On The Road Again – Cartagena to Ecuador / Yaniv Singer and Erika Rowe

Our predicament changed way more abruptly than it materialized. One day our local call to Sebastian in the Hilton had a different outcome than all the other days. We were informed that two letter were waiting for us at the front desk. When we came to pick them up we were further informed that they had been there for a week. Our guess was that they suddenly appeared thanks to Erika’s brilliant idea to make a reservation (though at $400 a night even making the reservation made you shudder). Our chains and sprockets, the letters informed, are waiting in Bogota till we pay customs on them. They were held by a company whose name sounded more like an area code, 472. On the way back to the hotel Erika spotted a branch of 472. That was Thursday.

On Friday we went to the branch she saw and were informed that in fact the packages are waiting in Barranquilla (another port town north of Cartagena). Feeling too coy to wonder out loud why wouldn’t they be waiting in Cartagena but still wanting to congratulate the 472 clerk, We acted like Barranquilla made way more sense than Bogota. We rushed to the bank to pay customs knowing all things close at noon, only to discover that this bank was extra special; it was open 9 to 11:30 and 2-4. Almost like the banks in Israel. We came back at 2, paid $90 (26%!!), then took the paper work back to 472, where we were told we can return the following day to pick the package up. To our utter surprise, on Saturday morning the packages were there—the only thing missing was a tiny o-ring for the master link of one of the chains. That same afternoon we found a mechanic to change the chain (The only thing stopping us from doing it ourselves was a stubborn 26mm nut holding the front sprocket in—even he could not open it, and had to go borrow a hammer-drill from some other place). Later that evening we were sipping beer and watching our bikes being cleaned by professional bike cleaners. For $3 they scrubbed and scrubbed each bike for more than a half an hour. Our bikes never looked cleaner.

From cartegena 2

new and old

From cartegena 2

not a pretty sight

From cartegena 2

before

From cartegena 2

after

That night we celebrated our new beginning: fresh oil in both our bikes, new chain for me, new sprockets too, my light fixed, and our bikes shining clean, all fuelled up, ready to go.That night we were both very excited. It felt as though we were embarking on a motorcycle trip, as opposed to continuing one. It’s amazing how quickly we get used to every reality thrown at us, and how we use that reality as the default-standard to whatever might happen next.

On Sunday we finally (re)started our trip. I felt the effect of the new chain as soon as we left the continuous traffic jam of Cartagena. When I rolled on the throttle the bike went like never before, and when I let go of it the engine braked me like never before. It was like I had a new bike. Once again I could feel every curve in my bones, once again my mind entered that state of meditation—focusing on the road and being free from any heavy thoughts, once again I kept catching myself singing to myself. I felt alive and so very fortunate to be doing this trip.

While we were staked out in Cartagena we had seen some news reports about flooding in the surrounding area. This has been the wettest season Colombia experienced in the past 80 years. Watching something on the news doesn’t really prepare you for the reality though. We were lucky that the water had gone down enough that the roads were passable. The people in the towns next to the road weren’t so lucky. The rivers had overflown their banks and spread for miles though the flat countryside. We passed through scenes of hopelessness as whole villages sat in canoes and floated through their houses and down the main streets. There was nothing they could do but wait.

From cartegena 2

always thankful to not be on public transportation

From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin

The next day we gratefully started climbing into the mountains. All along the road were hoses set up spraying water at full blast, advertising that trucks could get washed here. Another example of the concentration of goods, miles and miles and miles of truck washes. We saw similar examples throughout latin America: one small town with 50 shoe stores, one block in Mazatlan with 40 women selling shrimp (to be found nowhere else in the city, all the bananas in the market being sold on one section—it’s almost as if people don’t want to get a competitive edge here, really a paradise for shoppers who can bargain.

As night fell we pulled off into a driveway and asked if we could camp on their land. One thing I appreciate about farmers is that they generally treat their animals decently. This farm had, along with the usual cats and dogs, a friendly and talkative parrot. This parrot was desperate for company and would whistle suggestively and holler “hola, como esta?” whenever we started to walk away. The best thing that he said was a rolling, perfectly pitched “ GOOOOOOL de COLOMBIAAAAAAA.”

From cartagena to medellin

hola mamacita!

From cartagena to medellin
From cartagena to medellin

Rolling into Medellin the next day we asked some people for directions to the BMW dealership. One friendly dude on a scooter had us follow him all the way across town to the store, then he even came in and translated for us. We met many, many helpful people, (some who lived most the year in Sacramento and Yuba City) and they directed us towards the great hostel Casa Kiwi. It was clean and modern and decorated beautifully with bamboo and stone and little ponds. Really a treat after the shit holes we had been in. We met a couple other bikers that were wrapping up their trips and got an invitation to go to Australia to ride with Paul on some of his many bikes.
Since it was almost Christmas, the city put on a beautiful light festival next to the river. Almost a mile of water-powered spinning lights graced the river while on the banks people jostled to eat the delicious fried snacks and walk through lit-up wonderlands. We took the very clean and fast metro back to the hotel, loving the European feel of the city. Since there was beer on tap and a pool table, we decided to stay for another day and took the gondola up the mountain to see a view of the city. So far Medellin has been one of our favorite cities, definitely the favorite one in Colombia. I wish we had got stuck there instead of Cartagena.

From cartagena to medellin

Ruta 40 wall of fame

From cartagena to medellin

phunny

From Medellin to the next city Cali was supposed to be a one day drive. Due to the terrible traffic, rotten roads and construction we only ended up covering about 80 miles in six hours. We pulled off into the driveway of a fish restaurant and asked permission to set up camp. It was getting dark as our host walked us up a long, steep muddy road and showed us a flat grassy area next to the fish ponds. The restaurant and surrounding farms were run by one family of eight brothers and four sisters. We set up our tent then ordered a fresh fish dinner, fried to perfection. That night as we were cozily asleep the rain started. For four hours it poured so hard we thought the tent might fail us and flood. One of the brothers kept coming by to check on us and see if we were ok. The thunder and the lightening were right on us but our sturdy tent made it through the night.

From cartagena to medellin

crowd of admirers

From cartagena to medellin

hmmmm

From cartagena to medellin

in the land of the illiterate

The next morning as we started to pack up one of the brothers came to see if we wanted to help milk the goats. We got introduced to his family and their many animals. Two baby goats frolicked on an old tire while yaniv and I mostly unsuccessfully tried to squeeze some milk out of mama’s udders. You have to squeeze HARD. I felt bad about it until I saw the kids basically head-butting the udders trying to get milk. They skimmed the froth off the top then added the milk, still warm, to bowls of hot cane sugar juice. Unbelievably delicious. Yaniv interviewed the dad for a bit while I helped the sister feed the birds. They are all devout Christians, very dedicated to their work and their families. They feel god has blessed them with their farm and work hard to maintain it.

From medellin to cali
From medellin to cali

aggressive little buddy

From medellin to cali

so gosh durned cute

We left them feeling uplifted and happy, and started off towards Cali. Again, since we spent all morning long hanging out with the family we only started riding at around noon, maybe one o’clock (though of course it was totally worth it). A few hours into the ride we realized that we might not make it to Cali, and basically a one day ride will be done in three, but then the windy slow one lane road opened up to a super highway comparable to US interstates. At first we were thoroughly pleased that we can now do 80 mph instead of 30, but then we slowly realized how boring the riding was. Nothing happens on highways—you don’t meet people while waiting for the rain to stop, you don’t see food vendors, you don’t see local living—you just cover 80 miles per every hour. It occurred to me that if the entire way from California to Ushuaia was a super highway the trip would be way less fun and way less adventurous. It’s an interesting thing really, that sometimes progress and adventure play a zero sum game amongst themselves. Doing this trip 50 years ago would have been way more challenging and adventurous, doing it 20 years from now will be way easier and much less adventurous. Maybe the same is true for life in general: everyone wants progress but too much progress leaves people empty inside—I’m guessing for example that there is a positive correlation between standard of living and GDP and depression and suicide rates.


test

test

From medellin to cali

sweet ice grinding machine

When we got in we realized we had lost the directions to Casa Blanca, a biker friendly hostel that had been recommended to us. Driving around a strange city at night, with no clue where you are or where to go strains nerves very quickly. Also, it was Christmas Eve and I was feeling very homesick. Yaniv and I were getting restless when suddenly we saw some big bikes in a garage. As we pulled up a guy came out and yelled “Casa Blanca, that way.” And there we were. Random luck in a huge city. The hostel is run by a Danish guy who is a big biker, and he has one whole wall of pictures of all of the various motorcyclists that have stayed there the past few years. It was exciting to see some familiar faces.

It was a friendly group of people staying there and we quickly made plans to go with a group to the opening ceremony of Ferria, the seven day post-Christmas festival. They were kicking off the celebration with a parade downtown with salsa dancing. As we arrived, we realized that the stands, with seating for maybe 1000 people, were packed. There were maybe 50,000 people in the streets trying to get a look. For some reason, the police had cordoned off the area right next to the parade so really only people in the stands could see. Being the gringos that we are, we pushed ourselves right up to the front of the barrier. Then stepped over it. Now there were just a few mounted policeman between us and the parade. The crowd started getting unruly, pushing each other and yelling “vamos!” Suddenly about a quarter of a mile down the road they broke through the police and surged towards the final barrier between them and the sequined salsa dancers. Like a wave breaking on the shore the crowd reacted. The police immediately in front of us vainly ran off to try to stem the rush, leaving the way clear. An older man next to me started to push me forward but I was stronger and I pushed him out ing front of us. From then on there was no stopping the electric momentum of the mob. I quickly lost Yaniv in the mad crush. Instead, I hung on to a brit from the hostel as we were slammed into the metal barriers lining the street. I know that if I had fallen I would have been trampled. The people behind us were pushing so hard I had to brace my arms against the metal to avoid crushing a little old woman in front of me.

From medellin to cali

at the forefront of the action

From medellin to cali

move aside

From medellin to cali
From medellin to cali

After all of that the parade was a total let down. Just a few sorry floats and some sweating teenagers trying to keep up their energy in the hot afternoon sun. We got tired of waiting for the “good” part of the parade and wiggled our way out of the pack. As exhilarating as the experience was, it was also a cautionary tale for me. I tell myself that I am different than others, not one to follow the crowd, yet there I was completely caught up in something that I had no control over. It wasn’t violent, besides some old women were grabbing the cops butts, but it could have been.
Later that night I went out with some crazy Koreans to check out the festivities. The girl who worked at the hostel told us about a free concert, all seven of us piled into a cab to go downtown. As soon as we got to the stadium it was apparent that another poorly planned event was taking place. Thousands of people were roaming around in search of an entrance to the concert. We joined a crowd that was packed around some policemen. They told us they were still admitting people half a block away. Everyone started running to the gate. We were all holding hands so as not to get lost but someone pushed me and I lost sight of the tiny Koreans. Looking over everyone’s heads I could see that the people closest to the entrance were starting to push past the cops. Then the cops took out their batons and started to beat people away from the gate. I started coughing, as did the people near me, but I didn’t quite understand that I had been tear-gassed until one of the Koreans grabbed my arm and pulled me away from everyone else. There was a violent surge in the crowd as they realized what was happening and we got out of there.

My eyes were streaming as we clambered into a cab and I was ready to call it a night but the crazy Koreans were ready to party. They are mad salsa dancers! The hostel lady nixed the first two clubs they suggested saying “they shut down at four, let’s go to this one, it closes at seven.” Um, yeah. Not my kind of thing but I’m pretty much stuck with them cause I don’t have enough money to take a cab back by myself. In fact, by the time we get to the middle of nowhere club, I barely have enough cash for the cover. We get inside and it is depressingly empty. We are not allowed to sit down unless we order something. I don’t have enough money to even get one beer, which costs USD 5! Finally they allow us to have seats at a bar but our hostel lady is seriously pissed off at us because we won’t go in with her on a bottle of alcohol. I keep trying to explain that I don’t have enough money and the Koreans don’t drink hard A but she doesn’t believe me. The pounding music is not helping our little communication problem. I convince the girls to go out and dance a little bit to the house music, but they will only dance salsa is a man asks them. Seeing as there are ONLY couples at this club, this translates to us sitting bored, for hours, not drinking, at the bar. One cute guy asks me to dance. The smoke machine sets off my already sensitive eyes so that the whole time we are dancing tears are streaming down my face. He understandably beats it once the song is over. I’m beat, and ready to go home, when suddenly the crowd parts for two huge bouncers that are heading straight for out bar. Great, I think, now we are going to get booted for not ordering anything. Then the bouncers bend down and gently pick up two midgets wearing gangster clothes and set them down on the bar in front of us. And they start breakdancing.

Ooookkaaayyyy. This is getting more interesting. Is this why I paid $7 to get in here? Ah, no. That, over there on the ginormous stage that I somehow didn’t see before, that’s why I had to shell out. That amazon stripper shaking her behind while two ripped men play with guns on either side of her. Wait what’s that? Is she giving birth? NO WAY! It’s a midget stripper with giant boobs. And suddenly the night is memorable. As the drunk Irish guy at the hostel said later “midgets? I love midgets! I would pay 20 bucks to see midgets. They’ll do ANYTHING for money. Wait, is that racist?”

By the time we left the hostal in Cali it was 3 pm, and getting out of the city took forever. We only got an hour or two of the panamerican before we stumbled upon one of the best camping experiences in our trip so far. About a kilometer down a dirt road from the highway we saw a family hanging out in their front yard, and we asked if we could camp. Sometimes we need to convince people, since it’s not something they are used to. In fact, the idea that two white people on German motorcycles would ask to sleep on the ground and not check into a Hilton or Sheraton is quite shocking to most people. This family, however, took no convincing. They immediately invited us in, moved things from their porch so that our bikes would be out of the rain, and offered us some cool looking fruit that is red inside and is eaten with a spoon. Once our tent was done they invited us for coffee inside, and we gave them a slide show of Israel on the computer. The mother was very Christian and took extra pleasure in the photos.

Within an hour we were all feasting on dinner that she had prepared, talking about their kids and how quickly the world is changing. After dinner we all saw The Simpsons in Spanish. We always assumed that the bumble bee character in the Simpsons that always appears on the tv and speaks Spanish on the English version would speak English on the Spanish version, but even he speaks Spanish on the Spanish version. No wonder nobody here knows English.

After breakfast in the morning (fried dough and fried pork and hot chocolate) I took the dad and two kids on the bike to the highway. They were going into Cali for a few days. The kids were very excited to be on the motorcycle, so I took them extra fast through the curves of the dirt road. I was pleased that they accepted my offer of a ride. A family member once marveled at the fact that I am willing to ask and accept so much from strangers, that perhaps I am taking advantage of them. So first of all, we do accept no for an answer. Second, we find that people feel proud and happy when they are able to host us, especially in rural areas where there is nothing much happening and they will always be able to talk about the day that those two white people rolled in on huge motorcycles and built a house from things inside their bags. But more importantly, I believe that there is an art in being a good guest, just like the art of being a good hitchhiker—you need to know when to shut up and when to entertain. You need to be willing to give back. Sure, we can’t offer people what they offer us, but there is plenty of other ways that they can benefit from our stay, if they wish to. After the kids and dad were gone the mom put on American Christmas music. We packed and felt home sick. But in a sweet way.

From cali to ecuador
From cali to ecuador
From cali to ecuador

we have so much shit

From cali to ecuador

The road climbed into the mountains and became a bit chilly and foggy. We were getting wet and it was getting dark when we decided to camp again. This time, not so intelligently, we pulled off into a place that also rents cabins. The place looked abandoned and it took 15 minutes to locate any one. The lady quoted us USD35 for one night (waaaay too expensive for us) so we asked if we could camp on the lawn. It was obvious that there had been no customers there for a long time. She was pretty unfriendly but said okay, so we unpacked our bikes and set up the tent. As I was putting together the stove to make dinner she came back and said that she had talked to the boss and it would cost us to camp there. Seeing as she had just stood there for an hour watching us work it seemed pretty shady to me to be suddenly demanding money. Also, she didn’t tell us how much the boss wanted. She asked us how much we would pay. Yaniv and I exchanged a glance and said two dollars. She shook her head and said it wasn’t enough. At this point we began to suspect that she had not talked to her boss and was just trying to skim some money off of us. I have no problem paying someone a few bucks to camp on their land, but this was dishonest and it pissed me off. We told her we would deal with it tomorrow.

It poured all night while we were cozy in our tent. The cloudy morning made it difficult to get back into wet socks and boots but we wanted to make it to the border that day. The girl didn’t have any change so we didn’t give her any money. An hour down the road we stopped to bundle up some more and a bicyclist shouted at us that there was “mucho agua” down the road. I assumed he meant lots of rain. Wrong. Apparently there was a regional tradition that day of throwing water from the side of the road and roofs at passerbys. There was also a big demonstration in the city which meant lots of traffic which meant sitting duck targets for men with hoses and kids with water balloons. Yaniv got smacked and sloshed quite a bit since he was riding in front. I dodged those motherfuckers and stayed dry. It was pretty crazy though. If you watched the road for wet spots you could tell where people were hiding and try to get around them. The people riding in the backs of trucks really got it the worst.

From cali to ecuador

Colombia is freaking gorgeous

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