Two weeks of hanging around Cali was beginning to tire both myself and Mauro out. I needed a complete break to see something of the countryside around. He found a blue and red leaflet that showed the delights of Gorgona, and I was keen to go. Graeme was well enough now after his bout of Typhoid and decided he wanted to come with me. Debbie was less keen but we knew it would do him good as long he was careful about the water.
So one morning, we were down at the huge concrete bus station; thousands of people milling around catching buses in and out of town, others catching super taxis to Buga, Armenia, Popayan, Pasto, and us waiting for our bus that will take us to the Pacific coast this afternoon, ready for an overnight boat trip to the mystic Isle of Gorgona. Super taxis were a new phenomenon to me, I had to use them first to get to Popayan for a day out on my own.
Popayan was an old city to the south of Cali, about half way to the Ecuadorian border, that had been devastated in an earthquake in the 70’s but had been painstakingly rebuilt so you could see all the old white colonial buildings and historical squares in their former glory. I liked it, as Mauro thought I would, but it didn’t suit Angela – “It’s a dead town”. Anyway, I had to catch a super taxi then from Cali bus station. You went up to a counter with the name of the town on it, and you announced your intention to travel. A tout would then find a taxi for you and you waited in it till it filled with five people then you started off. The seats of the taxi were large but even so squashed up against an old roly poly widow for two hours was not too much fun, but it was a compromise between the cheap slow buses and the expensive fast normal taxis.
It was obvious that a lot of people were heading towards this bus, and they had their backpacks and touristy clothes ready. Our little wiry, curly red headed guide was fussing around the bus driver and he eventually came across and checked our tickets; we packed our bags into the side cabins of the coach and boarded.
I liked Graeme enormously and we’d got to know each other very well during my couple of weeks in Cali so far. I was to going to be living out of his pocket for the next five days, and him out of mine, and it would stretch us at times, but we emerged with a lot of mutual respect. Graeme is one of these people who when he doesn’t like things he will tell you, he doesn’t hold back; which can be annoying and dangerous at times. Sometimes, even he realises that his rather pugnacious attitude does not suit, but it is amazing how much he can accomplish with it, and it isn’t something you should lose if you have it. He was still quite off colour, though. The typhoid had come on when he had been in southern Africa on honeymoon with Debbie. They had more or less come straight out to Colombia for Debbie to work at CIAT, and he had been a house husband, but he had suffered dreadfully with the effects of the bug; dehydration, lack of blood cells, tiredness, sickness. He had been in and out of hospital, even tried several herbal remedies, but only now, after several months was he beginning to show signs of recovery. Gorgona was the first really major excursion without Debbie since he had arrived in Colombia. Debbie was scared stiff to be leaving him with an Englishman like me in the middle of Colombia. Graeme’s Spanish was only mildly better than mine (his favourite expression was “bastardi Angi Pantalonies”, which means nothing at all but he liked it). Actually it does mean something and it could be construed as being filthy, but most people just ignored him when he said it at parties. His other expression was “No me molesti”, which roughly translated meant “don’t mess with me” and I found it incredibly useful a number of times in Colombia.
We boarded the coach and started a most amazing journey. We were on our way to Buenaventura, the main Pacific port for Colombia. It was a mere hundred miles away, and about two hours drive, but we were to pass through the most diverse countryside in the world. Cali sits high on a plateau between two of the Andes Cordilleras, the Centrale and the Occidentale. To reach Buenaventura, we first had to battle our way across the Cali river and the traffic of the Calles, Carreras and Avenidas and then skim past the industrial town of Yumba to the north before rising high into the mountains of the western Cordillera. We drove steeply up, past all the Narcoville flats with their massive satellite dishes on their rooves. We rose up a steep valley, stripped bare of any vegetation (no wonder so much erosion occurs in the Andes), past boys playing the most dangerous game in the world. They sit on their bikes, hold on to the backs of buses and rise up to the top of the mountain ridge above Cali. They let go. They freewheel down the main road; twenty kilometres, to the city streets, in amongst the traffic, the lorries and buses both rising and descending, past dogs, children, old people and chickens wandering around the road, past all the cars trying to overtake in both directions. They try not to brake, although the hairpins they traverse inevitably make them go for their handlebars. And at the bottom they are doing 60 miles an hour.
We reached the top and travelled through some of the degraded cloud forest of the peaks. Here many people have their weekend fincas, including the drug barons, as Graeme and I had found out a week before. The area of the high mountains is beautiful, the air is fresh, the countryside beautiful, with wild ranches and farms in amongst glorious forest and waterfalls. Then we started to rise again, and once we reached the next summit, we were in desert. Cactus clung to the hillside as we rose even further. We reached the point where the road down to Buga meets. We were now on the main road to the coast not only from Cali but also from Bogota and the rest of the country.
The road began to wind downwards through some spectacular gorges, plunging deep into tunnels and playing cat and mouse with a disused railway line. This started to give way and above the top of the gorge I could see a sky heavy with black clouds, and as the rocky sides gave way to tropical rainforest; the first I had ever seen, the humidity tipped over the edge and a huge thunderstorm fell on the miserable souls out on the side of the road.
At the time, this was the poorest place I had ever seen. Many of the people were black, the first predominantly black community I had seen in Colombia. They lived in shacks which had been creosoted once, many years ago, but were now a dismal grey colour, rotten in places and badly in need of repair that the occupants could barely afford. Around the grey habitations was a luminous green forest; bananas, cassava and other crops inextricably caught up in true jungle.