February 28, 2011

Losing Oneself in San Nicolás de Myra

I had lived in Bogotá since September but I had only ventured outside the city for work and only a few hours at a time. I didn’t grow up in a city and though I have adjusted to city life now—Bogotá has around ten million inhabitants—I am still a country person at heart. The city here is congested, polluted, crowded, noisy, and most of my friends have been robbed at least once. I was ready to get out of the city.

The city grows naturally and unnaturally. Naturally, Bogotá is a banking center and home to numerous successful businesses. There is wealth and prosperity there. Unnaturally, it grows through the suffering of the countryside. Here in Colombia, when the people of a town are forcibly evicted by the paramilitaries or the guerrillas, they come to the major cities. In any suburb in the United States, you might see an ad for a lost dog or cat taped to a lamp post. Here the fliers are for lost sons. Or husbands or brothers or daughters. I saw another that day as I walked to the bus station. It was a piece of paper with a black and white photo printed on it. It was a photo of a husband who had gone missing. On it, his wife pleaded for any information about his fate.

One news story that stood out in my memory was a story in the national newspaper, El Tiempo, that made the front page section. It was of a woman whose daughter had been raped and murdered by the paramilitaries. When she went to look for the body, they attacked her as well. She abandoned her house, her job-- everything--and moved to Bogotá with nothing. Such is the way of things. “The disappeared” has grown to be an entire class of people only less seen than “the displaced”, who have fled to the Bogotá with nothing. These are social classes created by theft and by violence. Their homes were taken—or their families. The violence has seeped into the culture through these long years. It has many faces: the cartel hitmen, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), the paramilitary death squads, the new and ruthless Bandas Criminales (bacrims). They eat and take and drink of Colombia. The city feeds on the violence in this way. People flow in like tears into the ocean. One drop at a time.

Like I said, I had been in Bogotá since September and I wanted to see something else outside of that concrete jungle. I wanted to see the mountains and the plains. I wanted to get outside the constant worry of nighttime petty thieves or aggressive, drug addled beggars, even if for just a day or two. I settled on a town several hours outside the city, through several mountains and across hours of beautiful, rolling hills. The town was San Nicolás de Myra.

I had been on the bus for several hours already when we stopped at a small way station to refuel. The temperature had risen considerably and the sun shown down brightly on this fly speck of a human settlement. Some passengers wandered off the bus to stretch their legs and when they began to board again, a new passenger sat down next to me and introduced himself.

“Hola. Mi nombre es Juan,” he said, as he extended a grimy hand for me to shake. He was a small man, maybe around fifty years old and life had not been easy on him. He was dressed in a cheap suit that looked like it had been worn continuously for weeks at a time. He had no left ear.

“Mucho gusto. ¿De dónde es usted?” I replied, asking where he was from after telling him my name. I was reluctant to dirty my hand by shaking his, but I didn’t want to seem rude. As we clasped hands, I noticed that he was missing his middle and ring fingers.

“Soy de San Nicolás,” he told me. He was from the town I was going to see and he was returning home after many years. I asked him why he had left and he responded first by looking away. When he looked at me again, he asked me if I knew the reputation of San Nicolás. I told him that I did not.

We are thieves, he told me. His eyes locked with mine as he told me that if I were wise, I wouldn’t get off the bus. That I would stay on the bus and ride it back to Bogotá as soon as I saw San Nicolás de Myra. We are thieves. We steal and take and rob until there is nothing left. I did not react. I didn’t know what to make of this strange warning.

Suddenly, he reached forward and grabbed a hold of my pocket. We steal your money. I pushed his hand off but his other went to my chest. We steal your life. I shoved him away again and we struggled for a moment as he thrust his index finger at my face. As I shoved him away, I noticed that he was missing two of the fingers on that hand as well. We will take what you love most. He instantly recoiled and seemed to draw into himself. He sat in silence and didn’t look at me for the rest of the trip. I read from the book I had brought, the short story collection Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, by Gabriel García Márquez. The magical realism of Márquez only heightened the sense of discomfort that the man next to me had inspired.

We finally arrived in San Nicolás in the early evening. It was a small town, even smaller than I had imagined. It appeared dusty and run down from the bus window. Ignoring Juan’s advice, I left the bus and headed out to look for a hotel. I felt in my pocket for my cell phone but it was gone. Had it fallen out on the bus? Was it in my backpack? I unzipped my pack to look inside. My book was also gone. I started to walk back to the bus but it was already pulling away. A crowd of people brushed past me as I stood up and I was buffeted back and forth, a little disoriented after realizing I had lost my book and my cell phone. Or I had been robbed.

It didn’t take long to find a cheap hotel in the town. It was a few streets down and back several blocks. It was only one story and nothing special. I reserved a room for the night, not sure then whether I really wanted to stay as long as I had planned. I tossed my bag on the bed. I was traveling light and so had not brought much. Just the basics. I was hungry and this rented room didn’t come with meal service, so I decided I needed to find a restaurant to get a bite to eat for dinner. As I passed by the hotel office on my way out, I asked the owner if he had a safe to lock up my ID while I was out. He took it and locked it in a drawer as I left and I handed him my room key.

I stopped into a restaurant a few streets down. It was hot and dirty. And empty of customers. When I asked for a menu, the waitress instead just pointed to a sign hung over the kitchen listing their dinner offerings. I looked over the prices and felt in my pocket for my bills, but my pocket was empty. I was certain I had put my cash in my right, front pocket before leaving the hotel. I had no money with me to buy dinner. I went back to the hotel to ask for my wallet back. Maybe the heat was getting to me.

The owner handed me back my wallet. It was empty. Empty of both my ID and any cash. He claimed ignorance. He claimed that I had given it to him just like that. The more insistent and angry I became, the more of the ignorant fool he played. It was getting me nowhere. I threatened to go to the police and he didn’t seem to care. I took the room key back and returned to my room, now unsure how I would pay for it. At least I had bought a round trip bus ticket and would still be able to get back to Bogotá.

Back in my room, my bag had been emptied out and all of my clothes were missing. I tore through the folders I had brought, looking for my bus ticket. It too was missing. I collapsed back onto the bed to think. Night had since fallen and the heat was oppressive there in San Nicolás. What had I gotten myself into? I realized that there wasn’t much else I was going to be able to do right then. I got up just long enough to lock the deadbolt on the door, then I lay back down to sleep without bothering to pull back the sheets or take off more than my shoes. The minutes dripped by in the heat of the tropical darkness.

I woke sometime in the night with a confused recollection of nightmares of loss and suffering. Half remembered images of searching for loved ones of nakedness of pain clouded my mind. Then the memories of the dreams melted back to my reality. My clothes were gone. All of them. And I became aware that the pain from the dream was now an intense pain in my mouth. I moved my tongue and realized that I was missing several teeth. My hand shot to my mouth to confirm what I feared and I felt empty, bloody holes where six of my teeth had been before. My head spun. I began to panic. I was completely naked and all of my clothes were missing. I found the towel in the bathroom and wrapped it around myself to cover my nakedness as I ran outside to the “office”. I found the door locked and the light off. The street was empty by then as well. I could see no option but to wait until morning. I returned to the room to sleep, or wait until morning. I had nothing left except the taste of blood in my mouth.

The next morning I found the hotel owner in his office and through my toothless, slurred speech I explained what had happened (all while wearing only a towel). He lent me a pair of shorts and a tattered T-shirt. I told him I would be back later to pay for the room, knowing that though I had nothing to pay with I had nothing to come back for. I had to get back to Bogotá. But how? I had no bus ticket, no ID and no money. I nonetheless headed to the bus station, thinking I could figure something out on the way.

The bus station was as small and dusty as every other place in San Nicolás. But there were crowds. I stood in line and watched the crowd around me. It seemed not to move at all and only grew longer behind me as more townspeople packed into the cramped office. It was increasingly hot and increasingly crowded. There was a boy, maybe ten years old, who appeared to be alone and I caught him staring at me. He moved around the room but his eyes were fixed on me. I watched him suspiciously. His tiny hand deftly reached into a man’s pocket and pulled out the wallet yet he never took his eyes off from me. I was close enough to reach him. I seized his arm that he held the wallet with and yanked him closer to me, intending to return it to its owner.

He hissed and only pulled himself closer to me. His other hand flicked out, holding something metallic, like a pair of metal shears. Before I realized what was happening, he had fixed it on one of my fingers and in the next instant all that I had left was a bloody stub where my right index finger used to be. I was in shock. He disappeared into the crowd after I lost my grip. Blood was pouring out of my hand and the people around me recoiled. I remember feeling dizzy and weak and then all went black as I assume I lost consciousness.

The next memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed. I opened my eyes slowly and scanned the room around me. It was bare and the paint was peeling from the walls. I tried to move my tongue against my teeth to feel the holes once again, but my tongue was also gone. I remembered the bus station and my hand moved to feel for my finger but I found nothing. I groped my hand around and tried to move my right hand. I felt bandages instead. My right arm had been severed at the elbow and I had been left with only a stump. My heart jumped and I struggled to sit up, only to realize that both of my feet had also been removed. I thrashed wildly and cried out, incoherently, insansely. I had to get out of there.

Hearing my guttural cries, a woman dressed in white—presumably a nurse—entered the room with no sense of urgency. She pressed me back down onto the bed with one hand. I noticed that she had only one eye… she was smiling at me and didn’t seem concerned. She looked into my eyes with interest. Before I could speak, she spoke first.

“Qué lindos ojos… me encantaría tener unos así…” (what lovely eyes, I would love to have some like those) she said with more desire than I was comfortable with. Her smile was the last sight I remembered as a needle touched my arm and I feel asleep again. Her smile was the last sight I ever saw. After, there is only darkness. And loss.


The preceding story was a work of fiction but the plight of the displaced and the disappeared is no fiction. Colombia is second only to Sudan in the number of people displaced from their homes due to armed conflict. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of people displaced internally by armed conflict in Colombia, pushed out of their homes by despicable acts of violence, millions have migrated to cities in other regions, losing everything and being forced to eek out a meager existence on the streets or relying on the kindness of distant relatives. After years of reductions under President Uribe, the number of kidnappings too rose sharply in 2010. These are done sometimes for political reasons and sometimes for ransom. Here are two new articles, one concerning the displaced and the other the disappeared.

The Displaced


KATY CLARK: In Colombia the government says the country’s long guerrilla war is winding down, but the number of Colombians being forced off their land by warring factions is actually rising. Last year, 380,000 Colombians were uprooted, and many of these Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, have little chance of ever returning home. John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS: At a shelter in a South Bogota slum, students at a bread-making class trade jokes with their teacher. It’s a rare moment of light amid grim circumstances. These peasants were forced off their farms by guerillas, paramilitaries or drug traffickers. Now they’re trying to pick up new skills to rebuild their lives here. Colombia is home to more Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, than any other nation except Sudan. According to human rights groups, about four million Columbians, nearly ten percent of the population, have been displaced since 1985. Most fled after they were accused by either Marxist guerrillas or paramilitary death squads of collaborating with the enemy. Colombia’s president says he’s winning the war against leftist guerillas, and tens of thousands of right-wing paramilitaries have demobilized. But in remote areas guerrillas as well as re-armed paramilitaries are now fighting for control of drug trafficking routes, and they’re forcing even more people off their land. Marie-Helene Verney is spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia.

MARIE-HELENE VERNEY: What we’re seeing is the creation of new groups, smaller groups, and these groups are creating really a level of instability and violence in — again in these very remote areas of Colombia.

JOHN OTIS: Paramilitaries are also accused of joining forces with legitimate business interests to seize large swaths of land to mine gold and produce palm oil for Colombia’s booming biofuels industry. That’s Jorge Rojas of the human rights group Codhes. He says that big palm oil projects almost always produce legions of displaced people. One of the newly displaced is Maria Elvia Mendez. She lives in a rundown building housing IDPs in Bogota. She used to live on a coffee farm in the southern state of Huila, but gunmen threatened to kill her so she fled in March. “If soldiers pass by your farm, the guerrillas accuse you of spying for the government,” Mendez says. “But if the guerrillas pay you a visit, you come under pressure from the army and the paramilitaries. It’s an impossible situation. Your life is up for grabs.” The Colombian government has set up shelters for the displaced and it provides food, health care, education and small monthly stipends. But officials insist the problem has been exaggerated. Armando Escobar is in charge of the government’s displacement programs. He claims that many poor Colombians are registering as displaced to scam the government out of benefits.

The Disappeared


While the upcoming release of five FARC political hostages has been widely publicized, the more than 200 civilian victims of kidnapping in 2010 have been "forgotten," says Pais Libre, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting victims of kidnapping and their families.

"We think that those kidnapped for economic extortion are forgotten. There is a perception that kidnapping for economic extortion has ended. That is not true. Actually it increased 32% in 2010," Claudia Llano, a representative of Pais Libre, told Colombia Reports.

Out of the 282 reported kidnappings last year, 57% are attributed to common criminals, 23% to the FARC, 12% to the ELN and the remaining 7% to neo-paramilitary groups, according to a report published by the organization last week.