From Romance to Riots: love doesn't have to be madness

how i went from would-be swashbuckler to gonzo journalist

Illustration by Russ Mills: “Beauty in Chaos”

Feb 23rd 2019 on the Colombian/Venezuelan border

The Simon Bolivar Bridge was shrouded in a vile mix of teargas and the black, acrid gasoline smoke of exploded Molotov cocktails. The surrounding foliage was in flames and rubber bullets were being fired into the crowd. The burning carcass of a truck that Venezuelan forces had parked in the middle of the bridge was surrounded by protesters, who were hurling rocks and fire-bombs at the Venezuelan Police and National Guard.

My eyes stung. Every few minutes another injured Venezuelan was carried back from the front lines.

“I have absolutely no business being here.” I thought to myself looking around at the far more professional, and often far more heavily-armored members of the press. I walked back about twenty feet and ducked behind a barricade to check my phone.

“Where are you?!” it read. “The fucking bridge is on fire here. The trucks are burning!”

I was taking photos and communicating with two reporters from Caracas as we scrambled to cover a weekend that had started in beautiful fraternity but was ending in bloodshed.

I was also completely unqualified and utterly unprepared for my assignment. But because I speak Spanish and live a quarter mile from the Venezuelan border, I found myself receiving emails from editors that had ignored me for months, offering jobs that I badly needed.

But the truth is, even without the jobs, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

And so, to the riots I went.

Colombia

Bogota, Colombia 

But this is a love story. The events of the Venezuelan revolution are merely one character. I am another. Like characters in most love stories, I start our tale naïve and blissfully unaware that I was on the precipice of destruction.

I came to Colombia two years ago on a whim. Within months I had fallen in love with both the country and one of its very beautiful women. That love remains profound on both counts.

Both of those relationships are complicated.

I picked Bogota as a landing point, mostly because I had heard there weren’t many tourists. And to me it was the perfection of a Hemmingway-esque dream. Bogota is a buccaneer’s town in every sense. Everything is negotiable. Anything one might want to find in the way of trouble is accessible. And the chaos and bustle of the city is a complex, drunken dance of traffic and beautiful people. It was a writers fantasy- the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism.

Colombia is a beautiful Gordion knot of contradictions.

The Colombians are a passionate people. When that passion runs towards love, it is stunning to behold. Colombian love is as fierce and fiery as it is profound. It is capable of seducing and driving to madness even the most rational. And familial loyalty here is boundless.

But the when that fierce and fiery passion turns itself towards darker currents, the results can be calamitous. There is a harsh realism among the magic. Colombia recently emerged from a 50-year-civil war. The poor districts remain very dangerous, and there are regions of the country where the only law is the one enforced by guerillas and narco-traffickers.

But Colombian resilience inspires. Their jokes constantly surprise. And the indescribable beauty of the countryside left me hopelessly enamored. I simply never left.

And due to an utterly unforeseen series of random events, I found myself standing on one of the two bridges into Venezuela on February 23rd, as trucks carrying humanitarian aid were burned trying to enter the country.

Part One: A naïve would-be buccaneer finds love

I met Marcela my third week in Colombia. My Spanish was a lot worse at the time and our first date was a mess. I struggled through hours of conversation, desperately trying to recognize enough words to be able to give at least cursory replies that didn’t make me sound like an idiot. I only had one drink, terrified that even a slight buzz would destroy my ability to simulate comprehension.

She was beautiful. Stunningly so. Her humor was dark and she was brilliant- a Sociologist who earned her way into the best public university in Colombia through sheer grit.

I had been fawning over Colombian women in general. I joked with my friends back home in New York that in Colombia one falls in love twenty times a day.

But Marcela was different. As I fumbled through the evening, I felt a growing, profound and emotional attraction. The date was simple- a drink and a very long walk. She could only stay a few hours because she was headed to view the unveiling of a mural commemorating one of her friends that had been recently killed during a robbery.

She laughed with me, she teased me and she taught me Colombian curse words. I realize in retrospect that she really just needed company that night.

As we were parting, she told me in perfect English “It was really nice meet you. I hope you have a nice night and that we see one another again.”

Hija de puta! You speak English and you just let me drown all night in Spanish?” I said as she laughed hysterically.

“Well. This is Colombia. We won’t speak in English again so enjoy it.”

She gave me a polite kiss on the check, an earnest hug and walked off to commemorate her dead friend.

I was in love.

Part Two: From Gringo to Journo

“You have a million things to learn, gringo.” she told me a few days after we met. “I don’t understand how you’ve even made it THIS far.”

My relationship with Colombia in the initial phase was made a lot brighter by my relationship with Marcela. I decided not to return home. At the time I told myself it was because I wanted to live abroad, and because I wanted to become fluent in Spanish. And those things were true. But I wanted to do those things because of love.

So, I stayed. I enrolled in immersive Spanish classes four hours a day and began looking for ways to earn money and still be on the move. I had some savings. I bought a small stake in a friend’s business back in the States. I researched crypto-currency. But mostly I tried to improve my Spanish. I wrote when I had time.

And Marcela was true to her word. Outside of a few jokes we don’t speak in English.

I didn’t notice at the time that I was also falling in love with the country. I began hearing a lot about Venezuela on the news. All that I really knew about Venezuela before then was that it wasn’t doing well. I devoured newspapers, both for the language and to understand politics and history.

After one of our dates, at a museum, we hopped into a taxi. The driver sped towards the south of the city, contrary to the directions we gave him. I was too naïve to know it was a problem, but Marcela was horrified. The southern outskirts of Bogota are notoriously dangerous. The driver said it was a detour, but his excuse didn’t really make sense because we could see the northbound highway in the distance. Marcela tapped my leg.

“It’s ok. Just let us out here.” she said. The taxi driver said to relax, that he knew what he was doing. Marcela was strangely quiet, but she gripped my hand tightly. “Be ready.” she whispered. I nodded.

But all I could think was “For what?”

Eventually the driver was forced to stop at a busy intersection. “Out! Out! Get out of the fucking taxi!” she whispered to me. We fled, running into a nearby gas station. The taxi driver didn’t even protest. Once we were off the street and inside the dilapidated building, she explained to me why she was so concerned.

“This neighborhood is dangerous for me. But for you, well, a gringo wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets here. We will wait here until another taxi stops for gas.”

“Wait. That guy was taking us to get robbed, right?” I asked

“Most likely, yes.” she replied. “Or he was just an idiot.” she kissed me.

She was everything- bold, tough, brilliant, volatile and dangerously clever-a vengeful and beautiful tornado of roses- thorned and divine.

It had been a very long time since I was so happy.

Then one day Marcela decided she had simply had enough of me and that was that. Suddenly we were merely friends.

I didn’t take it well.

I left Bogota for other parts of Colombia. I drank way too much. I put myself into a lot of reckless situations. I went to Peru and Ecuador. I drank even more. A girl in Lima tried to drug me. In Medellin I dated a drug addict dominatrix who was constantly trying to get me to pay for her lifestyle. I drank myself into oblivion one night during my time there, and encountered three young kids on a dark side-street.

“Money! Money! Money!” one of them yelled at me in English, brandishing a knife.

I didn’t care what happened to me at the time. I didn’t care about anything.

“You guys picked a bad target” I told him in Spanish. “Here, I got 5,000 pesos (about 1.75$ USD). Now get out of my way. I’m tired.” I handed him the crumpled bill and brushed past, not bothering to watch if they followed me.

In the end, the destructive myth of the alcoholic-writer living a dramatic life, and the accompanying self-pity came closer to destroying me than the actual love-sickness. It was stupid. But at the time it seemed like life had no purpose. As I said, love here in Colombia is madness. I wrote a lot of really bad self-indulgent nonsense during that period.

Eventually I got a little better. I went back to New York for two months. I wrote obsessively. I even managed to have a few healthy dating experiences. Although I accepted the loss, I knew I would always be in love with Marcela. We maintained contact. It’s not as if the breakup was dramatic. It wasn’t even really a break-up. We dated for a few months. And then we didn’t.

Then one day Marcela called me to say that her bank had re-evaluated the loan on an apartment she had been slowly buying for years in Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela. She was going to lose it if she couldn’t come up with a pile of money.

I thought for a moment.

“I will buy the apartment. You can pay me back.” I said, because not only am I one of the biggest idiots in the world, I am also one of the most impulsive. At least the plan wasn’t to live there together. For her, it had always been an investment. For me, it was more madness.

the author, in Huacachina, Peru feeling sorry for himself (photo: Joshua Collins)

Amazingly, buying an apartment in a foreign country with someone I was hopelessly in love with who didn’t feel the same towards me didn’t work out the way that I hoped. Which was disappointing, sure, but the real issue was that I no longer had any savings. The furnishings in my new home consisted of a mattress and a closet and there was little prospect of rectifying that on the salary of a freelance writer.

But there was one advantage; I now had an apartment on the border with Venezuela. If Bogota was charming for its swashbuckling style, the frontier skips all niceties and goes straight to outright piracy. It was captivating. It was exciting. And at times it was heartbreaking. I no longer had to look for stories. I was surrounded by them.

And I was the only foreigner for miles.

I talked to Venezuelan immigrants crossing through the network of illegal trails across the Venezuelan border and heard their stories about guerrillas working with the narco-traffickers to smuggle cocaine through Venezuela to points beyond and the gruesome violence against those who inadvertently cross their paths.

Doctor Gabriel Antonio Casadiego, a 30-year Red Cross Veteran, told me about his time as a trauma specialist during the Colombian civil war- finding impaled bodies hanging from trees and treating children wounded by bombings.

I talked to hundreds of the 3.5 million people who have fled Venezuela in a migration that makes the American dust-bowl seem trivial.

I slowly began to transition into a journalist. I could take my time and write long and rambling pieces. I pitched. I refashioned the failures. I learnt. Cucuta was a storyteller’s dream. And there was virtually no other English-speaking press there. I had little competition.

I also had no idea that a revolution was about to explode that would change the situation dramatically for tens of millions of people. Nor that I was about to have a front row view of the consequences.

Part Three: settling for the new love

And so, on January 23rd when Venezuela erupted into political crisis and became a country with two rival presidents, I had contacts with humanitarian aid workers on the border and knew the city. When the American humanitarian aid began to arrive and pile up in warehouses here, I even knew some of the merchants selling US Aid their rice.

It was no longer a struggle to get published. I got an assignment from a newspaper in Caracas to work with two Venezuelan reporters who had come to Cucuta for the attempted insertion of the humanitarian aid into Venezuela.

That day was dramatic. It was violent, chaotic and terrifying. Most of all it was an abject failure. 400 people were injured on the Colombian side during protests that devolved into street riots. By nightfall, Venezuelan paramilitary forces were responding with live bullets to firebomb hurling protestors.

When I finally found my teammates that evening, one of them, Gabriela Mesones Rojo, was in tears. She was distraught over the senselessness and horror of the day. For one evening, the realism was too much. She waved away my attempts to console her, coughing from the teargas and gasoline fumes.

We had a few drinks the next day before she departed. She made jokes and talked of hope. I asked her how she had recovered her spirits so quickly. She laughed at me.

“It’s very Venezuelan. When we know a hurricane is coming, we dance. And we joke. We’re used to the tragedy. And if it’s still too much, well, we drink.” she raised her glass to me. “We wouldn’t survive if we took life as seriously as you Americans.”

Venezuelans continue to inspire me with their resilience and humor.

Marcela and I were friends for a while. She still lives in Bogota, though we both travel a lot for work. For a time, if neither of us were dating anyone and we happened to be in the same city, there were tender moments. She ended up falling into an abusive relationship with a married man who lies a lot, calling me over sometimes late nights when she caught him cheating again. Turns out we both have a propensity for madness in love. Eventually, it became untenable for me though. I couldn’t deal with knowing she would always go back.

We sold the apartment and drifted apart.

I’ve accepted the fact that I will never win Marcela’s heart. Sometimes in Colombia nothing is possible. Like everywhere else, there are hard limits that one cannot control. I can live with that. There are people here with far graver problems than a broken heart. And I’ve found a new calling- telling the stories from my new home.

Maybe I will find another great love. It’s not hard to be single in the meantime. I think I mentioned the girls are pretty here.

In Colombia the impossible waits around every corner. And I have stories to chase- in the land of magical realism there are multitudes.

I’ve finally learned that love doesn’t have to be madness. I just hope that idea resonates.

Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.

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