A Path No One Would Choose To Walk: 350 Miles With The Caminantes
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And our co-host Ari Shapiro is reporting this week from Bogota, Colombia, where he joins us now. Hey there, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Hey, Audie, would you do me a favor? I want you to pull out your phone.
SHAPIRO: And map a route from Cucuta, which is the biggest city on the Colombia-Venezuela border, to Bogota, Colombia's capital city, OK?
CORNISH: OK - C-U-C-U, OK - 11 hours, 45 minutes' drive.
SHAPIRO: About 350 miles - now map a walking route between those same two cities.
CORNISH: Can't find a way there. Try again. What does that mean?
SHAPIRO: Well, it means there is no good way to walk between these two cities. The road from the Venezuelan border to Bogota goes over mountains; on narrow, twisty highways with no shoulder; huge trucks barreling past. But this is a journey that thousands of Venezuelans have made in the last year on foot. They're called los caminantes, the walkers. And I have spent the last several days following their path. So I would like to take you on this journey with me.
I want you to imagine that you're Venezuelan. The official border crossings are closed, so you use what's called a trocha, an illegal border crossing through a river.
SHAPIRO: I can see a train of people carrying all of their belongings in overstuffed bags, the beginning of this long journey of Venezuelans who are leaving their country behind.
If you had money, you could buy a bus ticket. But hyperinflation in Venezuela has made your savings worthless, so you walk, carrying whatever you can bring with you into this new life through Cucuta and up into the hills surrounding the city.
One day's walk from the border, you come upon this little roadside stand. And hanging from the ceiling are what at first look like flags but are actually hundreds of handwritten notes from hikers, caminantes, who have been given a place to rest by the woman who owns this place, Marta Alarcon. We've asked some people to read a few of the messages that the hikers have left.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Danielle Gomez (ph), Venezuela, Valencia.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My name is Douglas (ph). I'm 21 years old.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Miguel Trojas (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Beautiful mother, it hurt me so much to separate from you, but I had to. The sacrifice is necessary.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This is the first day of the journey.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm doing this for my kid and my family - my mother, Marissa (ph), and my dad, Jose (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I say goodbye, and it gives me a lot of nostalgia.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: But we will never forget our roots, and we're thankful for what will come in this neighbor country.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking Spanish).
SHAPIRO: Senora Marta Alarcon, when you see all those messages, how does that make you feel?
MARTA ALARCON: (Through interpreter) To be frank, I don't read them because it makes me too sad. I say, let's talk about nice things, about how your life where you're going will be better. And then they leave me a pretty message. They leave me a kindness.
SHAPIRO: The road is dotted with makeshift refuges like this convenience store, places where someone saw a need and stepped up.
The next morning, you have to keep walking up into the mountains. The temperature drops into the 60s, and it starts to drizzle. It's 30 degrees colder than Cucuta where you started, so lots of people here are shivering in T-shirts that they wore across the border.
Just on the outskirts of Pamplona, a woman whose house is facing the road has opened her home up to be a shelter for Venezuelans, and so dozens of people are lined up outside, a lot of them families with kids. There's one young woman sitting on the ground who's taken off her shoes, and her foot is completely torn open with blisters.
She's 25 years old - Reina Ballestero. Someone has given her a light sweater to put over her tank top. She lost all of her clothes and ID when the river swept away her backpack as she was crossing the border.
REINA BALLESTERO: (Through interpreter) I'm in pain because I walked a lot, and my feet are torn up. And I have to keep going because my nephew has leukemia, and I need to work to send him money.
SHAPIRO: How will you keep moving forward when your feet are so broken?
BALLESTERO: (Through interpreter) However I can. If they stay torn up the way they are, I'll keep moving forward.
SHAPIRO: You might be able to spend the night in this shelter if you're a woman with a child. There isn't enough room for everyone, so families get priority. Mariu Materano is travelling with four of her kids. The youngest is 1 year old.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)
SHAPIRO: Does the baby have diapers?
MARIU MATERANO: (Through interpreter) Right now he doesn't even have a pacifier. I haven't even had milk to put in the bottle.
SHAPIRO: Are you worried about his health?
MATERANO: (Through interpreter) Yes, for all of them.
SHAPIRO: Her oldest, Heboni, is 12. She has a serious medical problem that they couldn't get treatment for in Venezuela, so they left. Heboni sits next to her mother. She has long hair and dimples. And suddenly she starts sobbing.
HEBONI MATERANO: (Through interpreter) My dad abandoned us, and we don't have anywhere to live. It's so hard for us. We don't have a house. We don't have anything.
SHAPIRO: Heboni grabs her mother and cries into her shirt. Mariu rests her head on her daughter's hair.
MATERANO: (Through interpreter) I had to cross the border to find food for my children. It's been very hard.
SHAPIRO: So this was not a choice you made. This was something that you had to do
MATERANO: (Through interpreter) Yes. I used to have a job running a small cafeteria at the University, but all of that ended when the economy in Venezuela collapsed.
SHAPIRO: There are as many tragic stories here as there are people. You spend a cold, damp night outside of Pamplona. The next morning, the sun is out, and you have to keep climbing. These are steep, winding roads with no shoulder. Eighteen-wheeler trucks barrel by on one side of you. A cliff drops off on the other. It's harrowing.
This is the beginning of a section that they call la nevera, the refrigerator. It is the highest peak of the journey. We're more than 10,000 feet above sea level. And we are literally in the clouds, surrounded by rocks and scrubby bushes. Temperatures here are often below freezing.
Finally you begin to descend. Angelis Mendez is 19, travelling with about 10 family members, including her infant son. When I ask her to think back to the windy mountain pass, she shudders.
ANGELIS MENDEZ: (Through interpreter) Incredibly hard to go through all of that cold, making sure that the kids are well-covered and are warm enough, holding them close to you. We've heard so many stories about kids who parents have held close, and they thought that they were alive, and then they found out that they were dead. So it's incredibly hard.
SHAPIRO: You've walked more than a hundred miles, and this is still just the beginning of the journey. Another 60 miles, and finally you reach the first big city since Cucuta at the border. The good news - Bucaramanga is home to half a million people, so some Venezuelans can find work here. Bad news - there's not a single shelter in the city. If you don't have money, your best bet is to try to sleep in a park. You might find your way to Alba Pereira's foundation. She gives out food, medicine and clothes to the walkers. She's been doing this work for six years, and lately she has noticed a change that worries her.
ALBA PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) A lot of kids are showing up, pregnant women, elderly people, sick people, people who are in wheelchairs or on crutches.
SHAPIRO: The fact that more elderly people, pregnant women, mothers with young children are coming also must say something about how much worse Venezuela is now than it was a few years ago.
PEREIRA: (Through interpreter) Of course. It's a crisis because as a mother, I'm trying to protect my child. There is no education in Venezuela. The teachers are leaving, too.
SHAPIRO: So are the doctors. Roberto Rincon left Venezuela himself five years ago. Now he provides free medical care to migrants here in Bucaramanga.
ROBERTO RINCON: (Through interpreter) To see people who can't walk in their shoes anymore and they decide to go barefoot for hours, days in the sun, through rain, cold, heat - nobody's feet can hold up through something like that.
SHAPIRO: But as a doctor, seeing them do these things must be really troubling.
RINCON: (Through interpreter) For me it's very hard to tell someone not to continue on that path. Each of them has a dream of providing a better life to their unborn babies, to their families.
SHAPIRO: This mass migration is straining Colombia. About 5,000 Venezuelans move into the country each day. Hospitals and schools are crowded especially near the border, and sometimes the local news plays up crime by Venezuelans. But all along this route, it's striking how welcoming most Colombians are. The government's not building a wall or threatening to deport people without papers, and many Venezuelans are beginning to settle into a new life.
You leave Bucaramanga behind and walk through coffee plantations and orchid farms where you meet 23-year-old Jennifer Guanipa. She lives with her husband and two kids on a small farm. Some people have hitchhiked or caught rides on trucks to get here. They weren't so lucky.
JENNIFER GUANIPA: (Speaking Spanish).
SHAPIRO: That was four months ago, but she still feels traumatized by the journey.
GUANIPA: (Through interpreter) My son asks when we're going to go home, and my husband had to walk ahead of us to hide his tears. We didn't know what to tell him. How do you explain that to a child? It's just incredibly hard when your son is asking to go home and you don't even know where you're going to sleep that night.
SHAPIRO: When your son is old enough to understand, what will you tell him about the journey that you made with him?
GUANIPA: (Through interpreter) We're going to tell him that he was born in Venezuela but we had to bring him here and that, God willing, we'll be able to go back sometime and his grandmother will still be alive because he really loves her.
SHAPIRO: She says she knows more people who have left Venezuela than who are still there.
GUANIPA: (Through interpreter) Everyone who can walk leaves. Anyone who has feet leaves.
SHAPIRO: If you still want to reach Bogota, you have another 200 miles to go. You may go even farther. Venezuelans are walking all the way to Ecuador or Peru, hundreds of miles past Bogota. The life you knew in Venezuela has disappeared, and the only thing you know for certain is that unless the crisis in Venezuela ends, more caminantes will be coming behind you.
(SOUNDBITE OF GIANCARLO VULCANO'S "UN VIEJITO MARAVILLOSO")
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That's our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from Colombia with producers Christina Cala and Matt Ozug. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.