Friday, November 23, 2012

Stumbling into the Twilight Zone?

A University to Educate Educators
Written by Karen.
Adam and I hit the streets of Bogota again yesterday. This time we headed back up to the northern part of Bogota, to a neighborhood called the 93 Parque. We had seen some pictures of tranquil parks and large trees in established neighborhoods, and figured that it would be a nice area to explore.  

After walking around and having a delightful lunch, we decided that since the rain was still holding off we’d walk back to our apartment, some five miles or so.  A bit of a hike, but the air was cool, the rain from the day before had washed away the layers of soot from the sidewalks, and the mood of the area was seemingly relaxed.  
We meandered through the streets and walked past another university.  This university had a vibe that reminded me of UC Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I made that comment to Adam as we walked past the entrance to the university.  Although we could only understand bits and pieces, we had noticed that there were political signs and statements of protest hanging over the brick walls of the university.  This was something that we had not noticed before with other universities that we have walked past in Bogota. There were also street vendors displaying their wares - earrings, bracelets, fruits - on blankets and tables. With the many students milling around, we got the impression that this was a vibrant university district.  

As we walked past the university entrance, some of the street vendors started packing up their wares.  Adam wondered out loud what the vendors knew that we didn’t.  We both looked to the skies, and although gray, they weren’t overly foreboding.  We continued walking up the street and into a fairly large indoor shopping mall for a cookie and some coffee.  

We wandered around the shopping mall for a few minutes, checking out the tiny shops, when we heard popping sounds coming from outside.  We first thought that maybe some firecrackers were being set off.  But then we heard louder popping sounds and some sharper booming sounds.  It sounded to me like gunfire or bombs exploding, but when I looked around the mall, everyone seemed to be fine.  They were going about their business of shopping and hanging out.  Adam thought that maybe the noises were some building contractors dumping big pieces of concrete into metal dumpsters from above.  We looked out the window and still didn’t see anything odd, so we continued to browse around the mall.  

The booms got bigger.  It really sounded like gunfire and bombs going off.  Were we being attacked?  But, no one inside the mall was reacting oddly or diving for cover. Mystified, we went over to a large bank of windows to see if we could discern what was going on. There were quite a few college-aged kids that were looking out these windows that faced one side of the university, and so we started asking questions.  In our broken Spanish, and in their broken English, they told us that the police were throwing "little bombs" into the university and at the students.  The very same university that we had just walked past fifteen minutes ago!  Little bombs?  It couldn't be!  Why would the police be throwing little bombs at university students? Clearly something was lost in translation.  We tried again with different questions, and we got the same answer.  The same college kids said that this was dangerous and that we should stay inside, as they were. 

We definitely felt that we had somehow misunderstood the college kids.  Little bombs?  It couldn't be accurate; it didn't make any sense.  Something else must be happening, but it wasn't clear what.  People were still walking around outside, but some were covering their mouths and noses with their shirts or scarves.  There was no detectable sense of panic or urgency outside; we couldn't see anything unusual happening at the university across the street from our vantage point.  It seemed that people were just going about their day-to-day business.  However, the booms and the pops were getting more and more frequent and were very loud.  It was time to leave.  

We left the indoor shopping mall and the wave of noxious tear gas nearly brought me to my knees as soon as I stepped outside.  We could now clearly see the columns of white smoke visible down two of the streets surrounding the university.  Once outside, the booms were so loud, you could feel them jolting through your body like an electric shock.  It looked, sounded and felt like a war zone.  Although now we could see that people around us were coughing and gagging, there still wasn't a palpable sense of panic or fear.  It was more a sense of resignation that people projected with their body language. 

We took cover inside the closest snack shop and I gasped for air as I purchased a GatorAide.  My eyes were streaming tears.  My throat was constricted and burning, and I was coughing and gagging fairly strongly.  Adam's reaction to the tear gas was less strong, although he could feel a burning sensation in his nose, like on a day with bad allergies.

As we recovered from the effects of the tear gas, we could now see the police on two sides of the university firing some cylinders into the university.  Things were also being thrown back at the police from within the university walls. In addition to firing tear gas canisters, it looked and sounded like the police were firing stun grenades into the campus. Smoke was wafting up through the trees and small fires were briefly burning on the sidewalks.

What the hell was going on?  Had we just stumbled into the Twilight Zone?  As a first-time visitor to Bogota, I have no idea what caused this level of standoff.  There was no indication - no warning - that there was anything amiss in this well-known touristy area - Ave Chile - Zona G - of Bogota.  All of a sudden, in the middle of the afternoon, there are huge plumes of tear gas that are blowing across several busy public streets, and it feels and sounds like a war zone is fully underway around a public university.  It's incredibly unnerving to see all this in real time.  

We talked to some of the college-aged kids who were standing around watching this unfold.  It was interesting to hear their perspectives of what was going on. Again, in our broken Spanish and their broken English, we were told that some students attending this university were fighting for fundamental rights. Specifically, the right to an affordable education and the right to have freedom of speech in Colombia. 

We were also told that these types of conflicts were common between the police and the students at this particular university.  Perhaps that is why no one initially responded to the initial booms and pops with any surprise or fear.  

It was a strange, surreal, disturbing and unexpected experience to have in the capital city of Colombia.  I captured a little video of the events as things seemed to be wearing down, right before we left the area.  The tear gas has since dissipated.  The booms and pops, where they had been rapid fire before, have lessened to one or two booms and/or pops a minute. But, you can get a sense of the experience from viewing this little video snippet.

You can see one faction of the police (dressed in full black riot gear) on the far left of the video, while the street vendors and people move about and around the police action.  The camera moves back and forth as I try and anticipate who will fire off the next volley. 

A day later, there are many unanswered questions regarding the actions that we witnessed and experienced yesterday, and I am left with uneasy feelings for having been there.  


SurlyTraveller said...

Pretty intense stuff, something that I'm sure most "tourists" are not privy to see! Glad that you both are safe, I'm sure it must have been scary! You're really connecting with locals in a down-to-earth way that is really interesting. Disturbing that the students (any students, bringing back Berkeley memories) get that treatment

Observers of Life said...

Hi ST!

The experience was intense and pretty disconcerting! There were so many levels of disconnect that it was a pretty surreal - and eye opening - experience!

We've recovered from the effects of the tear gas, but definitely this was something that we didn't expect to experience in Bogota!


Felipe Leyva Advertising said...

This university and Natioanl University its full of students whith comunist in theri maind, They offen make artesanl bombs to throw them to the public and goberment builds. Most of the national university students are from the FARC side and they recive economic profit from FARC if they disturb the public tranquility.

What you heard was the SMAD, the police with gas to control the madneess of the students. This often happend frequently with those two universities, they ofen damage everything public.

Observers of Life said...

Hi Felipe!

Thanks for your comments. I appreciated you sharing your point of view.


jueko said...

"This was something that we had not noticed before with other universities that we have walked past in Bogota."

it only happens in public universities: Pedagógica, Distrital and Nacional. in these universities the police only can enter in excepcional cases, and students can use the walls for their political slogans and other forms of expression.

the students who do that (throwing bombs, etc) and support communist organizations (and guerrillas) aren't even 1% of all students. nobody really knows why they do it, it's totally pointless. i guess it's sort of an extreme sport for them, with all the adrenaline, the cops, etc (as a graduate student from one of these universities, that is what it was for me in my student times)