Sunday, November 20, 2005

Clowns and Guerillas




Right, this little chapter is about travels to SAN AGUSTIN- one of the most important archaeological sight in the Americas involving many strange statues from a forgotten civilization.

I think I'd better start with how I ended up going rather backwards in a southerly direction when trying to head north. The first weekend in Cali involved a very strange Halloween (very big here) party up on the mountain overlooking the city that I am lead to believe was un poco mafioso. Intensely interesting and a lot of fun. Perhaps the most beautiful crowd of people I have ever seen, a lot of plastic but a lot that is not as well, no beating about the bush Colombians are very beautiful people. Then a couple of days hanging around and a little too much Brava out of a giraffe later (don't ask), I made a snap decision with Dave and Jez to back track go see some statues.

We headed down to Popayan, a very beautiful old colonial town and spent a night and a morning wondering the streets and generally looking at the people (see photo of town, Jez and me), playing a bit of chess in the park and avoiding a well planned out ploy to nick our stuff involving a "sick" young lady and other accomplices. Then we headed out on the 6 hours or so very dodgy road (Felix - it is not quite on the same level as national highway number 6) through and into Guerrilla territory where the statues are situated. This does not sound a very sensible thing to do but in reality is quite safe. The political situation here is very complicated and I'm not getting very close to understanding it, but essentially large tracts of the country are Guerrilla dominated and they run them autonomously (not too long back the government even officially gave them a part the size of Switzerland, but that has since "officially" back under government control). Also there are a number of different Guerrilla and paramilitary groups in different areas who act very differently from each other. For instance where I am now up north is closer to ELN territory, whereas the Guerrillas circa San Agustin are FARC - the largest group with over 20,000 soldiers I believe.

So anyway, this amazing journey took us up through some of the most strange and alien landscape. Colombia is one of the most bio diverse countries in world. Much of this is owing to a multiplicity of altitudes and this trip was a classic example with the scenery altering completely in very short spaces of time. My favourite was a very high altitude boggy type forest of fern and exotic flower, mist and cloud floating over mysterious and largely impassable landscape - a rare reminder that man does by no means control all this planet. "FARC" signs on the side of the road indicated a change of occupying authority and one of the strangest sights I will ever witness occurred at our first check point out in the middle of nowhere at a little lunch hut. We got out of the car and had a friendly chat with the men with big guns before a performing Uruguayan took the show. He pulled out a unicycle and started riding around the guerrillas to a bit of confusion but much enjoyment. Standing there with the far too young soldiers looking in shared confusion at what this crazy guy was doing. The antics of the couple of clowns (literally) on the bus did strengthen in me a lesson I am learning in this part of the world that a big smile and a bit of a joke can diffuse so many situations and get what and to where you want.

At the end of the long bumpy road we encountered another checkpoint where the FARC were friendly enough to help us change from the bus (left my only bloody jumper on that bus - grrrr) and arranged a free ride into the town - no problem at all except that they wanted Jez´s gafas as a present (sunnies). Perhaps the thing that surprised me most about the guerrillas was how well equipped they were - I am not sure what I expected to see but it was not perfectly matching uniforms, webbing and the minimum of a semi-automatic each. These guys are here to stay if no political solution is reached (unlikely at present).

We then stayed in a really chilled out cabana owned by a Swiss guy (there has been a definite theme emerging of male travellers hooking up with locals and setting up hostels) for a couple of nights, just sitting back and chilling. So relaxed except for a very silent confused time - hmmm. From there we took a simply spectacular horse trek with a cool couple called Sa and Shena, up down and around the simply stunning scenery and to some of the statues. The backdrop is gob-smacking with large revines, powerful rivers fed by huge waterfalls and greenery as far as the eye can see (see photo). The statues themselves were intriguing but I felt somewhat unfulfilled since there was no good info on them and it is hard to make too much out of the statues themselves - that said, some of the figures were really quite funky.

A quick note must be made of Jez's very elegant fall from the horse as he tried to turn a corner at a with a touch too much momentum - quite a bit of mud but luckily no injuries. It freaked the horse out though - it ran a good km or so and the guide had to retrieve it.

We later went to the main archaeological parks. It is true that some of the statues are impressive - a culture very interested in the phallic side of things - but the experience was lessened by an idiot of a guide who kept on putting random dates and percentages on things and making claims about everything from little scratching proving these people traded with Africa to conjecture about aliens. I am a strong believer that in places like this it is often better to know nada then to be fed a whole lot of dodgy rubbish. With little background it is difficult to disseminate the facts from the tripe and after a while you just stop listening. I almost started challenging him properly, but it was not worth the effort. So we ignored him and took a lovely snooze on the top of a hill that allowed quite a vista of the surroundings.

A sighting worthy of note was a coral/milk snake (hard to tell which - the former being a bit too poisonous for my liking) right by Dave's foot. Loads of fun!!

After another seriously chilled night the guerrillas assisted us by "convincing" the driver of the last bus of the day back to Popayan that we could squeeze on to the floor. 6 hours of pure fun - some how the music is the worst - oh and I never realized I could sleep standing up before. All an experience and I've had far worse journeys. We had to make it back to Cali for the weekend - and we did!!
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