Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Befuddlement on the Caribbean Coast

Please indulge my lengthy words once again and spare me no ire. I write this latest instalment from Puerto Varas, Chile where I´m staying with an old companion from the Camino de Santiago (a pilgrimage I walked back in 2002). Soon I´ll return to Argentina for the last leg of my trip and spend a good few weeks in Buenos Aires; much Spanish to be learnt, much steak to be eaten, much wine to be drunk...

Before making the trip here I travelled south from Bolivia into Argentina via Salta (beautiful colonial city), Cordoba (cosmopolitan and largely dull), Mendoza (heart of Argentina's wine country, and hearty the wine certainly is), and finally Bariloche - faded lakeside holiday town for Argentina´s elite, full of logs and chocolate. Very Swiss. And yet my journal is still stranded at the beginning of my trip, in the mythical lands of Colombia. Already my memories of that time are being obscured by clouds of nostalgia, and I'm starting to worry that I'll never catch up with myself - nay, I know I never will - but the thoughts and feelings are numerous and complex and the words never sufficient. But as ever, indulge me...

To Taganga

Leaving Shaun sniffing pale and squalid in the doorway of the Macondo hostel, I bid him and the Australians farewell, filled with a desire to learn jangly blues guitar after the nights spent listening to Ant`s affected Southern drawl and expert fingerwork. Earlier that day I´d visited the beautiful Parque Naturale, a small eco-park with paths linking incredible prehistoric trees and babbling streams that ran directly into a river that somewhat resembled the Mekong Delta. I sat for a while in an atrium and thought about teradactyls, a pleasant last few moments before going back on the road.

Jumping onto the first night bus at hand with minutes to spare, Debbie and I started our 12-hour journey up north to Santa Marta. This was to be my first experience with the face-numbing 'aire condicionado' prevalent on all long-distance Colombian buses. Like many aspects of Colombian society, the enthusiasm of the populace seems to exceed the logical benefits of modern technology - hence, any new innovation is milked beyond reasonable measure. If there`s even a slight trace of warmth or humidity in the air, you can guarantee the bus will be overwhelming, unstoppably, inhumanly cold. Why do they do this? Why are they incapable of moderating the temperature to a pleasant, balanced state? Do they do it out of spite? These questions, and many others, will forever be at the back of my mind.

So, my coach to Santa Marta started out mildly frigid and rapidly became a travelling freezer. Even after swaddling myself with the extra layers stored in my day bag and wrapping my head in a scarf, my nose was numb and my extremities incapable of circulating blood. Plus, the porter on that particular coach was an angry little tick who regarded everyone with a look of long-suffering hatred, stalking resentfully up and down the bus without doing anything productive, perspiring with the sweat of those doomed to a life of subservience.

To make matters worse, after finally managing to drift into a super-cooled state of hibernation we were rudely awakened by the porter who demanded our tickets and babbled something about Santa Marta. Debbie immediately assumed that our bags had been stolen. We left the bus and, dazed and confused, looked about us at our surroundings. The bus had stopped at a petrol station on a dusty main road in the middle of nowhere. The dense humidity hit us like a wet blanket as we stepped out of the bus, and we were immediately surrounded by predatory, feral taxi drivers who almost started a fight with the porter over our fare (his angry facade finally cracked and he started to look genuinely fearful). It seemed that they´d forgotten to wake us at Santa Marta, continuing for 26 kilometres beyond the town and had only just realised their mistake.

The angry shouting became a cacophony; Debbie began to quake silently beside me in fear of imminent death and destruction. Too spaced out to care about the violent atmosphere, I asked the porter what the hell we were supposed to do. He jabbed at the closest taxi driver and told him to take our bags, which he did - grabbing them roughly and tying them with string to the rack on top of his rusting, decrepit, almost totally defunct car. The other drivers, mostly dressed in shabby trousers and vests took umbridge at this and started shouting at each other, at us, at the porter and finally at Dios himself, but before an orgy of violence could ensue we were shoved into the taxi and swept away in the early morning heat, back towards Santa Marta.

The environment had transformed completely. Apart from the Caribbean climate, the landscape was tropical; palm trees dotted the fields and riversides as low-lying mountains grew larger on the horizon through a haze of moisture. I saw it all through red-rimmed eyes and painful fatigue. Another couple got into our taxi: a spiv sporting a striped shirt and a freakish-looking women with terrible skin and eyes spread far apart like a snail`s, obviously a match made in heaven.

Eventually we arrived in Santa Marta and dropped the odd couple at their hotel, continuing directly to Taganga, the neighbouring seaside village recommended as a traveller`s alternative to the more 'upmarket' Santa Marta - ironic, considering that Santa Marta resembled a French seaside town after a cluster bomb attack. Tacky hotels everywhere, streets badly maintained and architecture lacklustre. I was surprised, especially after the many glowing recommendations I`d received from Colombians (including a girl I`d met in Bristol), describing Santa Marta as a `beautiful`, premium holiday spot. As far as I could tell, there was nothing picturesque about the place whatsoever - except perhaps for the garish posters advertising travelling circuses, shows and suchlike, and the ever-present political graffiti. There was a sea front but its glory was faded and forlorn, the streets shabby and strewn with dirt. It was early though, and I wasn´t feeling overly receptive.

Our driver wasted no time after the spiv had finally found his change, and we began wending our way to the outskirts of town, crossing a railway track that sat incongruously on an elevated surface that ran down the middle of what was now a dirt road. Our taxi bumped and rocked as it crossed the tracks and we were suddenly driving down the narrow streets of a slum; bare-chested latinos strolled about aimlessly, children played in the dirt, and in a moment of unspoken synergy myself and Debbie both had the morbid impression that we were being driven somewhere very scary and undesirable. But our fears were, as on many occasions in Colombia, unjustified. Soon were on a sealed coastal road and the sudden view of an unspoilt, fantastically tranquil little village nestling in a small bay raised our spirits. Taganga.

Pulling into the town, the taxi driver asked some locals for directions to our hostel, La Casa de Filipe, and we were soon pulling up to the main gate. Taganga is a small, rustic town with rough dirt roads and a beach front crowded with cafes, restaurants and dive schools; it felt relaxed and sleepy, a place where the pace never rises above a stoned amble. Located at the far end of the village close to dense, sloping foliage, the hostel had a natural view of the sea. The air felt even heavier with lethargy inspiring humidity, and after paying off the taxi driver (Debbie objected to the cost, claiming we were being ripped off despite the pitifully low fee), we lugged our bags inside. I was very tired.

My Spanish failed me as I tried to talk to the receptionist, but she made it clear that there were no beds available at present and we´d have to wait. Outside, the patio was patterned with wooden tables and hammocks. There was hardly any breeze. It felt eerily reminiscent of Koh Phangan, Thailand and my subconscious started to throw up odd flashbacks to my arrival at Thong Nai Pan Oi beach three years previously.

Debbie bought breakfast for herself while I was enquiring about the Ciudad Perdida trek inside, and when I came out they´d stopped serving. This annoyed me somewhat. I did, however, get a free passion fruit juice that came vaguely close to almost bringing me out of my walking coma. The women working at the cabana bar were one-country removed from the people of Bogota and San Gil - obvious Caribbean influence resonated in both their faces, physiques and dark skin. Another backpacker sat at a table nearby attempting to eat a breakfast, looking hungeover and haggard.

I sat and looked in my bag for the copy of ´Breakfast at Tiffany´s´ I was halfway through reading, but realised with a burst of frustration that I`d left it tucked into the back of a chair when we´d been rushed off the coach (I was roughly 50 pages in and still haven´t been able to find another copy). I took out my copy of ´The Yage Letters´ as Debbie quietly ate her breakfast but couldn´t focus on the words. My mind started to drift back to Bogota, analysing the changing landscape of this journey - I felt like it was taking me a bit longer than usual to get into the swing of things.

On my last day at the Platypus hostel I´d fought a battle of wills with Rocio about meeting up in Taganga within a certain time scale, coming out of the heated discussion with the feeling that I´d compromised my freedom within just five days of starting the trip. Already I was lumbered with this odd, unreadable Israeli girl who claimed she wanted to be a career actress after playing a hooker in an amateur stage production. Her knowledge of cinema was pitiful. It would be fair to say that she was getting on my nerves. I felt dirty and abused by the necessities of long-distance travel; the only saving grace was that I´d remembered to take my toothbrush on the coach with me and didn´t have a mouth like an armpit.

Other people began to appear on the patio and I recognised Christine from the Platypus hostel, a German who, as it turned out, had spent six months working in Romford. Poor girl. We sat and chatted and soon Nezke appeared, looking tall and typically flambuoyant even at this early hour in a dress and thick eyeliner. It seemed that the Bogota massive had already converged on La Casa de Filipe via Cartagena and the western coastal route - I thought about the bar we´d visited on the 40th floor of a high-rise building in the dank Colombian capital city and looked around me bleerily: where was I? How had I come to this crazy Caribbean beach?!

(Incidentally, these kind of meetings are typical of travel throughout South America. Due to the nature of the cross-continental circuit (what the Israelis call waves), people can meet, travel together and encounter one another again in random locations months later. The feeling is that you´re part of a mass exodus, and for my particular wave Jerusalem is Buenos Aires.)

It was 10am and everyone looked wasted, tired, hungover and stoned. I tried to convince Nezke to come on the Ciudad Perdida trek with me thinking that her sizeable personality would guarantee an entertaining trip; we talked for half an hour, me enthusing over the wonders of jungle trekking, and came pretty close to winning her over before discovering that she had absolutely none of the required equipment - not even a pair of shoes. She was a sandal-wearing, louche purveyor of music and whimsy through and through, a child of the moment addicted to her violin and all-night binges. Possibly it was the fact that we´d have to leave early the next morning that put her off.

Soon a room became availabe and we secured our bags. The bathroom smelled like the toilet had been backing up, sickening in the fetid air. Later that afternoon I had a brief meeting with an all-too-smooth and slightly patronising man from the local ´Magic Tours´ office, who spoke to me with a sympathetic, knowing smile and explained what the trek would entail with a map and itinerary list. Knowing the Ciudad Perdida´s reputation I was reluctant to trust anyone involved, suspicious that they were all somehow in cahoots with the Paramilitaries, but I took his word for it. The seven-day looked marginally more challenging so I opted for that option - oh, if only I´d known better...

Rocio soon put in an appearance with Pablo in tow and started to lavish attention on me (much to Pablo´s obvious disdain and my amusement), calling me "the most handsome Englishman I never saw". I´m not sure that Pablo appreciated this - were they really getting on? I sat at a table and talked to some other travellers for a while, lay in a hammock and went for a baguette at a local cafe, Cafe de Maria, which someone had recommended. The night brought on festivities of all kinds, with the inhabitants of the hostel sprawled all over the patio batting away mosquitoes, drinking and smoking dubious substances. Unfortunately, I had to leave the fiesta early wishing that I´d had another day to settle in a bit, and ended up sharing a double bed in a room with three girls - Nezke sprawled on the top bunk opposite and Christine on the bottom. We were all intixocated, but even the three huge fans in the room did very little to dispel the close humidity and my sleep was sweaty and restless.

The next morning I woke up at 9am on the dot and had my bags packed, waiting for the minibus to pick us up at 9:30. Paul and Jess, an English couple that I´d met the previous day were also waiting, and we started to worry that there was something wrong. The bus was taking ages: had we somehow missed it or slept solidly through an entire day? Still heavily sleep deprived, I started to feel quite disorientated, but this being Colombia the bus was simply 45 minutes late. Apologising, they shuttled us to Santa Marta and dropped us off at a hostel where we sat in grand dark wood chairs at an antique coffee table and waited for an hour and a half, initial English awkwardness soon fading into relaxed conversation.

We bought a sickly sweet coffee from a random hobo, thinking that breakfast was included. It wasn´t. My eyelids felt like they were being pulled closed by tiny clockwork elephants, and I felt a sudden urge to lie across the coffee table and drape my limbs wherever they fell, kicking the furniture and abandoning any pretension of sociability. One day I shall live the dream, mark my words...


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