Are We Safe?

police-in-flack.jpgTwo days from ending our month in Colombia, we can readily say we feel safe here, particularly in the countryside but also in the cities, even the one car-bombed only a few days ago.

And the odds of safety are in our favor.

There may be an average of 500 reported muggings a year in Bogota, where we are ending our visit, but that’s in a city of 8 million residents and innumerable visitors. The risk factor is doubtless even lower in the more middle-class neighborhood where we are staying. If odds like that are high, we need to start buying lottery tickets.


The Ignorance-Bliss Factor

Still, feelings and odds never tell the whole story. An hour after we wandered through a popular Medellin park ogling the still-blazing Christmas lights on an early January night, we received an urgent message from our Medellin AirBnB host telling us to avoid that very park because of recent attacks on tourists, some lethal. Ignorant bliss can end badly anywhere, and it is natural to be ignorant in new locations.

But we needed to know more if we were to make realistic adjustments. Let’s be honest: a lot of Europeans and other foreigners consider the USA dangerous because of its world-beating gun violence. Does that mean it is unsafe to walk around on most American streets? Not by a stretch. We needed a similar reality check in Colombia. For it, we checked multiple sources: our solicitous AirBnB hosts, the faculty of the Spanish language school where we spent two weeks packing our linguistic bags for South America, tour guides, journalistic travel blogs like Along Dusty Roads, even friendly Uber drivers, who serve as de facto national ambassadors.

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Medellin is a city of barbed wire and bamboo. We never found out what the combination indicates

What kinds of attacks on tourists and were some more vulnerable than others? And those pairs of policemen we kept seeing on every street corner … were they necessary to ensure public safety, deployed just to make people feel safe, or possibly even a public employment program? What exactly was the danger on forbidden streets … being pick-pocketed or knived? It makes a difference

Medellin in particular felt more than anywhere else like Manhattan in the ‘70s or ‘80s, when you could stroll blissfully down Fifth or Madison avenues or the Upper East Side without looking over your shoulder, but you beat it out of Penn Station as fast as you could and didn’t venture into Time Square after dark. Was the Big Apple dangerous then? Sure, if you were careless or in the wrong place at the wrong time or just plain unlucky, like in any big city, anywhere. Did we go anyway? Of course!

At the end of the day, we decided to apply the same rules in Colombia.


About Those Tourist Attacks

Take the tourist attacks. Our AirBnB host’s urgent text read, “I don’t recommend to visit Parque Lleras. Unfortunately, last weeks, we heard about a couple of ‘escopolamina’ attacks. Please take care.”

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We often see this beautiful flower in semi-tropical locations we visit.

Google’s English translation of “escopolamina” was “escopolamina” so we were not even sure what the risk was until we met up with our first tour guide a couple days later. Sebastian explained that escopolamina – aka, “Colombia’s devil’s breath” – is a drug that locals cook up (literally, like cocaine) from the beautiful but potentially deadly belladonna plant. Criminals then blow, sprinkle or otherwise deliver the drug on a victim’s nervous system, where it can induce a state of high suggestibility (“Yes, of course, I would love to take you to an ATM machine and empty my bank account for you“), stupor or coma, vastly reducing the chance of victims resisting to robbery or kidnapping. Occasionally, a victim dies, including a Vancouver, BC, professor last month.

The guide told us that he never, ever under any circumstances or temptation takes anything from the hand of a stranger on the street because sprinkling the drug on paper before handing it off to passersby is one of the tactics used by criminals to render victims sufficiently incoherent to rob them or worse. We immediately embraced his rule but at the same time felt reassured by knowing who was most often targeted: Single men beguiled by attractive young women. This would not be us.


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A week after Louis captured this carefree shot of Comuna 13, the slum had become “hot”


Other Hot Spots

Then there was the narco issue. Colombia today exports four times as much cocaine as it did when Pablo Escobar was alive, we learned along with Spanish at our Medellin school. In a country where a potato farmer earns about 79 cents a day and a small-time narco earns $32, the economic incentive to help satisfy the appetites of eager US users (the primary market for cocaine) by dealing drugs is strong.

What has changed since the days of the big Colombian cartels is that the cocaine industry has broken down into neighborhood gangs, each with its own sources, distribution systems and boundaries. In Comuna 13, the colorful slum we ambled so peacefully our second day in Medellin, this can produce spontaneous and bloody warfare. A fellow student who visited the district one week after we did found the streets full of soldiers with automatic weapons, a sight we had not seen at all. At school, a teacher explained this was in response to an outbreak of gang violence in the days since we were there. “When you see headlines that say, ‘Comuna 13 Esta Caliente’ (‘Comuna 13 Is Hot”), don’t go, or go only in an organized group.” Not a bad rule for any hot spot.
newspaperAnd then there was the recent car bomb at a police academy in Bogota. What we find tragic and remarkable about the attack by the right-wing ELN is not only the magnitude of the attack – 21 dead, dozens injured – but how common political terrorism is becoming again in Colombia. The ELN has carried out 33 attacks and one kidnappings in Colombia … just since President Ivan Duque was inaugurated last August. That explained why our rental car was sniffed out by an explosives dog before we were allowed to park it at the airport but, in the case of this form of instability, tourists are not the target.


A Revised Narrative

Public relations aside, it is clear to us after almost a month in the country that Colombia’s history of violence is not entirely a thing of the past. Its narrative is perhaps more accurately labeled “Violence to Transition” than “Violence to Transformation.”

How does this affect us or any traveler personally?

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Upon questioning the instructive officer, we learned this pop-up tourist police station in Medellin’s Botero Plaza primarily provides information about tourist attractions

After a policeman stopped Louis on the street in Bogota this weekend to tell him it was dangerous to carry his camera slung over his shoulder, we raised our risk antennae a little higher, being more vigilant about sticking to our big-city rules and following the examples and warnings of locals we meet. When a 3.7 earthquake hit on our first morning in the city and sent our seventh-floor apartment swaying, we were reminded that random chance is always with us.

But stay away from this stunningly beautiful, welcoming, striving country in the midst of an epic revival? Not in a New York minute, even one from the ‘70s.

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Public safety in Colombia takes many shapes


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:

Traveling for as long and far as we do, we fly a lot of budget airlines, which means we are always running up against carry-on and/or checked baggage restrictions that are often much lower outside the US than inside.

One of the tricks we have learned to get around the baggage cops is to keep a grocery bag on hand at all times to repurpose as a stealth carry-on. Most airlines, even the most ferocious about baggage, let passengers toting disposable food bags sashay on board without a quibble. We routinely sneak some of our heavier carry-on items (travel guides, iPads, umbrellas) onto airplanes through this loophole by tucking them at the bottom of these “disposable” bags, topping them off with a yummy little bag of potato chips and maybe a newspaper and waltzing aboard. The tactic has yet to fail and is a lifesaver when we can’t fit all our carry-on into our allowed carry-on or we are on the hairy edge of exceeding weight restrictions.

TOP TIP: Always carry a Trader Joe or similar lightweight, collapsible, reusable bag on long trips. Even if you have more packing self-discipline luggage than we do, they come in handy if you go grocery shopping, need an instant laundry bag or just miss a familiar sight from home.


Coming soon: Do Not Read While Hungry
Arepa

Medellin: Violence to Transformation

boteros-escabar-with-cop-.jpegThe Lonely Planet guide to Colombia says the country has always been synonymous with violence, its history a litany of wars and bloodshed. In 1991, Medellin achieved the further distinction of being named the most violent city on earth with a homicide rate that reached 380 deaths per 100,000 people. For perspective, that’s almost seven times the rate in Baltimore, currently the most murderous city in the United States.

The most common reaction we got from telling people in the States we were headed to Colombia was, “Isn’t that dangerous?” The answer is complicated, like questions about traveler safety always are. We take it up in two blogs, starting today.


The Case for Hope

First, the big picture.

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Upbeat messages like this one celebrating hope bloom all over the city, even in the slums.

Since the death of narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the end of the Medellin-Cali drug war in 1995, blood-letting in Colombia has plunged. By the time the FARQ reached a peace settlement with the government in 2016, the murder rate in Medellin had dropped to less than half that of Baltimore. In a handful of years, the city was named the “most” or “best” on any number of worldwide lists. A Washington Post travel story in 2016 raved that “Medellin is a city worthy of five-star bucket lists.” The New York Times this month named Colombia the #2 place to visit in the world.

Well-swept streets, bustling sidewalks, ambitious public works and museums, friendly people all are testimony to the reversal.

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Reactions to Louis’s lens at the Metro at rush hour. Mostly friendly!

On our second day in Medellin, we checked out the narrative on the ground by taking a half-day tour called “Violence to Transformation.” The evidence of transformation is, indeed, impressive.  “We are having no more fear,” our architect/urban planner tour guide Sebastian told us on the tour. “Now we are recognized for innovation.”

There is our upscale Provenza neighborhood of El Poblado, an extravagantly lush urban jungle bulging with boutique hotels, craft cocktail bars and foodie restaurants that could compete with the best in any city. Louis’s take: “La Jolla on steroids.”

There is Botero Plaza, populated by 23 bronze statues donated by the world-famous sculptor Fernando Botero to uplift his home town. “Standing outside in this square would have been impossible,” Sebastian told us as our group walked the plaza. “People were afraid.” Now whole families (and the random tourist) pose with, on, under and beside the sculptures, rubbing selected body parts to a high gleam for good luck.

There are enormous, wildly decorated malls. The Santafe mall with the skating rink in the center reportedly has 460 stores. Viva, in Escobar’s trendy next-door hometown of Envigado, is topped with an amusement park called “Happy City.”

There is the Metro system, carrying an estimated 1 million riders daily on trains, trams, buses and boasting the only gondola commuter service in the world. A Metro ride costs about 88 cents if you don’t qualify for a discount and, with transfers, sweeps you from the flat city center to the top of the Medellin world on one ticket.
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“This Is Quality of Life”

And there is Comuna 13.

Medellin sits in a long and narrow valley divided into 16 districts strewn along the valley floor and up the towering mountainsides. The displaced, refugee and poorest live in houses patched together plastic, wood and scrap metal on heights beyond the reach of paved streets. If you squint, you can see a man grading his building site with a shovel in the picture below so he can erect a house like the ones in the next photo..
Man with shovel
slummy slum
Of the numbered districts in Medellin, Comuna 13 is the most notorious, home to 40 competing narco gangs with invisible boundaries it can be deadly to cross.

Sebastian told us the federal government launched 50 separate military operations in the 1990s and early 2000s “to “recover” Comuna 13 from narcos and dirty cops. All failed. Residents lived in relentless fear for their own lives and their children. “There were a lot of hurted and murdered people,” he said. “The hospitals were full.” Because Colombia bans criminal prosecution of minors and children thus cannot be put in prison, drug traffickers routinely recruited and armed children as young as 8 years old to execute their killings.

DSC03527.jpgThe most devastating military operation was Orion in 2002, which brought 41 hours of continuous gunfire to the neighborhood and left 50 people dead, without changing anything. After that, the guide said, the government learned “the way to fight violence was not with more violence but with help for the people” – public works and public services. A school was built. Outdoor gyms were installed.

comune 13 - man with weight

Locals take their own portable equipment to the open-air gyms

A series of six escalators was installed to whisk people in Comuna 13 more than 1,000 feet uphill in six minutes and save them a 28-story hike to the highest reaches of the slum. “This is quality of life,” Sebastian said. “They gave people hope.” Businesses sprung up at the escalator landings. Residents prospered. Sebastian took us to an ice cream store near the escalators for paletas, ice cream on a stick like we have never tasted it. “Before the escalators, this store used to sell 50 paletas a week. Now it sells 600 to 700 a day.”

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Emblematic of the district’s renewal are its murals, many of which promote messages of unity and civil resistance to violence. Sebastian told us the elephant holding a white flag of peace in his trunk is there to teach the younger generations never to repeat the past.
elephant mural


Medellin and Colombia have been transformed enough that tourism is booming and talking about “the dark age” to outsiders has become controversial. Locals who work with visitors are particularly discouraged from talking about the past. Disapproval like this sentiment voiced in a TripAdvisor forum – Colombians in whole are very welcoming, warm and hospitable. They truly want visitors to enjoy their country without harping on Colombia’s criminal reputation – is common.

But do the upbeat publicity and bright colors mean Medellin and Colombia are safe? Three days after a terrorist car bomber killed 21 people and injured scores more in Bogota, most of them young police cadets, the question is back on the public’s lips. What does that mean for us as travelers?

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Love not only blooms in Comuna 13 but is on display in the streets


From the Partout Toolbox: One day after Partout blogged about the travel benefits of our Sapphire Reserve credit cards, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about big banks cutting back on high-reward credit cards. Some benefits have already been trimmed and others could come under the knife. If you have a WSJ subscription, “Rewards Credit Cards Gained a Fanatic Following – Now Banks Are Pulling Bank” ran January 1. Even if you can’t circumnavigate the Journal’s virtually impenetrable firewall, the bottom line is in the headline.

TOP TIP: If you travel a lot, a credit card with travel perks like trip cancellation or interruption insurance, medical evacuation coverage and other bennies is a no-brainer. Even if you don’t yet travel a lot but want to, sign-up bonuses that give you enough miles to go to Europe essentially free can make a year with a new card worthwhile. If the banks are backing off, getting one of the perk-heavy cards while the big sign-up bonuses last makes sense.


COMING NEXT: Are We Safe?

 

 

Epiphany!?!

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Epiphany/epiphany

/ɪˈpɪf(ə)ni,ɛˈpɪf(ə)ni/noun

  1. the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12); also known as Twelfth Night
  2. a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization; state Doris and Louis pursue partout

The Big-E Epiphany

Epiphany came less than a week into our plunge into South America. Both of them, actually – the big-E religious one and a little-e revelatory one.

About the big-E, Catholic festival days are many and major in Colombia so, naturally, Epiphany is an official state holiday, as quiet and closed as Christmas in the States. The Monday it was observed this year found us in Medellin, where even the street hawkers mostly stayed home, leaving the streets eerily quiet and the carts of geegaws bundled up in alleys.

closed cartsOddly in evidence, however, were (and are) Christmas decorations. Locals told us Epiphany would be the end of them because it religiously and officially marks the conclusion of the Christmas season. The Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and other seasonal flourishes we were seeing in January would be gone, we were told.

Well, ho ho ho to that. On a mall crawl a full week later, animated magi in a bigger-than-life creche were still going strong, and the halls all around Medellin were still pretty much still decked. Feliz Navidad is definitely not just for December in these parts.


The Little-e Epiphany.

Then the little-e epiphany.

We arrived in South America at Cartagena, reputedly the most beautiful colonial city of the Caribbean.

cartagena - better

Walking the streets with Louis snapping the palaces, plazas and balconies, we kept finding ourselves wondering (with apologies to Monty Python) … aside from the Spanish Inquisition, extermination of innumerable advanced and primitive societies, plunder of the continent’s mineral wealth, importation of countless slaves from Africa, transmission of killer diseases and introduction of corruption-driven governance that continues to plague Latin America to this day, what was Spain good for in the New World? (Trivia tidbit of the day: the locals don’t call the Spanish “colonists”; they call them “invaders.”)

inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition (with devices like this was one in Cartagena’s Palace of Inquisition) was one of Spain’s few exports to South America.  

The same can be said to varying degrees about every colonial power, of course, but the British colonials did at least install infrastructure, justice and educational systems, values of free religion and speech and a few other positive legacies while plundering their colonies and introducing killer diseases. Monty Python has covered the Romans.

But the Spanish in the New World? Universal language and future tourist attractions? Central  plazas and gilded church altars? Please, use the comment function at the end of the blog to raise your hand if you have more informed answers.

Just this weekend, we spent much of the afternoon in Medellin’s somber House of Memories, an interactive memorial to victims of Colombia’s violence. Thanks to the Narcos of Netflix and the FARQ, it’s tempting to think of Colombian blood-letting as a recent phenomenon, but how short-sighted that would be. Pretty much from the Spanish arrival in the New World, human butchery was a way of life. Viewed through a longer historic lens, maybe it is not a stretch to view narco mass murderer Pablo Escobar as simply the 20th-century’s answer to the conquistadors.

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A mother is reunited with her disappeared son in this photograph in the House of Memories in Medellin

We travel for a lot of reasons, epiphanies and other discoveries among them. Through mid-March, we await them in South America.

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Sunlight spilling into Medellin before sunset, lighting the city a bit like an epiphany


From the Partout Travel Toolbox

Folks seemed to find our blog about logistical lessons from the road so useful that we will feature a few of our additional go-to tactics in Partout until we run out of them or you cry uncle. We start with why we rarely use online booking engines for air and car reservations

Aggregators are the operators that search online travel agencies and publish the findings in one place (Kayak, Hipmunk, Skyscanner, etc.). Booking engines are outfits that book travel for you (Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, etc.). Doris is Partout’s travel agent, and she uses aggregators obsessively to explore routes and fares (Skyscanner being her favorite). Booking engines are another matter.

Booking engines often offer fewer options and less flexible bookings than the end providers (i.e., the airline or rental company itself). Need to change the day you are picking up your rental car? Fuhgeddaboutit. Something goes wrong with your flight or car? Learn real fast you are not the airline or rental company’s customer; you are Expedia or Travelocity’s customer, and that is not a good thing. Frommer’s ratings of the most popular aggregators and booking engines are illuminating.

Top tip: If you find a fare on an aggregator that you like, go directly to the website of the airline or rental company, not to the booking engine linked from the aggregator.

Coming Soon: Medellin – Are We Safe?