Monday, January 18, 2010


Alright, it´s been far too long since I posted. The problem is that I've been being too sociable, I can only write a big fat post when I am being solitary, you know?


After my unsavory experience in Bogota I was so ready for the peace and quiet of the mountains. Salento delivered, though I did unknowingly arrive at exactly the right time to join in with one of the biggest fiestas this tiny town has all year. It was their anniversary party and it was just about to kick off to a riotous beginning when I arrived Friday morning. It lasted through Monday night, and transformed the entire town. Salento is usually a sleepy, charming little town in the mountains of coffee country, the Zona Cafetera. It has one big main plaza, and a main street lined with restaurants and shops leading north from the plaza to a large hill, at the top of which is the ever-present mirador. That´s where the town parades to for their Santa Semana in April.

There´s one main hostel where most backpackers gather, if only momentarily, as in my experience it was almost always full, pretty disorganized, and difficult to get a bed at. Plantation House. I was lucky and curled up into a double bed almost immediately as my night bus had been less than restful. Despite the disorganization, it is such a lovely place. It´s surrounded by farms, has a stunning view of the valley, is far enough from the plaza that we weren´t bothered by the blasting music (three different genres simultaneously), but could walk to the plaza in a matter of minutes to join in with the huge Colombiano party. The whole place actually reminded me of my beloved Santa Elena in Costa Rica's coffee country. And so of course, I stayed longer than originally intended.

I think certain genres of destinations tend to attract a particular type of traveler. I always find exceptional company in the mountains, and they have been the easiest places for me to make friends. Needless to say, I found some really delightful company in Salento.

There really isn´t much to do in Salento. At all. Almost all the tourists eventually funnel into the Cocora Valley to do some trekking in the gorgeous countryside. And other than trekking, there is nothing to do. It was blissful.

My trip into the valley was both wonderful and disturbing. There is a trail through the valley for perhaps an hour, and then you enter a jungle. I loved the valley, it was the textbook description of lush with rumpled hills and mountains on both sides. The cutest, woolliest cows you can imagine were scattered throughout. Wax palms also sprinkle the hills, which seem somewhat out of place in this idyllic valley-- they shoot perfectly straight up into the air, they are so tall, and then bust into palm leaves at the top. They looked like Dr. Seuss trees. And clouds and mist were shrouding the tops of the mountains around me. The path across the valley floor has been carved out by the feet of cows, horses, and people for generations, and in places the sides of it came up to my eyes. A perfect place to find a quiet spot and settle into my book for an hour or so. So I slipped under the barbed wire and climbed a steep hill so that, over the crest, no one would be able to spot me. I was hidden away, in a pocket of this green, green mountain for a few hours.

After my mugging, I can´t deny that I haven´t had some residual irritating paranoia. The following is an excerpt of what I wrote to my therapist about this day--

''...and poor Colombia, I certainly don´t want to contribute to the negative opinion most Americans seem to have of it. Also, in the moment I acted and reacted well. It was only after that it really sank in how terrifying it was. I´ve never personally experienced something so violent. I couldn´t stop shaking for hours. And I find that I can´t stop thinking about it, even when I logically step back and see that no permanent damage was done, I reacted well even if not correctly, and hey, it makes a great story.

Not only can I not stop thinking about it, but I find myself flinching if someone touches me unexpectedly from behind. My heart immediately leaps unpleasantly. Yesterday I was walking down the street with a friend, and there was a guy leaning up against the wall of the street. As we passed, he raised his hand to scratch his nose or something, and I flinched. Supid things like this keep happening. It irritates me-- not only because I used to be so confident walking around Central America, but because I´m not sure if this experience really qualifies as a 'traumatic' experience, you know? FAR worse things happen to other people all the time. If the guy had knifed me, yes, that would qualify. But the fact is that I beat the bastard, and he did not hurt me permanently. Sure, soreness and bruising, it was kind of a lengthy struggle, but it could easily have been so much worse.
Today I went for a hike in the Cocora Valley, in the mountains of coffee country. It was beautiful. This valley could be the textbook description of lush. The rumpled hills radiate peace and contentment. It´s a holiday weekend so there were more people on the trail than I would have liked. I slipped under the barbed wire of the path to climb a steep hill where, just behind the crest I could sit, unseen by the other hikers below. And I couldn´t stop imagining how easily a man could slip up behind me and take advantage of me. I whipped my head around maybe 5 times just to make sure no one else was back there but cows. I know it´s my imagination getting the better of me, and I sat up there for at least a couple of hours, reading and thinking, just fine. But it bothers me that these are the thoughts that occur now.
I continued on the path eventually, into a cloud forest-jungle. I knew there was a cafe deep inside, my destination. A lot of other hikers turned back, and soon I was alone in the jungle. This is exactly what I used to relish. But after 15 minutes or so of hiking, I couldn´t stop thinking how vulnerable I was, how there could so easily be guerilla men in this jungle (and I know this is a possibility in Colombia, though, being practical, I don´t think I really needed to worry about that at this particular location), who could easily prey upon a lone female. Climbing over Indiana Jones- style bridges, I repeatedly tried to banish these thoughts, but my heart started racing for no reason. I could no longer tell the difference between irrational fear and legitimately good gut instinct. So I turned back, I erred on the side of caution, though I usually prefer the side of slight risk and adventure. I was approaching panic, and I was near tears. I hate that I am affected like this. I hate that I keep seeing a Colombian man loom up in my fears, someone who slips behind me with a knife, rough hands, arms stronger than mine, ready to jerk me backwards. I hate how powerless I felt, even though I beat him! I hate that instead of openly smiling at everyone, including men, that I come across, I can tell there´s a touch of fear in my eyes as I look ascance at the men behind my smile.
It wasn´t long ago that I was hiking alone in Costa Rica, feeling absolutely confident in my safety, and completely content in being by myself deep in jungle. Today was the perfect recipe for the peace I was seeking in the mountains after two days of being robbed in the city. The dark thoughts that I couldn´t stop in the jungle really disturb me. Now, sitting in an internet cafe in town, I feel almost silly writing this. But this darkness was all too real out there, when I felt the urge to write to you seeking any advice you may have for this kind of experience. And I do flinch. Often.
I´m sure these feelings will fade as time goes by. I´m sure the flinching will stop. The attack was only a couple of days ago.
I refuse for this experience to alter my behavior or plans too drastically. I have been traveling by myself for 2 months, confident and without incident. I completely, logically, expect this to continue to be possible and likely. How do I move past these dark thoughts and fears? How do I stop this ridiculous starting and flinching at every unexpected sound or touch?''

Since this experience I´ve spent almost all of my time in the company of other travelers, and it has helped quite a bit. These effects have faded a little, and I am sure they will continue to do so. I just wanted to record, here, what this entire experience has been like for me.

Colombianos are so eager to have more tourists in their country, I am asked how my experience has been every single day, multiple times. The safety here will continue to improve, I have no doubt. And though travelers swap cautionary tales frequently, I also come across plenty of travelers who have journeyed through this country with no unsavory incidents at all (well, when it comes to safety anyway). I would unquestionably still choose to travel through Colombia if I had the chance to do it all over again.

The rest of my time in Salento was whiled away with hammocks, books, meandering, coffee, Lucy's cheap and filling meals, lots of street food, and of course the fiesta. So many Colombianos came into town for this anniversary fiesta, and it was interesting to see Colombiano tourists alongside the gringos. Mountain Colombianos are different than city or coast Colombianos. They are no less kind, but they are more reserved. This is the area of the country where the farmers and cowboys wear the poncho and cowboy hat that you´ve seen on the Colombian coffee cans, and apparently it´s as much of a novelty to Colombiano tourists as it is to gringo tourists, because they bought plenty.

Every night of the fiesta the plaza and Calle Real were packed. There was one spot you could stand in the plaza where your ears would be decimated by 3 different songs colliding. It was a real treat to be able to see this town transform from party central to sleepy little mountain town again.

And the street food! Arepas, arepas with cheese and honey, some wafers sandwiching arequippe, coconut, cheese, and jam, strawberries with cream, pizza, roast corn, platanos, patacones, coffee, tons of fresh fruit, juice, and a lot of meat. There were even some roasted whole pigs. GROSS. But all the vegetarian options were delicious, if overwhelmingly fried.

The 360 degree view of the valleys and mountains surrounding Salento is breathtaking. Unreal. I cannot believe I got to be there. Definitely my favorite spot in Colombia.

In the end I absolutely did not want to leave Salento. Seriously. After 5 days. The morning I got on the super long bus ride to Popayan I was pretty unhappy, and didn´t cheer up really until I got to San Agustin and the great crowd of people I met here, perched above some beautiful country.

But that is a story for a different post.