Colombia, day one: Bogota, Escobar, and Hostel Sexy Time

Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

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1Who knew Pablo Escobar was such a c**t?

That was the overriding takeaway from the Heroes of Colombia walking tour which started in the Bolivar Square and visited some of the key sites in the capital linked to Pablo Escobar and his reign on terror. Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

The tour highlighted some of the people instrumental in exposing his crimes and bringing him to justice – almost all of whom nobly died for their efforts. At his peak, he shipped 15 tons per day to the US, and made the cover of Forbes.

One corner on the main thoroughfare Calle 12 is the intersection of power. The church on one side, the bank opposite, and…here I beat the tour guide to his joke to point out the McDonalds on the third side, and as a result don’t know what the fourth one was.

Lunch at a French restaurant, discovering the taste sensation of fruit lightly coated in hot pimento spices, then a visit to the gold museum…where I learnt that gold was used for ceremonies by ancient indigenous tribes, but that’s about it…and that they made at least enough ornaments to fill 4 floors of a large museum.

A return trip up the funicular to the Montserrat peak, which is about 3000 metres ASL (Bogota is 2600), admiring the view of foreboding thunderstorm on one side of the mountain, and a hazey sunset view over Smogota on the other. Dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant that had a no WiFi policy (so avant-garde!), with succulent avocados, corn, and salsa…accompanied by a blackberry juice.

Crashed in bed watching a series (not Narcos, though that is next on my cultural appreciation guide), to drown out the couple in next bedroom having loud sex. Even though my room was “private”, the adjoining wall didn’t reach the ceiling, so it was about as private as a toilet cubicle in an airline toilet…

Colombia, day 17-20: Slackpackers on the Caribbean

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

Blog post 4 image slackpackers

Stuart from England promised he knew the “best drinking game involving ping-pong balls”.

We were happy prisoners in the Dreamer Hostel in Palomino on the Caribbean, where everyone was describing Colombia as the “new Thailand” for backpackers.

Given Thailand’s reputation, I was curious to see what Stu’s ping-pong ball game entailed. “It’s called Chunderella,” he announced.

We put down the pool cues and gathered around for Stu to explain his game. “The rules are as follows,” he began.

I’ll spare you the swear words of a direct quote, but in essence, everyone puts some of their drink in their cup and arranges them in a circle around a central cup, which contains some of everyone’s drinks.

You then take turns to bounce a ping-pong ball over the cups, and whoever’s cup it lands in, drinks.

If it lands in the central cup, everyone drinks, and then races to flip their cup upside down. The last person to do so, drinks the concoction in the central cup. And everyone cheers.

With a bit of imagination you could see the upstairs at Downton Abbey playing it as a parlour game after charades.

It wasn’t Mah Jong in its complexity, but flipping an upside-down cup onto a table could still be devilishly hard.

This missing life skill was yet another difference I had noted between myself and the younger generation of backpackers around me.

It was all part of the cultural experience of backpacking in my 30s. And spending three weeks among the youth was nothing if not a life-affirming experience.

Just as activism has given away to slacktivism, so too has the art of backpacking become almost as easy as clicking a button. So, here are some observations I made about Generation Slackpacker:

  • Thanks to smartphones, wifi and WhatsApp, it’s really easy to look up anything: hostels, travel itineraries, and that Dutch girl with the cheeky smile on Facebook.
  • No thanks to smartphones, conversation is harder IRL. There’s a diminished sense of community in backpackers, with more people nose-deep in smartphones or laptops (which are lighter than ever to carry).
  • The time once spent working out logistics, is now spent on working out your body: every single male by the poolside has a six pack, (except for when I was at the poolside).
  • My lack of any tattoos was a permanent marker of my age.

Yet for everything that has changed around the world in the last 10 years, backpacking among youth is still as life-affirmed as ever.

Part of the reason is that so few care to ask what you do. And for good reason: young backpackers don’t define themselves by the jobs they do, but the places they’ve been.

In fact, backpackers are invariably only interested in the same three questions:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you come from?
  • And was it any good? 

The hostel in the Unesco-listed Cartagena had even formalised the questions into its arrivals card for new occupants.

“Coming from?”, it asked on one line. I wrote: “The Amazon”.

“Going to?:” it said below. Ignoring my dorm roomies (the two huffy French girls and the German kid far too young for his existential crisis), I wrote: “Have a good time.”

And have a good time I certainly did.