Friends in High Places

"Tranquilo - don't worry", said the lycra-clad stranger as he whipped out a chunky silver badge from his rucksack. "I work for the CTI - the Colombian FBI." Great, I thought. This is going to be interesting.

Fifteen minutes earlier, looking distinctly lost at the hectic roundabout, and terribly touristy on our lime-green hired mountain bikes, we were rescued by two distinctly more professional looking cyclists. "Would you like to join us? We´re going to a nature park north of town." Reasoning that going somewhere with two unknown men was better than going nowhere at all, we joined them.

Stopping outside a bike shop to pick up some more of their friends, Juan - lycra-clad stranger number one - swung off his rucksack and performed what was clearly his favourite line with obvious glee. "Is it as exciting as in the films?" I asked. "Claro que sí", he grinned. "Of course it is."

Did he work with the police or the army, I quizzed (both notoriously untrustworthy in Colombia). "For the government." And what did his job really involve? "Inteligencia", was all that I could extract. My interrogation skills were clearly not on a par with his.

I changed tack to talk about the FARC (the infamous Colombian guerrilla organisation), unsure how forthcoming he would be. "They're people who have no brains," he said bluntly. "Campesinos and poor people from the mountains and the jungle. The Colombian people hate the FARC." But they're not as dangerous as they used to be, right? "No, but they'll be around for another 10-20 years," he reckoned. "Why are people motivated to join? Are they unhappy with the government?" I probed. "No, just stupid. They want the money." I felt like Juan wasn't quite representing the whole story. However, at this point, Eduard - Juan's slightly older colleague, lycra-less and also less badge-happy - materialised from the shop with his young nephew Felipe.

We set off in a train, joining a cycle path which snuck between houses, many of whose enterprising residents had opened shops selling ice creams, lunches and bike parts. Two stray dogs fighting outside the ageing concrete football stadium nearly had me off my bike, as did several pot-holes. Arriving at the park, we climbed steadily through eucalyptus trees on a rocky path, which made us sorely aware of our bikes' lack of suspension. However, falling in line with Eduard, I was more engrossed in what he had to say about Colombia than my aching thigh muscles.

 Colombia, unlike neighbouring Ecuador, doesn't have free government schools. Children whose parents are too poor to send them to school simply don't go. So all the children that I'd been noting in the streets weren't all on school holidays. The boy fixing a fence in Monguí, and the kids rebuilding the roads in Barichara - maybe they weren't just being helpful in their free time. Maybe that was what they did all the time.

"The children of the farm people don't go to school." And neither, I guessed, did the children selling chewing gum in the streets. Living in Ecuador, I had once seen one of my 10 year old students selling drinks at a football game. He was horribly embarrassed by it, and barely said anything in lessons afterwards. We both knew that it was likely that he - never exactly dedicated to his school work - would leave school at 14 and start selling drinks full-time. But at least he did get to go to school. "What help there is here is poorly administrated", said Eduard.

Reaching the top of a hill which overlooked the northern end of the city, we stopped for a team photo (or ten, as multiple cameras changed hands.) Down below us was the prison, a vast concrete building. The lycra-clad cyclists sped away, leaving Eduard to tell me about national service.

Most young Colombian men spend a year working for the army, often in traffic control or similar, on a pay which is more of a gesture than a salary. Many live with aunts and uncles, or other family members who have houses in the big cities, if they are required to work far from home.

Conversation halted as we climbed 'La Pared' or 'The Wall' - a severe slope - to catch up with the others. The CTI guys promised "only downhill from now", before taking us down several bone-breaking paths which ended in closed gates.

"If these guys are as competent on mountain bikes as they are at fighting FARC", joked Ricky, "then I don´t think they stand a chance."

Gentlemanly Eduard had, by the end of the ride, fixed my gear chain twice, speedily repaired one punctured tyre, treated us to freshly squeezed orange juice at a house by the side of the path,and delivered us back to our hostel. "What a bloody nice guy", summed up Ricky.

Eduard also left me his number - "if you have any problems, just give me a ring." So now I've got friends in high places, at least in Colombia.


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