Monday, June 27, 2016

Los Perdidos (Hombres de Contravia)

You should have seen that Jeep do donuts in this overloaded state!
The 2016 Vuelta a Colombia is a thing of the past, decided after more than 1,700 kilometers by a margin of just 2 seconds with Mauricio Ortega holding on to the win over Oscar Sevilla. It took the racers almost 42 hours to complete this national tour of the country.

We probably spent a quarter of that time being lost or driving into one-way streets.
On the road to Ibague
During the first few day of this almost chronic state of being-somewhere-else-than-where-we-were-supposed-to-be I'd roll my eyes and wonder how this could happen with three locals and their GPS devices all in one car. A few days of this, and I started to get pissed off because we were wasting so much time. And finally, I just took to chuckling and calling us Los Perdidos, the lost ones.
Los Perdidos asking the locals for directions
Being lost is really not so bad, unless one really has to be in the intended location now, or at least very soon. The detour allows one to see things that one would not see otherwise, for example different sugar cane fields than the ones on the correct route, or a new variety of potholes and speed bumps in a village north of the village to the south. One of the unnerving results of getting lost is that one often has to make up time, and that involves white-knuckle moments in the passenger seat. Yes, these photos were taken within seconds of each other in one of those near-death moments. All speed references are in kilometers--had it been miles, I don't think we'd be alive.
Speedometer reads 137 k/ph
Sign says 30 k/ph
Enough of our driving, even though it was with much amusement that I registered all those times we went head-on into one-way traffic. (Have I mentioned that on the first day of our journey Ernesto the driver covered up our license plates with race stickers so the automated traffic cameras wouldn't be able to identify us? I saw lots of other race vehicles cloaked in the same way.) I am sitting in my hotel room in Bogota, about an hour before being shuttled to the airport for my flight back to the US tonight a bit after midnight, and I am still alive and in one piece. And we didn't break any axles while humping over the ubiquitous risaltos or reductores de velocidad. In Mexico they call them topes or tumulos, and in the US we refer to them as speed bumps.
The longest truck I've ever seen--treno de cana
I had a really good time here in Colombia, and I hope that one of these years I get another assignment to come down to this part of the world. The people were all so friendly, even if I butchered their language worse than they seemed to butcher it at least to my ears. They are a people who are very proud of their country, as demonstrated by the many yellow/blue/red flags and the dominance of the national soccer jerseys that a quarter of the population seemed to be wearing at times. (I was down here during the final two weeks of the centennial Copa America soccer tournament, played in the US, and Colombia won its match against the US team for third place.) A few nice words about how much one enjoys their country go a long way in creating smiles and goodwill.
Patriotic adornments everywhere
Watching a Copa America  game with the locals over many cervezas Poker
Watch out, Europe: Colombia is coming!
Not that I kept any kind of accurate log on how many miles we covered, but I am sure we drove an easy 3,000 kilometers during these two weeks. From the humid and sweltering coast to mountain passes more than 3,000 meters high (with climbs of up to 30 kilometers length and descents that stretched for 50 kilometers!), I saw an amazing variety of very beautiful landscape. If you want the Andean experience, you probably won't find it here--at least I didn't see those iconic mountain regions that are located farther south. But there's enough mountainscape to satisfy even the most die-hard Alpinist, even though bare rock (for climbing) and volcanoes are not part of the repertoire.

On the way to Medellin
With Cristobal and the doc
The central valleys that we followed on several stages are fertile and verdant. The soft green soothes the eye--no harshness here. Often the roads were spanned by huge trees, reminding me of French or German allees, just with a tropical flair. The small villages and towns we passed through (OK, often at break-neck speed!) were poor but always clean. Actually, I didn't see any real accumulations of trash anywhere, and believe it or not, I did not notice a single beggar on this entire trip. People may be poor, but they try to earn a peso instead of sitting on the ground with up-turned eyes while mumbling sadness to elicit pity and empathy. Stop at a red light in one of the larger cities, and a juggler, a trumpet player, a windshield washer will materialize and offer his talents for a few pesos. In the tiny towns, they will sell chicles and fruit.
Fruit stands along the road in the valleys
Mile after mile of tree tunnel
When I was in the Dominican Republic I devoted an entire blog entry to the art of driving in that country. Here, a paragraph or three may be sufficient because Colombia is really not as extreme. What surprised me most, I think, is the amazing amount of patience that drivers display around here. It is very seldom that somebody blows the horn. Case in point: Yesterday, when we left after the completion of the stage in Tunja, Ernesto stopped his car in a narrow street, right before entering the intersection. He switched off the engine and left to talk to someone in a sponsor car on the other side of the intersection. Traffic started to pile up behind us, yet it took about six or seven minutes before there was meek honk! When Ernesto didn't respond, another honk a few minutes later served as a reminder that we were still clogging up the street. That's patience.
Believe it or not, at the end of the rainbow I found beer
Wouldn't you want to eat here?
Another odd habit, somewhat related, is to stop in the middle or somewhat removed from the right-hand edge of the road to ponder life, or where one is going, or to make some adjustment to the car. Why pull off to the side of the road when one can do what one has to do while in the middle of the road? And yes, the word here is road, not street. Scary as hell! But all drivers seem to expect such odd maneuvers, so nobody honks or throws arms in the air or flips a bird or, better yet, rear-ends you. One also expects drivers to make all lane changes without using the turn signal, yet when one drives in a straight line, regardless of lane, the right or the left indicator will blink merrily along. In a pinch, the emergency flashers will do, too. The only sensible use of the blinker that I noticed (and recognized from other countries) is the use of the left one when ultra-slow trucks want to signal that it is relatively safe to pass, going into that blind turn.
Renault still maintains a factory in Colombia; lots of R4s are still running
WWII relic in the streets of Cota
Speed limit signs are, I believe, simply used as color accents in the landscape as red and white discs with a number such as 20 or 30 complement the green of the foliage. Speed limit signs are habitually ignored, period. So are almost all other signs, as long as they don't indicate that severe damage to the car is imminent--speed bump warnings are always observed and adhered to. School zones, signs that warn of pedestrians, directional signs--all of them might as well not exist.
Just don't hit the locals!
So, what does the police have to say to all of this? Apparently, not much. In our two weeks I saw one set of traffic police write what appeared to be a ticket, although I never saw the car but just the fairly well-dressed couple that was being talked to or even cited. I did see a few of those automated camera boxes, but whether they were actually functional, I do not know. Police, however, are everywhere, in their lime-green-accented uniforms, looking rather dapper. Quite a few of them are female, and the race employed two coppettes as their lead police motos. The sheer number of police officers makes me wonder what kind of training they have and whether it is not just a work-procurement program by the government that puts them on the streets. Of course, there's emphasis on good public relations (see pics), even in the form of police orjestras that play with unbridled enthusiasm and fun. And just to add some sort of authority to those guys, every police vehicle drives at all time with its flashing lightbars on, so you constantly think the cops are about to pull you over. Not so. But those flashers go along with all the brake and turn and warning signals flashing LEDs that make the country, especially at night, look like a blinking Christmas tree.
If only all cops looked like that!
The local police band spreading tunes and goodwill, at 145 decibel
Politically correct animated police dummy
PR work in action at the final stage's finish
One last comment about driving in Colombia: Don't try it unless you are comfortable hogging the left lane like a Texas good-old-boy in a 1946 Dodge truck. Similar to the DR, Colombia values the slowest-of-the slow to obstruct passing traffic, and that includes bikes, tuc-tucs, and even the occasional donkey cart. I was reminded of India where elephants and cows mingle with mopeds and trucks, all in one happy melange. And if you have laboriously passed someone on the right, it's a matter of seconds before you will scoot back to the left. But, please, no honking to let the slower traffic know you are coming. After all, you will first execute that hard braking maneuver to slow down behind the guy with the child in the lap whose moto's passenger seat is occupied by the fat woman who holds on to two milk pails.
I spent a delightful hour or almost two on the porch of this little restaurant
Peaceful. Life is good. Very good.
Overlooking the tiny hamlet of Buga, a tourist mecca
Colombia's scenery is quite fetching, as are its women. Rarely have I seen as many truly beautiful women as here--friendly faces, beautiful eyes, skin color to kill for, gorgeous hair, and lovely bodies that make me realize how old I am. On top of that, many of them dress in a rather chic way, especially in the cities and the ubiquitous shopping malls, but also when evening falls in the smaller towns where we stayed. Of course, after age 30 things go mostly downhill, so I tried to feast my eyes on the younger vintages. Ah, to be young again.
Nice. Really nice.
Do podium girls count? Surely!
As delectable as much of the female population is, as bland and unimaginative is Colombia's food. The food is utilitarian and based on certain staples, among them an inordinate amount of oil. So much of the food that is sold by street vendors and in small eateries is deep fried that it becomes almost yucky to look at. Be it empanadas or fish, plantains or meat, if one can put it into hot oil, the Colombians will do so. (Obviously the hot chicks do not eat that stuff!) And even if it is not fried, the food is unexciting at best. While Mexican food features a large variety of spices, salt is about as experimental as it gets around here. Want to have salsa? Sometimes there is something resembling a pico de gallo, but mostly it is ketchup or a Tabasco-relative. I did have some tasty dishes, but they probably were OK because they stuck to some basic foods that are difficult to screw up. For example, a bandeja paisa is a combo plate with beans, rice that's topped by an egg, a piece of sausage, a dollop of guacamole, terribly fatty bacon, and a piece of sausage that has been on a charcoal fire--that imparts flavor for sure. But is this really a mind-bending culinary experience? I don't think so. Rice and beans for breakfast in the smaller eateries is the norm, and boiled yucca and potatoes as side dishes come with many plates.
Hello there, piggy!
The piggy is filled with rice and potatoes and other good stuff
Cristobal enjoying his morning chicken leg soup
Ernesto topping off the agua de panela with some cheese
The doc and Cristobal about to dig into the trout ans plantain in Salento
The soups (caldos) are tasty and filling; they are also very cheap. It is possible to eat a filling meal for $1.50. In Salento, we lunched on a wonderful trout (the guys had told me for days about the Salento trouts) with a giant fried platano and some salad for about $4. For dinner I ate several times half a grilled chicken with boiled unpeeled potatoes (after cooking, rolled in salt) and yucca for about $3.50. A beer will set you back about 75 cents to a dollar in most places (unless they are frequented by gringos, which obviously drives the price up by double or triple the amount). While in Ibague, I had a tamal, similar to the Mexican tamale but by far not as compact; it's rather a mixture of rice and beans and a pit of pork, encased by a bit of corn masa, tied into a banana leaf. It was a fitting breakfast dish since it was El Dia del Tamal. Final food advice: Don't be fooled by the innocent looks of the arepa that accompanies the sausage on-the-stick as much as the asado. Arepas have no taste. They are worse than tofu. They are nothing but a mixture of flour and water, without the benefit of salt. You might as well try to eat a stack of communion wafers.
Yes, I ate that weird chicken skin stuffed with something and topped by the comb
A bit on the meaty side, but not bad at all
Llanero-style meat
During our night in Ibague, I ventured out by myself, the way I usually did. (Twice I had gone out with the three International Commissaires--one Spaniard, two Colombianos--as we were always in the same hotel, together with the President of the Colombian Cycling Federation. But I gave up on that when I realized that they were not into any adventures and liked to dine in the nearest shopping mall's food court. I don't do that at home, and I certainly don't want to do that abroad.) Anyhow, that evening I happened to stumble across the Festival Folclorico Colombiano, which turned out to be a rather raucous affair. After shelling out $4 for admission to the amphitheater where the festival took place, I realized that this was really a beauty- and talent-pageant to find the "Miss" of the region's various districts. Something like nine or ten different regions were represented by not only a gorgeous woman (and I know what they looked like when scantily clad since the spectators around me displayed posters of "their" Miss in a skimpy bikini) but a full company of local dancers and helpers who all aided in the 7-minute presentation that each region, led by their Miss, performed. When they were introduced, one by one, the place resembled a soccer stadium, with cheers and whistles and vuvuzelas making an infernal noise! Each region had apparently bused in its own fan club, and it was an unforgettable evening. Since all of the performances were very similar (each talented Miss, sang, played the flute, and banged wildly on a drum, much to everybody's delight, before precipitating herself onto the stage proper to dance among her cohorts), I decided to call it quits at what was close to half-time. Since there was lot of aguaguardiente (the local sugarcane hooch) and beer flowing I didn't want to chance getting caught up in some, well, situation.
Thanks to these fan posters I had a better idea of what I did not get to see
The cheering section
All of them so talented, all of them so loved, all of them so lovely
Vuvuzelas and all--it was like a soccer game!
So, that's about all I can tell you about this trip to South America. It was definitely an experience working a two-week bike race, being on my own and surrounded by non-English speakers, doing my job (well, I hope), and having fun doing it all. In just a little over a month, I'll be back in South America, in Rio for the Olympics. I will do similar work but as part of an international team, so that in itself will be quite an experience--in addition to being on the ground for more than three weeks. In between I will once again be Chief Referee for our own US National Mountain Bike Championships in Mammoth, CA. It never ends. What a wonderful way to spend one's retirement!
Rainy evening in Ibague--look closely, they were huge!
And now it's time to upload pictures before my (delayed) flight back tonight to the US of A. Saludos desde Colombia!


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Is this really Pablo Escobar's Medellin?

Panoramic view of the City of Eternal Spring
We all have preconceptions and fixed ideas that have been formed by what we have seen and heard and read. Without a fair amount of what one could also call prejudice, we would have a hard time making it through life. We pigeonhole and sort our experiences, and we continually redefine them along the way. My idea of Medellin, Colombia, was based on the 2014 movie Escobar: Paradise Lost as well as all those news stories we all read and heard about the drug capital of the world.

Well, what a readjustment I was in store for!
Cars and pedestrians wind their way
The metro has just unloaded another few hundred commuters
Tiny taxis make up more than 50% of car traffic
Medellin is a vibrant, modern city that is called by Colombians the City of Eternal Spring, thanks to its moderate climate at about 1,500 meters elevation. It is beautifully situated in a wide valley, surrounded by steep, verdant mountains, and it is anything but a backwater marked by obvious sleaziness and shootouts. Yes, the doctor who is traveling with me to help me in my work warned me sternly that this is a very dangerous city and that there are ladrones--thieves--everywhere. I certainly did not dismiss his admonishment by any means, but at the same time we know that every city has its "bad" areas where one should not walk alone, sometimes during the day, more often at night.
Medellin is littered with modern shopping centers and malls
By what I was told, the area of Medellin where our GHL Hotel was located is considered one of the safer areas of town, and only the locals can truly judge such statements. But even though the immediate neighborhood featured an ultramodern large US-style mall (certainly nicer than the one in Lubbock), there were plenty of run-down bars, muffler shops, and shuttered storefronts just down the street to remind me that this was not Park Avenue. We spent two nights in Medellin, and both evenings I walked around by myself, exploring the 'hood and sitting in small eateries and kiosks watching Copa America soccer and feeling as welcome and as safe as anywhere. OK, maybe I was just lucky, but I came away with a tremendously positive impression of Medellin.
Young people having a TGIF drink close to one of the metro stations
This second-largest city of Colombia is well-to-do, as I was told, quite likely thanks to the drug business. It (and the department of Antioquia) retains a certain independence from Bogota and is said to be progressive. With about 2.5 million inhabitants (the metroplex has about 3.5 million) there are obvious traffic problems. But a modern metro is in place, trying to assuage the thick molasses of cars, buses, and trucks. Even more progressive, Medellin has a bike-share program and dedicated bike lanes that are actually being used by cyclists and respected by the drivers! Unfortunately I was not able to use my one off-morning to try out the system since it is geared toward locals who use it for transportation, not for tourist who want to rent a bike for a few hours. To get enrolled in the program with a permanent ID card was more trouble than it seemed worth, but it would have been interesting.
Rush-hour traffic snaking by one of the many modern buildings in Medellin
From what I have seen in the cities where we have stayed so far, Colombia's middle-to-upper class loves to shop. There are malls and shopping centers galore, and they are modern, clean, safe, well-lit, and a meeting point for people. Pretty much all feature open WiFi service (nice bonus for me when I walk around), and the food courts are always full--frequented even by our commissaires who seem to love them! Men and women are fashionably dressed, and the prices are not exactly low. Colombia certainly has its rural side, but it's not a backwater, either.
Bike share station
Bike route map with bike share stations indicated
Because of my limited time I have not been able to mosey around long enough to run into opportunities to talk with locals about their lives. Yes, there are my driver (by now it is Ernesto) as well as Cristobal and the doctor, but unfortunately they don't speak any English and my Spanish is not good enough to carry on a deep conversation--also a bit tough to do in the car when you're being tossed around in the curves. I would like to know a little more about the average middle class Colombian, job security, cost of living vs. income, school and health insurance issues--and of course the touchy subjects, politics and drugs.
What about it, Lubbock?
I am writing this in Pereira, two stages away from Medellin, which we left on Sunday. Pereira is much smaller and it is not as beautifully situated, there are none of those red-brick building that climb up the mountain sides of Medellin, and there are only few large, modern buildings (although I marveled at the elegant viaduct that connects two parts of the city). Still, it's quite vibrant here, too, and there are lots of small shopping centers and arcades. Colombia continues to surprise me. Tomorrow night we'll be in Cali, and who knows what it will hold in store for me.
The streets of Pereira
That's it for my second update from Colombia. We have five more stages ahead of us, and that means getting lost a few more times at the hands of Ernesto and the guys. Stay tuned!