Feb 14-24, 2014
I’ve already said this in the last post, but I figure it’s worth mentioning again. Colombia is a very different and unique place. One of the first things you notice (and that is really missing from the other countries) is how there are newsstands everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, used and new books are sold on most corners, if not on the floor next to hippie bracelets. And you think, huh, finally a place where people really like to read.
The second thing you notice, is the joy people have. They are genuinely happy, and helpful and interested. If there was one country that got the worst rep before leaving but turned out to be the complete opposite, it’s Colombia. Dealing with paperwork in government offices, as a foreigner, is not so much a chore anymore, but a task. Sure, the running back and forth is the same as in Mexico or Panama, but the people here make the difference. They joke with each other, and they joke with you. They know we’re all in this together, so we might as well not dwell on negativity, but try to make it insignificant with a laugh or two.
Before leaving NYC, I vowed to get a haircut in Aracataca – the village Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ grew up in. Besides the whole ‘seeing where magical realism was born’ bit, it was one of those missions you set yourself when you go on a long trip. And, haircuts are a lot like driving long-distance – a precious time when you’re on auto-pilot and you can let your mind wander, without any outside annoyances. Choosing where you get your haircut matters, sometimes. Of course, when I get to Cartagena, I forget about the whole thing and I get a haircut within minutes of stepping out on the street. It’s one of the many things I will forget these months, in-between flip-flops, glasses, camera chargers, and other paraphernalia.
Driving to Aracataca takes me through the Tayrona National Park, on the north coast of Colombia. I’m told repeatedly that I need to stop there and hike, because it’s so beautiful. Colombian traffic being what Colombian traffic is, I arrive late at night, and the park is closed. I’m told to keep driving 10 minutes to the Los Angeles beach, a little known spot where you can camp on the beach. There are toilets, hammocks, and more importantly – hot breakfast. I turn off onto a bumpy dirt road, the headlights bouncing up and down onto giant red and green plants. I feel like I’m entering Jurassic Park.
In the morning, I get out of my tent to the sights and sounds of giant waves breaking on the beach. I grab my GoPro and go around splashing like a 5-year-old. There’s a ‘no-swimming at all times’ sign, and it’s quickly easy to see why. There’s a strong suction thing going on, and even though I’m in only to my belly button, every time a wave goes back out, I’m pulled a good 4-5 feet deeper and to the side. It feels like a workout to get back to where I was. I pack up and go hiking to the park, where after a long, strenuous, hot, humid, ankle-twisting 2 hour hike, I finally make it to the first camping point. When I first set out, I see all these red-faced, sweating backpackers coming out from the park, and think what woosies, surely it can’t be that bad. When I come out with the same drenched and exhausted face, the people I pass look at me and ask how much longer. They’re already sweating, and when I laugh and say another hour or so, you can see them wondering what the hell they’re doing there. But in the end, it’s all worth it. It is to this day, one of the most impressing sights, pure jungle with sharp cliffs making way into a gnarly Caribbean sea.
Aracataca is no longer Aracataca. At least not the one Gabo grew up in. Now, it’s a mishmash of scooters and mopeds all staring at you, set to backdrops of red and blue, hand-painted political murals. But still, the people I meet, and the people who let me park in their yard, are very polite and supremely civilized. Once, before modernism, you could see how this was just a plain old country village, where as a kid you could never in a million years become bored. I stay at the Gypsy Residence, a self-proclaimed magical realism hostel, but one that is closing in two weeks due to lack of tourists. The hosts, a Dutch-Colombian married couple are very nice, and at night, some local officials come in to sit down and talk some politics. Just like in One Hundred Years of Solitude, politics still play a big part of life in Colombia, especially in these rural areas. I hear how a little while ago, somebody misspoke of a politician and had his farm set on fire – it escaped with minor burns. In the morning, I ask to take the Gypsy Residence tour of Aracataca, but even at $50, Tim, the owner, is not bothered enough to give it. So I set off on my own, visiting the Gabo house (museum) and the Telegraph house, where Gabo’s father worked when he met his mother – the story of which is pretty much “Love in the time of Cholera”.
And apparently, there’s still a Macondo tree somewhere in the village. Why there’s just one, or why most of the people I ask look at me like I’m crazy, I don’t know. Finding it is not easy – I’m going off a picture and the fact that it’s close to a school. I walk around like a madman trying to find this tree, which when hugged, will give you great amounts of Buena Fortuna. I finally find it, but not before I walk into the courtyard of the (high) school, in full lunch-break mode, and try exiting through a closed gate. I walk back out pretending I knew all along it was locked. I get to the tree, which is in the middle of the street, across a café with old men sitting outside. They’ve already spotted me, the only gringo in town by a mile, dodging traffic to get to the median, where the tree is. Becoming self-conscious, I refrain from giving it a full hug, and settle for a good pat, the kind you give someone who has done a good job. I say ‘Hello’ and hope it’s enough to get me back to Cartagena. In retrospect, I probably should’ve given it a full hug, since on my way out of Aracataca, I get stopped at an army checkpoint and get a knife stolen by one of the soldiers. Lesson learned: if you can give a full hug, go for it.
I spend one more day in Cartagena and then head to Medellin, with a layover in Caucasia, which going by the name, I figure has to be pretty safe for gringos. At the hostel back in Cartagena, I saw two BMW motorcycles with German flags masking California license plates, and the same bikes arrive here a few minutes after. We get the same cheapo hotel on the side of the road, and share stories over a few beers. I tell them about Harry, the New Yorker who disappeared along with his motorcycle while travelling though Mexico, and the two Germans, in typical German fashion, shrug it off as bad luck. For them, the west coast of Mexico was safe enough – but you had to be careful and know very well where you went. I buy it and I kinda don’t. We also talk about the things we packed, and what we needed and what we didn’t and their limited trunk space, compared to mine. I’m asked, “Zo, did you bring an egg-cooker with you?” I have no idea what an egg-cooker is, but I’m given a thorough explaining of the efficiencies at play when cooking an egg with an egg cooker. I ask them if they brought one, and two faces turn sad simultaneously, “We forgot”. A great bunch of guys, and if you speak German, you can follow their travels here.
I skip Bogota (I’m really getting tired of big cities) and go straight to Medellin. An infamous and famous town for many reasons, it sports the only subway in Colombia, which I board the first chance I get. It’s a big, impressive town, offset by spreading favelas on the outskirts. It’s also where I decide to take the car for a checkup and an oil change. Even though I’m already in the center of the city, it takes me an hour to get to the Volvo dealership, (the first on the trip so far – there might be one in El Salvador). The way the streets are laid out is the most non-sensical ever. God forbid you might want to make a left, you have to keep driving for half an hour to do it. Or you could make a right and circle the block, but since one-ways don’t alternate, it’s more like 4 blocks, and with the traffic and complete lack of any rules, it will take you the same amount of time. I’m also hoping my license plate has the right numbers at the end, and I’m able to drive into the city, since most days only have odd or even numbers allowed.
At the dealership I’m greeted by Tomas, the after-sales manager, and soon, most of the people there gather as well to look at this completely caked in dust and mud Volvo from New York. I need new front brakes, which is not a surprise since I drove through Mexico. When they let air out of the tires, the mechanic yells for everyone to come over and breathe some American air. The oil change is $200, which sounds crazy, but then you find out how much a new Volvo costs (almost double the price of a US one) and the fact that gas is so expensive, and you learn to accept this and other facts, like how it’s possible for so many people to have cars with these prices. I leave the car at the dealership overnight, and Tomas is nice enough to take me to the hostel in a brand new, white XC60. The acceleration is mind-boggling. I’m asked if I have any plans for the night, and I’m offered a tour of Medellin later.
As promised, Tomas shows up with his girlfriend, Catalina, and they take me to an overlook of the city, where we have some agua panela and some choclo arepas with meat skewers, served by vendors with walkie-talkies. From this height, and in the fog of night, surrounded by large hills, Medellin and its millions of flickering lights, looks striking. I’m really starting to appreciate Colombian hospitality, and now I know what Gerard meant. The next day I go back to the dealership, where the general manager has come to take pictures of the car. The friendliness and overall generosity, especially that of Tomas and Catalina, are overwhelming. In addition, since this is a trip for charity, I’m only charged for parts.
After a few nights in Medellin (where I also get my driver’s side mirror stolen, in one of the most safest neighborhoods with a guard on the street), I reach Cali late at night. You can already feel the change from Medellin, this town is grimier, and rougher-looking, and even though it’s supposed to be amazing for salsa, I’m in no mood. I spend the next day walking around, visiting a mall for some giant sculptures of famous people. On the way out of Cali, I also visit a replica of the Cristo statue in Rio de Janeiro. The sights are breathtaking.
I keep driving on, to Pasto, which I cannot say much about. In the morning I reach Ipiales, and go visit the Las Lajas sanctuary, a beautiful basilica church and cathedral, built after 1916, in a canyon. Climbing the steps back up to the parking lot, I have my first encounter with high altitude. I don’t understand why, but after 20 steps or so, I already have to stop and catch my breath. It’s the weirdest feeling ever. You’re taking the same breaths as you always are, but something’s not there anymore. And although you’re gulping plenty of air, you mostly feel like a fish out of water.
The border crossing into Ecuador is one of the easiest ever, and as usual here in Colombia, the female immigration agent flirts with me about Romania, vampires, and whether or not we really have castles.
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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.