The first day I was in Bogota I saw a big yellow bus speeding by, full of old-aged pensioners dancing Salsa. I knew I was going to like Colombia. They say there’s a jungle plant here called burundanga. If somebody spikes your drink with burundanga you lose all free will. You hand over your wallet, car keys and do what you are told, however absurd the order. I avoided the plant poison but I have been seduced by this place.
I love the forests. I like the beer. The people are incredibly charming. They tend to drink chocolate rather than coffee and they do not smoke cigarettes much. I like Roman Catholicism. I like the women’s fertility goddess figures — achieved, I hear, by the ‘starch bomb’ effect of the maize pancakes they consume for breakfast and the world’s largest silicon breast implant industry. I like the fact that wherever I go here I can eat a large steak with a tiger prawn on top. If not a prawn, a fried egg — because there are more eggs in Colombia than anywhere. Colombians eat buckets of eggs.
When I arrived I looked forward to getting out into the jungle where we could go hiking while shooting a serious TV documentary. I am here with a producer called Katie and our Colombian fixer, Juan Pablo, who makes me laugh. On a visit to the indigenous Awa people, I packed my hammock, a poncho and packets of German dried food. I assumed the Awa would be exotic and tribal and that we would go hunting monkeys with blowpipes. Instead the Awa wore baseball caps and Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts. They made us sleep on the floor in a school classroom. Our fixer Juan Pablo snored all night. The Awa made us wake up before dawn by playing noisily on their marimbas.
Among the Nasa tribe, I pictured myself being fed coca leaves while gazing over smoky Andean volcanoes. Instead our Nasa hosts watched soap operas on TV. They invited us to sleep in the local hospital. I wound up in the maternity ward next to Juan Pablo. My bed still had maternity stirrups attached. I could not sleep, so I memorised in Spanish the ten major symptoms of cancer listed on a wall poster above me.
I finally got a chance to have an adventure while out in the jungle with a Colombian Army counter-guerrilla unit. Katie got a bed in a soldier’s hut while I slung my hammock between trees outside. Underneath where I slept the soldiers showed me two holes in which lurked large, red, hairy tarantulas. This worried me, but I cheered up when Katie found a leech under her pillow. At dawn I looked up to see a hummingbird hovering above me. Troops of howler monkeys up in the steamy forest canopy made more noise than Prime Minister’s Questions.
On another trip we visited the Serpent’s Mouth, a floating village inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Emperara. We got there in a speedboat that zoomed along desolate shores being watched by frigate birds and menacing black pelicans. The Emperara are mangrove-swamp people. At the Serpent’s Mouth the people swam in the swamp, they bathed in the swamp, they went to the loo in the swamp — and they served up a supper of stingray caught from it with rice boiled in water from the swamp. It was delicious.
We finally got a chance to do some hiking, though sadly it was to visit a murder scene at the bottom of a steep valley. After walking for hours we came to a hut where a man had lived alone with his bamboo beehives. Beneath hibiscus and purplish flowers of the yesterday, today and tomorrow plant, we found what remained of the man — a patch of blood on the sward, surrounded by iridescent butterflies. On the way back up the mountainside we became very tired. The indigenous people accompanying us ran up the slopes like ibex — and I know why.
All around us were coca fields, a bright chlorophyll green cloak across the Andean foothills. ‘It’s OK,’ said Juan Pablo. ‘They are bringing whores.’ Taken aback, I replied, ‘Surely this is not the time nor the place, JP.’ He shrugged and a short time later two horses appeared, being led by a smiling Afro–Colombian youth. ‘See,’ said Juan Pablo. ‘Whores.’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.