A Passion For Prawns.
There is a huge, floating Scientology church in front of us as we contemplatively chew on our final meal aboard the Stahlratte. The enormous cruiser is called Freewinds and sails the seven seas posing as a training facility for level 8 Scientologists. We wonder if Tom Cruise is onboard leaping about on the soft furnishings but it seems to be peopled only by efficient looking, blue shirted crew. Or perhaps you must be clad in navy if you are being trained? We don’t know but we enjoy watching them suddenly run in the same direction to gather in a tight groups as if someone has activated a Scientology remote control by which they are operated. Eventually the group disperse and start to sweep the decks and other boringly normal task and we lose interest and focus instead on our food.
I am surprised by my hunger. After 28 hours of stomach churning seasickness I suddenly feel completely normal. It is almost alarming after I had resigned myself to a lifetime of debilitating queasiness and I reach for the plate of gouda with cumin cheerfully. It goes down rather splendidly and I reach for a couple more slices in celebration. The rest of the group liberally douse sliced fruit in yogurt, spoon out great quantities of Bircher muesli and lower rolled slices of ham in to their mouths. It seems everyone else is miraculously cured too.
I believed while I lay in my darkened bunk, in the endlessly swaying night, that I would give my left leg and both arms to be back on dry land but now that our coffee cups are cooling and the last morsels of scrambled egg are scraped from the pan, I’m not so sure. It’s a rather cosy life onboard a ship when you aren’t chucking your guts up over the side. I have grown really fond of this disparate, rag tag bunch of adventurous souls and am gripped by a sudden desire to turn the boat around and sail off in to the ocean, trapping them all onboard. Fortunately for them I couldn’t find the engine room and am terrible with nautical charts. So, we clear the dishes and amble about reclaiming our shoes which feel alien but pleasant on our tanned feet and hop down the ladder in to the motorboat.
A brief zip through Cartagena’s oily harbour sees us unceremoniously deposited on to the new continent by way of a semi collapsed wooden jetty where we huddle together like battery chickens who only understand tiny spaces. The world seems impossibly spacious after three days on a boat but the ground beneath our feet is blessedly motionless and that puts me in a better mood immediately. The rest of the group are tipped on to the jetty with a confused clattering and the next ten minutes are spent busily squashing ourselves in to a host of miniature taxis and being ripped off by the drivers. Bev, John and ourselves have, as usual booked the same hotel independently of one another so we squeeze in together and arrive right behind a bunch of the others who are booked in to the hotel over the road.
We spend much of the day sleeping enthusiastically then rise reluctantly in the evening to join our friends at a bar around the corner. We end up on an enormously long table sipping cheap mojitos and sweating in the hot, nighttime air. The atmosphere is that curious mix of familiar and relaxed but also a little lost and awkward which you often find at work nights out. But it’s nice to find ourselves lost in a swirl of lazy laughter and chatting, occasional silence and clinking glasses. To be on a new continent, in a new country and yet be surrounded by the comforting clucks of new friends is pleasant, even if we do suddenly discover that we may not all share that much in common after all.
At five thirty in the morning the following day, all of Cartagena appears to have risen with us to frantically exercise on every patch of grass between our hotel and the broken jetty. We are up at five, knocking gently for Bev and John who quietly follow us out to ogle at the enormous numbers of lycra clad citizens hopping about all through the city. The Colombian diet is not what one would call lycra friendly but the chattering, panting groups of Cartagenians makes for a cheerful spectacle nonetheless. It is already heating up quickly but the sprinting, slogging, flopping exercisers seem unfazed, chatting with their friends and adjusting their swishy hair from time to time. We reach the jetty by five to six just as Josephine and Simon slope up, followed closely by Michael and Frauke. I sit on the pavement, feet on the rotten wooden boards staring in to the water. A plastic chess piece, a pawn, floats in the shallows, bobbing gently when a boat passes. I shift my feet to lean over and get a better look, imagining a passionate chess match played by fisherman and brought to a premature close when the loser, sporting a spit drizzled grey beard and anger knitted brows chucks the whole game over the side. Bet he regrets that now they’ve only got Monopoly.
I squint at the distant Stahlratte and rest my chin on my knees. The day stretches out insistently ahead of us and I wish it were over so I could go to the prawn cocktail stands in town and dribble mayonnaise down my front. Instead, I will wait here on the dusty shore in the glare of the sun which is already bouncing off the sky scrapers waiting for Jamie and Robin. A motorboat comes to pick up those riders who have actually managed to haul themselves out of bed and whisk them back to the ship. A flurry of paperwork ensues and the handing back of the big, beautiful pile of international passports. A miniature floating dock pulls up, dwarfed by the Stahratte’s rusty bulk and the bikes are winched in groups of six, precariously on to the tiny dock. Six helmeted riders clamber in to join their bike and jump back in the saddle, balancing nervously against the lurching of the rig in the busy waters.
From a distance the whole affair looks completely improvised. It is the most ridiculously hazardous way one can think of to transfer these great, hulking motorbikes to shore and we find ourselves laughing anxiously, taking photos in case it’s the last time we see our trusty steeds or trusty menfolk. Each time a speedboat zooms past, the captain of the barge waves and shouts enthusiastically encouraging them to slow down lest the waves tip the whole teetering cargo straight in to the grubby waters.
I can pick Jamie out amongst the helmeted gymnasts clinging on to their bikes and stroll down to meet the raft as it comes in. A plank is dumped off the edge of the raft and he rides swiftly down it. It occurs to me briefly that I would almost certainly have driven straight off the plank and that its a good job I am playing pillion on the back. I call out to him and wave but he doesn’t hear me and roars off with the rest of the group to the customs office.
I shout but he is gone. Frauke and Daniella, the sole non-biker contingent of the group, join me quietly. Michael has also disappeared and we are alone again with rumbling stomachs and tired, gravelly eyes. We don’t know where the customs office is or have any real inclination to find it so we shamble down to an intensely over cleansed local supermarket where I wildly overestimate how much fruit I can eat for breakfast. The building is cool and bright, full of nice, shiny things and I stop and watch with interest as an employee cleans the fixtures with a toothbrush on his hands and knees. What attention to detail, I think happily and order a horchata from the cafe and sit watching, spellbound,as Frauke carefully notes all her expenditure from the last two days in a notebook. Delightfully German behaviour, I think and wonder if, perhaps, this might have saved us five months of copious overspend though the thought is soon swept away as we make our way back to the jetty and sit in the shade wondering what to do with ourselves.
Fortunately, Jamie sticks with Michael who, in a further display of dazzling organisation, has a phone and uses it to text their whereabouts to Frauke. We are all sweaty, tired and bored by the time we find each other and only then does Jamie break the news that the Colombian officials really must have their lunch so he and the seventeen other riders must go all the way back at two when some minor, unexplained detail will be completed. Oh and we also need insurance.
I say with my best disaffected youth voice and slump after Jamie back to the Hotel Magdalena to lie in the air conditioning to recover from the heat and ennui. On the plus side, a good, hearty, lardy dinner here only costs £2 and a mojito the same, so when we are recovered we dine in the historic centre supping icey glasses of fresh passionfruit juice and smoked pork ribs. Jamie finds a blanched looking caterpillar in his soup and pushes it to one side. I look at it for a moment. Look at my soup and shrug. There will be plenty worse I figure and indeed, the following day I am given a cooling bowl of grey fish soup with the shattered remnants of several hundred fish lying in shards at the bottom. My spoon scoops up a blank, popping white eyeball, a jaw bone and a handful of scales on each dip and eventually, even I am defeated. I put the spoon down and pick a large, silvery scale off my tongue wondering if we shouldn’t be paying a bit more for our dinner. Still, I figure, at least it wasn’t tripe.
The food situation improves later when we finally make it to the prawn cocktail stands. Forget the beautiful, charmingly restored shops, forget the gorgeous cobbles, the glinting wine bars and majestic city walls, I tell Jamie authoritatively, the prawn cocktail is what Cartagena is all about. Two years ago I put on a hopeful enough face that I was rewarded with the recipe for the creamy, gungey, limey little pots of crustaceans. I wasn’t done then and I’m not done now so I pull Jamie along by his arm and order us each a pot. They are a pricey delicacy here, the second to smallest pot coming in at £2, the same as a basic two course dinner of caterpillars and fish mouths but ever so worth it and besides, the men who run the stalls are magicians. They pile your little styrofoam pot high with prawns, heaping diced onions on top then mayonnaise and tomato puree on top again. The pile wobbles and teeters while they glug the remaining twenty seven thousand ingredients on top and finish with a flourish of fresh lime juice. There is no way, you think, that you can stir that enormous, quaking confection together without making a big mess of yourself. You watch with bated breath, imagining tsunamis of mayonnaise, but he sticks a spoon in to the pot and expertly scoops and stirs for ten seconds and the whole lot is neatly stirred together, not a drop wasted. Oh and those prawns. Slurped up with a little plastic spoon in the sultry, tropical air. Tangy and crunchy, rich and creamy and all nibbled down with a packet of delicate salted crackers which break immediately in half as soon as you look at them.
We sit at a plastic table guzzling the prawns and drinking more passionfruit juice (which is my newest fad, margarita who?) and noting that, of the seven or so stalls along the pavement, every single one sells exactly the same thing. They even decorate their stalls the same. They even put their tellies in the same place. This is a phenomenon we have noted from the top of Mexico all the way down to this very spot. All the vendors of a particular product gather themselves together in one spot and vend the hell out of the same product. All the homemade icecreams are the same flavour, the ceviches are the same, even the ‘off piste’ ceviches recipes are shared amongst everyone. Every restaurant in a market offer the same menu, each stand sells the same toys, bags, shoes or hats. How anyone attracts customers to their shop is beyond me unless they just rely on dazed passers slowly absorbing the product they would like to consume by sheer repetition and simpy zombieing in, mouthing ‘Prawns. Same as the others please’. It does seem that there is a definite mistrust of lone wolves in this part of the world. People like to be together and if not in the same room, then at least in the same building. If not in the same building then definitely within earshot of everyone else. Hence, the streets and houses clatter with noise day and night and everyone seems mighty pleased about it. Perhaps the clusters of prawn vendors is a sign of solidarity and togetherness. They who prawn together are warm together? I don’t know and really, it doesn’t matter, the prawns are delicious and the night is young. We munch them down happily and set to wandering about in the historic centre.
Cartagena de Indias grew from a steamy, tropical inlet which was once home to the Calimar people in to one of the most important ports in South America at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. The Spaniards, who had an eye for such things, spotted a good opportunity when they saw one and kindly relieved the locals of the area then went nutty with the construction. Thick walled, gorgeously colonnaded buildings replete with archways, beautifully carved wooden doors and a nice spot of bougainvillea made the place a grand old home. That is until the mean, old pirates spotted an opportunity when they saw one and repeatedly ransacked the place for the huge quantity of gold and silver the Spanish had gotten by entirely innocent means and were exporting by the boat load. Even our very own Sir Francis Drake had a crack at it, destroying one part of the city and holding it to ransom such was the craze for all that glistered. The Spaniards had a bit of a think about it then set about, with selfless zeal, building the hulking fortified walls lined with canons that still surround the old city today.
Beyond the walls now sprawls a jarring crowd of enormous skyscrapers, yuppy apartments and a litany of architectural apologies crisscrossed with smoggy, ugly roads and chicken shops. This and the old town are all towered over by the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which, to the conquistadors anyway, was the greatest fort ever built. It jars weirdly against the broken pavements and poxy looking dogs littering the streets and, by the time we get it, we are too hot and bothered to even go in and have a look.
We pass under its watchful, stony gaze as we head out of town to buy our vehicle insurance. Each border we cross has been designed by some arsehole who likes nothing more than to confuse people. That, or a small rabble of locals has come together to build a variety of sheds then fill them with photocopiers, random pieces of paper and absolutely no logical sytem nor instructions in sight. The idea must be to organically grow a border crossing by means of telecommunication but without the means to intercept any of these messages of the mind. Crossing by sea in to Colombia seems to have been organised in much the same fashion. Great reams of paperwork that take Ludwig two days to complete, hours waiting around in customs, demands to come back later after the tiniest of final details are interrupted by lunch. Finally, after the hoops have been jumped we are told we must buy insurance to ride our motorcycles on Colombian soil. Ah but of course one cannot purchase insurance here at customs, the most logical place, one would have thought, to buy it. Señor Silly Billy, you are in Latin America and your stupid, European logic doesn’t apply here. No, you must cross on foot to the other side of the city to buy this insurance and when you get there, there will be a confusing queueing system which will be obvious to the locals but completely opaque to you. Oh and there will also be a confusing payment system and a variety of desks with no queue at all but who will, under no circumstances serve you, now go!
When we have finally worked through the process, insurance papers clutched in our sweaty mitts, we have exhausted ourselves. We cross over the road to stare balefully up at the imposing fortress, clothes hanging damply off us.
You don’t seem very keen…
Says Jamie. I can see tiny little people staring back down at us from the top. I can’t overstate how steamy the weather is here and how twenty eight hours of seasickness continues to suck the life from you and how lazy I am. I look at Jamie guiltily and in a small voice designed for high octane adorability, suggest we maybe go and get a beer instead. I can see Jamie warming to the idea almost immediately and he takes my slippery hand in his and marches me back through the litter blown streets and in to the historic centre to blanch at the cost of beer.
Gradually, the Stahratte crew disperse, leaving Cartagena, headed south for Argentina. Over the two days we hug and wave the chickens out from the cage then finally it is time for us to leave too. We are bound for Medellin where one of my main obsessions besides passionfruit juice and margaritas resides; cable cars. Unfortunately, it’s two days drive so we stop off in the unprepossessing city of Montería where Jamie drives the bike into a small wall while riding on the pavement alone, disfiguring the pannier and permanently scarring our Costa Rica sticker.
He is cross when he comes back in and that makes me cross so we bicker and argue again, having been nice to each other for an outstanding amount of time on the boat. It is almost a relief to reveal our true selves again by shouting. Jamie gives me a black look and goes outside to thwack doggedly at the trapezoidal pannier with a hammer. He comes back in and announces that even very friendly Colombians won’t talk to an angry gringo hitting things with a hammer and that breaks the ice a little. We manage an evening of civility, dining out on enormous, quaking pieces of pig and are ready by five thirty the next day to boldly navigate our way in the wrong direction out of the city surrounded by millions of motorbikes waving and asking where we are from whilst travelling at forty miles an hour.
Our journey to Medellin is thwarted by the lack of railways or invention of four lane highways. The narrow, winding road we take through the mountains levers us higher and higher until we are bursting in and out of the clouds. Unfortunately, it is the only route to Medellin and Medellin is a hungry animal. All the fresh produce, bits and bobs, dribs and drabs the city consumes must be freighted in by lorry down this one, skinny, bendy little road. There are no railways to lighten the load so the traffic is heavy and when something goes wrong, it really goes wrong. We pull up to a lorry heavy traffic jam running through a village and I can feel Jamie’s twitchy alert go straight to ten. We wait for a while, nothing moves. Hairy arms hang out of the cabs tapping out a rhythm on the door. Faces appear, greeting passers by, staring at Robin in undisguised confusion, squeezing spots in the rear view mirror. No one seems at all fazed though I know from experience that most Latin American citizens are extraordinarily patient and cheerful in the face of enormous, unexplained delays so I am not comforted much.
Jamie is now a certified Mexican Maniac on the bike, albeit a rather slow one. He now cheerfully undertakes articulated lorries in the hard shoulder, pulls u-turns on the motorway and makes chortling jaunts the wrong way down one streets. There isn’t much choice here, I must add, it’s just what you do to get by. So, he revs up the bike and start to slowly slink in and out of the jam of lorries searching for whatever is blocking the way. The block never appears though and the line of stationary lorries goes on and on and on. Cheeky taxis and fellow bikers nip out and zip up the road in the oncoming lane with us until an oncoming lorry forces us all in to squeezy nooks between bumper and backdoor again. It continues like this for an hour and a half. Thirty metre hurtle, squidge back in, fifty five metre dash, woah woah woah back in back in! Halfway along we come to a bridge on which one lane has been closed for works and mysteriously taken over by the military in the guise of traffic wardens. Ah, we think, here is the source of our woes. Alas, it’s just the half of it and continuing in achey, frightening dribs up the road in the roar of oncoming lorries we find both a traffic accident where a lorry driver has driven in to a wall and a red vehicle, so enormous it can’t really fit round corners and has to do a five point turn at every bend.
By the time we finally wheeze out the end of it all, we are knackered, twitchy and covered in a fine layer of exhaust fumes. At least we made it though! I think as bouncily as I am able. What we don’t bargain for is that the Colombian government have hired a bag of cats to do the town planning for Medellin. Imagine said bag of felines is tipped unceremoniously out on to a large sheet of paper and given four hundred balls of wool and one tin of Whiskas to share. Then imagine a computer tracking their movements a little like that programme on telly where channel four ran out of ideas and put GPS trackers on people’s cats. Now take the resulting diagram and build a city from it. When you have finished, pour fifteen million motorcyclists with no concept of the words ‘behind you‘, 10 million old bangers driven by maniacs and a great handful of fifteenth century school buses and whisper the instructions ‘finish them all‘ in the driver’s ears. Now take all the catalytic convertors off every vehicle and drive straight in to it.
We end up in a huge, tangled, smoking bolognese of traffic watching an alarming number of people with missing limbs threading through the cars. Men in overalls paint doors, police blow whistles a bit, a few women shout unintelligible things at nobody. It’s a sad, slightly unsettling scene and we are glued to the spot, unable to move our sorry arses out of there. At least, that’s what I think but I forget that Jamie is now prone to sudden Incredible Hulk-like shifts of road user sanity. He huffs in frustration and then out comes El Loco and he is suddenly driving the bike over a partition and in to an underpass.
Oh shit it doesn’t go the right way!
He shouts as soon as he has dragged us in to the underpass, turns the bike back round and tries to drive back over the partition we have just crossed. Robin isn’t so sure and becomes immediately, blushingly hooked by her undercarriage to the sharp hump of concrete. Jamie revs the bike and we come to a seesawing balance, clouds of exhaust billowing out behind us and a bus revving up, ready to follow his instructions.
What are you doing you maniac? What are you doing!?
I squeal, patting Jamie anxiously on the shoulders.
Let me off! Jamie! El Loco! Off! We are stuck!
But Jamie knows Robin better than I and revs hard one last time, dragging her forward with his legs like Fred Flintstone and we are suddenly free to nip in to the closing gap between the bus and an unpleasant, ketchupy end on the tarmac.
Contrary to initial appearances though, Medellin is a pretty groovy city these days. Despite great masses of concrete and a busyness surpassed only by Oxford Circus tube station on a Saturday, there’s a lot to see and do. Twenty years back, Medellin was considered the MOST DANGEROUS CITY IN THE UNIVERSE. Shocking, I know. Pablo Escobar, a moutacheod young cash enthusiast was moving 80 tons of cocaine a week to the US who pretended to be very cross about it indeed. He was raking the cash in, allegedly spending a thousand dollars a week just on the elastic bands used to bundle up all the flippy flappy, get in the way banknotes. Ten percent of his profits each year were also ending up in the mouths of thr city’s rats who were sneaking in to his warehouses to chew on the money but he was a generous man so he benevolently wrote it off and forgot about it.
Immensely successful and popular, he flashed the cash about a little, building things and bestowing luxuries upon the poor, got himself elected to the Chamber of Representives and built himself a zoo. Six hundred police died at the hands of his hitmen and Medellin’s crime statistics spiralled out of control. A life was worth little more than twenty dollars as hit men parried for business and central Medellin became a very dangerous place indeed. These days you still occasionally encounter these assassins driving cabs and living the honest life and it all becomes rather hard to believe. It’s true though and it only began to wind down when Colombian authorities had finally had enough of Escobar having all the fun. Poor old Pablo was gunned down by the cops whilst fleeing over the rooftops in December of 1993.
Medellin has since returned to a state of near normality. It is still mad with barely controlled drivers, manic crowds and rife with prostitution, crime and poverty but it is also, a good city. The central square, a beautiful expansion of the lungs in the middle of the crowded streets, is watched over by Fernando Botero’s gorgeously voluminous sculptures and an enormous art deco art museum. There are palm trees dotted about and vast quantities of street vendors selling ludicrously economical treats. We slurp down big, icey cups of a mystery green citrus juice, long, chargrilled sticks of spicy meat topped with a potato and crunchy, blackened chorizo all for a quid or less.
Two years ago, alone in Medellin and less than enthusiastic with the tumbling, dirty, chaotic city spreading out before me, I took the metro to the station that said ‘metrocable’ next to it on the map. I was treated to the wonderful sight of a line of cable cars rising up a hill crammed with wonky, red brick houses roofed with corrugated iron. Two changes further up the hill, I watched as Medellin spread out before me, sluicing down the valley like a giant, concrete river. I was alone in the cable car and thrilled about it, not being one to share a great experience. We rose high up a steep, steep hill and I watched as the houses gradually petered out, replaced by lush green grass, quite at odds with the rabble below. I looked behind me, the cable car stretched right over the hill, a hill topped with trees, fields, the occasional horse. Was I still in Medellin? I reached the top of the hill and the answer became abundantly clear. No I was not still in Medellin. Over the brow of the hill, a low, moaning wind whistled through the cab. I looked about. Stretching out in to the distance, nothing but forest. The occasional hoot of a bird, a butterfly dancing far below me but not another soul. And nobody in the other cabs either. Where on earth am I going? I thought gleefully. Perhaps out of this big, smelly city! Where will it take me?
My camera died after one very unillustrative photo of my feet propped up on the seat in front of me. There were a lot of photos of my feet on that trip. They became almost like a travelling companion but they didn’t do a very convincing job of conveying the mood and slowly, over time, I forgot how superduper, confusing, wonderful that cable car ride had been.
It goes to a forest!
I say to Jamie, who has endured almost two years of cable car related reveries and the look in his face tells me he thinks I’m exaggerating. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I have remembered wrong and it was just a little park, a few trees, an old nag.
We pull up at San Javier station under the scrutiny of the locals who flick glances in our direction wondering what we are doing here.
This way! Look, see!
I march Jamie to the line of people waiting to get on the cable cars and go home. We are ushered, disappointingly, in to a full car with a loudly spoken American, her Chinese colleague and two gawping Colombian women who openly chat about us in Spanish imagining that we don’t understand. We rise in to the air and suddenly, Medellin becomes a patchwork of metal rooftops patched with plastic skylights, bricks, old roof tiles. Some have rusted to a dull, burnt orange, some so new they catch the sunshine and throw it back in our eyes. Paintings of hummingbirds and butterflies adorn about a third of the roofs and cats lie, licking their paws atop smiling bees and hibiscus flowers. Children grub about in their mother’s plant pots, jump down steps, chase their brothers. The American lady talks to us all the way up, spoiling the blissful silence indicative of a good cable car ride and I smile and ask dutifully where they come from whereupon she breaks, quite surprisingly, in to Cantonese whilst she translates for her colleague. The ride ends before she manages to say much more and we politely wish each other a pleasant day and hurry off to hide around a corner lest we face sharing a car for the rest of the ascent.
Since the next bit, the exciting voyage in to the hoepfully jungle bit, isn’t yet open, we continue on from our hiding place to purchase freshly made empanadas stuffed with rice, meat and potatoes and served with lovely, vinegary, firey aji sauce. The kind man, gentlemanly to the last, introduces every empanada practically by name, bows, waves his hands expansively and bestows a wonderful life on us when he takes our money. His wife looks at us with undisguised confusion as though we are the only tourists to have ever made our way down this street. Possibly, we are. The Medellin suburbs often aren’t encouraged as good places for a foreigner to visit though we find this one to be bubbly and pleasant, full of good smells and laughing families.
We perch on some little, concrete stools and crunch down the little, golden empanadas then march straight back for some more. The wife looks at us in disbelief as though we are pulling a practical joke and simply nods suspiciously when I try to confirm the ingredients in her corn dough. I am puzzling over her reaction for some time while Jamie chews on another bacon flavoured empanada. My memory of Colombia is one of joyfully happy, proud Colombians excited to see a foreigner in town. I told myself hundreds of times that this was because I stayed in the same little town and got to know many of the citizens relatively well but it hasn’t stuck. The strange glances and blank faces we are receiving are not what I have sold to Jamie, not at all. The feeling of disquiet follows me to the juice stand where a kind but distracted man serves us orange juice.
I ask, cautiously, having watched him tip a variety of strange ingredients in to the previous customers cup. He nods and pours a tiny bottle of Royal Jelly Ginseng juice with Chinese writing on it in to the mix. He follows up with a great squeeze of honey and a spoonful of strange, dusty, red pellets which I assume are either acai berries or some other health advancing wonder food.
Wait one minute.
He says to me, pours the whole lot in a blender and wanders off. He takes the blender over the street and plugs it in to a power point randomly located in a wall that divides two roads. Staring in to the distance and clutching the blender, he switches it on and waits while the concoction swirls about, paling in colour as it fills with air. He nods and greets a passer by, unplugs the blender and strolls back over to us, passes the cup over and accepts some cash with a smile. Colombia is marvellous, I think, even if people don’t go crazy for my presence every time I step in to the street.
We take the drink in to the station, guzzling it down in sweet, exotic tasting gulps hoping its health giving properties will cancel out the fried, empanada breakfast. By the time the last honey drenched slurps are going down, we have bought a travel card loaded with two journeys and have successfully avoided the American lady who gets on the car in front of us.
Yay! You finally get to see it!
I say, referring to the oft spoken of journey ahead of us. A little gurgle of anxiety goes through me. What if it’s totally rubbish? I think but stay quiet. This time, we have a car to ourselves and it glides up and over the mountainside leaving the houses behind. Two horses amble down an overgrown pathway. A woman chops at the soil with a hoe and the wind catches the branches of the trees then wends its whistling way in to our car filling my face with a smile. We lurch silently over the top and it’s all I can do to stop myself yelling.
It’s like before! The cloud forest! It’s amazing right? Isn’t it weird? Like, we’re suddenly NOT in Medellin!
Jamie gazes out over the huge expanse of unbroken forest with eyes full of wonder. We scud along in silence for a while, staring down in to the trees, tracing the pathways with out eyes. Big, luminous blue butterflies flap as though pulled on threads amongst the lichens and sprouting bromeliads and the occasional bird hoots, just like before.
This is the best thing we have done.
Jamie states with certainty, casually overlooking the crocodiles and tarantulas, the soaring canyons, the eagles and dolphins, the tumbling waterfalls and echoing canyons. I nod enthusiastically and agree. Evidence suggests we make a good travelling team.
After quarter of an hour of excited window gazing, we arrive at the entrance to Parque Arví. It’s true, Medellin really does have a cable car that takes its passengers out to a vast nature reserve where they can bask in birdsong and temporarily adopt a dog. The dog part isn’t official of course, it’s just something that keeps happening whenever we go for a walk. We head up a quiet road from the visitors centre, quiet because everyone else takes a bus, and come to the turn off for the woodland trail. Three dogs are sat by the turning. They all stand up when we arrive as if getting ready to perform tricks to impress us with. Instead of tricks though, the little, fierce looking Jack Russell with stubby ears starts to bark and run around, the big, fluffy black one howls quietly and scratches his flea bites and the brown one chews on Jamie’s boot.
Unimpressive though their tricks may be, we refuse to choose just one and encourage them all along for the walk. The black one remains seated, scritching and scratching frantically and ignoring our pleas. The Jack Russell looks at us with disgust and busily goes ahead to snarl at things and lead the way until it gets distracted by trying to kill something and disappears. The brown one, who is shiny, clean and handsome like a newly opened conker, bounds along joyfully with us scurrying through fences and leaping down holes, always rejoining us further down the road.
We trundle together down wooden steps, sunlight filtering in through the leaves. We pause to inspect little clearings in the forest floor where saplings have been planted. I sit and arrange long pine needles in to patterns on an abandoned picnic table while Conker Dog digs a hole in the floor. And we just breathe. We suck in the clean air like its our last, so carbon dioxide laden are our lungs after Medellin. Its hard to accept that we have to go back to the park entrance and return to the smog but the path slowly curves in a big loop and turns us back towards the city. A gate signals the end of the walk and a smooth strip of tarmac that beckons us back past several restaurants and a couple of lemonade stands. Conker Dog looks as us a little sadly and refuses to follow us anymore. He has led us all the way through the woods and seems to be saying,
Where’s my tip? I thought we had an agreement.
But, tight fisted tourists that we are, he gets nothing and soon, we are gliding back down towards Medellin on the Metrocable lamenting that we can’t fit more animals in to our panniers.
After that, there is no more time in this buzzing, chaotic city except for the four minutes it takes takes to devour some more char grilled chorizo on our hostel room floor and sleep for a while. We take our leave with a mixture of relief to be lifted above the fumes and noise and also with fondness. There’s no time for sentimentality though because we’re headed for the countryside and we have a very big rock to climb. A very big rock indeed.
Cartagena Coctele- here is my haphazard recipe collected two years ago from Cartagena’s finest cocktail stand.
1 mug of fresh prawns
1 heaped spoon of very finely diced red onion
1 freshly squeezed lime
a dash of chilli sauce
a pinch of salt
a dash of garlic water (he had a bottle with peeled garlic cloves floating in it to flavour it)
a dash of vino dulce ( i think this was something like sherry)
a dash of fruit vinegar ( possibly white vinegar with fruit floating in it)
a spoonful of mayo
2 spoonfuls of tomato puree
Stir all the ingredients together and consume
Jamie wishes to add that all riding described in the aforementioned blog post was done in a moderately safe and controlled manner.