Thursday, December 08, 2005

Totally FUBAR - Held Hostage in Paradise

Nearly all of me hopes that what I am about to write about is the dodgiest thing that happens to me in South America. First though, I must make it as clear as possible that this was a completely freak incident and is not a fair reflection on Colombia. Hence I would be incredibly disappointed if it put anybody off visiting a country that I have no less then fallen in love with.

Right, where to start!!

After saying farewell to crazy Sebastian and Mark in Cartagena, Dave, Alexia and myself headed east in search of some serious beach time. A four hour bus ride took us to Santa Marta and from there it was only a short taxi ride to the little diving town of Taganga and the Casa de Felipe. There was a nice surprise on arrival as we met up with Kye and Dub again, as well as the two Israelis - David plus smiles. The Israelis informed us that Talia and Eliana as well as Geoffrey no less were already in Tayrona. I had been wanting to catch up with the Israeli girls ever since we left them in Cali and since I also thought Laurence might be there we resolved to head off first thing.

Tayrona is a circa 300 square km stunning national park to the east of Santa Marta. It containes rainforested hills, the famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) and as it meets the Caribbean what can only be described as some of the most beautiful beaches you could imagine. And so it was that after a night in a hammock the three of us plus Ryan (cool American who did the Cuidad Perdida trek with the Israelis) took a taxi, bus, pick-up and then walked a not small distance through the forest to reach the sea. Stunning is not a sufficient word to describe the sea breaking on a rugged palm-tree'd beach. The charm in the place lies in its situation, where the densely forested sierra stoops down and literally clashes with the Caribbean. Freshwater streams and large imposing boulders cut up the beach. At the time, what I assumed would be the height of our excitement in Tayrona occurred when Dave and I managed to lose the path and took a rather interesting route around a large outcrop of rocks. The watch word should have been "turn back", but instead we soldiered on literally jumping between and, in my case, swimming through the choppy gaps in the outcrops with a mid-sized pack to reach our destination. After having a cliff-hanger moment, Dave eventually turned back and we met up on the other side a bit cut and torn. We were really looking forward to chilling out.

Another 45 minute barefoot trek though the forest took us to El Cabo - we were not disappointed. A small hut (to be of great significance later), a few seats and a number of hammocks are graced by a tightly curbed golden beach in between more imposing rocky outcrops and as ever the jungle behind - paradise. The first thing I did was drop my stuff and climb on to and over the larger outcrop where I successfully discovered Eliana, Talia and Geoffrey. After a lot of smiles, a couple of hugs and general rapid catch up of the type so common among backpackers, we climbed back over and onto the beach. Even better - there were Heiko and Ursula, the lovely German couple I spent a night chatting with in Cali. All in all we were in great spirits. A feeling that we had reached an apex in our travels, making it to one of the most northerly points in South America so to relax, swim in the sea, get a tan and take stock before the long long road south.

After watching the sun set with gusto over the sierra we settled down to more thorough catch up and a seriously chilled out session. This continued as the darkness deepened and the stars came out brightly to pretty much complete the scene. What more can you want then sitting out under the stars with a few mates, the sweet aroma of flores de dios in the air and the gently lapping sea stretching out in front............. a double barrel shotgun shoved in your face. Out of nowhere. While I was aiding Dave with an instrument, a masked man dressed in black and carrying a shotgun appeared and made not so friendly gestures with his piece. It sounds strange, but the initial reaction was not fear but just confusion. In our state of exhaustion and relaxation and in the context of Colombia where armed men are two a penny this did not entirely surprise me. Perhaps they were paramilitaries, who incidentally control the whole area, doing routine patrols - I suppose this was my initial reasoning. Muchos muchos confusion......

The next stream of hours are not entirely clear but I will do my best to give them justice.

We were literally herded by an uncertain number of armed masked and it is fair to say rather sketchy characters into the seating area set 5 meters or so from the sea. Again utter confusion - what in the fuck was going on. Why would paramilitaries do this? Were they paramilitaries and if not then who the fuck were they?

My reaction was simple. Get as close to the centre of the herd as possible and KEEP MY HEAD DOWN. Although we are by nature hunters, this illustrated a differing innate instinct. What are they doing? What in the heck should I be doing? Try to regain some of my wits and just keep fucking still.....

From what I can make out they spent the next few minutes securing their position, checking for any stragglers and calmly taking total control. Then they started to communicate. My Spanish was shall we say not at its best, so most of what I picked up was latterly from others. Something along the lines of "we are not robbers", "give us all mobile phones", "if you still have a mobile you are dead". Somehow "MUERTAS" got my attention, can not think why. They talked of us as hermanos (brothers) believe of not - a strange fucking country, but I love it. At one point a local guy stood up and confronted them. What resulted was a showdown of heated words, with one of the masked men putting a gun up to his head until, eventually, he stood back down. To me this was barely real, something out of a bloody movie.


The next I believe hour and a half were the most formative of my life. Sitting there with my head down, a unique atmosphere for contemplation was formed by the encaptured situation, with the masked intruders methodically shining torches over our faces. I do not really want to share the thoughts that went through my head but let's just say that a lot of the big questions I wanted to answer this year were answered then and there with a clarity that could not exist without the tangible possibility of a near death. You could philosophise and contemplate for years at home, but without imminence no sure conclusions can be reached. I am not saying I thought I was going to die, just that the rational likelihoods in front of me were some sort of kidnapping, robbery, or simply death. The odds of each were going up and down in my head like those before a cup final - in my head, all three had scarily short odds at different times. I made my peace and was surprised by how accepting one can be of it.

Suddenly I was snapped out of this never deep thought by the situation moving on. "Extranjeros" (foreigners) were made to put there hands up - no point in violating the order as I stand out like a sore thumb, but I certainly noticed limbs being put up limply. The thugs made Geoffrey and Alexia stand up, come to the front, searched them thoroughly (even removing sandals) and then marched them off out of sight. Again......shit, what in the heck is going on now - the odds had in my eyes suddenly shifted markedly towards some sort of kidnapping. The thoughts of the backpackers kidnapped in the same national park two years before had ran through and through my head, especially that they had only taken the fittest 8 of the 16 at the time. There were quite a few of us so I just thought not me.

Another thought ran through my head - what would I do if I heard shots? They had been marched off into the dark without even shoes - that is not right for kidnapping - what in the heck? Contingencies run through and through your head and although in these situations trying to take affirmative action is often the worst thing to do, I was set on doing something if I heard shots. There is no way you can just sit there like a lame duck if they start shooting people. But what to do? Fight, against an AK, not very rational - run, there were enough of us that some should get away, but where to run to, the forests, the sea............

This is just an idea of the sort of thoughts running through my head. I have no idea what I would have done, if anything, if shots had been fired at that point, but thank God I never had to find out. One wants to test oneself but there are limits.

Two more were then made to stand up, searched and marched off in the same professional manner. Then a finger pointing at me, and the Colombian lady in front indicated for me to stand up. Bugger that. I just put my head back down and kept still. I think others stood up and went through the same routine. This happened once or twice more before eventually all hombres (men) were made to stand up and we all went through the procedure. The girls including Talia and Eliana were being left behind but what could you do - nothing.

They took my watch off my hand, and searched me from top to bottom. I was then moved on to another armed thug who carried out the same procedure, and then..... it was obvious where we were going. Partial relief. We were not being marched off then and there but pushed into the sole small shed like building. There I was once again searched and led into the dark hot room already occupied by a good dozen people. The room was already cramped but people kept on being led in, including thankfully the girls. It is not a nice thought as to what could have happened to them. All in all we reckon circa 35 people were put in a building (if that is the right term - shack seems better) that consisted of two rooms in total no bigger than 4m by 3m - I think. Legs on legs, bodies next to each other in the tropical heat - not a pleasant situation.

The general feeling was still one of confusion, but the biggest relief for me came when blankets were offered round by the masked ones. It then seemed unlikely that they were going to kill us - large breath out. Kidnapping was not in anyway removed from the possible agenda. I myself kept thinking I heard boats. This added many other interesting possibilities to my imagination. The situation is one really hard to describe. I mean there were little kids locked in with us lying on the bed hugging there parents.

Initially, I was sitting on the bed and Dave was just in front of me. It says a lot about the mentality that our little country installs in us that our first words were a joke. The joke shall not be repeated. In fact I found this was a common theme of our entrapment. A joke here, a talk about a good pub in Brighton there, broken by an attempt at an assessment of the current state of affairs. Oh, and one could not forget the little game of ¨I Spy¨, ¨I spy with my little eye something beginning with D¨....¨Dark¨, or ¨B¨....¨Black¨..... I am sure you get the the jist of the game.

A bit too much noise was made as people seemed to relax a little, then came from outside "do you want to be dead?" Things quietened down.

Then, the bed collapsed on Heiko's leg, pain, and movement all round. I had a little chat to some of the others to see how people were doing and then moved to the other room. Get as far away from the door as possible. This little box room was even smaller and hotter. Legs cramped up and bodies rubbing against each other. Behind me was a whole lot of soft drink cans which I decided could be spread around without payment. A bit pissed off though because I could not find a beer - Lord that would have made me feel better and again add a layer of dark comedy to the situation.

After being in that room for a good hour or so more - with the heat, the sweet smell of sweat and I suspect piss - and no noticeable noise from outside, I think we generally thought they were gone or at least settled down for the night (another possibility was that they were an armed group looking for shelter for the night). This illusion was shattered by a large bang on the wooden shutter to the room I was in. It was opened and again I put my head down and avoided any possible eye contact. Alexis, who was at the far side of the room, explained that there was a guy with a gun looking straight at her and ordering stuff. He was asking for drinks - they were given. Eventually the shutter was closed and we could relax slightly.

Again a large period of silence, a lowering of the tension..... BANG BANG BANG.

FUCK - all the possibilities fill your head like a balloon. In these situations you seem to get strangely blase until something like this brings reality home.

Then silence...... more silence..... more silence. One by one people started to fall asleep on the hard floor, exhausted. I could not sleep and for what seemed and certainly was hours, just stared out of the window at the opposite side of the shack, listened to the sea lap the coast, the noises of the night and contemplated. Eventually I too knocked out and had a patchy 40 minutes sleep amongst the entanglement.

AWAKE - faint light outside. Bustling impatience in the room. Some saying we should break out, others to stay put longer. Eventually a rough decision was made to bust out the wooden shutter. Bang, bang...... it flung open. The first rays of the day and an air indescribably refreshing poured into our prison.

We escaped and I experienced a feeling of elation like I have never felt before.

To see a sunrise that I did not know I would ever see over a paradise beach filled me with a joy to be alive that I will never and must never forget. Life is so precious and our moddy-cuddled society allows us to forget it all too often. Life and the world we live in is so God damn beautiful and to not appreciate it is a shame. At this moment in my life I appreciated it at an intensity I did not know possible.

There was such relief, but even this was dented by the realisation that two of the locals had been taken off with the bastards. We looked around - stuff was everywhere ripped open and strewn about the place. They had gone through every corner, pocket nook and cranny. They stole cameras, sunglasses, knives, money, torches, mp3 players, CD players, speakers to name just a few things. They did conscientiously leave passports and credit cards (traceable). I lost over $1000 worth of stuff BUT I just did not care. In such a situation possessions do not matter - people matter!

A very strange chilled out morning ensued where we sat and contemplated, occasionally rummaged around trying to find our stuff, washed the stink off in the sea, and just sat. Thankfully, eventually the two hostages returned with the news that the robbers (only really at this point could we call them this) had taken two donkeys to carry the loot and ridden through the forest to the nearest road where they had jumped on a bog standard public bus.

The events of the next couple of days will not be repeated in detail, safe to say that Heiko, Ursula, Ryan, Geoffrey, Eliana, Talia, Dave and myself had a very confused and to be honest very screwed up period of time spent sorting our heads, getting smashed and trying to convince the police that we were telling the truth. A lot of us acted quite out of character but that was only to expected.

To conclude this little tale I want to make two points. The first is highlighted by the first local we met on the long walk through the park that morning. He exclaimed embarrassment and apology that such a thing should happen to us in his country. These are a lovely people and they do not deserve the bad publicity from this freak incident. I feel I have to tell of what happened because it was so significant for me, but must emphasise just how unrepresentative of this beautiful country this incident is. I would recommend this country more highly then any other I have had the privilege to visit.

Secondly, to relate just how strongly this enforced upon me the importance and beauty of the life we lead and the unimportance of simple possessions. While they are convenient they are not what this life is about. Unfortunately the robbers seem to have learned this the hardest possible way. We have good reason to believe that they were caught and shot by the paramilitaries. It just is not worth it!!
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