There seemed to be no sound when I woke up. I felt suspended in darkness, blackness. My memories of the days previous had slipped away. For that moment I was nobody, nowhere. My eyes felt sticky with tiredness and I struggled to open them. As I blinked them open the sounds of the environment around began to make themselves known: the birds out in the garden; the whoosh of trucks and cars trundling on the road close by; the whir of the electric fan, the only thing protecting us from the mosquitos in this tiny house of exposed brick and corrugated tin roofing; Emma’s soft breathing beside me on this tiny bed. As I looked around, my memories gradually fell into place. This was our second day in Malambo and we were staying in the house of a complete stranger.
Raul was one of the workers who had been waiting under the shade of the mango tree at the truck stop. Him and his colleagues, his friends, had told us that it would be easy for us to hitch a ride south from here. Raul’s job was to wait for truckers to pull in for a break and then help to “descargar“, which means to unload the truck of its cargo and then reload that into another truck. Sometimes they also have to strip the truck, which means, variably, taking down huge wooden cargo holds, massive dense iron skeletons and detaching large amounts of tarpaulin from the frame. Raul and all of his friends are massive men, their muscular bodies reflecting the back-breaking difficulty of their work. In all honesty, when I first saw them I felt a note of trepidation in my belly.
Raul said he would help us to find a lift and would ask every single truck that pulled in whether they were headed south and whether they would take us. His friends did the same. The day we arrived happened, for whatever reason, to mark the beginning of a quiet time for this truck stop. About a dozen huge haulers came in on that day, and none of them were headed south.
“It’s okay,” Raul told us, “My friend is heading south soon, maybe today or tomorrow.” He only had to wait on some paperwork. Nice, we had a ride fixed, so now all we needed to do was the same as ever: pass time. Emma made bracelets for everyone, we played Jenga with the kids and with Raul, we dozed and chatted and climbed the trees with the children to help them pick mangoes, which we ate with salt. We spoke more and more with Raul, until it was time for him to go home to his family. As the sun set the mosquitoes came out and so again began the eternal battle.
We made our peace, albeit a little anxiously, with just seeing the night through without sleep, if only to keep the mosquitoes from biting. Emma had begun to feel a little sick at this point, which wasn’t ideal. She needed sleep. Raul came back at this point with his wife and one of his children, a young girl. She ran in circles around us for a little while.
“I’m sorry we haven’t found a ride for you today.” Raul said. He really did seem sorry, as if he had done something wrong. “Hopefully my friend will go tomorrow and until then, your house is my house.” Suffice to say we were incredibly grateful, particularly Emma who badly needed sleep. Raul took us back to his house (and thinking about this now, it’s pretty clear that he only came out to check that we were alright- he had finished work a fair few hours earlier), where we played Jenga with his four wonderful children and helped to look after the youngest one, Raul Jr, “The Destroyer”. Their house consisted of about four small rooms: two bedrooms, one bathroom with buckets for toilet and shower, a kitchen and a living area. Despite our insistence that we sleep on the floor the kids willingly shared a mattress by the front door so that we could sleep in their bed. The next morning we stepped over them as we left, tired and anxious to get going. Today was the day.
Of course it wasn´t. We passed the entire day again at the service station, until another driver came over:
“Do you speak English?” He asked.
“Then I would like to help you.”
I am angry at myself now because I can´t remember his name. He really did just want to help us. He wanted to feed us, to put a roof over our heads and to teach us Spanish. All in exchange for us speaking our native language with him. He bought us huge meals and plenty to drink. He even paid for us to stay in a hotel with him. And so we passed another night in Malambo. Just before we all went to sleep his tone changed from happy and light-hearted to pained, even sad:
“You two, you have changed how I see things.” He seemed on the verge of tears then. “I am a slave to money. I work, I work and I work. And I make money, and I love it. And you two, you have nothing, but you have the world.” He said it as beautifully as that, and he thought that he needed English lessons from us.
Of course without him, and without countless other people like him, we would not have the world.
The next day, after he gave us money for breakfast, he took Raul´s mobile number and kept calling to check that we had a ride.
Later that day yet another new friend walked into our lives. I barely nodded at him when he walked by. I was exhausted, Emma was getting worse. She was lying on her rolling mat under the mango tree. I saw Raul´s friend ask him if he was going to Medellin. He was. He came over to meet us. He was young, well built, reserved. We got chatting. He drove a truck for work but it was his passion for motorcycle touring that really got the conversation started. He asked us a few questions, and when we told him what we were doing he lit up, suddently sparked.
After a little more conversation he played a round of Jenga with us. Emma too.
“Where do you live?” She asked.
“Ipiales.” He said.
“Ipiales, on the border with Ecuador?” She said.
“We´re going there!”
“So am I.” A soft smile. A moment passed, all of us smiling at each other.
“Can we go with you?” Emma asked?
“Sure.” Amilkar said, as if it were nothing. “We leave either tonight or tomorrow. I have to descargar and pick up my next cargo.”
Malambo is the kind of place, we thought, that you only stop at to stretch your legs and wait for your coach driver to eat his meal. Sitting under the mango tree in the shade, out the front of the restaurant, it never crossed our minds that we would come to know the branches so well, that we would climb them to collect mangoes with some local children, that we would seek refuge for days in the shade. We had no idea that the shape of that tree would become so familiar, its shade so important. Nor did we ever consider that those workers had families and that we would come to know one of them, and their family, so well. Before we began travelling like this I had no idea what the world could be like if you just open up to it and trust people.
To read Part One of our hitchhike journey, go here.