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Reporters on the Job

ARAUCA AFTER DARK: Reporter Rachel Van Dongen took a trip to Arauca, Colombia, to see the oil pipeline (page 7) in November and came back with one lesson: Don't leave your hotel after dark. The commander of the 18th Brigade invited Rachel for a 7 p.m interview at the military barracks, about 10 minutes outside town.

"I should have taken the hint when the taxi refused to wait for me, which is very unusual in Colombia, where cash speaks louder than words," she says.

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"I didn't finish the interview until 10 p.m., when the Army packed me into an unmarked red Jeep and drove me to the outer limits of the base. There, they politely bade me goodbye. Turns out that vehicle had been shot at several times the day before and the driver was taking no chances that night. I used my cellphone to call several taxi companies and individual drivers, who refused to drive to the military barracks at that time of night. It was sinking in: To be seen with the military or police in Arauca was the kiss of death, and no one was taking any chances. An enterprising soldier called a chicken carry-out to see if they would ferry me to my hotel. No dice.

"Incredulous, I called the general and asked how he expected me to get back to town at that time of night. Half an hour later, the answer came: a full-scale fake military operation, with about 14 men and two trucks, training machine guns into the dead of the night. Too scared to drop me at the hotel, they settled for the police station, which had been bombed 73 times that year. Finding my way to the hotel was another adventure. There were no streetlights and a group of hooligans was on one corner. The hooligans were my only chance. Fortunately for me, they were police."

David Clark Scott
World editor

Cultural snapshot