Monday, July 17, 2006


Well, the wife and I had the opportunity to go to Villavicencio over the weekend because of conference her company organized for a group of doctors on Saturday. Villavicencio is the capital of the Llanos department (state) and is about 86 kilometers southeast of Bogota. The Llanos are the Colombian "great plains", except, unlike in the US, are filled with trees. In parts of Kansas or Nebraska, for example, you drive for a whole day and see one tree. Not so in Los Llanos.

At any rate, it may be close, but the drive through the mountains takes a long time (4 hours with stops). Of course, it's an incredible drive - the mountains are huge and the road winds over, around, and through them. Partly, it reminds me of an area in Idaho where the road follows the Snake river - except that the Andes are enormous. Every twist of road brought new details and the longish drive seemed to go by very quickly.

Near the end of the drive, there is a very long tunnel, about 5km, that you have to drive through. It's the 3rd of 3 tunnels and by far the longest. When we came out, I had the sensation of what the Fellowship must have had exiting the Mines of Moria (to describe it in the geekiest of fashions). The vast plains that stretch out before you, the glowing sunlight, the experience of entering a new world - all of it was unique.

If Bogota is modern, Villavicencio is a decade or so behind. In fact, that's one of the things that stands out when one travels in Colombia. While Bogota has it's share of modern advances, the rest of the country (excluding tourist haven Cartagena) is lagging behind. Well, I haven't visited Cali or Medellin yet and they're supposed to be nice, but outside of those cities, the environment is tangibly different. Income and social stratification are pronounced in the developing world.

Unlike Bogota, there were few modern offices or apartment buildings. There were plenty of buildings with broken windows, garbage lined streets, broken down cars, and abandoned buildings. Aside from a newist Exito (Walmart) and a new shopping mall, there was little to reflect the growing and developing Colombia that I have come to know. One is left with the distinct impression that while some may be doing well in Colombia, the vast majority are struggling with the meager surroundings they find themselves in. It's both saddening and enlightening to see that people who have few opportunities in the world manage to create lives for themselves that they enjoy and are mostly happy.

Another thing that I've noticed here in Colombia is that it is a very militarized country. The other day, on a major street in Bogota, I saw a tank roll by. In the freeways between cities there is a constant military presences - outposts and soldiers at regular intervals. It's common for the military to search vehicles and examine documents of any motorist they choose. And in Villavicencio and the Llanos, there are defensible outposts build from sandbags and concrete strategically placed around the area. Watchtowers, something rarely utilized in Bogota, were fully staffed in the Llanos and military exercises were ongoing even at 830 on Sunday morning. This "war" is no joke here. While Bogota is more or less safe, the country is fortified, prepared, and anticipating a return to violence.

All of that leaves one with the feeling that as much progress has been made down here, there is a lot of work left to do. Governments generally pursue development strategies through economic projects. Whether it's large scale infrastructure or micro-financing, the idea is that by providing sound jobs with good salaries, economics can conquor the depths of poverty, and in Colombia, the violence that follows.

I'm not convinced. Or, I should say, I think the picture is more complicated. While economic prosperity is absolutely necessary, I wonder about education. Just like in the US, money buys a good education and it is farcical to suggest that everyone has equal opportunities in achieving quality education. The poor of Bogota and the rest of the country have one level of (often) sub-standard education, while the rich (or well off) can afford to send their children to better schools. The end run effects are that the upper classes foster environments conducive to economically prosperous lives - quality education, language skills, opportunities to travel, and ultimately, access to the best jobs. The poor continue to be poor. While these trends are awfully pronounced in a country like Colombia, the same (if muted) dynamic exists in the US.

In the end, we (as a culture, society, species) have to decide that this system isn't fair and must change. But I suppose it's always been easier to build more jails, put more people in prison, and blame those with no options for opting for a life of crime. Until we recognize that a) all education isn't equal and b) that we should do something about it, we're going to have to deal with high levels of crime and corruption.

At any rate, I have to discuss a meal that I had on this trip. The Llanos is equivalent to "middle america" in at least one way - it's the source of beef for the country. There are many farms and the best beef in Colombia is found here. They have a traditional method of preparing cow that is downright tasty indeed.

First, they dig a hole in the ground. They fill that hole with salted meat and then build a fire above it. They slow cook the meat for a day (basically) which leaves it tender, moist, and ever so succulent. Each bite is bursting with a different mix of smokey and salty cow, slowly dissovling in the mouth. I have struggled to come up with a fair characterization of said cuisine, so I've decided to keep it simple and state for the record that:

THIS is why God invented cow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see that the Acid Reflux isn't deterring you from enjoying the quality meats.

2:36 PM  

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