Eventually the boat ride that would never end did just that. It ended. And after all the drama and ennui and navel gazing not to mention the friendships that felt real and important and would never end well they ended too. We arrived on the border of Columbia – everyone crowding the railings as we pulled in to land. We tumbled off the boat in loose packs – dispersing and going on with our lives.
For me, Paul and Allison this involved entering Columbia “officially” through customs. Now after having been afield in South America for a number of weeks I had seen my share of officials and paper-checking situations – or at least I thought I had until I got to Columbia. We ambled away from the boat up a long dirt road
with the small town of Leticia spreading out around us. As the road banked around the corner we came across Immigrations a small nondescript concrete block building in the middle of a field. We headed in prepared to report on who we were, why we were here and how many American dollars we had (a common question that we were cautioned to answer very carefully by fellow travelers. Too little and you look like your lying, too much and you are a target).
We entered the doorway to be greeted by two young men in full military garb including large rifles casually sprawled out behind a folding table. One “official” had his boots on the desk and was eating slices of an apple off of his massive Bowie knife. So far so good. We three stumbled in with our packs and lined up like the good citizens we were. This elicited amused glances between the two men.
Paul was first and went through the usual rigmarole. Stamp stamp on his passport and off he went to the folding chair to wait. Next up was Allison – the English girl we met in Brazil and travelled on the Amazon with. Allison spoke excellent Spanish but also had a very English chip on her shoulder. Basically she had NO patience for any of this languid, semi-official tranquillo South American shenanigans. Her processing took a bit longer as she saw the opportunity to haggle – yes haggle the officials about a fair charge for getting our passport stamped. (I know your not supposed to pay but you know, its Columbia and they have guns and I really don’t want to get back on the boat and it’s only like 2 dollars and oh yeah they have guns).
As Allison carelessly gambled with our lives I examined our humble surroundings. There was an impressive mason jar with a beetle in it on the window sill and I bent to examine it. Inside was the largest freaking beetle I had ever seen –
a rhinoceros beetle huge and black with terrifying pincers. As I stared at it in horror its giant manidbles clicked listlessly – Holy Shit the thing is alive! I stepped back and stood behind Allison as she was finally resigning herself to pay the small “gratuity” for her passport stamp. My turn.
I presented my passport to the apple eater and waited. I knew enough Spanish at this point to answer the basics, ‘How long are you staying”, “Why are you visiting”, Where do you go next”, “How many dollars” etc. Then he threw me a curve ball. “Quieres mancinitas?” Huh? “Lo siento yo no entiendo” I’m sorry I don’t understand (good all-purpose phrase to know in ANY language). “Mancinitas Mancinitas! Quieres? You Like? Then to illustrate he waved his speared apple in front of my face then pointed to my passport. Eve yes? Apple yes? You Like? Oh I get it . Eve. I’m Eve and I like apples. Check. I smiled broadly and nodded my head like an idiot “Oh si me gusto!” He stamped my passport then leaned back in his chair with a satisfied grin then waved us out with a gesture from his knife. I didn’t even have to pay two dollars which totally pissed Allison off. We quickly gathered our stuff and clambered out – done with Columbian beaurocracy for the day.
The town was small – really a way station for other larger cities. Our plan was to book a flight to Bogotá and then travel to Ecuador – a plan that was hatched in roughly an hour after flipping through some guide books and querying other travelers. What do I remember most from this brief stop (other than my apple loving amigo of course)? The town felt pregnant with malice. It really did. The streets were dark, our hostel down a small dirt track in a deserted area. The cafes were grimy and filled with hucksters trying to sell you a trip on the Amazon, into the mountains, on a donkey, in a pongo, with a mountain goat. the possibilities were endless.
We had one guy approach us at night and offer us drugs – we said “no habla espanol” and hurried away from him. We met a German man who had been in Columbia for 2 years and described his time in this rough and tumble place succinctly by saying, “I now know how is Columbia”. And he said this was a common ploy. It didn’t even matter of you bought the drugs because a “witness” would say you had been seen with a known drug dealer and the police would collect you. Then it was a classic shakedown or a jail cell and a frantic phone call home. They all worked together – dealer, witness, police and probably immigration in this tight little scheme. We stuck close together and quickly decided on a flight to Bogotá lacking the nerve of the German man and not wanting to linger in the outback.
The next morning we arrived at the airport
which looked suspiciously like the Immigration station. Small squat concrete building and no real sense of order whatsoever. We dragged our bags around, munching on greasy empanadas and trying to get a straight answer about where our plane was. We had bought tickets the day before from a “travel agent” but were now worried we had been duped. No one seemed to know where this particular plane might be.
Finally we located an employee who told us to go outside and wait on the bench and our plane would be along soon. We headed out onto the tarmac which may have doubled as a tennis court in better times and sat down in the beating sun to wait.
An hour later what can only be described as an airborne jalopy sputtered to the ground and our rumpled and sweaty pilot tumbled out. He waved us over impatiently and we handed him our flimsy paper tickets. Then he tossed our bags in the hold and shooed us into the plane. Several other passengers followed us aboard and we strapped in to a little ten seater and were airborne in under 15 minutes.
I had not slept properly for a while now – it was touch and go on the boat and the night in Tabatinga had been anxious and fretful. I sunk into my seat and closed my eyes as a wave of exhaustion swept over me. It was out of my hands. The plane was probably safe. That pilot seemed sober enough. Fuck it – let’s get to Bogotá. Against all odds I quickly passed out and didn’t wake until I felt the decent.
My eyelids fluttered open to the sight of a giant mountain heading directly towards the plane.
I stared in shock as the green behemoth moved so close that I could actually pick out trees and foliage before the plane sharply banked and skidded and bumped into what would technically be called a landing. We had made it to Bogotá.