Back in July I was in a hairdresser’s shop in San Francisco, panicking and worrying about whether to dye my hair a silver-grey colour. Ben, my dear friend, tried to reassure me. He was also dying to go to the pub. I told him to go and come back later.
Whilst waiting for the bleach to do its job on my hair, I picked and read this travel-style magazine. As I turned the pages, Mompos and the north of Colombia was a main feature that ran over about 12-pages. I loved it. The writer (I cannot remember her name) was a gifted travel writer, she wrote about how this was a town that the world had forgotten. It had a strong history with Simon Bolivar (who set much of Spanish South America free from Spanish domination), where in 1812 Bolivar recruited all of his 400 strong-abled men from here to fight and enable glory in Caracas. She wrote beautifully about the warm weather, about a dog that swam across the river daily to get food from a farm. She wrote about the sights of nature and the food that you can find on the Arrabida (river bank street).
I admit it. I stole the magazine!
I snuck it into my bag and after my silver-grey hair turned out more purple than anything else, I walked with Ben back to our accommodation with him telling me that my hair looked good and that it will be a couple days before the silver-grey becomes noticeable. I tried to believe him(!)
The magazine stayed in my bag for the next 4 months, via Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador. I held on to the magazine article, I later tore the 12 pages out from the magazine – stupidly thinking it would give me a little more space(!) The pages started to crunch and tear, and each time I looked at it I started to think maybe I was not meant to go there. I started googling Mompos on various travel blogs etc. The enthusiasm was starting to reduce, Colombian amigos shrugged when I asked them about Mompos. I was concerned, the journey would be rather difficult according to several sources of advice on the web.
I video-called my friend Jane – well travelled – and asked her advice. Do I travel for about 7hours to Mompos or do I go to a nearby beach place instead? I asked my school-mates too. One said “Isn’t a beach just a beach? Go and see this historic place!” And Jane agreed “What’s the worse can happen? If its boring, I will read a book!”. The overall feeling was that fate was telling me to go to Mompos. Finding that magazine article especially.
And boy oh boy, I was glad I did! I got 2 different buses from the hills of Minca all the way to Mompos. It was fairly straight forward although the collectivo (shared van) was crammed all the way and it was a long and hot journey indeed. The van had to cross the Magdalena river on a small flat “ferry” that made Woolwich ferry look like nothing. I arrived Mompos around 8pm, it was so humid! There was no sea-breeze for miles.
There were rocking chairs everywhere outside each casa, people were chilling out as the evening went on. There were also electric fans in operation almost everywhere, hooked up by extended cables. I had some supper in the main plaza and watched people as they engaged in conversational activities, watched live-music, danced etc. Two women sat next to my table, chatting away as if everything shocking had happened to them this week. Their use of elaborate facial expressions as they chatted in rapid Spanish was amazing. I loved it!
I asked the receptionist at the hostel how I would go about going to Cartagena the next day. He effectively gave me two choices; a) door to door service at 4am from the hostel, 75,000 pesos or b) public transport service at 10pm, 80,000 pesos. I definitely did not want to leave at 4am. South America has been full of tours that begin at ridiculous times and I have avoided many of these tourist traps – especially with deaf friends around.
I asked the receptionist if there was another way, for example travelling solo. His facial expression was one of astonishment, whilst sweating badly from the humidity. It was as if tourists just cannot, especially deaf tourists like me. I persuaded him to tell me.
He explained I would have to go to a main road and wait to share a taxi with local people to Bodega and then get on a boat to Manangue, and then from there find a bus to Cartagena. This sounded straight forward to me. I checked how frequent, he said it was every 10mins all day between around 9 and 5pm. I was convinced I would be okay. This would allow me to explore Mompos in the morning and then go.
It was a wonderful morning in Mompos, I’d woken up at 6am as usual. I woke with this “readiness” and I really wanted to take in the views of Mompos and take some daylight photos of places I’d walked by last night.
I really enjoyed the sights, a football team was prepping for their game probably so early because it gets so warm later in the day. Several bikes passed me by, carrying various things. Cafés were opening up and the views into their dining rooms via gated windows were amazing. I had breakfast in one place, a coffee in another, and then another coffee in another café! It was just sheer bliss! The town was still “sleepy” by 1030am, just like the article described. No-one was in a hurry.
It was time to go, especially with a long journey ahead of me. I started to walk to the main road only to realise that it was about 2 miles away. I grabbed a “tuk-tuk” and got dropped off. Clutching my suitcase was not so easy but we made it.
(I should make it clear that for much of my travels I used a large rucksack with
wheels. However this sadly finally broke beyond repair in Pasto, and I bought a new suitcase rather than a rucksack. Just felt like the right thing to do – thanks Mum and Dad!)
On the main road I searched for a shared taxi. I couldn’t see any! Not a single taxi was in sight. I felt a bit bewildered. It was so hot, I stepped into the shade of a big tree and bought a cup of fresh lemonade from a stall. I was wondering what to do. The stall owner and her husband started to look for cars for me, but they also shrugged.
And then about six motorbikes rode up next to me. You, this broad-shouldered guy with a sense of determination, approached me. You looked paternal, a father, an Uncle. You asked me where I was going, I could sense this visually. I showed you my little paper that said “Bodega”. You nodded right away and indicated I would join you on your motorbike. I laughed out loud, told you that you were crazy (visually), my suitcase was just too big. You refused to back down. You grabbed my suitcase and lugged it on your bike. You then brought out a pair of rubber (latex?!) cables and tied up my suitcase firmly.
The others on their motorbikes nodded in agreement, telling me it would be fine. I was flabbergasted. They even demonstrated visually that I would be able to ride in comfort and that the suitcase would not fall off. You then drew out on the sandy road the figure of 20,000 pesos (approx £5).
I paused a while. “Oh sod it!” I applied some suncream and got on the bike and immediately asked one of the riders (who I suspect was your nephew or son) to take a photo. I mean, it was an adventure! I thought to myself, I’m so gonna have yet another story to share! And what with it being a motorbike and my experiences to date (Bolivia: world’s most dangerous road bike ride and my accident, Cafayete: long exasperated ride but it was because the security chain was tied around the seat and jammed the wheel from moving, and Medellin: falling off Carlos’ motorbike!).
The sun shone strongly in our faces, the colourful views during this 44km journey were beautiful. Birds flew, marshes were plentiful and many animals were in sight. You rode the bike with a steady speed. You were wearing this kind of long sleeved pink top whilst I was wearing a vest! You were confident as we meandered the roads. We went over many speed bumps along the way and we also avoided some bumps by going off-road where it was smooth enough to do so.
The music from Grease 2, “Cool Rider” kept playing in my head. Michelle Pfeiffer could eat her heart out. I just felt so good!! (I didn’t fancy my rider at all mind you!!)
And then I suddenly realised I had no helmet. I had no idea who you were. And you had no mirrors on your bike!!! I had taken a big risk without having thought about it. Think about Uber and the level of scrutiny applied with vetting and risk assessments. Think about the numerous risk assessments I had to do in my old job! And compare that to what I was doing on your bike!
Yes, it was an adventure but what a silly risk to have taken. I started worrying and regretting. The suitcase was starting to tilt badly behind me, I was worried it would fly off. I tapped you to slow down and stop. You eventually did, yet you didn’t look worried at all. You attempted to tighten up the cables but one of them snapped, like an elastic band that splits into two. Did you have a spare cable? Nope! What you did astonished me, you just tied up both split cables together.
You had this aura of confidence, you really made me reassured. I explained to you how worried I was about not having a helmet, you kind of understood but equally you were not worried. We continued the journey. We passed many people who live in the rural countryside, many of them selling fruit or doing farm related work. One of them was watering down the heated road surface and hoping to get tips for doing this.
The suitcase kept tilting further and for the last 4km I just felt I had to hold on to the suitcase behind me rather than holding on to you. It must have been a sight, the pair of us on your bike and my hands behind me holding on to this massive suitcase!
As we arrive in Bodega I realised I felt rather disappointed, I wanted this journey to continue for at least another hour. I just loved it, the roaring sounds and vibration, the sights and the glorious sunshine on us.
You helped me off the bike and took down the suitcase. You also helped me get the right boat ticket to Manangue. I was just so glad you are trustworthy. I paid you the fee and gave you a little tip.
I asked you to write your name down as I just know I am going to write this blog. You wrote it out with pretty bad handwriting, but I smiled as I deciphered it – Wilman. What a perfect name for someone who had so much will and determination!
I watched you as you immediately chatted with other motorbike riders at the boat port, all of you a-waiting to give someone a ride somewhere.
I will never forget this journey. I waved to you goodbye as I crawled into the narrow small boat toward Manangue (picture below).