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Six colorful days in Colombia

October 15, 2001
The Iranian

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"You're out of your mind!" ... "WHAT? WHERE? Khol shodi?"... were some of the reactions I received from friends when I mentioned that I am headed to Bogota, Colombia, for a couple of days. There were a few supportive exceptions, including family members (hoping to get rid of me?).

Having had a life-long dream of visiting South America, this was an opportunity not to be missed. Colombia was THE destination even though it seems to be on most people's NOT-to-do list. The U.S. State Department's travel advisory, makes it very clear.

My trip became possible thanks to a Colombian friend who was going home for several weeks and invited me to go along. Despite all the security issues, going with a friend, who is from Bogota and knows where to go and not to go, was a reasonable plan. My dark Iranian hair and skin were also helpful since I managed to blend in very well with the local population.

Researching Colombia and trying to gather information about the country was a relatively easy task. Among the myriad of sites and guidebooks available, Lonely Planet seems to be the most reliable, with independent advice and firsthand accounts from other travelers.

Colombia was part of a greater country known as Gran Colombia, formed after independence from Spain in the latter part of the nineteenth century. However, the union did not survive. Three countries emerged from the break-up: Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia. Today, the flags of all three carry the same Gold, Blue and Red colors but with different national symbols in the middle. Later on, another territory separated from Colombia, allegedly as a result of U.S. manipulation, and Panama was formed.

The history of Colombia is generally divided into pre- and post-Spanish Conquerors (Conquistadors). Several museums in Bogota display the arts and crafts of the indigenous population thousands of years prior to the arrival of the greedy Spaniards looking for gold.

When I was checking in for my flight at Miami airport, everyone spoke to me in Spanish. They were undeterred by my oblivious expression. (I managed to increase my Spanish vocabulary 300% during this trip -- from 5 to 20 words.) The flight from Miami to Bogota was only three hours.

Bogota (or Sante Fe de Bogota) lies between two branches of the Andes mountains in Central Colombia, known as Cordillera Oriental. The city is 8,700 feet (2,650 meters) above sea level, making it among the highest capitals in the world. As the plane makes its descent, the green carpet underneath, nestled between the rough and jagged peaks of the Andes mountains reminds me of Tehran and the Alborz mountains.

Here's a description from Lonely Planet:

Bogota, the country's capital, is the quintessence of all things Colombian: a city of futuristic architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world's most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises.

The city lies very close to the equator. Therefore there's basically only one season year-round (except for dry vs. rainy periods). Daytime temperatures are roughly 70-80 degrees F and at night, the temperature drops to about 50-60 degrees. This relative coolness is due to the high altitude. The weather is quite dry, with minimal humidity. You do, however, feel the smog just about everywhere, except in areas closer to the mountains.

Having escaped the August heat and humidity of my home in Washington DC, Bogota's dry weather, similar to Tehran, was an appealing feature. In fact there are many similarities between Bogota and Tehran. The city's transportation needs are primarily served by a large number of minibuses (busettas) spewing black smoke into the air.

The minibuses often play loud music (like the pre-revolution minibooses in Tehran), and they stop wherever they please to pick up or drop off passengers (vasateh khiaaboon, kenaareh khiaaboon... anywhere). The minbuses are supplemented by taxis, and the occasional olaagh hauling loads of goods through the streets. Entrance of private cars into the city center is limited, depending on the day of the week, time of day and the last digit of the car's license plate.

During the evening, you can see people congregating at meydoon-like locations, with kids riding their bikes around their parents. Equally available in most spots, is a guy with a manghal selling corn and screaming the Spanish equivalent of "BALAALI... BALAALI..." Mind you there are 30+ different types of corn in this county.

There was a clear division between the northern and southern parts of the city. You see more modern villas (prosperity) in the north. The further south you go, poverty becomes more evident. I was told there are areas similar to Tehran's "Halabi-abad" shanty town.

It is hard not to notice Colombians' love for food and knick-knacks. There are food shops, cafes, "aab-miveh-giri" or jugerias (juiceria) everywhere. Seems like every third shop is a purveyor of food. There is a popular desserts-only outdoor cafe on the outskirts of the city, where people drive for an hour just to eat something sweet (incredibly good!).

A major feature is traffic, traffic, traffic and then some, coupled with boogh, boogh, boogh and more boogh. Driving rules and signals are ALL negotiable; other drivers will pass you from any side at any time, and you learn not to take it personally. Turning right from the far-left lane and being talab-kaar at the same time is simply routine, so is driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

On a foray to a resort outside Bogota, we drove on a scenic road very similar to that between Tehran and Chaloos -- only two-lanes, treacherous, curving, and mountainous, with breathtaking views packed with cars and trucks of all sizes trying to pass at any given point. An adrenaline-loaded experience!

There are similarities in language and attitude too. Colombian mothers "ghorboon sadagheh" their children with "Mi Vida" (literally "My life" like our own "Joonam"). A frustrated guard and a family of 11 argued endlessly about Bogota airport's rule of not allowing those without a ticket beyond a certain point. As in Iran, the entire tribe comes to the airport to welcome a beloved back from a trip.

My friend had purchased some items to bring back to the U.S. which where made in a remote village. Family members made much fun of the fact that these items were purchased to be taken from "Abarghoo to Michigan" -- in a very Iranian-like sarcastic humor, with the right arm waving in the air and pointing north to Michigan.

Colombians are extremely hospitable and warm-blooded. In restaurants, when they discover you are a visitor, the attention and care showered on the guest is endless. They are "mehmaan navaaz" in the truest sense. You will notice some "taarof" as well. For instance they insist that you eat, even if you are not hungry. They do, however, stop after you politely turn them down the second time, and do not force-feed you Iranian-style.

In one restaurant, a waiter's name tag read "Farid Rodriguez". He said he was fully "Colombiano" in response to my inquiry regarding his origins. Apparently there has been some Arab immigration to Colombia, with most people settling in the coastal cities by the Caribbean.

I also met an Iranian in Bogota (is there anywhere you can go where you would NOT meet an Iranian these days?). He had been there for about a year, having moved from Tehran to run a family carpet business. He seemed extremely happy living there. (He guessed there are about a dozen Iranians living in Bogota.) He was particularly pleased with the women in Colombia. During the my visit, I could see why. Damn!

In the markets and shops, you should be weary of very polite but slick shop-keepers. "chooneh zadan" over any and everything is strongly recommended. Nevertheless, it is hard not to notice the laid back attitude and "haalaa fardaa dorostesh mikonim... cheraa inghadr ajaleh daari?" or "mañana"...

Until very recently Colombia had a vibrant economy. But things have taken a turn for the worse. There is a strong preference for the U.S. Dollar versus the Pesos, due to the staggering economy and inflation. Everyone tells you about the youth leaving the country and moving elsewhere for a better future, and everyone has a relative somewhere in the U.S. or Europe (gosh, that sounds so familiar!) and you can see long lines outside certain embassies for travel visas.

In the central districts of Bogota, I often ran into military units on guard. The soldiers were never alone and always within each other's eyesight. They are also present in the mountainous parts of the city, the equivalents to Darband, Velenjak and Tochal in Tehran. Entering into an underground parking lot in north central Bogota, they inspected the trunk of the car and used mirrors to check for bombs underneath. The city seems to be under quasi-martial law.

Colombia is a strong reminder of Iran, of yet another country abundantly wealthy in natural resources, with talented and motivated people, who are quite successful in other countries, yet unable to get their own house in order.

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