“The road might not be the best and might be the worst, but it’ll make you feel alive every damn second.”
– Remi Thinard
I woke up drooling over myself and with excrutiating pain in my hand. I had been suffering from a bout of insomnia for the previous three weeks. Now, back on the road, exhaustion had overcome me, sucking me away into a graceless, blissful unconsciousness. I had slept so hard on my hand that it continued to throb for the next hour or so as I watched the night give way to a green sky. Eventually the sun cast a faint purple over the church in the distance. The swifts were playing. A street-light flickered. Next to me Emma was sound asleep. Everything was quiet. We had set down our sleeping mats under the eaves of an old colonial building in Zipaquira. The day had been tough. It was our first back on the road after our sojourn in Bogota. As we left my dad’s house on the outskirts of the city we both admitted our anxieties. Somehow we knew this one was going to be difficult.
The previous day had consisted mostly of waiting. Long, thick hours of the stuff with the odd spatter of fat Bogota rain. We entertained the idea of walking back to the house, curling up in bed and coming back out tomorrow. But of course just then two men ushered us into their horse-drawn cart, and we were away. We spoke little. Their mother was ill. As we trotted along I tried to imagine that finally we were back under way and the relay had resumed. But I just could not believe it. They dropped us in a town. We thanked them. I put my hand on the horse, thanking her silently. She was calm, sweating.
Thank you, so much.
We took it slowly. The backpacks always feel heavier after a rest, and the old cogs were slow under the weight of the year gone. We walked out of that town, into another, out of that one and then dropped the bags.
“No more for today.”
“Yeah, no more. Just thumbs now.”
We can’t have been an appealing cargo, slumped on our backpacks, chins resting on hands. But even then we got a ride to Zipaquira as the evening set in. We sat in the main square for a while, chatting, watching the pigeons flock from end-to-end in hope of bread. We gave them some of the loaf Emma had made before we left. There were some other people hanging around the square who looked like they were there for the night. I asked one if he had a house.
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes sir.” There was something in his smile and wet eyes that hurts even now. We gave him some bread and wondered off to find somewhere to sleep.
The next morning we walked slowly out of town.
“Let’s not walk much today.” I said. Emma agreed.
But the choice wasn’t ours to make. It took us about an hour to get to a good hitchhiking spot. It was cold. The dark green hills were covered in a thin mist. The road-side was washed with puddles and islands of sludge, rubber and rubbish trodden in. Eventually we dropped our bags and stuck out our thumbs. To our surprise we got a ride fairly quickly. I don’t remember his name, but he was easily the most laid-back person I have ever met. He was the manager of a coal mine.
“This whole area is full of coal. Three hundred years more of it.” He told us.
He would point to hills and tell us, “There’s coal there, and there.” He took us for a very welcome breakfast near his office and wished us luck. Again we walked for too long before dropping our bags.
“This will do.”
The midday heat had come. Nobody would stop. Nothing. For hours. The usual beeps and waves, but not a single ride. My bones felt heavy.
“I’m too tired,” I said. “I need to sit down.”
Somehow Emma remained merry. Always she is there when I’m too far gone to even bother standing up. As I sat there I thought about England. About the seasons, the woodlands, the hills. I thought about my family and my friends and I figured I was just about done. I didn’t realise I’d ever be this tired.
“I got one!”
Indeed she had. A big, green Kenworth. I stayed sitting down. He probably didn’t have space for us both or was going the wrong way.
“Anthony! Come on! He’s going to Cartagena!”
We were going to Santa Marta, which meant that he was going about 150km away from where we needed to be. Unbelievable.
“You are riding with good people today.” He told us. His name was Arilia.
On the road there were dozens of police check-points. Not a worry to us, only strange. Arilia explained why:
“Santos is in town.”
“Do you like the president?”
“He is a thief. Him and his people take money from us and put it in their own pockets.”
Just then the presidential motorcade went by. A rush of about 30 vehicles, speeding through a poor agricultural district with a mammoth police escort.
That day Arilia drove us for about 12 hours. He was relentlessly insistent that I marry one of my sisters to him. We laughed a lot, the three of us. Eventually he told us about his girlfriend. Like Arilia, a lot of the truck drivers have various girlfriends. Often they see them more than they do their wives and children. For the first time in a year we were to meet one of the girlfriends.
“I’ll present you tonight.” He told us.
As we climbed a mountain pass he pointed out into the distance and told us that he had killed a few men over there. Like Jorge before, he had been in the Ejercitos. Military service is obligatory in Colombia. That night, when we arrived in Bucamaranga, we did indeed meet his girlfriend. We quickly left them alone and shuffled off to our tent, where we shuffled around in the closeness of the heat, caught a little sleep and packed up ready to leave at three the next morning. It felt great to be rolling out of the city in the dark, up before everything and everyone, the four of us crammed into the cabin of the truck, in love and on the road.
He dropped her off outside of town and we carried on our way. We were quieter that day. Emma and I were, of course, exhausted. And so was he, of course.
“Ever had any problems with hitchhikers?” Emma asked, later on.
“A few.” He said.
He showed us his arm. An old scar. He had been held up at knife point. When the hitchhiker had pulled the knife out, he had put up his hands. Regardless, the hitchhiker went for the throat. Arilia just about blocked the cut of his throat. As he bled from his arm the hitchhiker began to take apart the expensive parts of the cabin. When he eventually turned his back Arilia pulled a gun from under his chair and shot him twice. He was held up another time, with a gun. Once again he raised his hands, but this time he took a bullet to his thigh and another to his stomach. He showed us the scars. He had spent two months in hospital.
“I would never act violently first” He told us. “I am a peaceful person.”
Despite having killed a few people, shot a few others, he really was. He was an incredibly friendly person, kindness written all over his face. Violence had forced itself upon him and, sadly, from him.
About 10km from his turn off we began to say our goodbyes, when we hit traffic. Traffic that lasted for about five hours. The town up ahead, Bosconia, had been without water for ten days. So they set up a blockade, effectively closing an important crossroads, severing an artery. We spent the five hours milling about under a brutal savannah sun. By this point Emma and I could not stand nor sit from exhaustion. It is incredible how much the road can wear you out. Our Spanish had been reduced to that of a child:
“I like that. It is big and yellow.” For example.
Eventually we decided it was time for us to walk on. We would walk into the town and out of the other side to find a place to camp.
“It’s not safe up there,” He said. “They will throw rocks at you. Besides, it is almost over. Look.”
Up ahead a plume of black smoke had risen.
“The police are sorting it out.”
The thought was a tough one to take. A town without water for ten days, reduced to protest, then attacked by riot police with armour, guns and shields. We stood by our decision. Even if the traffic cleared, Arilia was going to turn left in the centre of town. Either way we had to walk through. So we said our goodbyes and walked the remaining kilometers toward the plume. We trudged quietly by a seemingly endless column of trucks. The heat was unbearable. It had reached 45 degrees that day. We tried to imagine life in the town without water. If they threw stones at us we would just turn around.
Of course there was no need. Nobody threw any rocks. Though they clearly had been, and clearly would do again soon. We saw groups of people down side-roads with piles of rocks at their feet, facing against riot police. It was strange walking through, both sides eager to welcome us and say hello. True Colombians. Parts of the road were on fire. We made it to the far side of town and one of the riot police asked us where we were going.
“We’re looking for a place to camp. Is there space out there?”
“Yes. But it’s not safe. There are bandits.”
We told him we were going anyway.
“It’s your choice.” He said.
And so again we trudged off. Gradually the ramshackle buildings of the town crumbled away until they were just prefabs guarded by angry dogs. We carried on. The streetlights died away. All there was to light the way now was the slow trickle of trucks that had finally been let through. In the pitch dark we couldn’t be sure that they would not mow us down. Eventually we came to a small house and decided to ask to pass the night.
As we walked in we were greeted by the standard pack of angry dogs who ran up and surrounded us, barking ceaselessly. The owner calmed them. She was a large lady, stature and heart. She greeted us warmly. We told her what little we could of our story. We could not see each other’s faces in the dark.
“Thanks to god that you arrived here. Everywhere else the people are afraid. But you can stay here.”
Their house was about 20 metres from the main road, built from earthen bricks and with a corrugated tin roof. Three of her granddaughters swept a space for us on the ground. Chickens and ducks pottered about. The dogs were sleeping. Another woman brought out four mangoes and gave them to us.
“I love the mangoes here,” I told them all. “They are big and yellow.”
They gathered the whole family and we sat in a circle in the darkness, answering their questions as best we could. They told us about the protests. About how the police fired crystal bullets from there guns, sometimes shooting children in their heads.
We asked how many more hours until Santa Marta and told them we hoped to arrive tomorrow.
“You only need too believe so, and god will do the rest.” Somebody said into the darkness.
We both slept deeply that night and were up with the children at 5am. They had school. We packed up quietly, gave our thanks and walked back out to the road. Several times we stepped over the decaying remains of dogs. I wondered what we had stepped on in the darkness of the previous night.
After half an hour of walking we passed a queue of trucks waiting at an obligatory check-point. One driver shouted over to us. He was going to Santa Marta too but nobody would pick us up here because of the checkpoint. Grim news with the rising heat. Onwards.
A few minutes later, the other side of the checkpoint, the same driver waved us over, and we were off! He asked us to take our shoes off to keep the carpet clean. A decision he immediately regretted. Emma’s feet were black with dirt, and all four of our feet stank. Laughing, he sprayed us with aftershave.
“You two looked liked ants with conviction. I had to help!”.
We chatted and laughed away the rest of the morning, talking about The Thief, about the road, about his kids. He took us for a huge, delicious breakfast and laughed at our filthy faces.
He too had been robbed by a hitchhiker. He showed us the scars left by the bullets and then took his hands from the steering wheel and shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s just how it goes.”
Eventually he dropped us off on the outskirts of Santa Marta, where we quickly got picked up by a 20 year-old driver who took us the rest of the way.
And that was it. After 11 months, countless drivers and the length of the continent twice over, we reached Santa Marta, beginning and end.