Monday, October 24, 2005

Refugio Villa Gladhys, Honda-Tolima, Colombia

Monday, October 24, 2005 8:00 p.m.

I think this place is less than $15 per night (30,000 pesos). Dinner a while ago: Carne con salsa. A thin slab of beef, tough as leather. With some good French-fried potatoes and a bit of iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion.

I was moving on past Honda-Tolima, daylight starting to fade at 5:30, with all the voices saying "don’t travel at night in Colombia." Turned around and picked this refugio out from several sketchy-looking hotels scattered along the highway. I seem to be the only guest in this sprawling motel, with an overgrown jungle look.

A little over 100 miles traveled in five hours. It’s not quite like driving in the States.

***

Up after 8:00 this morning. Raining. Not real enthusiastic about meeting the day's challenges. The hotel wanted to charge for shampoo, sodas and water I didn’t use, in addition to 10,000 pesos for internet usage. Nickel and diming me!

Taxied to “Girag” at the air cargo area just outside the airport. At "Girag", a gentleman in a suit said "we've been waiting for you since Saturday."

"My bike was here Saturday?"

When he noticed that this bit of information might have upset me, he back-pedaled a bit.

"Well, I think so..."

Filled out some forms, then I’m instructed to walk over to “DIAN”, the aduana, or customs office, about a half mile away. The 2,600-meter altitude is apparent with a little exertion.

At "DIAN", it was half an hour before anyone would even address me. As at “Girag’s” Panama office, business cannot be allowed to interfere with a personal conversation. I spent two hours in this friggin’ office. There is clearly no hurry, and not much getting done here. (Don't they realize my case is the most important business they have before them?) A TV on over the waiting area draws many of the workers’ attention. People entering the building almost trip over themselves, as their eyes get diverted to some silly TV show. TV has a unique ability to incapacitate people.

Policia and seguridad privat everywhere. I guess it’s one form of employment. I think Colombia gets the prize for the most guns yet.

Finally, an officer says he will meet me back at "Girag".

"Necessito caminando?" (I have to walk?) I was hoping he might offer me a ride across the muddy, flooded grounds.

"Si."

After three hours of bureaucratic bullshit, I’m free to go. A policeman warns me about going to Tierra del Fuego. I tell him many people have warned me about Colombia. Colombia is not "peligroso (dangerous), it’s tranquilo, he tells me! I suit up in my Aerostich outfit (it's first use since Texas?) The air is chilly and it's wet. A “Girag” employee leads me out of the warehouse, out onto the tarmac by the aircraft, back through another warehouse and into the building’s lobby, my engine echoing throughout the offices ("are you sure you want me doing this?") Then I’m facing a flight of 5 or 6 steps down to the parking lot, but he has summoned help. A bunch of office workers about to man-handle the bike down the steps? At the last second, someone arrives with a ramp. "Oh, that’s better." I coast down.

Glad to be free, but now I’m lost. Need gas. At a station, I ask directions to Medellin. That gets me down the highway a few exits, in pouring rain. Then I’m lost again. Next gas station. First hour spent lost. I’m hating this place; "I just want to get out of the friggin city! I don’t care which direction." Then I decide on Cali instead of Medellin; it looks sunnier in that direction (and last night's news reported flooding and slides in the Medellin area.) After about 6 gas stations, I think I’m on the right road, but none of the towns I pass are listed on my map. I'm on "Highway 50 ouest", but that's not even identified on the map. So I’m not sure, but does it really matter? It’s cold and wet, I’m heading west, and it doesn’t look so bad out there.

Everywhere, I draw an uncomfortable amount of attention riding this luxury machine. A cop stops me. He wants to know what size the engine is. (This is so typical!) The toll plazas have a narrow bicycle and moto lane. Maybe two feet wide by 50 yards long, with high curbs on both sides. It’s a bit tricky. But I'm liking the attitude here in Colombia: motorcycles ride the expressways for free!

Out of Bogota, I climb winding mountain roads. Imagine California Highway 1 (for those who know it) as a major trucking route, like Interstate 80. But most of the slides aren’t cleared away, the road is undermined in many places and the trucks may never have had a safety inspection. I don't know. Gorgeous scenery, from mountain forests to tropical valleys. Beautiful, dramatic landscapes. High in the mountains, eucalyptus (which can't be native) is being harvested and milled on the spot. I like the mountain climate. Very refreshing (when I'm not caught behind a lumbering semi.) Trying to sort out what season it feels like. Crisp autumn-like air, but the colors are wrong: it's all green!

At times, I think I’m on a one way highway going the wrong way. It’s common to come around a bend and see on-coming semis in both lanes. So far, there has been enough pavement to squeeze by. Other motorcyclists traveling south of the border have been in accidents in these situations.

Tucked between two spines of the Andes, Honda-Tolima sits in a tropical valley on bluffs overlooking Rio Magdalena, a raging muddy torrent. Approaching the river crossing, I hear whistles and think the police are trying to pull me over, but it’s kids riding bicycles. There are whistles all around. I wander into the thick of town, eliciting lots of calls and whistles. It's a very gritty, impoverished village; lots of shacks, scrap corrugated roofing pieced together to form a roof over entire neighborhoods. I tried to keep my eyes open for a potential room here, but just couldn't raise the courage to stop.

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