Day two in Bogota, I took a long look at the map in my guidebook, then ditched it and went in search of two things: the tourist kiosk in Plaza Bolivar, and the Museo de la Policia Nacional. The first was rumored to have the best maps of the city (important in a place where, in the last two years, some – but not all – of the street names have been changed. Now, instead of 12th-16th streets, there are streets 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d and 12 (formerly 16th) street). The second has a basement exhibition on the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Anyone who knows me knows that, as much as a good diorama, I’m a sucker for a crime story with a drug lord.
Just southeast of the Plaza Bolivar I ran into a cache of guns. Still overwhelmed by altitude, and by the fact that I had just, with very little planning, left the country for six months (though it’s difficult to say which of these caused more trouble with my breathing), I overshot the tourist mark. Guns were everywhere. Soldiers protected each building en masse. (I later learned these were the presidential residence, presidential offices, the presidential guard battalion, that national archives, and the national observatory where the Colombian constitution was devised – all gun-worthy locations.) Cadets in camo walked in twos and threes; policia in their neon yellow pinnies monitored street corners. Federales with semi-automatics stood at the gates and driveways of sandstone buildings. A map would have been helpful here.
I turned north, hoping to head closer to the Plaza, or a tourist zone. Both sides of the street were lined with stores geared for soldiers – or their like minded family members. Booth-sized entrances were filled with military gear for the whole family: boots, badges, and pins for the already camo-clad dad. A stylish desert camo ¾ length overcoat to get the supportive wife through the cold season.
Surely junior wants in on the action – we have camo of all shapes and sizes for your little ones.
And while you’re at it, get them a shelf full of military dolls to remind them what their future occupational options may be! It’s a family even a revolutionary could be proud of.
Colombia has made a concerted effort to improve the reputation of its military, and it seems to be working. The police presence is everywhere, more as information posts and beat cops than mini dictators. Bus stations, street corners, your sidewalk taco stand – all of them are monitored by pairs of policia who are more than happy to try to answer your questions.
No where are they happier to do this than in the Museo de la Policia Nacional. Here, polyglots serve military service as tour guides, and mine, whose name was Oscar, did not disappoint. For almost two hours, he toured me through rooms with thesis projects put to use as drones and bomb detecting devices; the history of Colombian police structure and the efforts to devise a public relations – and culture – strategy to reduce the ‘dirty cop,’ reputation of the industry; the development of forensic science; a wide-ranging sample of weapons and ammo. And at last, to the hunt and capture of Pablo Escobar and other cartel leaders.
It was worth every minute. The displays were thorough but not laborious, Oscar’s English (part of which he learned in school and most of which, he told me when asked, was “empiric,”) was so close to excellent that it was an entertainment for us both when he forgot a word and we would work to discover what he was trying to say. Along the way, other English-speaking cadets would join us for a time, add their two cents, and then move on.
This being only day two, I wasn’t settled in my solitary traveler status, which now feels like a lovely bubble I can pop whenever I want out , but which I can wear as protection when need be. I couldn’t help but think of everything I saw through the eyes of family I wouldn’t see for quite some time.
For my dad, there were homemade guns, marked by their creators or decorated to suit the discerning owner.
For my niece and nephews, there were models of helicopters, trucks and airplanes, displays of badges from police around the world, and uniforms that would make for days of good dress-up.
For the architects (my family has two), models and plans of houses, towns, and even a prison that drug lords built for themselves, and the Spanish roof tile on which Escobar landed after he was shot and fell out the second-floor window. For my motorcycle-loving brother in law, Escobar’s illegally imported Harley embellished with gold and silver décor.
There was even a horse-drawn paddy wagon occasionally converted to an ambulance when need be. It was a blissfully honest, entertaining, military mess, and I loved every bit of it.
And it was just the beginning of my second day.
For more pictures of camo and ammo, as well as the rest of my pics from Colombia, click here