Friday, March 17, 2006

Three Years and One Day

An uneventful bus ride brought me to Cali, a big city that is manageable because a small part of the city has just about everything for which a tourist could ask...although, really, there aren`t many tourists which is the best answer of all. This is part of the beauty of Colombia, that you can feel as if you are doing something that not too many others do. With this comes the opportunity to exclusively speak Spanish, but most importantly a country that has a citizenry untainted by the uglier side of tourism--the idiot, nuisance tourists who the natives tend to just see as a dollar, euro or pound--and so the people of Colombia have therefore been left incredibly open and friendly with the lack of an overwhelming tourist industry (see "Perù" for counter example).

That said, one of the first people that I met in Cali, and the only other person staying in my hostel, was a tourist--but a good one. He joins the ranks of people I`ve met with an interesting story, or who are themselves interesting, funny, or just good people. I`ve had the chance to meet over the past few months quite a few characters, of which includes, but of course is not limited to: the 60-year old from Alaska who is riding home from the southern tip of Argentina on his motorcycle, who has already before this done some other amazing trips and who happens to have a girlfriend that he interviewed (to be his girlfriend) from Russia; the New Zealand couple who while riding their bicycles from the same tip of Argentina to Ecuador, crossed the Andes several extra times just to slow themselves down(!), my Dutch friend Henk who realized that by selling his house in Holland he could live off of investments and enjoy the good life of Argentina, the Ecuadorian girls who stopped me to ask to take a picture, only to then realize that they each wanted a picture with me (a gringo sighting maybe?)...and of course there are loads more.

Gregor, I thought at first, judging by his dress, was a member of some sort of religious denomination such as the Amish. But in fact he is a German Carpenter (whom are quit famous) and one of which who is participating in a very interesting, time-honored tradition. He told me that it used to be a tradition in all of Northern Europe, but however now is confined to Germany--that tradespeople, once done with their apprenticeship are to leave their home for exactly (or at least, I gather) three years and one day to continue their education by learning about the world and living by their skills. There are all sorts of rules that go along with such a tradition, but the main ones being that he is not to return within 50km of his home for that amount of time and he is not to stay in any one place longer than 3 months. As may be expected, his group, who are Anarchists (another interesting and seemingly very often misunderstood subject) have relatively very few rules compared to the others. I interrogated him rather thoroughly on the subject, but I will spare the elaboration--just to say that I found the tradition and the lifestyle pretty amazing. Because he is meant to live only on what he makes while travelling (and building), he arrived to South America as crew on a 40ft (not very big) sailboat and will return the same way. Anyhow, we had a good night of drinking Colombian beer (which included being approached by another German who was obviously gay but insisting that he was "stuck!" in Cali because of all the girls he was meeting!) and will surely meet up down the road.

Cali was nice, but I quickly got out of the city to a place which had been recommended to me several times over, called San Cipriano(say it with me now, huh?). Between Cali and the Pacific, San Cipriano is a tiny, almost inaccessible village that sits on a stunningly clear river that flows through the same dense jungle of the famed Darien Gap. Although the ride there + that day`s lunch left me not feeling too great, the last leg of the journey was very cool. San Cipriano is only accessible by railroad, so in order to transport things (including people) back and forth, they use this as their route. Many people opt for the Venetian style rowing method to travel the 10km, but what is becoming more often used is a motorcycle (mounted on top of a wooden platform with wheels that fit onto the tracks) that has it`s front wheel on the platform and it`s back providing the force to the rail. It was a cool ride through the jungle, and luckily we didn`t run into any trains...or derail on a bridge, or get struck by lighting in the violent lightning storm (I was thinking about the abundance of metal yet lack of rubber wheels)...etc.

The coasts of Colombia are majoritively populated by the descendants of the African people that were brought over shortly after Spanish Colonization--and San Cipriano is no exception. The town itself is two dirt roads lined with basic wooden homes (shacks for lack of a better word) and looks more like the setting of a Sally Struthers commercial asking to please send food fast! And I was the only white person (and only non-native of the town) there which was a cool reversal of how things normally are. The people were beautiful, both in their looks and their disposition--and the kids were some of the cutest. Maria, with whom I was staying was at least 6´2, had too many kids to count(and at whom she could be heard screaming all over town...screaming seemed to be the main form of long distance, and some times short communication) and a great guest quarters with bunk beds, tin roof and plywood walls. It was camp! And with the rainstorm pounding above it was the perfect place for a nap. Reading on the porch with the sound of the flooded river rushing behind, being bitten by bugs, and stared at by the little kids (and sometimes the big ones) was about the only thing to do that night.

The next day I set out into the jungle to see a bit more of the river. The water had settled down from the muddy heights it had reached the day before and was back to it`s clear, beautiful self. On my walk I had the luck to encounter a two man team of ecologists with two guests, that come out to San Cipriano every two months to measure the evaporation, rainfall, etc, to put it into the international data bank of such information. They were a great group, really friendly and interesting to talk to. We checked on the various levels and made some measurements, after which they insisted that I join them for lunch and a swim. It was a great afternoon, and in a show of true Colombian hospitality I rode back with them to Cali and then even stayed at one of their houses for the night! Really friendly people, it was a bunch of fun to talk about everything from the environment and the natural wonders of Colombia, to the politics of the U.S. and Guerilla fighters. Two of them are avid cyclists (the national sport...along with soccer of course..which I think is pretty cool)--hopefully on my next time through I`ll have some more time to go for a few rides in the mountains surrounding Cali.

An interesting thing was that the road between Cali and the coast (one of the only to the Pacific, which attests to the dense jungles and lack of American-style development) is a notorious Guerilla zone. Because of this, the route is full of military personnel, usually in groups of three that constantly patrol the area. They say that it is actually pretty safe thanks to the patrols. I think that the road to San Agustín would probably be the same but by now it is not worth the time to go back anyways. Really, other than the first bus ride that was preceded by woman who successfully instilled in me the "Fear of the Guerilla," I haven`t felt unsafe at all in Colombia. I know that bad things do happen, like a bus that was recently bombed, and a gunfight at the border that Gregor told me about--but the conflict mostly lies between the Government and Guerillas and it is at least satisfying that they are doing something about it and that the situation is getting better. I did have to put my hands against a bus today and be searched...why, I don`t know...but at least they`re working at it.

Out of Cali now, and on to Armenia, which is the largest city in coffee country. The first thing I noticed when I got into town (other than that my backpack was mysteriously wet and that this place is so not touristy that it isn`t even listed in the Lonely Planet....which is nice) was the disproportionate amount of really good (I sampled a few...the return of Breadboy is full on) bakeries, ice cream shops, and all other things rich in taste. I got onto the scent of this place from a good article in the New York Times and am sure that I will find plenty to do in the surrounding area, from visiting coffee plantations in picturesque little towns to the Coffee National Park. Colombia, between great people and places is giving me no lack of things to do or good times to be had.


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