The Night Bus That Wasnt (2)

This was written while I was still in Colombia, at the town of Capurgana; about one week into my trip. So, having read the previous post, youll understand that I hadnt had all my Colombian experiences at the time of this writing.

I left Cartagena by bus and spent the weekend in the little town of Covenas; it was an adequate beach town, had some edible street food – something like empanadas filled with potatoes and beans. They had a sauce called suero, which was a soured milk, incredibly salty. By itself I considered it nasty, but they mixed it with some tomato substance – maybe ketchup – and it made a very nice condiment for potato/meat substances.

Saturday night I went to the circus (it was in town!). Rather lame, but for $1.50 it was not unentertaining. This morning they brought me a Guanabana, since I had mentioned I wanted one and couldnt find one. It tasted much like a sour cherimoya. Good, but not outstanding. Cherimoyas are better. Theyre the same family, but Guanabanas are much larger.

So to head to my ultimate destination of Capurgana I need to take two buses and a boat ride, so Sunday morning I got on the bus to Monterias. On the way, I had to change the bus for another one. I met a local girl, we talked for quite a while on the second leg of the bus. They have an obsession with music, nonstop, loud, all the time – even more than most Latin American countries. And apparently, the girl felt the loud music on the bus wasnt enough for me to properly enjoy, because she insisted I use one ear of her iphone earbuds also, so not only was I trying to understand her babbling, but it was amidst the rattling and two different sets of music. But she also insisted on helping me get on the right bus when we to my stop, which was nice.

Once on that bus – the one from Monteria to Turbo – all was well for awhile. The scenery was nice. Then we started having longer and longer stretches of unpaved roads. Which was jouncy, but not much more so than normal. Then we passed a flooded road, then finally after about 2-3 hours of what should have been a 5 hour trip, we started passing trucks parked along side the road – miles of them. Finally we got to the front, where both lanes were filled with immobile trucks, cars and buses, all with motobikes zipping between them.

Apparently there was a mudslide up ahead, but they were working on it and it was supposed to be fixed in an hour – however, there were also two more problems farther up the road, and no one knew about them. I went up to look, and the road had literally slid away. They were taking some of the rocks that had been shoring it up and putting it in a hastily-cut, muddy section of new road beside it. The ditch was full of thousands of bananas, implying that it was a banana truck that had initially discovered the road was unstable.

I killed the time walking around, writing on the computer a bit, but then things started to move so I headed back for the bus. Shortly after I arrived, we were informed that we were changing to a different bus. So we all picked up our luggage and walked about a half-mile back to another bus. This one did not smell better. But it had a higher wheelbase that would be able to get across the newly repaired gap better.

By this time they were letting the first cars across, ten per side at a time. The problem being that there were miles of cars in both lanes all headed the opposite direction, and most of these vehicles were trucks, wide, long, heavy trucks. All went well for about 45 minutes, and we were about to get to our turn in line, when suddenly the impatient drivers all lost their cool at once and started stampeding towards the barely repaired, one-lane muddy gap. From both sides of the road at the same time.

Naturally, no one else moved that night. One of the trucks, whose weight I couldnt begin to estimate, was an extra-long semi, stacked full, 7 wide and 5 tall, of hardwood planks. The weight was enormous. And it sank into that new mud road like butter, jackknifed, and when the backhoe tried to pull it out, broke the cables.

I walked out to survey the damage – having some experience getting stuck things out of ditches – and it was completely hopeless. Short of completely unloading it, waiting for the road to dry, or cutting a new road, no one was moving. So I went back and was getting ready to take a moto taxi to the last town – a long, bumpy, and probably expensive trip in the wrong direction – but one that would have a bed at the end – when they said we were changing buses again. I decided that sounded like it was worth a try, and we started walking. Seems they had made a deal to temporarily trade buses with another company that had a bus full of people on the other side of the gap trying to get our direction. That way we could just turn around and go on our merry way. Good plan, really.

And all we had to do was move one truck that was blocking that bus in. Unfortunately, no one could find the driver. So we waited. This bus did not smell as good as the last one. By now it was well after dark, 3 or 4 hours having passed, everyone was starving. I passed around the rest of the Guanabana I hadnt eaten that morning, which was warmly received. I gather its something of a rare, expensive treat to the people here. After that I was something of a hero and they took special care of me.

But we were still stuck with no hope of getting out of there. Not only were we blocked in, pointing the wrong direction, but even if we got out, everyone said the road was blocked ahead and we couldnt get through anyway. At about 9:30, I was giving up on getting out of there and looking for a flat place to lay down and wait out the night – a truck hood, the roof of the bus, anything dry and flat. When the sound of a diesel engine roared up behind me – they had hotwired the truck and started it moving.

This was the first ray of hope wed had in quite some time. Then as we were moving it, some trucks came up from the way we were headed, and said, so to speak, that the pass was clear. This met with more rejoicing from the tired, hungry, intrepid 25-or-so of us who had stuck it out through the bus transfers. Several had deserted by now.

Well, turning a bus around on a narrow dirt road crowded with semis was a challenge, but was accomplished. Somewhere in the middle of all this the driver of the truck we had hotwired came up, and was quite steamed, but somehow they worked it out. I wasnt able to follow the shouting match very closely.

Well, we started bouncing along again, through potholes that were enormous – the size of volkswagons, it felt like – and along and along for hours. The places were the road had flooded were passable, but very badly potholed. Some of them literally bounced you a foot up off of the seat when they were hit. Seriously, no exaggeration – a foot off your seat.

About an hour later – this about 11pm – we passed through a town – barely more than a truckstop of a town, and all the restaurants were closed but 25 hungry travelers werent to be denied. So they practically forced the people to reopen the restaurant and whip up some food. Which they did, and fairly quickly too, and although there wasnt really enough to go around, we all managed. By now the relief had set in and so everyone was acting a bit drunk. Giggling and cackling as tired, relieved women are wont to do. Then they discovered the restaurant served beer. That did not make them less drunk.

So after eating, we kept moving. Now several of them were seriously drunk, one in particular (who naturally was my neighbor) kept yelling at the top of his lungs to the driver to turn up the radio. Fortunately, he got off about halfway there, so only an hour of that to deal with. The rest of us went on to Turbo, where all the people insisted I not go to the bus terminal as it was dangerous at that time of night. So they asked the bus driver to go off the route to drop me off at a certain hotel. Which was very nice. We said goodbyes all around.

Naturally, that hotel was closed. So I took a taxi to another one. I walked past the men cavorting with women of questionable virtue, stepped over the drunk sleeping in the stairwell, banged on the iron bars with the big lock, and was answered this time. She said it was 12$, I said I didnt care, so she started taking my information and then said youre not from here! (Well duh). I said no, the USA. She said I cant rent you a room if youre a foreigner.

I tried to talk her out of it but it was some sort of law. She pointed me to another hotel across the square, which was 25$ once I managed to rouse the clerk, who was rather rude but gave me a room which was actually fairly clean and nice.

Except that it faced the street, where motorcycle gangs raced back and forth all night. I complained and asked for a room farther back, but she said it didnt matter because I had to be up at 6am to catch the boat to Capurgana (my paradaisical beach destination), so I wasnt going to get much sleep anyway. I was tired enough so it didnt really matter anyway, and slept through most of it. That morning (or later that same night, depending on how you look at it) I got up at 6:00 to get the boat, which it turns out wasnt scheduled to leave until 8:30, and in fact did not leave until 9:30.

The boat ride was pretty and uneventful, except extremely bumpy – bonejarringly so – I was seriously concerned about being tossed out of the boat a few times. I had been encouraged by the locals to sit in the front, the gringo seat, which is because it takes the worst of the beating on the waves.

Well, now Im at the beach destination, which does seem very nice. Well see if it was all worth it over the next few days.

Oh, and Im flying out.

Posted on December 21st, 2011 by Natnee and filed under Colombia | No Comments »

My Trip To Colombia

I left for Colombia December 14th; I found some really good ticket prices via Spirit Air, and had wanted to go there for a long time. But the strain of blogging has at times worn me out on other trips, so I decided this time to take the trip off; no worries about blogging.

To make a long story short, I spent five weeks there. Colombia is safe for tourists – except for two places, one mentioned in a story to come next week, and the other is Bogota, where armed stickups in broad daylight are common. I personally met two people who had it happen to them during my 5 days in Bogota, a city which I decidedly did not like.

The rest of Colombia is pretty cool. Cartagena was my favorite city, about the only classic colonial city that has ever actually felt classic and colonial and relatively untouristed. I mean, it is a tourist trap, but its not as developed as Puerto Vallarta or even Cuenca, Ecuador. Well, I liked it.

I next went to Capurgana, a beach village accessible only by boat on the border with Panama; spent a week there and loved it. I may blog a story or two about that later. Then I flew to Medellin, which was so-so; then I went south to Santa Rosa de Cabal, famous for hot springs, and spent a pleasant week there. Then  I went to Armenia (the town, not the country – now Ive been to both!) and went to the butterflyery (thats the literal translation).Got rained out and saw no butterflies.

Then to Bogota, where I had to cool my heels while I waited on a plane for about 5 days, then to my real destination, the Amazon. The Amazon did not disappoint, it was great, by far the highlight of the trip.

Colombia is safe. I saw no narcs, was hassled by no federales, had no close brushes with death due to drive-by-shootings. I didnt go looking for trouble, but none came looking for me, either, and thats all I ask.

Overall, I found Colombia itself to be unremarkable. Not unsafe, the people were pleasant, the scenery nice, but nothing in Colombia made me say ok, I HAVE to go back here – except the Amazon, and thats not really Colombia per se. I think if I were to return to the Amazon, Id fly to Peru and hit their Amazon – they have a lot more of it, and its easier to get to.

Plus, the Peruvian food is better. So far, everyone I know who has been to both places agrees. Colombian food is well, awful. It is bland, tough, and repetitive. Their primary meal, for both lunch and dinner, is called a Bandeja. This means a large plate with rice, fried green plantains, a piece of tough chicken, beef, or pork, and perhaps a small raw, dressingless cabbage salad and/or a soup. The soup was the only part of the meal I liked, so I wound up eating a LOT of soup in Colombia. They have this EVERY DAY, TWICE, in every part of the country where I was. Breakfast is usually scrambled eggs and coffee and a thick, chewy, homemade tortilla.

Now if you go to the large cities like Medellin and want to drop 12-15$ on a meal, you can find food as good as anywhere else; the exception is Bogota, where I never really found good food. Maybe it was there and I missed it, I dont know, but I had horrible times eating in Bogota.I recall being overjoyed when I found a vegetarian restaurant owned by Hari Krishnas and when my order came it was YELLOW! Sweet, wonderful curry and SPICES! At that, it was only marginal, but compared to what Id been eating it was wonderful.

There were some highlights foodwise; they eat hot chocolate with most meals, and all breakfasts. I got rather hooked on that. They put cheese in it in some places, which I did not get hooked on.

They had lots of juice stands all over, so I ate a lot of milkshake smoothies. They did this thing called an Arepa in some cities, notably Cartagena, which was essentially grits formed into a patty and fried. Sometimes with cheese in the middle, sometimes with honey and butter on top. Those were good, when I could get them. In other places, an Arepa was a fat chewy corn tortilla.

Hmm. I think those are actually all the highlights of the food after five weeks in Colombia. My best meals of the trip were the two days I spent in the Peruvian Amazon. Colombians are very sensitive to spice. I made some homemade ginger tea once, and nearly gagged my hosts when they tried it. Way too spicy, they said. I was so desperate for spice when I finally got back to the USA, I thought I would die. I still havent gotten over it.

But I dont mean to disparage Colombia. It really was a nice place. I talked to hundreds of other travelers though, and I found a pattern which never failed; everyone who had never been to Latin America before – those to whom Colombia was the first time – thought it was amazing.

Anyone who had been ANYWHERE else in Latin America before this trip said Colombia was so-so. Unremarkable, just like I thought. Nice, pretty, but unmemorable and with lousy food. It lacks the natural wonders of Costa Rica, the great foods of Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador, the archeological diversity of Peru it just isnt amazing. Its fine. But I was very happy to leave after five weeks.

I do have some very nice pictures Ill post of my travels in Colombia eventually.

Posted on February 28th, 2011 by Natnee and filed under Colombia | No Comments »



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