It's hard to believe that Colombia and its people were once almost exclusively known for drug-related violence and guerilla warfare. While pockets of conflict remain, the country has largely battled its demons. Foreign tourists are flocking to the beaches of Cartagena and the restaurants of Bogota. And they should. Colombia's rich culture and astonishing natural beauty are easily accessible to the United States and Europe.
I first visited Colombia in 1996, which is remembered as one of the darkest years of the conflict. I was a student living in Buenos Aires, and Colombia was the first leg of a backpacking journey from the northern tip of South America back to Argentina by land.
After flying up from Santiago, Chile, the first leg of the trip was to be a "luxury" fourteen-hour bus ride from Bogotá to Colombia's Caribbean coast. The decision to take this bus, which crossed the country via the dangerous Magdalena Medio region, was unwise. The area was known to be vulnerable to rebel attacks, but a combination of ignorance, youth, and hubris convinced me that I would be fine.
With my decision made, I looked forward to the luxury accommodations. Since the bus departed in the evening, I wondered if I would be offered a pre-bedtime cognac, as was custom on long haul luxury buses in Argentina (they did not). Over the next 30-odd hours, I realized that a lack of cognac would be the least of my problems.
Within two hours, the television and the air conditioning broke, and the two dogs traveling on the bus began to whimper. Overnight, the bus nearly collided with oncoming traffic and we swerved into a ditch. We were stuck there for a few hours until the driver could get us back on the road again. Wounded, the bus continued at its new maximum speed, 30 miles per hour, down the tortuous roads of the Sierra. We proceeded without incident for several hours until military police informed us we were passing through active guerilla territory, and soldiers searched all of the men at gunpoint. I was not sure whether to be concerned or comforted by the military presence, but I'm never fond of looking up the barrel of a gun. My hubris was gone.
As we descended towards the coast and the temperature began to rise, the environment inside of the bus continued to degrade. The bathroom was full and liquid waste started to spill down the center aisle of the bus. Meanwhile, the bus had gone from "express" to "local." We stopped at nearly every village picking up local residents as they commuted between small country towns.
At one point, a young boy and his grandfather climbed aboard and sat down across the aisle from me. After a few minutes, the grandfather heeded the call of nature and relieved himself into a plastic bag. He turned in my direction and, referring to me as "grandson," tried to pass me the bulging bag and its contents. Luckily, his grandson perked up and "relieved" me of this duty.
After twenty-five hours we reached the outskirts of Baranquilla, a city just a few hours from our destination (and the home town of Shakira). Suddenly, the bus ground to a halt. A national strike had closed the road and angry strikers were attacking any vehicles that attempted to cross. Somehow, the strike ended within an hour, but the bus, wrecked from the previous night's near collision, would not move. As a result, the men on the bus were asked to congregate at the rear of the vehicle and push. As I made my way down the center aisle, I muttered, "No lo puedo creer -- I can't believe it." A distinguished looking woman, dressed in her Sunday best for the journey, lost no time in responding, "Vívalo y créalo -- Live it and believe it."
As I stood pushing and praying the bus would restart, I contemplated the woman's message. It was simple and spot on. Although she sat sweating in her formal clothes surrounded by whimpering dogs and an overflowing toilet, she had her eyes on the prize. After I arrived in Cartagena 3 hours later, I was happy to forget the dogs, the urine, and the machine guns, but her message has stayed with me.
Perhaps it is exactly this pragmatic approach to life that has allowed Colombia to emerge from the darkness to reinvent itself. Despite years of conflict, kidnappings, and terror, the perseverance of the Colombian people proved to be the key to remaking the country.