It was strange saying goodbye to Samantha, Emma’s sister. We were at the end of our three weeks together in Colombia and at the beginning of something altogether different for Emma and I. Once she had gone we were left in Santa Marta airport, confronted by the facts: we had next to zero money and a very, very long way to travel. All in, we’d need to cover the entire length of Colombia (approximately 1400 km) and then a fair old chunk of Ecuador (approximately 300km).
And so we began our walk from the airport to the main road.
On the way a taxi driver stopped us to ask for a light. Once he was smoking he warned us that the road ahead was dangerous and that we should take a bus. Samantha, generous as ever, had left us some pesos, and so we spent a few of them on the short bus ride. We got off under a bridge, with the road passing above us. We walked a short way through a construction site, Emma, as ever, bewildering the workers with her beautiful blonde hair and light eyes. We walked down the motorway a little to a decent spot and settled in for a long wait under the early morning sun. Already, at 9am it was nearing 25 degrees. I could see a local mechanic laughing at us, but we stuck out our thumbs and smiled.
Five minutes later and we get a thumb back from a man driving a small lorry. We shoulder our packs and run toward his truck. It seems too easy.
Robertson hauls fuel from Santa Marta to Barranquilla a few times a week. He is a short, jolly man with a well-worn smile and strong forearms. His cargo is heavy for the size of the vehicle and it takes a lot of strength to keep it straight, especially with the strong winds whipping off the Caribbean sea. He is our ride along a thin stretch of road, with the ocean on our right, to the north, and a fairly massive swampland to the south.
He tells us that hitchhikers are some of the most beautiful people he meets. We tell him about our travels, about our decision to live without money for a while, that we need to get south to Ecuador to volunteer on a farm. He reacts as if it is nothing, as if he has heard it a hundred times before. Perhaps he has. The journey to Barranquilla passes quickly, and he leaves us at a bustling truck stop with a bag of croissants, a huge bottle of fizzy pop and warmed, lightened hearts. Maybe this will be easy.
“The important thing,” Emma says, “Is that we don’t get stuck in Barranquilla.” I couldn’t agree more.
At the truck stop we decide to take some shade before heading off to talk to the drivers and see about a lift south to Medellin. All around us the trucks pull in, set off, roar and grumble and lay idle with loads of salt and fuel and cows and steel. Barranquilla is an important port city and from here there is an endless supply of everything heading south into Colombia and, perhaps, with luck, Ecuador. Men clean them, take them apart and reassemble them, change the oil and load the cargo, sit idly about them and come to talk with us. After a while a couple of workers tell us about a truck stop in Malambo. One of them, Julio, insists on paying for our bus tickets there, and half an hour later we pull up into another truck stop.
This one is dead, or asleep. There is a small restaurant playing typical Colombian music. Out front there is a mango tree, under which some workers sit on a makeshift bench, waiting for something. We ask them if it’s easy to get a ride to Medellin from here. It is, they tell us. Excellent.
But it will not be easy.
“Wait here in the shade.” One of the workers tells us.
We sit by him, as ever knowing nothing of what the coming hours will bring, nor the days, weeks or months. We feel free, positive, cool under the shade of the mango tree, confident that we will soon be trundling south to Medellin.
You never can know the shape of things to come, the way things will pan out before you. You can never guess who you are sitting next to, or what they hold in their heart. When we talk to people about Colombia and Colombians, they tend to hold very certain views and ideas about them both. We were just about to find out, at very close range, about these things. And it was going to change a lot for us.
To read Part Two of our journey, go here.