Peeking in on the Protests in Colombia

Little did I know when I arrived in Colombia, that I would be here just in time to witness a historic moment in history.

Maybe you recently read something in the news about protests in Colombia?

If you haven’t, I don’t recommend that you go looking for it because all the news sources I have read in English have presented the situation in very uninformed ways, some even comparing the protests in Colombia to those in Chile or even the mass exodus happening in Venezuela, which is just plain irresponsible journalism.* While the protests in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador might have helped empower and mobilize Colombians, each situation is different. The scale, duration, and violence and vandalism around each one are also very different, and news sources greatly exaggerated the security situation in Colombia by comparing the situation to recent protests in other Latin American countries. But I digress.

On Thursday, the 21 of November, for the first time in decades, Colombians held a huge “paro” or strike, and masses of people came together to protest in many cities across the country, to march in the streets, peacefully voicing that they were fed up with corruption and that they wanted to see government money invested back into the people instead of filling the pockets of politicians and the wealthy.

Sign comparing the salary of a member of congress to the minimum wage, then asking if it seems fair.

Planned for a Thursday, the paro ended up going through the weekend. While the protests were peaceful, there were a few isolated incidents of casualties* and some criminals took advantage of the situation, looting and a hijacking a bus.

But it was clear that the protesters didn’t want violence, and cities put in measures to prevent looting and violence. When I arrived back in Bogotá, big shopping centers were still closing a few hours early and the public transit system was just starting to operate at full service again, and the curfew had been lifted.

The president organized meetings with the protest leaders, but they still haven’t come to any agreements and so the protests continue with one or two big marches per week – organized, peaceful, and legal, with all the necessary permits, and causing major road closures with advance notice.

Left: I march because the government doesn’t march (forward).
Right: a parody of the current president’s political slogan.

Everyone I’ve talked to (taxi drivers, random people sitting next to me on the bus) support the marches, (as long as they remain peaceful and not too disruptive). One taxi driver said, “Colombians are happy people, but dumb – we’ve just been letting the politicians rob us without doing anything about it. Finally people are speaking up.”

I asked a guy in his 50s sitting next to me on the bus if he supported the strikes and he said “Yeah, I marched in the strike on the 22nd. The politicians need to do what’s best for the people not what’s best for their pocket.” (This was a guy who did construction in rural areas a few hours outside of Bogotá and definitely didn’t strike me as someone who would have been out marching in the streets.)

The most recent march included Colombian music artists who support the strike performing concerts during the march. There were 3 stationary stages at the start, middle, and finish, and one mobile stage that moved along with the march. (I think you have to understand how integral music is to Colombian culture to not be surprised by this.)

Official protest/concert route, circulated on Instagram

It had started raining at the final stage when I went to scope it out, and there were hundreds of umbrellas and people in ponchos chanting, “Llueva o truene, el paro se mantiene!” (“Rain or thunder, the strike continues!”)

Music rose from a small stage on the street, keeping everyone singing and moving to the music in between chants.

One of my favorite chants was “A parar para avanzar!” Which is really fun to say but not as fun to translate and basically means we are stopping in order to advance (like stopping traffic and daily life in order to advance as a society, or advance the cause).

What do people hope the outcome of the strike will be? I wanted to know. So I asked.

One young man and his mother were out there in the rain without ponchos or umbrellas, getting soaked but they didn’t seem bothered by the rain. The young man told me that there was a group of corrupt leaders running the public universities, and they were striking until those corrupt leaders left. He noted that he actually attended a private university so wasn’t affected by it but that he was marching in solidarity with public university students.

His mother added that she was hoping for pension (social security) reform because there would be no funds left for her son and young people his age by the time they needed it.

Then there was a young family with two kids holding hand-written signs. The mother (maybe in her early 30s) said, “Never in my life have I seen Colombians come together to unite their voices and believe in change. Instead of being in their warm houses watching tv, for the first time people have come out into the streets to call for change, finally believing they could make a difference.”

She didn’t know if it would result in any actual policy changes, but she hoped it would advance women’s rights (she and her husband were both wearing green bandanas to support a woman’s right to choose, decriminalizing abortion), and she hoped the current tax code proposal would be denied.

Finally, I spoke to a group of three older women, maybe in their 60s-70s, who were super fired up and in detail, explained all the issues they were hoping would be addressed, which included not approving the proposed tax reform and could maybe be summarized as addressing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, especially improving living conditions for those with lower incomes.**

The local news reported (accurately, according to what I saw), a festive and peaceful air of music and chanting, especially for these most recent rallies. My heart goes out to Colombians and I hope they are able to make some strides against corruption and take steps to close the wealth gap (as I hope the same for my own country.)

Famous Footnotes:

*In the first weekend of protests, there were many injured, with one death in Bogotá and two in Cali.

**Specifically, she stated that there was a tax code reform proposal that she hoped would not be approved because it would only benefit the wealthy. She also wanted the minimum wage raised since so many people struggled to meet ends meet. And she wanted the government to recognize that unemployment, which was reported at 10%, was actually around 40% because such a large percent of employment was in the informal sector. Additionally, she saw the need for recognizing and legalizing indigenous people’s rights and improving the lives of people who live and work in the rural areas (farmers, indigenous people).

Guatapé – Colombian Town of Colors and Warmth

The prize for the cutest, most beautiful, quietest-without-being-boring, small town goes to … Guatapé, a small town two hours from Medellín.

When I stepped off the bus, I was greeted by a few colorful buildings and thought “how cute”. But then I began walking through the streets in search of lodging, and I realized this was a city like no other. There weren’t just a few cute and colorful buildings, but looking down every single street my eyes were rewarded with a burst of color – and not tacky colorful houses but really cute, orderly and coordinated colors that made the atmosphere of the whole town feel pleasant.

Turns out, this Colombian lakeside town of 5,000 people is known as “la ciudad de zócalos”, because of the colorful, artistic baseboard decoration on the outside of each house.

The decorative band of designs typically depicts an aspect of daily life, history, or the homeowner’s or artist’s interests.

Though sometimes they are just colorful designs accenting the colors of the house.

The town reinvented itself in the 1980’s after the construction of a dam protected it from future flooding, and the town came together with the idea to adopt this signature style throughout the whole town. The result of their unified efforts is astounding.

This quiet town, 2 hours from Medellín is a popular weekend getaway for Paisas and a common stop for international travelers.

It is quiet most days of the year, except during the approximately 12 holidays of the year – during a holiday, the population explodes from 5 thousand to up to 15 or 20 thousand as visitors flood in from Medellín or other parts of the country. On the busiest days, there isn’t enough lodging and people have to return to Medellín for the night.*

I am not at all surprised at the popularity of Guatapé as a relaxing weekend escape.

First, it is most famous for “la piedra”, which is a tall rock rising above the landscape, offering an incredible view of this interesting lake-filled region.

The town has built stairways of 659 stairs up to the top of the rock and charges an entrance fee. While the touristy part at the entrance and the top didn’t appeal to me much, many would appreciate the opportunity to buy a cold drink or souvenirs, especially those who just do a day trip to the area. Either way, the view at the top is well worth the climb. It was really unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Back down on the ground, you could do lake activities like paddle boats, kayaking, going out in big boats, or renting jet skis.

You could walk or bike to the monasteries (one for women and one for men, though only the one for men was active).

You could rent a bike and do a loop around Guatapé, which of course is something I chose to do.

And this is where I really got a sense of how chill this town is. The bike rental place rented me a bike with zero collateral. I just wrote my name on a paper and said I’d bring the bike back before 6pm and they gave me a bike and helmet and said I could pay when I got back.

I got another feel for the small town life the day I walked around town and got my haircut. In the salon, I was greeted by a mestizo guy who informed me that the stylist was finishing lunch, and as we chatted I realized he was a neighbor just hanging out there. He was proud to be a Paisa, and enjoyed explaining to me how friendly they were.

While the woman was cutting my hair, two black teenagers came in and the woman greeted them enthusiastically. Turns out they were from Guatapé, but one was visiting from Medellin where he had gone to study. The woman had an aunt-like manner with the young neighbor boys, highlighting for me that small-town feel where everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone.

In addition to the mix of mestizos and blacks (seen all over Colombia not just in Guatapé), the majority of people tending the restaurants (and those managing my hostel) were Venezuelan – also a common occurrence throughout Colombia right now.**

Turns out that I was in Guatapé at just the right time too … I was safely enjoying small-town life during the planned protests in Colombia this past weekend (21 Nov). While some of the bigger cities experienced cases of looting or disturbances that led to curfews, things in Guatapé were calm and quiet.

I am so lucky to have experienced this little gem in the middle of Colombia! Hopefully you will one day too!

Famous Footnotes:

*Oxapampa, twice as large as Guatapé with an urban population of 10,000, experiences a similar phenomenon during holidays as Limeños flee to the rural city looking for a quiet, nature-filled, relaxing holiday. Ironically, in both Oxapampa and in Guatapé, this surge of tourism turns the quiet town into a busier and noisier city – though still much quieter and relaxing than Lima or Medellín.

**As a neighbor to Venezuela, Colombia has received around 1 million Venezuelan immigrants in the last two years due to the economic crisis there.

Medellín’s Pride and Joy

The Metro is the pride and joy of Paisas* in Medellín. I admit that I was surprised to hear our tour guide say that and more surprised that the Metro was actually a stop in the walking tour! But he explained (through a very well-told and emotional story) that it is one of the city’s key symbols of a transforming and progressing city.

Like many mass transit projects, it took decades to complete, having to overcome political and financial hurdles, among all the other problems Medellín was suffering at the time. So when it did come to fruition, it became celebrated and is still a respected place that is clean and well-kept – and people behave themselves inside the Metro system.

(I was impressed with the public service message I heard on the train saying that women and girls ride comfortably and safely on the metro, free from comments or any type of harassment. Many metro systems in the world could use those messages, including DC!)

The train efficiently gets you from one part of the city to another, and there are plenty of buses where the train doesn’t go. And my favorite part of the metro system…

The teleférico! The elevated (ski-lift-type) cable car! Yep, similar to La Paz, (but different). In La Paz, the entire transport system was a teleférico. In Medellin, the main system is made up of trains (many elevated), and then a few final parts of the system include transfers from the train to a teleférico, which takes you up to parts of the city built on the sides of a mountain.

To get to Parque Arvi, a public nature reserve, we took the train, transferred to one of the teleférico branches of the train, and then took another teleférico that would take us on a 30 minute ride to the park.

It was an incredible public transport experience, as the cable car carried us up a mountain, over the top of a densely populated community on the side of the mountain.

Then it continued as the community became less densely populated and later transformed into forest.

We sailed over the top of the forest in the pod, enjoying the view of the wilderness from above, and I was impressed by this low-impact way to transverse a natural area.

About 30 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Parque Arvi, a public natural reserve with hiking trails, a river, and picnic and camping areas.

While the park was a great way to escape the city scene and immerse ourselves in nature, I have to say that the mass transit experience was the highlight of the day!

Famous footnote:

Paisa refers to a person from a cultural region in Colombia around and including Medellin.

Medellín – a symbol of transformation

I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.

Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.

But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.

Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)

It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.

Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.

Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).

The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.

Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)

Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.

As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.

Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.

For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.

Our guide, standing below the house she lived in for decades.

Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.

A statue destroyed by a bomb remains to remind Paisas of the history, but stands next to a new and in-tact statue symbolizing a new era for Medellín.

Travelers

One of the cool things about traveling is meeting other travelers. I have met people from so many different countries, each with their own itinerary, their own purpose of traveling, their own way of traveling, and their unique perspective on the people and places they are seeing.

Many people have some artistic and/or social goal as their vessel carrying them through their travels and guiding them along the way, like me and my blog-writing project.

Like Lucas, the photographer from Denver who was trying to capture photos of people who still maintain some practices from their indigenous ancestors and who hopes to be able to portray their culture in cool ways so that it is enticing to youth to learn and preserve their culture. (He was just the second other American I have met so far traveling!)

And like Noel from Switzerland who is traveling volunteering. She hasn’t seen all the tourist sites in Peru but rather has spent more than a month in two sites, volunteering and getting to know the place and the people on a deeper level. First she did a volunteer program in Trujillo that she paid quite a bit for but didn’t actually receive much help from the organization she paid, and finally towards the end of her 5-week stay she started to get a feel for how she could actually be of service to the community. Here in Iquitos she did a 19-day boat ride with 9th wave along the Napo river border with Ecuador where they stopped at communities along the way. There she connected with one community and decided to stay for about 5 weeks to teach English, now that she would be able to use what she learned from her first experience to make this one more impactful.

Then there are the parapenters. This couple from France worked on a farm in California to raise money to be able to travel and with that money has been traveling for about 8 months. They are traveling with an extra backpack that has their parapenting gear because everywhere they go, they look for spots to go paragliding. Since there’s a whole community of people who paraglide, It’s also a great way that they are able to meet locals in each place they go as well as meeting other travelers from around the world who paraglide.

And recently I met a 26-year-old Swiss woman who looked suspiciously Latina… and it turns out that she was born in Colombia and adopted by a Swiss family when she was 6 years old. She doesn’t remember her life before adoption, including didn’t remember any Spanish, so she had come to Colombia to attend a Spanish school in Cartegena. Having finished classes, I met her when she was speaking Spanish quite well! She is a nurse and had taken a month off to volunteer at a clinic in Peru and then travel a little around Colombia to know her homeland a little more.

These are only a few snapshots of some of the different people I have met along the way and the motives that drive them in their journeys.