Occasionally everyone is rocked by events not just beyond control, but beyond understanding. I lost the illusion of safety on a sweaty day in BogotÃÂ¡, Colombia.
We were driving not so much on a road but an infected cut on the skin of the jungle, which was always trying to heal the wound. The jungle itself loomed on either side of the road, staring back at me to show that it was the panther and I the hare.
The jeep leapt and bound over the broken terrain. In the back of the jeep I was tossed about like an ice cube in a martini shaker. The two men in the front of the jeep were discussing something in Spanish; they seemed worried, so I asked them what was happening.
"This area is controlled by the rebels, we must drive very fast," Manuel said. Manuel was a Colombian Armed Forces captain.
When he spoke he had the perfect enunciation of words that is so familiar to people for whom English is not their first language.
"When will we be out of danger?" I asked
"You are an American in Colombia; you will be in danger until you get home." Manuel replied, laughing as he did so.
"Everything will be fine when we get past the first checkpoint in a few miles" Carlos said to reassure me.
Carlos was a Colombian born American army captain. It was he who originally contacted me to do this job. When we first spoke he told me about the poor conditions in BogotÃÂ¡. The people there needed better health care and the U.S. government was building new facilities. They wanted help with their computer systems, specifically with patient tracking. He convinced me that I would be making a difference in the lives of the Colombian people.
He also alerted me to the danger. Colombia has been fighting a fifty year civil war. Before that the country had spent another fifty years in a constant struggle between wealthy land owners known. A struggle so vicious it is simply known as "La Violencia", the Violence. "Americans are occasionally kidnapped and ransomed. However we will have an escort as all times." he assured.
Ridding in the jeep I noticed the way Manuel rarely took his eyes away from the jungle, always looking around, looking not with fear but suspicion, as if he suspected the very leaves themselves of harboring an unseen enemy.
We passed the checkpoint without difficulty and entered the city a few miles ahead. It was grotesque. Every metropolitan area has a group of economically disadvantaged, but nothing I had ever seen prepared me for the city. The first thing you notice is the filth. It seemed the entire city was a refuse station. The greasy smell of it seemed to crawl into my nostrils and settle like dirty snow that won't melt until spring. The streets were full of litter. Is was not the kind of litter that you see in American cities, for most of that material is still useful to the truly poor, but a new dirtier kind of litter that sat perfectly on the border between trash and compost.
The city seemed to be struggling against itself exploding too quickly and falling back in on itself, growing and shrinking like a parasite that never kills its host but can never be totally disposed of.
The buildings were a crowded hubbub of materials that seemed piled together without thought to their neighbors. Snarls of wires sat at the top corners looking like the building itself had unwashed hair. Much of the construction seemed designed to lean against each other to support its tired existence.
The people were the most obvious feature. There were throngs of people in front of the jeep. Everywhere I looked there were people in cars, scooters, bicycles and most of all on foot.
There was paranoia in the air as we drove through by the people. Every time we stopped my escort would look out scanning the crowd as a hyena would looking for a lion about to take its food. At one stoplight someone looked back.
He was a small man with dark skin and black eyes, but these details could describe anyone on these sweaty streets. He carried himself through the crowd with more confidence, the confidence of a man that got what he wanted, by any means. He looked upon our party with powerful malice. There was an aura of menace to him that bespoke his intention well before his actions.
I met eyes with the malicious man. The air became heavy with threat. Time itself seemed to stop to watch the events unfolding. A drop of sweat was forming on my forehead, leaking gently from my pores to be whisked away by evaporation, leaving me ever so slightly cooler. A billion molecules being carried by the air swirled and eddied into my nostrils. The smell of smoke from a trash fire followed by the soap that my driver had used to wash his hands at lunch and a million other slight scents were grabbed with both hands and rammed into my brain. Through the smears of insect entrails and dust on the windshield I saw the man's hand move.
"Gun!" I heard. Suddenly the world exploded. THWACK! The windshield cracked into a crystalline fractal. THWACK! The windshield disappeared. THWAK! THWACK! THWAK! THWACK! There was a jet of dust from a hole that seemed to just appear in the seat in front of me. There was something sticky on my hands, but I couldn't see it. I couldn't take my eyes away from the man who was shooting at me.
My ears hurt but I could not hear any sound. There was no sound getting from my eardrum to my brain, but my ears were still dutifully telling me that the noise was too loud. People around me seemed to be screaming and yelling, but I would not hear them.
All I could see was the broken windshield, my driver sitting listlessly in place and the man with the rifle spitting short bright lines at my jeep. Manuel reached over from the passenger seat and began a kind of macabre wrestling with the driver. Manuel was reaching over to take the driver by the arm, but the arm didn't seem to be there; it seemed to have gone to the same place as my hearing although without the returning ticket. He pushed the unmoving driver aside and grabbed the wheel. He used his left foot to reach the gas and began to accelerate through the street, now empty except for the trail of smoke left behind by our vehicle.
After traveling for several blocks, swerving around the road as Manuel drove from the passenger seat, we came upon several jeeps with markings similar to ours. Immediately men poured out surrounding our vehicle and getting the passengers out. I was rushed into a nearby building by a small man in a uniform who repeated "OK, OK?" over and over, until I finally understood that he was asking me a question and I replied "OK", much to his relief.
I finished my work in Colombia without further excitement. In the hail of bullets the driver of the jeep had lost his arm, but thankfully not his life. The shooter turned out to have been a FARC rebel that had chosen that time to commit a terrorist act. I pale to think of how that information was extracted.
Since this adventure, I have been back to the hospital for work twice, both times without incident. The work I've done there has saved lives, although indirectly, and I like to believe that saving lives is worth some personal danger. But I still hope it never happens again.