(Excerpted from Chapter 17: The Inca Trail: The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries)
The Colombian border station is ultra-modern, the Mercedes Benz bus we board on the other side is even more so. We cruise north in luxury, hopping off for the night at Popayan. The age-old dilemma of the traveler sets in during a conversation at our guest house with an Irish couple, whose eyes glow with a wonderment that makes me want to go where they had just been. That place is five bumpy hours southeast of here at the ruins of San Augustin and Terrendios. It is a tangent with a nice ring, a ganja-filled paradise of overwhelming quietness, despite its proximity to FARQ-held territory.
In the end the weight of both family responsibilities and our backpacks carry the day. Pat and his family are watching Buck and Milo for us and we don’t want to put them out any more than we already have. Our bags are now much heavier. Money is running low. We miss our dogs and our cabin in the Montana woods. We decide that we will go straight to Medellin and Bogotá in the morning.
Taxi drivers surround the luxury Scandia coach as we disembark at Bogotá’s central bus terminal at 4:20 AM. Their eyes are bloodshot from the white powder which has gotten them through the night. Colombian rapid-fire Espanol- the fastest tongue in Latin America, possibly also owing to the prevalence of cocaine- encapsulates my slow-waking brain. The sea of brown faces is turbulent, volatile and aggressive. It gets irritated with my inability to understand its language. Men swagger around the terminal, their necks wrapped in heavy gold chains, their shirts unbuttoned to the lower chest. Machismo is their ruthless mechanism for keeping ruthlessness as bay. The women wear high-heels and the latest designer skirts cut much higher than most places. They are reduced to a freak show for the powder-driven sea of aggression.
We find a coffee shop inside the terminal and take refuge there. The coffee is strong. We buy several cups. My brain is working now, so I strike up a conversation with one of the battalion of security guards who keep watch over this trouble. I ask him who is really in charge of Colombia’s cocaine business. Is it leftist rebels, as the US corporate media tells us? Is the Colombian oligarchy, the mafia or the CIA? He says in Colombia “the mafia is the CIA”. We have established a subversive bond. He watches over us for the remainder of our time here.
Violence permeates Colombian culture. It is what gets business deals done. It is the logo of the commerce-oriented worldview which keeps this- the world’s most resource-rich country- in the upper-tier of Third World nations. They are desperate to join the First World- not by ladder or bus, but via a death-defying rocket ride. Cocaine revenue keeps the country in the black. The stock market surges, but the poor do not benefit. Leftist FARQ and ELN guerrilla armies are gaining in popularity. Their success only brings more terror from the oligarchy-funded right-wing paramilitaries- known worldwide for their brutality. Some brag openly of their Nazi affiliations. They are security guards for the CIA-manufactured kings of cocaine- Lehder, Escobar, Ochoa, Gil, and Carranza.
It is 6:00 AM. We have only 150 pesos. There are 800 pesos in a dollar now days, so even another coffee is out of the question. The banks open in two hours. They are all downtown. We decide it safest for Jill to stay here with our bags – under the watchful eye of the friendly security guard – while I spend the rest of our pesos on a city bus into the heart of the Bogota beast. As the bus arrives downtown, Colombian reality sets in. The shiny new bus terminal and verdant suburbs give way to crumbling brick facades and tin shacks selling Coca-Cola. Amidst the squalor sits almost every international bank you could imagine – Barclays, Citibank, Chase, Lloyds, Bank of America, and Deutsche Bank to name just a few. They are all here to take part in the lucrative cocaine money laundering business. If there is a hell on earth this must be it. Back at the station with a wad of pesos, we buy two tickets to Cucuta on the Venezuelan border.
San Antonio, Venezuela
As we walk out of Colombia and enter Venezuela, I ask the border guards if there is any way around the stiff $30 visa we were supposed to buy at the currently closed Venezuelan consulate in Cucuta. They tell us if we go straight to the airport, we can avoid it. So we grab a bus to the airport and attempt to board an Avianca flight to Caracas and on to Miami. For our efforts, we are separated, taken into back rooms and strip searched. They must think we are drug traffickers looking for a quick way out of here. After a half hour of mainly guarding our valuables from the sticky fingers of the customs officials who search us, we are told we must return to Cucuta, Colombia and buy a visa for proper entry to Venezuela. The border guards had lied to us.
Trouble is, it is Saturday and the consulate will be closed until Monday. Another problem is that San Antonio has no running water. Pre-Chavez Venezuela – formerly rising star of South America – is fraught with economic misery. Things are even worse now than when we visited two years ago. At that time 100 bolivars bought a dollar. Now it takes close to 200. A number of banks have gone belly up and the IMF has issued more draconian solutions, one of which, I suspect, is this water rationing we must endure for the next three days. I imagine that the Cisneros family- Venezuela’s wealthiest and good friends of the Rockefeller clan – are toughing it out at one of their Curacao haciendas.
Monday morning finally arrives and none too soon. We have been hanging out by default with a Spaniard named Diego who is just about to drive me insane. We stand in line for two hours at the Cucuta consulate, procure our spendy visas, pass the smirking border guards as we re-enter Venezuela, then head for the airport where we buy two tickets to Miami for $112/each – the same price we would pay from Caracas to Miami. I guess we were due. We would have spent more returning to Bolivia from Otavalo. The border war allowed us to see Colombia. And we save on the international departure tax, which was $20 each from La Paz and is only $5 each from Caracas.
More importantly we have solved another travel riddle through reason, refusing to let an irrational fear of Colombia perpetuated by the US media (probably to keep nosy Americans from discovering the role of the CIA and the banks in the drug trade) alter our Plan B. Colombia is like any other place in the world. If you carry yourself with dignity and confidence, you can walk safely anywhere. If you are full of fear, you are not safe in your own house.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com