Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Safety and Security in the World’s Kidnap Capital

Calloo, callay! The Embassy security restrictions have been lifted, leaving me free to roam overcrowded nightclubs, stores with rude salesclerks, and the joy that is Bogota’s TGIFriday’s. Dude, there really is a TGIFriday’s - America has a lot to answer for. In other words, if you’re planning on visiting, now’s the time. The sun is shining, nothing's really blown up lately, and it’s bullfight season.

I thought I’d use this week’s column to dispel some American notions of Bogota (including Americans who have no notion of Bogota and think it’s Spanish slang for “knockers”). The biggest misconception is that the ongoing Colombian Civil War is being waged on the streets of Bogota. Most of the fighting takes place in either the countryside or in towns I’ve never heard of. Which is a good thing, because Bogota is chaotic enough on its own.

Bogota is New York City fifteen years ago. The population is about the same (7.5 millionish), it’s a dirty place except for the ritzier neighborhoods, and the rule of law is hilariously nonexistent. Hell, we’ve even got Squeegee Men (including my favorite, a Squeegee Man who serves as a distraction while his buddies pry out your headlights with a screwdriver). I haven’t run into any con men yet, but they’re cool too. They dress as policemen and claim they need to “count your money” by which they mean “take your money.” Then they give you an awesome fake receipt for a refund. No, I haven’t seen this in action. I doubt I’d fall for it, but then again, I was 15 before I realized Spinal Tap wasn’t a real band. If you’re real lucky, you might get slipped a mickey, by which I mean the Colombian plant Scopamine. If you’ve ever wanted to wake up naked, in a warehouse, in the worst part of town with empty bank accounts and an emptier memory, get Scoped. You may even wake up with fresh breath. You can avoid getting Scoped the same way college girls stay away from roofies: keep an eye on your drink at all times, don’t accept free drinks from strangers, and go out with at least one buddy.

Street crimes and muggings are fairly rampant here. I’d advise against wearing anything nice, including jewelry, watches, or any piece of clothing you didn’t dig out of a bin at the Super Wal-Mart. Simply by virtue of being American, you’re rich. So it’s a wretched idea to stand out as an American. Don’t wear anything with American brand names, and don’t yammer in English at the top of your lungs. (Of course, one of the big rules of living anywhere in the world: stand out as little as possible.)

You’re more likely to get knocked over by a Fiat or burro cart than anything else bad that could happen. Saying that pedestrians don’t have the right of way is an adorable understatement. Always cross the street at intersections and run like your daddy’s chasing you with a belt. Bogota’s government puts little stars on the ground where pedestrians have been killed. Matt and I call them Death Stars, and they include a bizarre abstract one-legged dead stickman. He kind of looks like he’s doing a one-armed Funky Chicken dance.

As for kidnapping, I don’t worry my pretty little head about it. Most of the people kidnapped are either politically connected, wealthy, oil workers, or abysmally stupid (I’m looking at you, Robert Young Pelton, author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” - dangerous if you’re a moron, and hike in FARC territory, sure). My favorite political kidnapping was the governor who was taken at an anti-kidnapping rally. To avoid being kidnapped, don’t hail a taxi on the street (always call), don’t stick out as an American, and for the love of Mike, don’t roam around the jungle. (Israelis and Europeans don’t really take the threat seriously enough, and generally get scooped up during group hiking excursions. It’s almost funny.) Remember that the FARC is the world’s only profitable Marxist organization, and most of the revenue comes from cocaine and kidnappings. Don’t mess with them.

As for terrorist attacks, it’s not that big a deal. Follow all the other rules about not sticking out as an American. Also, don’t eat on patios - the people injured in the Bogota Beer Company attack were sitting around on a patio, right next to a space heater. A FARC operative simply lobbed a grenade onto the deck, and the place went up in flames. Patio dining isn’t worth it.

Really, Bogota’s not that scary. If you have a sense of humor, it just might be the coolest place you’ve visited. That’s it for this week - next week, I’ll teach useful Spanish phrases that you won’t find in any textbook.

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