Wednesday, 10 August 2011

On board Colombia’s flying hospital

Patrulla Aérea Civil’s volunteer pilots and medics provide life-changing healthcare to remote, neglected communities—it’s difficult not to be carried away

The pilots of the Patrulla Aérea Civil Colombiana are an impressive bunch: they can fly, obviously, and beyond that they even have their own planes. When I first met them on the manicured lawns of Guaymaral airport, they were chuffing on mighty Cohibas and tucking into thick, steak sandwiches. It was 7am.

More impressive yet, these volunteers were waiting to climb into their tiny planes and take off into the tempestuous sky. Their destination was the temporary hospital the group had set up in Uribe, Meta.

Delayed by the filthy weather, we plucky members of the press attempted to think about something—anything—other than disappearing into the lashing rain. The pilots, meanwhile, retained their reassuring Zen-like calm.

Once the deluge had cleared to reveal a depressing grey expanse, we climbed aboard our eight-seater, taxied past the police helicopters and on to the runway. A moment’s reflection, a sharp pull and we were in the air.

As we were buffeted about between the mountains flanking Bogotá, it became obvious that a little turbulence goes a long way in a small propeller plane.

To the south of the city, as we swung between isolated rain clouds in the now-blue sky, the pilot, Camilo Sáenz, tapped my arm and pointed down to the verdant canyons of La Macarena’s Caño Cristales.

It’s not like this on a 747; by comparison, there’s as much excitement to be had on a conventional flight as sitting in the waiting room.

Soon enough, we had landed with a gentle bump in the sumptuous warmth of Uribe, as three men cantered past the airstrip.

Dwarfing the operations of Australia’s flying doctors, when the Patrulla lands, it brings experts on a comprehensive list of ailments. In Uribe, they were particularly concentrating on hernias, pterygium and cancer of the cervix.

A school building had been transformed into an optometrists’ consultation room. Since the Patrulla had arrived, the entire area’s schoolchildren had had their eyes tested here.

Additionally, the area’s adults had access to check-ups using donated Japanese equipment. Those requiring the help were given medication and reading glasses.

Both patients and doctors knew time and space was of the essence, every inch of the medical center on the plaza was in use. Pre- and post-operation patients draped in towels lined the corridors. Waiting rooms had become recovery rooms and were full of patients.

One of the doctors, Fabio Grondas explained the previous day’s timetable: he’d started operating at 5pm and finished at 4am. Despite the lack of sleep, he explained with remarkable bonhomie how he had restarted at 9am. It was now lunchtime on Saturday and he had performed 40 operations.

Uribe is not usually blessed with such a generous dose of doctors and they were obviously needed. About 20 women, children and men waited outside the medical center. To ease the boredom, one of the nurses handed out coloring pencils and paper to the delight of the children and relief of their parents.

Patrulla regular, Dr Sindy Bucheli said most those waiting outside would suffer from minor ailments, such as breathing infections, which are easily cured but would otherwise go untreated.

She expected that their patients “don’t normally have access to medical attention, especially young women and children”.

The vivacious general practitioner and pediatrician explained the challenge facing those who live outside the major cities to access health care. For poor people in rural areas, it can be impossible to even find the money to cover the cost of travel and accommodation.

This deficit in medical assistance was emphasized by Dr Angelica Velez Fernandez. She had arrived in Uribe 10 days before the Patrulla proper to arrange the logistics of all the doctors, patients and equipment. Since she had landed, some 38 medical experts—including doctors, nurses and anesthetists—with 2,000 kilos of medicine had descended on the town.

With boundless energy, Angelica had found time to study dozens of scans looking for women with the first signs of untreated cervical cancer. She then used radio announcements and local medical representatives to contact the at-danger women and urge them to contact the Patrulla.

That morning, one of her new patients had told her: “Thank you for calling me and for the surgery you are going to do because I have been a year without treatment and I don’t have the money to go elsewhere.”

As a result of her research, 12 women were operated on over the weekend. Given that Angelica has been doing this at one or two destinations every month for four years, her actions alone have saved hundreds of women.

While Angelica has an infectious enthusiasm for the Patrulla’s work, I wondered if it was dangerous or they had ever had any run-ins work with any of the civil war’s actors. “We just treat everyone,” she said. “We can hardly ask people if they’re members of the Farc.”

“Besides, I love the small planes and divine views of the mountains,” she laughed.

For a certain type of pilot, the attraction of helping other people while doing something you love is obvious. Hernán Acevedo has been involved for as long as he can remember. His father was one of the Patrulla’s founding members and he remembers accompanying him as a small boy and being charged with dividing pills into individual doses.

Now one of the pilots and a Patrulla board member, Hernán enthuses about the developments: “When they started it could only provide medical consultations, now we do surgeries; we have saved a lot of people, it’s really amazing.”

While Hernán is unusual in being born into the Patrulla; my pilot, Camilo, initially had to be roped in. Hernán had rung him in an emergency: a girl in La Macarena, Meta, was bleeding heavily and the Patrulla desperately needed a fast plane to fly her to Bogotá or she would die.

Camilo jumped in his plane, collected the girl and her life was saved. Inspired, he joined the Patrulla and is now the president.

Under him, the organization can call on 43 pilots among its 500 volunteers. During the weekend they were in Uribe, 1,120 people saw a doctor and 120 people received surgery; every year, the Patrulla treats 20,000 patients. And it’s growing.

To survive, the Patrulla is entirely reliant on donations. If you think you could offer financial assistance, time and skills or essential items such as drugs, equipment or aviation help, please contact them. They are also interested in offering education, agriculture and rights services in the future.

Their website is, and they can be contacted on and (571) 609 8241.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bogotá’s forgotten waterfall

Over the verdant mountains that contain the east of Bogotá is the second-longest waterfall in South America. However, ask the local people about Chorrera and you’ll be lucky stir a vague sign of recognition.

Somehow, the 590 metres of roaring water cascading through the jungle cliffs has been erased from the collective memory of the millions of people living a mere hour’s drive away.

Bleary eyed and shambling at 6.30am to begin the trip, I found the streets packed with fresh-faced kids bounding to school. At 6.30am! Juan, my guide, told me later that some schools start at 4.30am. This did nothing to put a spring in my step.

A few minutes’ drive from Bogotá’s International Business Centre and we’d climbed out of the sprawling metropolis. There are no suburbs to allow a gentle adjustment to the countryside, it’s city to forest with the difference as marked as jumping from a boat into the sea.

At 3,200 metres atop a green mountain, we looked through the mist to Monserrate church and the vast city laid out in front of us. The Andean range acts like a curtain blinding the urbanities to the rural communities only moments away.

We dropped down into the countryside. Minutes from the bankers’ uniforms of heels and suits; here, the horse-riding farmers wear wellies and ponchos, with their machetes in elaborately beaded holsters.

There had been a mighty storm the night before and cloud still hung in the hollows and valleys as we threaded east through the wooded hills. Descending, we passed the El Verjón paramount and expanses of the curiously hairy frailejon plants.

My eye was caught by scores of glistening lorry lights fastidiously lined up around a shrine to the truckers Virgin, Carmen. Looking down the precipitous drop to the Rio Blanco, which ultimately feeds Venezuela’s Orinoco, I could understand the desire to bank a little goodwill for the afterlife.

Our car swerved between the rocks and boulders that had been brought down the cliffs by last night’s rains, despite their lush vegetation.

Later, the obstacles became dogs, donkeys, cattle and horses. Around the small brightly painted houses—with their pot plants hanging from the tiled roofs—dogs, cats and chickens eased their way into the day.

Away from the impersonality of the city, moustachioed campesinos and elderly women wished us good morning with an inquisitive look and old-fashioned good manners.

Beginning to feel hungry, my breakfast options looked limited to a promised local shop. Past the friendly animals on the tejo pitch in front of the building, the shop was a room in an old lady’s breezeblock home, stocked with bricks of panela (molasses), eggs, bread, biscuits, Poker beer and not much else.

Fortified, we strode into the jungle with our local guide. As she had been putting on her wellies to leave home that morning, her pig went into labour requiring the guide to bring 11 piglets into the world.

En route, Juan pointed out the drooping “burracho” (drunk) plants, which makes a powder narcotic used to knock people out on public transport so they can be robbed.

After 20 minutes or so, we came to El Chiflon fall, where I felt hypnotized by the endless water billowing off the plunge pool and onto the verdant rocks.

Crossing over another river, we could see the trees pulled down in the storm. It was disorientating walking through the jungle, with only glimpses of valleys through the cloud and thick overhanging vegetation to provide perspective.

As it began to rain, we arrived at a spot where—looking up—immeasurable quantities of water were pouring out of the mist. At points there was no more than a ghostly silhouette of more than half a kilometre of the angry water flooding down off the rock walls.

As the cloud moved, we were given snap shots of the enormity of what was above us.

Further back, the full majesty of the falls began to show itself. It was an awe-inspiring sight as three levels of roaring water crashed out of the caped skies. That’s just three fifths of it, said Juan, as I craned my neck, slack-jawed.

Walking back, we came across exactly no one. Despite there being millions of people on the doorstep and thousands of tourists annually coming through the city, no one comes here.

This area is merely a short hop from Colombia's capital as the crow flies and, yet, it had been as inaccessible as Hades when the Farc rebels were at their peak. More than a decade later, the guerrillas have been beaten back but, somehow, the people of Bogotá have yet to reclaim the waterfall.

If you fancy a visit, I'd recommend VoyageColombia:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Student Demonstration Time

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog entry and I see the last time I wrote it was also about a demonstration. My love for a march has been exposed: today, the students were out, thousands of them.

I watched them stream down from a local university at 10am. I think the NUJ would to be amazed at such a good turn out at such an ungodly hour. Yet there they were, pouring down the hill and making a splendid racket.

A white-coated fellow with Joker-inspired makeup gave me a handy bullet-pointed piece of paper called “¿Terroristas?” detailing what they were protesting about and why, in fact, they weren’t terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, they looked like medical students trying to improve their education system. They were largely made up of thousands of self-marshalling young people with a bit of makeup, chanting, holding banners and making their point. I’d not seen anything so orderly since the Countryside Alliance march I’d chanced upon years before. Admittedly, the students had considerably less tweed.

With all the subtlety of a radical nudist among the Countryside Alliance, there were those (nearly all male) attempting to retain their anonymity because they were self-consciously Up To No Good.

They were easy to spot: self-importantly parading on the periphery, usually clad in black, scarves over faces and often carrying a stick. Presumably the scarves were to keep their identity safe, while their manner screamed “Here! Hit me with a baton”.

The sense of rebellion was spreading to those with their uni years far in the future. I felt rather sorry for the trainee policeman sweeping up outside the police-training school, while three fourteen-year-old schoolgirls chanted, “Pig!” at him. Already at a safe distance, they then ran away giving him the finger. He just looked slightly lost.

Meanwhile, the demonstration was building. Three blocks down the hill, thousands of students were parading into the centre of town. There is an incomparable excitement about such crowds when the cheers, whistles and drums echo and accumulate into an inescapable, all-encompassing roar. It’s a magnificent sense of shared humanity even if you’re in no way connected.

While predominantly young, there were also a lot of people considerably older than me. Sadly, it was also a graffiti free-for-all. Three times I saw scarf face-wearers (twice girls) spray-paint on walls, while a stick-carrying friend stood guard and checked the spelling.

Getting hungry, I wandered down to Subway to find it had had to close and the windows were covered in graffiti. “Neo-liberal bread” someone had written, failing to elaborate further than by signing off with a feminist symbol. Someone else had rather melodramatically added “Study or death”.

Elsewhere, “No to the US military bases” and “Down with the paramilitary government”. These are perfectly reasonable points of view in context but irrelevant to the march. Sadly, tomorrow the graffiti will be all that remains and the march will appear to entirely have been made up of arseholes.