France is to wine as Germany is to beer. Brazil is to fútbol as the United States is to football. Canada is to poutine as India is to curry. It’s not uncommon for a people or a place to be acutely associated with it’s favorite escape. And so it is with Colombia. Without a doubt, cocaine and violence come to mind.
After 18 hours in a bus, I arrived at the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta. It’s outside the city center a ways, in a quiet, unremarkable neighborhood. The iron gate clicks open as I approach, and I walk in.
The place is beautiful. An open square showcases a brilliant blue water dancing in the swimming pool. Scantly clad tourists sip cervezas leisurely behind their RayBans. There’s a palm tree and a mango tree offering shade from the sizzling heat. European dance music pumps from the speakers at the bar. It’s an oasis.
Yet I’m not fully able to relax and enjoy the party, just yet. The bus had passed something coming into the city that still occupied my mind like the humidity weighted the air. It was a shanty town, a slum, parked next to an industrial shipyard along the main highway from Barranquilla. A naked toddler played in a stagnant puddle outside his bamboo walled, plastic tarp covered house. A woman breast fed in a faded red plastic chair near the well, her right hand attempting to shade her baby’s face. A barefoot man walked from shack to shack trying to sell the fish he caught that morning. And then on the eastern edge of this place was a dump. It seemed clear to me that there was no garbage pick up here. A few teenagers rummaged through the discards of their community, looking for something of use.
I noticed that there were no Colombians at the Dreamer, save for the laundry and kitchen staff. And there was no Spanish being spoken at the pool or reception. Throughout that day and night, no one, it seemed, left the hostel. There was no need to, you could get burgers and pizza at the in-house restaurant, liquor and beer at the bar, and watch movies on the big screen upstairs. Why leave this little paradise for the outside, for Colombia?
“Aww shit!” a boisterous Australian girl of about 22 says to her friends in my dorm. “We’re out of cocaine.”
“Dibs on not going to get it!” another chimes in.
“But I went for it last time!” the first protests.
“It’s my turn,” a third cuts in, “Give me some money and I’ll go out right now.”
“See if you can get some Molly, too.”
“I’ve still got some, we’re good.”
The violent history of Colombia is staggering. For decades drug cartels have held immense economic, political, and social influence (sometimes even positive), extending even in no small part to the world of soccer, as the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” demonstrates.
With the rise of Industrial Agriculture, many peasant farmers lost their means for livelihood and flocked uneducated, unprepared, and unskilled to the ever-growing cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Calí, or the slums outside of them. The political landscape of Colombia got ugly, and very violent. This is not uniquely Colombian, but has occurred all over the world over the last half-century.
Yet some didn’t leave the countryside for the cities because the illegal drug market had a demand that would not be supplied by industrial means. Cocaine could be profitable, cocaine could support a family, cocaine could maintain a self-sufficient way of life.
Under President Clinton, and later President Bush, the United States became heavily involved in Colombia. About 500 million US dollars each year were allocated to the War on Drugs, with the vast majority going towards the trafficking stage (military). This despite a National Defense Research Institute study indicating that force is not effective. Cocaine production and price remained fairly constant.
But while the cocaine industry hasn’t declined, violence in the cities has. Many local governments did invest in treatment, prevention, and quality of life, and have found brilliant success, as is the case of the incredible mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa of Bogotá, and mayor Rodrigo Guerrero of Calí. The city life enjoyed in Colombia today was unimaginable only 20 years ago.
I left the Dreamer to work on a Coffee Farm/Hostel in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside of Minca, and it was there that I met Jesús.
Calí is the salsa dancing capital of the world, and it’s people then, today at least, are known as being lively and warm. Yet Jesús, a Caleño, did not strike me as such on first meeting. He was dark, muscular, and good looking, but I noticed he kept to himself often, perhaps a bit shy around foreigners because he didn’t know English. But no, there was something more. His eyes were dark and heavy, usually downcast, and they betrayed a deep sadness in his past. When engaged though, his smile could illuminate the room and those around him. I wanted to know more. We became friends. On breaks we would often teach each other our languages, run in the jungle, or watch fútbol on TV.
He, like almost all Colombian men, was required to serve 3 years in the Military. Most become guards at checkpoints or airports, but the Colombian Army recognized special qualities in Jesús, assigning him to a special forces unit. Much of his term was spent fighting the FARC at close range in the Amazon. Members of his battalion, friends of his, had been lost to gunfire and IEDs.
After our friendship had been cemented, I felt comfortable asking him in my broken Spanish about his time in the military.
“¿Que se sentó cuando disparaste tus armas a alguien?” (How did it feel to shoot at someone?)
“No sé.” (I don’t know)
“¿No disparaste a alguien?” (You didn’t shoot at anyone?)
“Si, disparé a muchas personas, pero no sé como se sentó.” (Yes, I shot at many people, but I don’t know how it felt.)
I thought maybe he didn’t understand what I was trying to ask, but then he continued.
“Cuando alguien esta disparando, esta intentando a matarte, no piensas. No hay tiempo. El uníca cosa en tu mente es, “No quiero a morir.” Entonces, disparas. No sé como se sentó.” (When someone is shooting, is trying to kill you, you don’t think. There isn’t time. The only thing in your mind is, “I don’t want to die.” So, you shoot. I don’t know how it felt.)
It was then that I knew how much I respected him, and how much I loved Colombia.
Colombia does not have a cocaine problem. Colombia has economic problems, just like every other formerly colonized country. No, it’s the first world that has cocaine problems, Colombia, and her citizens, have just borne the burden.
I met many amazing Colombians on my trip, and none of them deserve to be associated with cocaine and violence. Colombia needs a new association. It could be arepas, or exotic fruit, or salsa dancing. It could be biking, or street art, or aguardiente. But for me it will be the radiant smile of Jesús, of the many joyful Colombian people I met, happy to finally be at peace.