The Trip That Could´ve Been
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
27Trip End Aug 22, 2007
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With virtually every travel publication saying ¨Do Not Travel at Night in Colombia¨ and with Frank still rattling from the news his daughter was drinking on Bogota´s streets well into the a.m., Sara and I decided against taking a bus from Bogota to San Agustin at 3 a.m in the morning on Sunday, March 4th. This simply did not happen, as we went straight to Quito, Ecuador.
But such a trip is easy to imagine. We´d board a van in Bogota that would have us in San Agustin by noon the next day. On the trip, the van would likely be pulled over, luckily not by guerrillas, but by the Colombian army, who would pull us all out of the van to be frisked. I´d be patted down (and would enjoy it), then Sara would walk up, put her hands on the back of the van and spread her legs in preparation for her thorough frisking. The soldier would give a befuddled look, then crack a contagious smile which would erupt in laughter all around (passengers and guys with guns included). You see, women don´t get frisked in Colombia, a lesson Sara would learn the hard way... if any of that, in fact, happened.
We´d probably arrive in San Agustin a tad late, check in to a hotel and set out to see the ancient stone statues, built in the days before Christ paid for all of our sins. While walking the 3 km to the archaeological park, a guide would offer his services for a small price. For fun, lets call the old guy Jerry Lewis. His imagined pitch: ¨I´ve been hustling gringos for over 40 years.¨ Where do we sign up?
¨Jerry, I have to go to the bathroom.¨
¨Just pee over there (by a 30 century old statue), es no problem.¨
Then while on a secluded trail, Mr. Lewis would likely reach into his sock, pull out a fatly rolled piece of paper containing substances unknown and offer us a puff. Not wanting to be rude, we both would probably accept (I most definitely would). Feeling about as good as ever before, Jerry would use this opportunity to casually offer other services. ¨How about a 5 hour horse ride tomorrow? Why are you leaving San Agustin so early, you could spend a week here. Learning Spanish in Quito you say, stay here, I could teach you for half the price.¨
After the sales pitch, Jerry would show us an innocuous looking rock bed. But armed with a long stick, he would quickly start pointing out carvings of animals on the stone, over 35 in all. Snakes, jaguars, turtles, birds, alligators and frogs would suddenly start jumping out at us. In fact, the unknown substance would be so good, I´d recognize¨hot-headed¨ TSN story editor Guy Desormeaux in one of the rocks, but with further scrutiny, find it to just be a gorilla.
Our guide would then further explain the ancient Agustinian people as we´d skip from burial site to burial site. The Agustinians would be simply fascinating to learn about. Although existing many years before Christ, they performed successful c-sections, brain and heart surgeries, understood the planets, had a sophisticated calendar and could forecast the weather. Sadly, the only thing they couldn´t do was predict the results of sporting events. The Shaman Schultzy just couldn´t figure it out.
In one such sporting event, the winners of the match would actually be sacrificed. For these people, it was an honour to die.
Actually, for every member of the tribe who perished, three virgins would be sent to their death, some of them babies. I believe this was also Donald Rumsfeld´s war strategy in Iraq. These people were buried alive, burned alive, had their heads cut off, their necks slit, as Jerry would say, ¨The Agustinians had many systems....many systems of killing people, es was no problem.¨
The Agustinians didn´t mind dying because they believed in reincarnation. And while still feeling cheery, Jerry would ask me what I´d want to be reincarnated as. My probable answer: a horse. The reason: While humans retire with their saggy wives to Florida, horses retire to stud. Yes, I´m also perv in the spiritual world.
And Jerry would again likely use this opportunity to make further offers. First of which was, ¨Do you guys want a sniff?¨ We would flatly turn this offer down. But on this relaxing horse ride through the countryside, it would seem nothing was unattainable and everything was for sale.
Jerry would take us to his friend´s for a cold drink, but while sitting down I would notice a beautiful young girl in a towel, dripping wet from her shower, with an expression on her face that at the very least could be described as ¨welcoming.¨
Steve: ¨Please, just this once.¨
Sara: ¨You better be kidding.¨
Steve: ¨Yes, ha, ha, ha (eyes darting back toward young Lolita)
With that ride out of the question, it would be back to the horses and a countryside so beautiful that it almost seemed like a simulation. All alone on a dusty trail, picking fruit out of trees, looking at waterfalls and more ancient artifacts while on our way down to the bottom of a marvelous canyon.
Everything would be perfect. Except for the fact that everytime Jerry would instruct us to get on or off our horse, villagers would be around to spectate. I think old Jerry was making a buck on the side by charging the locals a couple pesos to watch the gringos get on and off their horses.
At the end of a long, hard day riding Boxer, my tailbone felt like John Amaechi´s (not a sportsfan? Insert: Lance Bass). Riding a horse is hard work, just ask Silken Laumann´s husband (sorry, this sports reference can only be replaced with another: John Elway´s wife).
But I would recover and we would continue south to Ipiales, a small Colombian border town that houses the spectacular sanctuary of Las Lajas, a fairytale-like church in a canyon surrounded by waterfalls. While walking to the church, the walls would be lined with thousands of plaques put up by visitors thanking the spot for granting them miracles.
Later that afternoon, we would finally cross the border into Ecuador. It would´ve been an amazing trip, one of the best of both of our lives, but we didn´t go. We went straight to Quito and I don´t have to apologize to my grandma for anything. Nothing at all.
I know it was my idea, but I now realize the problem with a travelblog is that you can't control who's reading what, as you can with the "friends" email vs. the "family & coworkers" email. A few of you emailed me after Steve's last post, wondering how I could share all of that with my dad. Not that this is R-rated stuff, but you want to give some people the PG-13 version. (For the record, my dad is a pretty cool guy).
But after Steve's above San Agustin post, my record of being pretty perfect in the behaviour department is shot. Hopefully my professional reputation isn't ruined as well. A note to my Grandmas, my parents and Alison Smith: I will never ever buy any special substances down here, carry them on me, or transport them between countries. But when you're about to spend the day riding a horse for the first time in the Colombian countryside and someone hands you a smoke, it seems like the only option to take a quick puff, right???
For Steve "but I'm an athlete!" Dominey, the choice was clear. He said it's always been a dream of his to ride a horse, and I have nothing against riding horses, except that I've never done it. I've never thought of myself as unathletic, but as I've gotten older, my fear level has gotten bigger (as well as my butt). But since I didn't want to be a dream-killer, and since I figured the horse would be doing most of the work, I decided that I was game.
When the horses arrived in the morning, I thought - no way are these the "special" horses for the big Gringos. When I finally managed to get up on the horse, I thought - no way am I going to be able to stay on this horse for a whole day. As we started practicing on the gravel road and I kept accidentally kicking my horse with my feet (which makes it go faster), I thought - no way am I going to make it out of this day alive! To make it worse, my horse was the younger sister of Steve's and would mimic her every move... so when Steve started galloping, my stupid horse would too. And there was no use telling these horses to stop. They'd just shake their heads, as if to say, what do these stupid humans know about this... the faster we go, the faster they get off us.
That is, until we reached "the canyon". Looking back on it now, I still can't believe I did this. We started a deep descent, our horses goes back and forth across the trail like downhill skiers. On each side of us, eyedropping and most definitely deadly drops down a mountain. There was no form of barrier between the trail and nothingness.
But since I'm writing this post, I obviously survived the horse ride. By the end, I'm happy to say that my horse and I finished the ride before Steve and his horse (who Jerry Lewis said was either really lazy, or really tired... I'm guessing the latter).
And for the record, I never say this so-called Lolita at all during our break from the horses. I think I was too enthralled with the bathroom, where the toilet actually had a toilet seat (this is a rarity in these parts). And it's not like I wanted to be frisked... I just thought everyone, including women and children, was considered suspect in Colombia.
The really amazing thing about San Agustin is that 90% of the statues are still underground. Apparently, the government must first encase the existing statues in a protective glass before they can continue exploration and excavation of the site. It would be an amazing process to do a tv documentary about.
Here, we are definitely among the few obvious tourists. Most of the tourism in this area comes from other Colombians, or South Americans, visiting the site. When we walked down the main street in San Agustin, we didn't see one other tourists and we got strange looks from the locals. It really is an untouched tourist spot, much like Colombia as a whole. But this spot in particular deserves to be a tourist spot, and if the Colombian government continues to improve the security situation, it will be a top draw for the country. Besides the statues, we saw families tending their coffee plantations, and we plucked strange fruit right from a tree - it's a paradise that you don't have to share with anyone yet. You want to tell people to go, but it will change that place forever.
But I will still tell you to go, and when you go, contact Jerry Lewis for the best horse ride of your life. He's got his hustle worked out perfectly, always pushing for a bit more (another day, another activity, another drug). I think he was disappointed when we stopped at the horse ride, but even though we knew his scam, it was all worth it.
So, if you go to San Agustin, like we may or may not have, he'll take care of you.
Luis Alfredo Salazar, email@example.com
As always, more photos here.....