Archive for March, 2009

Dispatches from Colombia: Me Versus the Volcano

March 8, 2009

I climbed up the flanks of an active volcano, stared into the bubbling crater, and dove in.

OK, so I didn’t dive in. I don’t like to fool around when it comes to geothermal massifs, so I climbed in. The volcanic shaft is purported to stretch 2,300 meters into the earth, and the prospect of becoming a Jules Verne joke wasn’t something that I had on my itinerary here in Colombia.

I’ve been here for five days now. Colombia, specifically Cartagena, has dazzled me with a cosmopolitan selection of lodging and restaurants, sparkling parks, exquisite architecture that spans five centuries and a vivacity and joie de vivre that dresses in bold colors and dances to the tropical rhythms of ballenato.

The country-wide celebration is growing as Colombians are beginning to look at their country as a viable place to live. Many writers have documented the disturbing contrast that this South American country presents: some of the hemisphere’s most educated, sophisticated people who are also brutal terrorists, marauding murderers and first-rate kidnappers amid some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth.

The last seven years have started to change this story, however. President Alvaro Uribe has been successful in weakening the FARC, the left-wing rebel group (once dedicated to social change. Now, they are essencially a drug mafia) is on its knees, and the right-wing paramilitary groups have also been fiercely fought. Hasmel, my guide, tells me that the 40-minute ride along a modern highway to the volcano would have been impossible just a few years ago. Before Uribe, nobody traveled by land. It was simply too dangerous.

As the rebel groups have retreated, the government has placed checkpoints every few miles along the highway. There is a slightly militarized feel that will be familiar to people who have traveled through Chiapas or Michoacan in Mexico, but traffic is brisk and there is no tension in the air.

Back to the volcano. I was expecting a giant conical geological feature, the kind of brimstone and fire, the things of Ruben Dario poems. I was quite surprised, then, to bounce down a gravel road into a rustic parking area lined by dilapidated straw huts, where the local Afro-Colombians sought refuge from the blaring equatiroal sun. There were no other vehicles around. And then there’s the volcano. I actually thought it was a joke at first. It is indeed a cone, perhaps 50 feet high, and you walk up a rudimentary staircase to arrive at the top. Sulpher tinged the air slightly acrid, although a strong breeze whipped off the nearby river mouth and helped offset the stench. A man followed me to the top, and this guy looked like a middleweight boxing champion, sans teeth. His name was Enrique, and he would be my masseuse.

The crater was full of a grayish, bubbling mud. I’ve had volcanic mud baths before, and it’s always a novelty to cover yourself in dirt in a way your parents wouldn’t let you as a child. But now I had to dip into a crater that dropped over a mile into the earth. I didn’t know what to expect.

If I had expected heaven, it wouldn’t have done it justice. The crater’s muddy concoction was so dense that you couldn’t sink even if you tried. It was so think that I was actually showing a local boy long division in the muck, and it remained, undulating like a taught waterbed, until eventually enough bubbles broke through. I liked the bubbles: they looked the exact size and shape of a completely gray fried egg. Like a buoyant, thick gel, this primordial stew held me in place until Enrique began, unsolicited, the massage.

He worked my entire body with hands that could have crushed walnuts and collapsed soup cans effortlessly. The gritty, mineral-rich mud scrubbed my pale skin, and the sun injected warmth into the scene. Hasmel, a 21-year-old tourism student who was doing an internship with the local tourism board declared: “Ah, yes. This is the life I deserve!”

The muck was so thick that it nearly sucked my shorts into the bowels of the earth (a term I thought fitting, given the consisency of the slop). After squeeging myself with my hands, I went to the river, where again unsolicited a woman began bathing me, instructing me to take off my shorts as she made sure my natural pink tone shone through.

“What did you think?” she asked.

“Incredible. I was actually 52 when I went in. Now look at me.”

She gave me a once over and asked how old I was now.

“Thirty.”

My cleverness went unappreciated, and I retreated to the van to put on some clothes. The others in my group arrived, rubbed down and bathed, when the locals surrounded the van. “Tip time,” they said.

A tip was certainly deserved, and Hasmel suggested a reasonable amount for the services. Reasonable to him and the driver, but not to the locals, apparently, as their disapproving looks and grumbling evidenced.”Three people, three massages, three baths. That’s six services,” said one woman.

I was uncomfortable, but Hasmel didn’t seem to care. He laid out the facts: “Split the money. Remember that a tip is voluntary.” And with that, he ushered us into the van and we headed back to Cartagena.

Advertisements