“Colombia is revenge country…That’s why no need death penalty. Because has a thousand professionals. Easy to get cheap.”Eishi Hayata, an esmeraldero
When we think of Colombia, what comes to our mind? Violence. Dense jungles and sweeping valleys. Poverty. Sicarios. And the obvious – Narcos. But beyond this, we really don’t know much about the Republic of Colombia whose present borders were shaped in 1903 when Panama was formed from it.
Ever since I joined Spanish language classes last year, I started to take a keen interest in the Spanish speaking world, reading books that give more insight into the many countries that were conquered by the Spaniards and are heavily influenced by it. From music to books, films and news, I’ve been trying to make inroads into this mesmerising world. This pushed me to pick up Tom Feiling’s Short Walks from Bogota – Journeys in the New Colombia.
Writer, journalist and documentary film-maker, Feiling has travelled extensively through the South American country, traversing down paths that were till recently extremely dangerous. Before returning to Colombia, a London friend had asked, “Do they have skyscrapers?’ An innocent question as it may be, it dawned on Feiling how little people knew about the country. As Feiling rightly points out:
“…millions of casual cocaine users in the UK…turn a blind eye to the trade that carries their Friday night entertainment from some remote Andean hillside to the toilet in the pub at the end of the road.”
Feiling, who has even worked for a human rights organisation in Colombia, set off to explore the country he once knew very well after spotting a Newsweek article that sketched a progressive portrait of the country post its civil war years.
Colombia is a country of isolated provinces as the topography dictated the nation’s trade and export. Between the mountains and the lowlands, there is a variety of climatic conditions, making it suitable for all kinds of crops to be grown. Feiling describes it as the “crumpled landscape” that made regions such as Cali and Medellin self sufficient, but in little need of trade with other regions.
Feiling begins his journey with Bogota, using the capital as his focal point to venture into the recesses of the nation. Taking a tiny flat in the city’s old colonial quarter La Candelaria on rent, Feiling takes stock of the geographical, social and political landscape. Post the riots in 1948, people with money shifted from the city centre to the barrios or neighbourhoods in the north of the city, and this area drew in the banks, the embassies and the corporations. He mentions how this region, peppered with skyscrapers, bars and clubs, could have made anyone believe they were in Madrid, Spain, instead. Well-heeled people here enjoyed their whiskies and vodkas, nibbled on pizzas with little care in the world. In the lesser developed barrios, crime was rampant. Thieves at night would cut telephone lines to take out copper wires to sell as scrap. Manhole covers would vanish overnight too. With gaps in the city lights, safety for citizens was an illusion. Bogotanos would caution others from venturing out in the dark, where muggers were sure to find victims. Even though the city had developed, embraced iPhones and designer denims with zeal, the change was incomplete. Such was the colossal disparity between the rich and the poor.
Understanding the political landscape, past and present of Colombia will take more than a book for me to understand even a fraction. But Feiling helps to map out the general state of affairs, writing about Alvaro Uribe, former president whose tenure spanned eight years from 2002. Even though Uribe is considered one of the most popular presidents, several scandals marred his tenure and legacy.
Feiling moves to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or the FARC, a guerilla movement against the authorities and its policies. During Feiling’s time, Mono Joyjoy, the commander of the FARC’s Eastern Block was killed by the Air Force. Earlier they were insurgents, then they became narco-guerillas, and now, they’ve become relegated to the plain status of terrorists. With a constant tussle between the government and the FARC, there was even talk that Hugo Chavez of neighbouring Venezuela, conspired with the FARC to destabilise the government. And if the FARC wasn’t in the headlines, then the mafia was. The political landscape is as twisted as the dense jungles in the area, with everyone clamouring for space.
Talking about the verdant topography, did you know Colombia has a rich ecological diversity? Earlier, while the world viewed the country as a playground of Pablo Escobar, no one paid attention to its biodiversity. But now, with relative peace in these areas, environmentalists are able to study the state better. The green wealth that is present here is beyond knowledge. For a better understanding, watch Frontera Verde or Green Frontier on Netflix, which is based on the journey of a young detective who goes to the jungle to investigate the murder of four women. Watching this made me realise just how lush and precious the green cover is on this planet, with tribes going to war against each other and authorities to protect and/ or exploit the land to better their lives. Many don’t get a choice. Feiling remarks how many villages had set up eco-tourist ventures to attract visitors to the rivers, but such a thing was unfathomable earlier. For tribes that lived deep in the jungles, with the advent of missionaries and getting caught in the crossfire between the Army and the drug traffickers, life hasn’t been easy for them.
Life in the smaller towns was just as bad. Feiling talks about Puerto Berrio a town along the Magdalena river that was a paramilitary heartland where fighting was intense. He narrates how Army recruits pulled bodies from the river, bloated corpses drifting with the current. Even the sicarios or hit men of the cocaine-trafficking cartel would throw bodies into rivers, such as in Cali, which would float downstream and would often get caught in the trees or wash up on the sandbanks. Special buses would take families of the dead to the morgues in these towns so they could identify their kin. Many still don’t know the whereabouts of their families. Killings nowadays don’t make headlines the way they did in Pablo Escobar’s time. Even though drug trafficking is still a lucrative business, the new jefes or bosses have learnt the power of discretion.
Eishi Hayata, who describes Colombia as revenge country, was once one of the most powerful men in the emerald mining industry. The erstwhile ‘king of emeralds’ is possibly the only foreigner to have gained such infamy in the region. Hayata is by far the most peculiar character in Feiling’s book. His quotable quotes even tickled me a little. But there is no denying that he has played a villain in the country’s history.
Born in Tokyo, his family was evacuated to the western part of Japan to wait out World War II. Life in Kyushu was difficult. He had to resort to fighting to protect his family. And it was in search of such ‘adventure’ that after graduation he left for the US. He landed up in Arizona, Nevada, Indian reserve area, but to his dismay, the ‘Wild Wild West’ didn’t exist anymore. Back in Japan, he trained to be an aircraft mechanic, where he got to know that the Caribbean was the newest address where ‘adventure’ had made its home. Cigarette and alcohol smuggling was rife here, so he set off to Costa Rica and found work maintaining the smugglers’ planes. What a chap! Soon he heard of Colombia’s emerald mines and set off once more. He bought rough stones in Boyaca’s mining villages and would take them to Bogota where his team of Japanese gem cutters would prepare them for sale. In time, rival factions wanted to take over the mining business and intense fighting began. Not just that, Pablo Escobar had even set his sights on the gem. The locals called it the Green War. In time, when peace did prevail over Boyaca, Japan’s bubble economy collapsed and the repercussions were felt right through Colombia. The biggest market for the emeralds disappeared and many were forced to sell their business. Hayata, who had visited Japan quite a few times, could never make himself at home there. ‘When I get there, one day, “Oh, nice modern country. Organized way. Restaurant good. People gentlemen.” But second day, bored. Nothing happen.’ Such is his lust for action and adventure.
This book is not exactly light reading. Even if it reads like a travelogue, do not expect it to be a breeze. There is tonnes of heavy material in here. Certain parts made me chuckle, while others made me put the book aside and stare into the void. It took me at least three months to get myself through it. I took it with me on at least two trips. I think. But I persisted. Feiling’s account needs time and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take me more than a book to acquaint myself with Colombia, the old and the new. But it’s an account laden with facts and interesting anecdotes, and makes for wonderful reading. The sheer pain, misery and violence that the Colombians have gone through, be they urban, rurul or tribal, is astounding. Their stories need to be told, and heard.