Posted by: Googie | June 20, 2010

Will I get to Santa Marta?

I reached the bus terminal of Medellin at 6.45 pm – enough time I thought, to get my 7.30 pm bus to Santa Marta. Colombian buses in general are very comfortable, and the ones run by a bus company called Espreso Brasilia are among the best. So I went to their counter first, but they refused to give me a ticket for anything less than 80000 pesos (Oh, did I forget to mention that the prices of the bus tickets are also negotiable?!). To make things worse, other bus companies were demanding even higher prices.

I thought that 80000 pesos (about 40 USD/2250 INR) was quite expensive for a bus ride. I reasoned that if I could find a flight for not much more than that figure, I would be better off flying. So I searched for an internet centre and checked the air fares. When I saw that none of the flights were below 200 USD, I knew that I had no choice but to go by bus. By the time I went back to the Espreso Brasilia counter, I was told that I had missed the 7.30 pm bus by only a few minutes. Tough luck, I thought and bought a ticket on the 8.30 pm bus, and killed the next 1 hour just hanging around the bus terminal.

At about 7.30 am the next morning, our bus stopped and I alighted to take a leak. I was taken aback by a long line of vehicles in front of our bus, stretching out on the road to as far as I could see. I learnt from people around that there had been a major accident up ahead, and that we would be stuck here for a few more hours at least. Just then, I ran into Thom, the Australian guy once again. He was also travelling in the same bus as I was!

Talking to people around, we gathered that there had been a head-on collision between a bus going to Santa Marta and a truck coming in the opposite direction. Both vehicles had caught fire instantaneously and 14 people had been killed on the spot. What sent a chill down my spine was that the bus that met with the accident was the 7.30 pm Espreso Brasilia bus that I had missed the previous evening because I had decided to search for cheap flights.

It is in moments such as this, that one realises how insignificant one really is. One begins to question just how much one really is in control of one’s life. You have no idea how a choice that you make today will affect the future course of events in your life. Looking back, I saw it quite clearly. If I had decided not to have a beer with some of the guys in the hostel, I would not have heard about the Pablo Escobar tour. If I hadn’t gone on the tour, I wouldn’t have spent too much money to bother about cooking lunch myself. If I hadn’t cooked lunch, I wouldn’t need to wash dishes. If I were not washing dishes, I would not have seen that someone else had ignored washing their plates after using them. If I hadn’t spent the extra time washing those plates, I would have reached the bus station well in time to look for cheaper options, and then ultimately taken the ill-fated 7.30 pm bus.
There is a short clip in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, that beautifully illustrates this, way better than I ever could in a thousand words:

 

If I had been among the unfortunate people who did not make it that day; what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe 10 or 20 people would have been very sad, another 50 would have shown their sympathy, and a few hundred would have felt sorry in front of their computer screens. But in the large scheme of things, it would have been an utterly insignificant event. Billions of people have lived and died, and billions more will continue to live and die and the world will still go on. So don’t we owe it to ourselves to live as fully as we possibly can while we can, and to pursue what we desire the most?
I was not on that bus, I was alive, and I was ever more inspired to do what I wanted to do the most – go and experience the world as much as I could!!

Clearing out all the dead bodies (most burnt beyond any hope of recognition) and getting the accident vehicles out of the way would easily take a few more hours. Since there was nothing else to do, I decided to walk ahead and take a look myself. So I took my small bag and started walking. It took me about 20 minutes just to get to the police barricade, which was about 200 metres before the accident spot. Then I got down into the adjoining field and walked past the police line (when you’re a tourist, and you don’t speak the local language, you can take a few liberties and get away with it). The accident had indeed been really horrific. The bus was totally burnt and all that remained of it was the charred skeleton. If I didn’t know it already, it would have been hard for me to guess that the other twisted, melted mass of metal was once the cabin of a truck. Smoke still billowed from the two unfortunate vehicles, and there was the distinct smell of burning rubber and burning flesh.

Police Barricade

At the police barricade

Bus Skeleton

All that remained of the ill-fated bus

Smoldering Truck

The still smoldering remains of what was once a truck

After clicking a few pictures, I started walking back to my bus. People from neighbouring villages were making a killing by selling food and drinks to the stranded passengers at obscenely high prices (and why not?). When I got back to where I had started from, I saw that something was amiss. At first I thought I was at a wrong spot, but on closer inspection I realised that the spot was correct – just that my bus was gone, and with it, my entire backpack!

Peaceful countryside

Peaceful countryside

I asked some people around where my bus was, and they gaily informed me that it had turned around and left. I stood there gaping at them, while they found my predicament rather amusing and couldn’t stop grinning from ear-to-ear. It took me a while to gather my thoughts and take stock of the situation. I patted myself for having had the sense to take my small bag along – the one that contained my netbook and my passport. Then I went to another Espreso Brasilia bus and told its driver of my problem. Fortunately, he understood and made a few phone calls. Then he asked me to board his bus, and 3 hours later dropped me off at the bus terminal in Santa Marta. He said that my original bus was on its way, and I had to wait for it exactly at that spot.

Waiting for my bag to arrive

Waiting for my bag to arrive

About 45 minutes later, an Espreso Brasilia bus pulled up next to me. It wasn’t the bus I was in earlier, but it had all the passengers of my original bus including Thom. I learnt from them that our bus had turned around and gone to the closest town where everyone was asked to move their luggage to another bus. Thom had been nice enough to move my backpack also, but overlooked another bag that contained gifts I had bought for some of my friends. After the events of the day, the loss of the gifts bag seemed altogether trivial.

Thom & I had made reservations in hostels in different parts of the town, so we said goodbye, and I proceeded towards La Luna hostel. La Luna turned out to be a comfortable and quiet hostel, a welcome change from the noisy party hostels that I’d been staying in, the past few weeks.

p.s: to get an idea of the insignificance of a human being from a size perspective, try this: http://htwins.net/scale2/scale2.swf?bordercolor=white
(might take a while to load on slow connections, but trust me, its worth the wait!)

Posted by: Googie | June 19, 2010

Medellin

I arrived in Medellin early in the morning, and took a metro to get to the part of town where the “Casa Kiwi” hostel was. On getting out of the station, I spotted two guys with large backpacks. This could only mean one thing – potential taxi sharers! So without further ado, I approached them and asked if they were also going to Casa Kiwi, and indeed they were. All the major cities of Colombia have their own set of popular backpackers hostels in, so there’s a large likelihood of random travellers heading to the same hostel as you. Even if they aren’t going to the same hostel, most of the time you can still share a taxi as many hostels are usually close to each other.

Metro

A metro station in Medellin

The two backpackers, Ian & Jusgen, were from Canada (and I thought Jusgen bore a strong resemblance to Brendan Fraser). As we were negotiating the taxi fares, a local man came up to us and said that our hostel was within walking distance. Since all of us were in the mood for a morning workout, we thought we’d just walk the alleged 10 minutes to get there. But the walk turned out to be way longer and on a way steeper road than we had anticipated, and even before we got halfway there, the three of us were covered in sweat. To add to our misery, we were led in wrong directions by helpful passers-by with totally good intentions, but totally no clue about the hostel’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, after a really long and tiring walk, we did find it, and settled into our bunks.

Ian & Jusgen just wanted to relax, but I wanted to check out the city a little so I started walking by myself. Before long, a yellow & blue bus caught my attention, so I went up to it to see what it was. It was a bus that would take tourists on a guided tour of the major attractions of Medellin. Since I had nothing better to do, I paid the 10000 pesos and hopped on. The tour began with a round of introductions, and there was an audible collective gasp when I introduced myself as a solo traveller from India.

Turibus

The Colourful Turibus

The tour was quite good and we saw many nice places all around Medellin. After describing things to the other tourists in Spanish, the tour guide would separately repeat it to me in English, and for that I was very grateful to him. There were also a group of older tourists from Venezuela, who asked me about Sonia Gandhi and whether there were still Maharajas who ruled the country.

Cabeza

One Of Botero’s sculptures

Indian

I stumbled upon an Indian vegetarian restaurant :)

Road

Random road in Medellin

Shells

Whispering shells

Church

Inside one of the numerous churches

After the city tour, I found a nice cafe that offered free wi-fi, so I got myself a coffee and prepared myself for a long evening of blogging. About 2 productive hours later, one of the staff of the cafe approached me and said something. I didn’t understand her that well, but I assumed that she probably meant that it was time for me to bugger off as I had overstayed my welcome there. So I wrapped up my things, and left. I hadn’t even walked ten paces from the shop, when a man came running up to me, and stopped me. He spoke some English and said that they didn’t want me to leave. They only wanted me to sit at another table as they were preparing the place for some live music. He added that the staff of the cafe were feeling very bad because I might have felt offended. I assured the man that I was planning on going anyway, and I did not mind the reminder at all :)

Lambretta

Lambretta!!

Casa Kiwi is an awesome hostel (but they could do with friendlier staff), which not only has great outdoor areas where you can hangout with other travellers, but also secluded spots where you can “disappear” if you’d prefer to have some time by yourself. I was exploring it in the evening, when somebody called out, “Googie”. I was pleasantly surprised to see Shastra who I had met in San Agustin about 2 weeks back. We were soon joined by her partner Stuart, and we chatted for a bit. Another old acquaintance I met at Casa Kiwi was Thom, the Aussie traveller who I had met at my hostel in Quito and with whom I had initially made plans of crossing the border into Colombia.

Lobby

The lobby of Casa Kiwi

The next day I joined Jusgen for the famed Pablo Escobar tour, one of the popular touristy things to do in Medellin (for the uninitiated, Pablo Escobar was a Colombian druglord, one of the most notorious gangsters in history and widely regarded as the richest criminal ever). The tour van picked us up from our hostel, and took us to various places around the city that were frequented by Escobar and his gang members. The tour guide seemed to know quite a bit about the famous gangster, but he couldn’t explain it in English so well. Moreover, instead of just stating the facts, he would introduce his own opinions and judgements. What I found amusing was that he would pepper all his sentences with an English swear word used to accuse a person of copulating with his/her own female parent. When spoken in his Colombian accent, it had a funny poetic quality to it :D All in all, I thought that the Pablo Escobar tour was just an expensive waste of time.

Office

What was once Escobar’s office

Shrine

The shrine where Escobar’s men used to pray

House

The house where Escobar spent his last days

Roof

The roof on which he was shot

Planes

Wreckage of old planes used by Escobar to smuggle drugs

Grave

Escobar’s grave

BoteroPablo

Botero’s depiction of Escobar’s killing

In the evening, I said a hasty goodbye to all my new friends at Casa Kiwi and hurried to the bus terminal. I wanted to take the 7.30 pm bus to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to happen next.

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Posted by: Googie | June 18, 2010

More Bogota

I met Barbara early in the morning the next day, and we walked to the base of Monserrate, the giant mountain that dominates the city centre of Bogota. It rises to over 3000 metres above sea level, and on top of it is a church dedicated to “El Señor Caído” (The Fallen Lord).

Monserrate

The Monserrate that towers over Bogota

We took the funicular to the top of the mountain, from where we got spectacular views of the vast city. After clicking pictures and checking out the immaculately clean church and its surroundings, we took a cable car ride back to the bottom.

Funicular

Taking the funicular to the top

Church

On the way to the church

Flower

Flower

Bogota

Standing over Bogota

Interior

The interior of the church

Mini

Another mini-church on the lower level

Glass

One of the stained glasses inside

CityView

The vast city of Bogota from the Monserrate

Bell

Church bell

CableCar

Taking the cable car on the way down

After lunch, I went to check out the Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) while Barbara went elsewhere. The Museo del Oro contains the largest pre-Hispanic goldwork collection in the world, and after a while one gets overwhelmed by all that gold.

While walking through the museum I spotted a dark room that others were also looking at, but no one was entering. So I did the first thing that came to my mind – I entered it. Others behind me followed, and when about 5 of us were inside the door closed automatically behind us. Before the door had shut completely, I had seen that it was a circular room. But since I had already wandered around a bit, and since it was pitch black inside now, I had no clue where the door was anymore.

For about 15 seconds, nothing happened and I could sense that the two girls who had followed me into the dark room were getting a little panicky. Then suddenly the walls were lit. There was gold everywhere and all of us realised that we were in the middle of a light and sound show! The show was really good, and we enjoyed it for the next 15 minutes or so.

Later in the evening, I met Barbara again and we went to the Bogota weekly couchsurfing meeting. With at least 60 to 70 people, it was easily the biggest crowd I had seen at a weekly CS meeting. Normally in Bangalore, if we get about 30 people, we consider it a good turnout. When I commented on this, the Bogotans said that getting so many people each week was very common!

CS

Couchsurfing weekly meeting

CS

Couchsurfing weekly meeting

After spending a couple of hours with them, I said goodbye to Adriana, Luis and the other friendly Bogotan couchsurfers, and also bade farewell to Barbara. All of them had made my stay in Bogota fun and memorable, but it was time to move on. My next destination was Medellin, a city I was looking forward to visit because of all the great things I had heard about it.

(Many of the pictures in this blog post are courtesy of Barbara)

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