Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lost Man Who Guides Tourists

Nelson stands on Plaza Bolívar, Monserrate behind him. 
Nelson is one of the informal guides who explain things to tourists on Plaza Bolívar and other central Bogotá historical sites, where he is one of the few who speak English.

With his ragged clothing, drawn face and disheveled hair most tourists probably shy away from Nelson. In that case, they miss not only a history lesson, but also a moving human drama which tells lots about Colombia.

(As the commentator below points out, parts of Nelson's story sound farfetched, and it's impossible to corraborate how much is true.)

Nelson, 56, was a merchant mariner by trade, work which took him to ports in Central America and the southern United States. In 1990, he jumped ship in Texas and moved to Houston, where he worked in a hotel and married another immigrant, from Germany. But, after 14 years, the marriage turned bad and Nelson started drinking and racked up drunk driving charges. In 2004, he skipped bail and returned to Colombia with his savings.

Back in Colombia, Nelson purchased a 40 hectare farm in Bolívar Department - for a rock-bottom price. He said the seller was the widow of a farmer who had been driven off of the land and murdered by the FARC guerrillas. The wife had later succeeded in regaining title to the land, but the guerrillas' continued presence in the area didn't help real estate prices.

Nelson stands before city hall. 
Nelson said his farm did well. He planted corn, yucca and bananas and also raised fish - until one day in 2009 when the FARC guerrillas returned. The guerrilla leader told Nelson that they'd come to buy the farm - for a pittance of five million pesos. Recalling the fate of the previous owner, whose body had been pulled out of a river, Nelson thot fast. He told the guerrilla leader that he couldn't sign over the land without getting the assent of a fictional partner. The guerrilla boss assigned two bodyguards to watch over Nelson as he went to town to make phone calls. In town, Nelson said he managed to visit a pharmacy, where he bought some knock-out pills. He slipped these into the guerrillas' drinks and fled while they slept.

"After you sign, the guerrillas kill you and throw you in the river," Nelson says.

Nelson says the guerrillas have since turned his farm into a coca leaf plantation.

With his escape, Nelson became one more of Colombia's millions of displaced people - perhaps the largest number of any nation in the world.

Nelson displays the leishmaniasis
scars on his forearms.
Nelson then fled across Colombia and found work on a coca leaf plantation in Putumayo Department, where he carried loads of coca paste from the farm to drug traffickers, who processed it into cocaine for shipment to Brazil. But Nelson got leishmaniasis, a disfiguring disease which forced him to come to Bogotá for treatment. He shows off scars on his forearms and how his nose was deformed by the disease.

Every day, from 10 a.m. on, Nelson prowls Bogotá's plazas for tourists to inform. Some give him a few hundred pesos, but one German man recently paid Nelson 50 euros. Nelson said he impressed the man by using a few German phrases he'd learned from his ex-wife. Nelson earns about 20- or 30,000 pesos per day, which enables him to pay for a room in the Las Cruces neighborhood south of Plaza Bolívar.

"I manage to pay for my room, for my meals," he says.

Sometimes he comes to the aid of tourists when he sees the neighborhood's vendors ripping them off, Nelson said.

"I believe in treating the tourists well," he said. "Americans were very good to me when I lived there."

Now, with the recent approval of a law to allow compensation for the victims of Colombia's half-century-long armed conflict, Nelson hopes the government will pay him the value of the farm, which he says was worth 90 million pesos. He's got a lawyer, who will get 30% of any compensation. It won't be an easy battle. After all, Nelson said he paid much less than the farm was worth.

Once he gets his money, Nelson has a more ambitious plan: to return to the United States.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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