Bite your Tongue – Colombia Part II

Continued from Part 1….

Dinner bubbles away on the purring stove, I take my eye from the the lake being lit by distant flashes of lightening to look back behind the tent to the house.  In the glow of the interior I can see the two girls who allowed me to camp here, silouetted, watching with intrigue….or fear.  A plane flies overhead, heading north, I wonder if it contains Adam, I wonder how he is?  Does he wonder of me?  Does anyone?

I was heading north again, back towards El Cocuy with several other targets in mind along the way. First up, was to try and ride amongst the red and purple hills I’d spotted near Villa de Leyva, when I’d first met Adam two weeks prior.

I rode up from the south to the crest of a chilly pine forest, which stopped abruptly, opening up like a stage’s curtains, and before me the space-scape of Mars etched into the rusty red dirt. Fine scenery and the substance behind the country’s pottery too.

Each house was a fabricator of the pottery, without exception. Each one with it’s own large domed earth oven, with an even larger stockpile of wares….and half broken pots scattered about inside and out…and on the road. Plumes of black smoke dot the barren lunar countryside, rising up into the air, signifying the baking process in effect; forty hours at 1000ºF and some two-hundred pieces a time. The huge quantities of pottery descend the hills to flood the town of Raquira and the market, meaning for low prices…cheaper than the price of dirt. US75c will buy a small piece.

I pass through the delightful town Barichara as I continue north, a beautifully tranquil place of white wash homes with a thick border of red dust painted on in times of heavy rain and passing traffic.

“You want to see the canyon?” asks the bored youth as I pull up to the barrier and tug off my helmet, revealing my grease twist of blonde hair.  I look over his shoulder towards the viewpoint, the cafes, the ski-lift, the people peering over in to the canyon.

“Not really,” I reply with a look of derision, “how do you get down there?” I ask pointing behind me to the adjacent and, in my eyes, much more unique and impressive valley. I feel like going in and telling all the
people they’re looking the wrong way, but like sheep, and modern consumers, they follow what the adverts and signs say. ‘They’ say it’s good therefore it is. It’s not Simon says, it’s Walmart says…or “they” whoever the evil “they are.” (Rant over).

The youth shrugs his shoulders, unable to, likewise, think for himself. “It’s 2000 pesos ($1) to park…..it’s free if you put your bike there.”
“No thanks.” I reply to the puppet, and ride off to look for a way down the other side.
I find a dirt trail leading down as the sun starts to make it’s final climax, sinking into the ugly canyon, setting my valley ablaze with a beautiful array of colour and shadow….if only I didn’t have to find camp!

Besides the quiet road and a tall fork of cactus blooming with flowering round balls, I find a spot, peering down to the silty strip of river creeping along silently far far below. I wake to the sound of an eagle perched upon the cactus, its screaming call lost to the depths of the canyon….the noisy chatter of other birds hidden amongst the thorny bushes and as well, road workers laughing and slowly getting to work on the road – sadly, making it paved. The still lovely dirt strip from the very top transcends down and down through the
physical rainbow of fascinating colours, black to purple, red to orange, cream to white…correspondingly, the heat increases until at the bottom it is seemingly white hot. Here, somewhere amongst the haze of heat grows and dries large flat tobacco leaves.

With the road not appearing on my map, I leave the completely soul-less furnace-town Cepita and explore the network of valleys, up a narrow trail of talcum powder, right along the very edge of a steep face,
feels like I’m floating up over the valley floor, like the soaring eagles, though its Rodney doing the screaming, leaving the first and only knobbly imprint of tire marks in the soft dust it seems. Splendid!

Riding up then pass beyond Bucaramanga, rolling treeless hills of pale grass and shades of muddy green on my way to Pamplona. Families work in the fields of potatoes, spring onions and carrots amongst the cold mist that holds the impending rain, bicyclists laden with pesticide sprayers upon their backs on their way home after a day of dousing the vegetables heavily with drums of yellow gunk.

To my dismay, through the mist I see, hanging from the antique square petrol pumps, tatty signs that read, “No hay.” Oh dear, and my petrol tank is almost empty. I twist the fuel tap to reserve but am soon empty…though luckily – with help of the quarter litre in the stove bottle, I make it to the top of this pass and cruise downhill to refill.

Out of gas, using the stove fuel

The traffic thins, the potholes grow and the mud thickens as the altitude gains and a broad valley of
“frailejones” – the plants I recognise from El Cocuy’s great heights – opens out before me, familiar now, these plants become a sure indication that I’m up into high altitudes and thin air. Air. Vital air. All important air. Evacuating, it seems, my tire….again.

 

The bike just made it over this pass…and I mean ‘just’!

“You’ve had SIXTY-ONE punctures!?”  exclaim the group of ponchoed and wellied spectators.
“Yeah…” I say disgruntled, “and two in three days….!”

Gentile gents, they were very friendly and helpful men, with plasticy red cheeks from days of cold high altitude air. They tell me of good camp spots nearby next to the river and also, further up, a waterfall. It was a lovely camp, too, not least as it reminded me of my second home; Snowdonia National Park in

North Wales. I hate punctures, but fate is a funny thing.

And, as if two punctures was not enough (or 61), it was to be three (62)…and this time fate was to be a much more unkind animal.

Having returned to El Cocuy’s jagged black massifs on my way back south I decided it was too good to simply pass through and spent several days amongst the mountains, lakes and glaciers, walking and riding, hoping for some clear weather permitting good views….and photos.

Sitting in the shelter beneath a large slab, cut thousands or millions of years ago by the now much receded glacier, i eat my sandwiches. I have to chew and pause, and breathe, and then chew a little more. The sun is barely discernable behind the sick pallid grey of the sky and I beg out loud that it will clear up. I thought I’d be luckier this time, third time lucky…but….

I plod on, until I finally pass the tall cone shaped cairn that has been guiding my way through the maze of boulders and rocks spat out by the glacier on it’s slow and forceful retreat, and round the corner of the trail to glimpse my target…glimpsed and no more, vanished behind the bank of heavy plump cloud that moments earlier I watched tumble over the adjacent mountain ridge like the ominous dust behind a charging cavalry, reaching you inevitably, with catastrophe. Having worked myself to exhaustion at nearly 5000m, for the third time, I was deeply disappointed. I felt this time would be third time lucky, I deserved that, didn’t I? I was tired, not just from the walk but also the lack of sleep; anxious with excitement, and fear – of the glaciers blankness, crevasses.  However, I was determined to wait it out, to walk the glacier…..makes the summit. Until that is, the hail start to pelt down like arrows and any sense of direction was lost amongst the charging cavalry. As the only one on the mountain fighting this battle I decided against my lusting desires that descent

was the sensible option.

Then having descended.  It cleared up.

So I trudged my way back up, cursing the Gods, the lack of air, and my body’s tardiness at aclimatising to altitude.  Reaching the glacier, camera at the ready, the cloud came in again to close the curtains on the view. I despaired, and sat on a boulder to contemplate my bad luck – elephants – as the poison of altitude coursed through me, clouding my mind with tired negativity, breathing hard, trying to keep my lunch down.

Apparently the balance just wasn’t in my favour. Though, having said that, I did glimpse the monolith, ‘El Pulpito’, a tall red slate of warm rock piercing up through the glaciers cold barren white.

The rain and sleet  hammer down during the steep knee-jarring, meniscus tearing, descent path on my long way back to the bike. I warm the little engine carefully before tackling the very steep and fairly rough trail back to my fabulous camp spot….

…and get said third puncture. Three in less than a week…though this time, it is in fact the valve split from the
tube. I’m exhausted, and too tired to contemplate repairing the tire, especially in the rain. So, I step off the bike, and start walking, leaving it there beside the road. It’s a quiet road I tell myself, though in my gloom I have a tinge of hope that it will be stolen.

A long and wet walk up out of this valley in to the next, thinking of the inside of my tent, dry, warm and not walking. However, when I reach my – paid for – camp spot at one of the park’s cabins, I find that some nitwit has stolen my helmet, out from my tent’s porch. Over the months in the Americas I’ve grown
very confident in camping freely, almost anywhere at will, and I contemplate if I’d become “complacent”. Exhausted, after a very tough hike I wanted only hot coffee and biscuits, whilst wrapped up in my sleeping bag. However, rather than dry feathery warmth I sat there amongst cold and sad thoughts that refused to warm the sleeping bag’s plumes.

“I don’t envy you….” said Amos, his
face lost in the protective shade of his jacket’s rain hood, though his permanent broad grin is still clearly discernible. I met the amiable Canadian sprawled out
exhausted and sick on one of Cocuy’s high passes, and spent an enjoyable
day together, descending, talking more than walking in the fog.

“This is going to be rubbish.”  I state in the face of unavoidable misery as the white shops and restaurants of Cocuy take on a whole new hue as the sky blackens and blackens, and blackens.

A pair of shocked disbelieving eyes peer from Amos’ shadowy hood as a huge roll of thunder reverberates amongst the whitewashed buildings and the ponchoed men and women dart for cover. His perpetual smile, I
note, has gone.

“And no helmet.” he reminds me…as if I need that, slipping on my woolly hat in its place. But, you couldn’t help but like Amos, a great chap and I enjoyed my short time walking with him, and leaving him alone to ride into the storm contradicted common sense.

 

Nick in his new ‘helmet’

Drops of rain pelt hard against my face and soak in to my medieval woolly hat. As the road twists left and right I peer up and ahead at the angry skies, trying to predict my own swirling fate, hoping that the road will take me to the brightest future….a blue future that I can see now I swear, far, far in the distance.

The rain was to prove torrid over the following days, prevailing almost without halt on my way to Bogota to buy a new helmet, meaning low spirits at times, though I’d often find a patch of blue sky big enough to fit my tent under and savoured the dryness of it’s shelter, and took warmth from listening to the sound of rain on the flysheet, reminding me of rainy days at home, hot tea and a warm fire.

Leaving Bogota for the second time, I raced south away from the city’s grip and peered happily out through my new helmet’s clear visor…..into rain…at a small heard of cows grazing on the central reservation, traffic
thundering by, sending up huge brown waves of standing water over them, and over me. A man waits patiently amongst the cows, waiting to cross the road, he seems little bothered by the soaking he or his smart suit and tie are getting from the torrential rain, and a group of men pass by going the wrong way on bicycles in jeans and T-shirts which cling heavily with damp, equally unperturbed. The rain made the news that day, though for Bogotanos it seemed to have little consequence as they fight to earn their daily bread…or arepas.

As the city recedes to memories, so too thankfully does the rain and I drop down and down out of the eastern cordillera into the Desierto de Tatacoa. I set up camp atop one of the white sandy flutings, overlooking the maze of interlocking pyramids of grassy sand disappearing, far off to the horizon at the end of which the thunderstorms light up the the whole sky, though silently and safely off in the distance. It’s a lovely camp, spoiled only by the irritation by the heat on the numerous bites from the previous camp’s attacks by “Jejens” – miniscule biting bugs the size of pinheads! Nasty fellows!

I’d hoped to cross the desert by compass, but the tight weave of hillocks is certainly impenetrable and anyway…this isn’t the desert. I find this some time later, a small patch of red sandy flutings… I had
had high expectations admittedly, expecting something like Egypt’s White Desert, or Sudan’s Atbara, or the USA’s Death Valley or Anzaborrego! and though nice, Tatacoa was minuscule in comparison! And so a slight disappointment Still there’s Atacama to come….

The bridge is out over the mighty Rio Magdalena but another lancha helps me on my way across, to continue on to a splendid 14km hike amongst the ancient decorated tombs and statues of “Tierradentro” dating from 6-900AD, before those Spanish fellows came over….

 

Tierradentro
Unloading the bike on the river crossign

Followingan interesting talk with one of the locals about Indian culture I took his advice and headed to Mosoco, deep in the indigenous area surrounding Volcan de Huila (5700m), for a lively market, apparently.

 

Not quite there, here in Belacazar market.

Footsteps. Outside the tent. More than several. Rain, too much. A voice, just one. Others, murmuring.

I ignore it in the hope of sleep, but then it comes again, clearer, stern. “We need to speak with you.”

I struggle out of the sleeping bag, into clothes and clamber out of the tent, out into rain and a fifty strong crowd of short angry Indians. I could be in trouble here.

I am bombarded with demanding questions, in tones hinting at expected guilty answers. Questions, questions, questions.  I notice it’s not just adults standing in the rain watching, but children and youths too and I feel as if I’m the village’s Saturday night entertainment.  They laugh and joke, at my expense. The short square faced men rifle through my things, count my money out in public view, look through my pictures, passing the camera around between each other, clambering in and out of the tent and taking a FULL inventory.
“What’s this?”
“Cafe.”
“Cafe….” he mumbles as he jots it down.
He tears a bag and sniffs it contents.
“It’s sugar!” I say exasperated.
He mumbles and jots this down, passing it to someone else, who sniffs it, who passes it to someone else who sniffs it, lost to the crowd. Someone trips on the tent, another person leans on it trying to see better.
“Can you be careful with my tent please.” I ask, only to be met with more ridicule, as one man who ignores my explanations, tears open my sisters birthday present awaiting posting. I really wanted to hit this guy, one of the weak men who wouldn’t individually look me in the face but were quick to turn on me together as a group…but knew I’d be buried amongst the potatoes if I did and so just stood with a face flicking between anger and sadness, whilst those near me stare and laugh the more.
After three hours of this, at perhaps a little after midnight, I’m told quite flatly to take my tent down.
“So, I can’t sleep here then.”
“No, you follow them.” says one, a stocky well fed man – obviously a man of position – gesturing to an old 4×4 parked in the darkness….
“Can’t I just leave, now?””No, you go, Vidonco. Follow…”
I pack up the wet tent, hemmed in tightly all the while by the crowd, and I
angrily shove past each laughing one of them on my way back and to to the bike. They’re enjoying this, my
misery.
On the bike, the now larger crowd huddle in close, to see what will happen next, or to stop me trying to escape perhaps. An old man holds open the throttle of the bike to warm the engine whilst I put on my
helmet, I look to him, his face is tilted and his eyes wrapped in tears, rain dripping down from his brow, and I am certain he is the only one who feels my plight, and I hope that he saw in my eyes my
gratitude, as his small gesture sticks in my mind vividly as the one positive in a long period of negatives. I remember that, his eyes.
A thirty minute ride behind a 4×4 full of people, and by full I mean 15-20 people, inside, outside, hanging on to windows and bumpers as we bounce our way through the dark and rain to Vidonco. The mood is better here, the group smaller, giving the chance to know me as a person rather than a strange – and guilty – anonymity at the centre of a crowd. In the town hall though they go through my USB memory and photos, every single one and at 2am, I am permitted to sleep, though only with the presence of two guards.
“Don’t sleep beneath the open window, it could be dangerous for you.”
“Riiight….OK….”
The guerilla it seems, or possibly another Indian village have become aware of my presence, and have possibly been asking after me, and the faces of the talking village leaders take on a look of blank fear…could be a problem.

 

The guard in the doorway

This is deemed so in the morning when told that I can’t go to the city of Popayan as hoped but must loop back with an escort (“for my safety”) back to the town of Belacazar on the way back to Tierradentro (technically I’m in Tierradentro, and the tourist site is misnamed, and should be San Andres). But it
seems, I shan’t be going anywhere in a hurry and so set up the stove to make coffee for myself and the guards, who pull a face at the sugar.

“It’s sugar….” I explain, “sorry, I don’t have any panela.” as the locals exclusively use panela, making it themselves using large handmade wooden presses – I was not able to photograph one unfortunately.
They also chew coca leaves (historically) and drink ‘coca mate’ (tea from coca) from small clay spouted cups. In it’s natural state it is believed that coca provides many health benefits, and is widely believed to alleviate altitude sickness. But it is perhaps the indigenous growth and harvesting of coca leaves which has – possibly – led to the insurgence of the guerilla groups in the area that are refining the leaf in futuristic labs somewhere nearby and exporting the product; cocaine, to Europe and North America, making Colombia one of the world’s top producers of cocaine. Despite the country tightening it’s grip on production in recent years it is still quite clearly a problem, though one I felt residents were keen to fob off as western hype, and this went -sometimes- with other areas of Colombian society. I found myself having to bite my tongue again,
stifling the truths I’d come to believe, a Communist-like attitude, people who simply believed what they were told and read on roadside hoardings…or on facebook, like the tourists at the canyon, .

Back to the Town Hall….and my guard, a very amiable chap, with a broad beaming smile called Nelson, took me, together with a small group of guards, on a short tour of town. The guards it must be said looked a bit comical, almost literally, like jesters in their Robin Hood green and Maid Marrion red bandanners, regular clothes wielding a stick decorated likewise in green and red. Also, half the guards were kids. I wondered how they’d fare against the AK74 and AK47 armed, drugged up, guerilla.

Pretty badly.

Locked up in the hall I wait, and eventually a group forms and a disorganised meeting begins between village chiefs and youth guards to decide my fate. I recognise some of them from the night before, horrid faces, not a flicker of friendliness amongst them and the sure reason they have obtained positions of power; by not thinking of anyone but themselves on their way to the top.

At the windows crowds gather. A woman suckles her child, men goose neck for a glimpse and kids frantically climb over each other for a view from every window. I feel like a zoo animal, and so rather at risk feel exasperated, desperate to leave.  The crowds stand there motionless for five hours or more whilst I stand or sit inside, in one corner looking the other way, the meeting in the other corner, occasionally I’m asked a question.

They have been maintaining that this is all for my benefit, to save me from the guerilla. It crosses my mind
that maybe they are they, a stash of arms secreted away in the well-fed man’s house. Eventually, seeing that I am not believing their story, a man speaks the truth and informs me that there are national laws in place
banning foreigners from the area as they don’t want them mining here, taking all the profit while the locals win little. I could point out that the investors money might make the place safer, would create paying jobs and improve infrastructure, but it’s true the westerners are overwhelming winners and I found their plight admirable….though wondered if they could go about things a little better.

“We want your GPS,””OK,” I say.”and your camera.””Absolutely no way.” They tell me they will as planned take me to Belacazar, hand me to the police where I must wait several days whilst they check my things. I
say there is absolutely no way I will do this – seemed to be working historically – and will fly home right now if that’s necessary.

Eventually this is deemed unnecessary and the original plan to escort me to the town is decided upon, without the need for the police and with four guards – I managed to lose the original two – we end up as
expected….some time later…..with the police.

Que putas! is all I have to say on that!  (Thanks to Julio for that Spanish lesson).

I bite my tongue again as the Indians explain to the police that this is all for my safety, whereas I’m sure the escort was to make sure I left the area, and giving me to the police is insurance that I don’t go back. No chance of that!

“Make sure no foreigners pass again!” says one man who looks half Polish as they walk away.

All this said, there was one girl who held a position of some authority in the community, and without her help, I feel I’d be in much deeper waters, so I thank her….for she may read this! She is working to improve the community and I feel that she has a tough job ahead of her….especially with the well-fed idiots she is working alongside.

The police say I must wait, still powerless, I sit dejected desperate to leave, to eat, to drink and my prayers are answered: a coke is thrust before me from a friendly guard! We sit chatting, and he tells me about finding two decapitated bodies two days before,

“Lucky I wasn’t here that day!” I say with a laugh.

His face remains fixed, remembering.

Forms are filled and just to make sure I understand for the police chief is certain I can’t speak any Spanish, he gives me a google translated note, which can be described simply as “brass tacks”.

Finally, 530pm I’m able to leave, after that is answering the questions of a group of untimely and curious kids….I race away up the river valley as the sun sets to my right and finally dog tired, I reach the small village at Tierradentro and through some grace, find a friendly family who let me set up tent…not before food and tinto are given though! I love my tent, and tonight especially I regaled in it’s silent shelter, sat absorbing the happiness of the family so clear to see as they laugh and chat, sat close arms around each other.

It’s with some scepticism that I ride towards the town of Silvia, a mere 38km east of Mosoco where I’d been had, but it’s 100km for me in along loop through Inza and over the high muddy pass beyond Guanacas to Totoro. Pouring rain didn’t help the mud which slopped up from the tires painting all in a thick pudding of dirt.

 

But when I rounded the corner up and into the main square of Silvia I was greeted by the most amazing sight; and some relief!  Beneath the cream church, hordes of people wearing bright bright blues, black sarongs, chunky camel coloured hiking boots with bright orange laces, children with flat straw hats hanging down their backs and the men in ponchos, scarves of brown and orange, and blue sarongs. So many people, so much colour, piled in and on ‘chivas’ the local buses along with bundles of their recent purchases.

I buy a potato here, an onion there, cilantro, cheese, aselga leaves…all in the bid to get to chatting, to get photos. Many oblige that first day and as I go I meet the lovely Barco family and end up spending the
night at their house, then breakfast and lunch too! (Thanks so much!).

I returned to Silvia, hoping to catch a further glimpse despite it not being market day. But there are
some there…and, against the advice of police I ride up to their village (though no further!) and have the pleasure of seeing a less touristy side of life. I meet a lovely woman who shows me herself at work on her “Telar” (weaving frame of thick wood) making a typical “Hanaco” the wraps that the girls and women wear as dresses. The common conception of the Indians is that we as gringos sell the pictures and make a lot of money, so they tend not to like you taking pictures, unless you pay. Something I refuse to do. I tell her – and others – this isn’t true for me at least, and get some on the proviso that I get her a print of one of the pictures. I ride back to town, print it off and take it back to her with a group of intrigued staring women….she was pleased to say the least, and I took pleasure out of seeing her run excitedly to the house to show it off….as well as a picture of me! She was too shy to tell me her name….

The women are constantly at work, spinning wool from soft pink cotton bags on their shoulders,
into thread onto bobbins as they walk to Silvia or weaving ‘maletins’ (small handbags for money or their cellphones), or carrying small churns – cooking pot sized – of milk from the fields. I rode up and down that road as far as I’d dare over three days(!) trying to get photos of all these things….alas, I didn’t
get permission, always wanting money, I was refused again, and again and again…..demoralising!

Still, I did pretty good….right…?

The short trip to Popayan, a place that gave off good impressions, chance to write the blog and watch the Semana Santa (Holy Week) night parade, famous throughout Colombia…Here they parade many of the famous figures of the bible cast out of garish plastic through the streets surrounded by nude dolls; the angels, the crowd following behind with a burning candle…

Overall Colombia has been good, and at times simply amazing.  The ocean of opportunity here is vast,
from beaches right up to glaciers, it’s a land of contrasts, and I haven’t even delved into the less accessible eastern territories of jungle or Amazonia. The people I feel follow the same suit though, some are incredibly nice (the Barcos for example!), but generally I missed the open warmth of the people of all of Central America, missed the constant tooting at passing motorbikes or holas in the street and therefore made me feel less at peace and more alone in Colombia. This said, I’ve had a great time, there are small glimpses of absolute brilliance…El Cocuy, Ruiz, Chicamocha and the indigenous of Silvia, only they are but islands in the vast ocean.