Like a five-year old being offered a lolly by a stranger, we threw down our bikes and ran towards the offer of hot chocolate. Under a barbed wire fence, through the first line of trees, round a corner and we walked into breakfast with a military guerrilla tracking unit. The twenty soldiers forced us to have photos taken with their guns, finding it hysterical that we were scared of firing them by mistake, and to have a second breakfast and tankard of hot chocolate. Our only moment of slight awkwardness was when we noticed the soldiers talking secretively into their radio, and then asking Rebs if by any chance she was the Dutch woman known to be fighting with the Colombian guerillas. Unwittingly, the military had revealed their Plan A for catching guerillas: asking passers-by on the off chance they’ll own up.
Delayed once more to be given nine bottles of water and two white vests by a lorry driver, we finally crested the hill and took a break to munch on our regular snack – the six-minute hard boiled egg. Before we even had time to discuss our favourite topic of how firm vs runny the yolk was and the difficulties of timing the perfect egg at constantly changing altitudes, two coffees had appeared, followed by four men dressed head to toe in plastic yellow overalls. The men invited us to lunch and an aguapanela with cheese (sugar water with fresh cheese melted in…ah, Colombia) and we got cracking on a typical Colombian conversation.
Small talk does not exist in Colombia; people home in on the juicy stuff. They are curious about other cultures, which leads to fascinating and sometimes very funny conversations with strangers on religion, politics, economics, the monarchy, love, the media…everything, really.
Some of the more surreal include:
-‘Why don’t you have children? Do you have reproductive problems?’
-‘Wow, England! That’s where football hooligans come from!’
– On receiving a 1p from the UK for luck: ‘Ah thank you, though this means little to me – there’s no such thing as luck, only God.’
– When getting Sol alone: ‘Now that she’s gone, you would cheat on her really right? If you got the chance with a Colombian?’
As we may have mentioned before, Colombians are also incredibly welcoming and trusting. We arrived with our host Cesar, in the regional capital of Pitalito, during his lunch break. He left us in his apartment with his key, and the instructions: ‘Here’s the shower, TV and fridge. Make yourselves comfortable and I’ll be back in a few hours.’ Two and a half hours later, we were long gone, with the TV and fridge packed in our bags. SUCKER! 😉
Cesar and his housemate Tati work for Nespresso. You might think that would lead to a weekend of luxury coffee drinking, but the reality was more instant Nescafé. We spent a day at their work visiting local coffee farms in the surrounding mountains who supply Nespresso with the coffee for their bronze ‘Colombian coffee’ pods. We thought this could be our opportunity for first class coffee…nope, the farmers here drink instant Nescafé too…WHAT?! It is possible to find great quality coffee if you live in a coffee growing region and you’re willing to hunt down one of the few artisanal farms who sell their own produce, but otherwise, you’re limited to two luxury brands in the supermarket. Practically all the best coffee is exported, it is the ‘pasilla’ which stays in Colombia: beans which are broken, rotten or half-eaten by bugs. It made us a bit sad, but ‘export quality’ is the highest praise you can give a Colombian coffee bean.
While we were in Pitalito, two other couchsurfers arrived with our host. Miguel and Guillermo have travelled from Argentina by motorbike, and came to Pitalito to take part in a karaoke competition with a first prize of $750. Our last night was their show time, and to keep a long and highly emotionally charged story short, Guillermo made it into the semis and Miguel qualified directly for the final, both in two weeks time. After sharing such an experience, with little idea how, we promised to come back. We’d spent 13 months meeting only new people, and it was a real treat to know we would be seeing them again.
After two weeks onward cycling, we stowed our bikes and turned around for the twelve-hour hitchhike back. We were given a helping hand by an army squad who asked a bus to ‘collaborate’ with us and give us a free ride. Unsurprisingly, the driver agreed. Our karaoke sob story was winning and effective; the soldier’s grenade launcher was the finishing touch.
Out of an initial 150 contestants in the karaoke, 24 remained in the final. There was strong competition, most memorably from a 17 yr old girl, singing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, complete with a floor length satin dress which she ripped off half-way through to reveal a sparkly leotard, a choreographed male dance partner with a rose between his teeth AND a glitter cannon exploding ferociously at intervals. Miguel relied on his superb voice, and came second, winning his place in Pitalito’s Hall Of Fame.
In Huila we were both struck down by illnesses which highlighted minor though interesting cultural differences between Colombia and the UK. Sol’s cold – which at home would have us reaching for tissues and a hot mug of lemon and honey – had Colombians trying to rush him to A&E for a saline drip and a big goody bag of assorted pills. Rebs’s four parasitic worms, resulting from flies laying eggs in her legs, were greeted with a nonchalant shrug worthy of the French. Colombians were deaf to her desperate pleas of ‘But I can feel them eating the inside of my leg!’ Had the word ‘meh’ arrived in Colombia, they would have used it. ‘Stick some tomato peel on it and squeeze when it looks like the worms are ready to come out’.
And so we hitched out of Huila, in a truck transporting thirteen cows, RebSolomon, four worms, and a lot of tomato peel stuck on one leg.