From Costa Rica and beyond

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I drove through the rich, green countryside around Villa de Leyva and upward toward Bogota. Rain was constantly threatening and the temperatures dropped as the elevation climbed. The drive was only a couple hours long, but I was a bit nervous.  Bogota is a city of over 8 million people. How hard would it be to navigate my way to one of the hostels I had found in Lonely Planet? I stopped for lunch before pushing into the city limits figuring traffic jams, disorientation, and frustration are that much worse on an empty stomach.

I was glad to have the food in me, no doubt, but my fears quickly subsided. There was a lot of traffic, to be sure, oh and there was the solidarity protest against Farc to reckon with downtown, but the road headed straight to the center, and the amount of traffic  did not seem commensurate for a city of over 8 million people.  It was soon clear why. Metro bus lines to the left of the car and truck lanes ran efficiently and were packed with people. Bus stops looked more like metro stops. Walkways went up over the highway to between the lanes of either direction so pedestrians had easy access without having to dash between cars or interrupt the flow of traffic. Bogota is truly a model city in this respect. My drive was not without detours, but they were clearly marked with big banners hanging over the road - if only the US made detours so easy! Roads were divided into numbered ¨Calles¨ (going east and west) and ¨Carreras¨ (going north and south), not unlike New York City. The only difficulty was deciding which hostel to check out first and figuring out which streets are one way.  I was a bit tired and cold, though, so when I arrived at Platypus, I knew I was not going elsewhere.  Indeed, little did I know that I would be there for a full week. It was Tuesday.

That evening, I needed warm, hearty food.  I was directed to a restaurant called Sabor Al Carbon (flavor of charcoal) for a local specialty, Ajeito. This creamy soup of chicken and a partial cob of corn was warming and, combined with rice, an arepa, and avocado, filling! With a bulging gut, I strolled downtown wondering what would remain of the day´s protest. Finding Bolivar Square was easy, just follow the people and the Christmas lights. The square was ringed by mostly government buildings covered in white Christmas lights. In the middle was a tall tree of mostly blue lights. The 19th century cathedral at the square was open, perhaps because the Church had supported the day´s demonstration. A few anti-Farc banners were still at the square, but the masses had returned to their window shopping on Carrera 7.

Carrera 7 was bustling with life. Stores and vendors sought the attention of passers-by, as did street performers. One very successful act was a middle aged man, cross dressed and singing and dancing to a song about liposuction. His flirtations with other men were real crowd pleasers.

The next day I resumed my exploration of Bogota. By day the propinquity of the mountains hovering over the downtown is clear. There are aerial trams and  a funicular that climb to the summits, one of which is home to a monastery and a statue of the fallen Christ. I looked around the Candelaria district known for some of Bogota´s older dwellings and also for its Bohemian scene. I found the latter later in the day. The narrow streets, cozy cafes and bars and the provocative graffiti are very inviting and intriguing, but I guess I looked like I didn´t belong, as the same guy asked me twice what I wanted there. He would have to be happy with me just wanting to look around and not being interested in the plainly (to every nose) available drug of choice.

That evening,  I planned to visit a bar/cafe I had spotted the previous evening - one that brought 1950s Paris to mind. I sat and chatted with a Dutch woman at the hostel before going out. We had gotten dinner together and she was about to hop on a plane for New York City. It was cold in the hostel. She was wearing at least two fleece tops and commented how cold it was before she left. I then headed to that bar and, finding it closed, returned to the hostel and got ready for bed. It was cold enough that I got out my mummy sleeping bag with which I have been winter camping on the shores of Lake Superior and on Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains. On neither of those trips did I experience cold like I did that night. I laid in my bag under two more blankets and shivered for hours. How could I be this cold?? Soon my chest started to hurt from the exertion of my quivering muscles. I finally got up, went to the kitchen, made some tea and watched TV to try to warm up and relax some. I returned to bed around 4am and finally managed to warm up some and sleep. I knew, though, that I had a fever - not a good sign.

The next day the fever was less but still present. It was joined by a splendid case of the runs. What was it? Dengue? Didn´t look like the symptoms lined up. Perhaps food poisoning. At any rate, I toughed it out that day and one more before deciding to go to a clinic. Excellent - I would see the inside of a Colombian hospital. It was Saturday and there was a line as one would expect, but I saw a nurse to get my vitals within a short while and then the real wait began before seeing a doctor. At least it was clean and WARM at the clinic! The doctor said I had an intestinal infection and gave me an IV, which is exactly what I was hoping for, knowing full well that I was dehydrated. A couple hours with an IV was time well spent. I could lay down and I knew I was getting better. Soon I was cozy warm, sweating even - a really slimy-feeling sweat. That didn´t bother me.

What would bother me was the next step - paying for all this. I am insured, so that is no worry. I simply needed cash. I tried an ATM at the clinic two times, thinking I might have done something wrong the first time. There were more ATMs just outside the clinic. No luck there either, but they were from the same bank as the first one. Then I found other ATMs nearby, but they also refused to work. Ruh roh. I hired a cabby to drive me to other banks. He told me that after three failed attempts, a card will automatically be refused by all others for 24 hours. Super. I returned to the clinic. The woman at the counter was unconcerned. They would hold my passport until I pay. My bigger concern was that I could not purchase my new cocktail of drugs to make sure my newly healthy state would remain.

After a full day of great worry and what-if scenarios, I tried my debit card 24 hours later and it worked. I bought my meds and planned to pay my bill at the clinic the next day. Then I would have to wait a day to get more money to pay my hostel and the parqueador where my bike was.

By the time I left Bogota, a week had passed and I was itching to get outta there. I did not quit town without one last scare, though. Tuesday morning, my card did not work at a bank I had used twice previously. It was then refused at two others. Oh no!! It turned out though, that my first attempt was made when the ATM was disconnected (but not turned off) so it could be restocked with precious Pesos. Whew.

Money issues stuck with me though as I traveled to the next destination. It was good to make my way through the urban jungle back to a more natural setting. I aimed to get half way to Cali, which, according to Googlemaps, should take a total of 8 hours. A four hour ride after being sick seemed very prudent. For the most part, the ride was pleasant and easy. Not too much traffic, nice scenery, good roads, some of them four lane highways. Then the road plunged down into a canyon. The road narrowed and the traffic congealed as passing slower vehicles became really difficult for all but the most nimble - like motorcyclists. It has simply become habit in months of  travel south of the US to cross yellow lines willy-nilly to pass someone. No room on the left, pass them on the right! That is God´s gift to motorcyclists! After one such passing episode, I (along with others) was waved to the side at a police checkpoint. I was told that I had crossed the yellow line. There is a law against that. I would have to pay. A ticket would be very expensive. I think the first guy, genuinely impressed that I was all the way from the US was going to let me off, but his partner appeared and told him to scram. This fellow then insisted, as he held all my documents, that I pay 50,000 pesos (about $26). I had no choice. I planted the money in his hand, turned my back to him, got on my bike and sped away.  My first bribe!! As beautiful as the canyon was with its steep green, partially terraced sides, all I could see was red. I didn´t even know how they saw me pass anyone. I did know, however, how the next post of policemen, just a couple miles up the road, saw me. I passed a truck and suddenly saw the next post and they were already waving me over. No (insert an expletive) WAY!!! This post was staffed by a bunch of officers. And the lead negotiator here seemed to want more money. This time I actually saw a form for a proper citation, but they were in no hurry to fill it out, instead just telling me how much it would cost me. This time, the figure was more like 200,000 pesos (over $100). I tried to drag this process out and got angry about the money amounts. Finally, I pulled out another 50,000 note and for some reason they decided they didn´t need my money after all. I was totally baffled, but also relieved.  Equally baffling was how open they were about this. All the officers were in on this, even a plain-clothes official who looked like a government representative was on site, but cared not.

Now, I drove more slowly and saw just how many of these posts there are along this route. I don´t doubt that this is a dangerous stretch of road. And there is an impressive infrastructure project well underway to complete a roadway with numerous tunnels and bridges - that will be a flat and straight road. I could not not pass anyone, but I waited until there were longer straightaways where I could see if there was a police post or not. I followed behind a guy in a pickup. We got ahead of a trucker and then came across another two man team that stopped both of us. The guy ahead of me gave an animated explanation. I know they were asking how it could be that we were just barely ahead of that semi. This time, I pretended to know no Spanish and made friendly with the young fellow who came over by me. He was carrying an M-16 and had a magazine holder that said US on it - clearly a hand-me-down from the US Army. I pointed at it and gave a thumbs-up. He smiled too and checked out my bike. The other guy joined us and got nowhere trying to speak with me. The first guy signaled that I could go, but the other interrupted him.  Damn!  The number two guy went and talked now to the trucker, to get his account. That´s when three other riders on big Suzukis and one on a BMW showed up. What relief! We greeted each other. These guys were Colombians. Things were looking better. Then it became clear that where we were parked was not just another police posting. This was a stopping point for a washout up ahead. Only one lane of traffic could pass at a time. Soon, the green flag was issued and we could carry on. Whew.

I rode with the three others up out of the canyon, into a light rain, over a pass and back down the other side, past an overturned tanker, and back out of the rain, but into the dark. My four hour day was turning into seven. We took a coffee break  and I showed that I can actually speak a little Spanish - at least not none. One other rider was headed to Armenia, a town I now figured was my best bet for lodging. He took me straight to the hotel.

I wondered if the next four hours to Cali would be more of the same. The four hours were actually more like three. I had covered most of the distance the previous day and the roads on this day were good and straight! Police postings were few and far between. The ride into Cali was simple and finding the hotel run by the sister of my colleague (Angelica Orozco), was equally so. After settling in, I went to the lobby and found the Orozco parents waiting to greet me. They have been to Danville/Peacham many times. I also met Alexandra, who is hosting me here. She speaks no English, so my Spanish is all we can go on. It´s not much, but Alexandra is very kind and gracious. I spoke with Angelica on the phone yesterday. She will arrive here for the holidays on Saturday. So, I am staying here for the weekend before moving on. Quito will be my next major stop. It will be exciting to move into the next country south...and into another hemisphere of people, land, and adventure!

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