Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Miraflores, Lima, Peru - click to enlarge

Dear Mom, I’m in Colombia

Dear Mom,

Remember when I was only about thirteen or fourteen years old and we had a talk about honesty. I can’t remember exactly what I had done, maybe I had snuck out of the house at night or ran away to a wild high school party in the middle of the bush, but whatever it was I got caught. You and Dad talked about my punishment; you talked about grounding me or about cutting off my internet and television privileges.  But in the end you came to the conclusion that that may not solve the problem. Instead we came to an agreement. We decided that you would never stop me from doing things as long I was always honest about where I was going, what I’d be doing and who I was with. Well, my dearest mother, today I’m in Colombia.

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

I know that the last time you heard from me I was in Guyana, or maybe the jungle of Brazil, and not too shortly ago I was, but you see, mother, the past 80 hours have been packed with a series of unfortunate bad luck followed by a series of quick decisions. It is that run of unforeseeable events happened that would bring me here to Colombia.

80 hours ago I left the small city of Boa Vista, Brazil on a bus that I was told would take me to Caracas, Venezuela. 24 hours through the beautiful landscape would be a nice chance for me to reflect on where I had just been, and what I had just done. It would give me a chance to think about my future. When I think about my future, mom, it usually seems more like a daydream to me than reality. I dream of fighting dragons, chasing gold and tracking jaguars. I travel whilst making the claim that I am living life to its fullest, taking advantage of every opportunity I get; but mama, I think sometimes that I actually use travel as an escape, a way of avoiding the real world. I feel sometimes like a selfish child simply acting on his urges to do exactly what makes him happy.

Gaucho, Salento, Colombia

I boarded the bus 80 hours ago and cruised to the border of Venezuela. I had done my usual research before arriving. I checked out potential hotels, attractions, and went to the ever reliable xe.com to find the exchange rate so I wouldn’t be ripped off by money changers at the border. What a change, since my first solo travel experience. I’ll tell you mom, I got ripped off in Central America more often then I’ll ever admit. I remember before that trip, you made me promise you that I wouldn’t go to Colombia. I’ve been 3 times now. Don’t worry, it’s not your instructions I’m bad at following, it’s instructions in general.

When I arrived at the border of Venezuela 76 hours ago, I pulled out the piece of paper on which I had written the relevant exchange rates: 1 Brazilian real = 2.8 Venezuelan Bolivares. But when I asked the changer the rate he told me I would receive 4.7 for each Real. You always taught me mother, that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is; but in this case, it was legit, and all the bills I received for my 50 Reals were completely real; I scratched the bumpy grain on Simon Bolivar’s head with my overgrown fingernails to be sure.

Coffee, Salento, Colombia

60 hours later, mother, I arrived at the dirtiest bus station I had ever seen in my life. The bus driver mumbled quickly in a horrendous version of Portanol (Portuguese/Spanish) that no buses would be allowed into Caracas, but couldn’t give me a reason. Everyone quickly scattered from the bus in taxis and I was left all alone, at 3 in the morning in Puerta la Cruz, Venezuela.

On an adjacent wall, painted with the colourful figure El Presidente Hugo Chavez and the words :”Patria, Socialismo, o Muerto“ (The Country, Solicialism, or Death), near the empty terminal stood a lady alone and under dressed. I approached the woman, obviously working the streets for a living that night, and asked why I couldn’t get to Caracas. She explained that a march was being planned by the president and no buses would be allowed into the city from the East; I would have to find a taxi. Don’t worry mother, I rarely make a habit of talking to prostitutes, despite their obvious desires to be with me. But I have learned an important thing in traveling the world, street vendors, drug dealers and, yes, prostitutes always have the best information.

I walked towards a road that was dimly lit, but appeared to be busy with traffic. A man approached me within minutes offering me drugs at bargain basement prices. Don’t worry mom, I don’t do drugs, I’m crazy enough as it is. I thanked the drug dealer for his offer, and gave him some business advice regarding his prices. In exchange, he told me that a friend of his was taking three people to Caracas in 30minutes and that I could go with them. He’s a legitimate taxi, he told me, and would only charge 150 Bolivares (about 20 dollars).  So you see mother, about 57 hours ago I arrived in Caracas safe and sound in the caring hands of a drug dealer’s taxi driver.

However once in Caracas I would be thrown my second curveball. I headed to the hotel I had written down to find that they were full for the night.

“Don’t worry,” the gentleman at recepcion said, whose eyes couldn’t have been much higher than four and a half feet from the floor as he stood, “I’ll find you a room somewhere nearby.”

So I went to use the internet in the time being.

I settled down to do the usual. I deleted all the emails from twitter, facebook and African Kings who so graciously ask of my assistance in the form of a small donation, and I start reading my emails in the order of least important to most important. When I’m done I check my bank statement, which is always a matter of both fear and stress. It is at this point that I am thrown curveball number 3. You see it turns out that Venezuela is not exactly honest to the world about the value of its currency. The banks give a rate of 1 Canadian dollar to 4.3 Bolivares, but on the street the rate is 1 to 9. Thus, as I only have my bank card, everything in this country would cost me more than double what it is really worth.

I quickly looked at my budget and added the values to my current balance and the incomes I’d earn on the way. I soon realized that I would be in a little bit of trouble. Well, maybe a lot of trouble, the type of trouble that makes you wonder the value of working in prostitution. I walked back to the hotel and asked the old man what he had found. He pointed down the street to a hotel called Luna Hotel, which had graciously given itself three full stars. But as I walked in I realized that this hotel was a pay-by-the hour brothel. Mother, I’ve stayed in shadier places, but not at the cost of 40$ a night. So on a whim and a snap decision, I decided “I’ve got to get out of the hell out of this country.”

I boarded a night bus that very evening to Maracaibo, near the border of Colombia, without having slept, without having changed my underwear and while wearing a beard that would make Jesus proud.

Upon spending the night cuddled unassumingly, and unknowingly, on the chest of a 60 something Venezuelan lady I arrived in Maracaibo. I then boarded a bus to embark on the 3 hour drive to Colombia, one notorious for hijackings, robberies and drug trafficking.  I settled down next to a young lady who got shaky every time a police officer or a soldier boarded the bus.  She carried a huge piñata with her which she told me was for her friend’s birthday, although after she didn’t get back on the bus after having it searched I realized that it was carrying more than just gumdrops and jelly bellies.  But after 5 hours and countless military road blocks I arrived in my precious Colombia.

I had dreams of stopping at one of my favourite places in the world, Tayrona National Park, slinging my hammock amongst a couple of palms for a few days while listening to the sound of gently lapping waves on the Caribbean coast, and only a new four hour bus ride would get me there. But again, my travel plans would be thwarted.

A road block on the main highway would mean a 4 hour detour. On the bright side I got to know my bus seat partner who had the body of a young Pamela Anderson, the skin complexion of Jessica Alba and an interest in me that was both intriguing and terrifying. I opened my bag to pull out my camera to show her my photos from Guyana only to have her spot in my bag a bottle of my favourite rum. And you see mother, when life gives you limes, make a cuba libre, and that’s what we did. By the time we reached Santa Marta, mom, we were trashed.

I stumbled into the bus station and searched for bus tickets for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday only to find out that all the buses were booked because of Easter. The counter attendant, whose eyes glistened in that beautiful shade of Colombian brown, told me that my only option would be to wait a week or to board a bus that would leave in 4 minutes.  Realizing that Tayrona National Park would be packed for Easter Week and the hotels might all be booked, I again boarded a bus, I would spend my third night in a row on a bus.

I know, mi reina, you told me many times to always wear clean underwear, in case I got in a car accident. And I promise you that weighed on my mind as the bus twisted and turned through the mountains of Central Colombia. But in all honesty, by the time I arrived in what will become my temporary home, Medellin, Colombia, I have gone 80 hours in dirty underwear, my fingernails need trimming, I smell of sweet rum and my beard is now home to three species of endangered birds.

I think back to the start of the journey and laugh about how I arrived at this point. I look out the window at the rolling hills that glow in a shade of green that crayola would only dream of being able to capture. A smile of happiness washes over my unbrushed teeth and a sigh of content exhales in the form of bad breath. As the brown Spanish shingles of Medellin begin to fill the view I feel at peace with what I am doing, not only on this journey, but my life journey, I may be broke, unshaven and wearing the same underwear as 80 hours ago but I am exactly where I want to be, how many people can say that?

Medellin, Colombia

At times Mother, I feel guilty for not being able to be closer to you.  But I’ve come to realize that there is a difference between being near geographically and being close.  My being far away really has brought us closer hasn’t it?  I’ve always known that I could count on you for advice, council, or support, but I had never really felt a need for it before.  As I have been on the road for the past two years I have gone through a lot on my own, but I never couldn’t have gotten through all my break ups, break downs, and broken moments without your support.  I know you worry about me and I know you’d rather have me nearby where you knew I was safe.  But we’ve both grown a lot from me being away.  We’ve grown as individuals, but we’ve also grown together as family and at the end of the day that is the gift granted to me by travel that I will always cherish the most.  There is no better mother in the world, that much I am sure of.  I love you with all my heart no matter how far away I may be.

Your son,