Cartagena, like I’ve already mentioned, is a jewel. I was amazed to learn that it fell to invading forces at one point, because the walls truly are magnificent. There are also two fortresses proteceting the waterways surrounding the town. I spent some time sitting on the wall, looking out over the new development. I wondered what it must’ve been like when all the town was inside the walls and outside was nothing more than some shacks and fields. This reflection reminded me of Carcasonne, France, a medieval fortress city surrounded by vineyards. I was chased off one of those fields by a flashlight-yielding farmer.
Walking through the city, there is a beat that pumps, that moves the buildings and the people. The tall colonial structures might as well be dancing together, they are so near each other. The places that are open for sitting are pleasant, and there is always an ocean breeze winding through the narrow streets. It is hot. I watched some dancers shake faster than Shakira, their bodies like crystals from the perspiration.
I met all the folks from the sailing trip in the city center. They treated me to a 7-UP, somehow aware that I was back to being the cheapskate I have to be. I found my passport at their hostel and strolled back down the long stretch of road to the marina, there to paddle my floppy dingy over crisp water to the sail boat. I was still wobbling back and forth from the movement of the waves.
One morning I woke to a downpour and quickly shut the hatches. The dingy was flooded and I had to bail it out. Later in the evening I met the others once more, for a proper birthday dinner at their hostel. Francesca and Helena and the others cooked up a delicious meal and even had chocolate to boot. I sipped on Chilean red wine.
The walk back to the marina took me past the prostitutes who saw slouching between their legs on the curbs. They were hideous, poor souls. “Hey you white man five dollar suck suck!”.
The next day was elections. Alcohol was not being sold due to the “dry law”. Hmm. I walked around, drew some people, and sat on a park bench watching kids play soccer. At one point one kid yells out “quitense!” and the whole park runs toward me! I clambered to my feet and turned around to see all the dozens of people running down the road. Apparently when two girls get into a fist fight it’s a fun event. Everyone was smiling as one woman slammed her fist into the others face multiple times before the police broke them up. They were also hideous!
The next day was marked by one event in particular.
Continuing to eat a piece of meat off a stick that you have just discovered is not totally cooked is a bad idea, especially when you bought it from a cowering crow of a man who took you for all he could. After spending a final night with the others from the boat, I walked with a heavy heart and painful stomach back to the marina, there to spend a hellish night.
Diarrhea is an understatement. When your body is discharging liquid from your rectum as though it was aspiring to be a fire hose, and when in the middle of this training, your body forces you to suddenly spin around and open another fire hose from your mouth into the same receptacle, then it is no longer just diarrhea that we’re talking about. Rather, this is more like one of Dante’s levels of hell, in the abridged version.
I ended up making it through that night, because luckily I had two pills left over from Raquel’s mom in Tegucigalpa. I would spend one more night on the boat before finally saying goodbye to Cartagena, and working my way south. A new adventure awaits.
Having that stomach ache reminded me of ice cream. I used to eat a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream in one sitting, plopped in front of the TV watching free Om-Demand movies. Kevin Costner movies more often than not. I’m missing home more and more these days.
Ice cream was on my mind as I packed my bag, rowed the leaky dingy one last time to the dingy dock, and began walking. I thought about taking a bus out of the city, but all transport in Colombia is more expensive and I didn’t feel like spending 50 cents. So I walked, out of the condo-crazy marina area, through the long avenues near downtown, and into the beginnings of the outskirts of town. The outskirts of town are easy to find. Usually, they are filled with sprawling market stalls and hoards of people. Cartagena was no different. Along the way, several people told me it was dangerous to be there.
A quick note of what is dangerous: everything. Or, well, everything and nothing. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about this. If someone says an area is dangerous, it usually means that that area is dangerous if I’m walking on a lonely street away from crowds, or if it’s nighttime. Therefore, when people come up to me on a main street bustling with people and say it’s dangerous, I don’t care. It’s not nighttime, and there are people everywhere. Maybe it’s dangerous for my pockets, but that’s it. Or if my luck is bad, then maybe it’s dangerous, but that, my friend, we can never tell. If you my reader are disagreeing with me, then you are probably the kind of person who might come up to me and tell me that “there, it’s dangerous.”
I walked and I walked and I walked. I reached the end of the city below a bridge, and I kept walking. It rained, and I walked. My thumb was up but my luck was down, and I ended up walking so far out of the city, that when I turned around at one point, I realized I had been walking upward, and there in the distance Cartagena glistened like a gem, the tall condos waving goodbye.
A tree branch crashed not 2 feet from me, and that’s when I really began to get annoyed at my luck. It was 2pm and I’d walked since 7am. I walked on, and I walked until sundown. Ladies and gentlemen, in the first time in my hitching career, I went an entire day without one single ride.
It goes without saying that I was forming assumptions about the people in my head. They were over friendly when I could get to talking with them, but why weren’t any of them stopping? Also, where were all the semis? I did not see one on the road. As it turns out, my destination was a highway that connected the northern mega polis Barranquilla (of Shakira fame) with the southern city of Medellin, my destination, and that highway is where I would find the semis.
The day ended in a city called Turbaco. I’d walked all the 20 some miles uphill, and I was needless to say, quite pooped. At a restaurant I asked about places to pitch tent. A woman gave me directions to where her house was under construction and instructed me to ask the farmer across the road. So, 15 minutes later I was chatting with Oscar.
Oscar had no front teeth, and every other word was “senor,” out of respect, as he told me. Our conversation was straight out of No Country For Old Men, when the oil tycoon arrives at the ranch to go “camping” with his son.
I slept that night in my tent, the air slightly fresher than down below. I played with my headlamp and pushed around a beetle twice the size of one of my thumbs, and then I let sleep take hold of my eyes.
In the morning I walked to the other side of Turbaco, about an hour and a half or so. I stopped to eat a strange foodstuff. It was an egg and meat fried together inside a shiny yellow crust. Tasty.
Hours passed as I sat at various spots. When hitchhiking, if you are not getting picked up, it feels better to move. Regardless of where you are, as long as there is space for cars to stop, the one who is going to pick you up will. It is simply a matter of time. Pressure and time (Shawshank, anyone?). It took a lot of time and the pressure built up to where I almost jumped on one of the million or so buses passing me by when finally a big white truck pulled over with two people up front.
They were deliverymen and they were quite the pair. Pardon the continuous use of metaphors and analogies from the movies, but you’re about to hear another. Jose-Luis and Dewis where exactly like Timon and Pumba, from The Lion King. Jose-Luis looked like Timon, and had a high voice and skinny neck, and a narrow chin that could open a soda pop. He looked like the skinny awkward guy from Road Trip (again, sorry). Dewis was a short 22 year old with dark black skin and a smile that probably delights all the ladies. He was quieter and listened to Jose-Luis intently, kind of like Pumba would listen to Timon. The most surprising thing was when they both began telling me about the phrase “con su avena y su pitillo compadre.” This phrase translates into “with your oats and your straw, friend.” It means be cool, and refers to a drink that tastes like a milkshake, made of oats. It could be the Colombia Spanish translation of “Hakuna Matata.” It’s means no worries, for the rest of your dayyyzzzz.. it’s our problem freeeeee… Philosophyyyy.. Hakuna matata!!
I decided to stick with these guys when we reached my highway, helping them deliver coffee to small shops all around town. Yup, I got to deliver coffee in Colombia. I dug these guys, and what is more is that they were overly generous. They treated me to that avena drink, a chunk of cake (I’d mentioned my birthday). Meanwhile I took note of my surrounds. Colombian towns have mostly dirt roads, or dirty roads. There are tons of motorbike taxis, and guys running around with tool cases filled with thermos´ of coffee and tea to serve in small plastic goblets. Colors are everywhere, in clothing, in the paint of the buildings. In the air itself!
I was almost too quick to judge based on my not getting rides. Yes, not getting rides says something about the culture of the place, or the events of the place, but as a hitcher, I have to keep my cool and remember that most people that I know probably wouldn’t stop for me either.
After 4 hours helping out Timon and Pumba, we continued down the road to the next town. They treated me to lunch, a goodbye meal of meat, rice, banana, and melon water. Jose-Luis had a twinkle in his eye and usually smiled at the side of his mouth. I said my goodbyes to my favorite Colombian pair so far, and walked down the road.
As if irony had nothing better to do, it pulled its weight just to surprise me. After a day without rides, this following day I met an incredible pair, and then when I left them, the first trucker I walked up to agreed to take me further down the road.
Dario was the trucker’s name, and he gave me a 3 hour ride. We drove into the night, but I had made sure he was taking me somewhere where there was a brightly lit gas station, as I don’t like walking around the highway in the dark looking for where to jump the fence (to pitch my tent or to catch shut eye in the grass).
Dario had slightly bulging eyes which seemed to complement his tummy. He might be a sex addict. His eyelids would fall to half-open and a slice of grin would form across his face when he saw a piece of flesh he liked. He would holler at the flesh and ring his head to follow it as we drove by. At one point, when we had stopped at where they clean your trailer, I thought I overheard a conversation about the best hookers in town.
The 3 hours passed by and I was standing once again at the side of the road, the dark of night engulfing the scene. This area was known as the “J” because it was an intersection of highways. There was a large gas station in the middle, surrounded by dimly-lit restaurants with silhouetted figures at their fronts. I was dropped off next to a trailer parking lot.
A hazy blue-eyed old man signaled the gas station as a better choice to sleep when I asked to crash in the lot. I went to the gas station and lay out my sleeping bag under some lights next to one of the walls of the now closed store. It would be hard to see me from anywhere but where the cars fill up, but that didn’t stop several prostitutes from coming over and trying to convince me to sleep in the shadows, and maybe treating myself to a happy ending to a happy day. The cops don’t bother the prostitutes, and so I assume that prostitution is legal…
Well I didn’t bother taking any of the ladies up on their offers, but my night didn’t end there. In the middle of the night I woke with a start. My pill had worn off. I won’t repeat the details, but I had the attendant open the bathroom, where I hung out for a few hours before finally deciding to take my last pill. I slept on high alert.
The morning was fresh and cool. I had made it through the night without incident and now I felt ready to get this hitch underway. My feet were tired from the other day’s walk, and my socks still damp from the sweat. In addition, they had massive holes that stretch from one end to the other. I wonder sometimes if I might be said to “walk hard.”
I packed my sleeping bag, said goodbye to the attendants and strolled over to the first big semi I saw parked alongside the road. I caught the driver as he was climbing into the cab.
“Tengo una pregunta.”
“You headed that way?” with a hand motion south.
“Can you take me?”
“Subate. Get in.”
It was 6:00 a.m. and I had just gotten the quickest ride I have ever gotten. So far, in two days Colombia has presented me with my record extremes. Now all I needed was to get picked up by a supermodel.
So I hopped in the cab, crossed my legs on top of the gas cans that were occupying my foot room, and we were underway. David was his name, and he was an Elmer Fudd type of character. He played the tour guide from time to time, and everything he said was accompanied by a slap of my arm and a tilt of the brow. His default facial expression showed a strange mix of fear and curiosity, but his laugh was low and steady, “Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Not far down the road we stopped for a meal, which he treated me to. It was a delicious chicken cooked in coconut milk and spiced with saffron and mustard seed. Fellow truckers nodded and huffed with smiles as David explained who I was and what I was doing.
And then we drove. From time to time we stopped. Once, we stopped at a “llantera” where they fix tires, “llantas”, and I passed out on a wobbly bench under a shady tree. Another time the oil filter blew off and we stopped at a curve in the middle of the one-lane highway, where I got to play signal man while David fixed the rig. I would tell you that I almost crashed two cars together, but to tell you the truth Colombians are the craziest drivers I’ve yet come across. They pass each other at high speed and I’m constantly witnessing what in the States would be “near collisions.” That is; double line, dotted line, whatever the line is, it means that “it’s ok to pass”.
The scenery slowly began to change shape. From flat and broad paysage with strange fatty trees, we passed into curvy roads sided by steep hills of hairy tropical foliage. A deep red chocolate river snaked to our left, following us like a spy through the canyons. On one stretch, pressure fountains of water squirted into the air from hoses, signaling where you could get your car washed. The hoses were fed from the many streams tumbling down the rocks and under the highway, a bucket set at the base of the falls to divert the water to a reservoir. I wonder if it was one person who came up with, and then it worked, and then all his neighbors copied him. That would be too bad, I’m sure he lost a lot of friends.
Later, David purchased lunch: a simple soup with rice. If you’re wondering why it’s always truckers who dish out the most cash for their passengers, it’s because much of the time the company pays their travel expenses. Other times, they’re just the best people to travelers. Other times, maybe it’s the individual who makes a good impression. I’d like to think the latter.
Almost every town we passed through David explained that “fue de los guerrillas” and “fue muy peligroso”: “the guerillas ran this place, it was very dangerous.” He was referring to the rebels and the paramilitaries, who have been fighting for four decades. David told me that the towns we passed through were some of the most violent in the country not 4 or 5 years ago. In one town, he said he used to pass through with his eyes fixed squarely on the road, as a bad look could bring horrible consequences.
We came to a town he called “the worst of them all,” but which was beautifully perched on a bend in the chocolate beast, a single-lane yellow bridge suspended close to the body of the chocolaty gook. The FARC still exist, as do the paramilitaries (I’ve yet to meet anyone who likes either one, and most agree that the paramilitaries are worse), but a recent death in the FARC ranks seems to have changed the course of things. There is also a new president, Santos, who is continuing the policies of his predecessor, Uribe, since they were so successful. That is, in 5 years, places that I would’ve “surely been captured or executed” are now safe for me to walk around in.
From the canyons of the chocolate river, we rose suddenly up onto the foothills of a majesty I hope to soon to behold: the Andes. These foothills set an amazing scene. They were giants. They’d fallen asleep and become part of the earth, and then someone built roads and dug plots on them. The roads are winding, and you can see for dozens of miles across the gap to the next giant hill.
We rose slowly. The speed I can only describe as wagon train. We were going wagon train speed. I worried from time to time about my stomach as the ride was like sitting on a washing machine, churning my insides. But it came to nothing as the flatland disappeared in the distance and we were, like that, lost in the clouds, without but 10 feet of visibility. The climate seemed to enhance the hurt of seeing houses built of branches and black plastic, with old broken women in chairs begging for change from the passing trucks. David tossed out bills here and there.
After an hour of this, we rose further; out of the mist and rejoining the sun in a Dijon hew. The rig plateaued and puffed a sound of relief, the first time in 4 hours that it was not trudging skyward. It was nighttime now, and cold. It has been over a year since I felt cold like that. I was in my element.
With David I drank a warm sugary and brown bowl of hot water. Then I laid out my sleeping bag under the rig and passed out, expecting him to wake me in several hours to say goodbye (I did not want to arrive in Medellin in the middle of the night).
I slept like a baby curled up in my bag, and when David woke me, I was surprised to learn it was 5:00 a.m. He had decided to sleep long enough to wait to take me so that I’d arrive in the morning. What a nice guy. He warmed the engine and we were off.
An hour down the road, we drank “tinto”, which is what the Colombians call coffee. I don’t drink much coffee, but that coffee, I know, was good. Maybe all the coffee here is good. I suppose that remains to be seen. David seems to know everyone at the places we stop. That happens with lots of truckers, since they usually have the same route and their acquaintances eventually become friends. He introduced me to everyone as “Escoses” “Scottish,” since I’d explained my ancestry.
Two hours of highflying down the other side of the foothills would bring me to Medellin. It was a tough journey, as the speed was the same patience-breaking wagon train haul, and the echo of the engine break off rocky cliffs was deafening. We stopped once more, and I pressure-washed the trailer while David disappeared to take a shower. And an hour later I was alone, walking a busy street in Medellin, after 17 hours in David’s cab.
And here I sit, in a library I found on the side of the road where computer usage is free. And here in Medellin I will stay, and I will stay with a CS named Sonya. Halloween is in a few days, and it’s celebrated here. I wonder what my next post will look like. I almost can’t wait to write it.