10,000 Miles: Episode 4
Mile 2,106*: Getsemaní Cartagena, Colombia
“You can not go up there. It’s dangerous**.” The young woman said pointing up at the steep road I was cycling towards. The road leads up to a 16th century monastery that overlooks all of Cartagena.
By this point, I have grown used to people telling me I cannot cycle places simply because they themselves have not done so; and therefore, believe it simply cannot be done.
So I haughtily replied, “Why? I want to see the city!”
The young woman continued to point up the steep road, “You cannot go alone. The police they… Police… Police — “
Perhaps it was the heat of midday or that I had just spent the last five days at sea and my body was still gently rocking back-and-forth to the corresponding phantom waves hitting the imaginary boat, but my Spanish completely failed me. The little Spanish I did understand completely terrified me. I could not continue traveling alone? It is dangerous? Police? Police? Police! What kind of terrifying thing was waiting for me on top of that hill? Was there a police roadblock set up to solicit bribes from unsuspecting Gringos? Was there a gang of thugs exclusively preying on sweaty white dudes with gross beards? I knew the horror stories that have given Colombia its notorious reputation. But c’mon! I had only been in the country for a few hours!
With all this rolling around in my head, I thanked the young woman for the tip off and turned my wheels back downhill. Suddenly a policeman on a motorcycle approached me from behind and motioned me to stop.
“Are you alone?”
Oh fucketty fuck fuck fuck, “Yes, I wanted to climb the hill to see the city, but…”
“No problem! I will go with you.”
I quickly ran the odds in my head and it was a 50/50 split: either he’s actually trying to help me with the danger at the top of the hill and/or he will solicit a bribe from me after escorting me through said danger.
I cautiously replied, “Okay, but I am very slow.”
He rode his motorcycle alongside my bicycle as I huffed and puffed my way up the increasingly steep Danger Road. As I turned the last corner of what seemed like an endless labyrinth of switch-backs, the road opened up to a lovely plateau overlooking the city, jammed packed with tourists and vendors hocking souvenirs. Most notably, the plateau contained a police station. Seeing this, I immediately understood that it was the policeman’s job to escort bicyclists up the steep switchbacks so they would not get crushed by the tourist busses as they zipped down the hill. Relieved I had successfully navigated the danger, I enthusiastically shook the policeman’s hand and then asked him to take the above photo of me.
*Miles indicate miles cycled, not total miles travelled.
**All quotes in italics are translated Spanish.
The day before I set sail for Colombia was a no good, very bad day. I was awake the entire night with terrible stomach cramps and what could only be described as eruptive diarrhea.
Despite my compromised bowls, I was seventy miles away from the port town of Portobelo, where the following day I was to board the sail boat Wildcard for a five day voyage to Cartagena, Colombia. After shoving a cocktail of Dramamine, antibiotics, Pepto Bismol, ginger ale, and fresh coconut juice into my gullet for breakfast, I road out of Panama City.
Despite what seemed like a never ending turbulent crap-astrophy, I was relieved to be leaving Panama.
I found the food to be subpar: generally consisting of a fried dough deceivingly called “hojaldre” and watery steak and chicken stews (yes, I am well aware the stews were the source of the scourge assaulting my large intestine, but hindsight is 20/20). The food is not completely dreadful. I enjoyed the arroz con leche and the fresh fish dishes flavored with sweet-and-sour-esque Chinese influence (5% of Panamanians are ethnically Chinese).
Interactions with Panamanians ran the gambit between dispassion to downright rudeness and an itinerant vandal shoved a metal shiv deep into my back tire while it was chained up outside my hostel. To be fair, It makes total sense that as an American I was treated rudely. From the dissolution of Gran Colombia to Manuel Noriega the US has screwed with Panamanian geo-politics for over one hundred years. But no amount of historical context could prepare me for what happened on my ride to Portobelo.
I was cycling to catch my sailboat to Colombia when a taxi stopped right in front of me. As I was cycling past the cab, the passengers in the cab opened the door onto me. I tried to swerve out of the way, but the cab door sliced my the knuckles of my left hand open, which crash.
Crashing on a touring bike is always a whole dramatic thing. The 80 pounds of bike and gear thump onto the ground taking me down with it as if I am riding a horse that has had a tranquilizer dart shot into its jugular, etc.
The passengers exited the cab, glanced at the bloody heap of bike parts and other Gringo nonsense, and then silently walked away.
I usually try to keep my cool — placidly smiling as I pedal along, minding my own business, trying my absolute hardest to come across as a Gringo simpleton so I do not attract any unwanted altercations. But this time I lost my composure, “Why you do not say sorry?**” I shouted.
The passengers did not even turn around to acknowledge my flustered Spanish. When I got back up, the cab driver gave me a half-assed thumbs up — his way of asking, “We cool?”
I waved my bloody hand at him and grinned to sarcastically reply, “Yeah, we cool,” And then pedaled off.
I swallowed my rising anger with the happy-thought that soon I would be out of this country. Then I soldiered on, still dashing off into the woods every hour to evacuate my intestines and stopping to guzzle more Pepto Bismol and ginger ale. In the late afternoon, I descended out of the sweaty costal hills into the sleepy port town of Portobelo.
Portobelo, Panama was an old fort town, which suffered dozens of attacks from French and English privateers (Pirates dude! Pirates!) in the 16th and 17th century because it famously guarded Spanish fleets laden with Andean silver. But the once great fortress now crumbles into the Caribbean Sea, uselessly fortifying a quaint little town.
I was told that I was to meet the captain and the crew at a hostel “at the end of the road” at the outskirts of town. I did just that, and what awaited me at the end of the road was a pleasant surprise.
The eclectic crew and guests of the Wildcard gathered at the hostel bar. Out of the twenty-two of us I was the only American. There were Dutch and Polish lovers, young Swiss bankers, English tech wizards, Australian backpackers, a German motorcyclist, a Milanese law student, a Colombian sailor, all captained by a South African accompanied by his Venezuelan wife and twelve-year-old son.
Our Captain, Charlie, a tanned Afrikaaner with stick-and-poke face tattoos — the medicinal tattoos administered to him by a Kuna Yala medicine man— collected our passports and told us to be at the harbor at dusk the next day.
We set sail after a delicious meal of spaghetti bolognese. But after a few hours of sailing straight into a storm, ten of the seventeen passengers had lost their spag-bol to the unforgiving sea — including myself. Luckily, I had awoke that morning to find my bowls had quieted, but now my body had decided to resume the evacuation out the other end. I spent the first night of my life at sea cold, soaked in sea water, nauseous, and miserable.
The next morning I arose at dawn to the sound of the anchor dropping in the midst of the 370 San Blas Islands — the autonomous indigenous island nation of the Kuna Yala tribe off the eastern coast of Panama. I was floored by these tiny palm islands with white sand beaches dotting the horizon line. I stripped off my clothes and dove off the boat, making a b-line to the nearest virgin beach.
This was the only boat I could find on the internet that was willing to take me and my bicycle to Colombia at a reasonable price. And as I spent the next few days tanning and getting fat off Sophie’s — the chain smoking, dreadlocked, Australian chef— exquisite meals of fresh Caribbean Lobster we plucked right out of the sea, I got my money’s worth.
Finally we departed from the untouched San Blas and set course for Colombia. Everyone aboard was worried we would once again spend the two days and nights with our heads over the railing, expelling our guts into the storming Caribbean seas. To bring some levity to our impending doom, I started a tontine: everyone put a dollar in the kitty, and those of us lucky enough to land in Colombia without vomiting would divide the pot.
But the tontine proved to be useless, as we cruised along tranquil waters at top speed, halving our travel time to drop anchor in Cartagena just in time to catch the sunrise.
Now I sit in the back of a hostel in Cartagena, after biking around the city collecting my necessary supplies to set out on the open road. Tomorrow I’ll set off into the Colombian jungle, making a b-line for the equator. Hopefully, I’ll be in Quito in two weeks, to meet up with my Dad and grab my winter gear — after the jungle I will cycle for at least two months above 10,000 feet, on Andean plateaus as my journey takes me farther south into the heart of the Continent.