Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hotel Ritz, San Juan de Pasto, Nariño, Colombia


A typical view along the Colombia-Ecuador frontier


9:00 p.m.

This hotel is on the corner of a busy downtown intersection of this regional capital. The cost, 15,000 pesos, is less than $7.00. Still, I have my own shower, a towel (about the size of a dish cloth) and TV (about the size of a dish cloth.)

Out in the lobby, where all the important conversations take place, I met "Luis", also a resident here. A black fellow in his 30s, he's confined to a wheelchair. He apparently operates heavy equipment at a gold mining operation. (Though he speaks Spanish, it is of a dialect I cannot begin to understand, and often turn to the young desk manager, who knows a bit of English, for a clue.) When it came time for dinner, I asked Luis if he wanted to join me.

We walked (and rolled) about five blocks, downhill to the "El Merced" restaurant. Luis rode in the street alongside the curb, a very treacherous undertaking in this city. The restaurant was packed with families, as a huge Halloween celebration had just ended in the city center. Children dressed in all the familiar costumes, well, except the little nuns were a new one for me (but a favorite in this Roman Catholic country!)

When I told Luis I was buying, he went right for the fresh fish, one of the highest-priced items. I ordered a "piquena" (small) pizza, which was also surprisingly expensive (almost $10). Then I found out why: it could feed three or four people! We didn't talk much, as the environment was pretty noisy, and I couldn't understand him anyway. I told him we'd taxi back up to the hotel. An old woman looking for a handout stepped out into traffic and immediately stopped a taxi for us. I gave her a small tip. We piled in. But the taxi wouldn't start. Dead battery. We piled out. The woman caught us another one.

Back at the hotel, Luis wanted me to give him names of foundations that can help the poor in Colombia. He seemed angry when I couldn’t name any that might help. I told him I thought his search must start with inquiries through the Colombian government. Obviously, not a good answer. I could sense the anger and frustration in his words, even though I couldn't understand a thing he said. Here was a rich American in his presence and he was demanding help - for the naked children in his home community, for the single mothers, for the handicapped like himself. I asked what he wanted from me. "Names!"

I retired to my room, but could still hear his loud voice echoing for an hour as he debated with the owner and her son. I suspect he was still railing on rich America. Over dinner, he had talked about being devoutly religious, even playing some Christian music for me on his old pocket cassette player. But he seemed very bitter and vengeful. Maybe it's possible to be both, when circumstances warrant; I don't know.

("He didn’t even thank me for dinner.")

***

Started with an overcast, drizzling morning. Walked to the ATMs again, trying all three around the plaza; still don’t work. So, I broke down and took a small cash advance, cursing thieving Chase Bank in advance for the charges I'll incur.

Picked up my bike and handed the caretaker 20,000 pesos (about $8). He was puzzled, but may have been thankful (I couldn't really tell.) Before leaving, I felt obliged to have some desayuno (breakfast), since several of the hotel staff asked if I were going to eat. Had some scrambled eggs and coffee (mostly milk). The owner had a few departing words for me: watch out for thieves.

Out of Popayán, the road started winding immediately through a wet landscape and up over a couple ridges topping 5,000 feet. At one curve, a motor scooter had apparently turned too wide and was lying at the rear wheels of a on-coming semi, produce scattered across the road. The rider appeared uninjured.

At the site of a landslide (that had already been cleared away), an old man stood in the road with his shovel, seeking hand-outs from motorists. "See, I'm clearing the road for you!"

I was pulled over at two police checkpoints. Again, it seemed more out of curiosity than official business.

From mountain passes, the highway descended into chaparral, the temperature rising dramatically. In lower elevations, the landscape and warmth reminded me of Northern California in early summer. In the warm dry air, I encountered flying insects again (including butterflies). The last time I really recall noticing them was near Ciudad Victoria in Mexico (before entering the humid tropics.)

Throughout Central America and Colombia, I have passed through towns that appear to share a common craft or product. In this area cane furniture, honey and melons appear to be a source of income for many families. Passing through these communities, I'm painfully aware of what uses this motorcycle (or any First World "recreational vehicle")(not to mention the money and fuel) could be put to. Repeated images drive this home: a young boy carrying a large branch back into his village (for firewood), a person carrying a cripple across the highway on his back, a woman pushing a wheelbarrow of bananas up a mountain slope, elderly standing along the highway trying to wave down a ride, entire families packed onto tiny motor scooters.

Climbed back into the mountains again on my way to Pasto. From lowlands of perhaps 1 or 2,000 feet, back up to about 9,000, the temperature ranged from the mid-90s to the 40s or low 50s.

On a desolate plateau, I passed a new hotel that looked out on a beautiful stark landscape. I should have stopped, but the momentum just carried me on. After a few miles, as I started to enter into more settled areas again, I knew I made the wrong call. But still, I just kept going. Passed new tracts of surprisingly large homes in gated communities.

Crossed a mountain pass and was greeted with a panorama of Pasto, a large city couched in an alpine valley. Surrounding the city on all sides, farms, cultivated sectors and pastured slopes rose high into the clouds. The city was much larger than I anticipated (and again I regretted not stopping at that hotel, now 30 miles behind me.)

Descended into Pasto, and spent the next two hours searching for a hotel – a low point in letting inertia be my guide. In several passes through the city, I noted only two hotels. One, a bit too shabby and another at $60, ridiculous for this region.

Though I was repeatedly told the hotels were in "el centro", I kept missing the district. The bike was really lugging at this altitude (and with the fuel quality) and spending this much time navigating congested city streets was taking its toll on man and machine.

It looked as if every public park and plaza were the site of celebrations today: some sort of city celebration in the main plaza, a carnival, a Halloween festival. Big fiestas! A beautiful setting, but far too many people for my liking.

At last, I chanced into the hotel zone. It only took another hour to make a selection. As I was checking into this hotel, a concerned motorist actually stopped his car and came into the hotel to warn me about people gathered outside around the bike. He told me to move it right in front of the hotel door, or else, and he made a grabbing gesture. Across the street is a 24-hour service station where I was able to park the motorcycle for the night.

Came about 150 miles (185 miles after I was done looking for a hotel.) That's actually a fairly long driving day in this part of the world!

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