A message the other day had me thinking about how the sun isn’t always with us as we travel but that it really is the truth, after every storm comes the sun. In Colombia the sun seemed to shine for most of the time but there were moments. Here’s an excerpt so you can see what I mean.‘The streets of the sleepy river town of Ambalema were cobbled, the thick walls painted brilliant white and the roofs tiled with terracotta. It was a place that time had largely forgotten. Even the vehicles looked as if they were leftovers from another age. Our hostal ‘find’ had undercover parking for the bikes and clean rooms that reminded me of rooms in old English pubs. To our amazement, tucked out the back in flower gardens was a twelve metre, crystal-clear swimming pool.
This stay also gave me the chance to try to deal with a very irritating slow puncture. I’d been putting off the task but could do so no longer. Guy and I entertained the girls with what we called ‘the tyre dance’ as we both balanced on the tyre trying to break the bead. We were successful, eventually, but with the tube off and semi-inflated in a bowl of water I couldn’t find any trace of the leak. The valve wasn’t bubbling either. It was irritating because this was the last of my new inner tubes, but rather than put up with the hassle I put an old tube back in and kept the new, leaking one for emergencies only. Not what one is supposed to do but I was well and truly at the ‘Stuff it!’ stage.
In the gentle evening warmth we soon learned to promenade like the locals. ‘When in Rome…’ The tree-lined plaza was the venue for everyone’s stroll. At the edge of the square, the majesty of the Catholic Church looked out over the shops, bars and billiard halls that lined the rest of the square. We were surprised at the mania for billiards in Colombia but not by the mania for beer. If you like good German lager then you’ll like this stuff.
The Saturday night promenade is when ‘everyone’ comes to town. Pretty girls on scooters cruise the plaza. Whole families travel three or four-up on well-loved 125cc trail bikes and the rest just stroll. Even the local gauchos (cowboys) are in town. These guys are full of machismo and know how to show off in style. They thunder into town with the full kit on – chaps, Stetson hats and knotted kerchiefs. Their tiny horses are beautifully groomed and are raced up and down the cobbles, sparks flying from their metal shoes. Some of the guys have a real dressage routine worked out and flick their horses through a series of dainty, prancing steps.
Once the whole town knows that the ‘boys’ are in town, they pile into a bar and get stuck into some serious relaxing. Their steeds aren’t neglected either. The horses too seem to have a taste for the amber nectar and are given regular slurps as they wait patiently for their soon-to-be-very-drunk owners to try to climb aboard. Much laughter and loss of face accompanies a failed attempt to hoist aboard, but they always seem to manage it eventually and the ‘homing’ horses set off with the ‘riders’ slumped in a very relaxed state.
Stopping in Ambalema for the extra days gave us the chance to do some exploring with the luggage off the bikes – actually we just took the luggage off Libby and went two up on her. It felt really strange to be riding her without the weight of all the kit and she looked almost nude! But it was fun to have Birgit on the back of the bike – for a change we could talk to each other without having to stop.
With no luggage on the bike we were able to head right out into the countryside and get really off the beaten track. The dirt roads were great fun, though at times they were decidedly challenging. The frequent rains may keep the landscape of Colombia lush and green, but it also plays havoc with the roads. Many were washed away and frequently we’d come across sections that looked as if only feet and donkeys had made it through for months. Around us was kilometre after kilometre of coffee plantation. The fields sprawled in very dark green shiny rows across the hillsides. Small villages, with rough-rendered walls and corrugated iron roofs, clustered at road junctions. And at each of these junctions the locals would set up rough-and-ready stalls, from which they were selling second hand odds-’n-sods and fruit. The odds cost little more than buttons and the fruit was the cheapest we’d seen in weeks. A whole stem of bananas cost roughly 20 US cents – very tasty too.Some of the winding roads were cut into the steeply sloping fields with an apparent randomness that not only challenged logic but made them singularly difficult to ride. Some were across soil that was so black that the beaten wheel tracks had taken on a glossy sheen that made it look as if we were riding on coal. Travelling up and down the hillsides was rather like riding through a health spa. At one moment we’d be down at low level and sweating with the effort of riding through steamy, torpid heat, and the next we’d be up along the side of a mountain and plunged into the cold, particularly when we hit the shadows.
The rain continued on with the pattern that had started in Quito. The mornings were always beautiful and dry, but by siesta time the sun had completely disappeared into brooding inky clouds, and those clouds would open to throw water at us for hours.
If we were caught out in it, the only thing to do was to pull over and find a building overhang to shelter under until the rain stopped. This wasn’t so hard because many of the older buildings had been constructed with veranda walkways. We could see now that these provided shade from the sun, and shelter from the rains. If the roofs were corrugated iron then the noise under them would be deafening and there was no point in trying to talk – even shouting at the top of our voices didn’t work. Miming was the only way to communicate. As the water literally shot off the iron it would gush out right into the street with amazing force. When I put my hand into the gushing stream one day, the force of it smacked my hand back down to my side.
If we were sheltering under the thick terracotta tiles of an older building then the experience was quieter but even more surreal. The noise of the water hitting the ground took over as being the loudest. This made us feel as if we were standing in a quiet pocket that was surrounded by a noise that was a violent and very persistent collection of slashing and thundering. But, under the overhang we could hear each other talk and sometimes could even hear the conversations going on inside the building.
The longer the rain continued the cooler it got. It was almost as if the rains were sucking out and washing away any of the warmth that had built up in the buildings during the morning. But the cool that had eased in with the rain soon turned into a sticky, sweaty heat as the sun tried to work its way back though the now much paler grey above.The dirt of the road would always steam in front of us as the sun came through the remaining clouds in laser-like beams. As we rode, these beams of light eased across the landscape like a slow-moving, mirrored disco ball. As they hit the shiny leaves of the coffee bushes they would turn the world from a dank and moody place into one that was alive with brilliant light and dancing shadows.
It was time to move on though. The capital, Bogota, was calling, and the city was madness. How many million people on the road all trying to be first?! There weren’t any of the usual South American city speed bumps either. But the potholes were massive and the ever-present threat of missing manhole covers was enough to keep the speed down to a manageable level.
Bogota traffic lights are designed to frustrate drivers and overheat motorcycle engines! Our feet turned into portable swimming pools under the Boxer twins’ horizontal cylinders. We had only driven 150 kilometres the day we arrived but were shattered by the time we found somewhere to stay. The few budget hotels all had entrances too narrow to fit the wide handlebars of the BMWs through. But the old and rather magnificent Youth Hostel building, tucked onto the edge of the city centre, had a large arched double door onto the street. With the help of some chunks of wood we found lying in the gutters we could get the bikes up through the doors.
Inside, we found a large tiled courtyard lined with plants in big terracotta pots. It was covered with a curved and yellow-stained glass roof. Perfect. The door was locked at night, they had a room that the four of us could share, and we were within easy walking distance of the sights and shops.
The madness that is Bogota continued as we found our way around and continued researching how to get the bikes from Colombia to Panama. To us, the best option had been less than $US400 to fly the bikes and us across the Darien Gap. As we’d found before, trying to do bike things and bike-related research is a fantastic way to see a city. Yes we could and did go to the things that you are supposed to see, and Bogota has many of those, but the hunt for my rain trousers took us to another world.The hunt took us into back streets where small businesses survive as punctuation marks nestling between bigger firms. It’s a world where large, battered and overloaded trucks lumber through traffic that seems to be mainly made up of pickup trucks, taxis and bicycles. Money never seemed to be spared to paint anything that wasn’t advertising something, and most of the unwashed windows were guarded by rusting black bars. Small piles of rubbish had collected against solid objects that sat in the gutters. A trashed and rusting Chevy with no wheels and no glass in the windows had the biggest collection of old newspapers, plastic bags, a broken plastic sandal, water bottles, plastic coke bottles, bits of old string, and silt mashed up against it.
I found some rain trousers, not in a sports shop, nor in a bike shop, but in a workmen’s warehouse that was stacked high with tools, small sized work boots, small size overalls and small size fluorescent jackets, all ‘Made in China’. It was almost as if we’d stumbled across a store for little people, but then it clicked. Most of the men we’d seen working on the roads, on the building sites and in the fields were of Indian extraction – and they were little people.
Fortunately I managed to find a pair of navy blue waterproof trousers that sort of fitted. The legs were cut for a little person so the crotch of the ‘grande’ trousers sat at lower thigh level and the waistline was cut so high that it looked as if the trousers had been modelled on a very short, very fat person whose aim was to be able to fasten the elastic over his belly. They made me look like an overgrown toddler. When I tried to walk in the things, it looked as if I were doing so with a filled nappy. Not very elegant… but on the bike, when they’d ridden up over the saddle, at least I’d be dry from the knees upwards!
Another bike-related hunt took us to the posh part of town. We were staggered at the wealth. Majestic houses with manicured gardens and high walls, sat one against the other. We could see large patios, swimming pools and flashy cars lined up inside. We could probably have seen more too, if we’d been nosy and prepared to risk the wrath of the sun-glass wearing brutes that were guarding the gates. Strangely, none of the walls seemed to have the necklaces of razor wire and broken bottles we’d seen in so many other South American cities.
We were in this part of town because we were heading for the Panamanian Embassy. The airlines had told us that we’d be refused entry without a return ticket of some sort, unless we had a permit for single and one-way entry.
Like most things in Latin America, it took us several trips, lots of waiting around and several days to get these permits. At first, the Consul, who was a slim, black-suited, extremely dapper man with jet-black greased hair that sat in place in perfectly spaced furrows on his head, said that such a permit was impossible. We’d have to buy a return air ticket and get a refund from the airline in question. We’d already thought of this option and discovered it was a rip off. We’d get almost nada back.
Then he told us that he’d never done such a permit before, and wasn’t sure how to go about it, or if he wanted to accept the responsibility for it. We suggested that he telephone Panamanian Immigration in Panama, but of course the international lines were down, and that meant he couldn’t fax either. Days later, he hadn’t lost courage; he had managed to contact the Immigration department and managed to get a positive reply. The instructions were that he had to provide a certificate of his own design with the appropriate information and references on it, and had to fax copies of our passports across.
Perfect, and this would also stand us in good stead if we managed to get a boat across. The amazing thing was that even though the Consul had spent hours with us, hours on the phone and had had his secretary active on our behalves too, he wouldn’t charge us a cent. He told us that we just had to make sure that we enjoyed his country!
After a week, prices, dates and contacts were in our admin file, as our insurance policy in case we couldn’t find another option up on the coast. We headed north again, but slowly – the city’s terrible road signs ran us literally round the houses for an hour before suddenly spitting us out into the Colombian countryside…’
Challenges are so seldom disasters are they.