A Better Understanding

Picture: Bradley Slocum

WHAT made Colombia famous?

You could answer something about eccentric goalkeepers, extravagantly-coiffed midfielders, Shakira’s hips not lying, cyclists who go uphill fast and the dubious distinction of losing to England in a World Cup penalty shootout.

Wikipedia tells us Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, is a ‘perennial powerhouse at the World Roller Speed Skating Championships’ (which explains a track in the centre of Cartagena) and the Piloto public library has Latin America’s largest archive of negatives.

And, as one former colleague and various tourist T-shirts repeat, it is Colombia, not Columbia. 

But chances are you answered something about cocaine, Pablo Escobar or the war on drugs (the ongoing fight against narcotics, not the band).

According to The Wire’s Ellis Carver, it cannot be a war because wars end.

But if our all too brief stay in what proved the final country of our South America circuit is anything to go by, there is at least a pretty solid ceasefire in play.

The drug trade which almost brought the country to its knees is still alive, but this is not life in a war zone anymore. 

Even with armed soldiers patrolling the streets – or queuing at the food carts – in Leticia, our first port of call which boasts a healthy number of casinos in case you found yourself with large amounts of illicit cash for some reason.

Colombia, somehow, has managed to turn itself into one of the more stable stops on our itinerary – in comparison with the tear gas which greeted us in Chile, the domestic upheaval which followed us through Ecuador and Peru or the problems which forced us to make a rapid run through Bolivia.

Never mind the issues afflicting neighbouring Venezuela which had us skirting around it and tackling an extended itinerary in Colombia before the need to get home to avoid getting trapped abroad by anti-coronavirus measures.

Pretty much everyone picked Colombia as a highlight before the trip and if first impressions were anything to go by, that extra time would have been very well spent.

Which is why almost the first (and second) thing we did on arrival was leave.

The border into our final country differed from all the previous ones in that it existed merely as a small sign on a wall, our taxi driver from our slow boat up the Amazon to our hostel pointing it out as he drove along the main road.

By the time we realised what he was saying, we had crossed from Tabatinga in Brazil to Leticia in Colombia. From Portuguese back to Spanish.

There are border controls which had us walking the way we had come – in punishing heat given how early it was – to be stamped out of Brazil. 

And straight back again and further to officially enter Colombia.

That all produced the first signs of what was to come, a masked nurse asking health questions as we queued for Brazilian immigration and queries over our well-being and my French Guiana stamp (given France’s status on the danger list) at its Colombia equivalent, tucked away on a raft at the edge of town.

Having officially got ourselves across the border and settled into Colombia, we left again.

This time via a boat across the river with no sign of a border into an island belonging to Peru for a group challenge of three cocktails in three countries in three hours.

Pay attention, this does get tricky. Certainly too tricky for us.

We managed the three countries, we just took rather longer than three hours and had to substitute beer at our Peruvian stop because they did not sell cocktails – unless you count pouring Inka Cola into your beer.

Which you really should not do. Count it or pour it into your beer.

Another boat ride ferried us back to Tabatinga and another walk up to the border and a final chance to grab a Brazilian caipirinha. Which some of us grabbed more than once.

A few photo opportunities – another change to normal border protocol – and we crossed into Colombia for one final time and a rather lengthier assault on a bar’s happy hour supplies of Cuba libres, pink dolphins and what they translated as caipirinha milk shakes.

Thankfully, given the number of cocktails consumed, we had plenty of time to emerge the next morning, pack for a couple of days, explore the town or lounge in a hammock with the hostel cat before heading up the river again for a couple of nights of quiet at a guesthouse in the small riverside village of Macedonia.

Basic but comfortable, much of our food was fresh out of the river.

Some explored the village, some headed out on a muddy nature walk, some fished, some spent plenty of time relaxing, but the highlight for many of us was another river trip to Isla De Los Micos – Monkey Island.

To be honest, it was not the expected day out (and it took a big chunk of the day, given the slow boat which carried us there and back).

Had thought we would be wandering around the island, trying to spot the monkeys in the trees.

What we got was a short walk to a clearing into a posse of little squirrel monkeys who descended around and on us, prompted occasionally by a tactically placed piece of fruit.

Shamelessly touristy and guaranteed to get the camera clicking – if you could click your camera with monkeys crawling all over it.

A quiet evening was followed by a much quicker morning boat ride back to Leticia where our final evening produced more spectacular crowds of animals.

As we settled down for a couple of caipirinhas, thousands of parakeets flocked into the park around us to roost at dusk.

While they took up residence for the night, we headed for more cocktails. And a few more.

There were more to come, just not as many as we would have liked.

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Imperfect Circle

THIS is not what was planned. This post is not even in the right order. But after the events of the last week, plans and order have gone out of the window.

Last Sunday, we were cycling around the old town of Cartagena, looking forward to a day at the beach before heading to a mud volcano and more of the delights of Colombia.

There would have been a post outlining the delights of our first few days in Colombia (we will get to that), the start of the final stretch of this circuit around South America.

Instead, this is being written back in England. Far away from Colombia and, seemingly, what we had become accustomed to as normal life.

It has been a pretty fraught, frantic, fast-moving seven days (apart from the lengthy bits when there was no actual forward movement) as we found ourselves immersed in the escalating health crisis which had been only on the edges of our radar in the previous few weeks.

We were aware of COVID-19. Aware it was starting to impact well beyond its source point of China.

But South America seemed an outpost away from the hotspots we were seeing on the news, back in the real life we put on hold when we climbed aboard the big yellow truck six months ago.

Right up until the point real life grabbed us by the shoulder and pulled us back in.

The first inkling things were about to change came last Saturday when news filtered through that neighbouring Ecuador was closing its borders in a bid to protect itself from the rising threat.

South America remains well behind Europe in terms of numbers – at the time of writing, Colombia has 158 confirmed cases and no deaths – but as we were about to discover, nobody was hanging around before acting.

We knew Ecuador’s decision would have an impact. It was, after all, our intended final destination for the final few days, a return to Otavalo and back to Quito to complete the perfect circle.

And a reunion with the truck which, after abandoning attempts to cross via ferry or barge from Suriname to Guyana, had made it back to Brazil ahead of a long drive to rejoin us – reuniting us with the stuff left behind as we hurriedly packed for an unspecified leave of absence.

There was a further hint of what lay ahead when local precautions decreed bars and restaurants operate at reduced capacity, forcing us to buy slightly less overpriced sundowner cocktails on the city wall than planned.

Little did those of us drinking, dancing and painting the night away (more to come on that) realise it would serve as a final evening out.

There is a corner of a foreign bar which will be forever The Shed

Sore heads were not helped by the news the next day.

Lisa’s post-trip adventure to the Galapagos Islands had been cancelled amid the first hints that getting home would become harder the longer we waited.

But by the time we headed out for more exploration of the considerable charms of Cartagena, by foot and on bike, the plan was to bide our time and wait for developments. Maybe flying from Bogota further down the road to meet the truck, collect our stuff and head home from there.

That was our thinking as we headed for pizza in the evening – right up until we ran into tour leader Danny and some of the others in a bar.

Peru had shut its borders (ending an idea to head to Cusco) and our planned trip to the beach at Playa Blanca and phosphorescent seaweed the next day had been cancelled amid growing restrictions being imposed across Colombia.

It was a quiet meal as the looming prospect of what lay ahead of us became impossible to ignore.

And by the time we rejoined those left in the same hostel bar an hour later, things had moved on apace – restrictions were being ramped up, limiting travel around the country, threatening the closure of hotels and making the final outcome inevitable.

Little more than 24 hours after the first inkling it could happen, we were going home.

Or at least trying to.

What was supposed to be a fairly relaxed evening became increasingly fraught amid the search for flights.

With connections in the USA not an option for those of us blocked from getting an ESTA by past travels and without a valid visa, the choices were slim – direct flights from Bogota to Heathrow having jumped from around £250 to more than £1,300 in economy. If you could find one.

And when you did find an alternative, affordable route, by the time you clicked on the deal it had been withdrawn. Or, for others, banking issues delayed payment and added to the difficulties.

But eventually, nearly all of us had flights over the coming days (the stragglers having arrived back in the last few hours).

Lisa and myself flew from Cartagena to Bogota the next day to hole up in a hotel before our flights home, her via Atlanta, Los Angeles and on to Sydney, mine on a simpler route to Paris and on to Heathrow.

At least it was supposed to be simpler. A delayed flight out of Bogota ensured a missed connection in Paris and an unscheduled night in a hotel before a morning flight back to Blighty.

Even then the adventure was not over, my bag enjoying a longer stay in France before we were finally reunited more than 48 hours later.

We should have been in Santa Marta in northern Colombia today at the end of our detour north to a mud volcano and two more nights in a hammock at Parque Tayrona.

Instead, my hammock has been consigned to the things which will not be needed for a while bag and my bed for the night – after a few days in a hotel yards from my old flat – is my sister’s sofa. Sharing the room with a snoring Labrador.

All while largely with our warm clothing back where we stashed it on the truck heading out of Patagonia – flip flops, shorts and T-shirts are not much use at this time of the year at home.

It is not the way we wanted it to end.

Without the planned closing stretch and final night out, final bush camp, final travel day, final meal, there has been little sense of closure.

Little time to get our heads around what is happening, that what has become our life came to an end very quickly. That further travel plans needed to be ripped up.

Farewells, if said at all, were hurried. At least the two of us had some time in Bogota to come to terms with what was happening before our goodbyes.

Not sure that process has been completed, especially having landed back in a familiar world which all seems a bit out of focus.

Real life means finding a job, finding somewhere to live but that can wait – it means, above all, doing everything we can to stay healthy and help those closest to us do the same.

Some have flown into an automatic 14-day self isolation, some are imposing it on ourselves, one in a tent in his parents’ garden in Sussex. Slightly colder than Colombia.

But most importantly, we are all home safe and apparently healthy.

And that is far more important than what we have missed out on.

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Amazon Primed

IT is around 6am. In front of me, the first grey light of dawn is silhouetting the trees which have lined the Amazon for the last few days.

To my left, what was once welcome space has been filled by hammocks containing locals who hopped on board for the final couple of stops on our slow ride up the world’s longest river.

To my right you can sense the first stirrings from our fellow passengers with a few early-rising crew taking up their positions in front of the TVs by the little shop which makes up the centre of life on board – sometimes a little too loudly for those who took up residence on the roomier, breezier upper deck.

And nearing halfway down on the port side, you will find me, lounging at an angle which rises with my confidence in hammock dwelling.

Waiting for the breakfast bell to ring and spark the charge to find out what we have to fill the bread roll which makes up the bulk of the most important meal of the day.

Or the one you can definitely skip in favour of a bit longer in your hammock.

Sunset on the Amazon

And so begins another day on board the O Rei Davi, our home for six nights up the Amazon – or, to be more accurate, the Rio Solimoes – from Manaus to Tabatinga and across the border (basically a line in the road) into Colombia.

This is the part of the trip we were scheduled to be without the truck.

But instead of bidding farewell to Will and Spongebob in Manaus and rejoining them around Cartagena, we last saw them failing to get on a ferry in Suriname 12 days before boarding.

While we have wandered our way back to the Amazon, Will’s attempts to cross the river into Guyana have been scuppered by red tape and false rumours about a return to action for a larger ferry, leaving him facing more bureaucracy and a longer race to catch us up somewhere in Colombia.

More details as rumours, speculation and wishful thinking turn into reality.

What we do know is that without our scheduled transport, we arrived in Manaus in the early hours after an overnight bus trip.

Very comfortable it was, but sleep was at a premium which is perhaps behind my decision to join others in booking a night at the ballet at the Amazonian capital’s rather grand opera house, a relic from its days at the heart of the rubber industry.

It is certainly, as a morning walk around the city confirmed, the prettiest spot in town – Manaus is built for function rather than finesse, a sprawling, growing hub where two major tributaries meet to form what the locals deem the Amazon proper.

Assuming the boxes in the opera house were meant only for two people, given that is how many people can actually see most of the stage given the pillars which separate them – prompting angry words from one Australian at a photographer cutting out even the prime view.

Not that it was too big a blow – the performance of Aladdin appeared, given the cast and thrilled family audience, to be a local production full of youngsters given their role regardless of ability and what Danny (that acclaimed cultural critic) described as “five per cent ballet, 95 per cent running around in circles”.

It was mercifully short, in contrast to our hugely enjoyable boat trip exploring the local countryside which filled most of the next day.

It certainly started on a high as we plunged into the warm waters of the Rio Negro and swam with pink dolphins.

Well, they swam, under, around and, at one point, pretty much on top of us. We just sort of floated and splashed around with huge grins on our faces as another one emerged from the black water alongside one of us.

Our full day saw us head to a local village to watch traditional dances, fight in vain with huge arapaima fish in a tank (not physically fought, there would only be one winner, just badly on the end of a line), devour a huge buffet and meander through side channels spotting caiman, osprey, iguana and, high in a tree, the sloth we had waited to see.

Danny gets beaten up by a dolphin. Think the look on my face is because one has just swum between my legs

And we capped it all off with a trip to the confluence of the black, warm Rio Negro and the brown, cooler Rio Solimoes where they run side by side for several kilometres as they form the Amazon.

A day to savour.

The Solimoes became our home as, having spent the final day in Manaus shopping for essential supplies, doing laundry and steeling ourselves for what lay ahead, we made our way down for an experience we had been anticipating and dreading in equal measure since the need to take this detour around Venezuela became inevitable.

And for the bulk of the six days on board, it was fun – a relaxing, enjoyable change of pace. 

So much so, Lisa and myself largely ignored the bijou cabin we had arranged to alternate with Izzy and Brad, opting to spend all of our nights in our hammocks, only using the facilities to shower, charge gear and for storage.

Only in the last 24-36 hours did the novelty wear off, two night stops seeing the space eaten up by new passengers and we had to be sharp to stop someone slinging their hammock between ours, which had already been moved to the point they were touching.

Then we did retreat to the cabin for some peace until it was time to hit the hammock.

But that was the final stretch, until then the top deck had been largely limited to the foreigners and crew, leaving enough space for us to sit around, read, watch movies, play cards, catch up on photo organisation, reach for whatever drink you had to hand or make return visits to the bar for a cold beer.

Or just lounge around a few feet off the floor – the higher the better for a comfortable night’s sleep,  although not for ease of entry.

We fell into a routine, largely based around three meals served downstairs – breakfast sometime around 6am (bread with egg or mystery meat to go inside it, a cup of porridge if you were lucky and some crackers), lunch around 11am and dinner before dark at 5pm.

The meals also fell into a pattern, giving rise to the game of guessing which mystery meat or fish would be served with the ubiquitous spaghetti, rice and beans – not that we were always able to work it out once we had eaten it.

All served up with a drink in your commemorative cup handed out on arrival. Unless you lost it.

By that final night, space was at a premium for any card games or the evening gatherings at the rear of the boat (at one point it was impossible to walk down the side of the boat from the bar to my hammock) and the countdown was on to the final destination at the port of Tabatinga – complicated by various reports of our scheduled arrival time and bouncing back and forth across time zones as the river meandered along the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

But early on that final morning, we took down our hammocks, did our best to shove them back in bags and returned to dry land and taxis for the short journey (not that short when we had to retrace our steps on foot in blazing heat for immigration) across the border to Leticia, Colombia.

And 84 days after first entering Brazil, we bade farewell for the final time.

Or for the first of three final times that day, but we will get to that next time.

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