You have come to Colombia on the spur of a moment or on a recommendation from a friend. The precious days you have set aside on your calendar for vacations are to be taken advantage of, so you decide on hiking the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and hitting the beaches of Tayrona. Sounds all very idyllic; an “eco adventure” that echoes on Facebook. Soon friends of “friends” start following you. In a country without postcards, Colombia’s reputation is being built one post and tweet at a time. But it wasn’t always like this.
Not long ago, Colombia was a country of postcards. You could usually find them on display in the windows of the chemists in the centro. There were some that were quite memorable, iconic expressions of an age of national pride and modernity. Like other collectibles (the 100 peso bank note or the Samper campaign sticker), they have all but disappeared from our collective memory. If there is someone out there who remembers the postcard of Avianca’s only Boeing 747 descending from the slopes of Monserrate towards the Colpatria building, please drop me a line. And then you had the famous Toucan shot, the glowing emerald stone, the aerial shot of Guatavita lagoon, but these, too, seem relegated to another time and place.
I often think that Colombia changed when we stopped writing home, when you spend less time getting to New York than finding a Post Office in Chapinero. Then the country went mobile, but we were grounded in our cities, the roads too dangerous to travel. When the FARC and ELN kidnapped they not only took people, but structures – most infamously, a Church in Cali, the road to Los Llanos, and a civilian airliner. These dark days for Colombia spelled the beginning of the end of the postcard. The emerald became identified with shady business, the Toucan with guerillas in the mist, and Guatavita on foot, with risk.
There were plenty of photo moments for those of us who stayed behind. Some of my best pictures were taken behind enemy lines, such as the one that illustrates this editorial. It was 1994 and I was heading into the Darien to photograph a book on one of the world’s last unexplored ecosystems. But the National Liberation Army – ELN- got there before me and set up a makeshift camp along the Cacarica River. As I crossed the Katios National Park with a botanist from Quibdo and an important Bogota writer, we joined a family of Chocoanos heading deeper into the jungle in their dug out. Through swamps of water lilies and felled timber, we reached a turn in the river. It was high noon in the Darién as from a cleared field of corn twelve men with rifles, their faces covered in red neckerchiefs, summoned us to stop.
We disembarked and were told to form a line. The comandante asked to see our identification cards and I nudged myself between the Chocoanos and the Bogotanos. I reached for my pink Cedula de Extranjeria as the rebel leader examined the white citizenship cards of my companions. When he came to me, I was pulled from the line. My companions brazenly spoke to me through their eyes: “Everything is going to be okay.”
I was escorted to a wooden hut and told to unpack my hammock. Somewhere beneath the wooden planks were chickens and I heard children screaming in the distance. With a padlock on the door I waited out the hours staring at the ceiling and smoking cigarettes. As night began to fall, a knock came at my door and I was handed a bowl of soup. I asked for a soda and one was delivered. I was ready to spend my first night “retained” in the jungle.
It took me years to realize that I had been taken by the guerilla. As dawn broke a guard told me to collect my belongings, and that I was “free to walk the paths of Colombia.”
I never looked back. I climbed into the canoe, avoiding eye contact with the comandante and his rough band of men, seated under an olive-green awning supported by beer crates. I kept silent, as the only path I could walk would take me to Panamá. The Chocoanos had disappeared with the night. The hamlet of Bijao was just a routine checkpoint for them on a long journey to buy cheese. I am sure they were displaced from their land when paramilitary leader “El Alemán,” took the Darién.
The book came out and the recollection of the experience was filed away with scratched negatives. A signed “Victims Law” by President Santos has brought back memories of my campesino companions and that night in the jungle. As they followed me into the hands of the ELN, I now follow them in the news and hope justice will soon be done. For those of you embarking on an eco adventure in Colombia, I say, be careful, as this country is full of “postcards” you won’t be buying on the street.