Smuggling Contraband: Our First Hitchhike in Colombia

Our kitchen at Palomino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You don´t have any contraband do you?” Alex asked with an ambiguous smile. We had spent about thirty idle minutes in the sleepy, dusty town of Palomino up in the north east of Colombia, trying to thumb our first ride in Colombia. This was my first proactive attempt at hitchhiking and so I was as excited as a kitten with its tail when he pulled over and waved us in. It´s harder than I thought to lift 18kg of everything you own over a ten foot gate on the back of a truck whilst clinging on with the other arm, twice. But our massive bags eventually relented and fell heavily the other side onto some covered cargo. By the time we settled into his cab the 30 degree heat, two days without showers and excitement of it all had brought my armpits to a boil.

“You don´t smell too bad.” Alex assured us, with that same smile.

So here we were, back in Colombia after a whirlwind two month tour of the UK, trundling down the road that connects Venezuela with the Colombian north. We´d topped up our tans with a couple of days camping on the beach in Palomino and now it was time to top up our Spanish. Not too shabby, considering it had been lying dormant for a couple of months.

We knew from our last stint here that there were Police checkpoints along this road, which would explain Alex´s question. Sure enough, we were waved down at the first checkpoint and asked to explain the contents of the two giant backpacks in the cargo: clothes, hammocks, tent, solar panel, water filter, stove, pot, cutlery, head-torches, knives, a few dozen tampons, etc etc. They waved us on.

The ride continued well, with the jungle in the north regularly subsiding to reveal astonishing tracts of the rough Caribbean coast. Our chatter was constant enough, punctuated only by Alex singing as if we weren´t there. As we approached the last of the Police checkpoints Alex chose to tell us a little more about his job. He is a night driver, and runs this route a few times a week, between the border with Venezuela and wherever his cargo is due…possibly Santa Marta (where we were headed), or Cartagena (where so many people are always headed) or Baranquilla. He also chose to tell us then that, in fact, he had contraband. It turns out that the covered cargo in the back of the truck was black market petrol, smuggled over from Venezuela.

Sure enough, the Police waved us down. They asked Alex a few questions that we didn´t understand and then ushered him out of the vehicle and into a hut  on the side of the road. Before he left he gave us the look of a man about to face his angry mother. Suffice to say, we felt a little awkward and a little mixed up. We distracted ourselves with the cute puppy that was out the front of the hut and waited to see whether Alex would return and whether or not we´d be turfed out here, a fair few miles from our goal.

A few minutes later Alex returned, complete with heavy grin and heavier barrel. A couple of Police officers also lugged a couple of barrels onto the truck. Alex gets in, shakes their hands and we drive off. The three of us sit quietly, forward facing for a few moments before Alex reveals that the Police officers are in fact his friends and that they are in on the racket too. All in, an excellent first hitch.

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This, coupled with the two days spent idling on Palomino beach, have been our first taste of our step in the next direction. We camped for free (as we often do, as you so often can), a ten minute hike down from the expanding front of hostels, tucked into some bushes and not too far from the hippies who have been here, some of them, for as long as ten years. Our days were spent collecting coconuts and building fires to cook our cheap plantain and avocado over. The nights were spent watching crabs dart in and out of their burrows and falling asleep slowly to the sound of the jungle at our backs. The mornings were spent watching the sun rise and the sea come in endlessly. The rest of the time was spent watching the pelicans skim the waves in dozen-strong flocks and the indigenous Kogi people collecting seashells from the shore. Everything in between each of those things was equally as relaxing and wonderful, except for the relentless assault of mosquitos, sandflies and ants whose bites torment me now as I type this. It is easy, for now, but only because we are preparing ourselves:

*

This time it feels different. Onto darkening ceilings, crumpled pillows, whooshing landscapes and the back of my eyelids I project vague, obscure images: yes, there is the clear swing of a machete, the vivid heave of our backpacks into a strange new vehicle, the easy image of us both after a long, hard day out, watching the sun continue its way or chatting to new friends. Yet amongst and around all of those images are the gaps, the empty parts, full to bursting, impossible to know.

We’ve talked to so many people now about our plans, we can deliver them by rote. We order our words with an economy, a laziness, bought on by repetition. We barely listen to ourselves. And then in the shower, or the morning, or whilst chewing food it will strike again: fuck, are we actually doing this?!

We´ve budgeted ourselves- almost to the Peso- so that we have enough to spend the next three weeks having a total blast with Samantha, Emma´s sister, who is out for a ridiculously hard-earned break. And then we head south, to Ecuador, via thumb and foot, to the first of our farm volunteer positions. After that, it begins: travelling without money. (Edit- we are now at the end of those three weeks and set off tomorrow towards Ecuadar).

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It has been months now since we first met Pier, the Norwegian artist who had travelled without money and encouraged his young daughter do the same. And the Hungarians who lost all of theirs many hundreds of miles from home and were walking back, changed men. Back then, even when talking to them, it felt like something that might never happen. But mine and Emma’s time together has been charactarised by doing things that might never have happened. And here we find ourselves again on the cusp. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have had the stones for this one if Emma wasn’t by my side.

We are approaching thirty now, the both of us, and though it may not seem like it to some, we are more focused now on our future than ever. We’ve come to realise that the lifestyle we had before may well not be for us. And so we are taking this perfect opportunity to begin an apprenticeship of sorts, to at least have a crack at it. It is time for us to actually learn to grow food and build sustainable structures, to care for animals and watch more closely how the earth works. We are, after all, stood on it each day, even if we are a little removed at present. And it is time for us to believe in and rely on the kindness of strangers, which we have come by so often. On top of that, it is our time to work, to repay and to put back into the systems we’ve benefited so richly from.

Soon enough those distant images, those gut-felt feelings, will be of family and friends, of England, of you. We will miss it all so much, miss you all so much, of course. We know that from the last few months, and from the wonderful sojourn we’ve had in the UK over the last couple. But it is important to us, and worth it. We’ll be back, and hopefully with a whole new set of skills.

This is how we have decided to grow up.

In the meantime, this blog will likely now take a turn in more interesting directions (at least for us!), and we’ll be using it to describe what is right now impossible for us to know.

Anthony, 2 July 2013, Santa Marta, Colombia

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