Then we turned of the main road onto a still wide, but much quieter byway. And immediately we started to climb. Despite the fact I could see little out of my right hand window, I knew we were climbing out of the Cauca valley. My guide tried to describe the geography in a strangled Spanglais. We were heading towards Armenia, which sits on a small plateau in the foothills of the central Cordillera. Beyond there lay the Magdalena River, the longest wholly in Colombia and beyond that Santa fe de Bogota. To the west, the Cauca started to drop off the plateau that Cali sat on, into a series of gorges where you find Medellin. The world’s perceptions of Medellin is, like Cali, strangely warped. It is one of drug gangs, violent killings and disorder, but most Colombians describe the second city of Colombia as the Garden City. It’s refreshing climate above a massive valley of the Aburra River. A bustling commercial city and the centre for most of the west and north west of Colombia. I found that about Colombia all over. Their attitude to their country was like mine to my home city, Liverpool. Against a barricade of abuse and contempt, they find themselves overselling themselves all the time to try to compensate for the bad press. As I had already discovered in Cali and Gorgona, and was about to discover up ahead, there was really little need for their hype. Colombia is one of the most fantastic countries in the world.
The road twisted and turned and all I saw were high trees protecting farmland, little farm houses, occasional road side stalls all locked up for the night, and the odd person staring like a startled rabbit at the beam lights. We started to drop and the outskirts of a city could be seen. There were electric wires everywhere, more houses, bright flood lights on sports fields, road junctions, a prison, railway yards, and then Armenia approached. We skirted the old city on a dual carriageway, then headed into the commercial centre. Armenia looked much more friendly than Cali, a much smaller city, probably the size of Derby, it nonetheless had a feeling of pride and stature. The central area was built with medium sky-scrapers, but the streets were near deserted at about ten o’clock.
We drove out the back end of the city, up in the hills, the roads more winding still, less substantial. The suburbs gave way to farms, but they were obviously more livestocking than anything else. I was nodding off to sleep now, and still uncertain of how long we had. My man kept telling me “not long”, but every half-hour after he said it, my doubts would rise further.
Then we reached a brow of a hill and a small town was laid out below. A few electric lights could be seen in people’s houses, the occasional street lamp attached to a telegraph pole, and almost deserted streets. Our vehicle sounded booming as it traversed the narrow streets. We opened into an enormous square and hangered left immediately. We stopped and my guide got out and went off into a bar. I followed behind and the first thing he did was buy a drink. I was a bit amazed at this. What I really wanted to do was go to bed. I was even more uncertain as to what I was supposed to be doing. I’d been promised some trekking in the mountains. I was now in a bar ordering drinks in a town. Not a one-horse town, I grant you; by the smell of things I’d have said there were more horses than people. And despite three weeks in Colombia, my Spanish was not good enough to say, “What the Hell is going on” and not cause offence.
So I settled down with my unending faith in life that things will sort themselves out one way or another. Not the best philosophy always, but when there is no alternative, I tend to go with the flow. It doesn’t stop the nausea but it gets rid of any responsibility on my part.
I was then introduced to some of my guy’s friends who were sitting at a table by the door in the half-light. There were only 40 W electric lights in the room, enhanced by a few neon signs and occasional bursts when the fridge was opened, so I struggled to make out who was there. There were a number of rather gorgeous Colombian girls, no more than 20, and one huge fat girl with a broken leg, big red lips, wild curly hair and raucous laugh. She was the only one who spoke any English so small talk elsewhere was out of the question. We sat and drank and I told them about my adventures so far in Colombia. I soon realised that I was in small town America and that few of the crowd had been further than Armenia, let alone Cali, and most of them hadn’t heard of Gorgona. Describing where I came from was equally difficult. I used the bog standard “outside London” which covers a multitude. It probably made no difference. Chatham, Reading, Southend, Watford, Crawley; all are amorphous towns that have no meaning to anyone beyond their confines. I’m not trying to upset any residents of these towns, but plainly stating a few facts. Few people have heard of your town beyond the shores of Britain. Little more than you have heard of Palmira, Buga and Popayan before reading this. However, the questioning got round to where I was born, and I said, Liverpool. Two responses immediately came back – Ahhh the Beatles, Ahhh Football (the memories of Liverpool’s European and Domestic domination were still overwhelming in those days). I’m not sure that they were the things I’d like Liverpool to be remembered for, but it was a much bigger response than I got for saying Chatham.
The inevitable question came “what are you going to do?” Here I was a bit lost, I shrugged my shoulders and said that I’d intended to go up into the Quindio to do some trekking. They all laughed and said “but your in Quindio. That’s the name of the district you are in”. This did not raise my spirits. I said I was going up into some park? At last, a positive response. They told me it’s beautiful up there, there are huge palm trees and cloud forest, birds everywhere and loads of waterfalls.
The stilted conversation carried on, often I would say something mildly witty in English, the limb challenged girl would repeat it in Spanish and there would be hoots of laughter. I looked round to see that my guy, who had been chatting to another friend at the bar, had disappeared (with my bag still in his jeep). I now became very worried. It was almost midnight and I had no possessions, anywhere to sleep and no way of knowing what was meant to happen next. However, I was enjoying the ambience of this little town already. Things were so much more relaxed here than in the big city. I drank more, the conversation got more ridiculous, I understood less and less and started to close my eyes and smile benignly….
Eventually people started to drift away into the night and I was told to keep in touch, see you again when you get back to town. I made all sorts of promises and waved them off into the night, including the big lass on crutches, who’d given me a smackingly big kiss on the way out (nothing from the other girls, I think my new beard was getting a bit too ragged). I never saw any of them ever again.