I´m in South America. Colombia to be exact. I´ve been here for just over two weeks now, and as with all travelling experiences the way has been long, windy and unpredictable - full of colourful personalities, mosquitos and bad Spanish. I am now in Cartagena: infamous port town, historical site of gold exportation, pirates and dense, chewable humidity. I will do my best to bring the last few weeks to the electronic page with alacrity, picarseque prose and succinct description. Once again, if you find all this dull and tiresome, just tell me where to shove it.
It all began in Bogota...
Boarding the Paris-Bogota flight, I experienced instant culture shock. Everyone on board was Colombian. Mustachioed, latino faces greeted me everywhere: bored, laconic and exotic. I spent my ten-hour flight engrossed in broken Spanish with the Colombian girls who irritably shifted over, having occupied my aisle seat. After discovering that I was English (and probably having never met an English person before), one of them insisted on helping me ´practice´ my Spanish for eight solid hours. The welcome byproduct of this intercourse was that the flight shot past like a dream; her name was Andrea, she was returning from a two-month cookery course in Paris and was into death metal (favourite band, Rotting Christ). She was single, and had a seven-year old daughter. In the end she invited me to stay with her if I ever made my way to Cali – a welcome, if slightly suspicious invitation, which I´m still not sure I´ll pursue...
Queuing up at passport control, I trod wearily, checking for any signs of altitude sickness – shortness of breath, light-headedness, uncontrollable hallucinations. Nope. The guy at the passport booth checked my passport without once looking at my face.
Leaving the airport I felt immediate jubilation; the air was clear and clean and the temperature mild, like a warm spring day. I grabbed a ticket from the taxi rank, jumped into a waiting cab and was immediately coasting my way through the city limits towards the Platypus hostel in La Candelaria, where I had a reservation. There were no seat belts in the back - typical latin America. With my head stuck out the open window I watched the approacing city; it reminded me of a strange cross between Navajoa (north-west Mexico) and the grimy-grey concrete nightmare that is Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Incredibly calm, empty streets and relaxed-looking citizens.
Arriving around 4:30pm, the sun was already beginning to sink, and the mountains skirting the city appeared as haunting silhouettes in the late afternoon light. My first impression was that a giant, mischievous child has picked up a fistful of concrete and thrown it haphazardly at this high-altitude plateau, causing the earth to ripple and rise up around it. As the taxi coasted through the centre of town I was surprised by how ugly and industrial it seemed; as we approached La Candelaria more young people appeared on the narrow streets, but the sparse, quiet atmosphere didn´t change.
Ugly, eastern-European buildings pollute the skyline with mono-syllabic rows of windows, set against the dramatic backdrop of Cerro de Monseratte. As I arrived, the low-lying clouds transformed the mountain into a squat, vaguely threatening goliath that presided over La Candelaria like a disapproving stepfather.
I got out of the cab a minute´s walk down the street from the Platypus and by the time I reached the door with backpack and bag I was out of breath – my first symptom of the 8,600ft altitude. Over the following days I became more familiar with these sly and subtle effects: walking up a gradual slope brings on mild dizziness and lack of breath, and colours seem more vibrant – though that may just be Colombia in general.
I was immediately impressed with the Platypus – free coffee, and friendly German owner Germann (pronounced Herman) who offered me a free beer before I´d had a chance to drop my backpack. The interior was cool and quiet, with an airlock-style porch arrangement to stop unwelcome intruders. Lovely little courtyard with fountain, backpacks lined up in the corner and a sitting room to the right with wooden tables, a high wood-beamed ceiling and wooden chairs.
My lasting impression of the Platypus is of a rickety firetrap where warmth is emanated only by the people, dedicated staff and free coffee. On my third morning I awoke at 5am from a dream that someone was leaning over me, whispering into my ear, "The air is getting thinner in here, wake up!" I jumped out of bed and vowed to stop drinking so much free coffee.
The only thing that broke the pristine, inner tranquility of my arrival was the sound of English-accented voices, and my first thought – "You go all the way to Bogota and can´t escape the bleeding limeys". Rather than staying in that night and adjusting to the time difference and altitude, I decided to go out with a bunch of mixed geezers from England, Australia, New Zealand and America. The American guy, Adam, had biked his way down from the States to Colombia, mostly overland, and was pushing his way further south. He was an old-skool Tool fan, and I enjoyed berating his lack of long-term dedication later that night while we played drinking games at The Pub in Zona Rose – yet another Irish pub in a totally incongruous setting on the other side of town. This is a totally upmarket zone, full of wealthy, comfortable Colombians who live in a bubble: detached from the rest of the city, and country, at large.
Bogota is a place of strange contradictions, where nouveau-riche brush shoulders with the revoltingly poor and tiny, crippled beggars shine the shoes of tall, well-dressed businessmen as they stare with remote indifference at their watches and well-manicured nails, waiting for their lunchbreaks to end.
La Candelaria, the until-recently poor and dangerous part of town is now and up and coming student zone. The area is mellow, decrepit and full of narrow alleys and old buildings that have become home to youth-friendly cafes, breakfast bars and watering holes (Mora: Mora sells smoothies and looks like an Ozzie joint, and Papyrus plays MPG4 music videos and sells great tequila. We spent a good few nights there whiling away the wee hours). As you traverse the cracked and sinking pavements you can´t miss the vibrant graffiti (none of which bristles with the clan-like anger of London´s tagging), which often references Uribe (the current President), contemporary bands or traditional Colombian people dressed in traditional garb. It is an area that traps travellers and invites poetry.
Damn, this email has become inordinately huge and I haven´t told you anything – about the friends I made (American Chris, Wolfgang the businessman, Emily the writer) or the experiences I had in Bogota. Climbing Cerro de Monseratte for a view that made the city look like an isometric computer game, seeing the clouds dip down and curl over a horizon that looked like the edge of the world and feeling another degree of altitude-induced effects; the Gold museum; the appreciation of new acoustic guitar music; dicussions of Earth Crust Displacement, geology and olde English literature with Chris and Ken; Roçio and Pablo; or the greatest coincidence of all: bumping into a Dutch girl I met fifteen months ago in Barcelona while travelling with my friend Ben.
Her name is Neske. We met in the supermarket after my second filet mignon lunch in two days, giving me the strangest feeling that two distinctly different temporal dimensions had rubbed together like a seismic shift. She´d been travelling constantly ever since we last met, while I´d been back in England, working and thinking about my wanderings in northern Spain. Neither of us could believe the unlikelihood of this coincidence (Bogota to Barcelona?) and I spent that evening at her hostel, watching her accompany English Jack on the violin as he played classic Eric Clapton tracks on a traveller´s guitar.
I could keep going and going and going... I left Bogota with a timid Israeli girl called Debbie and travelled north via beautiful San Gil to Taganga on the Caribbean coast, then walked through the jungle for six days to the lost city of the Tayunas – an ancient Indian culture. I talked to a man who´d spent six years in prison in Bogota for attempted drug trafficking, then opened a seaside Baguette shop with his estranged girlfriend. I read William Burroughs´ Yage Letters, and wondered about Shaun (hostel owner in San Gil) and his own Ayhuasca experiences. And I ate filet mignon for breakfast.