…and if you can’t go online?

Do you exist if you don’t have Facebook? Is a place really there if you can’t access the internet there?

Colombia’s Pacific coast, specifically the department (equivalent of an Australian state) of Choco, is like another country. Almost completely inaccessible from the rest of Colombia by land, except via the narco-trafficking port of Buenaventura, it is a mountainous region carpeted in thick jungle, cut by lazy brown rivers and infested with nasty wildlife and the odd gang of drug runners and leftist guerrillas. After their liberation from slavery in 1851, many Afro-Colombians fled the interior of the country for this coast to start a new life away from their former masters, and the result is that a Latino Colombian from the interior looks just as foreign as yours truly in these parts. Everyone here is either of African or indigenous decent. It’s also the poorest department in the country, and there are no roads. The principal method of transportation and supply between the various villages is by speedboats driven by lunatics.

In January this year I was in Nuqui, a regional hub accessible only by a twenty minute flight over the mountains from Medellin, if you don’t want to take the 12 hour cargo boat ride up from Buenaventura. Nuqui is a fishing town, sustained by local men who pull huge fish from the ocean with handlines and cart them to the beach in hand-carved dugout canoes. That and tourism. Nuqui only has six hours of electricity per day (in the evening) and for those who’re lucky enough to have a generator, gasoline is expensive.

Sunset in Nuqui

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After two weeks of bumming around on the beach and exploring the coast, I was due to fly from Nuqui to the interior, but upon arrival in the small town found the airport blocked by around 80 protesters sitting on the runway. The protesters steeled themselves as the first of three daily planes from Medellin came buzzing over the mountains to the east. Sweaty men in trousers from the mayor’s office had been pleading with the protesters all morning to get off the runway, but after a third straight day without any electricity and no changes since a similar dispute several months ago, the people weren’t moving. The plane came in to make its landing, and the people stood firm, waving and shouting as it came in. At the last moment, the aircraft pulled up and circled high before coming in for another pass. Again the protesters stood, and the plane turned around to make the trip back to Medellin.

The military moves into Nuqui airport

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This continued for several days, with the number of tourists steadily swelling as more and more people had their flights cancelled. Marines from the local military base, normally meant to be fighting ELN guerrillas in the jungle, started appearing on the streets “to keep order” but the government refused to forcibly remove the protesters. And rightly so.

During one particularly heated exchange between exasperated tourists, airline officials and the protesters, I was marched into the local mayor’s office as evidence that “foreigners are being caught up in this too”. The tourists were threatening on my behalf that I would call the Australian embassy and “make this an international affair” until I pointed out that Australia doesn’t have an embassy in Colombia. Silenced only momentarily, they started demanding that the mayor promise electricity to the protesters or send in the military, indeed do anything just so they could get home. He needed to respect their wishes, they said.

Then the mayor exploded. “You need to respect me!” he started screaming. “I’m the mayor! Shut up for a goddamn second!” It was amazing.

Eventually, the protesters relented in return for a week of uninterrupted electricity and negotiations that would take place over the next week. Flights would begin again, and we could all go home. The mood remained tense, however, as locals told me these kinds of promises had been made before.

The local internet cafe – a dirt floor affair where kids hung out and played Grand Theft Auto Vice City on Playstation 2 – had no generator and therefore there was no internet access throughout the entire affair. I’d wanted to file a story for one of Colombia’s two English language news outlets, but without internet access or mobile phone reception, this was impossible. When I got to Medellin, a check of major Colombian news outlets found only cursory mentions of what has been one of many major issues for the people of that region. As we pat ourselves on the back for democratising information with the internet and social media, have we forgotten those pockets of the world still relatively untouched by the digital world? Or if they aren’t accessible on the internet, do they even exist anymore?

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