On the spur of the moment I decided to take a little vacation out to the countryside. My friend had some relatives we could stay with, and the plan was to explore and visit some bird breeders. Knowing how people live in the pueblos I was surprised to learn that the house had running water and that my bedroom would have air-conditioning. I was also surprised that we could take a direct shuttle. The van service in Colombia is very economical and I have never had a problem or delay using this mode of transportation.
So part of the plan was to leave very early the next morning at 6:00 a.m. so we could make the four hour trip and get some activities in during the day. Well. something about planning in Colombia doesn't sit well with its siesta continuum. As soon as you start formulating a plan, something in the Colombian air takes counter measures. The country is off-limits to planning. The nature of Colombia won't let your plan happen. So unless you want to piss off the Gods never do what I did and confidently say, "So that's the plan, right?"
Two hours after our scheduled departure time, our ride finally arrives. Instead of a van, it is a truck. The bed of the truck is full and one passenger is in the truck, so I am thinking, okay, there is room for only one more person so we should be out of town soon. We head into the center of the city and pick up a young boy. Now that we are full, I thought we would hit the road, instead we made stops unloading what is on the back of the pick-up truck to make room for other stops to load onto the pick-up truck. I kept asking the driver, "When are we going to be leaving town," and was given assurance that it would be "soon." The word soon does not have any meaning in Colombia, soon can actually mean never. So when a Colombian tells you they are going to do something soon, they don't actually have to do it, because soon does not have any time limit. If you say, "Hey, you said you were going to do this soon and you never did." They would look at you as if you were saying, "you said you would never do this and you never did."
Since we were told on the phone by the shuttle service that we would have air conditioning, I asked, "Why is the air conditioner not on?" I was told, "When we leave the city, we will put on the air conditioner." "And when will that be?" "Soon."
When we were driving on a stretch of road in the city with no traffic lights and all the cars were passing us, I thought we were maxing out at around 25 mph, and I wondered if the four hour trip was based on this speed.
After an hour and a half driving around the city, we finally left with three people in the front, three people in the back, and who knows how many in the bed of the truck because I couldn't see out the back window. We started heading east, the opposite direction I was originally told. When we crossed the Magdalena River, we turned onto a dirt road. Now I expected dirt roads a couple of hours out, but not immediately outside the city limits. When I asked, "Why are we taking this route," I was told. "To avoid the cops." It appears that a Beverly Hillbilly's truck stacking is even illegal in Colombia.
Now that we were outside the city in cow country with no other options but to stick with our ride, we were told the air conditioner, which was suppose to be turned on once we left the city, wasn't working. Gee, what a surprise, and how Colombian. Since we were hot in the city, delaying the cooling process until we became sweaty and smelly seemed so sensible. I wonder if Colombians actually believe these lies. It certainly appears that they do. You'll hear the most absurd things in Colombia and people will actually tell you these things with a straight face, and others around you will nod as if the person is actually saying something that makes sense. If you want to be a comedian, you don't have to write jokes or be creative, simply come to Colombia and write down what you observe and you will have incredible material. Anyway, being in vacation mood, it wouldn't be a vacation in Colombia if this wasn't happening, or for that matter, a regular day.
Now the landscape is pasture, the road is dusty with almost no traffic, the sun is out, 90 plus degrees, high humidity, and little breeze, just the way I like it. The rainy season had just begun. After the first rain, it is amazing how quick everything turns green. The place transforms in a few days. The skinny cows are finally getting some green grass. While there is fencing along the road for almost the whole trip, we often had to slow down for cows on the road. It appears no one told the cows they belong on the other side of the fence.
After a few hours we stopped because the driver wanted a beer. Okay, no problem, get your beer and let's go. But he didn't want to drink and drive. I am always amazed when someone in Colombia actually follows a law, it's so strange. After about thirty minutes of drinking a lady passenger who had been waiting in the truck came out and complained about the wait. She said, "This is a public service (it's not), and you should not be drinking.", he doesn't even look up.
When we got back in the truck, having not lost the inner child in me, I kept asking, "How much longer," after every bend of the road. Being recognized as a child, I was told thirty times, "We're almost there." In Colombia. don't expect precise answers. When we dropped off the first passenger. I thought, we had arrived. So I didn't understand why the driver was taking another beer break. It turns out we had another thirty minutes to go and of course there was no hurry in getting us to where we want to go. Anyway, it's a good thing I'm entertained by swatting flies and watching chickens peck the ground. I saw a saddled horse parked outside the tavern. My friend asked if it was okay to be photographed on the horse, and I said, "Sure, it's not my horse." The horse owner saw our interest in his horse and told my friend, "You can get on and even wear my hat." As soon as my friend got on, the horse bolted and the hat went flying. I thought, why would a horse in this hot weather go galloping down the road? What a crazy horse. It's got to be about a hundred degrees. I wondered if horses can get heat stroke. oh yeah, I was also thinking, I hope my friend doesn't get hurt.
Back on the truck my friend told me, "Be nice to everyone we meet." It's like one restriction after another restriction.
"And whatever food they give you, eat it."
"Listen, I am not going to eat any food."
"When we arrive they are going to offer us food."
"We are not going to eat any food. That is not in our plans. We're lucky if we have 2 hours of daylight left. We are going to go out riding. As soon as we arrive were going out, right?"
When we arrived, the lady of the house offered me some chicken soup. I looked at my friend who didn't say a thing. Okay it figures I have to do all the dirty work, "No, thank you."
"Would you like rabbit?"
Let me think, do I want to eat a rodent, "No thank you." Ten minutes and many, "no, thank you's" later a bowl of soap is in front of me.
The man of the house loaned me his motorcycle. Colombia, like the U.S., has its share of ridiculous laws and then some. You are required to wear a helmet plus a vest with an identification number on it. You are also restricted from using certain streets and driving on certain days and having certain passengers. It's just one big mess of laws. I won't take the time to tell you all the idiotic reasons for these laws, but like any "fix" a politician comes up with, it doesn't work. However, the good thing about driving in the countryside is that they rarely enforce any laws so no helmet for me.
I looked over the motorcycle and checked the gear pattern. I noticed the horn didn't work, there was no rubber on the foot pegs, one turn signal was hanging loose, the tires were worn and there was no license plate. I asked the guy if not having a license plate was a problem , and he told me, "Only if the cops don't need money." Okay cool, then we're all set to go.
I asked him how much gas I had and he said about half a tank. So off we go. Due to the fact that my brain is 30 minutes slower than everyone else, what should have been the first thing I looked at was the last. As we left town I finally took a look at the gas gauge and of course it was empty. Now if you have ever been to Colombia, you will notice that 90% of the taxis have their gas gauge on empty. I don't mean almost to the red line signifying empty. I mean below the red line where that little meter stick is flat on its back empty. Since it's Colombia, I figured it's broken like everything else, but now I realize these drivers have figured out how far their gas fumes can take them. While we think in miles or kilometers when it comes to estimating how much further we can go, they think in meters. So when you get into one of these taxis and tell the driver you want to go to the mall the driver immediately calculates your weight of 94 kilos, the destination at 1,055 meters, five street lights, and three minutes and 45 seconds of stop time, which will allow him to coast the last thirty meters into the drive entrance of the mall. So don't panic when you see the gas gauge on empty, they got it all figured out.
We only got a little riding in, since it turned dark, but it was enough for me to have good expectations for the next few days.
Back at the house we sat on the backyard patio. Before long there were about 15 to 20 kids and teenagers hanging around me. Wherever I went, these kids surrounded me. I tried kicking them away, but they wouldn't leave. They said I was the first gringo to ever visit their town. That meant no gringo had ever gotten lost and ended up in this town, because I can't see any other reason why a gringo would be here, but instead I told them, "I can't believe that." Back at the patio they wanted me to talk to them in English. I told them I had nothing to say. Instead I asked, "Why don't you ask me some questions and I will answer in Spanish and English." The first question was would I sing to them. "No, next question." " Jamie, please sing for them," "No." "They want to hear someone sing to them in English." "No." "Why won't you sing?" So much for an easy start. "Do you like Michael Jackson?" "No." "Do you like Bon Jovi?" "No." "What type of music to you like?" "Do you like Vallenato?" "No". (This answer brought a silent gasp to the crowd. Vallenato would be something like country folk music with the accordion as the primary instrument. It does not sound anything like American country music, but the origin is from the Colombian countryside. It's awful and simplistic, but well liked, at least in the northeast of Colombia.) From an adult, "Is it true you can only have three children in the U.S.?" "No." "Do you like Colombia?" "Next question." "When are you coming back?" "I don't know." (I got asked this question a lot. About 5 minutes after meeting someone they would ask, "So when are you coming back?"). "Do you think the girls in town are pretty?" "Umm... I didn't notice."
I would be surprised if any of these town girls reach 18 without being pregnant or married. I met one spirited lady who was married at 13 and had 15 children. She was 87 years old and I thought her face looked very good for her age. My friend commented on how well she looked and then cupped the underneath of her bosom and moved it up and down and told her, however, that these guys weren't looking too good. I moved back a step just in case the old lady wanted to grab my balls and say the same thing to me. It's all part of the black comedy world I live in.
Whenever I was alone with the man of the house he would ask me how many girlfriends I had. I told him I could only afford one. He said, "Two is much better. It's like having 'suero' (dairy sauce) with your yucca. You should have two girlfriends. Better yet, you should have three girlfriends. That's like having aqua de panela (concentrated syrup from sugar cane) with your suero and yucca. When you return I am going to have a woman for you." I nodded my head and made a mental note not to be alone with this guy again.
At night, sure enough, I had air conditioning in my room, but my bed was smaller than anything I've ever slept in since I was three. To me the bed is the most important furniture in the house. It's got to be big, comfortable, attractive and inviting. Most Colombians sleep in tiny beds, with thin mattresses and hard sheets. So as I laid my head on the mattress, because I didn't have a pillow, I noticed a lot of mosquitoes in the room. Now in the tropics there's a good chance you're going to be bitten at night by mosquitoes when you don't see any. When you do see them that means you are going to wake up in the morning with your leg bitten off. However, I was prepared and wore mosquito repellent at all times, which meant I only got bitten by non-mosquito insects. A lot of the town's folk sleep in hammocks, so being a meal is an every night occurrence for them.
I was given a toothbrush and shown the bathroom, but I didn't know what I was supposed to do as there was no sink in the bathroom. I didn't see a shower either, only a barrel of water with a bucket in it. "Hey, you told me they had running water." "They do, but it's shut off at 5:00 p.m. Everyone knows that."
In the morning we ate eggs (there were over 200 eggs on the kitchen counter), with passion juice, bread, and some natural cheese that I was told was like cream cheese, but tasted nothing like cream cheese. I was asked how I liked the cheese. I prefer not to be phony polite. "Well, it's very strong."
"Yes, that's because it is natural, how do you like it?"
"Well, it's very different and strong."
"Do you like it?"
"I never tasted anything like this before."
"Yes, because it is natural."
"Do you want some more?"
"No, I think I'm full."
Now my stomach has been Colombianized, so I don't get sick. But if you are ever in a small town, I recommend you eat and drink as little as you can get away with. When I asked my friend why there was so much food on the counter, yet the refrigerator was almost empty, I was told the refrigerator didn't work. "Umm, so how old was that cheese I ate?"
They had a mamoncillo tree which they call mamón. The fruit is green and round, with a diameter about the size of two fingers. They usually don't sell this fruit in the supermarket; you buy it from fruit vendors. When I first tasted the fruit years ago, I found the texture in my mouth to be gross, but the taste was good. After awhile the texture did not bother me and I would more frequently eat the fruit. The fruit is mostly seed. You crack the skin with your teeth and then put the seed in your mouth and suck the juice and the little pulp and then if you like you can beam someone with the seed. I checked, it's legal in Colombia.
It rained during the night so the roads were perfect the next morning. There would be little dust for at least a couple of hours. We headed west into the hills and being a nature lover I had more than enough sights to keep me interested. We would stop often depending on what plants or animals caught my attention. There were many colorful birds. Every time I take a trip outside the city I see beautiful flowering plants I have never seen before, and I am fairly knowledgeable in this area. The dirt roads overall were in good condition. We did run into one truck that was stuck in the mud. When the rainy season intensifies, I can see how some parts of the road would become impassable. While overall the countryside is attractive, Colombians do not take care of their natural resources. In many places there was litter because the norm is to throw your trash to the ground. Where there are people, it's hard to find a vista where you don't see smoke from fire used for clearing the land or burning of trash. We would ride about an hour or two before hitting a small pueblo. We didn't bring any liquids so when we hit a town we would get a cold soda. About five minutes later you would feel thirsty again. This was the tropics at maximum heat, sun and humidly.
We ended up at a river that actually looked clean, but of course I knew it wasn't. As we drove along the river we would see people bathing. We parked under the closest shade tree. When I got off the motorcycle and said hi to a group taking shade under the tree, I was asked if I was going to take a bath. I decided I'd better get back on the motorcycle, before they smelled me and forced me to take a river bath. Next we drove through a very small pueblo. The people from the pueblo I stayed at later said this was a very poor pueblo, and I thought, "their" pueblo was poor. Oh well, nice to know the pecking order. When we stopped at a tiny store I was surprised that they did not have any fruit. I didn't see any fruit trees either. I bought a large bottle of grape soda for 40 cents and gave part of it to a young kid who walked away with it without saying thank you. These pueblos would be a dismal place to live. I rarely saw anyone working. When I asked why no one worked I was told that they work during the dark morning hours. Of course everyone around me nodded their head, as if that was going to convince me that anyone lifted a finger around here. Normally in the city people sit on their front porch at night or during the weekend, but in the pueblos they spend all day and night sitting on the front porch.
When we finished riding by the river and returned back to the edge of town I got a flat. In these small pueblos the primary transportation is motorcycles followed by horse. I never saw a taxi; however, they do have motorcycles pulling small carriages as taxis. So even in this tiny town, which was nothing more than a collection of houses, I suspected someone could fix my bike. We were given a direction, again and again, and that direction ended up being the opposite side of town. I saw two young boys working on two motorcycles. They said they could fix my flat and to take a seat. I sat down trying not to disturb the muddy pig sleeping under my chair. I watched the barefooted kids playing and noticed one boy with very blond hair, so I must not have been the first gringo to visit this town. In about 15 minutes my flat was fixed and I was charged about six dollars. If that flat had happened outside of town I would have lost the day.
The next day we headed in another direction and as sundown approached my friend got scared and wanted to return. I kicked the start pedal but felt no resistance. We were hours from nowhere so that wasn't a good feeling. I kept working the kicker pedal, though not really expecting it to work, when suddenly it caught and the engine started. It was dark when we got back and we stopped at a chicken restaurant that I saw advertised on both sides of a street billboard outside of town. I was pretty much filthy from driving all day, and when I went to use the bathroom to clean up I was surprised to see a sink and a shower. I turned the water on and heard and then saw the water draining into a bucket below the sink. Well, at least it was halfway functional. I was told I could take a shower which I thought was a strange offer. Was it because I looked bad or smelled bad or both? Anyway, a shower is not going to change that. With only one dinner napkin to dry off with, I decided I would stick with the bucket shower at home. The restaurant had air conditioning, but there were still too many flies and mosquitoes. Like a fool I did not specify to the waiter, "Don't give me a chicken that's been roasting over the grill all day," so that's the chicken I got. Colombians like their meat as dry and dead as you can get it.
That night more talk. I mentioned I saw some monkeys, which surprised me as there were only small patches of forest and the rest was pastures. The men in the group became very interested.
"Monkeys, what type of monkeys were they?"
I did my best to describe howler monkeys.
The men looked at each other.
"How many were there?"
"How big were they?"
"Where did you see these monkeys?"
"Was there a stream nearby?"
So now that they knew exactly where those monkeys were, I'm guessing that will be the end of the monkeys.
You will never hear in Colombia, "Don't air your dirty laundry in public," because that's exactly what everyone does. I must have been invited to about 20 homes and was constantly ducking and dodging hanging clothes. I would go under one line of clothing only to straighten up underneath another line of clothing wearing grandma's underpants on my head. I couldn't understand why I had to visit and be introduced to so many people I didn't know by other people I didn't know. I think they just wanted to poke me with a stick because I was the first gringo to ever show up in their town.
My American garage never looked as bad as these houses. Every backyard was like a mini-farm. They all had farm animals in confined areas. Neighbor's cats and dogs would be walking through the house. I saw a chicken with almost no feathers and asked, "Why does that chicken not have any feathers?" I was told that's how the owner keeps track of his chickens intermixed with your chickens walking through your house. Most had caged songbirds, and some were in the houses staining the floors all of which were cement. Walls would be dirty and sometimes with children's writings. Dusting didn't seem to be a cleaning activity because there was dust everywhere. Trash would be scattered around the houses. Ugly doesn't seem to bother Colombians.
I understand being poor but I can't understand being poor and living in dirty surroundings. I can't understand being poor and being lazy. How can people not take pride in their house, neighborhood and surroundings? The people in these towns had time to sit around all day on their front porch, but what, no time to pick up the trash lying in front of them? No time to plant fruit trees. No time to utilize their labor to develop the resources around town? No time to develop a community self-sustaining market?
I asked if there was a place to swim and was told there was a lake. I clarified, "Is this place where you can swim shared by cows?" "No." When I took a look at the swimming hole it was nothing more than a pond with algae, nobody was swimming, and there were hoof prints around the banks. The community leaders can't develop a swimming hole?
When we decided to head back we made sure we got a van with air conditioning. We traveled back on a different route and when we were about to cross a small bridge I saw a sign on the side of road that read, "DANGER DO NOT PASS." Once we passed over the bridge I turned around to see another sign facing the other end of the bridge, "DANGER DO NOT PASS". Oh well.
When we finally hit paved road the ride didn't feel any better than being on the dirt road. Fixing potholes is not on Colombia's to do list. One of the passengers had us stop for food and he shared some hard coconut cookies that were tasty. After him and his family finished lunch they took care of their trash Colombian style, by throwing it out the window. My friend looked at me and smiled. We stopped often to buy fruit from the market stands along the road. The price difference between buying fruit and vegetables at the market stand versus what you pay in a city supermarket is significant. For example, I bought 12 sweet mangos for $5.500 pesos (about two and half US dollars) at a supermarket. For the same sweet mangos at the market stand the price was 20 for $1000 pesos. So we are talking 5, 6, or 7 times cheaper for fruits bought at market stands.
Every time we crossed a river I asked. The driver, "What's the name of that river?"
"But the river before that was the Magdalena."
"Yes, I know."
"What's the name of this river?"
"But you said the river behind us was the Magdalena?"
Then the driver then asked a passenger, "What's the name of this river?"
Normally when you ask the same question in Colombia, even though there's only one right answer, you will get many different answers. If it's not something you need to know it can be fun hearing all the different answers. Google Earth listed the town we were in at 20,000 people. I meant to ask the different townspeople to see what numbers I would hear, but only remembered to ask once and was told 10,000. But, hey, if you ever enter a pueblo where you are told you are only the second gringo to ever visit, you can ask that question for me.