8/11/19 – 8/17/19
From the Rio Cauca, the road climbs one thousand six hundred meters towards Jericó in just over twenty kilometers. It’s hot when you begin the ascent to Jericó. It’s cold when you reach Jericó. We’d only planned on one night there. It was just an intermediate point to get to a town called Jardín. My understanding was that Jardín would have a nice trout dinner and a decent view. The road between them was described in various ways which ranged from “feo” (ugly), for the fifty kilometers of mud and potholes, to “increíble,” for the exposed mountain views. Along the way, we learned that landslides are a thing that one should be aware of in Colombia and ended up on a four hour detour because a road had disappeared beneath several thousand cubic yards of dirt.
Soph was hyperventilating. I was trying to figure out if the insides of my ears were actually sweating or if it was dripping in from other areas. Either way, my earbuds kept slipping out and so I decided to simply enjoy the quiet windless afternoon with the occasional bird chirp. We rested every twenty minutes or so because our lungs seemed to be on the verge of exploding. A man stopped and gave us a few bottles of homemade lemonade. I drank it while laying on a stone retaining wall over an impossibly steep terraced cliffside full of coffee crops. Little crosses and Mother Mary monuments marked lost loved ones along shoulderless edges. Drivers zipped past them on death turns, looked down, and made the sign of the cross.
In Jericó, there is one can of WD40. Just one. It is at the motor cycle shop near the cemetery. At least it was when we passed through. It appears to get passed around. Initially I tried to buy some at a hardware store. I showed them a picture. The woman behind the counter shrugged. Her husband took a look and I watched his left eyebrow curl in a way that said, “I would like to know where this is as well.” He told me to try the welding shop. They sent me to another hardware store. That one told me it didn’t exist in Colombia, but the next place I asked said they had used it a few days ago but gave it to the man that repairs sewing machines. I decided to get an ice cream and call it quits. On my way back to our hostel I passed another hardware store and decided to ask one more time. They told me with some certainty that Jimi would have it.
This was a couple of days after we arrived. Our hostel was spilling over with French travelers. They spent quite a bit of time complaining about the complications associated with procuring a nice piece of brie. Although I certainly had times in which I shared their frustration, their grievances felt unfounded owing to their relentless smoking during meals. I listened while inspecting and contemplating the communal harmonica on the table next to the couch. The place also had a cat that would climb through our window at night and sleep on the bed between us.
Jericó has the potential to be one of the best towns we’ve gone through to date, though I did not have time to fully confirm this. We dropped anchor just a few days before their annual kite festival. This meant that most of the children in town were building, testing, and perfecting their aircrafts. Most were of a traditional style which was prism shaped with bright paper wrapped around what I would have guessed to be a balsa frame.
As a result, there was a surplus of string to be found throughout the streets. I followed a light blue cord one morning which led me to the botanical gardens. After wandering through over bridges and watching morning steam rise from little shaded ponds I climbed up a large hill to catch the end of sunrise.
Jericó more or less summarized my thoughts on Colombia to that point; that it might be the greatest outdoor playground that nobody knew about. Tight streets and smoking chimneys. Flat ground nowhere to be found. Gravel roads abound. The hostel had an old photo album and I found several pictures of a nearby cliff that seemed ripe to be developed as a climbing area. I scribbled “Jericó” on my list of places that might need a second look some day and put a little star next to it.
The motor cycle shop across from the cemetery turned out to be the bike shop where we’d had Soph’s derailleur replaced the previous day. I was inspecting the pulleys for wear and noticed that one of the arms between them had snapped. If the other were to break while out riding, it would have been a near catastrophic failure. I could force the rear cog to stay in a single gear with the limit screws, but she would never make it through the hills without shifting. I probably couldn’t either but would stand a better chance, which would mean swapping out our derailleurs so she could shift and I would make due with only my front chain rings. The shop was surprisingly well stocked and had one that would fit. It was cheaper than the original, but mostly because it was made out of more metal. The sacrifice in weight would be made up for in durability.
My gears, despite having been tended to in Costa Rica and Medellin, were still sloppy. My hope was that it was something simple like a dirty cable housing. I was reticent to take it to a third shop though and really just wanted to work on it myself. As luck would have it, the mechanic took the day off and Jimi let me use his workbench. I checked the derailleur alignment. Perfect. No sign that the dropout was bent. Cable and housing were completely spotless; amazing considering they’d not been touched since Tucson. I noticed some play in the shifter lever and pulled it apart. Inside was a little star washer which was integral to the indexing of the shifter. It was so corroded that I was afraid to touch it for it could turn to dust.
I cleaned everything as best as I could; taking care not to break or lose a tiny screw or O-ring. The back window of the shop overlooked a little dirt road which curved between the hilltops. My bike was positioned perfectly for the sunlight to pierce the window and light it up like a spotlight on Bob Dylan during an acoustic set. I stared at it in silence. A year on the road. Things were starting to break. Chipped teeth on the chain rings, loose spokes, rotting tires. Rear brakes almost worn out so we were mostly using the front. Not just the bike. My sandals were on a life support system comprised of contact cement and duct tape. My pillow had sprung a leak. Our tent was a mess of haphazardly repaired zippers and inexplicable holes in the screen. The pump and fuel bottle for the stove were now leaking gasoline. Interestingly enough this did not worry me as much as my sandals. One of our dinner bowls had melted. My cell phone had succumbed to gravity recently and the screen was now cracked. This led to the discovery that super glue works quite well in stopping the little shards of glass from breaking off and sticking into your fingers. One day I woke up with a knot in my shoulder the size of a tennis ball. I spent thirty minutes laying on a rock and wiggling my back to get rid of it. My ankle had also begun to swell without explanation; although I suspected it had something to do with my riding sandal being broken and having to twist my foot further than what seemed reasonable to release the cleat.
I cleaned up and asked Jimi what I owed him.
“Nada mi amigo.”
I thanked him and we shook hands.
I lost the coin toss and rather than taking the dirt road through Jardín, we backtracked to the main road. It took five hours to ascend the mountain to Jericó and about forty minutes to drop back down. As we began, I saw the same little indigenous man carrying a hundred pound bag of rice that I’d seen a few days before as we were climbing. His back completely hunched over. He could have been walking that hill for days. Main road, highway 25 I think, hot and dry. Ride along river banks through dusty roads under construction and fresh pavement with that lung burning asphalt odor that I've come to accept.
We stopped for lunch at a filthy swimming hole. The charismatic little girl who seemed to be in charge said that she saw another cyclist roll by earlier. She had a destructive little brother and an older sister with Down ’s Syndrome who seemed to have many important things to say but I could not understand any of it.
Late in the day we caught up to Andres. Venezuelan. Nice bike and panniers. Heading for Ecuador. Architect. Well educated and of fine aristocratic pedigree. He’d left Medellin just the previous day and had done more than 140km each day. He was tired and had trouble keeping up. We enjoyed his company. He asked if we knew where we would camp and we told him of a balanario we’d read about. He asked if he could join.
As we approached the owner I said to Andres, “probablemente es major si tu negocias. Usualmente necesito pagar impuesta de gringo.” Our fine American steel and pale complexion deceived us though and he asked for ten dollars to camp. We spent the night discussing the sad state of affairs in Venezuela. I quizzed Andres on the countries creation of its own crypto-currency pegged to the price of a barrel of oil. This was done to combat the runaway inflation. He said the government uses it for payments with other countries, but the rest of the country is still relegated to the Bolivar.
“Es como confetti, o agua en tus manos.” (It’s like confetti, or water in your hands.)
The next day we make moves for Pereira together. We had lunch in one of the few rough towns we’d seen in Colombia. We were approached at least a half dozen times for money. I'm not sure if it's because of us or if it would happen to Andre's on his own. I ask him and he says it would. I don't see them asking anybody but us though.
We’d entered coffee country. Perfect little rose cover the mountains. When the view opens up on the mountain passes you can see a vast rolling checkerboard of farms delineated by lofty trees.
My head was sunburned. I had my hair cropped in Jericó. The artistry and attention to detail of Latin Americans never fails to impress me. I often see people sitting on their doorsteps, cleaning their shoes with a toothbrush. Despite having to wash clothes by hand and hang dry them, they are always spotless and crisp. The women have well defined triceps from persistent scrubbing and ironing.
I explained that I just wanted everything cut off by the clippers without the guard. Everyone in the barbershop laughed.
“Va a ver barata.” (You’re going to look cheap.)
The young man, arms and neck covered in tattoos, complies and runs the clippers, sans guard, across my head. Unflinchingly, he reaches for the straightedge and details my hairline with the precision of a surgeon. I watched as he debated over whether or not to take certain hairs. He then removed my beard and sprayed my head with alcohol and gave my cheeks a quick massage. Three dollars.
In Pereira we took Andres out for Pizza as sort of payback to the people that had been so good to us as we began our travels. The first few days are the hardest physically, and some goodwill can go a long way for the spirit. Our plan was to camp in the botanical gardens of the local university. When we arrived though, the guard told us it was not possible. It was dark and we’d had a long day. We rode up and down the streets looking for a place to hide with the tents. It was a relatively upscale area though. There was a berm with a ledge along the road that I noticed, but as I scoped it out Andres met a man walking with his son. He offered to let us camp in their yard.
It rained in the middle of the night and we all woke up to drag our tents under a small awning. In the morning, Luis Carlos brought us warm goat’s milk. For some reason milk is less appetizing when you know it just squirted from the udder of a mammal, but I dipped my bread in it and said it was my rico. We talked a bit about our route through Colombia. I asked Luis about the trampolina del muerte, a winding dirt road through the Andes which was famous for being one of the most dangerous in the world.
“Hay muchas guerillas, pero no tienen uso para tus bicis.”
We thanked them for the hospitality and said our goodbyes. We also parted ways with Andres as he needed to take the quick route through Cali to make it to the border. Ecuador was not as friendly to Venezuelans as Colombia and would be changing their immigration laws on the twenty sixth. Despite the quality of his blood, he would not be allowed in after that. Our end point for the day was Salento, famous for the tallest palm trees in the world. We witnessed a motorcycle crash early that morning. It appeared to be a young man driving with his mother on the back. They didn’t appear injured and she hit him with her purse as they dusted off.
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