7/20/19 – 7/29/119
I’d been building Colombia up in my mind for weeks. The chaos of densely populated Central American towns had left me yearning for a bit of desolation. In my head, I had painted it to be a place where we could slip away from civilization again. I had no basis for this except that the Andes seemed like a lonely place. They were several days from the Caribbean coast though.
Saturday is a good day to arrive in Cartagena. Old men sit at round plastic tables on the sidewalks in what I would call a Panama hat but here it appears to be the Colombia hat. They sip beers and rum and play dominoes. Some just stand there in their white canvas pants with canes and sunglasses; smiles and nods to greet all that pass. All the radios playing salsa.
After ten days of sitting on a boat we were ready to dust the legs off and only spent one day exploring. We visited the original fortified city and the Museo de Inquisition. Latin Americans don’t pull punches in accusations of their conquerors. There is a different sense of national identity than in a country that did the conquering.
Highway 90B to sleepy San Onofre. Soph hits a rock as a truck passes, slips off her bike, and almost gets hit. The heat is debilitating. San Onofre to Santa cruz de Lorica. We turn on a little dirt road to get away from the main highway traffic. It starts out well packed but descends to mud from recent rain. Soph has so much earth caked between her tire and fender that she can’t pedal. We lose nearly an hour trying to scrape it all off.
Fresh fish in Tolú. Caribbean style. Old man drops a platter of the morning’s catch on our table, asks us which we want, and then returns in 15 minutes after cleaning it, frying it, and adding some plantains and rice to the side. Roads filled with motos. Hundreds. Hectic, but nice to see a world not ruled by cars. More military check points than in the last five thousand miles. Dog on the roadside breathing heavy with a broken leg.
Camp at a gas station/restaurant compound. The owner, Richard, constructs a shower from an inflatable pool, a hose, and a storage room. I tell him we’re riding across both American continents and he waves a finger and says, “No, one continent, one people.” We eat the best fried fish to be found at any fuel station while his daughter pretends to sweep the floors and dances around. Gasoline fumes fill the air and I can’t help but wonder how much of the dancing is due to childish energy and how much a result of huffing fumes all day.
Montería. Surrounded by hundreds of motos as we enter town. We learn that a world ruled by motorcycles is a world of anarchy. They ride precariously close and nudge us to the glass shard ridden shoulder. One bumps me, ever so slightly, as we take off from a light. It is like riding through an asteroid field. A youngster in a school uniform on a rusty BMX bike holds onto the back of one and catches a free lift. An old man with an old red mountain bike weaves in and out of a bike lane littered with coffee carts and delivery trucks without once checking for traffic. Everything moving seems to adjust in perfect harmony with him.
Caucasia. Not worth remembering.
At seven minutes past ten in the morning on July twenty seventh we got our first glimpse of the Andes. From so many dozens of miles away they looked mostly like peaceful green hills. There were a few peaks pressing through the clouds though. I pedaled harder, thinking a bit of training might do me well. We kept a pace of more than twenty five kilometers an hour for quite some time as we chased along the Rio Cauca. Military checkpoints everywhere. Occasionally we’d see soldiers sweeping fields just off the road. They always returned our smiles and waves.
We passed through Puerto Raudal, a clapboard and burnt down shack kind of town, and almost certainly heard gunshots. Somebody yelled something that sounded like a warning, but I decided he was probably trying to sell us something and kept pushing.
We cross a bridge with some soldiers standing on one side of it. Up the river I can see kids playing in the water, parents drinking beers, and a few small buildings. Colombian soul blares from a scratchy old speaker. I ask the soldiers if there is a safe place to camp. They laugh. One waves his finger, "no," he says. Three of them start talking at once. I gather that they are there to keep order because there is imminent danger lurking in the jungle. They tell us there are some rooms for rent where everyone is playing in the water. One of them comes over and puts his hand on my handlebars as an assertion of force and authority.
“Te gusta Marijuana,” he asks quietly. I was caught off guard and asked him to repeat himself. He tells me I can smoke there and asks if I want to. I say no. I didn't catch everything, but it seemed like perhaps he was trying to sell me weed.
We get a room in what seemed to be a family's home. After a beer and a swim with the teenagers we put our things away and relax the day away. I like when we move fast like this without stops. We often finish riding two hours earlier and I find that much more relaxing. I notice a bullet on the ground next to me while I’m reading, but decide not to speculate.
All the kids are intrigued by us. They walk up, ask questions, and then run away laughing. A twenty year old named Lionel warns us about the police in Medellin and then asks me what “fucking cunt” means in English. I ask him where he learned it and he tells me from pornos. I try to tell him it is a derogatory phrase.
“Tenemos muchas frases derogotorios en Espanol,” he tells me and proceeds to teach me some. As it gets dark Lionel, a young woman, and an older man jump into the river with spears and flashlights. Almost instantly he surfaces with dinner.
Shortly after we passed through Puerto Valdivia, the climbing began. On several particularly steep sections people would run out from their houses and give us a push from behind. They were so on point it felt as if they sat around all day just waiting for cyclists to give a small boost to. The higher we get the colder it became. Three degrees for every thousand feet. The sweat on my shirt begins to chill my body. What were once distant clouds become omnipresent fog. Less than 50 feet of visibility. Vehicles drive slowly, but still pass on the 90 degree turns. The surprise of two semi-trucks appearing from the mist only thirty feet in front of you as one passes the other and takes up your entire lane on a shoulderless mountain switchback forces one to develop a certain degree of faith in the revocation of commercial driver’s licenses for involuntary manslaughter in the developing world. Still, there is no taste like that of a high mountain fog. Somewhere between pure oxygen and a cool glass of water.
We pass some houses that have been completely wrapped in plastic, presumably to keep the moisture out. As we reach Altas de Ventanas a cyclist passes from the other direction. His head is bleeding. He has a race uniform on. He doesn’t seem interested in stopping to chat. The town is nothing but a truck stop dropped on a ridge line between two peaks with endless views of mountain tops all around. God’s truck stop. Two dollar plates of rice and beans with scrambled eggs and our first taste of agua panella, a sweet tea made from cane sugar.
We woke up to sunrise over the Andes. The foggy window of our room turned a bright pink. I walked up and down the short strip of restaurants, mechanics, and food stands. The sun came out for the first time in what felt like weeks after the previous day’s fog and I watched as the steam from the dew boiled off the asphalt and mixed with that of dogs pissing on semi-truck tires while their owners drank coffee and ate chorizo and arepas.
All the old women running restaurant and hotels are either mathematicians or opening themselves up for gross accounting errors. One night's stay, 2 dinners, a bottle of rum, 2 cups of tea, and 2 breakfasts.
She looks at the ceiling for a split second, hums, and answers, "69,000 pesos." About twenty three dollars.
Roadsides speckled with little springs and waterfalls. Milk jugs placed at the bottom of some with hoses attached to pipe water to roadside shanties. We arrive at a town called Yarumal. Strangely enormous to be in the Andes with an imposing zebra striped church looming over the central plaza. I took a walk through town after we found a room and meet a toothless tramp named Julio who seemed slightly drunk and gave me a convoluted sob story of being taken to the states by his mother as a child and then spending ten years in prison and being deported after being framed for drug possession. I was waiting for him to ask for money, but at the end of it all he shook my hand and wished me well.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to create a mission. Something relatively mundane but one that you can undertake with absolute focus. I needed a magnet to re-calibrate the compass in the drone. It had been giving errors and apparently waving a magnet over it is a last ditch effort before dishing out two hundred bucks for a new navigation board. I went to a hardware store. They sent me to the electrical store. The man gave me the magnet for free. A person standing next to me with a bag of yellow wire nuts asked him "do you know why the magnets attract and repel each other?" I found their mountain accents incredibly difficult to follow but got the gist of their conversation.
“Why?” the shopkeeper said. “This is a good question but you have to understand that it is a slippery slope that does not end until it reaches the limits of your understanding or at least satisfies your curiosity.” The young man raised an eyebrow and the shop owner continued.
“Suppose you took your mother to the hospital because she broke her ankle. I might ask you ‘Why did you take your mother to the hospital?’ to which you would explain that she fell on some stairs and twisted her ankle.” He paused as if to see if we were following him. Nobody seemed to be, but he continued.
“This would all seem reasonable to me because I’m human and I understand what an ankle is and that it can break, or more accurately that you can sprain the ligaments of the foot, and what a hospital is, but imagine the questions I would have if I were an alien. ‘Why did her ankle break? Why did you take her to the hospital? What is a hospital?’”
I felt obligated to listen since he’d given me the magnet for free.
“Why did fall she on the stairs?” he was now shouting. “You could tell me that the stairs were icy and ice is slippery and maybe that satisfies me,” his voice quieted a bit, “but suppose I ask ‘Why is ice slippery?’” He paused and we all thought about it.
“Now we’re involved in something. There aren’t many things as slippery as ice, especially solids. It is in the case of ice, or so people that are paid to understand these things say, that when you stand on it and apply pressure to it, the surface layer melts ever so slightly and creates a film of water between your foot and the ice.” I didn’t know that and was now slightly intrigued.
“You might wonder Why this happens with ice and not with other surfaces. This is of course because water expands when it freezes so when you apply pressure to it the temperature increases ever so slightly and melts it. Other substances contract when they freeze so applying pressure only causes more contraction and they don’t melt. Now you’re of course wondering Why it is that water expands when it freezes and other substances contract,” and I was. He went on and on.
“So with your question I would have to ask ‘What is your understanding of magnets?’ Because if you know nothing, then perhaps it would simply satisfy you to know that there is a magnetic force between them that can repel or attract them. But maybe you know more than nothing. Maybe it is more satisfying for you to know that in iron, all of the electrons are spinning in the same direction and line up and magnify the effect of a force to a point at which you can feel it. This is a basic force though that is in almost all things at all times, we just can’t feel it in them because it is stronger in magnets. The truth is that I don’t think I can explain magnetic attraction and repulsion to you in terms of anything that is familiar to you because you sir are wearing the shirt of a banker and as a man that spends his days dealing with radios and cathode ray tubes these ideas are as foreign to you as the idea of monetary expansion through minimum deposit requirements is to me. And so with all of this said, are these wire nuts everything you need, or would there be something else?”
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