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About Gail Howard’s Colombia Travel Adventures

When Gail Howard arrives in Bogota, Colombia in 1961, an anti-American riot sends her running from the rock-throwing, window-smashing communist supporters of Fidel Castro. A blind friend she had met in Panama, Hernando Pradilla, takes her to Zipaquira for a sightseeing tour through a mountain of salt.

While in Bogota, Gail Howard is wined and dined, danced and romanced by a delightfully cosmopolitan 30-year-old bachelor, Antonio Turbay, nephew of future Columbian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. But not all is well in Colombia. Thousands of young orphans who witnessed atrocious crimes during Columbia’s“La Violencia” revolution (1948 to 1958) are sent to Bogota to live as little street urchins, as young as five, with no one to care for them.

Gail’s sister, Terry Howard, flies in from New York and they leave the political intrigue of Bogota and a heartbroken Antonio Turbay to visit the 1,800 year-old archeological site of San Augustin. Then on to Popoyan to see the mysterious La Yunga rock, a site recommended by Bogota archeologist Gregorio Hernandez de Alba. The La Yunga rock is a huge boulder with 267 signs carved on it, which the local Indians believe were made by the claws of a demon.

Padre Leopoldo von Kinder has deciphered the markings as Phoenician from 180 B.C. Leopoldo von Kinder, a man of immense knowledge, had taught Semitic languages at the University of Ulm in Germany and has three doctorate degrees, including one from the Vatican. The amazing linguist Leopoldo von Kinder speaks and writes poetry in more than 300 languages and is still learning 100 new words each day before breakfast. Padre Leopoldo von Kinder lived among the 126 surviving Huitota Indians on the Putumayo River for six months, long enough to learn their language and discovered that Huitota has a unique grammatical construction found only in Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Phoenician. In 1936, the Colombian Government published von Kinder’s book, Gramatica Y Vocabulario De La Lengua Huitota (A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Huitota Language.)

Leopold von Kinder had been told by Saint Theresa Neuman that he would die a martyr’s death in Columbia. Von Kinder describes his death day in detail to Gail and asks her to document it in her journal. After several intriguing visits with von Kinder in Popoyan, Gail Howard and Terry are squeezed into a single seat of a flimsy two-seater plane, en route from Pasto, flying between towering Andes mountain peaks in a blinding rainstorm with almost no visibility, no instruments, running out of gas ... and certain of their imminent death.

Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in Colombia, South America

Colombia, South America 1961
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It was evening when I landed in Bogota, Colombia. As I left the hotel, I walked directly into the path of several hundred people thundering up the street carrying signs that said, "Cuba Si, Yanquis No" and "Down With The Yanks."

Trucks were standing by with tear gas and police were breaking up the pro-communist-Castro riot by spraying an inky colored liquid into the crowd. Suddenly, I was struck by a barrage of rocks that grazed the skin on my legs and ankles. Terrified of being so close to this violent crowd, I ran until I was totally out of breath. I must have run far because the taxi ride back to my hotel seemed awfully long.

Next day, I saw that rioters had broken large windows in several stores and smashed all the windows in the Colombian-American building. Throughout the city, the streets were filled with police and soldiers. In spite of the riots, there was not much of a communist hold in Colombia, except for the have-nots and the excitable university students.

In Panama, I had met a blind man named Hernando Pradilla, who asked me to look him up when I came to Bogota. So, I did. We took a trip with two of his friends to Zipaquira to see the huge salt mines and the Salt Cathedral deep inside the salt mine.

Hernando’s friends were also physically afflicted. Gloria, who had had polio and walked with a stick, weighed a mere 60 pounds. She was on the faculty of the Bellas Artes. Her brother, Fernando, who weighed 70 pounds, was a nuclear engineer. None of them were in condition to drive a car so we took a bus. All three were very natural and spontaneous and saw humor in everything. It was relaxing and fun being with them.

The lush green Colombian countryside was dotted with pretty little cottages with thatched roofs made of fine straw. Bogota, at 8,660 feet altitude, is nestled in a valley in the Andes. For warmth, natives wear a ruana, a poncho-like square of heavy wool with a hole in the middle for the head. In cosmopolitan Bogota, when it is raining or just very cold, businessmen wear these peasant ruanas over custom-tailored blue serge suits. Felt hats are popular with both male and female peasants as well as businessmen.

After an hour bus ride to Zipaquira, we took a taxi to the mouth of the mountain, then rode for miles through vast tunnels of salt. It was spooky driving for so long inside the earth, seeing side roads branching off here and there going to who knows where – altogether 200 miles of subterranean roads deep in the salt mine.

Inside the salt mine, hidden fluorescent tubes eerily lit up a 75-foot high cathedral carved out of salt. The Salt Cathedral is so enormous, it can hold 10,000 people. They say the Zipaquira salt mine could supply the entire world with salt for 100 years. If you lick the walls, they are salty. Gloria licked, and I took her word for it.

As I was sitting in the hotel manager’s office typing a letter, the manager entered and introduced his friend, Antonio Turbay Ayala. At first I thought Antonio was just a handsome playboy, but quickly found he was sincere. We hit it off immediately.

A 30 year-old bachelor, Antonio had kind eyes, and a quiet and elegant manner. Antonio had traveled all over Europe, but never to the United States. He spoke French and Arabic, but only about five words of English. He spoke Spanish clearly, so I understood most of what he said. Dashing and debonair, Antonio wore continental-cut pin-stripe suits, and carried an Italian umbrella as a walking stick.

We saw each other often while I was in Bogota. We laughed a lot and had loads of fun together. He was always in an exuberant good mood, cheerful and happy. Every day there was stimulating luncheon conversation with his friends, and every night it was wine, dine and dance. Antonio was a terrific dancer, whether it was the Cumbia or Porro, Jalaito, Meringue, Gaita, Merecumbe or any other dance. When dancing to La Mafafa, Antonio’s shoes, polished to a mirror shine, moved faster than the eye could focus.

Colombian businessmen, professionals and land owners liked to play politics. It was a game to them. Antonio was idealistic in his political thinking and remarkably aware of the needs of others. A conservative liberal, he had a political radio show four days a week on the Continental Radio and TV station, which he owned. Proud of his oratorical skills, Antonio practiced his speeches on me. He boasted that he could make a political speech anywhere, anytime, about anything for two hours without stopping.

Although he was a lawyer, Antonio spent little time in his office. Most of his time was spent in restaurants such as Caruso’s or Cyrus or the Continental Hotel, meeting his friends, who also spent little time in their offices. They talked for hours, discussing books and philosophy. Antonio joked that he hoped communism didn’t overtake Colombia because then he would have to start working. He was opposed to everything about communism.

Everyday, I met more of his friends. They were congressmen, former presidents or mayors or governors of states – and they all looked very distinguished. Antonio’s uncle, Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala, was Minister of Foreign Affairs and years later, in 1978, was elected President of Colombia. Antonio was offered the choice of being the Colombian Ambassador to Spain or to Italy.

Swarms of homeless children lived in Bogota, their parents allegedly killed by bandits, political or otherwise. After the death of their parents, orphans were brought to Bogota from outlying villages. Having no one to care for them, the children begged, sold newspapers, and opened car doors. They were little entrepreneurs who lived by their wits. I remember one saucy five-year-old orphan who wore a folded newspaper hat with spikes of black hair poking out around it. As she walked through the streets selling newspapers, she yelled, “El Espectador ... El Espectador ... El Espectador!” One evening as I returned to my hotel, an orphan opened the door of the taxi and said excitedly that he had an important bit of news for me: “Dr. Turbay stopped by the hotel 10 minutes ago.” Naturally I paid him 20 centavos.

Orphans moved around town easily. They calmly perched on the back of moving trucks or cars. When the vehicle turned in a different direction, they jumped off and quickly ran to another vehicle waiting at a stoplight and hopped on.

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