On my first full day in Bogotá, I took a wrong turn near the edge of one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, La Perseverancia, and was mugged at knifepoint. On my last full day in Bogotá, I had coffee with Colombia's former two-term president in his office. These two experiences—one with the very poor and the other with the very powerful—are the bookends of an exciting week in the Andean capital and serve as a metaphor for the fragmented personality of one of South America's richest lands.
I went to Bogotá partly to be alone, partly to practice speaking Spanish, and partly to learn more about a country most well-known in the US as a hotbed of cocaine trafficking and guerrilla warfare.
The walk between my little bed and breakfast and the base of Monserrate, a mountain overlooking the city of eight million, was a fifteen-minute stroll—or should have been. What I didn’t know was that I had to cut through one of two neighborhoods, one of which, a policeman would tell me in about 40 minutes, was muy peligroso.
There’s not much I want or need to say about what happened. When I tell people that my trip to Bogotá included both a mugging and a sit-down interview with President Álvaro Uribe, they inevitably focus on the former. This is unfortunate, because I find the latter incident more exciting. If it bleeds it leads, they say—at least I wasn’t cut in either encounter.
Perspective determines which experience was more interesting and which man is more dangerous, and I honestly can’t tell you which is which. In both situations, I was at a disadvantage, the other man having the upper hand. What’s different with the robbery is that I felt a level of fear, an emotion absent from my conversation with Uribe. With Uribe, I felt no fear, but I did sense great power in the room.
It was Sunday morning, and the young man rushed at me with a very long blade, sunlight glancing off the polished metal. In a low, quick, and hurried voice, he demanded my money and my bag, which contained a camera I was not ready to give up. He repeatedly threatened and lunged while I parried and distracted him with words in broken Spanish. We danced around each other, and because I was essentially cut off from an escape route—and since none of the onlookers came to my aid—I delayed as long as possible until I could find a way out. Minutes dragged on, and that only made him angry. The entire time, I was calm, understood the situation, and even marveled in the briefest of moments that we were both actors playing the parts of thug and victim.
By the time I handed over my last bill, he was at wit’s end. It was in the sliver of a moment when he took his eyes off me that I made my move, jumping into the highway and forcing traffic to a stop. I opened the back door of a black sedan and jumped in, surprising the hell out of a teenage girl sitting in the back. The family drove for one minute, maybe two, back to the neighborhood from where I started. Calm, I retrieved more cash from my room and called a taxi.
The cab driver zipped by the very place I had been robbed minutes before, and I could see that nobody was around. During the week, I passed that spot a few times, always in a taxi. On my last full day in Bogotá, I rode in a Senator’s Lincoln Navigator; as we passed by the spot where one of his countrymen threatened my life, I didn’t say a word.
It happened to me just like it happens to thousands of people every year in thousands of cities around the world. The mugging was a frightening moment, no doubt, but not unique and in the end, inconsequential. My bigger concern was to not let the incident color my perceptions of the city, its people, and Colombia in general.
It didn’t, and that’s that.
Atop Monserrate, though, I could hardly enjoy the view because of the thoughts turning in my mind, incessantly replaying the semi-violent mugging that occurred not an hour ago. One is allotted a certain amount of time to freak out, so I took the time and absorbed the stress.
Upon descending the mountain, I hailed a cab to go downtown. All the guidebooks warned me not to grab cabs off the street—that instead I was supposed to call for one or use a mobile app called Tappsi, which allows your friends to track your movements in case of a kidnapping. But how a tourist traveling without a mobile phone is supposed to do this, I don't know.
Immediately, the driver made a U-turn and drove away from the city. My mind quarreled with itself: He must know a shortcut one argument went; you're being taken to a remote road where you will be stabbed by a gang of thieves waiting in a prearranged desolate place, went the response. But the latter didn’t happen. Instead, we struck up a conversation, he tolerating my basic knowledge of Spanish, and I don't remember which of us started talking. Typically, I am one to chat it up with cabbies as you can learn so much from them—levels of corruption in Cairo, failed businesses in Lagos, how Jamaican men mix together carrot juice, condensed milk, and Guinness beer, and on and on. Jorge and I hit it off alright. He spoke mas despacio ("very slow") for me while I attempted to convey my intentions in Bogotá. He was mucho gusto ("very glad") to meet me, and I felt the same toward him. In the back seat of a tiny taxi, my faith in the people of this city was restored. It was not yet noon.
I wouldn't realize it until a day or two later, but when I was on top of Monserrate, Bogotá's mountain overlook, I would receive a sunburn so bad that it caused first-degree burns—on my face. My head turned red as an apple, the skin on my nose blistered and bled, and for days—even after my return to New York—I peeled skin as if I were removing cheap Halloween makeup.
In the Museo del Oro, it was reassuring to hear American accents—I was not alone in Bogotá. But I wondered who I really had more in common with: the blabbering American girl who talked about some wedding festivities or the older woman with whom I silently circumnavigated the exhibits, each of us intent on learning or being inspired? It was the language that immediately connected me with the young lady; it was the language barrier that immediately disconnected me from the older one.
I was sipping an espresso in the park and people watching when a man—thirties, jeans, white t-shirt, aviator glasses, sweat glistening on his cue-ball head—approached me quickly and declared, "Shit, dude, you're sitting on my bag of weed!" Sure enough, I was. "Sorry," I replied in an accent as American as his. He looked at me for a second and cocked his head like a puppy hearing a noise for the first time. A conversation naturally ensued, in which the following details emerged:
- His name was Chris from Miami, and he had spent 47 months in US federal prison for gang activity, drugs, and other miscellaneous misdeeds.
- Of Colombian descent, he was deported for a period of 10 years, after which he can return to the US. I didn't know someone could return, but apparently there are varying degrees of deportation. I also didn’t ask for details because he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who wanted to discuss jurisprudence. He had been in Colombia for six years hopping around the country and rattled off just about every city I've heard of: Cali, Cartagena, Medellin, Santa Marta, and of course Bogotá, which he hated.
- He told me about the three-day hip-hop festival happening in town, and how he had been there the previous night and someone had gone like this [taps finger to temple], which is apparently the sign for needing drugs, and so Chris approached. The man asked what he could get for 50,000 COP—about $25 USD. Chris pulled out some weed and cocaine. The man turned out to be policia and busted Chris, who was also carrying a sheet of acid and about 450,000 COP for the day's work. The police, of course, kept it all, or so Chris guessed, and put him in jail for the night. He had just gotten out an hour prior to us meeting.
- The concert continued for a third and final night, and Chris informed me that he would have lots of coke and women if I wanted to go—I absolutely didn’t.
The whole time we spoke, he had been rolling a joint. I found a moment to extract myself and told him I needed to find lunch, but that I appreciated the conversation. We bumped fists, shook hands, and I noticed how the sunshine caught the tiny crystals of Cali’s finest, making the palm of his hand sparkle.
George, the bartender, and all the rest of the staff at the Bogotá Beer Company (BBC) wore big buttons that proclaimed "Bienvenidos al 1%" ("Welcome to the 1%"). This struck me as belligerent and slightly offended me, though not enough to make me find another bar. As we listened to rocking 1980s music from the US and tended to our own affairs, I saw George propped up against the wall behind the counter reading his book of choice: H. P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon.
The next day, Carolina, the executive director of a local non-profit and friend of a friend who had agreed to meet with me, informed me that the button is not an invitation for the world's elite class to come and drink at the BBC, but rather, celebrates the fact that the company now brews one percent of Colombia’s beer.
I found myself looking for the police. Their presence at least reassured I wouldn’t get stabbed on this block, and yet I was well aware of corruption in their ranks. That’s not a dig on Colombian police—some cops everywhere are corrupt. The feelings were doubly frustrating, since the police are wards of a violent militant state (everywhere) ... and yet, for the moment, they were measures of safety for me—I had many conflicting thoughts.
I was a little angry at the man who took my money at knifepoint, as he did not have to rob me. I was—and remain—even more furious at the unjust, global economic system that creates a situation in which a young man is compelled to threaten the life of another human being just so he can get a little bit of money. It was a risky situation for him, too, not knowing the type of person he was about to assault. He took the chance nonetheless, and it paid off, at least in monetary terms.
I explored the street art scene, most significantly in the La Candelaria and El Centro neighborhoods, where a renaissance of high graffiti art blossoms. With only a few exceptions, the theme permeating the stylized work is that of the human condition: poverty, injustice, beauty, the degradation of the spirit, the sense of hope, love, and even our relationships with animals and nature. Once I got to know the work, I saw the style repeated all across the city. It appeared Bogotá’s graffiti street art scene consists of about 20 hardcore regulars, with a smattering of hangers-on, wannabes, and upstarts popping up now and again. The work in turns was confounding and flabbergasting, and often left me speechless.
After three hours of trekking through the streets with Rey, a half-American (Wisconsin), half-Colombian connoisseur of the local graffiti scene, I ended up in his apartment. Joining us were three travelers—two men from Manchester and a woman from Texas. The four of them passed a joint and I demurred—I don’t like getting high at home, so there was no way I was going to get ripped in a city where I barely spoke the language. While they smoked, I silently practiced what I needed to say to order lunch at the café vegetariano (vegetarian cafe) I saw on the way to the third-floor flat—the scene was so familiar that we could’ve been in Brooklyn.
Confirmation that refusing to go to the hip-hop concert with my park acquaintance, Chris, was a good idea after all came soon after hearing what had happened when the Englishmen and the Texan had arrived at the venue. It was a free hip-hop concert with minimal police presence, and the air was dusted with cocaine. Within minutes, they were accosted. Seconds after, someone near them was stabbed. The three left the stadium immediately. In the parking lot, they witnessed a knife fight between two groups of young men.
"What did you do?" I had inquired after hearing them recount the story.
"We ran like hell."
The Peruvian restaurant was closed, so we opted for Mexican instead. I was having dinner with Carolina, a young social entrepreneur who was working to better the lives of food vendors in Bogotá’s slums.
The central market is able to buy food in bulk at cheaper rates than the vendors who dot the city’s neighborhoods, so Carolina, whose team has presented the idea in front of Bill Clinton and seen prototypes work in Kenya, was putting her London School of Economics education to good use in her home country. Dinner wasn’t all business.
She expressed the misgiving she had when returning to her beloved city. As a world citizen and traveler, she wants to see the globe but not feel restricted by a local mentality that sees traveling as a luxurious activity—to be sure, it is, we agreed. She therefore seeks a balance, one that allows her to save the world and see it at the same time. Ten years younger than me, she possessed a vitality, energy, and vision that I envied.
We made plans to meet for lunch the following day.
A murder had occurred in broad daylight, and my cab driver was forced to take the long way around. Police, some with shields and helmets, blocked off the streets in such a way that even insistent onlookers wouldn’t get a peep at the grisly scene—grisly by degrees.
I read in the local English newspaper, City Paper, about the so-called "green wars," where cartels, paramilitaries, FARC rebels, and businessmen fight over control of the lucrative emerald mines. Assassinations and attempts are happening in upscale shopping areas and in downtown Bogotá. The emeralds on New York's Fifth Avenue shimmer bloody red.
In the same paper, there was a note about how tourism is increasing in Colombia, even in previous danger zones. Presumably, the areas surrounding the emerald mines are some of these "no-go" places.
The Peruvian meal had finally come, but unfortunately there was nothing Peruvian for this vegetarian. I settled for a spaghetti with tomatoes and olive oil. Carolina and I discussed "the dream," and the lines that separated our ten years careened between perfectly clear and blissfully grey.
She had a good heart, lots of ambition, smarts, deep round deep eyes, and lush eyelashes. I tried to count her freckles and lost track. A soft voice, imbued with passion—thoughts I couldn’t quite form.
The pisco sour went straight to my head. It was with that buzz that I later explored the quaint neighborhood of Usaquén.
I ducked into a doorway in which a happy, grey-bearded man proclaimed in Spanish, "Come in! Come in! We sell antiques and there is an upstairs and a downstairs. My home is your home—take as many pictures as you want." After wandering around the basement where a woman washed clothes by hand in a metal basin and perusing a rooftop cluttered with old doors and windows, he took me by the hand to the studio of Peruvian artist, Jose Antonio Torres. Alfredo, the home owner, introduced me as a client. I interjected, proclaiming that I was a journalist.
Torres welcomed me into his studio and described his latest artistic theme: a cat falls in love with a bird and so he has seven dreams, one for each life—in Peru, cats are cheated out of the extra two lives—and each dream represents a way the cat tries to reach the clouds to be with the bird.
Ten years ago, Torres revealed, were dark times. An offer from a gallery in Mexico presented him with an opportunity to explore a lighter side. He also fell in love, which is when the cat-bird theme emerged. Torres showed me serigraphs, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and wood burnings, all in progress in his studio.
Lima was stifling, he told me. You never see the sun, he complained—the clouds just sit on the city and are relentlessly depressing. So he came to Bogotá to see the sun. I admitted that since I'd been in Bogotá I hadn't seen a single cat. Torres pondered this and declared en español: "I've lived in Bogotá for two years, and I too have never seen a cat! In fact, I am allergic to cats." We laughed at the irony of it all.
Still in Usaquen as it turned dark, I ended up in the Eight Bells Pub. I sipped a cerveza rioja and read The Bogotá Post, in which I learned that last month there was a huge spike in death threats for journalists made by paramilitaries, specifically by the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles). Human rights activists refer to the period as Black September.
Where there is an English pub, there are expats, and so I grilled the owner on the paperwork, red tape, and other hurdles of running a business in Bogotá, to which he replied, "Sure, you have to run around the block a couple of times, but it's easier than you think. There's money to be had in Bogotá—legitimate money," he emphasized.
Mobile charging stations dot the city. Signs read "Minutos a Todo Operador." While you wait for your phone to regain full power, you can have a café tinto (black coffee), some candy, or chips.
I was scheduled to have breakfast with a journalist, Raul, in a wealthy neighborhood in northern Bogotá. Raul and I met at a cafe in a district crammed with designer furniture stores and boutiques that advertise their wares in English, one sign boldly declaring, "And yes, we believe shopping can bring happiness."
Raul described Colombia's economic landscape, admitting that the topic—his specialty—is less exciting than the political arena. Mineral and coal mining, oil extraction, and the flower trade—these are the industries that drive the economy, one of Latin America's fastest growing. The dominant news story is the peace process, an episode being acted out between President Juan Santos and the FARC rebels in Havana.
Raul is from El Salvador; he's experienced similar affairs and is keen to see how this one plays out. The political right is concerned, he said, about amnesty being granted to the guerillas—they can't imagine, he suggests, having coffee and sitting next to a former rebel, but it's something that they will simply have to get used to.
The government is dominated by conservatives who have held onto power for generations. Unlike Brazil or Venezuela, there is no history of people from the bottom making it to the top. And so, the Right is scared that when peace is achieved and former FARC rebels start running for office that the Left will soon take over the government. "They don't need to worry so much about that," said Raul. "It took the Left 20 years to rise to power in El Salvador."
And just because the ex-guerillas run for office doesn't mean anyone will vote for them. The people are rightly cautious and will take some time to decide whether FARC is serious about peacefully entering the political sphere (n.b.: the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, is a former member of the M-19 guerilla group). Cynics suggest that Santos is pursuing the peace process for a chance at the Nobel Prize—"If it brings actual peace, so what?" asked Raul.
The most interesting aspect of the peace talks, Raul observed, is the referendum that will be put forward to the people. Will Colombians vote for the deal? And why offer the referendum in the first place? Recalling events in El Salvador, he noted that the leadership there plainly said to the country: This is it. This is the peace deal. Accept it and let the chips fall where they fall.
In Bogotá, the book that I read in my downtime was a fictionalized account of John Franklin, the 19th-century British navy man and explorer. I couldn't be further from the 1800s, England, or the ocean, and yet, I was completely absorbed.
In the Banco Internacional complex, I meandered through several rooms full of fascinating, brilliant, and provocative contemporary art. I lingered on the enchanting work of Fernando Botero dispersed over two floors, and quickly breezed through the temporary show of Albrecht Dürer's engravings.
I constantly told people I lived in los Estados Unidos—not that I was American. These Colombians are more americano than I'll ever be.
I was so proud of myself for conducting a somewhat complex conversation with a young woman selling ceramic souvenirs that when the transaction was complete, I hugged her tightly, laughed, and wished her a "¡Buen dia!" She giggled and offered a muffled reply: "¡Igualmente!"
It was evening in a corner bookstore in La Macarena, and it was a scene. There was bustling conversation upstairs and older, bedraggled men in sport coats marched up the wooden steps. They were professor types solving Colombia's political issues and debating cultural matters over beers and coffees—or so I fantasized.
The books that surrounded me were all shrink-wrapped—one had to ask the clerk to remove the plastic in order to leaf through the pages. I saw an over-sized book on Frida Kahlo's art. There was W. H. Auden's El arte de leer, Raymond Chandler, Gilles Deleuze, Andrés Caicedo, and a healthy poetry section. Staring at me was Umberto Giangrandi's Testimonio de vida. The next day, a book of photos of Che and Castro had been placed in front of it.
Italian music played. A portrait of Simón Bolívar lorded over the warm and inviting place. One of those professors brought down a large oil on canvas—a skull on a stage surrounded by heart-shaped flora. I drank a latte and munched on sweet pecan pie. The clerk sipped a beer.
Senator Ivan Duque picked me up promptly at 7:30 a.m. His gleaming white Lincoln Navigator stuck out in a city of great wealth inequality. Duque, who sat in the passenger seat, greeted me as I opened the door to the SUV. His driver—a well-dressed man in the back, presumably a security detail—remained mute. Having borrowed a shirt and jacket (with elbow patches) from the men who run my bed and breakfast, I looked like an actor playing the part of a foreign writer visiting important political folks.
The original plan was to have breakfast with the senator—a mutual friend made the introductions before I left for Bogotá. But late the night before we were to meet, he sent an email stating that former president Álvaro Uribe also wanted to meet me—completely unexpected. For those in the US, it would be like having a friendly breakfast scheduled with Marco Rubio and then receiving a last-minute note that George W. Bush also "wants to meet you."
Whenever I hear the name Uribe only one idea comes to mind: Plan Colombia. Though it was President Bill Clinton who got the ball rolling for Plan Colombia, a massive effort in the so-called "War on Drugs," it was President George W. Bush who put the disastrous effort into effect. Plan Colombia was a multi-billion dollar, multi-year program aimed at staunching the flow of cocaine leaving Colombia for the United States. Each year, for ten years, between 75–100 percent of the budget went directly to military efforts, with the Colombian military, US contractors like Dyncorp, and arms manufacturers receiving the windfall. Although the military industrial complex in both countries benefitted greatly from the deal, it was an unqualified disaster for Colombian locals. Indeed, under the years of Plan Colombia, cocaine production actually increased—a 2008 United Nations survey found that coca cultivation grew by as much as 27 percent in Colombia. Violence escalated as well, with sabotage, kidnappings, murders, and atrocities happening on both sides of the conflict—between the Colombian military, paramilitary groups, and FARC—disrupting (and ending) the lives of thousands.
With my knowledge of Uribe's two-term presidency—the first ever in Colombian history—limited to efforts surrounding Plan Colombia, I crammed for the interview. Unsure of whether this was going to be a simple handshake and nice-to-meet-you affair or a proper interview I might be able to publish, I prepared for both. Close to 11:00 p.m., I blasted out a few emails to people familiar with Colombian politics and asked for their advice on what to ask Uribe, should the opportunity present itself.
I also became a quick study of the Centro Democrático, Uribe's political party. Unable to serve a third term as president, Uribe then ran for Senate. Believing that Juan Manuel Santos—his former defense minister and now himself a two-term president—had gone astray with economic policy and in the peace process with FARC, Uribe formed this party of opposition. Senator Duque—a young, handsome, economics maestro—is one of Uribe's top lieutenants.
Both the Uribistas and the Santistas, as the followers of both presidents are known, are not very far apart on the ideological spectrum. Both are conservative-right parties that embrace free market economics and are populated by the upper class. For nearly 100 years, the Santos family was the majority owner of the country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo, and two other members of the Santos family have served as president and vice president. Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC rebels, comes from a wealthy landowning and cattle ranching family in Medellin. From what I gathered in casual conversations with Colombians, the real difference between the two clans is a matter of personality; somewhat like the Bushes and Clintons in the United States—you simply either love them or hate them.
On the way to Congress, Duque plunged into a conversation on Colombia's oil industry. The man was sharp and his mind was a filing cabinet of statistics, relaying the number of barrels produced daily this year over last year, by what percentage oil output drops when a certain tax is levied, and by how much oil production is offset by the increased production coming out of Mexico. Stats on what all of this means for Colombia's economy on the aggregate are relayed easily, like a schoolboy reciting a poem by Tennyson. It was all I could do to keep up, asking about how nascent offshore exploration might boost Colombia's output and which infrastructure reforms would increase oil output or where Colombia should be investing instead of the oil sector. By the time we arrived at Congress, the conversation had shifted to the decades-long history of fracking in the US.
Duque and I made small talk in a waiting room somewhere in the old Congressional building. As we waited for Uribe to arrive, I was introduced to several Centro Democrático senators, including Nohora Tovar, who is from the oil-rich Departamento del Meta. She spoke almost no English, so our encounter was stilted. Other senators, experts, and members were introduced. I was in a fog of new names. We drank café tinto.
Finally, Uribe arrived. It was not hard to miss his entrance, with several bodyguards paving the way. We are the same height, and I was able to look him squarely in the eye when we shook hands. He wore round, rimless glasses, a smart grey suit, and a Hermes silk tie. In Spanish, Duque and Uribe conferred, and it was decided that we’d chat before the D. C.'s morning caucus. I was ushered through a warren of rooms past a dozen assistants, helpers, and who knows who into Uribe's large-but-plain, undecorated office. Several chairs were set up in rows facing his desk, as if a book reading were about to start. But Uribe and I settled into the leather couch and made small talk, where I found out that the father of the young man who introduced me to Duque went to school with Uribe, both of them being from Medellin. It was then that the situation made a little more sense, why I—an unknown quantity from the US—was invited to meet with one of Colombia's most powerful men, ever: friend of a friend. Relationships. They matter in Colombia and I was the beneficiary of such patronage and kindness.
While Uribe and I exchanged pleasantries, Duque, Eduardo "El Mono" Gonzalez (D. C.'s main manager), Tovar, and another person who was never introduced, resolutely planted their chairs around the coffee table facing me in anxious expectation. They were people of experience and power and they oozed authority and confidence.
Suddenly, I was the center of attention. Surreal. Just five days ago, I thought to myself, I was mugged at knifepoint by someone living below the poverty line. And here I was conducting a spontaneous interview with the former president.
"How much time do we have?" I asked the president.
"Fifteen minutes!" he shouted, raising a finger into the air.
When the interview ended, I noted that 35 minutes had elapsed.
What does one do after unexpectedly interviewing a former president while on vacation? My mind was scattered. The morning had been full and exhausting, and it wasn’t even 10:00 a.m. I wandered La Candelaria looking for a shop that I had spotted while touring the graffiti scene. Incense smoke filled the room, and the shop owner ran around flicking on lights, unrolling rugs, and generally arranging his wares to make them presentable. He didn’t say a word until I started unrolling rugs to get a closer look. We spoke about the colors, about the people of Boyacá and Santander who made the decorative objects and whether they were better displayed on the wall or actually put to use on the floor. My mind foggy, I ran my hands over the itchy threads and decided to buy the first one we both unfurled.
I didn’t think to ask his name. We shook hands and held each others’ gaze until the moment just before it became uncomfortable. Quietly, I put the rug under my arm, turned, and made my exit.
Randol is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mantle. He is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. Shaun is also an associate fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.