Mud and Blood in Colombia: Part 1

It hasn’t gotten much national press coverage, but this December in Colombia natural disasters have been piling up like those cars sliding down the icy hill in that video.  Some kind of ?nino/nina? weather pattern (please explain in the comment section, Dr. Fuzz) has given the country boatloads more rainfall this rainy season than basically… ever.

Now, I’m one lazy m-f’n bloggah.  I like to give colorful opinion while doing little and preferably no research.  I mean, I went all the way to Colombia and saw a bunch of stuff and heard some stuff and that should be suffient material acquisition, right?  But this is big.  It’s their Katrina.  Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.  Entire communities have been buried under the face of new earth.  Luckily, like all lazy men should, I have a secret weapon.  Allow me to speak with my little friend Google…

The Wall Street Journal just tipped me off that 1.6 million people have reportedly had homes damaged or destroyed by flooding or weather related catastrophe.  (catastrophes?  damn it, journalism is hard!)  This in a country where millions of folks are already displaced from internal violence.  The part of the country we were in was extremely hard hit by sliding mud and rocks.  During our travels we were regularly stopped by construction delays while backhoes and shovel crews worked to clear the roads.  Andrea kept reminding me to wait for the car in front to cross through the path of the landslide- that way when more rocks rolled at us we’d have room for evasive maneuvers.  This strategy seemed dubious at best.

Floating Fenceposts

I remember studying the problems Haiti has with landslides and erosion because of deforestation, and it’s easy to see how Colombia would have similar troubles given enough rain.  We were in some steep-ass mountins, and seemingly every available hectre had been logged at and then cultivated with coffee or plantain, or left open for grazing.  Without deep roots to stabilize the soil, after enough ground saturation entire sections of the mountain simply give.

Year before last, about 40 miles west of where we live in Asheville, a rockslide buried a few hundred feet of Interstate 40 in the treacherous mountain gap between North Carolina and Tennessee.  It took a small army of engineers and diggers six months to clear the road and certify the area safe for both Asheville bound lanes and a single lane of westbound traffic.  There are still highly paid Swissish alpine repair experts dangling from tall booms working to keep us all safe from future calamity.

In Colombia, with its 2 rainy seasons a year, the steep highways are cleared in a matter of days or weeks, and traffic muddles along with an orange cone or placard alerting drivers to the undercut edge of pavement where the end of their lives patiently waits.  Just another deadly element to factor into the high stakes three dimensional game of Frogger that is traveling in that Dr. Suess-ian coffee bush and banana tree landscape.  You have one life.  Play well and make it count.


While travel never ceases for long along the 2 lane Pan American blacktop, the landslides made for countless little delays as the backhoes and shovel pushers labored off and on in an endless muddy game of red light/green light.  For a country of entrepreneurs and hustlers, this meant new markets.  I’m used to the beggars, windshield washers and chewing gum saleschildren that dwell in the traffic of Mexican cities, but was unprepared for the level of sophistication of this trade in Colombia.  In the city, we were approached in Y’s little 4 door hatchback by underage street poets and serenaders, cigarette smoking knife jugglers and streamer dancers, and men who’ll throw a box of candy into your lap with hope that you’ll grow so fond of it that when he trots back by before the light changes you’ll part with a few thousand pesos.

calibration specialist

At the more rural landslide delays, available services included homemade sweets for sale, youths willing to jump in the car with strangers to show them alternate routes, and younger youths with sticks they’d bang on your tires in expectation of a real money for imaginary calibration.  At a toll booth I botched the math and language test by ripping off an older lady selling thick arepas, which are like swollen tortillas.  We drove off with her chasing after us.  I thought we’d over-payed and she was dilligintly sprinting after us with change, instead of huffing along to extract some manner of country justice.  We turned around and went back and to where I could get out and walk to the other side of the toll station.  A gaggle of arepa salesladies saw me coming and spontaneously cried out in piercing ululation.  I don’t know if they were castigating me or whistling for business at the green eyed moneybags.  It was surreal, but I paid my debt and followed my flight instinct back to the getaway car.

no caption required...


Our Hero, Don G

On our first night in the country, as we arrived at dusk to the outskirts of remote Salamina there was a semi-ruined stretch of road turned to muddy uphill bog where a stroller-sized boulder sat in the exact middle of the road, and a gang of older at-risk farm youths stood shuffling feet 20 meters further uphill.  We turned the corner into this portrait of troubles, a steep drop on our left, a rock wall to the right, and ahead a long haul through six-inch muck towards a largish car-mangling obstacle.  There was also something disconcerting about the lurking youths, who even at a distance looked ashamed.  At the wheel Don Guillermo, veteran driver of trucks, taxis, and busses, and no stranger to muddy peril, quickly prioritized hazards while keeping the little car at a snaking slog through the slop and a the very last, when the boulder was mere feet from our radiator, pulled a marvelous automotive rabbit out of the hat and fish tailed around it.  Effortlessly.

I wanted to holler a victory whoop but was still too choked with visions of our soon to be dealt with difficulties and/or injuries to make sounds.  We rolled by the gang of disappointed youths waiting to “help us out” and only then identified them as an additional potential threat.  If they really wanted to be helpful, they could have easily moved the rock from the roadway.  This morning I heard a story on NPR about a group of American Youts being similarly “helpful” during a recent snowpocalypse.  The Colombian lads were probably only looking for a small reward for some dirty, dangerous, perhaps invented work, while the boys in the snow were more ambitiously just taking wallets from stranded motorists.

When we left Salamina 3 days later, at this same danger zone we braked to a cascade of backpack and goldfish bowl sized rocks actually rolling down the hill into the roadway as we approached.   A man on horseback with a large sheath knife  (I shit you not, we saw these guys pretty frequently) was approaching from the other direction.  He galloped past us, tethered his horse and then returned to stand lookout while we heaved muddy rocks out of the roadway, feeling like heroes.

Maicol McLane and the sisters Soto


2 responses to “Mud and Blood in Colombia: Part 1

  1. that was not just any candy they threw into the car either. it was nucitas – wafer hazelnut cookies which i swore i wouldn’t eat and then consumed two packages of.

  2. Awesome post, Michael. There is an ongoing La Nina in the Pacific, which is an intensification of the normal upwelling of cold water off the coast of South America. Changes in the phase of El Nino/La Nina affect global precipitation patterns, so I guess that might have something to do with the rains in Columbia this year.

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