Obviously it takes a certain type of individual to take up cruising. The word “individual” is really the key. All of us out here are truly unique and I would say that by and large, we all march to our own, and very personal, drummer’s beat. The fact that we have all eschewed sticking close to family and friends, and all those things tried and true, but have instead chosen to depart for lands and seas unknown, make us anomalies in the world. We’ve “left”, and continue to leave when we decide the time is right to move on. Which makes our time in Colombia fraught with personal angst.
All was going swimmingly. Although Ron had picked up an annoying cold along the way, we were still plowing onwards and seeing the sights and sounds of this very unique country. And then it all ground to a halt. While in San Agustin, wandering amongst the “estatuas” of some unknown and long-ago people, we heard rumblings that as of Sunday midnight, there was going to be a nation-wide strike. Coffee workers, those underpaid, and underappreciated labourers, were finally pissed off enough to resume their struggle against El Presidente, demanding better wages and a review of the Free Trade agreement with the US of A. The coffee industry had essentially tanked, along with most of the agriculture business, and with the foreign companies’ monopolies over seeds and fertilizers, the campesinos had been pushed to the breaking point. Strike it was, and fellow Colombians, those in the transportation sector also protesting high fuel costs (let’s put it in perspective – Ecuador, a neighboring country, was selling gas for $1.00 usd/gallon. Venezuela, with its subsidies, was selling gasoline for an insane $.06/gallon. Panama to the north, was selling gas for around $3.80 usd/gallon. Colombia, although purchasing gas from its neighbors, had gas at the pumps for close to $5.00/gallon!), decided to support.
At first, the bus companies just didn’t run, but as the strike continued into day 4, there were reports of blockades cutting off major roads. Rocks, piles of burning logs, vehicles and other assorted traffic-stopping trash, were all heaped in the middle of highways, making roads impassable. The bus companies wanted to renew operations, losing money hand over fist daily, but in some states, it was either too dangerous or impossible to continue. And we were smack dab in the middle of it.
When we heard that the protests were starting to escalate, we figured it might be time to think about getting out of Dodge. While the roads were still navigable, and along with the National Police ensuring safe passage, we left Bogota on a night bus and began to head south, going to Cali, with the intention of continuing immediately onward to the Ecuadorian border. But we were North Americans and didn’t quite grasp the severity of what was going on. I myself have never been inconvenienced by a strike. Ron had a bit of experience with it, with family members walking a picket line back in Kentucky, but nothing like this. What do you mean we can’t go where we wanted to?!? Our sailor brains, and our individual-like spirits were confused. Ron seemed to handle it better than I. He was still under the weather, and holed up in a hostel for a few days, to him, was not the end of the world. I resolved to chill. Harder done than said. Frankly, I had no choice. Each day we checked the bus schedules to see if operations would resume. Each day we perused the internet for news. Each day we eagerly turned on the television to see if there had been some progress in the talks.
After day 7, I had had enough.
All the Colombians we spoke with were not optimistic. Although Latin Americans have the annoying habit of telling tourists what they want to hear, in this case there was much head shaking, with the words…..”El Presidente is muy mal.” (The President is very bad). I was frankly pleased that this oft maligned country was democratic enough to not mow down protesters. And although the Police were definitely out in force, there were mostly harmless scuffles between the government and the people.
…..we were still in Cali. I might not have had such itchy feet if the city had a bit more to see and do. While obviously doing well, and the neighborhood we found ourselves in was very safe and upscale, it was still just a big city. No ruins, no interesting Central Historical Area, just a big city with the corresponding high prices attached. We were racking up the costs, but I wanted (needed) to get a move on. After assuring Ron that I was good and chill and could stay put for a while longer (we were into day 10 of the “conflicto”by now), I secretly stole away to check airline schedules. Everyone we spoke to said that if it wouldn’t be resolved in another day or two, the strike could take a while longer to sort itself out. So, I bought airline tickets.
In an effort to save a bit of money, we needed to go north before we went south.
The roads south to the border were closed. The roads around Bogota were barricaded. The roads in the far north in coffee growing country were dangerous. In a bit of irony, despite the past 30 years of media hype about how violent Medellin was due to Pablo Escobar and his cronies, we decided that this was the place to head to via bus, and then jump on a plane to Bogota and onwards to Quito. So we did.
The first leg of our dash to the border had us passing hordes of campesinos on the sides of the roads. We were visited every 20 kilometers or so by the police, wandering the aisles and checking luggage. It wasn’t scary, but I was composing this blog entry in my mind as we went along.
Two days later, after wandering Medellin and seeing the amazing results of what North Americans dependence on drugs will provide a city (a world-class metro system and a cable car linking mountain-top communities with the city, all “supposedly” provided by Escobar) we headed to the airport. More road blocks, more protesting, more delays, but we made it. I’m not sure in all my years of air travel for business that I was ever more relieved to be in an airport. The welcoming and “still-flying arms” of the planes were our best friends. A few hours later, we were back in Ecuador.
We were never in danger. This is NOT a country to be avoided. The Colombian people have the distinct privilege of being able to protest what they believe to be injustices in their world. When you compare our flight, and their struggles, to what is going on in Syria and North Korea, the inconveniences were mere ripples in our daily lives. More importantly, it again punctuates why we as North Americans are so very fortunate, and how as cruisers, we must surely be amongst the most lucky people on the planet.