Riding the Cannonball of Curiosity into 'No Go' Towns
´That road there, that leads to a rough place. And if you go to that place we drove past the other day, well that is a rough place too, roughest in the city.’ My grandad said to me, who I would then ask about notorious other neighborhoods I had heard, all having a mythical quality to my young ears as impassable, forbidden places. It must be the people there, if people could even survive in such places I wondered, and then he told me about hard men who were well known in these places that he knew three times removed and who themselves then took on that mythical quality to myself.
A distant town surrounded by jungle in Northern Colombia
Yesterday I had my weekly warning that I should not go to a pointed to street and to guard my bag around here, because…and the empanada seller gestured a cutting throat action. This cordiality is extended wherever one travels to in Colombia, but it cannot help but fire those same synapses of mythicized toughness I developed when younger. I was driving a woman to her home in one such a place and she distanced ourselves two blocks away because the fifth block was a ´by permission only´ neighborhood according to her. It was a 32C Sunday lunchtime in Cali, and she was taken aback at my intention to drop her at her door; the night represented the homicide statistics, I thought, to remove ego from my response. She left and I considered how grimey is a scalable word, and how the neighborhood looked no sketchier, no more alarming than any ‘walking through the hood video’ or parts of my hometown for that matter. Rough estates, comunas, favelas, projects and African Slums are all degrees of the same grime and territorial danger. The nervousness I had preparing to visit a ´no-go zone´ did however not evoke the same childhood wonder or measurement of griminess.
No, wonder was not the feeling at all. Calculation of the worst case scenarios combined with advice from the army combined with a wad of ´If you see this, it is likely I have been kidnapped´ notes to javelin above my pursuers or at other drivers was my preparation. At any rate the advice of taxi drivers was not to go there, they do not go there, go elsewhere; of the police was they do not go there, they are a target, seek the army´s advice; of the army general it is a complex situation for them and the roads are ugly. Loose conduct codes, slack uniforms and the absurdity that a foreign journalist is better positioned at reportage than locals militated against my going, but I resolved this was no jaunt around Syria and that there is a community living there; to stop being damp and just go.
To Catatumbo I drove, en route to Tibu, each town name sounding a menacing hiss, its rock and dirt roads like the Wizard of Oz rewritten by Dante, and its final bridge whereat I fell and my dog spilled over a 15ft drop into the river an omen. The roadside vultures may just have well as been ravens, with army soldiers stood at every 1km. I was in Tibu and you might imagine my skepticism at there being a sun there that shone onto the town, a town with a high street and mechanics working, lines at its town hall ebbing and flowing and couples behaving tenderly in the park. Had they no idea of the information I carried?
Very much red faced and as if sent on deployment to a warzone to peel carrots, I walked around to ask locals of the situation, from their perspective I suppose as man with muddied boots (the river and mud banks were the bayou of Hades after all) and with an impending aura of one not inspiring trust. The interviews were regarded rosily with nods or disinterest. How foolish it would be to expect any other greeting to oneself when resembling a swamp creature hindsight tells me now writing this. The church was open and empty, and I went there to repose my thoughts on the wasted journey. Well, the situation in Catatumbo is reported as: skirmishes for drug routes and territorial disputes adds massacre in town x to the province of ten massacres this year, with cessation unlikely. Local journalists cannot have longevity without threats, and international media needs a toll of the hundreds to take an interest. I had wandered into its ebullition, a half-time where the true headline is: Tibu, no go zone not all the time.
I looked at news from Tibu before publishing this article. It consisted of armed ex-farc rebels standing outside of the town hall, declaring their presence in the area, and news that three police officers had been kidnapped. This is the instability I had prepared myself for, a situation that the townspeople of Tibu have to account for daily. For further reading, see the links below.