Crazy Bus Rides, Caribbean Beaches & Colombian Hospitality
“How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” — Simón Bolívar
A wave of nausea hit me as the bus raced around yet another corner at breakneck speed. I looked out the window in panic, trying to focus on something that would help bring my bearings back into alignment. It was pitch black. I could see nothing but the faint headlights of other cars, brave enough to take on this wild Colombian highway in the middle of the night. We were ascending and descending constantly from mountain to valley, on the sharpest of curves from a road that must have been made before the time of cars.
From somewhere at the back of the bus, I heard the unpleasant sound of someone retching into a paper bag. I grimaced. Mapa, our new native Colombiana friend, turned around and smiled at me before asking if there was anything she could do to help me. Dear Mapa, she had already done so much to help us. When boarding the bus earlier this afternoon, she had helped us with our very rusty and beginner Spanish and had secured our seats for the trip. Then, later when we stopped for dinner in the land of carnivores, Mapa was invaluable in helping us find the two meals that were “Sin Carne” (Without Meat), which consisted of Papas Fritas, Plantanos, and Arroz (Chips, Fried Plantains and Rice), for which we were all very grateful. And finally, while stepping off the hypothermic bus for a quick breather, Mapa had defended our chairs and luggage like a valiant knight, from other people who jumped at the chance to occupy our seats, even while our things were still on them! We had only just met her a few hours ago and yet it already felt like we were family.
Mapa leaned forward and took something out of her bag: half a lime. She gave it to me and told me that the scent helps motion sickness, which, unfortunately, both Mum and I sometimes experience. However, the lime came a tad too late as Mum began violently scrambling for a paper bag, her face a greenish tinge. Vomiting ensued as the bus climbed to higher altitudes making its way out of the large valley that the capital city of Colombia was located in. The bus swerved viciously, missing another car by a mere few inches. I sighed, “It’s going to be a long night.”
As dawn broke our 15-hour journey, the bus finally pulled into the burnt mandarin colored autobus terminal in the seaside city of Santa Marta. The four of us struggled out into the sunlight, with our leaden backpacks on our backs and arms full of other luggage. The moment I stepped out onto the sizzling concrete, I was hit with an intense wave of unbearable heat. The air was so heavy that it seemed hard to breathe, or maybe that was the 13 kilo (28 Pound) backpack on my shoulders.
Mapa jumped spritely down from the bus with a determined look on her face. Directing the bus driver’s assistant to get a trolley for all our luggage, she set off down the buzzing hallways of the bus terminal with us in tow. We reached the other side and came out to a huge cross section. All I could see was the satin sheen gold of Taxi Cabs. Mapa raced forward, unperturbed and stopped straight in front of the largest Taxi. Even in this car it would be a tight squeeze. She then marched up to the driver and relayed the name of our accommodation. Four whole trolleys of our luggage arrived, and two assistants began loading them into the taxi, under direction from Mapa. We could only watch. When everything was squeezed in, to the very brim, Mapa finally turned to us. It was a soulful goodbye; we had connected so much over such a short period of time. As we entered the cab, Mapa hurriedly raced back into the bus terminal. She had sacrificed her breakfast time to help us, and now she was running to actually make the bus that would take her on to her final destination. We would never forget her, but turning away from the fading bus station that was now reflecting waves of heat, like a mirage in the desert, we looked towards the shimmering aquamarine ocean that lined the coast of this continent.
The Dreamer Hostel was like an oasis amidst the dusty roads, baked dry by the searing sun’s summer heat. The resort style pool looked so inviting that I wanted to jump in, clothes and all, but first, we had some more important matters to attend to. The bottom line was: We had too much stuff! There was absolutely no doubt about it. We simply could not travel around South America with our six backpacks, one pull along suitcase, sleeping bags, plus a food bag weighing us down. So we decided to take action. We decided to mail a whole bunch of stuff back to our RV in Miami and at the time, this seemed like a perfect idea. Then we spent 3 and a half hours racing around Santa Marta trying to find a postal service, which was surprisingly difficult, but the experience did make for a great labyrinthian familiarisation trek through Colombia’s oldest surviving city.
The final straw was that once we actually found it, we found out that it would cost over 100 dollars to mail one package by BOAT! Immediately we called the whole thing off and trudged back to the Hostel, a little deflated and half depressed. That’s when we saw the donation box in the lobby of the Hostel. We looked at each other and shrugged. All along, this was the option waiting for us to be taken. In the photos below you’ll be able to see the Before and After shots of that Donation Box, believe me, the change is drastic.
But I won’t lie – after stuffing, throwing and shoving all of our things that we deemed useless to us now into the box, mind you, in a furious frenzy, standing back it suddenly felt like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders, and it felt GOOD! Our things would now be available to others who truly needed and could use them. With nothing else standing in my way, I raced across the courtyard and KABOOM, straight into the pool I dived.
Soon it was twilight and the hostel restaurant began to fill up with people, as well as the communal pool table where Lalika had been invited to play a game with some other backpackers. From my vantage point, he was doing pretty well too. As I was squinting to see what ball Lalika had sunk, I felt the water ripple and turned around to find that three older girls (in their twenties) had entered the pool. They had begun playing around with a beach ball, throwing it back and forth to each other. Then one of the girl’s hands slipped off the wet surface of the brightly colored toy and fell away from her, landing right next to me. I picked it up and tossed it back to them with a smile. However, before I could look away again, one of the girls with long black hair almost down to her waist, called out to me. “What is your name?” She had a strong accent, you could definitely tell that she could speak Spanish. “Réka,” I replied, “What’s yours?”
“Brenda,” she said with a smile, “Where are you from?”
“Australia” I returned. Before I could ask where she was from, all three girls gasped in amazement. “Really?!” they said in excitement. “Wow, come over here and tell us a little bit about your country. There are lots of Kangaroos right!?” I smiled and went over. Soon we were elbow deep in conversation and were having a great time talking. Turns out Brenda was from Mexico and was here on holiday with her two best friends. We continued chatting until it was pitch black, and Mum beckoned for me to get out of the pool. Before I could leave, Brenda said that she would love to see me again and anytime we were in Mexico, we were welcome to stay with her. I returned the invite and then gave Brenda a hug before exiting the pool.
This is another one of the amazing aspects of world schooling. Making new friends has never been easier and I am no longer limited by only having to converse with people my age. Instead, I can now connect with those 10, 20, even 30 years older than me, and still have something in common. Another example was after getting out of the pool and toweling off, I joined the rest of my family who was now in deep conversation with a man and a woman, both in their early 30s. Argentinian Valeria and Italian/German Sergio had been traveling together for a little while, and we all hit it off on the very first night. In fact, we had made such a good connection that not only did both Vale and Sergio invite my brother and I for ice-cream, two nights in a row, but we even went to visit and stay with Vale at her home in Cordoba Argentina, later on in our travels! However, that entry is still to come! 😀
Another experience of kindness was when the very next day we walked some 7 km in the searing Caribbean heat of the midday towards a small but beautiful fishing village called Taganga, renowned for its breathtaking beach. As we headed into the final rocky mountain climb towards Taganga, we were stopped by an elderly gentleman who insisted that we do not walk through what he referred to as the “Barrio” where he said we would be attacked by “Bandidos”. He walked us to the Police Booth and one of the very young officers hailed a Jeepney style open truck painted in the colors of Colombia, which we later found out was called a “Chiva”. The driver immediately asked us to jump in. It was an amazing experience racing down the curved mountain road at top speed with nothing to bar the wind from entering. As the beautiful turquoise Caribbean Sea finally came into view from the overpowering heat of the day and with the promise of a cooling swim, I was looking on paradise. The driver would not accept any money from us. He explained that he was going this way anyway and wished us well on our way. It was as simple as that!
The sand was a beautiful color of golden charcoal, and we hastened into the almost bath-warm Caribbean water so that our feet wouldn’t be burnt by the searing hot sun that was cooking the sand! With one breath, I dove underwater to see a spectacular array of marine life swimming below me. Scarlet colored fish danced in time with a wave of dark blue water flowers creating a magnificent result of royal purple! Too bad I couldn’t hold my breath for longer because I would’ve joined the sea in a heartbeat.
After tiring ourselves out we walked the slightly cooler sand, taking part in one of the best known past times for visiting the beach: collecting sea shells. The intricately woven patterns were enough to make you gasp at what nature can do, but to top it off, the colors of eggshell, ochre, copper and the fur of a coyote bonded to make an incredible vivid display of coloration.
With a small pouchful of a few shells we simply couldn’t leave behind, we left the beach and began an exploration of this small fishing village. We walked the cobble stone streets, examining the stalls that lined the ocean walkway selling jewellery, scarves and hand painted sandals among many other trinkets. This certainly worked up an appetite, and the wolves in our bellies soon had us sitting on the front porch of a small house that served as the dining room for a family-owned pizza restaurant. I simply couldn’t think of one negative thing throughout the whole day, except for the tiniest mishap. It must have been the bliss of pizza in my belly, for without looking, I stepped out of the restaurant and onto the road and nearly got hit by a motorcycle making its way down the narrow throughway at almost break-neck speed. But other than that, this day had been perfect. Our South American adventures had begun with a bang and it lifted our spirits again and reinforced the knowledge in our hearts that wherever we go, we find kindness everywhere! Especially in the most unexpected of places.
The road in life, like the road from Bogota to Santa Marta is often filled with many winding turns and near head-on crashes, but a close call is not a crash and just because you can’t see around the corner now, doesn’t mean that misfortune lies ahead. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. With an expansive, positive and fearless outlook on life, you will always find the way out of the labyrinth!