Colombia Redux: North Pacific Choco
Wham! Wham wham! Aw, crap - here I went again! Another boat ride of slamming into troughs, attacking waves instead of working with them. Was I hallucinating, back on the Capurganá-Turbo run? My poor back steeled itself for punishment. Again I was suffering a punishing bit of tomfoolery that was entirely avoidable, the consequence of the engine unnecessarily being run at full out. The fun started immediately after we had reported to the river authorities in Nuqui, a ramping up to full throttle before we had even finished rounding back out to the open sea, this time heading north. All of the prescribed 200 horses in the engine were coaxed at full whip to charge as hard as they could go. And go they could, the boat lifting high in the water as nightmarish visions of that awful Capurganá-Turbo shuttle whirled in my head again.
My spine, meanwhile, began to absorb these hellish pops on what SHOULD have been a promising, flat sea. To my chagrin, too, I rather doubted that any services of a vertebral surgeon were available anywhere on this coast between, say, Panama City, Panamá and Guayaquil, Ecuador. (As to whether such an occupation existed in the first place, I didn't care.) So it was just one "Crud, here we go again!" after another, especially after a particularly vertebrae-shattering slam occurred. Not I could even think that clearly for too long: My brains rattled about in my skull just as jarringly with each collision, leaving no breathing room for even sigh of disgust.
Realizing that I wasn't always going to be wise enough to stand up in a timely fashion (and thus use my knees as shock absorbers), I grabbed another lifevest with which to cushion my rear. I barely managed to stuff the thing underneath myself between the sudden drops, each time hoping that it'd remain in place for a little while. It wouldn't, of course, as a few chance lunges caught me off-guard, practically forcing my forehead into the boat's decking but for a timely grab of whatever was nearest and fixed in place. I nevertheless learned how to deftly reinstall the lifesaver in place at lightspeed.
After an hour of such intermittent jostling, and under an otherwise sunny day with a perfect breeze, we pulled up to El Valle. Whew! NO MORE BOATS!, I vowed, not yet ashore. Fortunately I knew such a vow would be easily kept: I was already aware that a road tracked the way from El Valle to where I'd eventually catch my flight, in Bahia Solano. (That would be a tooth-loosening thing of another sort, but that's getting ahead of things.) We only now had the tide to briefly deal with, one that had pulled out a good deal to make our landing dicey. By now I wasn't above swimming to get the job done, however.
The driver and his assistant finally took some caution on this approach, if only on account of the numerous and potentially boat-wrecking rocks jutting from the sands. Each could make quick work of the boat's hull, thus effecting the sudden engine revs for manoeuvres about the beasts. Still, I wondered, didn't Son-of-Sapi do this run all of the time? Shouldn't he know the dealio, like Marcos did to be able to land near Salomon's? In any event it turned out he wouldn't have to: A fishing boat cut in from the open sea to move in front of us, carving a path to the shore without hesitation. We joyfully followed. NOW El Valle was officially at hand, and I stepped off the boat to admire the quickly mounting haul of tuna and snapper that the fisherman was already unloading and setting to gut.
Maybe that was a rude introduction to the town, maybe not. I didn't ponder it much as I paid the 50000CP necessary to escape the boat's claim on me. I was immediately ready to walk (!) over the nice, STABLE sands revealed by the tide. With my backpack in place and trumpet case in hand, I trudged my way to the main street of town, loping over to the nearby Hotel Valle. A few surprised looks from the locals confirmed that yet another random gringo had descended from nowhere - and that just before I passed by two bare-chested rasta gringos in full tatuaje walking in the other direction. Those would be the last gringos I'd encounter in five days in El Valle, themselves never to be seen again after this brief and quiet exchange of stares.
Whatever - I shortly found myself dropping my gear into fully-walled room, reveling in the concept of having full-time electricity once more ("Permanente!", as the proud grandma of the hotel boasted). What, no more timing a briefly-available, only nocturnal charge of my iPod, speaker, and camera? What insanity! Then again, I had just lost my mosquito net to these four proper walls and a ceiling that had holes porous enough to let in many a mosquito. I'd soon be stuffing them with toilet paper for blocking, sure, but that'd have to wait until attack-time, in the evening.
More to the moment, I settled into a hammock, enjoying from above the stunning view of the area where we had just made our sketchy landing. Most importantly: I wasn't on a boat! I wasn't on a boat! Yes! ALSO: I still had a spinal column, more or less intact! Double yes! Such affirmations allowed me to next take in the tidal island that beckoned in the near distance as well, broken off by a river in between us that I'd soon be spendy plenty of time watching engorge and disgorge itself with the tides and rains. For all that wet activity, though, I couldn't help but notice that the sun was still doing good business in this supposedly most rainy spot on the planet and... zzz. Hammock!
Such was initial state of things, even as the large lizard that called the place home popped its head up to check on me from time to time. Only when I happened to obviously notice him would he skitter over the roof, practically gliding airborne with a barely-realized pitter-patter that'd wake me with all the pleasantry of a heart attack coupled with a stroke in its suddenness. I took my admiration of his presence as further evidence that this boat recovery was underway rather successfully. I pondered, I... dreamed. Zzz. Never enough hammock time!
When I woke up, I set right to work on yet another Cuban tune for transcription. I was eager to settle into that routine once more, even if it wasn't long before the hammock called yet again. Hmm - I really WAS good at this, a bonafide, practiced hammock per-fesh-ional! The second round of snoozing even come with a topping: The establishment's abuela came with her grandson for a sit and feed, soon breaking into song after sitting. She eventually added some pretty whistling to accompany her sweet voice, feeding lullaby after lullaby to the child beginning to doze off. Not that I wasn't far behind myself - I turned off my iPod to take it all in, relishing my new digs all the more.
A first stickybeak of town wouldn't wait long, naturally. For one thing, I couldn't sleep forever (much as I'd like to try), and my back had made it through this latest boat shuttle better than when I ended up in Turbo. So my thoughts properly turned to exploring El Valle, a town described as a one-road town with a couple of beaches of notable splendor in my guidebook. How unfair!, I thought, and that just moments after exiting my hotel. For one thing, there were certainly TWO roads of note. There was the one that fronted the ocean, more or less, and there was the one that emerged from that one's deadend over at the sea's tidal flats. This latter one headed on to Bahia Solano. Surely the other dirt streets (there was no pavement anywhere) counted for something, too. Okay, maybe not. What constituted a road, exactly, anyway?
The coast road, on which El Valle properly sat, was all I'd really need in any event. Toward one end, northward (or westward?), it stretched up and over a bend to reach the upscale beach called El Almejal. This was the beach that was notably spoiled with the "best seaside bar in the world" and a handful of resort-like properties that preceded the famous booze-atorium. In the other direction, the roadway quickly bumped into the river at what was effective the town's urban edge, but no worries: One could cross over a lengthy bridge to gain the other side. From there one could then continue for a few hours on foot to reach the famous Ensenada de Utria, the great national park of the area. It was famous for being the calving ground of humpback whales when they were in, well, humping season to be specific. The path's remote jungle-crossing still sounded appealing out of season - if I didn't mind possibly running from guerrillas and such.
At the very least I could perhaps cross only the bridge for the time being, which I did while avoiding the copious holes in it. Each offered to widen itself amply with the slightest misstep to handily drop me into the river below. Some kids, meanwhile, played soccer on a temporary tidal island formed in the same river, making a small field just upstream from the bridge. Crossing the thing, then, was like having my own live video video feed to the match. Stick goalposts were set only to one side, however, a few meters into the river. Play continued into the waters as necessary, something which I repeated witnessed over only a short period of time. This literally including dives for the ball on the part of the goalie. Wow, I thought. Talk about old-school! This was taking it to another level entirely!
On the other side things got back to normal, however, where a girl hit me up for money with an open hand. I assumed her cause to be her mere existence. She was only waiting at the bridge's end for my arrival, it appeared. Ah, the old gringo tax. Right. To this I smiled benignly and walked on to another nearby bridge, a much smaller and rickety thing that'd take me toward the ocean. At THAT turn of events her sister/friend took over, deciding to accompany this lost gringo regardless of my smell or lack of donating instinct. She'd fortunately prove far more pleasant and undemanding, chattering away as she rolled her hula-hoop formed from a bicycle tire rim alongside. She walked with me over to the school, unbiddenly naming a few fruit that we passed by before standing silently by when what I took to be a teacher from the school came over.
It turned out that she was the local (school) librarian, curious as to why a gringo would wander this way. Uh - for the beaches? Yes, the beach ahead was fine, she agreed, but that was about the extent of any appeal in this direction, she assured me. Okay, yes, there'd be coconuts there I could ask for as well. Well, then: This was good and all that, I thought, sure, but what I was REALLY curious about was taking the continuing path on to the Ensenada. Was that safe? No? Maybe so?
To this I received a long smile, only before her eyes looked away to the heavens for effect. She paused a good while longer, then said that perhaps it wasn't... aconsejable. I read "unadvisable" to mean "stupid", of course, mindful of the dozen or so folks kidnapped down that way only a few years prior. The Ensenada was the likely place to have guerrilla trouble, as Salomon had mentioned - precisely because that was where the tourists with money wanted to go. (Technically so did those without money, but that'd be splitting hairs.) I thanked her for chatting with me before effectively banishing the thought of a walk on that road less traveled.
I doubled back, then, to the road NECESSARILY traveled. On to the "best seaside bar in the world"! With anticipation of the upcoming stunning view in mind, I made my over to El Almejal. This took me by the other houses in town on stilts that hadn't seen the likes of me before - yet - before I crossed over the tiny hill separating the resort area from town. Just before I nearly regained the coast, though, I picked up some company in the form of a boy hawking bread - who wouldn't take no for an answer. Sigh. Seriously - I wasn't hungry, and his whitest of white breads had no appeal even if I was. I also knew better than to just start throwing spare change around to make him and his insistence disappear, wary of what kind of popularity among the local kids THAT would bring.
Doggedly following me, and utterly ignoring my lack of interest in his bread, we soon came upon a watery divide in the road. Now HERE was an encounter rather more interesting to talk about. Over the next 10-15 minutes we sleuthed about, discussing any and all means to cross this moat without actually having to wade through the opaque water (and whatever might lie within it). Large stones were tried a number of times for piling up, then branches, before I finally spotted a log teeming with ants. "Eso es!" I exclaimed, if inspecting the ants a bit doubtfully. The boy assured me that they were the ones "que no pican", proudly telling me that he knew all about the animals and insects in the area.
Right. Actually, they DID bite, which I found when their pincers (or whatever they had going) mercilessly plunged away into me moments later. But that was only at about the time I'd already dropped the log into the muck and was ready to jump across it. Ouch! Ouch ouch! As proper retribution I briefly considered drop-kicking this annoying, scrawny boy into the sea. That'd be a satisfying revenge for my new and annoying itches. I only grudgingly thought better of it as I instead gingerly gave the log a toe before taking the quick steps and jump necessary to escape from my nemesis to the other side. Damn, those bites were beginning to hurt! I scratched away as the boy decided against following me with his significantly shorter stride. He immediately decided to take the long way around toward the sea, still managing to catch up with me some ten minutes later: Did I NOW want some bread?, he asked. Sigh.
When the boy finally plodded off to greet a local on the beach, I shortly came upon El Almejal resort itself. Apparently it was merely a collection of cabins mostly notable at this moment in time for the three large-if-tidy, burning piles in front of it. Those didn't afford any sense of luxury, no, but what had we here? Someone actually maintaining the beach a bit? Then again - and perhaps more importantly - why was an "eco-reserve" burning all of the plastic found on its front porch? Not even a speck of debris was being left for any critters to call home, either (if such actually was needed - I had no idea). Ah yes, the eternal clean-up-at-nature's-expense conflict.
I shrugged my shoulders and trod further on, quickly gaining the bar so exquisitely and notably set among the large black rocks that jutted out from the beach bed. The place was closed, of course, but I was allowed by the surprised proprietor to check out the bar and sit down to scribble some notes there if I wanted. The dueña mentioned in the same breath that she had left the keys to her booze storage room in town, anyway. That was a fifteen minute walk away, and it was obviously not worth her trouble to service a lone beerhound walking by her place on chance.
That was that, in other words, a shrug that well-encapsulated this coast - even if I had no problem thinking of a particular boy she could send on the errand for about the price of a piece of bread. Indeed, all of the above observations fit perfectly in with the sentiment I'd been having both here and in the area that I'd just left around Nuqui: The vast majority of Choco locals seemed pretty content to spend the bulk of their time sitting around playing dominos (the men), cards (the men), or bingo (the women). Otherwise they engaged mostly in plain old just sitting around (everybody), all the better to eyeball the street to see what might pass by - goofs like funny gringos such as myself.
In El Valle, however, things had racheted FAR beyond that: With "electricidad permanente," such constructively lazing around might include TELEVISION. Moreover, and perhaps equally in celebration of the non-stop juice supply, radios could often blast alongside the idiot boxes at equal volume themselves. So passers-by such as your truly were often offered a vallenato movido musical accompaniment to drown out the nonsense of a telenovela's dialogue. Hmm - maybe they DID have something figured out!
Such were the accoutrements of civilization, Pacific Choco style. Well, at least stood to play billiards - didn't walking about the table count as exercise? Certainly, I reasoned. And SOMEbody was obviously catching the necessary fish for survival, however tiny the minority. All of the above observations served to spite my musings on all the wondrous things that they COULD do in this paradise. Just who was the crazier? No idea, but it seemed like I was the only one considering the answer. My reaction was to vow that if I sat around, I'd at a minimum face the sea - which I did, making for a perfect end to Day One in The Valley (El Valle). With beer firmly in hand and the tide rolling back in, I watched from the hotel's rear balcony as the nearby island re-created itself again from its temporarily enjoining peninsula.
The following day saw me back at the task of making coconut cups, something I had begun in Nuqui up until that fateful moment when Sapi had appeared. The staff of the hotel looked on in passing while performing their tasks, periodically throwing helpful, suggestive comments my way. There actually WERE a few points to consider about the age and state of the dadgum things, I found. Most importantly, though, the task was made infinitely easier when I FINALLY was able to get my hands on a proper (hack) saw. This was loaned to me by the dueña, only after numerous attempts by the staff to find the thing around the hotel. I bought a new blade for 3500CP (the blade that was already installed was forbidden to be dulled on the likes of coconut shell), cynically guessing that the shrewd businesswoman knew full well that I'd be donating the blade right back to her when I returned the saw. She (handily enough) also owned the hardware store.
In any event I made quick work of the coconuts with the proper tool, making the required two cuts each to the shells to slice off the rounded sliver of an end and the slice beyond that which would serve as a stand. Gutting out the (unfortunately) bitter "meat" inside proved the tougher task. Fortunately one of the cooks took to it with gusto after first watching me flail with my dangerously-folding swiss army knife (note foreshadowing, please). That accomplished, and with most of my set of four cups complete, I downed a couple of my patented strong turkish/cowboy/arab coffees to celebrate. That was imbibed sans coco-cup, of course, THAT be reserved (strictly, naturally) for likka.
As usual, coffee was followed by a lunch of fish/rice/soup/plantains/salad to fully satiate m'belly: I was on a roll this day! Such a combination of flavors, I knew, was just one of many possible. By now I was well aware that I could continue to look forward to checking out the (mathematically precise) full complement of 120 dishes while still on this stretch of coast. Yes, I could spend part of each day wondering what I might get next, be it fish/rice/soup/plantains/salad, soup/fish/rice/plantains/salad, or plantains/salad/fish/rice/soup. The possibilities were endless... or 120 sure seemed like a large number!
Food and drink aside, meanwhile, I had an Olympic-sized beach - more so than Nuqui's Playa Olimpica, it's worth noting - to explore. The trick, however, was to go toward it around low tide, when it was particularly wide. Even then there'd be a sharp drop-off to demarcate the upper sands - riddled with crab holes that one could literally drop a foot into - from the lower, a condition strongly suggesting the prevailing and very real undertow danger. This hazard existed most extensively at high tide, when the waves lapped hard against the entire bank (whose length could be measured in kilometers). So I checked the "tide chart" (I asked a local) before committing to any romantic beach stroll (which, uh, would be by myself).
On the path over, again attended to by the hula hoop girl for a short spell between the bridge to the school and the beach, I spied a colorful (and plentiful) version of crab. I stopped for a good while to check them out, shortly bidding adieu to my friend in the meantime as the critters were all old hat to her. Assuming a hunter's stealthy, creeping prowl, I found that they noisily scattered with every step that came within several feet of them. I tried mightily to get a shot of these bright-yet-elusive creatures but mostly failed. Oh well. Then, up ahead at the beach proper, their numbers grew larger still - if only for a plainer and somewhat smaller variety. These lacked the former's glow, however, being much the same ones as I had seen in Termales even as now they appeared in an impossibly greater quantity. Just as when I was near Termales, they fled with each of my footsteps that could be construed as possibly being in their direction. They were awfully quick when so pressed, too, heading equally to land or sea - whichever was more quickly assessed to be further from ME.
Otherwise nothing else would accompany my stroll outside of the usual culprits of pelicans, seagulls, and whatever other shorebirds herded themselves in the area. This included one (very possibly lost) booby-looking bird. It was true to the Galapagos boobies' look, anyway - and I could walk right up to it, too. This was rather shocking, even if it did provide a great opportunity for a few pictures. How odd. I couldn't help but wonder at such comportment on the dangerous mainland, simultaneously hoping that no local wandered by anytime soon with dinner plans. After some minutes admiring the bold, feathered thing, I ambled on.
One critter that WOULDN'T be making any appearances was a turtle. Just as with the whales that could be seasonally ahead, down at the Ensenada de Utria, I had arrived off-season for the turtles' breeding and gathering to be taking place. Moreover, it'd be a two-hour walk to their end of the beach - where a sanctuary was established for their well-being. So without the attractive promise of turtle-spotting, plus the otherwise relative monotony of the walk, I decided to call it a hike complete at 2/3 or 3/4 of the distance. Besides, wasn't it time to attend to more pressing issues? Yes... co-co-nut! For that, I spied a lone boy standing in front of a ramshackle cabaña with a machete (ALWAYS with a machete!, these guys). Yes, he said, he'd be happy to make quick work of a coco for 1000CP (50c). Leaving the concept of bargaining to only the absolutely most cruelly-hardened tourist, I immediately slobbered in agreement as he commenced hacking away at a coco with quick, deft strokes. When he stopped midway through the process to let me guzzle the milk inside, I knew that this was the kind of hike I had been looking for after all.
I then walked a little bit further, looking for a place nearer the surf to shave the resulting coconut shards a bit from their hard, brown husk-skin. The wet surf was necessary primarily because I wanted to cool down my feet on such a scorcher of a day, a surprise after a night of utterly torrential rains. But no relief would be in sight, not with anything to sit on and properly work on the shards. Thus I took my show on the road back toward town, keeping my feet immersed whenever possible - or so at least to the extent that I could reasonably progress against the shifting depths as the tide came in. On the way I noticed the random indigenous person trudge by with a machete (of course), slyly and shyly waving HI to me in return my calls of "Hola!". Periodicaly I stopped to shave a little more coconut, or I did so until slicing my finger rather nicely, the blade (fortunately) jabbing instead of folding on me. Didn't I recognize this foreshadowing when I saw it back at the hotel? Obviously not.
Perhaps such a Chronicle of a Wound Foretold was just the right thing to accompany the succeeding beer and Gabo short stories I had in mind upon my return. My four collections of short stories had proven a good choice to bring along, even if that wasn't apparent in the early goings. "Ojos de Perro Azul", the oldest of the collections, had mostly been uninspired stuff, not the polished Gabo I was used to. But that yawning tune changed around the time I got to its last story or two, soon followed by the much more pleasing, impressive stuff found in "Los Funerales de Mamá Grande", "Innocente Erendira", and "Doce Cuentos Peregrinos". No one describes the decrepitude of caudillos (strongmen) like Gabo. I particularly relished the settings that were spots I was familiar with in Colombia, now taken back in time to them in his inimitable style.
Granted, my increasing collection of mosquito bites kept this reverie somewhat in check. Those bastards' closing-in whine was all too familiar to my ears, their intent often inescapable and impossible to ignore - which was exactly what I had to do if I wanted to stay sane come each dusk-time. A further annoyance was the daily blasting of a (typically Mexican) telenovela on TV, or a vallenato roaring away on a ubiquitous radio speaker from somewhere nearby. I wasn't sure if it helped matters that I was beginning to run low on my cash supply while increasingly starting to procrastinate a bit on my music transcriptions. Was trouble in paradise finally building? Hmmm... well, why not hang in a hammock and enjoy a breeze and a view to think it over? The waves could ALWAYS overcome the white noise of humanity...
Such thoughts, of course, didn't fit in well with the potential guides in the area. Within 48 hours I had already been approached several times by candidates willing to tour me wherever. As the lone gringo in town, I probably gave off the right kind of stink to attract all such comers. But $25 to have someone walk alongside me to a waterfall or down a beaten trail? No thanks. Or was that the necessary price for security against guerrillas? Would I even learn or see something truly novel? I decided to just continue enjoying the beautiful stuff I was already doing. Besides, my behind had seen enough of the boat benches and the lack of other tourists allowed for no cost-splitting for the more adventurous - and thus significantly more expensive - ideas.
Hmmm... were the elusive rasta men bothered any more by tour operators, those gringos who thought themselves gone native? They invariably wanted nothing to do with my kind, it was apparent, claiming kinship with the local populace instead. But did that really work? Indeed, for the locals' part this had repeatedly struck me far more as a bemused tolerance than acceptance. My impression was that they were accepted as inoffensive, but only really likely to be around for the semi-long haul. Theirs was a residence that would surely go the way of their get-out-of-jail ticket (called a passport) if the fan really got hit with the smelly goods. If the violencia came back, the locals would still be stuck here as the rastas likely (and logically) left.
Besides, how could they claim being local if they didn't covet a motorcycle? They rarely-if-ever seemed to own one in these kinds of outposts, but such a vehicle seemed the highest level of luxury attainable (and desirable) to any and all locally. Explain that!, I thought. As it was, by my count there were only about a dozen or so such powered beasts in town. As for the four-wheel variety, I was told that there were exactly eight 4x4s in town. I'd only seen a couple. THOSE were effectively the only means of getting a passenger over to Bahia Solano an hour-ish away, each pressed to serve as taxis probably whether they wanted to or not. But whether one beat-up Land Cruiser was more comfortable than the next battle-hardened pickup-truck-cum-bus was anyone's guess.
Meanwhile, with my return ticket to Medellín paid for and my four coconut cups completed, I took stock of what remained of my time on the Pacific Choco Coast. I'd walked enough beaches, seen enough waterfalls, eaten my weight in fish, and now recognized all the subtle differences needed to distinguish a ready coconut from one less (or too much) so. With such depth of knowledge accomplished and verified, I figured now only on using beers and people-watching (those old standbys) to help me ponder my return.
As for the latter of those two, I found that El Valle mirrored Nuqui population-demographic-wise and, I presumed, the rest of the Choco (including what I had seen in the Caribbean neck of it). Most folks were of African descent, followed by a smallish minority (within town) of indigenous people and an even smaller number of Paisa transplants. Each mingled easily with the other, but no doubt their social status was left to the typical paisa-africano-indigeno pecking order. The displaced Paisas seemed completely in charge of all the resorts and businesses of note (or money), or in their stead would be the more Paisa-looking Chocoanos of African descent. The remaining, darker-skinned Afro-Chocoano community seemed only left to focus on the fishing or light agriculture/logging.
As for the indigenous population, or such as were found in town and living outside of their traditional community, they seemed to fully occupy only the lowest tier of society. This position was further distanced by their having and only using their own language, too, something generally unintelligible to the Paisas and Afro-Chocoanos. They'd most often be seen lugging about sacks of fruit, or paddling the same in canoes, almost always virtually silent and either looking down completely or ahead with an unblinking stare.
Their attire was distinct as well. Below the waist they likely wore the ubiquitous colorful, flowered skirt or shorts. But above that they wore a rather incongruous t-shirt of any make, most obviously of donated provenance. I highly doubted that they consciously cared to be advertising software releases or pharmaceuticals. Such (any) torso-wear, however, was a required addition for those living outside of their community homelands.
IN their community, however, it paid to be chief. He and only he gave permission for any to leave the community for a prescribed time. Those not agreeing with this - and there were the uncommon cases - could not return. A bit harsh, I thought. In any event, those I did see round and about were uniformly reticent, sometimes shyly returning greetings they probably might well have preferred to not receive in the first place. They'd just as easily turn away as if my greeting wasn't exactly heard. This always bespoke timidity instead of hostility to me, though.
On an entirely different front, having a TV after a week without turned into something of a news boon for me - and this comes from someone who doesn't have a television at home, oddly enough. From the comfort of my room I switched between Colombian, Mexican, Honduran, Galician (Spain) and other stations to follow the latest news in Libya. I couldn't believe what I was seeing happen in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Syria, too - to name only several of the participants of the Arab Spring. What stunning developments! What a marvelous example of the globalized civilization we were all beginning to become a part of - even when seen here, from a remote outpost of civilization. Even some of the locals made comments about the news, surprisingly conversant on the goings-on in Libya. All wished the best for the rebels as they themselves still lived in a world of similar political flux.
But, and taking a cue from my only co-resident guests in Hotel Valle from the first night (a team of engineers putting up a cel tower), TV also meant... soccer. I took in a few games of the Copa Libertadores (Liberator's Cup), the competition determining the club champion of South America. For this passive effort I got to continue my long-standing disgruntlement with soccer teams worldwide: Why in the name of Zeus didn't they ever have a city mentioned ANYWHERE in the club names, or at least the nationality when in international competition (the Argentinas club from SOME city in Argentina was an obviously confusing exception)? Who WERE they representing?, I found myself wondering, the jersey colors usually offering not the slightest clue. All I knew was that I wanted to support the underdog - the least the announcers could do was help me in that general direction. Instead I had to settle for their faux-inspired utterings of "Goooooooooool!" as players otherwise flopped about on the ground with supposed injuries while hoping for a penalty. There was something more than marginally infuriating by those common-enough displays of poor sportsmanship, especially as minutes ticked away before the resumption of play. THAT had to stop!
Such were the meagre TV offerings in the hotel, anyway, all coming to me live or otherwise on a slightly snowy screen. But apparently one could order a whole hell of a lot more - and in much better definition - if one appealed to the satellite god. Which, as I found out, La Famosa Coti did - when not otherwise bringing a lot more to the table. That's what this marvelous cook'd eventually do as I sat down to watch the tube at her house in the wait for lunch or dunner. Coti wouldn't have found out about, of course, without my trusty guidebook (Thank you, Lonely Planet, and to hell with your cynical detractors!), especially since locals have a way of only recommending someone in their family for serving as guide, cook, and anything else.
It took a bit to first find her lair, though: I found myself asking a number of locals to effectively circle her place on its oddly-platted, triangular block a couple of times. Finally, after being given a direct house-pointing from a very close distance, I just walked into her house, making my way to its rear and where I could smell some cooking. (Yes, it frankly felt a bit odd to enter someone's home to ask if I could eat what she was already in the process of making, but here I was.) Uh... "Coti... La Famosa Coti?" I ventured. It'd take a number of such calls, each bolder, before eventually someone hollered back from the bowels of the building. Coti then made her way out to give a face to all that amazing-smelling stuff on the stove.
I was more than welcome to have a helping, she said. But in the interim she suggested that I just sit myself over there, under the massive TV, and flip away through the channels while she put something together. So I caught up on Libya, the deadly earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the doings of another several hundred stations to boot. When such fare had turned to an increased rate of button-pushing, in a frustrated search for an actually WORTHWHILE channel, I next looked about me. Wow, what an extensive collection of cutlery and kitsch on display! Those pots above the kitchen, could she ever possibly come close to using all of them? They could feed an army! I was soon regaled with a heroic story of how she fed a group of about 150 from Bogotá when the power went out for a week or month or year (I forget).
As for the channel-flipping, I eventually settled on (Colombia) Caracol's news-channel, where a 3-d globe was dramatically spun. Several countries were highlighted in turn, each magnified as a breathless reporter waxed hopefully and tensely from Libya, New Zealand, Egypt, and Tunisia in succession. Then, bringing up the rear, the U.S. came up for its turn in the spotlight. Hmm - what could compare with these other dramatic events, such human tragedy and triumph? I immediately was apprised that, in Phoenix, a man was using a laser to bother helicopter pilots. Oh. In Miami, a woman was caught rolling on the hood of the Mercedes getaway car of her purse snatcher. No. In Atlanta, a baby survived three hours left in a bank vault; In Minnesota, a man had built a detailed castle of snow. I turned the volume down incrementally... then switched the thing off. Sigh.
Meanwhile, lunch was served, and not too soon. I ate until I possibly couldn't, the delicious plate #87 (I determined) of the area's offerings, a smorgasbord consisting of rice, plantains, fish, salad, and soup topped by a healthy helping from the house's local picante sauce jar. Well, THAT took care of three meals in one. Yet I assured Coti that I'd be back to repeat the effort the next day - perhaps minus the news-watching. How embarrassing!
This I did soon enough, next receiving - I believe - dish #103, although it might've been #31. Or #13 or #113. Whichever the precise number, the soup and salad each changed significantly as the entirety happily found its way to my local enzyme factory for processing. This was the expected result of my mission, of course, knowing full well it'd be accomplished before I even had set foot back into her makeshift restaurant.
For this second time her son wandered in for lunch as well, coincidentally immediately flicking on Caracol's news again. This time there were protests now in Oman and China, their territories lighting up on the globe while each accompanied by four demanding beeps to parlay the proper feel of emergency and urgency. Then again the U.S. outline popped out to trail those exciting developments, four new segments to close out the international stuff (apparently) with some amount of comic relief. Lessee: A building was blown up in Atlanta to cheering crowds; An escalator malfunctioned in Washington,D.C., sending tens of people tumbling onto one another (I think I recognized the actual station). Next, in Arizona (again!), a scientist demonstrated a mechanical hummingbird flying with cameras intended for spying. The capper was in Massachusetts, where a car blew through the wall of a diner with a garish pink and white interior. As Son-of-Coti watched with an increasingly slackened jaw, I closed my eyes while hoping to the gods that a clown didn't step out of the diner's wreckage. Then I buried my face into my plate, where it belonged. NOT. A. PEEP.
Sometime after recovering from the bout of digestion that necessarily followed that impressive gorging, I decided to make my way back once more to "the most picturesque bar in the world". Or seaside. Waterfront? It was something wet, anyway, although one might fairly contend that the world is an incredibly large place to casually throw around such superlatives. Or it used to be so expansive and far-flung, I thought - I WAS in a previously and still-practically unattainable corner of it, wasn't I? But who was I to argue with the assembled masses, or at least the Lonely Planet, that equally scorned and revered source of all things true and third world-ish?
Arriving at the bar, meanwhile, I couldn't help but think SOMEthing was going right. There were perhaps forty people sitting around drinking, all locals from the looks of them, and all equally content if based only on the piles of bottles standing empty on nearly every table as the vallenato and salsa - not reggaeton as advertised in the holy Lonely Planet - blasted away at ear-splitting levels. Indeed, to anyone not smart enough to station themselves a healthy number of meters away, I figured permanent ear damage was a given after only a short matter of time. At the bar I yelled to the poor dueña for a beer, appreciating those ears of hers which still functioned - and would certainly be the first to go. Or had already gone, likely only preceded by those of her equally shout-requiring assistant.
So I was one of the few who chose the tables furthest from the bar, naturally. My neighbor, meanwhile, was long past the point of caring about my arrival. His forehead firmly rested on the tabletop in front of him as he roamed a drunken netherworld of sleep. He didn't even twitch for the longest time, prompting me ALMOST to probe him with a beer bottle on the shoulder. But his waking up to look in the face of the lone Eur-oid in the place probably wouldn't have been the best thing to regain consciousness to, I surmised. Eventually he proved alive, if only briefly to change positions into a certified slump that came complete with his head resting on his chest.
I soon turned my attention to the random motorcycle, moto-taxi, or 4x4 zipping by on the beach below. With the suddenly increased number from what I had been seeing about town, I wondered if some folks had carted over from as far as Bahia Solano for this weekend (only) frivolity. Hell, the police were even here, rifles on their laps as beer bottles stacked in front of them as much as anyone else. Whether they slugged them down at a rate a hair slower than everyone else, I could only hope - should any need for them possibly arise. Doubtful.
All the while, my fellow drinkers - and I now had officially joined their ranks - alternated between beers and spending some time down by the surf. Maybe they'd mix in a little fishing, or perhaps perform a cartwheel into the sea. One thing was for sure - all the men I saw were all either totally buff (who might cartwheel) - or sporting a burgeoning belly (who sure as shit wouldn't). There was no in-between.
For my part, I took advantage of how the large black rocks' positions formed private little recuses for letting the tide do its thing. I repeatedly set myself down in one, letting it pick me up from time to time and redeposit me a little further back. In between these surges of the sea, a lone moped might whiz by somewhere near me, often a boy with a girl passenger headed off to some quiet cove. Or, quite unusually for the area, I'd spy a girl by herself, joyriding away. That was a slight surprise, having only seen the women on the backs of the bikes beforehand in town, typically dressed to kill and impress. At the risk of being labeled misogynist in spite of what I had been witnessing to date, I could only assume that the boyfriend was sufficiently plowed and plied with booze to no longer care or know. For MY part, all I knew was that I just wanted to be far enough from the music to take a break (much as I did enjoy the oddly synthesized version of El Carretero, one of my favorite old school latin tunes).
The surf, meanwhile, was a bit curious to me. After two weeks of feeling like I had come to understand the Choco's tides, the extreme downpour in the night's thunderstorm had messed me up. My morning walk to the other beach, where the river drained to the sea, had even been surprisingly difficult to predict coming- or going-wise. That made no sense, of course, but the confusion caused me to nix my plan to walk over to the tiny island. I didn't want to get trapped into swimming my way over through an incoming tide. The local dog which followed me - there always seemed to be one doing so in El Valle - seemed to question the same thing.
Now, on Amedral's beach, I had the same confusion. Each time when it seemed that the black rocks were headed to their temporary watery grave, I'd find they weren't. What the...? Maybe it was the beers, I thought, eventually settling instead to watch one young man after another cartwheel into the surf (a surfwheel?), that apparently very macho-ish, athletic Pacific Chocoano thing to do. Then, with sunset coming, I finally decided to let the matter of the tide's mysterious tidings come to rest in a state of futile uncertainty - it didn't matter. The time had come to become (still) the lone Eur-oid to make slow steps back to town amidst a similarly returning sea of Africana, all the while wondering just where WERE those rasta men hiding out, anyway?
The next day was the last one of February: It was time to finally head to Bahia Solano. My plane, heading out the following day, would be the means to welcome March and put me back in Medellín. In the early morning I saw a man in the street out in front of the hotel, working on one of local mini-chivas - those converted Toyota LandCruisers with their fuselage bodies crudely opened and blown out to fit wooden benches. Perfect! A (sort of) bus! Immediately I popped the question and got the answer I expected: yes, he would gladly take me over B.S. way in an hour or two. It was comforting to have the issue settled so rapidly, even as his beating on one of the wheels with a hammer to fix it wasn't. Well, what could go all that wrong at 5mph?, I thought.
Somewhere along the way, meanwhile, I had heard that the road to Bahia Solano was steadily being paved - at something like 15 METERS a day. A good jolting from the holes on the way should thus be par for the rest of the course, I knew, although that bumpy madness would actually get a preview right away in town. When I finally aboard, and we theoretically were ready to go, we next cruised the streets of stilt-shacks on the lookout for more pasajeros to make the trip worth the while for the driver. We found them slowly but surely if only one-by-one, each coming along with sacks of onions and bunches of plantains to transport to the "big city". We continued clattering through the shanties, each pothole making the vehicle lurch heavily and bottoming out the springs in a loud groan punctuated by terminating clanks. That groan at least served the unintentional purpose of giving me fair enough warning that part two of the neck's whiplash was on the way.
Finally sufficiently loaded and leaving town, a nice paved road suddenly began to give a respite to our (dis-)assembled necks. Wow - such smoothness! Topping that, we were blessed with a driver not hellbent on hitting breakneck speeds. He conversed calmly with the other passengers instead. Hmm - maybe the local cowboys only wanted boats. This pleasant conversation rolled along, then, chewing over nothing in particular for about 15 minutes... until the good road ran out. Crap. We shortly ran into the working road crew as their industrial-sized supplies began to stack up on the sides of the road, massive pipes for drainage and piles of rocks. A graded road of gravel still allowed us to move at a decent-enough speed for a spell, but then that went the way of mud. And then came the really, REALLY large holes.
Conversation stopped now as, for the rest of the ride, all of us took to interestedly watching how the driver would negotiate his way through the angles required in conjunction with motor gunnings to plow through a horribly disfigured road. The bottoming-outs regularly occurred regardless of his care, as did our head-floppings and spine-crackings that came as a result of the rumbling of one vertebrae after another along the wood plank serving as a back rest. Diesel fumes soon added to the fun as well, enveloping us much as our resignation did now that our speed had become insufficient to give proper clearance from the vehicle's belchings.
The good news was that this would only last forty-five minutes. The bad was that there wouldn't be a happy, smooth ending to fix our kinks. No matching construction met us from the Bahia Solano side, a pavement to equal those initial fifteen glorious minutes of the most safe and smooth driving in all of Colombia. There'd be no golden spike to connect the construction mess in a happy, remote middle some day - and that'd remain the case for a looooooong time at that 15m/day rate, too. How miserable it would be to live in the Pacific Choco at any distance from the sea! Be ye a land tenant, FARC combatant, kidnap victim, whatever - the mosquitoes and jungle rot would surely sink the best of men.
We sullenly slunk into Bahia Solano in a hush, all conversation still gone. So this was the "big" town on the Chocoano North Coast. As for its cosmopolitan ways, well, I DID hear traffic: A moto-taxi or two quickly rumbling by, rounding a corner in a rush to practically lift a wheel. That seemed to be for no apparent reason outside of boredom, perhaps - and that was about it, too. Surprisingly, a bus sat parked on a side street as well. THAT was something of a miracle, particularly considering that it had nowhere to go but El Valle. And THAT it'd never get to without a heavy suspension, which it didn't look to have. Maybe it looped the several blocks of the town's grid, allowing for different stoops to play dominoes in front of.
Whatever - our chariot pulled to a stop suddenly, barely getting over to one side of the road. The driver immediately turned off the engine, kicked up his feet on the dashboard, then pulled out a newspaper that I would have hazarded couldn't be anywhere near current. In any event, I guessed that we were... there. So I grabbed my stuff and asked the others where the hotels might be. To that I received a short, jutting chin motion from the driver as the others looked at me helplessly. All-righty, then.
But only a block away was indeed a hotel, one of the necessary decrepitude and price to house my likes. It was cheap, clean, and quiet - and, once again, I doubted there were any other guests. No matter - I could set my things down and wander into the kitchen to boil some water, regardless. Cowboy coffee was soon on the way and I sat down to write, wondering if I was shortchanging Bahia Solano by only spending this last noche chocoana in its confines. I was giving B.S. short shrift mainly because I hadn't YET heard anything nice said about the place - outside of being an arrival or departure point. Was there more? Hmm. I'd soon find out, but I was more eager to first finish my final Gabo short story in Doce Cuentos Peregrinos. It oddly ended in snow of all things. I was now ready to set out and discover the soul of Bahia Solano.
Outside began a prodigious downpour right about then, however. So I retraced the block's worth of steps I had made to confine myself to quarters. Sorry, Bahia! Meanwhile... at least I had DirectTV, right? Right. But not for long: the satellite signal went. Fair enough, this was no Seattle rain, where one felt able to piss harder than what was coming down (kudos again to my friend Dana for that lasting imagery of a shitty shower in Chile ten years prior, although "cry" would've been perhaps more appropriate in the case of Seattle). Oh well.
Over the next several hours I found myself messed with in this most truly Chocoano of styles. Repeated easing-ups of the rain were only followed shortly by more intensifications, each increasingly leading me to I wonder if the streets would wash away down to China or perhaps India. And this was in the DRY season - or summer as it was generally referred to in Colombia. [An interesting side note - in Colombia, winter is the wet season and summer is the dry. This might be mean February in one place, July in another, and November in a third. All seasons - joining politics, apparently - are local. To illustrate and contrast, in Seattle we have two months of gorgeous summer and ten of mild, wet winter.]
This back and forth teasing from the heavens continued for a good while. Throughout, the TV sparked to life at odd intervals, perhaps resting on a broadcast of weather conditions in Santiago, Chile. Huh? Next it'd land on a Brazilian commentator prattling endlessly about the 1000 dresses that Anne Hathaway wore at the Oscars. Which I really wanted to know, naturally. Finally, however, the rain recessed its fury to achieve a proper Seattle piss, an acceptable llovizna as one might properly say in the vernacular. Was I starved by this time? Why yes, I was.
Well, not really. But this town didn't look the predicted horror show of hell, either, proving that there were plenty of lies to go around. In any event, I walked all of a grand block toward the sea to order a pizza from a locally famous couple. These were the folks who had run a fishing resort upcoast a ways, or did until their neighbor was rather riddled with bullets in a shootout between the para-militaries and the FARC in 2000. Burying him had proved sobering enough to leave the outpost behind, but not the Choco in its entirety. They bravely stayed on in Bahia Solano, continuing to cater to rich, big sea fishermen... while supposedly making quality pizza the likes of which I hadn't seen in Colombia much at all. The proprietress recommended I check out the nearby waterfalls, possibly going for a swim, during the pizza-baking interim. Well... at least I'd LOOK.
So I left their establishment (Rocas) behind to do just that, impressed in minutes by a succession of chorros (waterfalls). Each spit from the sharp wall of earth just to my left, only to disappear exactly at the road's edge into a drainage pipe below. Through this culvert the water emerged just a hair to my right to spill out into the sea. As for swimming, I passed. The heavy aguaceros (downpours, rains) meant brown, muddy water. And more than enough current to wash out to sea in, probably.
Instead I checked out the tiny port ahead, its occupants only consisting of a rusting hulk or two awaiting loading. A man, meanwhile, walked directly out into the engorged sea to sink up to his neck, retrieving his boat to begin some bailing. Apparently he had some awaiting passengers in a moto-taxi he had left at the shore's edge. This was just how things were done, I guessed. Continuing my stroll to pass all of this muted frivolity by, I soon achieved a wooden footbridge. This was unquestionably the most likely candidate for a swim with its large pool below, but, uh... no. Instead I turned to pee into the sea, effectively passing my judgement while efficiently preparing to have a beer with my pizza. Priorities.
Next I walked back to town, the only fool walking in the rain, passing by only a couple of large trucks with mournful-looking, drenched men in their beds. One waved and smiled hello, a fellow passenger from El Valle who had previously made no contact with me when we had sat only two feet from each other. I smiled and waved back.
More oblivious to the rain, however, was a man at the side of the road decked in rain slicker regalia. It was he who kicked a high-powered, gas weed-whacker to life, proceeding to chop away like no tomorrow at an outcropping of weeds squirting from the base of an impressive chorro. Wet muck immediately flew everywhere - I needed to keep my distance - as the turbo-juiced gadget did its work. Still, with such rain he'd likely be at it again in a week, I figured, glad it wasn't me. Somehow he completed the otherworldliness I felt in this walk, of a place going through the motions of life underwater.
As I sat down to my first non-breakfast meal without fish in two weeks - roundly destroying my theory of the 120 possible Chocoano plates - I found out that there WERE a couple of gringos on the Pacific Chocoano Coast. Granted, they were staying in this far-more-spendy lodging, but they officially broke the "lone gringo" skein that I had been numerically manipulating in the first place. In the realization if this fact, unfortunately, I overheard these two (obviously American) deep-sea fishermen bragging about downing margarita after margarita, likely somewhere in Mexico or Florida. The punchlines invariably seemed to lie with the swimming pools they fell into. Sigh.
A couple of times they walked through the place's restaurant, right past where I was sitting, jabbering away about how they were soon going to be "rocking it." I wondered, in Bahia Solano? Out at sea? Each time they eyeballed me with curiosity, evidently weighing if I was a compatriot and therefore worthy of a hello. I only silently tried to convey acknowledgement in a manner that hopefully suggested that I wouldn't possibly understand them. Hopefully they thought I was Argentine or something and didn't speak English. I ducked out of the place not much later, successfully avoiding the upcoming trap of dull conversation.
It was time to continue my survey of town, anyway, next opting for the steep hike up to La Virgen. Actually, La Virgen was already the second such statue on the same road within a short distance - the other was near the intrepid weed-whacker extraordinaire - but I was long past the point of being surprised at such displays of religious fealty. I'd long ago concluded that there had to be more STATUE Virgens than actual virgins in Latin America - and that was saying far more about the abundance of the statuary than missing virtues in innocent maidens. Perish the thought.
So I quickly made my way up the short trail, one blessed by rare switchbacks to make the 15-minute ascent. Not that it could still have offered about twice as many such turns - the erosion that the path suffered from that oversight was obvious. The view was worth it, regardless, and there was even - might I say - a DIVINE breeze from the lookout. What a nice change!
From this redoubt above, I listened to the random sounds below in town - the infrequent, dashing moto-taxis; an isolated shout; a nail being hammered; kids' cries at the school playground; the rumble of a lone truck carrying (as always) rubble or (just as always) cases or beer. Visually, the lines of the rain-riddled roads shone brightly, if intermittently from a non-existent sun. Somehow that glowing effect at dusk with intermittent sounds completed the scene. After a linger to take this all in, I made my way down the trail with care, gingerly stepping over millions of rain-or-shine leaf-cutting ants. They were all making their way up the path to take my place - to honor La Virgen, of course!
I wandered through every commercial road in town next, which is not saying much beyond covering the couple of main drags plus the one-or-two block extents running perpendicular to them. Nevertheless the sum of the whole equalled the available merchandise witnessed in Nuqui, El Valle, and even Capurganá put together. Somewhere on the way I even wandered into the derelict-yet-landmark hotel (the Balboa) previously owned by Escobar. THAT fact was only determined when I fished out some torn guidebook pages which I had only stuffed into my pocket for the hell of it. (From these papers I also belatedly learned the history of the Rocas lodge owners; I decided to resist going back to ask them questions about their horrific experience.)
Properly apprised of its history, I took in this overly-imposing building for such a small town. It was evidently undergoing an overdue restoration, receiving a waterjet-blasted facelift on its exterior. That effort was effectively sending paint chips everywhere - with complete disregard to their future home in the sea just down the street. I wondered how long it had stood as such an eyesore for the locals to consider. Had it been a feared establishment to approach before, back in Escobar's heyday? Did the town retreat into a hush when he and his minions decided on a holiday in it?
On the inside was a different story than the drear on display without. Although currently vacant of guests, I was surprised to find that it was in full operation. There even was some outsized art, hanging down several stories in the lobby, to allude to its former grandeur. Asking if it was okay, I was allowed to walk through the pleasant gardens and inspect the unexpectedly large swimming pool at my leisure. Eventually I made my way back to the desk to chat, where I was invited to take a look at a room repeatedly in spite of it being obvious that I had no intention of staying. Fine, I agreed at length. Upstairs we went, and indeed the room was nice.
But as far as I was concerned there was only one real question: where did HE stay? Ah, she said, HIS digs had been up top, in a larger suite "under repair". No, I would not be allowed to check it out. Sigh. Well, that would have to do it for wondering about what brutal things might've happened in the hotel... or where the bodies might've been stuffed.
Continuing about town, I came to the river. There I could take in the flotsam and jetsam of the local "fleet", a horde of boats seemingly abandoned. They lay helter-skelter on the river's banks, all resting in a bend from the sea that I assumed effectively thwarted the tide. Beyond those, I could only otherwise take in the random blobs of garbage on this forgotten coast - however mitigated they were by the beauty of the handsome, misty mountains looming beyond. Sadly once again, here seemed proof of that direct correlation of the amount of trash on display to the number of people who lived in an area. Bahia was the biggest - and thus filthiest - place on the Pacific Choco Coast.
At the main seafront I would see only more of the same. But there I could wonder, too, at the effectiveness - if it could even be deemed thus anymore - of the long and porous seawall made of concrete. No one seemed to really care about it from the looks of things, a formerly promising artifact now left to its doom.
Certainly this obliviousness included the kids playing at the shore. Their focus was instead on some kind of explosive launcher they had devised from PVC-piping. Watching their test-firings in action, all I could become sure of was that this activity promised to eventually take an eye or two out in carelessness. The heights attained by the bottlecaps they shot out were nevertheless impressive. Not bad for just forcibly compressing air and allowing it to release.
While stopping to watch I was accosted by one, then three, then about six of these kids. Why was I here? What was I doing? But my replies about interest in culture and location effectively sailed over their assembled heads. Instead they were interested, surprisingly, in "learning" English. All of them were doing it, albeit all on different levels, and soon they were keeping me as a captive for 40-odd minutes as they practiced pronouncing various names... before eliciting effective insults. Sigh. Of them, two girls of about 13-14 were a bit more studious in their attempts - apparently they were receiving some proper English instruction in school - while another girl I took for about eleven alternated between questions and carrying on to my response as if I should just go and fuck myself. I humored her flux between friendliness and hostility as best I could.
More importantly, I tried to guarantee that she wouldn't carelessly blow my eye out with her makeshift toy/weapon. She repeatedly capped her PVC-pipe with a plastic bottle cap, then shoved a discarded broom handle up the tube before pulling it mostly out to create a vacuum-sealed pressure. Then... wham! In one thrust she'd shoot the cap skyward as I'd again thank heaven that it wasn't pointed at somebody - like me, for instance.
Mostly this group hopelessly trapped me into naming things for them ad nauserum, however. This they'd do in between showing off cartwheels (of course!), handstands, push-ups and whatever else could come into their heads. I guessed that the cartwheels-into-the-sea thing would come with time. With dusk on the way, meanwhile, I finally decided to call it a day and make my way back to the hotel. Each said "Goodbye!", "So long", and about any other form of fare-thee-well they could come up with about a hundred times apiece.
And that would have to do it for Bahia Solano, what with my flight the next day. Back in my room I resolved to only get in some more reading, trumpet practice, and the latest news before some shuteye. With the continuing roulette wheel of stations, this time I found that my news would be mostly coming from Argentina and Bolivia. The usual collection of corruption, landslides, and tourism promos followed, but at least I wouldn't have to suffer the latest embarrassing goings-on in the U.S. on Caracol. No, in place of that I'd get to watch a player on the Once Caldas team kick an owl (!) off of a soccer pitch when it stood in the way of his play. What?!? Did I just see that? I gasped in horror as the game blithely went on, leaving me mystified at the lack of commentary. Wasn't that a fucking owl he drop-kicked!?! FOUL! I think I preferred the news.
The next day dawned with my flight awaiting me. I took a moto-taxi over the innumerable potholes necessary to achieve the 5km distance separating the airport Jose Celestino Mutis from town. Nicknamed "Sal si puedes" (leave if you can) by the locals, I knew better than to count on my flight taking off on time. Soon enough my hopes were plenty damaged by the increasing rain. On its account I soon learned that I'd have to wait for my plane to arrive, head to Quibdo and back, THEN take me to Medellín. Apparently this change in plans was how things went when things began to clog up at the airport, and the airport had been closed the day before. I settled in for a long day... of watching rain.
There wasn't much else to do, either, not with my main bag already checked in. That had happened after it was "searched" - a process consisting of a bored security guard trying to shove his fist into it. He gave up after he had only gotten a little past his wrist to partially bury his forearm. Checked! After paying my unexpected exit tax of 7000CP, I was left with almost no pesos left to buy a souvenir, let alone a beer. Maybe I SHOULD have tried that lone ATM on the coast in town, I thought, all the while keeping my eyes on the sky for any kind of rumble. There'd be none for a long time, outside of one tiny Cessna that landed seemingly only as a tease.
Trapped, I took my trumpet out back to the neighboring customs shed. I soon had a loyal, if questioning, audience almost all hailing from Cali. They belonged to the numerous contingent of soldiers in the area, all doing their obligatory two years. Here I was an acceptable freak show to pass the time with, which sounded fine to me. I played any number of Latin tunes for their judgement, but it was some riffing I did using the arabesque half-whole scale that seemed the most intriguing to them. As always, the strangest stuff proves the most interesting. Not that it wasn't odd for me, either, this my first time ever playing for a bunch of guys in full battle gear (including semi-automatic weapons). Whether this was inspiring stuff to not miss a note I couldn't say, but I DID play rather well.
Back in the terminal I was grateful to have a last few hundred pages of short stories in Mark Twain's collection left. Each story was riddled with that caustic humor of his that I had come to appreciate. My actual interest in each one's contents varied widely, one particularly enjoyable story potentially followed by a merely amusing one with far less grab to it. Nevertheless, all of the diversion it allowed was appreciated when I wasn't otherwise reduced to merely ascertaining the number of hills visible nearby through the rain and mist. I wondered which ones needed be visible to set a flight into motion.
Then, at 2:20p.m. (I had arrived at 10a.m. for an 11a.m. flight), came a burst of noise from nowhere. So much for my deeply researched and patented misty-mountain-top theory. In only seconds, a plane landed and a shout went up from the agent: "A Quibdo!" Quickly the plane loaded up with the Quibdo-only bound, and twenty minutes later it left again in the continuing drizzle. Not knowing what next to make of its possible return - hopefully in about an hour - I returned to loosely entertaining even more troops outside of the building with my horn.
About an hour later I heard another sudden rumble of noise in the sky, however. Cool! Again in seconds I saw the plane emerge from the clouds. We all watched as it dipped down and skirted over the runway... only to ascend again. Huh. Then it disappeared a few seconds later. Crap! "No va a aterrizar?" I asked. Nope. And no excuse why would ever be given, even as the rain had become ever lighter in the meantime. Sigh.
By then I was playing to several police gathered in the baggage area for the final interim, eventually unchecking my baggage from its practically unguarded pile to get some some stuff out. Suddenly the agent rematerialized triumphantly: the airline would be putting us up in a local hotel, paying for taxis to get us there and back to the airport the next day, plus dinner and breakfast. Well, I guessed that I WOULD get to see a bit more of Bahia Solano after all. Soon I found myself hopping into a cab with a marine similarly trapped. When he got out at the base halfway back to town, I was left to enjoy the rest of the potholes all by my lonesome.
Oh well - At least I was upgraded in accommodations, now at the Hotel Yarauba. This was a new place, with modern and spacious rooms, plus it sat just across the street from the paint-blasting going on at Escobar's former digs. One thing I wouldn't get, however, would be a free call from this temporary-if-deluxe jail - almost my last peso coins were necessary to call Medellín to inform the hostel I'd be coming the next day. Since the town's ATM only would let me take out a large amount if at all, I decided to avoid that gamble if possible. For the evening's entertainment, then, I watched that same teasing Cessna take off again and again from the airport to circle the town's skies mysteriously. Such coquetry!
The morning was a rush at 6:30 a.m. I was practically pushed out of my room in a display of hurry so very un-Chocoano-like. I wolfed down my rationed couple of eggs as a moto-taxi driver tapped his foot. So much for the leisurely breakfast - I hate a rushed feed! - but then the same went for a comfortable ride to the airport. Five of us found ourselves squished into this moto-taxi-built-for-two (from China, which might explain why it came minus both the song and the ice cream for those catching the reference). The eggs apparently would get some post-scrambling as each pothole to the airport made its presence known.
At the airport we speedily re-deposited our baggage - it was still technically checked in officially from the day before. I ruminated on how nice it was that no one had caught on to how the contents of my backpack had changed since the previous day's "fist check". My new collection of plastic explosives, grenades, stuffed shoes, nitro glycerin, over-sized zippo lighters and bolt-cutters should be just fine, undoubtedly. Then... we waited. Still no plane. And... nope.
Then, an hour after our pressed assembly, a plane dropped out of the sky in its typical hurry to touch land. Summoning perhaps Icarus - or a phoenix - maybe the Hindenburg? - it burst through exactly as the sun began to blast through with similar good omen. NOW it was officially to be goodbye to the Pacific Choco, and that with a whole 350 pesos (20c) in my pocket. Looked like I wouldn't be spending it all in one place! The Twin Otter landed, curtsied for our grand entrance, then shot off with us inside to soar out above the Choco and its lush green jungle below.
In 55 minutes we were back over Medellín and its land of roads. The last ridge was cleared - not by a lot - as we curled into the airport, droning away over the now-recognizable Rio Medellín, Cerro Nutibara, and El Poblado Metro Station. Down we went, landing nonchalantly, and soon I was fingering the funds now left in my pocket. I shouldered my backpack to walk the smoggy twenty minutes over to the hostel. Medellín... again.
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