Thursday, June 9, 2011

In a Soggy Land: Cartagena to Puerto Berrio, Colombia, SOUTH AMERICA (22nd May - 4th June '11)

Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean Sea, was a very cool city to start off our South American adventures. The old town is full of fantastic colonial buildings, little lanes and squares in which to watch the world go by. One thing we had missed in Central America was the “square" life that we had enjoyed in Mexico, and which Colombia also has.  In the evenings everybody gathers in the town square to eat, drink, play football, watch the kids run around or just to loiter with no good purpose.
During the day we meandered the streets of Cartagena soaking up its atmosphere.  The evenings we spent hanging and laughing with the motorcyclists Jason and Mike, and having drinks with the lovely Mike and Helen who we had met in Panama. Lots of chilling in squares was undertaken.  However, while in Cartagena we also had to get some jobs done – cleaning up the bikes after their ocean voyage, doing repairs and trying to stock up on some of the things we needed. We also had to work out where we were going next. We knew we were heading south but that was about all we had decided upon. In the end we decided to take the route that Lorely and Russ ( and the Dutch guys ( had done about a month before us – south for a couple of days and then east to the area of Mompos and the River Magdalena. Obviously we had decided that we don't have enough adventure in our life as we were heading straight into an area heavily affected by flooding...
When we first left Cartagena we had two days of cycling south and east through pretty landscapes of cows and grass greener than anything I had
seen before. We then reached the swollen banks of the River Magdelena, which we needed to cross by ferry to get to the road that led to Mompos.  When we arrived at the ferry it was the afternoon and we had missed the last crossing for the day. We got chatting to some people from the ferry at a little kiosk and were given the ok to camp on the ferry deck – perfect. However, while we were sitting around having a soft drink and a yarn the couple running the kiosk offered for us to come and stay at their house – even more perfect!
We headed back to the nearby village and met the rest of the family,  including their four children, who proceeded to barrage us with lots of questions and stories. Unfortunately we found it hard to understand much of the kids' Spanish but Jules still managed to entertain them with games. They got out their atlases and we gave them a lesson on Australian geography and animals and then they gave us a lesson on Spanish pronunciation,which apparently we suck at. They were strict teachers!   We felt so blessed to have this family open their home to us, they didn't have a lot but were so generous in sharing what they had – we felt totally humbled and not sure that we deserve all the unreserved hospitality that we received.
The next morning we said goodbye to our adopted family and met up with Mike at the ferry landing.   Now there were 3 on our adventure out to Mompos. Colombia has had a very hard and extended rainy season this year and there has been some serious flooding in sections. The ferry ride and road into Mompos was a bit of an eyeopener as to the devastation caused by the floods. Whole houses were under water and lots of families were living in rows of makeshift shacks on the road, as that was the highest part of the landscape. Even the town of Mompos was very soggy when we arrived, but we soon settled in at the beautiful La Casa Amarilla Hostel and proceeded to fall into the sultry life of Mompos.
Mompox is an old colonial town surrounded by river and marshes, and seemingly straight out of a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favourite authors. Jules, Mike and I mosied the streets, ate, watched life in the square, had beers on the terrace and slowed down to the speed of the siesta-taking, rockingchair-lounging locals
The morning we had decided to leave Mompos we were woken by a violent thunderstorm,  When we went to leave the front gate we were greeted with roads that had turned to rivers.We said goodbye to Mike and watched his motorbike disappear into the mud.
 It took Jules and I two days of crossing through muddy and watery tracks to get out of the flooded area as a number of the roads were deep under water and had been completely closed. We ended up having to cycle 90km north, the opposite way from which we were heading, to get to a main road. The day we spent on this track I had grave fears that our day was going to end like the swamp scene from Never Ending Story, where I would have had to heart-wrenchingly leave Norma floundering in the mud. Luckily we managed to get out (with some pushing of the bikes along the way) and I had only one fall in the mud.  Apparently Jules thought the sight of me and Norma lying in the mud was hilarious... she almost got herself rugby-tackled in as well.
At the end of the mud track we reached the town of Astrea.  We stumbled in, both ourselves and the bikes were covered in mud, we were sweating like crazy and looking slightly crazed. Obviously we were the strangest sight the town had seen for a while but we were heartily welcomed in - someone bought us a softdrink, others took photos of us, we were given children to pose with in photos and then we got asked to do an interview for the local television. This event gathered quite a crowd. I was desperately trying to scrape the hardened mud off my face during the interview but nobody seemed to be too bothered by our appearance and our crowd grew and grew. We met the town mayor, the town applauded us and then we waved goodbye and headed out.
It had been a bit of an emotional last few days through the mud but it was definitely worth the effort to spend time in the timeless Mompos, and to stumble through the soggy backroads. We were also very relieved to hear that Mike (and his motorbike) had also made it out of the mud – though not without some emotional scarring. When we caught up with him further down the track the first thing we did was sharing of survival stories (some great photos are at his blog
After our exciting riding through the flooded lowlands Jules and I were quite glad to see the bitumen again and our first couple of days on the highway sped by. However, after a few long days of riding back on the Panamerican Highway, battling with trucks and constantly being stared at by the ever-present cows we were starting to lose it a bit. Give me some more mud and friendly back-road towns any day.
One day on this stretch I was repeatedly getting mysterious punctures- I would change the tube but could not find what caused the puncture in the first place (I was starting to think the cows were letting my tyres down when I wasn't looking). It had been a long day and Jules and I were perched by the side of the road changing my tube (again) when a group of lovely women in the shop across the road called us over to give us some water (we looked particularly hot and bothered) they then called us back over to invite us to stay in their house. Ah that Colombian generosity! We gratefully accepted and they sent us across the road to wash up in the communal bathhouse. This was a well, surrounded by a small amount of hessian material, sitting right on the curb of the Panamerican Highway. We have spent a lot of time on the Panamerican in the last few months but I can safely say this is the first time I took off my clothes and washed myself right alongside it!
We spent the evening with the family, the neighbours and a wide selection of neighbourhood children, who once again gave us a great Spanish education and asked us to teach them some English songs - Jules contribution was the ABC song (much to my annoyance when I found myself singing it to myself days later) and I came up with “Heads and Shoulders Knees and Toes” but I got a little stuck on the words after the first line. We gathered a crowd to watch us cook dinner and undertake our nightly ablutions, and we then had a very peaceful sleep in the family's store room..  Once again we were overwhelmed by the Colombian hospitality. In the morning, after waving goodbye to the family, and the neighbours, and some random kids, we headed off back along the highway, back to the staring cows, and straight towards some mean looking mountains ahead of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment