Goodbyes are quick, because we seem to be only ever going and going and then we’re gone. It is not my own obsession with the Now, it is humanity´s. The tyranny of the Time. And forever human dreams of frozen watches under a plaster sky. What has happened and what will happen are endless, like a salt sea on a scorching hot day, bands of heat blurring the horizon, such that you cannot tell where the world ends and the heavens begin. Yet that is important, because we are all going to die. Our end; it is our merciless awareness of it that keeps the clock always ticking ticking tock. And so goodbye mom and dad, goodbye winter, goodbye city, goodbye friends, and goodbye romantic dreams hidden by the times!
I boarded a flight with a soar throat. That’s a horrible thing to do, but there was no choice in the matter, I was leaving and the plane would have to deal with it. At midnight the doors opened and the tropical heat blasted my face and reminded me of hotter times from earlier along on this voyage. Times like when I was snaking my way along the coast of Mexico´s states of Michoacán and Oaxaca, railing on unyielding coastal curves in the back of pick-up trucks, smiling at the thought that my journey was so bizarre. Do you ever stop to just think how you ended up where you are? And then, when that thought crosses your mind, did you try to think back to all the other times in years past you caught yourself standing alone somewhere, thinking the very same thing? What it would be like years from then? Wondering what it would be like if your younger you met you now?
Alas Florida it was and then taxi ride to my grandmother´s house in one of the gated communities of the Naples area. Growing up, we visited my relatives in Ohio perhaps once a year. Of course it was never enough. But we were so far away! Distance, though, is a relative thing; relative, that is, based on the time you’re willing to spend getting from A to B. Needless to say my understanding of distance has changed somewhat.
I call my grandmother Granny. She’s a very simple and very sweet woman. I stayed with her for four days. I drove and we went and saw the sights; the docks, the shops, the grand avenue of incredible excess in million dollar mansions. We saw the beach and I shied away from the frigid water.
Granny doesn’t get along with electronics, and her childlike responses to the mysterious workings of the VCR make me smile. I showed her the eject button on the remote and as the tape came out, she cried with excitement and wonderment, “Up! Why there it is!”
Granny could talk family for hours. We talked about second cousins I never met and she remarked, “well the boy looks a little like his father, unfortunately, but sometimes the genes just don’t come out how you want ´em to.” Part of my Granny´s wonderfulness is that she just says the darndest things, like her choice of words: “There’s mutilated ice cream if you want–I dig out the chocolate chips see.” Or calling a box of peanuts by their brand name: “do you want to try one of my Nut Clusters?” The whole time I was there I had to suppress my urge to blurt out “Yeah that’s what she said!”
Alligator Alley is the i75 corridor that connects Naples with Fort Lauderdale. Granny dropped me off, still unconvinced that hitching will work here in south Florida. She left. 15 minutes passed before a big pick-up truck hauling what turned out to be a staircase tied down to the trailer (and which pulled the truck from side to side violently when we got goin’ too fast) pulled over on the ramp and I hopped in. Billy had a wavy blond Mohawk, and was convinced to pick me up because he thought my sign was funny. It read “Tokyo”.
The drive was a swift two hours, punctuated by several stops to check the straps of the giant metal apparatus. Alligators were everywhere in the ditches paralleling the highway. They sat out, sunning their leathery backs and probably without a thought on their mind.
Sometimes the hitch has you talking until your jaw is sore. Other times very little is said. But the talk usually gets goin´. Raspy voices, sullen voices, voices that squeak or peel or draw. Talk of anything, everything; whatever is important to whoever thinks it ought be. Stories, sometimes. Sometimes it’s just me rapping away at my new friends, as they drive me to where they´re driving to. With Billy we talked on and off. Our common ground was that yachts are ridiculous and neither of us could ever feel justified in owning one personally. Redistribution of wealth, then? Maybe not, but there’s such a thing as too much stuff. Not enough shame, maybe.
In Fort Lauderdale Billy dropped me on the Federal 1, which I would walk on until the chubby towers of downtown. We said goodbye with that ever so popular man nod. I never give the nod to gals so I figure it’s either a man thing or a thing meant only for among the same sex. The man nod, like the knowing of the way it is. “Right on, man. Yea, man, you are there and I see you, and we know it’s all good.”
Well the heat scrapped at my neck but I made it to the apartment building where Sierra lived. I gave an electronic signature, had my photo taken, and finally was given the go-ahead by the front desk receptionist. Floor 16, high in the sky. The building had 29 floors. Sierra wasn’t home but she had told me to go in. I was welcomed by a floor littered with sheets of paper with directions written on them, “bathroom this way, my room, balcony, etc.” I ate a granola bar and lounged out to read “Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.”
I spent three nights there. Sierra was a doll, and had profound life experience for her age, which she shared with me in exchange for road stories. Actually we just talked like old friends. That is one of the great things about CS, the barriers are already broken down, and, in fact, since you already have in common the fact that you’re completely open to strangers sleeping in your personal space, you are somehow already friends.
Sierra worked during the days and I walked around, swam in the pool on the roof overlooking the distant shore, or lounged in the hot tub and read. One day I showed up at Andrew’s apartment, another CSer, with a six pack and made another friend, just shooting the shit about Oregon. Then I got sick and sat around the last day in Fort Lauderdale.
The last night Sierra and I talked into the early hours of the morning about everything from the demographics of Florida to the “rules of engagement”, as it were, about extra-personal relations between hosts and guests. And then the night closed accordingly, and we slept like rocks until dawn.
The next day Sierra drove me to the airport. We embraced in farewell, she handed me a box of nasal spray, and then our time together was over.
A hot dog and a 30 minute wait in line for the bathroom later and I was taking off. Off to Colombia, the land of cocaine and coffee, our biggest vices in America. But there’s so much more than what can be read in the news. I want to see it all, know it all, or at least try to learn it, all of it! So goodbye America! Goodbye all you people all you red white and blue lifers!
Being sick on a plane is the worst. I even had a swollen lymph node and swallowing was tough, not to mention nasal congestion that blocked like a veto. I pulled the nasal spray box out and opened it, but there was no spray bottle. What was in its place surprised me, to say the least. It was a roll of money. A little pink post-it note read, “I’ve had this money for a long time. It is filthy to me. But not to you. Do something you wouldn’t normally do.” It was three hundred dollars.
So, back in Colombia. I flew over the northern tip of the country and I could see where it was I would be going. The plan? Hitch back north on the same road I hitched from Cartegena. The destination? The Carnaval of Barranquilla. I thought Veracruz, Mexico was the second biggest outside of Rio, but then I heard it was Barranquilla. Last year, Veracruz, this year, Barranquilla, home of Shakira.
The Medellin airport is small. The plane was not full. I was the only white guy on the flight. Now I’m back in Colombia, feeling a bit taller, and already I sense the eyes as I walk the streets. Sweating again. Spanish again.
I picked up a free city map at a tourist stand in the airport, changed over some dollars (which have a lesser value now than before), and jumped on a bus to the center of the city. I sat next to a kind woman, curiosity in her gaze. She complimented my Spanish but I knew it was rusty, and besides, when you speak with someone in a different language, your abilities are always a talking point. I told her I was headed to the Buenos Aires neighborhood. So was she. She said I should follow her. So we got off together and she used a special ticket to pay for us on the next bus.
Harrowing steep streets the second bus grasped at and grunted, and eventually transported us over the hill and into Buenos Aires. We filed off the bus, said our goodbyes and I was on my way once more in the gallant city of orange block masonry. Medellin. At night it gleams, and it’s hills look like a second set of amber stars, a backdrop that puts you on your drunken ass.
I found the apartment of Yeison (Jason), my host for a few days. Time had it that we should both arrive at his door simultaneously. He was full of smiles and the clicking began before we could take note. The clicking of getting along friendly, if that wasn’t clear.
His apartment had a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and two bedrooms, one of which was simply his computer room. Through the fat broken window I looked down on the downtown heights and the distant sleeping giants of the hills. “Hello again, my friends!” I said to myself.
I stayed four nights with Yeison. We talked and talked and watched South Park in Spanish (on this point we got along extremely well). And we cooked. He for me a ricey jambalaya, and I for he my turmeric spaghetti. We spoke of Colombia, of poverty and waste and rich and truth in social mobility. We spoke of giant parties and festivals like Carnaval and Medellin’s flower festival where white go blackface and black go whiteface (we laughed heartily at the idea, I being white as cloud and he being Choco black).
One day I met a friend who I have written about previously in these accounts. My tall collected friend from Cinncinati, Samuel. He played host to me three months ago, but has since moved into a room in a family home, unable to have guests. He came to Chicago while I was there, and we had a blast with old friends in new digs, and fell drunkenly asleep on Katie’s futon.
And now our reunion! We strutted around the center of Medellin, and later met up with another guy from stateside. Then we went to the one popular area of the city I hadn’t seen, El Poblado. Hours passed as we sipped on Aguila Beer, the beer of Colombia, in parks and walking, or under awnings and out of the rain showers. It was really good to see my friend again, and to share in the quasi-ceremonious ritual of Beering.
It became dark early, and just Sam and I hopped the metro to a CS gathering at a bar, a polyglot language exchange. We had a beer there and didn’t really mingle much, so we decided to leave.
“Come on, Sam, let’s walk back to the center and we can catch our buses from there.”
“You sure this road goes to the center?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve walked here before.”
“Dude, the part over the bridge, before you get to the center is pretty sketch, but I’m down.” Samuel spoke matter-of-factly, and we both hesitated.
“Whatever let’s go.”
The street we were walking was the main drag that led all the way to downtown. It was busy, but no street is very well-lit, and there are few pedestrians. 20 minutes of further walking beyond downtown would bring me back to Yeison’s. The night was shivering almost, like an aftershock of the rain. We walked briskly. The first bridge came, and we spat into the river below as we traversed. Street people and homeless lined the river walk, hidden in their shelters or scraping at something on their feet. Sam and I got to talking about homelessness, begging, and muggings.
“Have you ever been robbed here?” I inquired.
“Yea man, but it was so fuckin stupid. These guys had us show them everything we had cause they said there were some robbers in the neighborhood and they were trying to catch them. It was in a super sketchy part of town.”
“Like where we met up?”
“Yea dude that’s totally sketchy over there. I really just try not to walk at night. It’s risky shit here. But sometimes we’ve gone around with street people who are our friends and they know how to talk at people. Also you just gotta keep walking, don´t get stopped. I know one guy who just straight up got stabbed and then they robbed him.” Samuel talks without a lot of emphasis in his voice; he speaks softly, and does not corrupt his words with dramatic oration. It adds a degree of realism to what he’s saying.
We began walking over the second bridge. We’d go down and through the nearly abandoned market district, dark and desolate, until we reached the center. There were a few bodies here and there, shuffling like zombies, and every once in a while a decently lit bus stop where little crowds gathered beneath the cradling light.
We passed a man leaning over the railing, smoking a cigarette. I glanced at his face as he stared hard at us as we passed. His face was scarred, and he seemed decidedly uninterested in general.
Suddenly, halfway across the bridge I glimpsed the man running at us from the corner of my eye, but it was too late, he had slammed into us both, grabbed us and shoved us forcefully against the railing. He was frantic and wild-eyed. Things happened so quickly it was hard to tell what came first. He sneered hard and cursed and threatened, and then swiftly reached behind his back while still stiff-arming Sam and shoving us with his body weight and looking at our chests. And without really thinking, Sam and I both lunged at him. I went for the hand he was reaching behind his back, and Sam grasped the other. I pulled up his arm with all my strength, having no idea if he was reaching for a knife or a gun. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. All this happened in a matter of seconds.
We had the guy in our control. The man began pleading with us as he wriggled trying to loose himself from our grips.
“Ok ok ok ok ok ok, esta bien esta bien!” He cried.
“Fuck what the fuck! Get the fuck outta here!” I yelled at him in Spanish.
I didn’t think he had a gun so after a few more seconds we released him and shoved him back. He pleaded and kept saying “Gringo? Gringo? Esta bien mi amigo esta bien!” I pointed at him angrily when he took steps toward us, and finally he began to walk away, and so did we.
Needless to say we were full of energy and began rapping back and forth about all the possibilities that could have come of the latter jumping.
“Man we really are nuts. You think we did that ‘cause we were just talking about muggings and shit? That dude was a wreck, that should scare the crap out of me!” I was excited, my heart was pumping.
Sam said, “Dude he could’ve had us if he had pulled his knife earlier.” Sam is always calm but I could hear the excitement in his voice too.
“Maybe, but he was pretty stupid to attack two of us, and he definitely wasn’t strong enough to take us both on.”
“Man he was just coked out of his mind or something. Shit we could’ve really fucked him up!”
“Yea but we wouldn’t want that. I mean I was thinking about pulling my knife!” I always carry a knife on my belt that I could whip out in a second, but I was glad I let it alone.
By the time we’d had our fill of imaginings, we’d crossed the sketchy market area and were walking among crowds in the center’s Parque Berrio. We said our goodbyes and I walked the 20 minutes back to Yeison’s. I was glad that I had just come out of my second attempted robbery without getting robbed, or stabbed.
The excitement of the moment has since faded, of course. I think back on that volatile situation and wonder why it happened. Some rob because they want to eat, and some rob because they want to get high. This guy was the latter. His eyes were blood shot and dry, but he avoided looking us in the eye. We can never know how merciful he might have been if he had ended up with the upper hand.
Do I believe that some robbers are justified? Aren’t they themselves the victims of a shitty system that has them kneeling for scraps? Their knees are constantly bleeding, and they shuffle their fate in order to eat and survive. Not all. No, not all. But yes, isn’t it? I suppose human nature has a lot to do with how Sam and I handled the man. I am thankful that I did not pull my knife, because the man does not merit it’s wrath. But then, after all, no, I do not believe in any form of violence. I can talk it, but I do not desire it. I can play it but I can never act it. Any violence I showed that man was more a reflex than a conscious decision to hurt. As wrong as are the entities or catches that put innocent people into desperate situations, so too is it wrong to resolve to use the same violence to try to cut out a living. Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and that is how I also see it.
After one last night at Yeison’s I moved on. The first time I had arrived in Medellin, I had been excited to see a friend who I met years before in Istanbul. He was not there. His girlfirned, Tomasa, was there, but her roommate didn’t like the idea of inviting strangers to come to sleep in her space. I guess she also thought I had bedbugs. Well, this time around I randomly received a message from Tomasa offering her place to crash. So, I spent two days at Tomasa’s place.
The apartment had a balcony overlooking the street one floor below, and shared a corner with a group of older men that seemed constant. They gathered and talked and yelled and played chess. Colombian streets are very alive. In fact most Latin American streets are rumbling with activity. You can buy anything you want second-hand, and some vendors stand on the street with a vest reading “200 minutos”, signifying how much a minute of using their cell phone will cost you. This is how I contact everyone, it’s easy and quick. Besides, I’m useless when it comes to pay phones.
I cooked for Tomasa, and she worked on her thesis. One night her friend picked us up and we cruised over to El Poblado to go clubbing. Soemtimes I think I like doing that, and sometimes I don’t. No excuse. This time, my mind was elsewhere, and Tomasa’s and her friend’s proclamations of intent to find me three girlfriends went through one ear and out the other. At one point I hopped on a bus back to Belen, where I met up with Camilo at his place. Remember Camilo? I left half of my gear with him. By the time I had all my stuff packed up again, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit the other half I’d left back at Tomasas’s.
Enough of these logistics! I was wrapping up loose ends before the big journey north to Barranquilla got underway.
I would stay one more night in Medellin. I wanted to hang out with Samuel again. He and his friends had invited me to come up into the hills to a house one of them had. Before hopping on the metro to go meet Samuel, I decided to do something that I don’t usually do, using part of that money Sierra put in my pocket. I had sent a message to her saying that I couldn’t keep such a huge amount, and she responded simply “then don’t”. I went to the store and bought a gallon of aguadiente, the local licorice-flavored hard alcohol. Here, this size is called a “garafa”. This turned out to be a swell house-warming present.
I went with Sam and his friend Andres up into the hills. The bus seemed only barely able to grip the road as once again it became angled at a dangerous degree. We had risen out of the city and then walked along a ridge straddling valleys on either side, and the city of Medellin spanning out like a drop of water splattered on cardboard.
The house was spacious, empty, and crumbling. Perfect. There were 5 of Samuel’s buddies, one of their girlfriends, Andres, Sam and I. The night was excellent. I presented the aguadiente to them, along with my old boots that could be put to good use in their garden. I also gave them the half bottle of waterproofing I had left after respraying my tent at Tomasa’s. It was a good way to make a good impression.
Sam cooked up some churizzos (sausages), and the guys fixed up some potatoes and rice, and I heated up some curry carrots I’d had leftover from cooking at Tomasa’s. It was a veritable feast. We threw around a floppy frisbee my ma gave me for Christmas back home. We toured the garden and I recounted the exploits of my brother’s organic vegetable garden. I thumbed a little thumb piano made from a Nestle cafe can, another present my parents thought up for Christmas. Later it rained and we sat on the concrete floors watching football, or playing old videogames on a laptop (King Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario). The house was a shell, but with good company and laughable Oscar translation on TV, we were contented all of us.
Medellin is difficult to leave. It has a lovely climate, enticing surrounds, enticing people I should say, and, like anywhere where you know a lot of people, it is familiar like home. A metro train and two buses took me away, and again I was alone on the edge of a city, sticking out my thumb, hoping to hook one of the passing cars with it.
I ended up at a truck stop outside of the town of Barbosa after another short bus ride to find a better hitching spot. The spot was excellent. There were restaurants, there was water, and there was plenty of traffic. My road was east to Bucaramanga, as opposed to north on the road I arrived to Medellin on, from Cartagena. I ate an empanada and asked a few truckers if they were heading in my direction-they weren’t. It began to rain. I ran up to another trucker as he climbed into the cab. He sneered down at me and slammed the door when I was halfway through asking him if I could come along.
In short, I arrived at this superb hitching spot at 6 a.m. At 7 p.m. I was still there. I began to write in my notebook:
“All the trucks going toward Medellin. I’ve decided not to hitch around getting to know east Colombia, that would require rides from private cars, which have never stopped for me here. I think I’m wanting to continue south, into the next countries. That fact of the matter-”.
At this point I was deciding to head back to the northern road, in hopes that I could still make it to Barranquilla via that highway. Then, as I was just finishing writing in my notebook, I stuck my arm out at one last truck. And he smiled wide, his eyebrows popping up and his mouth opened. He pulled over! At the very last instant, the ultimate second before all my hope was gone completely and I would walk defeated in the very direction from whence this new truck came, alas this new truck came!
Mauricio was his name and he was high, hiiiiiigh soo high. He giggled and hollered:
“Oye gringo adonde vas vos?”
“Voy por Bucaramanga.”
Beside myself, I hopped in. There it is, the principle of hitchhiking in it’s purest: Things work out. Patience will get you that ride. Perhaps I had been needlessly impatient having only just gotten back on the road. I feel that your disposition is very important, that you radiate a certain vibe that others can pick up on subconsciously. Or, maybe not. I remember a quote from a book about a homeless man traveling the States. He wrote: “I still do not know whether it is better to have a sign or not, if it is worth the effort of standing all the while, whether to look as presentable as possible or to try to appear down on my luck. I think perhaps none of that matters. Many, many people still pass by.”
“Que estas haciendo amgio gringo viajero? What you doin traveling gringo friend?” Mauricio spoke from the back of his throat like so many who smoke plenty of pot.
“I’m just traveling around.”
“Asi, viajando! Asi es, chimba, chimba huevon bien chimba! (literally: that’s how it is, pussy, pussy big balls real pussy)”. (Of course, it really just means “right on, cool”).
So I had met my ride, Mauricio from El Popular in Medellin, a rough area I hear. And he was going to Bucaramanga, my first stop along the road to Barranquilla. And so it went. We shot the shit, he rolled joints out of a dark brown mud-crusted looking cake of marijuana he chopped on a towel in his lap. We stopped and ate some stringy beef with yucca, yucca like potatos, and then continued to drive for 10 hours straight. When we rolled slowly through the mountain towns, Mauricio leaned out and flirted with the girls walking passed. We spoke of families and work, Colombian women, Colombian pot vs. American pot. He was convinced that all American pot was probably horrible and filled with chemicals. As I looked at his brown stash, I wasn’t about to corrupt his conviction with bad news.
10 hours later he let me off and after rapping for a few minutes with some attendants at a gas station, they decided I could crash at one of the closed pumps, because it was raining ceaselessly. That night I discovered that I had burned my forearms, one of which was burnt to the point of displaying white boils. I hadn’t considered the fact that I would have to get used to this again.
After a night of brushing off ants that had decided I was food, and even finding an inch long beetle inside my shirt on my shoulder, which I pinched off in a hurry, the morning came with a freshness that somehow revalidated my preference for bizarre accomadations. What do I get out of sleeping in places, like, a gas station, or in the streets? Actually I’m not so sure. If I had unlimited means, maybe I would sleep in hotels. But I doubt it. It has everything to do with adventure, but also there’s more. It brings me closer to people. If not in their minds, then at least in my mind. Why? Because I’m never quite out of the public sphere. I’m available, not locked in my room. At least sometimes, that’s how it feels. And hitchhiking? On a bus you might not converse with anyone. No one is there to talk with you, they’re there to go somewhere. You can make the effort, but maybe it’s not always to yours or their liking. In hitching, you’re in someone’s car or truck because they want you to be. Very rarely does someone who does not want you in their car, take you from the side of the road.
I took my time hanging around the gas station. I ate another empanada and sat considering my burnt arm. People came and went. Trucks sallied in and out. I didn’t feel particular about any of them, so I just didn’t try to ask for rides. I had still 4 full days before the carnival would begin in Barranquilla.
It was drizzling. Time was slow. I sat and sucked on a Halls I had just purchased. One trucker was walking across my path, and I was inclined to greet him, so I went with it.
“Oye, usted es mulero?”
“Yes, I’m a trucker, there’s my truck over there.”
“Can I ask you as question?”
“Of course, tell me.”
“Any chance you’re heading north and have room for one more? I’m going to Barranquilla.”
“Barranquilla? Why do you want to go there? Sabes que estan matando a los monos ahi! (Don’t you know that they’re killing whites in Barranquilla?) Ahaha! Let me get a tinto (coffee) and we’ll go.”
There you have it. 13 hours without luck, and then suddenly, with one thumb and one short conversation, I’m as good as already arrived in Barranquilla! The trucker was Oswaldo. We had a wonderful drive north. It was around 9 a.m. when I hoped in his cab. He was a fatherly figure, with deep set brown eyes and a bushy black mustache, but like most muleros (truckers) he had a vicious way of talking among other muleros. This is why most of the Spanish that I know is pretty vulgar.
During our journey north, although I counter-insisted and even tried to pay for our meals, Oswaldo would have none of it. We stopped at an Asadero, basically an open barbeque, where we feasted on dried beef and yucca, and sipped on dark brown lemonade that had more purity than a lemon itself. We sat at a white table creaking at our weight, and a few others came to join us, obviously curious as to my business there. Oswaldo was excited to introduce me. He insisted I shout “hijueputa.” Everyone had a huge and extended laugh after that. It means ‘son of a whore’.
Oswaldo proved to be sincere, as on several occasions he called friends from his cell phone in the cab and had me cry hijueputa!! We stopped for drinks, for meals, to pee, to bang on the tires with batons to test their pressure… I was back on the road! We fraternized with other truckers, one of whom we met at a cafe and he sat alone in the corner, a large man with a bib overlooking the scene like some mafioso boss surveying his people as they come to ask for loans one by one. Truckers, man! Checking out 15 year old girls, some rubbing their giant greesy bellies. It seems there’s always two sides to people when it comes to how one acts with friends when the topic is sexual in nature. Then again, if one of those young girls showed any interest, perhaps Oswaldo would drop me in a second to free up his cab.
And the ride continued. Down the long road. There were no mountains like I had hoped, intead, just flat plains that eventually gave way to deltas, the sea, and awkward cacti. Oswaldo lamented about his lost love, a 17 year old girl who he danced with in one of the towns we passed through. That song, he played 30 or 40 times repeatedly “Ella me cuesta tanto!”
And down the road, on into the darkness of night. Strange fires burned as we passed through gloomy towns where vendors hounded the truckers in their cabs, almost like a tragic play where the man below cries havoc to the man above, but the trucker keeps rolling away. We drove. We passed a crazy man who had attempted to create a road block which we succeeded in passing, and passed it fast as the man’s eyes were lunatic and he scraped a machete against the pavement.
And after a day on the road, waiting in lines for makeshift bridges, their predecesors having been stolen away by winter floods, or speeding passed a slower truck at breakneck speed, we pulled into a parquedero. Here is where truckers park for the night, and in the case of Colombian truckers, get a room at a trucker motel. There was plenty of space outside for me to camp, but to my surprise Oswaldo insisted that I come sleep in his hotel room with him. And so it went…
I’m sorry to disapoint if you were expecting some disturbing story about molestation between traveler and trucker. On the contrary, I slept kindly under a fan that whisped away the mosquitoes. The hotel was perched on stilts over a lagoon, and the lapping water sounded through the floorboards. In the morning I bucket-showered, kind of, and we hit the road. In an hour we arrived in Barranquilla, and along the sea far out the whites of breaks receeding.
We parked in an industrial district of the city, and sat at a rickety wooden table in the dirt next to a bar. Oswaldo made googly eyes at the girls that he seemed to know well, and I laughed and tried to understand a stout woman who was both deaf and mute and energentic about telling me about whatever it was she was telling me about. Oswaldo insisted and insisted, even when I revealed that it was alright, that I had money that I didn’t mind spending! But that would not do. So he fed me fish, shoved 5,000 pesos into my hand and put my on the back of a motorbike that would speed me to Barranquilla center. The helmet I donned was only precautionary insofar as a seltbelt flung over the shoulder is precautionary, it would surely not save my life. So I said goodbye to Oswaldo and the girls, and away we sped, through the part of the city they would not let me walk. Indeed, glancing down several of the streets sent shivers across my spine, just imagining the horrible outcomes of so poor a choice were I to stroll almost ubiquitously down.
And the center of Barranquilla, and then a 200 peso telephone call to Ivan, my host for my week in Barranquilla, and meeting him across the street an hour and a lemonade later, him pointing at me with a big smile, surely we would get along.
Ivan lived in Campeche, a small town one hour south of Barranquilla. We took a bus. I sweated. The caribbean again, heat again, and so the rainy chest! But Ivan and I spoke our languages happily. We both are passionate about grammar and language acquisition. We spoke in Spanish, English, and even our French forays held sway.
His town is small, but it feels very safe, unlike so many big city streets. Dirt roads, kids running around and pointing at the newly arrived gringo. But it was nothing new. Ivan has brought strangers to his town for months now. He tells me we will enjoy Barranquilla carnaval, but then his town’s carnaval even more. We sat on the lonesome concrete stage overlooking the valley beyond the town. We talked about the paramilitaries, druglords, and the FARC. We talked about politicians and politics and shitty systems and Plan Colombia and welfare and guns and violence and family and carefree-ness. We talked about the kids pissing off the stage in competetion for distance, about the women giggling at my raunchy hair, we learned the word raunchy, and we lounged in the shade and thought what a great thing to know one another unknowingly through the internet. And later, we welcomed more strangers from the internet. Ivan told us we would be 12 in his house.
One year ago, about, I was at a carnival in Veracruz Mexico, and our circumstances were similar. Dozens of travelers and Veracruzanos in the same group, roaming the late night drunken streets of the festival. I was hoping for a likewise party.
And so I skip the BS and tell you outright it was a marvel carnival! We were not 12 at Ivan’s house, we were 23! We were 8 Germans, 6 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 Israelis, 2 Swiss, 1 French, 1 Ecuadorian, and Ivan and his family. The conversations were flowing and the chatter didn’t stop from the moment we began. Ivan’s parents were humble and shy and mostly left us to our woes as a group. Ivan didn’t seem to mind when everyone brought beer and aguadiente back to the house. The cool night air, the mumble jumble of languages, and the heartbeat of our vast group followed us when we took to the buses into Barranquilla for the main parade. We would not return to Campeche that night.
The parade was lively, with dozens of Caribbean dance groups stomping passed with liberal and colorful feathery costumes and confident moves. Their face paint made their eyes look serious and their teeth bright. The music was drums, the beats and the rhythm of the day pounded hard into your ears and you couldn’t help but move your hips. Girls giggling sprayed the foreigners with foam and then we felt accepted! And the beer, Aguila, was poured and the states increased while the patchy memory became patchier. The group dissipated. Where, I could not say. I ended up with The Germans. Felix, Tim, and Thomas.
The night came and the streets were crazy with activity. We wandered for hours in search of different street parties, and I spent some more of the gifted money, buying bottle after bottle of aguadiente for our group. The music was everywhere, and everywhere people and children and costumes, noises and smells and bizarre routines of the night. Everyone was coked out of their minds and finally we found the big street party 30 blocks walking, the memories now very difficult to recall. The tunes, the girls! Ivan and some of the other Americans were already there at the party. They had facepaint and were strange to see, but I love it! We talked, we sipped, we ate, we yelled and kicked the air for lack of dancing ability. On into the early hours and I wandered off alone somewhere.
I found myself talking to random people when I came to. The night was still on and I was still at the street party. The random people I spoke with were also from CS, but not from our group. I don’t know how I found them. And then gone again, and spinning through the crowds, taken by Colombian beauties eager to teach me the basics, and compliments to my sincere surprise!
And the police they shut down our fun there, but our fun relocated. I only found Tim, and we walked with some others we were dancing with, perhaps arm in arm perhaps sometimes not. The zing of the night, the constant in the eardrums and the dizziness of euphoria on the return walk to wherever, but when we got there, Ivan! Ivan and the others, what luck! And then a strange club and hookers and something about an angry man with a gun, and police and then we were gone again, this time the hazy blue of morning peeking.
Drunk and tired and somehow back on a bus, back to Campeche, silent walking, and snapping out of it to realize we were back, and our group was 12 of us, there the Americans, the British, the Frenchman Lucas and his German friend Simon. Back, and I heated up some pasta and we feasted and then the day of our night sweaty in the hot house trying for a wink of sleep and finally, gone.
It was a crazy night, to say the least. I woke up in many different places, but finally I found myself nasty in my tent. I emerged and greeted some of the others who did not stay out all night long with us. I was a wreck, and so a bucket shower it was. And a bucket flush after releasing the night’s hostages.
Ivan’s mom made us cold lemonade. It’s a beautiful thing to wake up to that. Most everyone was back, except for three Germans, who showed up 2 days later. That second night we relaxed at Ivan’s house and I chatted with Simon and Tim and Lucas. They are more my kind of travelers. Long-term, let-loose, and appreciate the unconventional. The Brits and the Americans were a bit more vacation-er. That’s fine by me I suppose.
That night we stayed in Campeche, where they had their own party going on, the streets crowded with the dancers and the children. As we ate some plastic hamburgers, the youth gathered around us and joked that they, too, were from all over the world. The irony was not lost on us. We smiled and poked at the youngest.
Lucas disappeared with a girl, and Simon reappeared with white corn-starch face from powder thrown by the dancers. I sipped from my old Nalgene bottle and sat on a wooden stool, resisting the urge to dance again. Later we slumped back to the house and I past out once again in my tent.
The morning came in the afternoon. Everyone was back. The group was ready for round three, the main night in Campeche. We donned our finest (which for me doesn’t mean more than the same tee-shirt i always wear). At 4 we saw the Campeche parade, a closer and more lively parade than in Barranquilla, perhaps because it was that we were in a small town. We ourselves were a spectacle, because people kept saying it was the first time foreigners were there. Ivan was well known before, but now he was even more famous, or in some cases, infamous.
The paraders danced and giggled at us. I was hanging out with some of the Germans and Lucas. Later, Lucas would disappear after asking for some cash for a hotel to take his girl to. Campeche was so small that there was no hotel, nor restaurant. I gave him some money from my bundle Sierra had given me, and away he went. Us that were left, we followed the end of the parade, passing the crowds in attendance, and they hollered and cheered at us in gest. We waved back smilingly.
Tim and I bought more aguadiente, and had some beers. We continually passed our friends in the street and made new ones. Some women eventually decided to grab us and dance, and dance we did, dance all sorts of dances I did not believe myself capable of dancing. I just copied, really. The music blasted, and when I say blasted, I mean at ear drum-cracking volume. Cumbia, Salsa, whatever it was it was good, and the liquids did their darndest to make it better, but really were they necessary in such an insistant atmosphere?
Girls sprayed me with foam and and a man smeared corn starch all over my face. Later, somewhow, I ended up with a blue beard and a yellow painted mustache. So did everyone else. And the party continued. I stood around in a small store with a whole family, the father of whom insisted over and over again on buying me Aguila beers. And so it went.
And the old drunks who followed us around, grabbing at our arms in their version of amistad, trying to make us theirs. But we let the girls win and we moved our feet like they did and made weird faces at the young ones staring at us from the curb. Someone decided to spray perfume in my eyes, which I dont think is part of the tradition, but alas, so it goes.
In the morning everyone packed and I cooked some chilapees (just flour, water, oil and alt dough fried in a pan). Lucas showed up and he look like he’d been in a crash. I cooked us up some carrot-onion-egg-oil-spices-concoction.
“How was your night Lucas?” asking as insistently as possible.
“Yea it was ok, but her kid was there, and she was really high, kept smoking her heroine man.”
I told Lucas he should come with me, but he was in a hurry to get back to Ecuador. So the days were over, our week with Ivan was ending, and we all said goodbye, exchanged emails, etc etc… you know, the routine of travelers. Carnaval was over, and two buses later, I was back on the road.
I had jumped on a bus with Ivan into Barranquilla, then I separated, said farewell, and continued on another bus back to the bridge whre Oswaldo had dropped me. From there, twilight was approaching and it was not ok to stay in the area, so I jumped on another bus that took me to the next town out. I walked until dusk, until a field showed itself to me, and I jumped the fence, snuck across to the some bushes and a foamy polluted stream, pitched the tent and passed out.
The next day I waited many, many hours, with only one ride to a town 20 kilometers on. I went down to the river in the pueblito to wash my face, but ascended when a man approached who I did not grok. Hours waiting next to a speedbump. Hours, and hours and hours and more hours passing every minute it seemed. And then a small private white car stopped. Brayan and Federaldo. I scrunched into the backseat of the coupe. Most of the ride was us listening to music. We stopped here and there for corn cobbs or bags of water. We didn’t talk much, except for when I mentioned I had a sister Federaldo’s age. Then they were happy to talk about trying to convince her to come marry him. (Hey sis, sorry in advance if you get some strange Spanglish messages on facebook). We drove for many hours, and during the night they crashed in a hotel and I passed out under the roof of a ice cream parlor. I talked with the boss of the place, feeling strange with my shirt off as he told me I should share a room with his daughter. I decided not to (I think she was 14 or something like this. I remember something Simon had remarked: “all the girls here are so beautiful, man… well, at least until they reach adulthood and children… you know, 18 or 19″).
That night the clouds let fall their moisture. The rain seems to prefer the night. The tin roof gave a voice to the fury of the storm. But I slept into the muted dawn.
The next day I hopped back in the same car with the guys, and 6 hours down the road, we discovered that the bridge to Bogota was closed due to the storm. So I went with them on a detour around to Ibague. From there I walked out of town, our goodbye not very interesting. Sometimes that’s how it is.
I spoke with a few people at a gas station, to no avail. But as I walked down the road, one of the cars pulled up and had changed their minds; and they were going Bogota way. Ricardo and his wife were very devout, but didn’t force their beliefs on me. Instead they showed me. They showed me with a generous offer of biscochuelo, which is a bread made from eggs, and a taste of cheese ice cream, which they bought as we waited in a long line for our turn to cross the one-lane bridge. That bridge looked like it would be swept away by the chocolate rage below. I wouldn’t kayak it.
They let me off in a small mountain town outside of Bogota, as I did not want to enter the city at night. Bogota restricts cars entering the city. Depending on the final digit of your license plate, you can only enter the city at certain hours. I asked around in this small town and eventually found a place to camp above what seemed to be a falling apart and unfinished bullring. I slept well this night, as the cool air of the mountains arrived and relaxed my spirits.
In the morning I discovered that my new boots had fought their first battle: fresh cow shit. I had also forgotten about dew. Note to self: place socks within your boots.
I instantly met Diego at the panaderia nearby and he agreed to take me into the city. Our conversation totalled about twice as much as all the conversations I shared with Brayan and Federaldo combined. We discussed the war years. He told me that only 5 years before, the road we were travelling could not be travelled, as it was patrolled by guerrillas, the FARC. He told me stories. He once had a farm but the FARC tried to make him produce heroine, like they did his neighbor, so he fled. He told stories of the combatants fighting and him having to take shelter behind his truck as the battle raged. He once was made to transport soldiers of the FARC. I told him it was surprising he came out of all that without a scratch. He agreed.
When I left Diego’s slow moving truck (he was hauling paper anyway), I jumped right into a city bus heading for the terminal. Bus stations are like airports, not the typical Greyhound station I might find in the states. This terminal was quite large, in fact larger than many airports. I walked in circles, finding internet here and there, finding the minutos to call my new host in the city, Sofi. I spoke with her briefly on the phone, had the address and what turned out to be a very out-dated map of the city, and hopped on another city bus.
I looked at the city from the high roads we took. Bogota hugs a large landmass to the west, or, rather, is hugged by it. I am excited to see the city, but I promised myself I wouldn’t stay longer than two days, as it seems to be my weakness to stay too long in metropolises.
After wandering the streets asking everyone where her place was after I came off the bus, I finally realized the falty map. But find her I did! Like every encounter through CS I’ve ever had, this was a lovely surprise. My film-crazy host full of smiles and well-wishes already. The other surprise was that I was not the only guest. My French friend Lucas from Campeche was also staying with her! What luck that I get to chat about the book he gave me. You know, I have to keep up my French somehow. I will have read more French books on this trip than Spanish ones.
So, my fingers are spent and night is upon us here. The night sky, another one of our reminders that Time is. So I will go, not hurried, but quickly, and always enjoying, and trying to remember that there is more of everything than I can imagine. That should be motivation enough to keep on truckin’. Peace.