Colombia Redux: Caribbean Choco
Using an airplane to get to the Caribbean Choco sounds like my kinda style of in-country travel. Not that I have much experience, but I do have some: Puddle-jumper flying again! So I'm ready for the visual measuring up of my body weight at the airline counter, necessarily followed by the literal taking of my baggage's. My weigh-ins of 11.2kg and 2.3kg don't seem worthy of a batted eyelash, but I'm sure an American airline would take issue with the 1.2kg over the allowed 10kg limit and force me to repack it into the other... or pay dearly.
This low-key approach is all well in keeping with the rest of the sleepy airport's mien from which I'll depart, conveniently located only a mere walking distance from my hostel to begin with. Back in the day, this used to be THE airport for Medellín, but now it only serves for charters and smaller airlines - ones like ADA, the one I'll be using to get to Capurganá. I'm especially happy to not have to waste the hour necessary to get to Medellín's main airport, placed over the hills and outside of town.
The airport's greatest claim to fame, though, is that it's the site where Carlos Gardel - Argentina's premier singer in the heyday of tango - died. Coming or going, I can't recall, but there IS a monument to him that lies off to one side near the gates. It's worth noting, too, that the tragedy of his death probably rings just as nostalgic to Argentines as the flight deaths of those early rock-n-rollers of "American Pie" fame does to Americans. As for the temporary painting exhibit of tango dancers - perhaps a dozen or so cheesy oils at a level not far above amateur (think of those dogs playing poker) - THOSE rather unfortunately cheapen the tribute.
But I have a plane to catch, no time for such high brow frivolity, passing on gawking at the paintings for more than a couple of minutes to make my way through security and toward the gate. There's some suspicion that my trumpet is a weapon of mass destruction, briefly leading to some demands that I check it in (I refuse), but that proves only a hiccup. Bwah-hah-hah!: Little do they know what a weapon it is - and HOW! Anyway, I make it through efficiently enough only to wait for a spell more, when our small group is called to go. At that appointed time (más o menos), a pretty paisa woman in uniform comes to take our tickets, hand us earplugs, then usher us out onto the tarmac behind her. We obediently walk in a single file line to cover the short distance needed to access our awaiting jumper of puddles extraordinaire.
Dreams of in-flight service from such a pleasant face are short-lived, moreover, as we clamber into the small 19-seater Twin Otter. Instead we'll have to suffer the pilot and co-pilot alone; our hostess-dreamed-to-be walks back toward the terminal as soon as the propellers start up. Sigh. I stow my trumpet under my seat such as is possible, next eyeing the folding staircase in front of me. I estimate that I'll effectively impale myself on it in the event of a crash (or mere turbulence - the distance from eyeball to protruding metal isn't that great). The speaker next crackles to life as us craning passengers attempt to listen to the garbled message the captain blurts out, muffled further as the propellers kick up to full speed and we rumble down the runway. "Qué?!?" is about the only mental response I can come up with as we bouncily roll down the runway to soon shudder our way into the air above the city.
Bearing into a curve while still ascending, soon we pass another plane not all that far away below - much as one passes an oncoming car - before turning north toward the Caribbean. I can already smell the surf, I think, even if we first have to clear our way over some ridges to descend from the mountains. Shortly I spy what I think is the edge of Guatapé and its lake to one side, too, also soon finding myself unmistakably eyeballing Santa Fe de Antiochia to another. I recognize the modern bridge leading to it even as I can't make out its more famous and appealing elder. Then I give up on my landmark inventory, as the ridge lines flatten and the rivers broaden. Puffballs of cloud soon make land-spotting a bets-off game for a while, anyway.
A midpoint stop comes in Apartado, only an hour or so into the flight. By this time, I can make out only banana plantations as far as the eye can see; Humidity from below has well entered our plane above. Viewing this banana kingdom for some time already, it's only broken by a wide swath of river - or perhaps a hut - to otherwise break up the monotony. The "big city" of Apartado only appears for a limited-if-decisive change of scenery, a concreted square cut out of the uniform green. We'll see it and a neighboring town just like it only briefly before returning to the limitless field of green.
Dropping down somewhere beyond town, we land at an airport evidently devoid of other planes and passengers both. We pop out of our now-sweating fuselage to walk over to a reception/waiting room, a break of only ten to fifteen minutes necessary for refueling. In the interim, another plane arrives, a tubby military cargo blob that preponderously rolls in at a trickle. Exactly where the pavement runs out it finally halts, immediately dropping its loading ramp and letting out of a stream of men. Fifty or so recruits, all still in street clothes, scatter from the plane in every direction. Each immediately gets to the business of tinkle relief. Maybe this is some kind of hold-it-until-ya-gotta-scold-it training for the Colombian military?, I wonder. Whatever the case, the horde stands around idling outside afterword, waiting for whatever comes next.
From our redoubt inside, however, I'm vastly grateful for air-conditioning. What a reprieve from the tropical furnace outside, I sigh, even as there is no similar escape from the TV blasting away in a corner of the room at full volume. Meanwhile, besides the obvious changes in temperature within and without, the bathroom quickly reminds me as well that I'm in the tropics: A sign on the faucet states that the water is not potable. Ah, yes - one purifies water whenever and wherever in the flatlands of Colombia - and this is some seriously flat terrain.
Surprisingly, it'll not stay that way. That'll come after we first have to leave Apartado behind, soon resuming the lush views of what lies below. Now, however, come untrammeled marshes, canals, and a large serpentine river. This eventually leads to leaving all things banana behind, shortly finding ourselves creeping up on the great (and muddy) Golfo de Uraba. Here, outside of the great expanse of wet brownness where rivers dump their soil into the sea, begins a resumption of hill country. That's quite unexpected, but here they are and I find that they'll continue right up against the Gulf's coast for a long ways.
We now take in picturesque chunks of a more varied greenery, completing our move away from plantation monoculture to return to natural foliage cover. The low number of houses and god-forsakenly lonely settlements will continue, however. We follow the coast northward, watching the gulf suddenly change its color from brown to blue at some point. With this increased clarity, coral terrain is revealed below for the first time as well. Now THAT'S the Caribbean I'm expecting! Shrimp boats and tiny lanchas sufficiently prove the increased fecundity of the sea as well, as an increasingly crashing surf completes the picture. Yep, this looks like paradise. Us passengers take in the various beaches with heightened interest, each empty strand of yellow attracting one and all as we wonder what the ones up ahead at Capurganá will be like. The only negative to this succession of aerial postcard views are ones which my camera can't properly catch, that of the dense air we're moving through, drooping with water droplets wanting to drip down the windows.
Finally we come up to this village I've so longed to check out, that lonely outpost of Colombia on the Caribbean so off the beaten track (in Colombia, only the even-more-remote NE Guajira region compares). We hover briefly over town, then make a hard banking that seemingly has our wingtips grazing the roofs of some huts below. Only just before it looks like we'll actually hit the ground does the plane level out. The wheels appear to barely touch the pavement before the propeller does. "Trust the pilot, trust the pilot!", we all surely think together, happily losing all of our speed in no time. Immediately we pull up to the second-most incredibly empty airport in the Choco I've seen in as many hours. This is logical, I suppose, but somehow it's also still astonishing.
With no speaker message for us passengers to decipher on arrival, all of us disembark as the side compartments of the plane are opened up to extract baggage. We next wait for someone - anyone - to indicate that we can take our bags, something which never will ultimately happen: Welcome to Choco Time! Or the Choco Way - Whatever, Inc. After all of us stand around confused for a while, finally I walk over and grab my backpack to put it on. Then, seeing that no one is going to check me or my baggage one way or the other, I depart the airport on foot to make my way down the dirt path to town. I'm passed momentarily later, by a donkey-pulled cart, before it turns off. Only when it does so do I realize that its passengers are many of those who've just been in the plane beside me. This airport shuttle service, it's worth noting, comes complete with traditional plastic bucket waiting room seats, each anchored aboard without their legs. This is the Choco Way, indeed.
Walking into town only takes a few minutes. I gain the main square right away, an unadorned field enveloped in dust with a soccer game underway. Just from a glance, I'm immediately able to confirm that Capurganá has no cars - surely one would be in evidence somewhere in the area. Soon enough, too, I'll also learn that there is only one tractor and two motorcycles around at all - but spotting them will take time and effort that will not be forthcoming.
The small scale of the place, meanwhile, allows me to quickly walk across all of town. I tromp my way to the miniscule harbor area, where I hope for a little lodging comparison shopping. The recommended Luz de Oriente, my go-to spot from a recommendation, is unfortunately quickly determined to have taken too much advantage of having made the bigtime of guidebooks and word of mouth. Its dingy accommodations reflect significantly higher prices than I'm told, so I settle for its neighbor and a room at half the price of one of Luz's dorm beds - but with a balcony and a view. Much as I'm loathe to look around - sheer laziness, I know - there often IS a payoff.
Said balcony view is mostly of a handful of boats in the harbor, plus two contrasting piers - with the old one handily making the case for the new one. This isn't scintillating stuff, no, but the port pretty much is it as far as "terrestrial" (well, non-air) links to the exterior go. The harbor area also serves as THE social hub of town, the place to crank up as much vallenato and reggaeton as possible. Uh, lucky me! I'll find, too, that this is typically done to the rhythm of domino slappings on plastic tables which are brought out (I'll also quickly find) on a daily basis. This local color suits me fine, however, and it does my balcony-sharing neighbors Aida (a German who grew up in the Canary Islands, oddly without much familiarity of her homeland) and Paquito (a Spaniard) as well. Right away we take up our seats on a regular basis to relax and take in the "show".
Soon walking about, as I'm all too prone to do, I cheerily notice that the beaches smell rather beach-y keen and don't seem scummy in the least - always a crapshoot what with unknown marine organisms and whatever washes up on a shore. Less rosy, though, are the rather generous drib-blings of salt-scoured plastic I see both in and just beyond the water's edge on the wet sands. Sigh: Is there no pride in keeping this clean? It seems not, even though this is in direct contrast to the few core streets of cobblestone which are swept religiously (most of the others are merely wide alleys of dirt). This is true at least in front of the stores and homes in the core area, anyway. One can safely sit right on them without worries of a soiled seat afterward, nor even risk danger from the infrequent bicycle that bounces by from stone to stone. A number of us visitors find ourselves doing just the very thing from time to time, happily proving this unexpected cleanliness.
One expected bother, meanwhile, is that electricity will mostly be a no-show in Capurganá. Moreover, by the first day I learn there's more to it than just that: The power goes out both on schedule (always) and not (whenever). I hear that this has recently been a horror story, like right over the recent Christmas time, where three days plus without any power were endured just as an extra number of tourists came around to enjoy the inconvenience. The same reality unfortunately extends to the water supply at times, something which I soon find makes for interesting decisions in the middle of the night - in my pitch-black bathroom which I can barely locate. Should I aim for the toilet, angling toward the shower beyond? Or feel about for the toilet and SIT LIKE A GIRL?!? (Or, heaven forfend, buy a candle or flashlight.) Hmm... what about keeping a bucket filled with water handy? Ah, the fun compromises of adventure travel!
As for Capurganá's touristic offerings, there are three notable attractions in town: La Miel (The Honey), El Aguacate (The Avocado), and El Cielo (The Heaven). None of these are in town, nor will I ever get any idea where the names come from - both before or after getting to know each. Oh well, Viva el misterio! At least they're not hard to find: The first of this trio is located in Panamá, reached by hiking 1h15 to the neighboring town of Sapzurro and then cutting through town to continue on for another twenty minutes thereafter. El Aguacate is attained by following the Colombian coast south for an hour; El Cielo is an inland walk of some forty-five minutes. Such minute distances render each an eminently manageable excursion, worthy candidates to eventually partake in their delights.
I'll go with La Miel first. Beginning with the steep up-and-over-the-big-hill hike to reach Sapzurro (sometimes spelled Zapzurro), this first stage includes a potential stop at a lonely "eco-reserve" on the way. Ha. Said informal parada results in a "donation" of 1000CP to pass through, mainly since there is no way to avoid it. Typically I find such donations only asked for in the absence of legal authority - and this is no exception. I nevertheless decide to play along at such a pittance of price - at least until I've got more knowledge. Supposedly the money is to support a reserve being created on the trail, but all I can see are a lot of trees... that have been cut down. Meanwhile, with the beach up ahead firmly in mind - and oodles of sweat on body - I'm not yet in the mood to debate the primacy of supposed locally-grown-produce-in-the-future on the reserve... which will replace virgin jungle.
Beyond and above the "reserve" comes a worthy crest, one that gives some peekaboo overlooks of Capurganá and Sapzurro from above, two very fine postcards to choose between. From there remains only a steady drop down into Sapzurro, a VERY quiet place on first entering steps. So it'll remain on its second, third, and fourth whacks, for the record. It's a bit more expensive than its sister town over the hill, however, perhaps on account of the nice beach in its middle and some marginally upscale properties here and there. Or maybe its lack of an airstrip lends a greater sense of exclusivity. Only the real estate "wizards" know. Ha! redux.
Shortly I'll find that it's also home to the Colombian Armada - with precisely one boat in port. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise as, after all, this is the last town before entering Panamá. The Coast Guard's existence becomes just that much more apparent, too, when some bulletproof-vested agents/sailors enter the restaurant on whose deck our small party of hikers has been drinking. They come out with a pile of weaponry that they've apparently just left behind the restaurant's cashier counter for safekeeping. They proceed to jump into their cigarette boat, kicking it to life in a hurry to consequently blast out a loop of the tiny inlet. Said ten minutes of glory conclude with their returning for another drink - right after re-stowing their guns behind the counter. Not a bad racket.
Courtesy of my new friends Paco and Aida, meanwhile, I find myself linked up with a host of Spaniards hailing from Galicia, Andalucia, and Sevilla. Each is towing along a young kid or two for a day at the beach, something that only requires marginally extra hiking when we come to hill #2, a (much shorter) steep up-and-over to gain La Miel. A rope helps with the slippery ascent through slanted steps of clay and mud, allowing us to quickly reach the two guard huts (replete with the necessary national flags) at the summit. Only the Panamanian hut of sandbags is attended, and that by some taciturn soldiers. We barely manage to pull a smile out of one them, and that takes a bit of work. Well, it is hot, and WE'RE the ones headed to the beach, not them. Okay... moving on! All that's now left is the even steeper - but concrete - staircase down to the other side. It amazingly sports a sort of railing which is unanimously voted a tremendous upgrade from the rope on the other side. Viva Panam´!
Down below, the cheering over the rail subsides as we find that La Miel immediately offers only a weird mix of ruins and nicer homes, something of a deflating surprise since we've only been expecting a beach. Much more of a downer is that the stunning strand - and this consistently being the description according to all I've heard - isn't such at all. Instead it's much smaller than expected, with plastic everywhere and that inevitable, unavoidable reggaeton. Sweet Jesus...! The beats and boasts of each song blasts away from some oversized speakers, all of which are propped up in a lean-to attended by a few very large women. To be fair, they don't strike me as eager fans so much as resigned peddlers of mat rentals or drink sales. They even offer a small bite to eat when asked nicely, I find myself supposing. (For the record, there is ultimately nothing untoward about them whatsoever, but let's not let a lack of drama get in the way of a critic's tirade.)
Mostly my friends and I find ourselves thinking "Wow, is THIS over-rated!" - especially when paddling over yet another floating plastic bag or pushing it aside to swim in the water. Possibly boasting a brighter future, a posted sign states that the local government has plans to expand these offerings (such as they are): Not far down the beach is a new pier under some level of construction - minus the critical necessity of either workers or recent activity on a weekday. For the short term, anyhow, what they REALLY need is for able fingers to clasp trash.
It only takes an hour or so of La Miel to urge me back to Sapzurro rather disappointed. As penance or compensation, we're undecided as to which, a few of us decide to order the usual fish-patacones plate shortly after regaining town. Let me correct that: we do so only after verifying that fish can actually be had in this fish restaurant, apparently far from a given. I nevertheless am happy to return to Sapzurro's overall peaceful vibe, and thus shortly arrange after lunch to stay at a cabaña for the upcoming weekend. When our group splits up a bit, too, I opt to detour to take in a waterfall that's not mentioned in the guidebook. I briefly revel in a nice little watering hole with no one around before beginning my ascent back to Capurganá. Now in water-becalmed spirits with cooler skin (for a while), I take on a much faster walk that is encouraged by falling darkness. I pass the "reserve" again, this time without paying (as I later learn the Spaniards have done both ways), exchanging knowing glances instead with the future park ranger who's determined to cut down the forest to save it in his not-so-oddly profitable way.
Back in town I soon opt for a walk toward Sapzurro again, but this time I'm interested in trying to make my way there along the coast. This is the tempting route unmentioned in the guides, but theoretically possible. Some locals even assure me that it can be done with care, so on the way I soon find myself taking in numerous and fascinating tidepools, a couple of islands that lay just offshore, numerous off-trail tuck-aways into and onto rocks protected from surf, plus birds of prey angling for a kill. Before none too long, too, I run into another "reserva natural", but this one comes at what appears to be the end of the trail. Well, I decide to call it such after I try unsuccessfully to find a reasonable path forward beyond it, something which I deem possible if dangerous. So... meanwhile... this is a reserve?, I ask myself.
Actually it is one, in its way, and it's called La Coquerita. It values itself at 1000CP for the right to treads its ground, just like the other place, but in this case I'm happy to pay. The work being done is evidently in harmony with nature, using scraps and castaways found at the shore with artistic flair. The seemingly abandoned house literally affords loads of art to the visitor. The various carvings and whatnots just lie everywhere about the place, evidently intended for the enjoyment of whomever at the risk to the artisan of things being taken or destroyed. More structurally these include earthworks, including a couple of pools - one each of freshwater and (mostly) saltwater. I applaud all the thought that's gone into this abode, rueing that there is no one around to properly thank and chat about it all.
Eventually returning to town, I find that I can no longer pretend to ignore the phenomenal amount of trash choking the coastline. It is just plastic, plastic, and more plastic... plus rubbery flip-flops galore. A concentrated collection of the latter in one cove is weird, eerily speaking (if falsely) to a horrific shipwreck of souls upstream. Certainly what I'm seeing makes complete sense material-wise: This is all the stuff that easily floats to wash out to sea, with the bulk of the plastic (unsurprisingly) coming from water bottles and the like. I nevertheless wonder why there is seemingly no initiative to clean up this eyesore, so nastily besmirching such raw beauty otherwise found in the area. Picking up plastic is a far cry easier than scrubbing off oil, I muse - so what gives?
On the way back I also run into a rasta man - is he the likely "owner" of La Coquerita?, I wonder... or is he merely a dead ringer for my friend Jim (who I coincidentally met MUCH further down the same Caribbean coastline, in Venezuela about nine years prior, and who I can verify is very much living in Portland, OR). I won't be finding out any time soon: For a third time since coming to town, I receive only a sullen look to my "Buenos Dias!" Hmm. I'll come to see this guy repeatedly over the next couple of weeks, ever writing - and then writing some more into his loose-leafed journals - when not silently tending his blanket of artisanal wares on the main beach. Hmm, indeed.
Meanwhile, all during my first few days in town I get to hear numerous tales of woe about the boat ride to Turbo. A documented horror show of discomfort, it is mentioned in advance by nearly all of the guidebooks. Now I hear I hear about it from all former visitors to the area alike. That's why I flew in, in fact, only leaving open the OPTION of taking this boat back on the way to Medellín. Meanwhile, what with Paquito and Aida leaving and nervously thinking of the hellish ride ahead, I receive a steady stream of advices on how to avoid the vicious water-bumps, fiberglass scrapings on skin, and more. Trick #1 is to sign up early. Or was that to pray or make sacrificial offerings? - I forget. Anyway, it is with such thoughts that I see off my friends to Turbo. With nervous smiles they board, taking seats near the rear shortly before the boat lights out like a bat out of hell - and the smiles likely disappear altogether. I'll hear even more about the boat rides over the coming days, none of it good.
But first I want to return to Sapzurro, if only chiefly to avoid the local horror show of blasting music over the weekend that I'm 100% sure is on the way. Certainly Sapzurro will be quieter than Capurganá's reggaeton carnival. Moreover, the almost absolute absence of even bikes and donkey carts there should add to the peaceful effect of finding refuge. As for the boat ride to get there - I have a full pack and am not up to the fun of the steep hill climb - THAT will serve as a foreshadowing experience (of the Turbo boat) for twenty grisly minutes. Indeed, the driver seems only spurred on to rev the motor higher with each "AY!" let out by a passenger when the boat crashes into another trough. Sensing no relief will be forthcoming over twenty LONG minutes, I wisely decide on a different course of action than yelling for my life: I'll "ride the horse" instead. This is a quieter approach, one that has me forcefully using my legs to work with the craft. More importantly, it doesn't raise the driver's ire to ask for further punishment. As for the cover I've put on my backpack against the spray? That's necessary after all, too.
In town, I return for my arranged stay at El Chileno, immediately finding myself harangued over wanting to make my own coffee: "Es negocio!" I'm emphatically told by the cook from behind his kitchen bar. Sigh. Maybe this ISN'T going to be a quiet stay: Nobody but nobody messes with my drugs, business or no! Fortunately, however, playing the trumpet cures this impasse - I sign up new members to my tiny fan club and get the joe properly flowing shortly thereafter. Helping grease the skids, too, is my immediate clean-up of the nearby beach, something I do each time before I go in for a bathe. Yes, here the water is low on salt and high on clean and delicious, reminding me why I've come back to this little hamlet on the sea. I vow to steadily clean the entire beach in appreciation (which I soon do).
I'm also happy to revisit the close-by waterfall I saw before. This time I want to play some trumpet to check out its acoustics. Shortly into the session, however, I find myself spending most of my time meeting and getting to know a French/Argentine couple, their friend (also French), plus their baby in tow (Morgan, who I surmise must be French-Argentine, Argentine-French, or Frentine-Argench). A sailboat captain who covers the San Blas islands, my new friend and company are headed to Capurganá and Cartagena beyond - which is a bummer, since I'm loosely thinking of heading in precisely the opposite direction, on to the San Blas and possibly Panam´ beyond should the opportunity arise. So much for serendipity.
In spite of his incorrectly chosen fate (at least by my account), we soon find ourselves hanging out over beers in town before following up with dinner aboard the sailboat. A conversation which repeatedly returns to the topic of "fear" ensues, at times including the unavoidable (and yet related) subjects of corruption and regularly sailing this section of the Caribbean. The Colombia-Panamá border area is accurately recognized as a haven for piracy and drug running both, so... what gives?
Naturally I'm also intrigued as to how, on the run just completed, he managed to have ten (!) people aboard this 13m boat. Granted, one is a baby, but the others (included a transcontinental Swiss cyclist I spotted getting off in Capurganá with all his gear) must've been tripping over everything. Such makes for a leisurely discussion, one that eventually necessitates a run by the Zodiac back to the coast in the dark so I can go to bed. We narrowly avoid shoals by coming in at a creeping speed.
Back at El Chileno (the owner is an expat Chilean, thus the name), discussions of a different sort also repeatedly come up over the next few days. These are always with the staff - I'm the only guest - covering such wide-ranging topics as their lodging operation, greed (in general and local), the "donations" hoped for by the guy on the trail between Capurganá and Sapzurro, trash collection or the lack thereof (which leads back to the plastic on the beach), and composting. I also learn about their future plans, those of creating an orchard and some self-sustainability. This venture, I learn, will somehow incorporate many trees of the odd fruit called the noni, a supposedly medicinal (and awful-tasting) thing believed to cure cancer if not deter it in some sense. I take them at their word on all of that, yeah, but I can't help but wonder that if such a miracle drug is accessible to a shmuck like me just for the picking, then won't others surely be in on this idea as well? And with official research of some sort beyond the local shaman?
All the while I have the rest of Greater Sapzurro (a far too grand name) to check out. This consists pretty much of walking the coast in either direction, that because the interior is rather impenetrable in any logical or prudent sense. Thus it is that I flip a coin to decide to walk toward the faro in the direction of Capurganá. This should confirm whether a connection is possible to Coquerita or not - which it mostly wasn't, what with the path petering out and forcing me into the water a little before doing so a lot. I peer at the rocks supporting the crude lighthouse (more like an overgrown light fixture) ahead repeatedly as I close in on it, eventually admitting that they won't be seeing the likes of me scrambling over them.
What is instead easily available virtually the entire way is the vast trash-ville that comes dishearteningly a-ways inland. This extra depth of fouled territory is likely a victim of high tides, the result of an area too flat for its own good before hitting the big hill beyond which forms the trap. Someone - or some people, or GOVERNMENT - really needs to get a handle on this plastic and foam garbage problem! Seriously - I shudder to think what comes of the stuff as it slowly disintegrates into ever smaller particles. Is this ending up in the fish everyone is eating like so much bread?
Back at the lodge, I turn to weighing any final options about making it out to the San Blas Islands. For the moment, the weather TO the San Blas is good. It's the possibility of getting back that is the question. As the case is, on account of the unusually windy weather in the wrong direction, many boats are in Capurganá and Sapzurro that would never be so otherwise. Such is exactly the case with my French friends, who've always sailed past this town far out to sea. Beyond that consideration, meanwhile, there's also the anticipated cost of $100/day to do so - while again noting that I could possibly be left on an island w/o knowing any return situation. That pretty much makes the decision for me, even if I'll still have to solve my visa dilemma at some point. Solving that will require a crossing into Panamá or a return to a bigger town in Colombia that can offer an extension. So be it.
In any event, my French friends feel the need to be on their way. Another boat has pulled into the harbor with a gang of tourists, fresh from the San Blas. The captain believes that the weather is breaking for a spell, so they should be able to continue toward Cartagena. Thus it is that, come afternoon, I swim out to my friends' boat to bid them adieu. I similarly say goodbye to another boat captain who has been sounding out my interest, a Bogotáno with so far only one Irishman onboard as a passenger. He similarly plans to leave with an early start, albeit in the other direction.
Turning both options down, I have thus abandoned most of the little interesting company I've been enjoying in town. This prompts me to return to the excitement of collecting another massive bag of trash, extending the "clean zone" a bit further before returning to El Chileno to anticipate yet another heated discussion about U.S. politics. At least this time it'll be chewed over just like the pile of shrimp that soon sits in front of me (which has the more pleasant effect of being followed by swallowing): This latter bounty comes courtesy of a shrimping boat temporarily stuck in port, one fortunately willing to make some tiny side deals to the locals who come out to greet them. Score.
I'll be needing the extra grub, too, as the now post-French "staff discussion" turns far nastier than the previous. It's always too easy to blame the U.S. for everything when they've previously and document-ably done SOME things, and here the staff has someone of the right citizenship to unload on. But is it REALLY always a great conspiracy, ALL of the time, I ask them? Always the C.I.A. and more C.I.A.? Or could there possibly be selfish folk on both sides, arms vendors, merchants of grim tidings, exploiters and the odd religious nut beyond reason? And can't people not try to educate themselves, making choices about what or whom they might support and how?
It's frustrating to get in this venting exercises, of course. Undoubtedly I have the very good fortune to be born in a land of many opportunities, on the comfortable side of whatever the C.I.A. or whomever is working their will, but it always strikes me forcefully that resigning oneself to a passive helplessness hardly ever is going to be an answer. That's about the extent of what I can squeeze in, anyway, when otherwise having to back off from the one staffer who chooses to repeatedly exclaim "Chúpalo! Chúpalo!" ("Suck it! Suck it!") to describe his concept of how the U.S. expects the world to behave toward it. And that's where we'll leave it, with me at least sucking for air in the vacuum of discussion.
One interesting fact is that the only person cleaning the beach - even this coastline directly in front of El Chileno - is me. My conversationalists make mention of this in odd tribute, yet they'll make no effort to join in, either. It is far easier to merely criticize and shrug it all off as too big. An old lady, however, walks by once to say "Qué bueno!" - before stooping over to pitch in a couple of bottles to my bag. Her grandkids look on in amazement before they all stop to get into the water and forget about the few pieces of trash near them that I haven't gotten to yet. Small, small steps.
Meanwhile, having walked one half of the two available coast options, I decide to walk the other direction of coastline. I'm nothing if not thorough, especially when making my way down lists of size... two. This opposing route, anyway, will take me out of town in the direction of Panamá (and La Miel just beyond) - if reaching them were at all possible. Who knows? Beyond the town limits, people almost immediately disappear, then I pass a few random (likely illegal) dwellings along the way soon thereafter. As usual there's the oodles of trash to consider the entire way, this time in addition to numerous mangy dogs. Fortunately the latter stop at the last habitable shack, where a few boys are playing cards and look curiously my way.
Near the very end of the possible terrain I can cover, I bump into a man tending a few supplies dumped in an informal encampment. Surprised to see anyone out his way, he's happy to chat. It turns out both that he is a Bogotáno and yet another ex-trumpeter to join the thousand or so other ex-trumpeters I've met over the years. But mostly he is glad to have someone to talk to as he awaits an eventual pickup, so we spend some time talking about my so-called tripod of Colombian culture (consisting of La Momposina in music, García Márquez in literature, and Botero in art). Finally, however, I leave him behind to nearly reach the Panamanian border on my own around Cape Tiburon - where the high ridge on the hill I face hits the water to appropriately allow the two countries to end their territorial claims with geographical finality. And that's that: It's time to return for more bathing and beach clean-up.
The bathing is indeed much better done at my cleaned beach than on the hike, allowed for leisurely tossing about by waves in trash-less harmony. There's still generally nary a soul around, plus the main beach is near the falls - where I can play the trumpet again while contemplating different schemes to attack the trash problem. In the end it seems most reasonable that the local hotels, all with a stake in the area's beauty, will be the ones to possibly tempt the local kids with a little money that they couldn't otherwise earn in the relatively nonexistent local economy. This is often done elsewhere, especially when gringos came to settle in an area. Or the trash could be used as insulation, or art projects, or ... something.
So it is that I muse away at the falls, eventually getting out about three songs before being joined by six young Colombian tourists. They've come prepared with beer, aguardiente, and cameras, meaning that I'll shortly decide on subtly leaving. In merely doing so, of course, it's likely obvious why I'm jettisoning the spot, but even by then they've taken to doing all the things I've anticipated to make the decision correct. In moments they're already hopping in the water and clowning around for pictures, booze spilling into now-muddy waters. I'm gone before they'll get around to offering me shots (which, to the credit of most Colombians, is usually true) and getting some reggaeton cranked up.
For my hasty departure I'm rewarded with a massive, well-painted beetle or roach, like right in the middle of the trail. Holy shit! How cool! For some time the little beast and I warily check each other out, me the more fascinated surely by far - I think. Then I opt for flicking it off of the trail for its own safety, thinking of the bunch behind me. THAT elicits some nasty hissing from the thing - fair enough - but I can now make my way back to the beach with a clear conscience. I soon take to reading some more Darwin in lieu of the horn, the romantic thought of playing music at a beach never matching the lack of acoustics when facing an open sea.
And so it goes for a handful of days in Sapzurro. As I haven't had much luck in lowering the price of my cabaña, I decide to return to Capurganá even as my short stay is sufficient to make some comparisons. For example, Sapzurro certainly offers less electricity, getting only second dibs on the paltry amount afforded to Capurganá. But even for that, there's still the random guy with speakers stacked to the heavens in his doorway or windows, blasting away whenever there IS juice. Also on account of the electrical shortfall, it's tougher to get a REAL juice in Sapzurro than in Capurganá: Blenders need the stuff, too.
Capitalism is at a minimum in Sapzurro as well, what with only one main tienda in town. Accordingly, such a virtual monopoly makes for a business where it's particularly tough to get service or even make eye contact at all. When I see locals who appear later than I do get attended to first, I recognize that I'm apparently nothing more than a subhuman tourist - or such is the gist of the affair. The two or three sullen women who run the place don't stock the joint with particularly much, plus the produce is generally dumped on the floor to spill out toward where they tread. (On the other hand, they DO make a hell of a coconut bread (cocopan), the likes of which I've never tried before. It is shockingly good, especially for this country in which I typically found all things bakery shockingly bad.)
As for Sapzurro's harbor, it hosts only a handful of sailboats, and this again admittedly more than usual because of the messed up wind situation affecting the usual Cartagena-San Blas run. The navy is in town, as mentioned, but there are police everywhere and at all times, too. I guess Panamá might attack by land, too - right? At least they're all a pleasantly social lot, strolling about with their large guns, chatting with the locals, partaking in bingo, lotteries, and whatever passes for street life - they've plenty of time to kill. Then again, being smack dab on the drug route from the Gulf Of Uraba to all points north, one has to be thankful that the place is likely super calm not in spite but precisely because of them.
Numerous lots are for sale, too, I notice, including those with good sea views. But I wonder what the reality of their prices are if one bargains properly, guessing that the starting tactic of halving a price applies with them like anything else. Far more enigmatic than house prices is the sole tattoo parlor on the waterfront. Over several days, I don't see anyone actually ever go in there outside of the staff. I deem it a good thing that they sell handicrafts to hopefully increase foot traffic - if there are any tourists around in the first place. What IS dependable, I find, is that the pirate crew can be counted on to be drink rum at the table in front come each and every sunset. This is both apropos and can be counted on like clockwork - if there were any clocks around to verify against. I can't imagine a single electric one exists in this village.
Speaking of that august time of day - sunset - that's when the most common local birds typically make their air shows. These are mostly pelicans, with the random frigate bird or small eagle thrown in. As for the crabs, the other noticeable creature in high number, they come out a-hunting for toes and perhaps more lively prey at ALL times of day. Naturally so, too, do the lizards in good number, but they're probably less likely to be satisfied with toe nibbling. What DO they eat, anyway?
For watching all such activities that pass for life in Sapzurro, one spot is particularly prominent, found in the harbor area: a large tree with a bench surrounding it. This is where one waits in hopes of a lancha that will challenge the waves and take you back to Capurganá, for one thing. This can be an hourly or tri-hourly thing, completely dependent on whether - and when - others wanted the same thing. Thus there is usually one soul sitting sentinel there, pleading with eyes at the infrequent passerby with hopes of a similar departure plan.
Otherwise one only watches the gerat majority of locals who consistently sit around on their stoops each day as the sun makes its way. This inactivity certainly begs at least ONE question, anyway: Does anyone work in this town? I also wonder how many have a secondary education. It seems that every conversation with a TRUE local never ventures beyond the most trite and banal of subjects. What company would one get to keep after buying a lot in this little paradise? I shudder at the boredom. Then again, as things currently stand, most of the tourists are generally ignored by the locals. You'll get some smiles from men in passing, sure, or grandmothers tending children, but that's about it. We're bizarre intruders.
Logically I wonder, too, what this area has been like only recently under the revolutionaries, particularly during the bad years of 1998 to 2003. I imagine that the idealists/murderers/drug-runners who passed through, guns in hand, were ignored as best as possible as well - although a gun in the face undoubtedly draws attention in a way that no peso-waving tourist can. Still, I find myself thinking, how will this tranquility change with the inexorable rise of tourism in the area? How long will it be before the avalanche of coveted motos arrives to roll back and forth on this less of a kilometer of track-cum-road? No idea, but until then I realize that I won't be able to not be nervous each time I pass someone walking by with a machete in their hand. A law about carrying an open blade is a l-o-o-o-o-o-ng way off, and I don't know if a machete will ever count, anyway.
On one of my nights in Sapzurro, meanwhile, I experience what most tourists look for when traveling: a perspective. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have an odd and poignant turn of mind called (overwhelming) nostalgia. Having spent time on the beach being pushed and pulled by the sea, I've walked back to the front of my lodgings to sit on a log and stargaze - not my typical mien by a longshot. Perched on turf a mere meter or two above the sea, yet out of the reach of the crashing surf, I suddenly feel inspired to listen to a playlist of tunes completely consisting of only ones I remember from about my second or third year in Michigan (where we lived for five years, right after returning from South Korea to the States on the way to West Germany). As has only become possible in the day of the iPod's incredible capacity and portability, I end up sitting without a twitch in a daze that ends up lasting for hours.
It's probably unavoidable, these waves of nostalgia that wash in far beyond any trite comparison I can make with the sea lying before me. The music, always so intensely and evocatively powerful in this way, brings to mind the so many times I spent alone throughout my childhood. (A good traveler probably by necessity has a loner streak.) I similarly listened to these very same songs back then, of course, my nose invariably buried in books ranging mostly from the fantasy of The Hobbit and The its ilk to the wondrous possibilities found in science fiction. (The latter oddly ran from the camp and pomp of Star Trek series screenplays to the more widely accepted fare of Dune and its sequels, perhaps not all that odd in combination.) What possibilities did those books offer of other worlds then! How they captured my imagination, with such wonder and ideals! [Ahem: To defend the Star Trek reference, let me try by noting that each show DID try to touch on the profound and philosophical - if always in a melodramatic tone on steroids, and while encased in prodigious amounts of the "cheeserock" that seemed to make up many a set.]
But, as such things must happen with nostalgia, such reverie also brings unavoidable and overwhelming sadness, too. A random song evokes an unexpected rush of emotion, viscerally returning me to a yester-world never fully forgotten but never to be grasped again. I rue away, however unfairly ignoring the bad that came with the good back then, saddened that I'll never get to experience those moments again. I'll never again know those feelings of safety that come without responsibility, living with an eternity seemingly before me and with relationships that have yet to disappear forever. For the millionth time I suffer the thought that one can never explain a smell, nor what memories one might specifically speak to, knowing that that and more will be taken alone to the grave, this unsharable, unexplainable rush and pile of feelings.
There just ARE some things we never can perfectly share, however much we want to. Words inevitably fail, even for how much we love to string them together creatively. Does the color blue we see appear the same to anyone else? How does such a comparison work, anyway? Such impossibilities in expressing sensory knowledge I've always found (find) incredibly haunting. This is hardly unique stuff, true, but it still is horrifically scary at times - if only because in such turns of mind one can feel completely alone in this world, poignantly reminded that we truly die by our lonesome.
Hmm... maybe it should be scarier to think that such mental asides are coming from tunes ranging from the Doobie Brothers to the Bee Gees. Good god - how frightening is that?!? Or, to extend this line of thought, what about all the other, separate playlists that exist for so many different chapters of a life? These could even include separate ones representing the same time periods! During that same period of time in Michigan, for example, I was both into listening and playing classical music heavily as well. I even harbored fantasies of playing in an orchestra professionally some day. How these personal histories are in turn mixed with the goings-on of a world at large, each moving in some odd, parallel fashion, is a mystery as well.
Indeed, what can explain the power of music better than such musings? So often and so oddly both do our lives move to these soundtracks, completely unaware and yet fated in their impact. Such ramblings here are far from the first ventured in such a soliloquy, naturally, but it's something I'm painfully aware of each of the countless times my brain finds itself ambling down that train of thought. Even as they can adequately describe the problem, words can never explain it. What a curious mess!
On a more pedestrian note... I return to Capurganá the next day. This involves the said waiting - for over an hour - for a lancha under the fabled tree-of-note, but something finally comes along in the form of a fishing/cargo boat that is somewhat larger than the usual lancha. This is actually an unquestionable improvement over my tortuous boat of arrival in physical comfort, too - if it weren't for the obnoxious (mullet-haired!) lady yelling in my ear every observation that comes into her peabrain as it occurs on the way. Yes, that's a wave, and yes that's a fish, for fuck's sake. This denies my otherwise enjoyment of a calmer return by sea, one with no need to flex my leg muscles in anticipation of saving my spinal column. My traveler's patience is obviously not what it used to be.
Back in C-town I find that the Gallegos are still around, even as the Andalucians and Sevillans have gone. I happily make do with this remaining couple in holy dread-lock, still holding down the beach with their daughters of ten months and three years of age. I immediately reestablish my rapport with the girls for smiles and laughs, thus finally winning over the parents as well (who initially hadn't taken to me, likely either on account of my nationality or shorter hair length - I'll never know). Perhaps we all make do for the sake of convenience: it's always good to have a cohort to trade quips and familiarity with, bumping as we do into each other now and again in the tiny 'ville.
I again also shortly return to visiting the coral ponds and wave-crashed areas of before I so enjoyed. Now, however, I intend to finish my leisurely survey of the greater Capurganá area. I'm curious about the other attractions, ready to research the best jugos, pescados, and whatever other local fare can be rooted out to be put down my hatch. I'm also welcoming the suddenly increased electricity, even if it's still of such a capricious nature that I'll often annoyingly awaken in the middle of the night in a stifled sweat. Well, to that I can only say fair enough: Life in the big town really isn't that terribly different than life in the smaller one after all.
Meanwhile I now take a day to head to El Aguacate, attraction #2 of the vaunted hit-list of three (a number both obvious from gleaning the Lonely Planet AND what the locals consistently suggest). True, tourists are likely only asking about these few on account of the guide, but the locals DO readily suggest them more than anything else. Tourism works in this winnowing way, and so off I thus inevitably head to my doom.
It isn't that bad, even as I only find upon my return to town that I haven't actually made it all of the way there - yet. Apparently I reached just shy of El Aguacate instead, according to the accumulated wisdom of my Spanish friends. Did I go over the rock stairway?, they ask. Uh... no: Oops! Nevertheless, it's still been a good hour of walking each way, and that in spite of those nervous feelings incurred each time someone walks by in the other direction (invariably) swinging a machete. I wonder each time if they sensed my unease - or if the very thought of such is incomprehensible to them, the machete being such an essential tool to virtually all in the area. What IS the fine line between ridiculous and prudent? I blame too many images of Hotel Rwanda and the execution of Daniel Pearl to give the idea fair rumination.
I DO enjoy passing the odd grandeur of Playa Roca, in any event, located still near Capurganá and just on my way out. This is a tinkling uproar of rocks sliding back and forth, each wave heaving them in an explosive crash before withdrawing. It's a music. Beyond that, and only after hugging the coast and tramping over dead coral swimming in plastic trash, I make my way over first one hump of land and then another. Each time there are ropes available to a side of the path to assist my progress - should I want to protect myself from a long fall. In between the two roped sections, naturally, I run into a couple of campesinos with machetes. Sigh. I proactively decide to engage them in conversation, delaying any executions of course, before soon reaping the benefits of that very blade of my distrust: One man offers to whack a nearby coconut to bits as I soon enjoy the best chunks of coco that I can ever recall.
Just past them I arrive at the false El Aguacate, albeit via the hard way of trespassing a coral outcropping (On the return I'll correctly guess to take the short dirt road found inland to bypass that misery). I first think the noted place must be abandoned, mainly since some of the buildings I see probably have been for some time by the look of them. Even the most hardened squatter can't be living in such wreckage when there is higher quality wreckage for the taking nearby, I reason. Eventually I run into some signs of life, meanwhile, sufficiently assuring me that the place isn't completely vacant even if it isn't that far from it. By this time the trash, now phenomenal in quantity, evidently has taken permanent residence as well.
I make my way along the various properties located in the area, eventually running out of beach when I come to a shanty house found at the end. This end of the trail turns out to belong to Tomas, an artist of sorts escaped from Manizales for many years. Intent on staying apart from society, he fortunately has the company of a rather-German-looking girlfriend who is somewhat dressed as a Bohemian on safari with lipstick and a fetching beret. Well, not a bad escape all things considered. An interesting discussion ensues, chiefly focused on the state of the land as I've just encountered it. We amicably bicker over who should take responsibility for all this garbage, those upstream or those on the land where it is washing up? I'm bringing up THE testy question of the entire coast, sure, but I want to understand the lack of action. Shouldn't both sides be working toward a solution?
From this end, I seriously don't know how one could bear to watch the steady accumulation and disintegration of the stuff and do nothing - especially with the known poisoning consequences for fish and plant life alike. Tomas, for his part, takes a vastly contrarian view. While equally dismayed with the accumulation about him, he's content to let it all just lie there forever, a testament to the reality he lives with. Is this an artist's view, I wonder, or is it just accepting defeat completely in the face of an avalanche? Certainly he's correct in stating that it's come from up-current, thus certainly from other countries, but...
...but at what point are we individuals, trying to make a difference? Why not clean it up, placing it all into a safer inland mound, maybe even pointing tourists to it to show what is going on - yet while safely storing the mess? I contend that we each have a voice, and thus hopefully a vote (not guaranteed to be fair in many countries by a long shot). We also have two hands, plus our money, too. Here and at home, he and I are both consumers, I argue. Doesn't it seem simple-minded to put all of the blame on the U.S. factories and snazzy marketing (which he does) that drives consumption without seeing local elements, too? And isn't this the same argument I just ran into in Sapzurro, with the Argentine at the Chileno's place?
Indeed, at what point DOES one take individual responsibility to improve things? Well, thinking of Colombia or even Latin America in general, maybe this thinking is all one and the same. Certainly it is in keeping with the cement-works that I see crumbling everywhere, including the shoddy construction and earthworks falling into the sea here as a result of poor planning. No one wants to take the initiative. Meanwhile, to the problem at hand, yes, the waves ARE washing from the north in this neck of the woods - BUT I can verify from my clean-ups that all the bits of refuse I'm picking up have Spanish words on them. It's obvious that these items are purchased (if not manufactured or developed) south of the U.S.'s shores based on that alone. Anyway, so our back-and-forth goes. Fortunately our conversation manages to stay far less heated than what erupted from Che Guevara, Jr., in Sapzurro: It never gets to the lathered part where country-level blowjobs are pantomimed. "Suck it! Suck it!"
In the end we part as friends, even as opinions have likely not changed. I'm even offered a parting gift of some delicious baby bananas from his tree. And it's only when I'm back in town that I learn that the whole affair was some sort of odd serendipity, that I shouldn't have bumped into Tomas in the first place in screwing up my supposed trip to El Aguacate. But I'm still happy to have gone, soon dousing myself in the sea to wash off the sweat of the hike while picking up yet more trash on the way. I'm still trying to convince myself that it can't be a futile effort.
Besides, I have other things to worry about - like sleep. Once again I find the electricity up to funny business over a sweating night, the loss of the fan's help pushing me to change to a cooler room below to test the theory of heat rising. I'll miss the view, but sweltering and sleep should need only mix when one doesn't have the strength to do something about it anymore. I've found myself nearly there, granted, practically dead from heat exhaustion, but that could also just be an oncoming heat stroke talking. Yes, there is much to be said about room designs and CROSS BREEZES, but this concept will never unfortunately be employed to the proper extent in my otherwise friendly and cheap digs. Dinner by kerosene lamp (over at Josefina's on the beach leading to the main beach, Playa Blanca) will have to be the proper antidote (more on her in a bit).
Over the ensuing days I continue to learn the patterns of Capurganá. For instance, who has a decent chocolate (M&Ms is about as good as it gets)? How about peanuts not doused in oil? Where can I buy the large bag of pure water that tastes okay, not like heated plastic? Or, on a decidedly more local note, who makes the better juice, keeping more fruit on hand for variety? Who never forgets to do the free juice refill called the ñapa (the pega, more locally). Juice IS the perfect remedy to a hot day, after all. Such is my thought at times, too, like when I grab a guama fruit purchased from some kids walking by with a wheelbarrow filled of them (lying amidst a pile of unripe plantains). I'm all for sampling this new flavor that comes in the form of a massive bean pod, one with a mildly sweet flesh that my teeth gnaw away to separate from its seed within. Nice.
It is also initially with juice in mind that I quickly learned to frequent Mery's place (immediately adjacent to Doña Fatima's, her main competition) for my breakfasts. She consistently offers up what I want, plus the music of her singing never seems to stop even as it is always pleasant - and in tune. She seems to be the favorite with a number of the locals as well, what with her indefatigable song and smile. And this is true in spite of a number of them saying goodbye as "Ciao negra! (Bye blackie!)" My politically correct-honed antenna pops up in such instances, swirling about in surprise, but apparently this is as meaningless as when my Argentine friends call their girlfriends "gorda" (fatty). Mery merely tosses out a "Hasta luego!" to be accompanied by a smile and another song.
Similarly I lock onto the aforementioned Josefina's for evening fare. In her I find a cook who always manages to find more flavor and good will to mix into her offerings. Atun a la ajillo o a la plancha, arroz de coco, pulpo con salsa de humo, cazuela - these all make their ways onto my plate. And happily so, and often only before being treated to unexpected extras like unbidden deserts or samplings of the dishes she is making for others. With such temptings I'm readily sold, turning fastidiously loyal after only a first time. That her house/restaurant sits right on the beach, as waves lap with only the fewest of people strolling by, doesn't hurt, either.
For my lodgings, however, I resign myself to accept that it'll likely be loud each night until 10pm or midnight. This comes as a direct result of competing stereo systems in the restaurants, not to mention the dominos pounded down onto tables with authority at all hours. The initial charm has worn off, but I'm also able to more or less ignore it as no more than white - make that grey - noise. Then there, too, is the caveat that all of the above is often interrupted for good on the nights where the electricity just cuts out unannounced. Which happens often enough.
All the while of my observations, I'm finding that my balcony often hosts various members of the family which run the hostel as well. Thus I get to listen to kids yelling and playing at all hours, a perhaps not-unusual accompaniment to the pounding of waves or dominoes in the port below. But in this loudest of quiets it helps that at least the boats tossing in the mini-harbor hardly contribute a peep at all. This makes make their presence a more than worthy counterpart to the lack of land vehicles, in my opinion. As for all of the above, they pale to what becomes the most important thing of all - when I got owner Christopher to run the generator a bit more during the night when the power cuts out. My sleep improves quickly minus the sweltering.
At some point, I realize, it's time to get my DAS stamp renewal. According to my passport stamp, I need just one more hitch to make it all the way to March 25th - if they gave me sixty days instead of the usual thirty. I thus finally choose the day to duly stamp out of Colombia, receiving notice from the DAS official that I'll need to stay the night in Panamá at least once. Understood... uh, absolutely! Yes, sir! But... later, while still in town and chatting this over with other, more experienced folks in the matter, I'm repeatedly told that I should just make a day trip of it. I just need to receive both stamps in Panamá before immediately heading back. Making it emphatic is the fact that this is repeated by Christopher, the owner of the boat shuttle company, and the boat driver. Hmm. Granted, they have a small financial stake in this, but I really have no interest in staying in what I'm roundly assured is a nowheresville (in comparison to the metropolis that is Capurganá). Sold.
So I get onto the boat to head to Puerto Obaldia with only this shortest of dalliances in mind, soon blessed with a rather calm affair of nearly an hour's riding. The un-slamming of the waters, I note, is likely mostly so because the driver decides to actually use his noggin. The jamming of boat into troughs to "work them" is a myth, as all of us have known all along. Can this hewing to reason be attested to his gold-encrusted teeth, or is this show of affluence the result of more business on account of spinal columns spared misery? Whatever the case, I'll still be salted pretty well from head to toe like so much mackerel for the effort. Ain't no stopping' the sea.
In Puerto Obaldia I immediately notice a strong military presence, just as foretold. They're absolutely unavoidable, especially with their large encampment abutting the main wharf, but then again this is completely logical: Panamá is the unwitting Ground Zero for dealing with the steady flow of product - cocaine, that is - originating in Colombia. Beyond this militar-esque incongruity, however, the town is both smaller and nicer than I've been led to expect. Rather, it's simply a BORING place instead of a bad one, mostly merely lacking the tourist facilities or "panache" found just across the border in Sapzurro and Capurganá. It still sits on an attractive section of coastline in the world, and those who insist on calling it a shithole should be apologizing, in all fairness.
Still, I don't want to spend the night - which I've already committed myself to by bringing nothing along. I receive both stamps in quick succession, obeying the boat driver's advice on bailing out while the getting back is conveniently easy (with his return trip, which will also get him his money sooner, of course). Unfortunately this means that both stamps for Panamá will be for the same day: The official refuses to give an advanced date for the exit stamp, rather damnably incorruptible on the matter. To help my thinking, he is kind enough to show me some other papers on his desk - those of a Spaniard and a Frenchman doing the same thing - which helps to convince me. I have to admit that his intransigence is actually a GOOD thing in the general scheme of Latin America's goings-on. So back I go to Capurganá with a modicum of confidence that this is the path more taken (enough).
If only it were so simple emotionally, however! Immediately upon getting into the launch to return to Capurganá, the doubts set in. These only get worse, too, when I get to town - so I quickly take to avoiding the two DAS officials (who now know my face). Unfortunately their office is located near my lodgings, plus it's also on the way to most of the rest of town for anything I want to do outside of beaching it and getting a bite at the places near Josefina's. With such misgivings in mind, I speak briefly with the owner of the hostel nearby, a woman who seems to have the best handle on what is the what for the Capurganá area. Should I lie low now that I've cooked my goose?
Yeah, not a bad idea, she agrees. She then gives me the typical backup ruse: If I'm asked the next day about the same-day stamps (assuming I've stayed out sight), all I need to say is that I decided to spend the night at La Miel (which is still in Panamá and would make a return to Puerto Obaldia an unnecessary pain while keeping within the letter of Colombian law). Sold on this plan of attack, I nevertheless immediately find myself making a beeline for my room - where I'll stay until the next morning. There I get to realize ad nauseum that I could've just stayed in the sweet comforts of Puerto Obaldia, such as they were, for all this. The criminal life is rather boring, I find, what with this hiding out and self-quarantining stuff!
Come morning, I wait until about 10 a.m. to show my face at the DAS office, both fully prepared and self-grilled for a confrontation over the Panamanian stamps. Such is what I hear comes to pass at times, even as numerous folks have more recently said that the current DAS officials are younger and nicer. Maybe it's because I remember well the officious nature of the men I dealt with the previous year in Manizales and Popayan. Well - now I'll find out: I enter the DAS office and present my passport. In seconds, it is immediately stuck into a machine which reads information off of it. I barely have time to tap my feet a few times.
Yes, the CIA and KGB are both undoubtedly being put on alert, not to mention the entire armed forces of Colombia. Perhaps a communique is being sent to Gibraltar and Guantanamo, too. Moments later I'm queried: "Cuantos días quieres?" Uh... "Sesenta!," I reply, and... and... and that's it. Done! I'm handed back the passport with a smile and a question about whether I play my trumpet (in hand) about town. Why, why... such... nicety! I almost feel ripped off. But... Yes! Sixty days!
With a new lease on life, flowers bloom once more. Then yellow smiley faces pop up on all walls, windows and doors in my nearest vicinity. Walking out the door, too, I immediately bump into both the Gallegos and even the Frenchman who I somehow seem to cross paths with on a daily basis. We all celebrate the happy news with a beer, ignoring how pedestrian the details have became just after the fact (and ignoring how common it all is, too). The mind is such a funny little animal.
And now, ah, uh - back to the gameplan! Where was I? Yes, on to Attraction #3: El Cielo! For this, I need to walk inland along the long airport runway (by human, not plane standards) on which I blew into town. I pass the tumble-down cemetery with its handwritten epitaphs (almost all consisting only of name and date) and falling tombstones, then hang a right after the runway. Following the only only path I see until it begins to split, I confirm with an idling boy sitting on the side of the path that I'm headed to the right place. He languidly nods his head while making a general sweep with his arm in the direction I'm headed. He probably barely manages to just not roll his eyes, too - which I take for a good sign.
Next I amble past the city dump, unmistakable with its lead-in of trash on the road if missing the proper smell somehow. The refuse must've fallen off of the elusive (motored!) tractor-cart I've been hearing about, perhaps the pride of the town. The dump is followed by walking along an empty river bed/wash, where I soon find myself crossing through a stream up to my shins several times - in water that undoubtedly has its fair share of traces of donkey shit. This I know because, well, I just know.
Shortly after bumping into the running parts of the stream, I begin to encounter the signs advertising El Cielo. Each makes it abundantly clear that it is a nature reserve and, more importantly, that 3000CP will be expected for any upcoming pleasures. The fee will allow the privilege of access to see what Mother Nature has provided for free - and is what a person who happens to have gotten the rights to now expects as renumeration for trespass. With such communist thoughts in mind, I ask the guy manning the entrance: Is he charging or asking for a donation? Is the "owner" really the owner? I can't help but think of the sham encountered on the trail between Capurganá and Sapzurro. Not that it matters: Apparently bored to tears with my query, he assures me the owner is indeed the owner and yes, it is a charge with no donation about it whatsoever. I pay up.
Not wanting to hang out with the small group assembled at the entrance for celebratory, all quaffing numerous post-falls beers, I scramble the last little bit necessary to achieve the waterworks of my desire. Well. Well, they are nice. And certainly they impressively involve about a 10m drop of clean water which flops into a pool that overall seems about as big as the one in Sapzurro I freely (miraculously) accessed so recently. However, an outright marvel it isn't by a long shot, rather it's just a pleasant spot to dip toes if not a bit more. Moreover, with its muddy bottom, it's easily fouled if more than a handful of people are around. Fortunately I'm now the only soul in the water's domain.
A bit non-plussed by what I've discovered, I next follow the trail running parallel to the water. It traces back each of the two branches feeding the falls for about 50 meters or so and, since there's an absence of a great amount of flow, for the most part I just walk right down the middle of the stream. Enjoying the feel of the water about my legs, I muse that I lack a pith helmet, oh explorer intrepid I... and a machete, naturally. I finally settle on settling into each of the three pools I've traversed that are worthy of getting most - or in one case all - of my body inside. Ah, El Cielo - the heaven - indeed!
The waters DO feel clean, refreshing and, with tall trees providing a canopied redoubt, I'm able to bask in the shade with only dappled light at my reach when I want it. Not that I'm completely alone, though: My knees are nibbled by some kind of critter at least once. I hope it is a fish. Otherwise, numerous lizards, ranging from the size of my finger to my forearm, zip by on assorted missions at random intervals. They want no taste of my fair flesh, thankfully, and it is thus in spite of such company that I'm able to take advantage of the falls' solitude. I go so far as practicing some yoga on the tiny beach at the base of the lower falls, something which unquestionably should be photographed and put into some kind of inspirational book that sells travel packages. Yep.
For the way back to town, I need only to retrace my steps. This time around, however, I'm convinced beyond a doubt of the quantity of mule shit that is available for one and all to partake in whilst wading the streams. On this undeniable point, I find that these "eco-reserves" - invariably supported by mule-driven commerce - repeatedly strike me as eschewing real ecology what with their evident degradation. For a sympathetic ear I try telling this to a spider, he about the size of all my fingers together, but he is too busy dismembering another spider in his (or her - what the hell did I know?) web.
So my attention is easily turned toward an increasingly massive and crackling sound. Is that wha-...? Ka-Wham! I repeat, is that...? Yes, a massive tree has just fallen in the forest nearby. I wondered how often this happened, or if it counts since I actually heard it and all. Hmm. I watch the dust rise and settle before moving on. (A local will later tell me that it is hardly unusual for trees to just drop like that in that vicinity.) I decide to take this as sign of another welcome to the jungle. Apparently this trip does have a theme!
Next a quartet of boys add to my growing sense of an ambient of neglect that pervades the area. I pass them by as they take turns trying to smash a glass bottle, throwing it on some rocks in a dry part of the river bed. Surprisingly it takes several tries before the eldest boy snatches it in disgust to bash it down fiercely and get the job done. That prompts me to stop for a moment to watch them all standing there among the shards, barefooted. NOW will they get a clue? I can only shake my head as I continue on my way.
It is thus in a mixture of disgust and satisfaction that I return from El Cielo's retreat to the civilization of town. I contemplate all that I have seen as I order a strawberry juice on the beach, further inspired to follow it with a local ex-Paisa's creation of mashed, deep-fried green plantains topped with beans, guacamole, and salsa. Well, at least someone's trying SOMEthing new here. Then it's back to my musing, wonder if it's a necessary outcome to growing up in a natural paradise to place no value on it? I ponder whether those boys ever got out of their glass-floored jail.
Perhaps with all of this still in mind I make my way back to the coral heads I've taken on as my own. I soon find myself again picking up trash, maybe a form of penance for what I've just seen en route to El Cielo. I'm shortly rewarded with another great view of a massive spider, one that is of similar family to the one I've just seen on my return from El Cielo, and then I really luck out to get the BIG reward for my clean-up: A goodly-sized eel washes in with a wave, immediately curling into the corals I stand perched over and picking away at. Over several more waves he swirls about below me, eventually exiting my view and camera unseen with yet another. He is an impressive, snapping thing, the kind of beast for which many folks pay good money to get boated out to sea a ways and dive for. Lucky me, indeed.
Having taken a stab at each of the Three Attractions of the area (the failure at El Aguacate temporarily notwithstanding) and gotten my stamp, the practical and touristy side of me now feels that I can relax and enjoy being settled in for the remainder of my stay. This will naturally consist of not much more than periodically lazing at the beach with a book in hand (steadily making progress through Robinson Crusoe and The Voyage Of The Beagle - could more apropos books be found at the moment? - probably not), daily making a couple cups of cowboy/Turkish/Arab coffee before noon, then making a nightly pilgrimage to Josefina's. This is a good racket.
In my readings, I feel inspired by Mr. Crusoe and Mr. Darwin both, but it is with respect to the former that I solemnly vow to learn how to make fire by any natural means possible. As God is my witness, I should add. Talk about a weird harkening back to a forgotten boy scout mentality for the first time since I was, like, eleven years old. Then again, this is coming from a reformed pyro dating back to about the same time. Better stick to another plate of fish and a dip in the sea.
Beyond the solemn promise, however, I take some of the castaway's other ideas to heart, things to consider for when I should get around to building a house. In theory, this will happen in the coming summer. No, I haven't any idea where the coconut trees might come from, but the concept of portholes for rifle barrels should surely be a winner. I'll nevertheless probably skip on concepts such as capturing goats or teaching a parrot to speak. What I really marvel about in Crusoe are that these morsels of wisdom are found in a book written not much after 1700 (by a man born around 1650). Like Don Quixote (considered the first novel), here is a shockingly early book - and supposedly the first novel in English - that reads quite easily. Talk about an impressive start to a new art form!
In such a mode of contemplation, now might be a god time to question just who makes the trip out Capurganá way beyond yours truly. This is, after all, a destination that is inconveniently a bit more than the usual chore to get in to or out of. Even for the intrepid backpacker brigade, Capurganá is likely accorded a spot lower or higher on the average totem pole of attractiveness for that alone, particularly if one is coming to or from Panamá. Such a route likely means some bad days at sea mixed with the relatively virgin, postcard islands found in the San Blas group. But regular schedules also fly right out the window, with travel skirting along the known edges of illegal narco-trafficking routes while potentially suffering the whims of surly captains in their various cargo boats.
A common group, all seemingly in Capurganá for the longer haul, are the omnipresent number of hippies and artisans in the beach and port area. They form an impressive collection of dreadlocks, always with substantial tattooings, to look vastly out-of-place with the local crowd of generally black Caribbeans. They regardless seem to get along well enough with the locals. The rest of the non-Colombian visitors are more cleancut-looking mochileros such as myself, although we're far more likely to be the backpackers who've traveled more extensively on a year-in, year-out basis. This is our kind of town, away from the backpackers seeking one party after another. We don't exactly fit in, either, of course, most of us being of Euro origin, but we're here in some number lounging about.
On the OTHER side of things are the groups of Colombians on holiday. These mostly are Paisas flying in from Medellín, but almost as likely they'll be similarly wealthy counterparts coming in from Bogotá. These are the women seen under sizable sunhats alongside men sporting gold rings, designer sunglasses on both. They form 99% of the clientele at the wealthier beach hotels that exist a mere 10-200 meters from the places I or others rent for $8/night. They make for an odd contrast with us backpackers, unquestionably, but they are also the ones who make themselves valuable to the locals: They're the ones doing the vast majority of prescribed outings with guides on boats, both diving and sunbathe conspicuously.
Somewhere in this mix I have to place the ubiquitous, seemingly lost Frenchman I've obliquely come to know. It seems that we keep making the same acquaintances (the Spaniards, mainly), but I can't help but feel avoided for some time because I'm American - and so be it, I conclude. He's unavoidable, in any event. Like me, he can be found walking everywhere about town for the entire two weeks I'm in the area. He slowly ambles about slightly pigeon-toed, wearing the same t-shirt and the same look of looking for something which he'll never find.
But it is perhaps the passage of time alone that allows him to get past his initial disdain of me. Eventually he's returning more than our accustomed mumbled "Hola"; We get to talking about what we like so much about the area. It is only in these eventual conversations that I find that he is perpetually looking for the next place to spend some time in, like me. Unlike me, he wants to buy property and disappear - although he'll remain under such the same indecisive cloud up to and including the day when I finally move on from Capurgan´. [He's probably still there, too, phoning lot owners over price in corrupted Spanish that has a more-than-Gallic lilt to it.]
One place I often see the Frenchman moving through is the main beach, Playa Blanca. But by my last week I've become more preoccupied with the latest log to invade the beach from points unknown (but evidently from up north, based on the current). The number of these death logs increases over several days of rough seas, even nearly creating a calamity when one washes ashore rapidly. A child is fortunately snatched up only at the last moment before being wiped out by it. That unquestionably would have been a death blow.
I'm less lucky on another occasion, trying to push one of these beasts with my feet further out to sea and thus down the coastline for safety. An unexpectedly large wave comes in to teach me a lesson I won't soon forget: The log lurches all of a mere foot to take me out at the shins and plow me face-first into the surf. Ow! I immediately jump up nonchalantly - of COURSE I planned to do that! - then sheepishly look around, relieved that no one has seen my stupidity. My shin will remain bruised for at least a week after this minor fiasco as my gallego (Galician) friends and I maintain close vigilance on both that log and its friends afterward. We'll be particularly wary whenever the little kids go out to play in the surf, always moving them upstream of such detritus as they migrate along the shore as kid herds must when in season.
Somehow knowing that I'm getting near the end of my stay in Capurganá town - I have no specific departure date planned, but... - I now daily debate whether to go next on to Tolu, Cartagena, or Medellín. The growing tales of horror on the daily boat coming in from Turbo, meanwhile, sufficiently clouds such thinking as well, knowing that I'll need to use it to get to all three towns - unless I pony up the case and fly directly back to Medellín. Repeatedly hearing such negative reports about the boat even BEFORE the rough seas set in already had me thinking, true, but with the windier weather I've now been actually witnessing the wounded, limping people coming in. These include a few older-but-not-geriatic folks, including a lady with a black eye. Good grief!
Slightly unnerved by these happenings, and then hearing tell of a boat that actually flipped over in Acandi's port, I ultimately decide that I'll either fly out or wait for much calmer weather before taking the boat. I knew that going TO Turbo is at least downstream: it SHOULD be the better of the directions to be stuck with the joyride. For a monkey wrench in the works, meanwhile, I can also just think about the recent murders of two college students outside of Monteria. Taking place in an out-of-the-way area near Tolu, this crime has been dominating the local news. I'm aware that such a crime is awfully random, but it definitely gives more room to debate using a direct return to Cartagena, skipping pleasure stops along beaches, or just making a beeline back to Medellín.
Such are my increased thoughts when a couple drops into my cheap hotel on the waterfront. Spying my Crusoe novel as I'm sitting down for my ritual back-to-back coffees, one almost immediately engages me in talking about old and impressive literature such as Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote. Both of us marvel on their philosophical nature, and this for how long ago. When this, however, soon leads to a succession of name-droppings of obscure figures in philosophy, plus various theories of a similar arcane nature, I eventually plead mercy: Crap! I've stumbled into a discussion with a guy who's just wrapped up his PhD in philosophy!
This is significant only in that it's the very discipline I've eschewed as being most intent on uprooting all (philosophical, naturally) bents in life as being ridden with paradoxes and impossibilities. For a long time I've wondered, however, if such a quest for running logic - and philosophies - to their bitter end is of much value. Absolutisms have their place in science, but I don't hold much water for taking life philosophies to such extents that effectively rendered them asunder. Absolutes in this world of ours only seemed to invite troubles whereas rules-of-thumb handily avoids them. For example, to be completely unselfish is to walk in a sack-cloth; to be completely democratic might well mean getting nothing done, like ever. Anyway, he prattles away I not so fondly reminisce about my instructor from way back in Philosophy 101, plus a few fellow students majoring in the same. All too often they proved themselves to be merely a cynical, smug lot that I learned to steer clear of for my own peace-of-stomach. Precocious intelligence can be so wearying - so I soon find myself struggling to down my latest batch of cowboy coffee while simultaneously trying to redirect our efforts.
It turns out that his boyfriend is more interesting, a guy working as an international peace observer back up in Choco province's capital of Quibdo. Possessing much more intriguing information for conversation fodder, he informs me of the latest goings-on in Colombia's world of illegal land appropriations. These are currently often done for mining, although also for creating palm oil plantations to supply fuel and cooking oil. Either way, para-militaries or revolutionaries both use a system of offering a price for a campesino's land while informing him that if he doesn't take it... his heirs surely will be left it in very short order. THEY'LL surely take the offer.
It is for these types of nefarious doings that Colombia still has the world's #2 (to Sudan) refugee problem, a number that is still growing in 2011. Ad-hoc paramilitary groups like the infamous Urabeños over in Turbo aren't providing an appealing solution to such violence, either, not when they slyly execute anyone they consider undesirable or likely to not be particularly noticed when gone. Such realities strongly contrast with the vast uptick in Colombian tourism, which almost entirely is coming on the heels of lowered death and kidnapping tolls (of tourists and "normal" citizens). The resurgence of any kind of tourism, meanwhile, ALSO handily serves to mask the business of resource exploitation and narco-trafficking that has not slowed down one iota. In fact, some level of surface mining and establishing narco-routes is actually on the upswing. Statistics covering things such as, for example, the reduction in coca farmers can be misleading, too: In some regions, this comes only from switching temporarily to gold mining while the price of the shiny metal is so high. They'll be back at coca or whatever else proves most lucrative as circumstances change - logical.
What NONE of this explains is why showers on the Caribbean Coast invariably spew from a pipe lacking a showerhead (also unexplainable: how my mind switches gears to the more practical). Or, similarly, why does the water supply suddenly cut out or reduce itself to a mere, dribbling thing? As my beautiful friend Dana once told me, down Chile way when complaining of a similar situation: "I can piss harder than that!" I didn't doubt her claim then, nor would I question my own abilities - each time when I find myself hoping for some - any! - water at the tap in the bathroom. Then again, and as well with other things here, I realize that it takes a pump to get water up to a tank... which requires electricity AND a big enough tank to both be built. After some time now chatting up the locals here, I'm beyond well aware of how money has a hard time making it past the numerous siphons between Bogotá and this outpost on the end of Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Such logistical details, nevertheless, don't fully explain a trio of boys removing sand from one of the main beaches. They're digging up piles of the stuff to cart away via - naturally - mules. "Para que remueves la arena?" I rhetorically ask. "Para hacer cemento?" they rather matter-of-factly reply. Of course I've already gathered that making cement is a more logical end to their enterprise than making another beach elsewhere, but confirmation has its value. They then nod briefly to both barely acknowledge and dismiss my presence as they continue with the task at hand. Well, I think to myself, if Capurganá is gonna keep growing and needing cement to service its service economy based on beaches, THIS isn't going to be the way to do it. There's just not that much beach around to supply the need. But in places like this, I've long learned, the future hasn't much meaning. One need only ask the fish who are subsisting on a steady diet of plastic.
None of this is going to slow me from my return to El Aguacate. I'm determined to redeem my stupidity in giving it another shot. So I again pass the military encampment on the beach, comprised of about a dozen camouflage hammocks in all, wondering anew why they don't use their loads of idle time to trashpick. They certainly have the time to do it, when not otherwise on their daily patrols along the coastline, all decked out in gear and weaponry for a massive assault that doesn't look like it is on the way soon. I say hey to them again, regardless, masking my dismay to instead make a little chitchat about how awful the garbage is. Then I move on, most likely to their amused relief.
I soon pass again through the lawn of an immaculate estate, although only after walking headfirst into a massive spider web. I freak, of course, especially when I see the fist-sized spider to my left scrambling only about a foot away in my (suddenly vastly enhanced!) peripheral vision. I'll never know if he's coming for me or bailing himself out at full speed - I'm too busy swinging my arms in a sudden panic of "Get me outta this thing!" The goopy webbing I mostly remove some minutes later, next continuing on to the next fake eco reserve (this time I correctly take the short dirt road a little away from the coast). The little "reserve" is alive this go-round, hosting a dozen Colombians churning through cases of beer with music - as always - cranked to an ear-splitting level. The eco-workers, meanwhile, are busy refilling their drinks as one wave after another pushes around the large piles of plastic junk swirling just meters away below, sloshing over coral heads long dead. All I can do is smile at the outing's participants, all the while reminding myself to collect another bag of trash later when I return to town. The fruits of a Catholic upbringing's guilt have value after all.
Finally I make it to El Aguacate, this time properly taking the rock path worthy of an Incan's envy - even if it only lasts 100m or so. Yes, it does turn out indeed that El Aguacate is properly situated on a calm little bay as advertised by the Spaniards. Moreover, this is especially notable in light of the rough seas over the last number of days. This allows for some still rather impressive crashing of water against rocks to make the coral heads disappear, I note, taking a seat on a concrete berm (a rare display of properly poured cement) to watch. I soon find myself staring out to sea for a very long time of daylight reverie.
With such a view I idle away blissfully, thinking of such odd things as the massive log I have just seen spear-lodged into the surf just around the bend. It bears testimony to the impressive force it must've taken to get that work accomplished. Talk about the power of the sea! From my tranquil vantage point, too, I naturally muse on what lies before me as well. Supposedly El Aguacate is good for snorkeling on normal days, but there is no way it could be good on this one, guaranteed poor visibility with the water still turned up from the winds.
Looking around ONshore, meanwhile, only reveals a few sun-bathing women some tens of meters to each side of me. They're similarly enjoying the spot, yet while being catered to by some local boys for a coconut or Coca-Cola. A handful of houses and cabañas exist nearby to otherwise serve them, another surprise to me as once again I've been expecting only a natural cove or park. I settle for this spell sans refreshment beyond my water bottle, however, content to watch a couple of boats bob as I cue up the next music on my trusty iPod.
Eventually I get off of my rear to continue southward down the coast. After twenty minutes of that, though, I realize that it'll just go on forever - or at least to Playa Soledad some two more hours down the way. Almost no one seems to be about, either, outside of a guy on a horse who trots by with a wave - and a hippie trudging with his head down whilst carting a bundle of sticks - he gives me a curious look when we cross paths. I nevertheless continue onward and undeterred with my rigorous program of taking in various perspectives of crashing seas on rocks. Most notable of these are where a few blowholes make a good effort of erupting into steamy sprays. Now if someone would only pick up some of the plastic that is probably blowing out with the water with the spray...
Heading back only brings more of the same theme of thrashing sea and surf under a benign sun. I'll only be interrupted from my wistful, strolling solitude once, taken a little aback as a man approaches me silently from behind as I take in yet another view. Spotting me up close, he quickly brandishes his machete to raise it for a moment into the air... before sheathing it again. He then uses his free hand to pull out his cell phone and check his reception. He smiles at me in resignation - nope, no signal.
Back in town I (only maybe coincidentally) muse about crime in the area, mostly happy to note that there really is none. Even for that, though, I still generally refuse to take my iPod or camera on most initial forays in directions heading out of town when alone. Perhaps this is because a local I met early on told me that, if it a robbery DID happen, it would be easy to disappear into the hills. So much for the theory of low crime because everyone knew everyone. Moreover, said hills are the same place where any remaining FARC elements are as well, despite the area's bad times of 1998-2003 seeming ever further away with each passing day. Their history of executions, reprisals and all of the nastiness involved in insurgent war still begs caution to not go wandering too far afield. There is always that nagging suspicion that it all might come back.
More pertinent to MY time in Capurganá is my determining that there is little or no music scene to be had. Thus any musical efforts will mostly consist of sitting in my room with a fan on, working on technical skills or song memorization in lieu of collaborative performance. This resignation comes about in spite of my first night in town, when things started so promisingly. I played muted trumpet on the balcony that fine evening, with a few locals below on the street asking me to uncork the thing and give it some air. I did so, soon meeting a guy who promised to come around with his guitar...
...which he did that very night, but only about an hour after I had irretrievably passed out. Sometimes I make the leap to Colombian time, sometimes not. Later I heard, too, that he stood beneath my window on the street for a good while, singing drink-inspired songs to try and get me to come out and play. That serenade was unfortunately completely missed out on as I dreamt away, then rather wiped out from a first day back in the tropics since Leticia.
Later, from my discussion/argument with Tomas over by El Aguacate, I also learned that there was something of a sextet over in Sapzurro. But I likewise missed out on them somehow as well. Were they in town then? Did I sleep through them as well? No idea, but how they missed hearing about ME indirectly or directly in that puny town is beyond me - I played quite unmuted and with full blare then. Uninterested, unaware, scared? I'll never know.
So, instead of giving concerts, I spend ever more time hanging out with the same Galician family on the beach. I get to see their ten-month-old make her first free-stand on the sands, shocked by her own ability. Then I get to witness her three-year-old sister club her on the head shortly thereafter with her plastic sand shovel, revenge for stealing her thunder. No one but no one, it appears, is going to take all the attention that she has assured herself belongs to her and her alone. But then again, to her credit, it must be said that she has to be about the most articulate three-year-old I've seen in some time. Typically children using a foreign tongue utter relatively unintelligible speech for me, a common problem, but Abril is absolutely understandable and clear in her intent. This is ALWAYS as follows: I'm to obey her, chase her around the beach when she so desires, then get out of her hair when she's had enough. A formidable woman in the making, undoubtedly.
On my last days in town I have my one and only success in religious conversion. That is, I find someone - someONES, rather - to help out a bit with the trashpickin'. For a couple weeks I've been asked any number of times what I'm doing by tourist and local alike, or merely given the curious eye, when I head out to the beaches with a large bag. I stuff refuse trapped on coral, stooping to grab pieces of plastic from the ground with my hands while walking along the beach toward the next trash barrel. Isn't it kinda obvious, I think? But it isn't until a young American couple asks me the same that I finally hear "Right on! We'll join you!" Soon we're on the way out to the corals together, us three commiserating about some large trees obviously being cut down to increase the view of a wealthy estate situated above the beach. We all nevertheless feel good to be doing something, however small, in the face of THAT.
Somehow I just knew it would be some Americans that'd be the ones to chip in, too, a fitting counterpoint to all-too-common European cynicism that says I'm just wasting my time. Locals have been expressing hopelessness that such things are beyond human control, too. But no, it isn't, and the same nation that can create a can-do jackass like George Bush ALSO can generate more than its share of folks who want to DO SOMETHING POSITIVE and will. It's just a weird and unfortunate reality that the C.I.A./military-industrial complex and entities such as the PeaceCorps seem to bafflingly exchange alternate strangleholds and deathgrips on the frightened American soul. Obviously I'm convinced that the latter has it right, building instead of destroying. So here I find the bright side of that interesting and very American coin, and it's all hip-hup-hooray for the "Marin-ites" of the greater Bay Area of San Francisco!
By coincidence I also realize that this is the same couple that got out early, at El Aguacate, when coming in on the boat from Turbo. Shaken up, and with Erica in tears, both decided to walk the hour remaining on land to Capurganá under full pack. When I inform them about the boat flip at Acandi, they immediately further determine to not return to Turbo but head on to Panama and the San Blas islands instead. I soon find myself cashing out their Colombian pesos for the dollarized economy ahead as a result, they in turn informing me of the inner workings of California's weed economy. I learn, for example, that the going work rate is $300/day under the table for marijuana trimmers (often paid as two ounces for every sixteen ounces (a pound) trimmed). Well, I've been curious to know - now I do.
My new friends also next join me on a return trip to La Coquerita. This time I finally meet the man responsible for it, Bernando. A humble, interesting man, we drink his lemon-fied agua de panela while checking out his property anew (in my case). It turns out that La Coquerita is legally his after all, no squatter he, and he has been working on this artistic enterprise for some twenty years. Wow - that's some commitment to a cool cause! He has thus unquestionably seen the bad times and persevered, carving his works while cleaning up the seas below him - and figuring out what can be done with what he sees as the "good" and the "bad" trash.
In HIS case of reserve-hood, I'm happy to pay him for letting us hang out on his land, the first of the area's reserve to earn the appellation, I think. Then, perhaps as further evidence of the good karma going around on this day, the three of us get to marvel at a stunningly bright poison arrow dart frog that crosses our path on the way back. My camera's battery, unfortunately, chooses this as the most inopportune moment to expire. So perhaps my karma is one unmatched sandal short of a full trash bag after all. Nah! Beautiful frog!
By coincidence, it'll be another carver - of stone, impressively, and of intricate and interesting designs - who'll be the last of the interesting characters I meet in town. Unlike Bernando, however, S - who is originally from Boston or Switzerland, hard to tell as the places seem to vary at times with the story - is a practicing conspiracy theorist. Uh oh. This should and does imply that I don't have to seek his company out - he zeroes in on me instead. Sigh: I've been leisurely basking in the glow of my latest batch of Arab coffee, but suddenly here stands a man looming above my table for an uncomfortably long time, a smile beatifically adorning his face. What to do? What else? Eventually I smile as well, nodding my head as I try to return to my book. No such luck: My new best friend takes this as a go-ahead to grab a chair and start a discussion.
Fortunately the upcoming barrage makes for reasonably interesting fare, up my alley in ranging over U.S. policies and histories in Latin America and around the world. These include the usual ugly share of (true) tales that should make every American resolve to control their government a bit more closely. So far, so good. But when he begins to try and regale me with "inside" stories of his time in Iran, Pakistan, and wherever else, I can see that I'm going to be in for a bit more. As is usually the case with the stronger conspiracy theorists, he avers that he has loads of information gathered ahead of time by his truly. No documentation, of course, but he asserts that he could've predicted 9/11 and so on. Yep. I spend the next tens of minutes struggling mightily to regain a rudder to this conversation, our good ship of talk listing helplessly to starboard. Or better, port.
Eventually I venture onto something different to break the spell: Uh, what about, uh, the San Blas Islands? A-ha! I've lucked onto the correct change of topic, apparently, immediately receiving offer after offer of information on the very place he has been going to for twenty years. He is on his way there now, coincidentally, trying to find a local to move him surreptitiously - and cheaply - up the coast. But it's when he consistently begins promoting the local Kuna as "his people", however, that I once again find myself trying to extract the nuggets of value in the information he's giving. Is there no (polite) way out?
Nope. In the end, I just give up to uninterrupted nodding along, certain at the least that some of what he says has true emotion behind it - he nearly cries numerous times - if not all the gory details of reality. I'll just have to take him at his word when he says that he's returning to the islands to escape the electro-magnetic waves of the "civilized" world. He feels that, given time, he'll be able to prove that that's what's responsible for his monthly seizures. I have no idea what to think about all this latest turn of gab, but I do feel certain that he'd be happy once he is there... and maybe it's time for me to leave this place: he's likely to be looking for his captain for a while. The winds seem to be easing up significantly, I've also noticed, so I finally roll the dice and book that ticket for the boat to Turbo. Fingers are crossed and triple-crossed (best to skip the double).
Thus it is that I'm up early at 6 a.m. the very next morning, looking out my window. Yes, the waves look extremely calm, the best I've seen in two weeks. Whew. Then, around 7:15 a.m., I walk the fifty meters necessary to reach the muelle with its one boat in port. Here I'll wait with the growing mayhem of masses for our 7:30 a.m. departure, even though we'll not actually leave until nearly 8 a.m. This departure time is typical, however, based on what I've been observing out my window on a daily basis. NO worries!, I assure myself.
At the dock my baggage is eventually weighed in; I'm just one among the many, amidst the clamor of getting the necessary deed done, squirting myself out of the way, and then being shoved on board. The idea is to get the backpack - now encased in a massive garbage bag - on board and below the line of the boat. Whether the weighing-in could have been skipped, however, begs a question to which I'll not get a satisfactory answer. It seems the most unholy and disorganized clusterfart of the entire operation. Plus, the scale is probably off as somehow my baggage weighs more than it did in the airport in Medellín, something true even when taking into account that I've stuffed my trumpet inside (I want my hands free as shock absorbers). I regardless pay my 4000CP for the weight, grumbling only on the inside and not interested in wasting energy on $2 of surcharges - not when such worry could instead be placed on wondering if - crucially - I'll be sitting near the rear or the front of the thing.
In theory, I should have the third pick of seat, being third on the manifest and all. Indeed, I'm the third name called. BUT somehow about a dozen people are to be included in the first two names, all locals who obviously know the rigging of the system. Drats! So, in spite of my best efforts, I find myself on the third bench back from the engines. This is not necessarily good or bad in the grand scheme of things, I'll have to console myself. Before sitting, I maneuver gingerly to place my folded yoga mat on the rock-hard bench to assume my presumed (first) position. Naturally, a fat lady sits next to me, furthering her spacial cause with innumerable pieces of hand luggage, but I've buried my pocket knife too deeply within my luggage to offer a proper defense of my stake of elbow room.
For the next two hours my primary tasking is to maintain this little bit of breathing room. My neighbor's overflowing bulk has a way of wanting to push me into the hollowed curvature of the boat, but my desire to preserve my spinal column won't be denied, either. Survival skills are always immeasurable. Nevertheless, that's only the physical battle, the war of the trenches. Turns out that there'll be an aural one, too, one not helped by her being the only person to yell "Ay!..." in my ear with each blow of the boat into a wave trench (such as they are - we're actually being treated to marvelously good seas for the occasion). I resign myself to only being satisfied that there isn't any follow-up of "...Caramba!" - as surely must have been the case in the hell-boats of the previous days.
Thus plying the waters, this boat and its precious cargo - propelled by three powerful motors - will let nothing get in its way. Surprisingly, we stay in sight of land the entire time, mostly from the right and relatively near at hand. This is comforting. It's only far into the passage when we begin to make out the hills across the way on the left, right about when the coastline to the right begins to flatten: it's time to cross over. Around this time, the water's gone from green translucent to a somewhat more opaque light brown, the obvious effect of the river dumping into the bay from the south. Fortunately the churn still looks clean enough and doesn't smell. It's just clean(-ish) silt.
This lack of olfactory sensation will end when we slide into Turbo a little after 10 a.m., however. Wow - what a mess! Rubbish and other general detritus litter the calm port area as boats of every make - from trashed to barely serviceable - sour its waters, too. The water quickly became a grayish-black muck, completely opaque and, frankly, kinda stinky. Welcome to Turbo! It shouldn't be any wonder, then, that all of us passengers flee the dock area as quickly as possible. Off come the garbage bag coverings as millions of impromptu "helpers" descend on us, each trying to determine what business they can make off of us.
In my case that'll be none. With my bus ticket already in hand (from Capurganá), I make a beeline with a German girl in like situation to a nearby bus office. We next alternate watching each other's stuff to get a bit to eat before both of our buses departed shortly before 11 a.m. She's off to Cartagena; I'm returning to Medellín. For my part, I'm more than satisfied with the choice of a direct return. I'll be skipping the wiped-out bridge crossing to get to Tolu or Cartagena from the recent floods, instead opting for the roughly nine hours necessary in moving from the coasts back into the mountains.
Thankfully this goes very well. I watch as Turbo happily and speedily disappears; We shortly motor through endless banana plantations. These eventually change to large-scale cattle ranches, then those go the way of the dodo as for the majority of the remaining time we'll climb up snakelike roads to gain the altitude necessary for the promised "endless Spring" of Medellín. On the down side - a minor thing, really - the road is in pretty bad shape for the most part, wrecked and reduced to mud where not partially blocked by rockslides (gracias a La Niña, supuestamente). These messes get worse the higher up we go, too, only improving significantly when we get to the last, well-traveled section between Santa Fe de Antioquia and Medellín. Still, with no awful movies forced upon us hapless passengers, and only salsa at a reasonable level throughout, how can I complain?
We even only make one stop to eat, and this oddly only near the end. In this brief pause, I immediately turn to some yoga for a spell of relief. Even with our relatively easy ride to Turbo, my back took a hit courtesy of that boat. Especially with the travails of the previous year's San Agustin mess in mind - where I was laid up for three weeks with a slipped disk thanks to some horrific jeep travel - I know that the uttanasana position is my best line of defense. I bend over, and then I do so again.
When we get back to Medellín, I make it a point to thank the driver for driving - for the vast part of the nine hours - very sanely. I don't want to be so effusive as to be seen at the point of mocking, but I feel it necessary to mention how well he compares to the other, typically horrible drivers. The driver laughs. Yes, he agrees - there is no shortage of maniacs on the road. And with that I"m truly thankful to be back in Medellín. I only rue that it's too late for a coffee... or is it?!?
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