We are shattered. Exhausted, often finding ourselves apologising because we’re too tired to speak Spanish or sometimes even English.
We arrived in Bogota nigh on two weeks ago, as highly illegal cargo hiding on the open-air bed of another giant Kenworth truck. Due to fairly strict regulations, hitchhiking is fairly difficult in Colombia. I needn’t highlight what these regulations are because in practice they don’t matter. Not even the law will stop Colombians from helping people. People from all walks of life have broken the law to help us here: professors, farmers, eldery gentlemen, police officers, musicians and truck drivers alike. The road was tough, with a lot of waiting and a lot of doubt. We even discussed the possibility of catching a bus at one point (funded by my dad, who was in Bogota and was willing to transfer ticket money). Sat under the eaves of a petrol station watching the rain pour down after that offer, we came pretty close to giving in. But that is not what this trip is about, and in the end we decided to get back out there. Immediately we were rewarded with a huge bunch of bananas from a driver who didn’t have space for us but wanted to help.
One lovely family drove us from the outskirts of Ipiales (the frontier with Ecuador) to a city called Pasto. They deposited us there as the sun gave way and we found ourselves walking through the city at night. At least a dozen seperate people assured us that we were going to get robbed very soon, that we musn’t be here now, that we have to get away. We kept our reason and cool, but decided to make our way to a church to ask for shelter. We navigated our way by the huge bell towers we could see from a distance. Once we arrived, before we could even ask for help, two women asked us how they could do exactly that.
“We are pilgrims,” I told them, “And we’re looking for somewhere safe to stay in the city.”
They immediately ran off, returning shortly thereafter with one of the monks.
“There is space,” he said, sternly. “But I will need to check with the father first.” He invited us to wait inside, on a bench outside of the ceremonial hall where a mass was taking place for the new intake of Franciscan students.
“There are going to be refreshments after the mass. Wait here and we’ll bring you some food. Do you like coffee?”
Over the next twenty minutes they bought us sandwiches, crackers, coffee and more sandwiches. People even gave us their own sandwiches. They asked us about our pilgrimage. And gave us sandwiches. I have to admit that I did use the term strategically because we were asking for shelter at a church. But at the same time, we are pilgrims. Aside from the fact that we have walked an ancient pilgramage route, and many miles beyond that, we are undeniably on a pilgrimage of sorts. It is sometimes hard to forget- because of exhaustion, because of familiarity, beacuse we’re human- but what we have done is actually pretty amazing. We have opened ourselves up to the world, purposefully deciding to carry on travelling without money. It is an act of faith, in other people and in ourselves. We have put ourselves in a position of extreme vulnerability and have continued even through the doubts, the guilt and the black exhaustion. And even though almost each and every day reveals yet more of the kindness of human beings, we are still consistently surprised by it. To me, this is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have learned and experienced during these travels. When I met people who did this before us I told them that I thought they had done something amazing, so why be coy about our own achievements? That said, our only real achievement has been to open up and trust. Really, it is the other people who have conveyed us, literally, so far. What Emma and I have done is something that you can most likely do too. This, too, has been a highlight of our travels; meeting people who have never before believed that they can afford to travel, until they themselves picked up and helped travellers without money.
And after all of that coffee and all of those sandwiches, the monk returned with his friend and one of the ladies who had helped us and informed us that they were going to drive us to a hotel. A friend of the church was also a hotel owner and he had offered us a free night in a matrimonial suite.
The next day saw us walking out of the city of Pasto, up a huge hill the other side and to a petrol station where we waited for many hours until Jorge picked us up. Jorge, 23 years old and has been driving since the age of 12. He lifted our bags into the back of his truck like they were nothing. His strength, physically, he gained from his time as a professional soldier, fighting against the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia.
“Which job do you prefer? Being a soldier or driving your truck?” Emma asked.
Jorge was quiet for a while. “Being a soldier,” he said. “But I have a child now, and my wife, and they are more important.”
He was possibly the most skillful driver we have been with. In the mountains near Popoyan the skies exploded with a flash of lightening that I swear took aim at us, and it didn’t stop raining for about five hours. At one point, high up in the mountains, on a hair pin bend with other traffic, I saw the cliff on our right side come away and tumble towards us. Jorge expertly avoided the landslide, and then immediately afterward a motorcyclist in the yellow rain of our headlights. Those landslides take many lives each year.
That night, with a little cash in our pockets (a birthday gift from my mum), we were able to buy Jorge a meal (a rare treat for us, and him). We didn’t speak much but everything he said was kind, interested, interesting. He had become a soldier to protect people. He had picked us up to help strangers. He had slammed his brakes on to give money to a blind lady on the side of the road.
Hours later we pulled into a truck stop near Cali. Jorge had said that we could sleep in the back of his truck, but when we arrived he insisted on paying for a hotel room for us. Two in two nights.
The next morning we set off at 5am and rode quietly together as the sun rose, gradually filling with light our beautiful surroundings. It cast a glow on my thoughts too, or rather my feelings. Despite the distance left to go, and the distance gone, everything felt right and possible.
Jorge left us a fair few kilometers outside of Cali, which as a large city had been our biggest fear for the journey back up. He had turned off to pick up his load of sugar cane. We walked on a little way, talking a little with the sugar cane cutters as we walked by in the growing heat. I wondered whether Jorge, or any of our other drivers realise that when they have helped us, they are actually helping countless other people in the future, people they’ll never meet. Because you can’t receive this much help on such a regular basis and not want to do the same in your own future.
Once again people began to tell us that we were going to get robbed here.
“Don’t walk any futher that way.” One lady said to Emma.
Some police came by on a motorbike, too, bullet-proof vests and weapons at hip. They confirmed the same, but told us not to worry as they would ride back and forth to keep an eye on us. And sure enough, the slowly circled the area, keeping us in sight until a university professor picked us up and rushed us onwards.
“Do you help hitchhikers often?” Emma asked.
“I don’t see them often.” He said, “This is my first time.”
An overriding impression we get from Colombian people is that they just want to help other people, and are often only missing a reason. And often they don’t even need one of those to help, as countless gifts of soft drinks and fruit have shown us.
The rides slowed down considerably that day. We had hoped to make it to Bogota that night. We were deeply tired and the thought of a night sleeping out and another day’s hitchhiking physically hurt. We were about ten hours from Bogota, sweating under the only slither of shade we were able to find. Someone had gifted us a giant siamese mango shaped like a heart. As we gobbled it down the juice covered our hands and our clothes and only large Kenworths were passing by. We agreed that there was no point in hitching them because of the strict laws of the road here, but I tried one anyway. He stopped!
“Can’t be for us.”
“It might be.”
I ran over. It was!
“You’ll have to go on the cargo, at the back.” He said.
“Yes. But go in the middle. And if there are police I’m not paying a fine, so watch out.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
He never did tell us where he was going, but we spent the next ten hours completely exposed to the elements on the back of that truck. We wound our way up into the infamous “La Linea”, the road that connects the coffee region with Bogota. We encountered maybe 12 police checkpoints and came incredibly, ridiculously close to getting busted (as in, we had police officers meters from us on multiple occassions who somehow just didn’t manage to spot us). As we wound our way up higher and higher, slower and slower, some kids jumped on the back of the truck. They lived the other side of the mountains and apparently spent their free time jumping on the backs of trucks. My kind of people. Though one of them was a little knife happy. At one point he pointed at my trousers and asked me:
“Do you need them?”
“What? My trousers?”
“Oh.” He said, stabbing at the cargo with his knife. “So I can’t have them?”
Soon after they scuttled off and left Emma and I to face the long night alone. The sun was dipping with the temparature. We had no idea whether the driver was going to take us to Bogota or drop us off in one of the small mountain towns before. Quietly, we watched the jungle around us and the wax palms waving elegently on the side of the steep, green mountains. Bats darted above us, cutting strange shapes in the air. We watched the distance hoping that the lightning would stay exactly where it was, over there. Whenever we saw it in time, we hid at the police checkpoints, pulling our tarps over us like Sam and Frodo near the gates of Mordor. Sort of. Emma dropped off.
Three hours later we passed a road sign. We had travelled about 50km in three hours. Then, a short while later our driver pulled into a truck stop and killed the engine. There it was. The end. We wouldn’t be arriving in Bogota. That really hurt. I didn’t want to wake Emma to tell her. I sat there, waiting for the driver to come out and tell us. But he never did. I spent the next two hours or so watching cows quietly stirring in a cargo truck nearby, until he started the engine and off we went, to Bogota.
We arrived at about 1am, called my dad and hopped in a taxi.
And here we are, two weeks later, still exhausted.
Life is strange here in Bogota. We are living in a confusing limbo, with money in our pockets (I’ve picked up some freelance work), a hot shower, wifi, a washing machine (?!?!?) and, to contain all of this, my dad’s house. We are not homeless anymore! We’ve decided that it might be best to have a little money in our pockets to offer to potential captains for the Atlantic crossing. You know, rum and limes. Wouldn’t want anyone getting scurvy. Very, very soon, we will hitchhike to Santa Marta to actually physically look for boats. But right now it’s hard to believe that it could happen. We have put in a lot of time contacting potential skippers, and actually there is a feeling of getting closer and closer and that it might actually happen. Yet, in my heart, I find it hard to believe that we might be bobbing on the Atlantic ocean in a few weeks time. Possibly because, for me, it’s such a huge undertaking and seems too good to be true. But we live in hope. And we are being proactive. So who knows!