(This post is continued from: Traveling in Colombia – With the Aid of Others, Part 1)
The lobo-looking guy lugged our bags across the street again and tried to flag down a bus, a van, a car. It wasn’t looking good. Backseats of sedans were packed with four, five, even six people.
As lobo guy’s impatience visibly grew, it dawned on me that maybe I was supposed to tip him. I didn’t know what was customary, but in Bogotá I’d given a 2,000 COP bill ($1) on a 13,000 service to a very patient waiter, and he’d gasped and shown it off to his coworkers. I rummaged in my purse and came up with 1,500 worth of coins, which I jammed in my back pocket just in case.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, lobo guy abruptly turned to me and said something in a sharp tone. I picked out the word propina, aka “tip.” “Quisiera una propina, sí?” I replied. He gave me a look like, “Obviously.” I handed him the change I’d set aside and he slipped it in his jacket without a word or glance.
Eventually he found us a ride: a Chiva bus. Except that the Chiva bus wasn’t outfitted as a bus, but was still a cargo truck filled with green packing crates. Only the front compartment had room, and it was covered with a black tarp blocking all light except what entered through the glassless window above a side “door.”
Loading up a motorcycle.
There was a very fit and alert-looking man with a handsome face strongly reminiscent of an eagle. He seemed to be coordinating everything. He was the driver’s assistant, responsible for arranging pick-ups, loading cargo and collecting the fares. While I was still pondering the wisdom of this mode of transit, he lifted Kidlet up into the beast. I had no choice but to climb in as well.
The lobo fellow was speaking a mile-a-minute to the fit Chiva man; I heard him say, seven or eight times, the name of the town we were headed to. The fit Chiva man nodded, nodded and finally repeated it back to him. At last the lobo fellow looked satisfied and let go of the truck as it accelerated. The baton had been passed.
The compartment of the Chiva truck was already occupied by a woman and her two children – a boy and a girl, ages eight and six. There were many sacks of potatoes, boxes of lettuce and other produce. Kidlet and I sat on a tall stack of potatoes against the back wall. Kidlet buzzed with excitement. Someone handed me a little black bag “para la niña.” Many drivers keep these bags on hand. There may be some small expense in buying them, but it can’t be worse than having to clean vomit out of your vehicle!
I thought, “We’re almost there, this should be a short ride.” I felt happy. Here we were having a bit of adventure! I had fond memories of riding in the back of a pick-up and taking “chicken buses” in Guatemala; now Kidlet would experience something similar.
Her mind was working overtime. “I’m riding in a potato truck,” she told me. “I’m sitting on potatoes, and they are not comfortable. It’s okay to sit on these potatoes, though.” She seemed unsure about the last part. “My shoes are on these potatoes. My butt is on these potatoes. It’s okay, though. We’re in Colombia.” She even waved off the black bag when I let her know it was available. “Mama, I can’t get carsick in a potato truck,” she said.
Her optimism was admirable, but after half an hour of turn after turn along bumpy, narrow roads, lurching and keeling in a hot truck, with the mild smell of potatoes fast becoming the permeating stench of potatoes, we were green as the sack of guavas at our feet.
The vomit took us all by surprise. Kidlet didn’t even make a noise. I just rubbed her back consolingly, wiped her face, my arm, and my pants; then scrubbed at the mesh bag of potatoes we sat on. I hope those are washed before they get sliced up. Fortunately, potatoes are typically subjected to high heat prior to consumption. Eek.
The ride went on and on. It seemed impossible. Where was this town?! The little boy’s eyes were closed as he stretched out across potatoes, limp as a towel. His sister lay like a board across her mother’s lap, her head resting as close to the window for fresh air as possible.
I marveled at the fit Chiva man’s iron guts as he sat with one leg slung over the little door to the compartment. As we careened down rough roads, he held himself upright with the outside arm, gazing straight ahead. His body was composed but his eyes were animated. He was looking for passengers among the people we passed on the highway.
We stopped a few times to pick up new riders, but all of them sat in front with the driver; our view of him and his cab was completely blocked by the tarp. At one point we all had to deboard while the fit Chiva man rearranged the produce and our bags to load in a motorcycle that had run out of gas. He tied it to the thin metal bars dividing our compartment from the one behind us. It was too long, and the little swing door couldn’t be shut, so the fit Chiva man sat on the end of it – using his inside leg as a brace – and resumed his perch half-hanging out the truck. I wondered how long he’d been doing this; he seemed completely at ease with his work.
I talked to the mother; that’s how I learned the ages of her children. They were headed to the town before ours. She was suffering quite a bit from motion sickness – called mareo. She had to use her own black bag, and her son threw up twice. She had a stash of bags in her purse. I silently admired how smart she looked in the wedge heels and pencil skirt she was wearing during this wretched ride; chances were she’d not intended to travel this way, either.
Mareo is bad enough, add to this the anxiety of your child being sick and the fear of them throwing up all over themselves or you, or someone else. Let’s not even talk about the prospect of crashing. I eyed the motorcycle warily and made sure Kidlet didn’t sit between it and the front of the compartment. My poor grasp of physics has allowed me to rationalize all sorts of ineffective safety measures for driving without a carseat or even a seat belt – par for the course here in Colombia, which does not enforce its seatbelt laws. Kidlet is currently under the impression that if I hold onto her tightly in a taxi, this will keep her from flying through the windshield should we be rear-ended.
Sitting in cab of the potato truck.
The truck driver must have been nearing his final destination because he was now unloading passengers without picking up new ones. In the end it was just me and Kidlet, and the fit Chiva man with the handsome eagle face. Kidlet and I were moved to the enormous cabin of the truck (more vegetables there) where I finally got a look at the truck driver, a sweaty man vigorously eating an ice cream stick.
We arrived in a busy town where stealthy looking men eyed us curiously. The thing about small towns, wherever they are, is that people sitting around on the main streets doing not very much at the moment tend to keep an eye on everything. That can make you feel protected by the gaze of others, or simply subjected to the gaze of others. I felt subjected here, and panicked a little: Was this my destination? If so, I didn’t want to stay. But the fit man said, “No. It’s the next town. We’re going to drop you off here and then [lots of Spanish].”
I was supposed to turn the corner, walk down the road, and encounter local transportation. The driver reiterated this as the fit man rapidly unloaded all of our things onto the sidewalk.
The baton passing had ended, one town short. I paid the fit Chiva man 10,000 COP for our “fare” and took on our luggage: the biggish backpack X- had lent me in Bogotá, a small backpack I wore over my shoulder, Kidlet’s lightweight rolling suitcase, the tiny backpack she wore on her back, and a large umbrella I’d paid $13 for in Medellín and refused to part with until I’d used it more than once.
The Chiva truck rumbled one way down the street, and we went the opposite way. So far I’d paid 3,000 COP (jeep driver), 10,000 (private car driver), 1500 (lobo guy who got us the Chiva) and now another 10,000. About $13 so far. The bus would’ve been cheaper. Kidlet tugged at me and complained of thirst and heat.
I promised Kidlet we’d get something cold to drink before the next leg of our trip. She negotiated for something ice cream-like; I consented. Following the instructions of fit Chiva man, we walked a few hilly streets until we encountered another small bus station, occupied by a woman who looked almost identical to the woman we’d seen at the last bus station.
I explained where I was going, asking “Está lejos de aquí?” It was impossible to get a straight answer, but it sounded like not too far. I was assigned a driver, took Kidlet to the bathroom and when we came out, we had a different driver. He informed me that the original driver didn’t know the town we were going to as well as he did. I nodded wearily and bought Kidlet a bright green popsicle (limonada) that she set upon with gusto.
Our driver had a conspiratorial way of speaking, but I suspect the only secret he was sharing was that he was overcharging me – don’t tell anyone. I was so tired, I didn’t care if it cost me $3, $5 or $7 to get to this destination town, this town I had not chosen, this town I was being sent to with the promise that there was room for me. (I didn’t know it then but we were approaching the busiest holiday weekend of the year in Colombia.)
I wanted to be done with the waiting, the stomach-churning roads, the looming prospect of vomit, the risk of losing a bag, and the uncertainty. I just wanted to be where we were going, and I hoped it would be a place we could stay for a while. My intention before I left Seattle was to spend 1-2 weeks in a place before going on to another, but we were moving every five or six days, one day of which I had to spend arranging travel, researching and reserving housing, and packing. Moving around is a huge time-suck for someone like me, so unused to it.
I agreed to pay 6,000 COP ($3) for the ride. Then the driver decided he could fit in more passengers. A grinning man in his early 60s climbed into the front passenger seat and began chatting me up. In Medellín I’d conversed with a 7- year old with a speech impediment who had only two of his eight front teeth, and that child’s Spanish was more comprehensible than this guy’s.
The grinning man was very like that wizened drunkard character in old kung fu movies, the one who sits around laughing at others inanely and is cursed and literally slapped around by the rest of the cast. I was so tired. What was this man talking about? He just kept talking, laughing at his own jokes, and asking me questions that he wouldn’t allow me time to reply to. He asked me my religion, and told me he was Catholic, and how unfortunate for me that I was not Catholic. He told me that he had a cousin and nephew in Virginia, but he had never been there. He told me the taxi driver was a bit of a thief, but not too bad. And he said a lot more I gave up trying to decipher.
At last, a final passenger was located, another old man. He greeted me with a buenas tardes, then said nothing the whole time we traveled. Thank goodness. Kidlet finished her popsicle and resumed her usual position, with her head on my lap.
Twenty minutes down the road we dropped off the grinning man, at a makeshift public square that was really an empty lot between the highway and some dirt paths lined with shacks. It was a festive assembly of hillbillies. Little food tables lacking Postobon umbrellas, half-clothed children standing around, loud women and an outdoor saloon. As grinning man exited the car, I saw just how raggedy he was, but he fit in here. He headed toward a path in the distance and some other aging men drinking beers in the saloon began yelling at him, not in a friendly way. It seemed at least one of them was promising to kick his ass later, after he finished his drinking and having his good time. But later! You can count on it! The grinning man took on a sour expression and shouted back a few choice words punctuated with a vulgar hand gesture, and then loped off unfazed, waving his arm behind him as if to say Whatever, man.
A long-haired woman took his seat in the car and we were on our way again. Another ten or twenty minutes, and we reached a town. Our destination! The town had a great vibe about it and was filled with families, music and horses. There was a magnificent basilica overlooking the plaza. The long-haired woman and the old man disembarked, and the taxi driver continued. Supposedly our hostel was a handful of blocks from the plaza, but I knew better by now than to believe such things.
It turned out to be about 1.5 miles and uphill from the town center. Had I walked, I’d have despaired for not knowing how close or far I was from it. But it was more than I’d hoped, and I had the feeling it might be exactly the place we needed to be. I paid the taxi driver the 11,000 COP he asked for (!). As the he took our things from the car, I felt the journey was over, for a while at least. As we walked up the stone driveway, Kidlet turned to me, and said, “Mama. I like this place. We should stay here.”
Five days later, we are still here, and we don’t know when we are leaving!
Happy to Be Here