Just after writing last time, I had the friendliest welcoming to date. Another cyclist, Jeff, had told me where to find the “Buga Embassy,” but he just said to go to a certain gas station – “they’ll know what to do.” So I felt a bit silly as I rolled up, but a knowing smile came over the bomberos face. Soon a couple kids came along to lead me to a nearby house. I was ushered inside, shown to a bedroom, and given a towel and soap. Refreshed (and I had been dirty, even for me, on this trip), I went back downstairs. In addition to taking in all the backpackers and bikers they can find, the family runs a restaurant, so I was inundated with delicious food for the duration of my stay. More and more family showed up, and a bottle of alcohol distilled from the ubiquitous caña was produced. They’re used to meeting travellers, so unlike usually I was immediately accepted for what I am and not treated like an interesting but alien outsider. They were all lovely and amazing, and it was hard to resist their entreaties to stay longer. But I’d told another cyclist, Steve, that I’d meet him in Cali the next day, so I was resolute. I put off leaving as long as possible, then cruised to Cali in record time, powered by their last minute gift of a giant chocolate bar.
Steve is an Englishman who has been living in Cali for ten years and planning a long bike trip even longer. He stumbled on the blog some months ago, and it happens the timing worked out perfectly, as he was leaving on a trial run. I spent the night at his house in Cali (two beds in two nights!) then rode out with him in the morning. He had no tent, and planned on covering less ground than I, so we rode together for the day then split up in Mondomo, as he headed into town to find a room and I headed out of town to finda spot to camp. From there I rode to Popayan, the White City. I very much wanted to split from the main route, but the FARC had been acting up in recent days, and I’d received numerous warnings. So I asked at the bus terminal – the buses were still running, so I figured it was safe enough for me. That night I was rescued by yet another angel from camping in a bad neighborhood, given a place to camp, coffee that was grown, dried, roasted, and brewed within 20 feet of where I slept, dinner, breakfast, and a warm sendoff in the morning. Then off to adventure!
It started off as a gentle climb along a river that dwindled to a stream as the pavement petered out. Then a stiff climb brought me to the paramo – the high, cold, treeless Andean plain. I hit 11,500 feet, the highest I’ve been yet. On a clear day, this probably would have been my favorite day of the trip; with the wind and the cold and the view-obstructing clouds it was still up there. I went some 5 hours between towns – when I finally arrived my hands were so cold I couldn’t peel my gloves off. Half the soup would spill from the spoon between the bowl and my mouth, and the way I had to resort to clutching the cutlery to cut my slice of meat would have made my father shudder. Or just remind him of watching James eat.
I was told summer was just 10 km farther along the road, but I couldn’t face more riding in that cold, so I got a room at a nearby residencia, crawled under the seven blankets, and shivered myself warm. (This is very typical of Colombia – as I travel the climate changes daily with the altitude, and a change in season is often a half hour’s ride away. Invierno, winter, refers not to a period of the year, but rather cold and rainy weather.) Sure enough, it was warm by 9 the next morning, when I arrived in San Jose de Isnos. I spent a couple days riding around, exploring the ancient ruins of San Agustin. Lots of well-preserved and quirky funerary statues, but I enjoyed biking through the beautiful countryside separating the various sites more than following the tourist herd among the tombs.
From San Agustin to the jungles of Mocoa, the doorway to the Amazon. When I arrived, I learned that the road on to Pasto was blocked by a massive landslide, so I spent a couple days exploring nearby waterfalls of crystal clear and gloriously cold water. Then I had the opportunity to camp on an indigenous reserve and take part in a yagé or ayahuasca ceremony. I’d heard a lot about this plant on the trip. It is cited by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon as the source for their encyclpaedic knowledge of the medicinal properties of countless plants, and as such is regarded as sacred. It produces vomiting and leads to visions – calling them ´hallucinations´ suggests they aren’t real. I asked Christian, a 12-year-old member of the tribe who has been participating in the ceremonies since he was 7, what he had learned. “I’ve learned to respect myself and believe in myself, and love and understand others.” So it was to be with me. I spent the day harvesting yagé (which has to undergo a lengthy process to yield the final concoction), then napped to ready myself for the 11 pm ceremony. The yagé was a thick sludge, tasting a bit like Marmite – everyone else had a hard time getting it down. After half an hour, the vomiting set in, though I was uneffected. Well, uneffected by nausea. I abruptly lost touch with reality, as my mind went swirling through unchartered territory. I could see but could make no sense of what I saw – an attempt to check the time, or to see my watch, proved abortive. I was truly terrified and believed that death was forthcoming. (As it happens, yagé’s effect is due to DMT, the compund released by your brain when you dream and immediately before dying.) but gradually a great feeling of peace set in, a firm belief that everything happens as it should. First, this made me come to terms with my imminent demise, bus as I calmed I realized that I wasn’t going to die. What followed was an incredibly beautiful experience – I felt much more a part of nature and of humanity, as well as a deep sense that everything was right with my life. It’s very hard to put into words what I came away with, but it was definitely a mind-opening experience.
After several days in Mocoa, I learned that motos were crossing the landslide, so I set out to try my luck. I loved my jungle getaway, but as always I felt the urge to move on. It rained hard the day I set out, and I was detained for a couple hours by police who said the way was blocked by a river. Eventually, they admitted I could probably get through, they just wanted to talk to me. And I was none to keen to get back to biking in the rain. When I got to the river (10 km and 2 hours up an extremely rocky road) I spent an embarrassingly long time hemming and hawing on the bank. A couple feet in it was 15″ already, but I knew motos had gotten through. I finally worked up the nerve and crossed, it never got any deeper. After that, there were countless more river crossings, but as I got higher they dwindled in size so I could (gingerly) bike across. I arrived at the top, at a mirador with amazing views back down to Mocoa and out across the endless plains of Amazonia, just as they received news that the road was opened again. The villagers were abuzz with excitement as they gathered to watch the train of trucks crawl along far below. it had been closed for 15 days and now the floodgates were open. I was selfishly disapointed – it had been great to have the road to myself.
From there, I had to contend with an extremely bumpy descent, another pass, and non-stop rain. Who knew Colombia could be so cold? Then I arrived at the blissfully flat and beautiful Valley of Sibundoy, and the town of Santiago at the foot of another monster climb. There I was accosted by two drunks on a moto. One was trying to convince me that Colombia is a beautiful country filled with wonderful and hard-working people (not that I needed the convincing). He gave me a nice wooden rosary as a keepsake, and bade me take that message back to my country. Meanwhile, the other was trying to convince me to pay him off, as I was illegally crossing indigenous land. He claimed to be an authority, and said I would be held 15 days in custody if he gave the word. It was quite comic – they both agreed with everything the other said as they pursued very different agendas. Finally I separated myself and rode out of town. But they caught me up once more on the outskirts of town. More to the point this time, the second one assumed a goos imitation of a policeman’s stance and demanded, “Papeles! (Papers!)” At this point I was fed up and looking to find a place to camp, so I refused and kept biking. The shocked, crest-fallen look on his face when he realized I wasn’t falling for his ruse was priceless. As I biked away, he bawled, “Patrulla, patrulla,” summoning an imaginary patrol to stop me. Drunken but endearing fool.
Today, I had a beautiful ride, twice crossing 11,000 foot passes and stretches of páramo, before dropping into the (relatively) warm valley of the Rio Pasto. Here I have high hopes of sleeping at the local firehouse and going to the theater to watch the new Batman movie.
Speaking of Batman, look at what my grandma and I did! http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/