It was always difficult leaving Rio, saying goodbye to all my friends and family invariably sucked. Although, the fact that I wasn’t able to train any jiu-jitsu due to the inconvenience of broken ribs, made things a little easier, it felt like I was just hanging around watching everyone else have all the fun.
It wasn’t a matter of going straight home either with another month split between Colombia and Ecuador, this also softened the blow. My first stop was Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
Not spending my days with my comrades in PJs, inhaling the stench of stale sweat in airless academies gave me a chance to do something that had become alien to me, be a tourist.
As fate would have it, I spent a lot of my time in Bogotá in and around Bolívar Square, I became enamoured with its life and vibrancy, spending my days reading and watching the world unfold in front of me.
Bolívar Square lies at the centre of the city’s historical area, it is surrounded by the Palace of Justice, National Capitol which is the seat of the Colombian Congress, the Cathedral of Bogotá and the Liévano building, the workplace of the Mayor.
In my efforts to locate the Square, I found myself blindly walking through back streets covered in some of the dopest graffiti I’ve ever seen, when I stumbled upon a sea of homeless people. Both sides of the street saw huge numbers posted up under blankets surrounded by their scant possessions. The most tragic were those curled up in the fetal position on the bare pavement with nothing to offer them a modicum of comfort.
The level of poverty didn’t shock me, it is endemic to all the South American cities I’d visited, and sadly it was a problem that I had become somewhat desensitized too. I was slightly taken aback however when a man in front of me took a huge hit of his crack pipe. I then noticed other lost souls, victims to the pipe staggering around like the living dead in a scene that was straight out of Racoon City.
At all times the Square bristled with activity, street artists plying their craft on the streets in chalk, nodding tourists being force-fed information by smiling tour guides; cats slanging tat, sleeping drunks, roaming dogs, homeless beggars, skateboarders, and young couples embracing in and around the iconic statue of Simón Bolívar who was cloaked in an Colombian flag and always seemed to be sporting a pigeon on his head.
There was a gimmick where you could buy a packets of seeds from the street vendors and feed the pigeons. People had birds eating directly from their hands, or shoulders. There were families who would sit surrounded by seeds as pigeons got to snacking around them. The most ardent of pigeon lovers had them perched on their heads, in scenes that would have Kevin McCallister screaming and running away in fear.
Having previously suffered the indignity of being shit on from a great height for the first time in my 33 years of life about two weeks prior, I avoided this veritable army of pigeons at all costs.
The Square saw hundreds of bikes throughout the course of the day from BMXers showing their skills to those commuting to and from work.
In the shadow of the Cathedral, I witnessed the height of irony. A dude in a shirt emblazoned with the visage of the Virgin Mary, just had to get a peek at a chick’s ass as he rode past her. He didn’t gouge out his own eye for this Biblical infraction but he did have to make a last-minute swerve to avoid crashing headfirst into a group of tourists.
A second cyclist was not so lucky; a hapless teen thrown from his BMX as he tried to impress his friends. He hopped around in obvious discomfort, suffering that angry pain you only seem to have as a youth, the mixture of injury and embarrassment. Two women nearby stood filming rather than offering a helping hand.
There was plenty of singing and dancing. Among the street performers was an elderly couple. Thoroughly impressed, I watched from the sidelines as song after song they danced with seemingly inexhaustible levels of stamina; in their place I would have been gassing out within minutes.
There were soldiers everywhere, brandishing huge weapons with seemingly little to do. Although, I did witness an adorable scene between a young soldier and a dog devoid of instinct. The carefree canine lay on all fours in the centre of the road, basking in the sun with absolutely no intention of moving for anybody. As a car approached the concerned soldier ran into the road and pulled the lackadaisical beast to safety, whereupon he showered it with loving attention.
The most striking feature of the Square was the presence of the ‘Campamento Por La Paz’ or Peace Camp. Protesters had set up the camp after October’s referendum for peace had resulted in a No vote.
After 52 years of bloodshed carried out by communist militia, the FARC, the Colombian people narrowly voted No to a peace deal 50.2% to 49.8%. This had been a huge shock in a year that has been characterised by bizarre outcomes.
The encampment that had up to 150 inhabitants vowed not to disperse until a satisfactory agreement for peace had been reached.
About a week after the referendum, whilst still in Rio, I had met a young Colombian from Cartagena at the FT Academy. I’m sure he’d been there with the sole intent of training jiu-jitsu and forgetting about the political issues within his country. However, buoyed by my enthusiasm he opened up about why he made the decision to vote No to peace.
He explained to me that he would love nothing more than to see peace in his country but the conditions under which it was offered were not acceptable. He was sickened by the idea that men who were guilty of murder could end up in positions of power within the Colombian government. He was adamant that there could be no peace without stricter punishments for members of the FARC that had committed atrocities.
The ceasefire between the FARC and the government will continue until Christmas, those in the camp, along with the rest of Colombia wait with bated breath for a positive outcome.
Bogota is a huge sprawling city that just oozes with character. There is something very special about this place, it is a paradox of beauty and abject poverty, a city filled with so much life and laughter yet an abundance of torment and pain. Seven days certainly didn’t feel like enough time to tap fully into it but I intend to come back, I didn’t do it justice without getting on the mats at an airless academy with my PJ-clad bros.