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.

Maybe our welcome to Cartagena airport was trying to tell us something

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.

The plan for our last few weeks in Colombia and Ecuador – we managed the first three days

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.

Spongebob in Brazil, where he has been holed up for the last few months

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.

The last goodbye

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.

And then there were two – farewell from Bogota

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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