Poor but happy!
Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
55Trip End Nov 08, 2005
How then is it possible that in almost 2 weeks here I have never seen more happy, smiling, vibrant people in any country I have ever visited? How can it be that the people in one of the poorest, most troubled countries in the continent, who even fear travelling in their own country, can appear so laid back and happy in their everyday lives? Who would have thought that Colombia could contain such stunning scenery, that every dirt road and house would be adorned by the kind of colourful flowers and hanging baskets you would see in the Med, or that the people would have such large hearts
Good Riddance Caracas
Itīs 2am and we are dozing fitfully on the overnight bus from Caracas to Colombia. The man in front of me has his his seat reclined fully which means I am virtually trapped, squirming in my seat. The bus grinds to a halt, the lights go on and the driver demands to see our tickets for a the 3rd time in 6 hours. Hello? We are the only foreign people on the bus I want to say - and we havenīt moved since the last time you checked our tickets! At 4am I am being shaken awake by the driver again. "Tickets please" he mumbles in an almost incomprehensible drawl where each word is neither finished nor separated from the last,
"Why have we stopped?" I enquire,
"For dinner" he barks. Dinner??? At 4am when every single passenger is asleep?? Only in South America. We stumble off the bus into the humidity and a warehouse size snack bar. The usual delicacies are on offer: deep fried and battered cheese, fried millet and corn concoctions, fried plantain, deep fried Empanadas....and a host of other deep fried mysteries (deep fried has been the theme of the Caribbean coast so far)
We arrived at the border and realised the Venezuelans were about to fleece us yet again this time demanding payment to leave their country
After about 5 stops in no-mans-land for much passport checking by gun-wielding soldiers we arrived at the Colombian border. The bus was searched just after the border by more soldiers carrying massive machine guns slung across their shoulders. They were apparently searching for alcohol and were rewarded when they found a box of liquor stashed in the cupboard above the toilet! The immigration official had to have a hotel to give us a 60 day visa .. so we said the "Hilton" , but there wasnt one in Santa Marta. Ok, "Marriott", no again. OK, lets hold up the whole queue and get the bible (Lonely planet) out and have a look
We changed buses at a town near the border. The bus station had a strangely relaxed, happy, air: the cleaners, the shoe shiners, the plastic-nick-nack vendors, the shop assistants, the beggers and the bus drivers all seemed to be enjoying life, what a refreshing change from Venezuela!
Baffled by all this happiness, we got off the bus at Santa Marta (Colombias oldest town on the Caribbean coast) clutching our bags tightly, waiting for the gunmen/robbers to jump out of the bushes. Nothing. We checked into a hotel and wandered around Santa Marta. Nothing.... we walked up and down Santa Martaīs pleasant promenade watching as the families laughed and joked on the beach, children played in the sea, people broke out into dances as music blared from street-side speakers and young couples kissed on benches.
We soon discovered that Colombia is home to many exotic looking fruits and best of all, any of these can be whipped up into a fruit smoothie by the fruit stalls all over town (they hot wire their mixers to the electricity pylons).As we sat on the steps watching the sun set over the not-so-very-attractive sea (dirty water, litter and oil tankers) we were approached by several people who started chatting to us
Our "hotel", however was not a source of so much pleasure. The "Miramar" is the classic backpacker hangout - famous in Colombia as the original hostel, almost every person we have met has spent at least one night there. Itīs the cheapest of the cheapies, but after waking up and looking across the street most people realise there are other places almost as cheap with out the grime, noise or leaking roof. (Its the rainy season here)
The front of the Miramar is covered in iron bars, inside there are rooms arranged around an unkempt courtyard where travellers sit and chat
It didnīt take us long to realise we had arrived in the middle of the Caribbean`s wettest months. Every evening there were spectacular lightening displays over the sea and Santa Martaīs streets became rivers. Street drainage systems are obviously not top of the agenda for the coucil here, consequently to cross any street during rain required wading in knee deep water!
We left the Miramar as soon as possible and headed 15 minutes around the coast to a fishing village called Taganga. The beach wasnīt much to look at - piles of rubbish and debris washed in daily from the sea (apparently because its the rainy season) but the setting was impressive. A beautiful horse-shoe shaped bay surrounded by lush, green hills and peninsulas
Here lies the catch to Colombiaīs magic: the unique racial mix here (people of mixed African, Indian and Spanish decent) makes the culture hot blooded Latino/African and hence Colombia manages to out do the rest of South America in noise levels (quite a feat I can tell you). Colombians seem to love any opportunity to shout, argue, sing, dance or party and whatever else they may be doing they are doing it at a extra loud volume. At 7am the next morning we woke to the sounds of building work going on directly above our room. Voices shouted, there were great clashes and clangs as people dropped things and hammers banged, it seemed, right into our heads.
In the evenings in Santa Marta families had crowded into their front rooms (usually a tiny shop/bar/restaurant) around TVīs at full volume. Many also sat around disco-sized speakers outside their house/ corner shop blasting music at several million decibels more than a European or American person is used to. Here in Taganga, a tiny fishing village where normally the 2 or 3 restaurants are closed by 9pm , the beach began to literally vibrate to the sounds of booming bass at 11pm one night. We had no idea where it was coming from or what it was but it went on nearly all night and our little room might as well have been in the middle of one of Londonīs biggest clubs!
Back in Santa Marta the next day we concluded that the theme of our first week in Colombia was "Poor but Happy". It didnīt seem to matter what job someone was doing they always seemed to be enjoying it.