some points later in the trek, there were ropes to help up up steep slopes, it was all a bit crazy. But Mayerlin is an exceptional person, not one to give up. I was impressed. The three women came along willingly but I'm not sure if, between themselves, they considered giving up. The trek would have suited a group of fit young people. I am 74 but very fortunate with my health so I could handle the trip with no problems. To me, knees are a miracle, the force that they have to endure. But many people are not so fortunate.
The ground was always wet and we all tended to slip and fall at times, I was a little unlucky as I hit my head on a tree as I fell backwards, on the way back. There was some blood but it soon stopped and there was no pain. I left it as it was, I didn't attempt to clean it. I am a great believer in the body doing its own protection - in theory the flow of blood flushes out any germs and then it forms a solid barrier against any further infection. 

So, we must have walked for about 3 hours until finally we reached our objective and had some lunch on a rock. On the way back, I think I gave my companions a scare. There were some rocks high above the river which we had to traverse by abseiling. I went first and crossed the first rock easily. But on the second abseil, I lost my footing and swung sharply in the direction of the river. I fell backwards over a large tree trunk and my knees ended up wrapped around it. My friends above were very alarmed because all they could see were my legs and they feared that I was about to drop down the cliff into the river below. I thought it was funny - from my point of view there was no danger. I was holding on to the rope tightly and there was undergrowth between the log and the cliff and my knees.  But I think it shook Mayerlin because she then realised that the trek held risks. We were deep in a forest with obviously no phone signal. My main worry was an injury such as a twisted ankle so I was very careful where I put my feet.
So... Colombia is dangerous, but not in the way you think. Maybe Colombians have a different view of the world, maybe they take bigger risks. But I am so happy we went on that trek because, at some points, I couldn't see how we could go on. But there was no turning back, we had to stay together. It was as much a mental challenge as a physical one. 
On the way back, we didn't bother crossing the river on the rocks, we just waded across! My trousers were totally wrecked and dirty and Mayerlin lent me a pair of hers for my journey back to Pereira. 
We got back to our jeep meeting point soon after 3pm having left Santuario at 7am. The jeep picked us up at 4pm and took us back to Santuario, the roads are terrible but maybe I am getting used to it. 
By the way, although I had insect repellant with me, there was no need for it. There were no flying insects and I was never bitten. It is funny, deep in a Colombian forest but more insects in the woods near where I live in Spain!

Here are the photos.... (more text below the photos!)

When I got back in range of a 3G signal at about 4pm in the jeep, I saw a message from Adrian, the owner of my apartment to visit him when I got back home. I noticed two missed calls from him. I assumed that he wanted to talk about cleaning the flat before I leave because we had discussed it before. The mini-bus from Santuario dropped me off in the centre of Cuba and I bought some food in the Éxito supermarket. When I visited Adrian's apartment below mine there was a party in full swing, Stephanie's birthday. I was wearing the clothes I had trekked in, but with rather strange trousers. I was given a beer and food at a table with a group of young people. This was totally the last thing I wanted, I was stressed and tired. I even started speaking in English by accident at one point. Adrian said that they had been worried about me because he could not get a reply from my phone and I wasn't in the apartment. I replied that it was allowed for one to go offline from time to time. He said that they were worried I had been kidnapped (no one would pay the ransom!) Why should anyone want to do that? I am living in the city of Pereira, with half a million occupants. In any case, I told his wife as I passed the front door where I was going first thing on Saturday morning but I can't remember if I said I was staying overnight. I think I did, so I went away imagining they knew where I was. Then Stephanie said that she had phoned Nini (I didn't even know they had her number) to ask where I was. My relationship with Nini is finished so that is the last person I would have wanted them to contact. But as it happens, I had told Nini that I was away for the weekend.
I have to confess that I got rather irritable at the party but I was more cheerful later. Someone said that I should have cleaned the cut in my head, "...because the tree was dirty". This was virgin forest virtually untouched by human hand.... apart from the abseiling ropes! My head is fine, what goes on inside is another thing altogether! It is true that there is harmful bacteria in the soil but sticking my head in the river would not have done much good, I think.
Then I went back up to my flat and I see that I may have problems with my Meetup group in Girona, which is all I need. And I stepped down as Organiser of my Meetup group here. I have gained 44 members but no one comes to the meetings. Maybe they are confusing it with Facebook. I did write to them asking what they wanted to do.
So I went to bed, rather stressed but very happy to have gone on the trek with my dear friend Mayerlin.
Now I have 3 days before I go back to Spain on Thursday. But I am not looking forward to that. The political situation is still chaotic and I may have difficulty with my Meetup group. But the latter is more easily resolved than the political situation! Unlike Carles Puigdemont in Belgium, I can run my group from abroad even though I am not actually attending the meetups.


1 comment:

  1. Enjoy your last day in Colombia and have a smooth journey home. Cheese and chocolate, eh? Not sure about that.