Deserted in the Desert

It’s not a stretch to say that the desert can be a harsh environment. Native plants and animals generally have to develop thick skins or poisonous fangs in order to survive. The same apparently goes for journalists.

The tatacoa desert in Colombia

Eroded rock formations in the Tatacoa Desert

I spent the weekend of July 30 in the stunning Tatacoa Desert tracking down the Colombian Rally Championship, a relatively unknown sporting event struggling against astronomical entry costs and underwhelming fan support.

It was my first experience as a journalist “in the field,” and I know nothing about rallying. Note that I use the present tense.

Part of my ignorance can be attributed to unintelligible Spanish racing jargon. The other part probably relates to the fact that I missed the entire race.

Yes, on my first assignment as a big-boy journalist, I missed the entire event that I was supposed to be covering.

At least I got to enjoy the landscape.

Fog in the Tatacoa Desert of Huila, Colombia

It's not supposed to rain in the desert...

And what a landscape it is. Desierto Tatacoa is a ruggedly beautiful expanse of cacti and bright red sand that feels more like the backdrop for a John Wayne movie than its scientific classification as a “tropical dry forest.”

Eroded clay pillars form miniature Grand Canyon look-alikes and cloudless nights offer spectacular stargazing, making the desert a dramatic stop for adventurous tourists.

In short, the Tatacoa is easily one of the nicest places in Colombia to spend a weekend of frustration.

With butterflies in my stomach, I started my first adventure in Colombian journalism early Friday morning as the sun crawled up over the hilltops east of Bogotá.

Colombians are famous for many things, but punctuality is not one of them. Our 7 a.m. departure time quickly moved up to 10 a.m. before our bus full of journalists, mechanics, public relations specialists and spectators crossed the city limits.

I don’t like waking up at 5:45 unless absolutely necessary but, as the outfits of pedestrians outside changed from winter coats to tank tops, my attitude quickly warmed up.

Being from the steamy Southeastern U.S., I felt right at home when we piled off the bus into the humid afternoon air of Neiva, the last city with hotels before the Tatacoa desert.

After a disappointingly non-glamorous day, I anxiously awaited my first press conference.

Drivers in the Colombian Rally Championship at Tatacoa

Drivers chatting it up during the press conference

The conference meant more waiting as the drivers gradually trickled into Manhattan Bar (seriously, punctuality is not a strong point).

Yet, before I could ask about spiking some of the free soda, the event was underway, the only memorable moment of which was a traditional Bambuco dance performed by two adorable and talented kids.

I shook off suspicions that my first experience as a journalist was destined to be completely unremarkable by remembering that the main event started in the morning. Surely the race would offer great opportunities for amazing photos and an interesting story.

Not exactly.

The first leg of the race actually started on time. Impressive.

Colombian Rally Championship at Tatacoa starts its first leg of the race

As close as I got to the action: the starting line...

I stayed at the starting line, however, waiting to complete my other assignment for the weekend: photographing the reigning champion of Rally Colombiano, Nikolas Bedoya, for Jet-Set Magazine.

By the end of the third leg, I had more than 100 glamour shots hopefully worthy of the celebrity and gossip magazine, and was ready to focus on the race.

Colombian Rally Champion Nikolas Bedoya in the Tatacoa Desert

I did shoot some moving vehicles... for a celebrity magazine...

With only one leg left in the competition, I had limited chances to get the perfect photo. However, with the Colombian rally champion as my personal chauffeur, I felt pretty confident.

The minutes ticked by as I sat in the central plaza of Villavieja, the starting point for the race, waiting for my ride under an impressively tacky statue of a giant sloth apparently commemorating the Tatacoa’s fame as a fossil-hunting destination.

The last driver crossed the finish line while I hung out with my extinct companion.

I was crushed. I didn’t take a single photo of the race– the entire purpose of me spending my weekend in the desert. Not a great start to my journalistic career.

And yet, maybe it wasn’t such a bad one either. I got a free trip to one of the most picturesque locales in Colombia and took some pretty decent portraits for a widely read magazine.

Despite a maddening baptism into the world of Colombian journalism, I can’t wait for my next assignment.

A cactus in Tatacoa in Huila, Colombia

Again, there are worse places to spend a weekend

(This article is the copyright of Ed Buckley for The City Paper, Bogotá, Colombia)

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