FOREWORD: The following is a response to a friend’s e-mail congratulating me on surviving the jungle “FARC-free.” I’ve been in Colombia for over two months now, without incident, besides a painstaking visa extension process. It’s my impression that many people, particularly Americans, still associate Colombia largely with cocaine and machine guns (much as I did before my arrival). These same people may think I’ve been lucky to survive thus far surrounded by such chaos. But there is much more to Colombia than what makes the newsreel. In fact, it’s dark reputation in the grand majority of the country is 180-degrees to reality. Colombia is safe, thriving, and impressively hospitable. It’s consistently one of the happiest countries in the world according to the World Values Survey, it’s almost completely self-sufficient in all foodstuffs, and there is a country-wide pride that bonds people from very different regions with a genuine patriotism that follows less the flag-waving brand and more the “love thy neighbor” philosophy. However, there are isolated problems. Serious problems. The drug trade is one. The ‘guerilla’ is another. The rebel forces in Colombia, whose main goal is to overthrow the government, have been strong-armed by the military into the remote southern jungles near the Ecuador border. Having no public support, this minority group continues their armed campaign more out of desperation than any real chance of success. I’m near these jungles, but even now this bandit group seems more like a fairy tale than a legitimate threat. Note: I’m taking precautions to remain safe despite above ‘fairy tale’ comment.
….The visa extension day was the only time since beginning this trip that I hated Colombia. The whole day was unnecessary since I back-tracked by bus to a city where I had already been, with a whole day and week’s worth of money wasted in the process. Latin American bureaucracy is torture. All the patience I’ve learned climbing mountains as if time doesn’t exist ended the third time I was forced to ink my thumb for finger prints. Actually, I feel bad because I was rude to people who were just doing their job—which is a lesson in itself. I won’t let it happen again. But it’s done: visa extended. I could technically stay in Colombia until September 25th—but of course am anxious to get to Quito….
I survived the jungle. The route began in a green valley with dairy cows and fruits stands every couple of miles, then climbed upward hugging the slopes, the jungle covered by cloud and the roads slick with drizzle. Every so often entire mountainsides would be barren of trees, replaced by mud patches where avalanches of loose earth wiped out the forest, the smallest the size of bowling lanes shooting downward, the largest pure clay and dirt football fields.
Last night I stayed with a family whose house had neither plumbing nor electricity. It’s unbelievable how hospitable Colombians are; I’ve never experienced such selfless generosity in any other country I’ve visited. This family was the first I asked about putting my tent on their property and within minutes I was in their house with a coffee in hand. When I arrived to Mocoa, the town I write from now, I stopped to buy a drink at a corner store. After some small talk, the store owner also agreed to let me put my tent up outside his home. I’m heading there as soon as I finish this message. Tonight I hope to write on my laptop and post some writings tomorrow morning before the bus ride to Pasto.
As far as the jungle, I’m confused whether this route is actually dangerous, not dangerous at all, or just exaggeratedly naive on both sides. As with most conversations about the guerrilla war within the country, everyone has different opinions. Bikers say there is nothing to worry about. People in Bogota think the whole Southern half of Colombia is a no-go zone. The police cadets by the side of the road are too busy texting to care. Most give very vague advice about safety, if any at all. Today the advice was more straightforward. A military captain stopped me at a road block to say, with a stern stare, to be careful because the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) are present on the highway—sometimes—and they see me as “money”—saying it in English for an emphasis that could only be understood as ransom. Again, ambiguity in the wheres and whens. I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me or really trying to help.
Anyway, I’m in Mocoa, and will catch a bus to Pasto tomorrow morning instead of biking further into the jungle to cross into Ecuador at Lago Agrio, an idea I was toying with for a few days now. It’s just not worth the risk. There is limited police presence along the jungle Colombian-Ecuadorian border, and it’s possible the few officials present have dubious alliances with the area’s best paying employer, the FARC. The FARC is known to hold captives for years while emptying their families’ bank accounts, and even then freedom is not guaranteed. With the newly proposed U.S military bases making headlines, I’d be especially sought-after in their territory.
I feel like this bus trip to Pasto is cheating, but its been raining for two days, which means I’ve been soaked for two days, and the road, which would be the steepest climb yet, in the remotest jungle to date, where mud-slides are common, is also soaked…because it’s an unpaved incline…for two days. With the days I save from not slopping through the mud I’m going to visit another Casa de Ciclistas just northeast of Quito, in Tumbaco.