86. Ways to Get Mugged and Killed in Bogota

(Written: 14th July 2011)
The two flights to Quito in Ecuador were really quite short, barely adding up to 1.5 hours in total. But here I started to feel a little unwell, I felt extremely dizzy and started to get bad stomach cramps. It looks like yet another bout of food poisoning but something else is exacerbating the symptoms. The lack of guidebook made me completely unaware at first that Quito is the second highest capital in the world at nearly 3000 meters above sea level, this was definitely having a small affect on me. I dosed up with the usual drugs and headed out but before I did it was quite clear that Quito is yet another one of the South American capitals you have to be very careful in. Although, the hotel manager spoke predominantly in Spanish I knew enough to understand what would happen to me if I ventured beyond the designated safe areas. I was told to take nothing valuable outside with me and if I took a camera to hide it well. Originally before I ran out of time I was hoping to go to Spanish language school here, maybe it was a good thing I did run out of time, I don’t think I’d have stopped here too long.

However the city is extremely pretty with its setting in the high hills of the Andes. The old squares and lanes are nice to walk around but the almost constant feel of danger exacerbated by the highly armed police and soldiers across the centre has the opposite effect to which I think they hope in making you feel more vulnerable. But it was time to head off again although it has to be said, there is absolutely no fun in flying everywhere, hopping off every few days. The sense of adventure for me as a backpacker is none existent. I’m just turning up, taking pictures and heading off. It’s becoming a tick list.

Arriving at Cali airport in Colombia after a 50 minute flight was a little stressful as I only had 1h20mins to get off the plane, go through immigration, get my baggage and then check in for my next flight. Everything would have been fine were it not for the fact that today was the day the country appeared to have introduced a new immigration system which meant the queues at immigration were colossal. What made it worse was that I could not make myself understood. I’ve been able to get by with my basic Spanish as many people so far had some basic English to fill in the gaps but here in Colombia it was 100% Spanish only. They didn’t understand when I explained that I had a connecting flight so they wouldn’t let me queue jump, then after 1 hour when I got to the Immigration counter the lady started to ask me lots of questions. I managed to answer them all eventually but it was painful as I had to stand there thinking for long periods as I tried to remember how to put sentences together with the limited words I know. This was exactly the reason why I wanted to go to Language school as South America is one of the few places in the world where it’s likely that no one in the immigration posts speaks any English at all. In fact the lady used the good old British technique of just shouting her question louder when I said that I didn’t understand!

But with 10 minutes to spare I was in and on the flight to the capital of Colombia, Bogota, the third highest capital in the world and possibly the most infamous after Baghdad! The flight was only scheduled for 58 minutes which is amazingly accurate as this is the continent of mañana, but after just 32 minutes we landed. Such is the terrain in Colombia a coach between Cali and Bogota would have taken 12 hours! However, that could be more preferable as this flight was once considered quite dangerous as it was frequently targeted by the FARC terrorist organisation which is still going strong in Colombia thanks to the western worlds demand for drugs. On one occasion they managed to blow up one plane on this route killing all onboard.

What surprised me on the journey in the taxi from the airport to the centre was how wealthy the country looked with clean but busy streets and new flats and shopping centres being built everywhere. But then we approached the centre. It was 9pm and dark but it was still very clear that the atmosphere outside had changed. As in Lima the taxi did not stop at any red lights although taxis with local passengers in them did, and the smell of the air outside was predominantly that of people smoking weed. I was quite glad when I arrived at my guesthouse and I was locked in for the night.

In the morning I was briefed about where I could and could not go with the haunting words “if you go past this road you will get mugged, no question” followed by the comment “if you do get mugged don’t resist as people here will kill you!” And just in case I was unsure about what would happen I was then given a list of “ways to get mugged and killed in Bogota” as advised by the Bogota police. Cool.

The sad thing is although Bogota is not as pretty as Quito, the old town is really quite nice but the police and army presence here is colossal as there is still a real threat from the FARC. In fact while I was at the presidential palace an army helicopter came in to fly the president off the roof while two gunships circled. Surrounding government buildings also clearly show the remnants of gun battles in the city between the government and paramilitary forces which shows the need for such protection. But as with Quito I can’t say much about he place as I was limited to the “safe areas” which although nice were not that extensive. Everyone also tended to stare at me where ever I went. Foreign tourists are few and far between here so I guess as someone who looks very northern European I look a little diffent to them and although the attention might be innocent, it was difficult to tell who was looking and following me because I looked different (sounds strange but it happens) and those following me to see when I was going to let my guard down. Because of this when walking around it was hard to feel relaxed as you have to be conscious of what the street looks like, who’s behind you and where the nearest “protection” is.

But it was time to head off again leaving South America to head to Panama in North America, or Central American as people in the USA prefer to call it creating a new made up continent rather than acknowledging such a problem country is actually on the same continent as them! But is was also good to leave as the altitude was not helping my illness and I hoped the dramatic drop in altitude would improve things slightly, particularly my small gastric bleed!

85. A False Sense of Security

(Written: 12th July 2011)
I’ve been to Santiago in Chile before and as such I planned to leave here quite quickly. Not only that but its winter here and at night it gets really cold. I also had to head north as the shortest timed flights across the Atlantic go via Iceland and I’m currently very much in the southern hemisphere. So next stop north to Lima in Peru and although I’ve been to Peru before I haven’t been to Lima. However, I still wasn’t sure that I was going to as I couldn’t believe the price of the flight tickets, tickets and particularly direct ones in South America are amazingly expensive. I managed to find a reasonable series of flights hopping through South America and up to central America but I have to stop at a number of towns I’ve never heard of ever wanted to hear of. Bizarrely, booking 7 “multi-trip” flights to Panama is a third of the price of booking 4 I wanted. But there is one positive in addition to the lower cost. Yes it may take longer to get where I want to go but only one of the flights is over 4 hours but most others are barely one! That’s keeping my average down!

So after spending one day walking around Santiago and looking at the “free Patagonia” graffiti everywhere in addition to the usual “homosexuality is a crime against God,” graffiti you seem to get everywhere in South America, I hoped on a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was a little concerned as I’d learnt in the morning that Buenos Aires airport had been closed for a few days due to volcanic ash. If I got stuck the knock on affect with my seven flights would be an absolute nightmare as since the problems in Iceland last year with their Volcano, insurance companies no longer pay out and airlines technically only have to offer a refund. Seems to be because it’s declared as an act of God and all that. Seems quite a nasty guy to me, hates homosexuals but loves airlines and insurance companies. Sounds like Richard Branson!

We landed in Buenos Aires ok but the connecting flight wasn’t on the screen yet and of those that were a number of them had been cancelled. To take my mind of it I headed into town for a quick look around. It’s yet another place I’ve been to before and to be honest it hasn’t changed much, but it was still very hard not to sing, “don’t cry for me Argentina” as I passed the famous Evita balcony on the pink Palace. But back at the airport the flight was on and I gave a sigh of relief as we took off to the old capital of the former Spanish Viceroy of South America.

Flying into Lima in Peru I experienced the worst landing I’ve ever had on a plane. As we slowed down on the approach suddenly the nose of the plane rose and the back dropped. We must have hit a huge depression but so much was the stall and drop that a magazine on my knee lifted into the air, I instinctively and rather pointlessly grabbed the back of the seat in front while the stewardesses just behind me at the back of the plane screamed. This didn’t particularly fill me with confidence! It honestly felt like we were about to plummet to the earth but all within a few seconds the engines roared and the pilots dipped the nose back down. I just looked at the lady next to me and we just both gave a huge sigh of relief. Leaving the plane was equally weird. No one said the usual goodbyes and the stewardesses were in animated discussion with he pilots. Travelling overland may have taken me a long time but it’s far less scary but at least the flight was only 4h20mins, still within my 5 hour rule.

But you most defiantly know you’ve arrived in Lima when you exit customs. You enter a hall full of hundreds of people shouting after you for their custom. You forget how different and European Chile and Argentina are. And also you forget how much safer Chile is compared to most other South American countries. I’d arranged for a guy to pick me up at the airport as Lima is renowned for taxi drivers taking tourists from the airport to dodgy parts of the city and then stealing all of their possessions. As I was arriving late at night I thought prearranging although a lot more expensive, was a lot safer. Driving through the bad areas of town the taxi driver didn’t stop at any red lights as if people saw me in the back there would be a small chance I’d be mugged, but I eventually arrived in the relatively safe and affluent Coastal suburb of Miraflores. Although having said that, most houses are surrounded by high Walls and electrified razor wire like a prison although the prisoners are on the outside!

I had a slight delay getting into my dorm as an Israeli guy in the dorm would not let me in until he had finished praying. I always find this amazingly rude as it’s happened a couple of times before. It’s a dorm, not a synagogue so why should I have to wait 10 minutes for him to finish. I asked him to leave as I too wanted to pray but he just laughed and continued taking his praying tassels off. But what can I say about Lima, well, I was quite surprised at how nice the old historic centre looks. I guess this is partly because it was from here Spain initially ruled all of its South American colonies. But you get lulled into a false sense of security in the centre as everything is clean and tidy with police everywhere.

With this false sense of security firmly in place I headed to the presidential palace and then over the River Rimac to a small area called not surprisingly called Rimac. It’s a pleasant looking area with yellow painted buildings and a beautiful bright orange church at the end of the main street. It all looks very inviting and as such I started to walk to towards the church. As I did so I could see the area behind the church was filled with buildings in various states or decay but the age of the buildings gave the area a unique charm. Just as I got my camera out an old couple across the street gestured frantically to get my attention. Their actions were distinct, clear and done almost in a sense of panic. I looked over my shoulder to see a couple of guys walking towards me. The lady grabbed my arm which I think was done to make it look like I was with them, but they said quietly through gritted teeth, run, run. But in Spanish of course. Being me I didn’t run but thanked them and walked back towards the safety of the main square while keeping a careful look over my shoulder. I thought running would be like running from a bull. The more you run the more it chases because it knows you are aware of it and are scared. Not running left doubt in their minds.

Eventually I made it back to the lines of armed soldiers and police next to the armoured police tank! I guess seeing these should have highlighted that the area was not particularly safe! But that’s the trouble of travelling without a guidebook, a book would have shown me where I should and shouldn’t go but I had no idea. However, I got away with it this time although I was a little annoyed I didn’t get the picture I wanted!

But that was Lima and I can’t say much more than that. This experience left a bitter taste in complete contrast to last time I was here when I visited Cusco, the list City of the Inca (Macchu Picchu) and Lake Titicaca. So it was time to continue north to Quito in Ecuador via a strangely named place of course (Guayaquil).

84. The Forgotten Empire

(Written: 30th June 2011)
I was really annoyed when the wheels touched down on Easter Island. The flight was timetabled for 5h25mins and when we touched down my watch read 4h56m24s. The flight I thought would be over 5 hours was under and nearly 30mins quicker than scheduled. So you can get across the Pacific taking scheduled flights with no flight taking longer than 5 hours. I just have to get across the Atlantic now!

But landing in Easter Island my eyes were less focused on my watch but the monoliths I could see lining the coast. I’ve always wanted to come here although doing so has been a finical killer as the airline LAN Chile has a complete monopoly on the route. The two flights from Tahiti to Easter Island and then onto Santiago, Chile have cost me £940! That’s basically a month’s budget for travelling around Asia. I just hope this place is worth it…..

Walking around the small town of Hanga Roa you get a small glimpse of what is to come. Unlike other islands populated by Polynesians where you may get the odd stone ruin, here the guys developed a whole unique belief system based on ancestor worship. The most famous and visible expression of this are the hundreds, if not thousands of stone carved men which line the coast of the island but always looking inwards.

To see more of the island on my first full day I decided to hire a scooter but to my annoyance it broke down 14kms away from the town. It was an automatic and the automatic clutch had gone. Luckily I learned a way of dealing with this situation in India as I’ve had a few break down on me there, so I used the age old technique of kicking the gearbox as hard as possible while turning the throttle. After 5 pushes with simultanious kicks I knocked the gears into line and got it started and managed to get it back to town without releasing the throttle once. But I had a new plan as I’d lost nearly a day, and on a rugged island like this I needed something a little more able to go fast over, and cope with, the terrain, I upgraded to a bright red quad bike.

Oooooh it was fun, I must buy one when I get one back. But it has to be said that the expense of getting here was most definitely worth it. The sight of the stone men, or “moai” to give them their correct name, lined up along the coast was stunning and surreal and you could see how these massive stone structures would intimidate the people here. Although having said that staring back at one line I couldn’t help but think back to my school days. Following a line of these men suddenly there was one head and shoulders above the rest. It was like the line up at PE at school where the two sporty kids would choose the players to be on their team. The little short fat one on the end would never get picked! Or it was the school photo where I would also be head and shoulders above my school mates. As simple as each carving is, each face although having similar glum looks are most definitely unique. I could see friend’s faces in theirs although I won’t say which ones.

The island itself consists of a high number of ancient volcanoes and from one of these most of the heads were carved. Visiting this site is surreal as many heads were left where they stood when this way of ancestor worship died out. Looking at the heads on the hillside, it appears as if the ancestors are walking down towards the coast to meet and greet those already there. But the natural scenery of the place is also amazing, the island’s coastline is predominantly jet black rugged volcanic rock which drops straight into a deep blue pacific sea. The extinct volcanoes that litter the island are just as stunning and none more so than that at the Orongo historical site. Here, the solid stone built houses of the Easter Islanders remain, perched on the high edge of a volcano’s rim. Amazingly these houses have a stunning resemblance to those found on the Shetland Isles. But the setting is stunning with the fresh water filled volcano below and the sea lapping up around the outer volcano’s edge.

It’s a stunning island with amazing scenery and an amazing history, and yes it cost me nearly £1000 to get here but I have to say it was worth it. But sat here on my last evening watching the sun set over the sea, it made me think about what the Polynesians achieved in terms of what they were able to do at a time period where other civilisations stagnated. The Polynesian empire, if you will, stretches from New Zealand all the way to here, thousands of miles away on what were uncharted seas. What makes it even more amazing, to create the communities which live on these islands to this day, entire family groups would just leave their homes heading across uncharted seas to destinations they did not even know existed. One small such group managed to hit here, possibly the most isolated and one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Pacific. How many boats and people set out and never made it anywhere, left to die at sea, I don’t know but there must have been thousands. But I guess this typifies humans no matter what our race and our need to explore, to investigate, to go where no man has gone before, or I could be getting confused with Star Trek.

But the Polynesians, I’ve come to learn on my unexpected bit of Island hopping across the Pacific, are a massively underestimated interns of their role in the expansion of human life and culture on this planet. The forgotten Empire.

On my last evening on the island I went fishing with the guy who worked at the guesthouse and his family. Although I caught nothing, luckily the others did but it always looks quite sad to me to see such colourful tropical fish being caught and cooked. But it was so nice to sit there relax cooking fish on rocks placed on top of a fire. This gave the fish a wonderful smoked flavour. As we chatted it got darker and before the fire burned out I had to give my fish heads to the old lady of the family who placed them on the fire. As in many cultures the fish head is seen as the best bit, but rather than eat it, here it was placed on the fire, placed there to burn and so make the ashes rise up to the heavens as a gift to the family’s ancestors. Yes the time of idle worship may have gone but their ancestors are still honoured and respected. A wonderful way to end a great few days, back doing proper backpacking, meeting real people.