Despite the fact that hitchhiking was popularized in the sixties, the stigma of moving around the world in this fashion still hasn’t been overcome. It doesn’t matter how many countries you’ve traveled by thumb, the cars you’ve gotten in, or the books you’ve published on the matter, people are always going to assure you that hitchhiking is the most dangerous thing in the world, that no one is going to pick you up, and that the best way to get out of the city is to take a bus. And let’s not talk about the prejudices that fall upon a person when they hitchhike.
Still, we carry on with our South American enterprise, and after almost ten months of traveling, everything has gone better than we could have imagined. We didn’t expect Colombia to be the exception. In the international imaginarium Colombia is synonimous with everything BUT good, unless you are talking about drugs or coffee. What reaction could a person expect when we said we were about to abandon the safe arms of Ecuador to cross FARC country with no more or no less than our thumbs in the air? Catastrophic. That was the forecast. But we have already been here more than a month and the gravest thing that happened to us was having to drink four cups of coffee in one morning.
As much as this article is about debunking the erroneous suspitions of traveling in Colombia, it is also intended to share with the readers the amazing doings that have accompanied each outing to the road in Colombia. This is my experience of an afternoon just like any other when we were going from Cali to the Coffee Axis region.
A normal day hitchhiking in Colombia
After two weeks of comfortable urban residency in Esmeralda’s house we said goodbye to our friends with the intention of leaving the city behind. With one bag full of cheese sticks and arequipe sweets as a gift for the road, we walked two blocks to the MIO, a public transportation system in Cali. We approached the window and aksed the employee to put two trips on our card. She looked at us. First at us then at the backpacks.
«Chileans?» She asked with enthusiasm. I know that she yelled it, but the thickness of the glass barely let me hear what she just said.
«Argentines,» I replied with a smile.
«And why are you leaving? Don’t wanna stay and visit around Cali?» With her index finger she drew a circle, reenforcing her idea about visiting «around» Cali.
«We’ve been here for two weeks. We already saw everything,» I exaggerate.
She put her fingers together in a rose bud shape, a very Italian-esque symbol for a question. Next, she drew a circle in front of her. She wanted to know where we were going.
«Manizales. Armenia,» I yell.
«The best. Have a good trip,» she yells to me from her glass cell, and she gives me the thumbs up.
We enter the MIO and I feel content. The people in Colombia do not lack in friendliness. While the bus moves I try to move the same scenario to any given subway station in Buenos Aires. To imagine a Metrovias employee insisting that I stay in Buenos Aires is so impossible that it makes me laugh. No, no. Those people don’t even bother to smile. A window worker concerned about your trip and inviting you to stay in her city is what can happen to you if you hitchhike in Colombia.
We continued the trip. The MIO left us at the end of its route and we walked to the service station right where the route that we wanted to take begins. A security guard came near us with an ugly face, and while I distanced myself from him by going to the bathroom I imagined the possible dialogue between Juan and the guard. I am sure that he’d come to kick us out, but no. I came back from the bathroom and I found Juan so self-satisfied, serving himself cold juice inside the office. The guard was standing next to our backpacks and watching over them. «He’s going to help us get to the exit, and he even gave me juice. Want some?» Indeed. As soon as we got out the man made a gesture to a bus and he asked him to help us to the last station. The ticket taker accepted without any protest, helped us with the backpacks, and from one moment to the other we were in our seats waving goodbye to the security guard who was waving goodbye so enthusiastically. Out of the two possibilities of this encounter with the guard this one was the least expected. A guard at a service station offering you fresh juice, watching over your backpacks, and getting you a free ride on a commercial bus is something that can happen to you if you hitchhike in Colombia.
The ticket taker passed by charging the people for their seats, but he skipped us. The people next to us didn’t seem to mind. On the contrary, they wanted to know where we were from, where we were going. We traveled just a bti and soon it was time to get off. The place we got off at was not remotely convenient. We approached the driver with a map and he gave us an uncomfortable piece of news: in his rush to help us, the guard put us on the wrong bus.
The highway ahead of us was the Panamerican, which goes all the way to Armenia, but it is not the scenic route we had hoped to take. But we were already there. We thanked the driver and began walking and looking for the exit. A few minutes later someone blew their horn insistingly. It was the same bus that stopped next to us. «I’m not going to Armenia, but to El Cerrito I can take you all.» The ticket taker said to us as he took our backpacks off our backs and put them in the luggage area. The people that just saw us get off saw us get on again and they smiled. Behind us a street vendor got on and offered bombones. I sank down in my headphones when all of a sudden I saw a packet of three chocolates balancing in front of my nose. The hand dangling them was from the passenger traveling next to us on the opposite side of the aisle. «For you to have on your trip.»…he smiled and told me. As if it weren’t enough for the driver to decide to take us for free out of his own will, now the neighbors were giving us sweets for the trip. Really, this can only happen to you if you hitchhike in Colombia.
We walked less than half a block and a car stopped. A wild pack of shoes seemed to bark from the rear window. There were many of all colors. «This is a purse mobile,» joked the husband of the driver while he tried to make us space between the closet on wheels. They were going straight to Armenia and that fit us like a ring on the finger. They were a couple young, the same age as Juan and I. In the driver’s seat was the girl driving cautiously. Every time they came next to a truck he insisted: «Blow it, mami,» and stuck his arm out the window, hoping the trucker would blow the horn. After the silence, she consoled him: «These truckers just aren’t like they were in the old days, papi. We have to look for an older man to respond.» And together they laughed upon realizing the childishness of the situation. They got along very well and it was a pleasure to travel with them. They wanted to go live in Chile to work and afterwards go back to Colombia because their business wasn’t going so well. In this manner we spent time talking the whole two hours it took to get to Armenia. On the way there we called our contact. First she told us yes and for us to call in a half an hour. Later they didn’t respond and said she was in the bathroom and finally that she is not our contact. It was a total mess that concluded with us in the center of Armenia looking for somewhere to go. We didn’t get scared. Something was going to happen. When we got out of the car and said goodbye the man put twenty-thousand pesos in Juan’s hand. We didn’t want to accept it but they insisted. «At least you will be able to pay the hotel. It doesn’t make any sense for you all to keep looking for that woman.» We gave them a book to make the exchange a bit fairer and we set out looking for our solution. It wasn’t the first time someone gave us money, but neither was it something that happens so frequently, even less from people our own age. Therefore it qualifies for the list: in addition to picking you up people give you money when saying goodbye can happen to you if you hitchhike in Colombia.
What happened next borders upon tragicomedy. We decided to go to a cyber cafe to look for a hand of salvation that would get us out of the situation. Yes, we had money to pay for a hotel, but that would be our last resort. We got on a computer and copied some phone numbers from the Hospitality Club website. For those who haven’t heard about this system it is a site created in 2001 to help unite travelers with local people. The idea is to promote cultural exchange through an exchange of free lodging, thus the «hospitality» part. It works by sending an email a couple of weeks ahead of time to the people living in your destination and you arrange a meeting. But there’s also an emergency outlet for situations like ours: to call directly by telephone. So while I was checking my email, Juan took care of calling the recent contacts and explaining our situation to them. The cyber cafe was empty and Juan was speaking so loud. The owner of the place began to ask us about our situation. Finally, a contact named Juan appeared and indicated to us how to get to his house, telling us to «ask for Juancho, the computer guy, at the door.» Done. Matter resolved–save for one little detail: the curiosity of the owner of the cyber cafe. We explained to him everything very slowly and omitted some points to keep him from worrying too much. In the middle of the explanation another man entered with a suit and tie and joined the audience. And he didn’t miss the opportunity to get on his compatriot’s nerves.
«Don’t let these kids leave just like that! No, no! You should know where they are going!»
Each and every attempt we took to keep him from worrying was totally in vain. He had gotten himself so worked up that he picked up the phone and called Juancho to ask him exactly where it was that he lived and to tell him that he knew we were headed that way. When our next host explained to him again where he lived, the man came back more calm yet more nervous at the same time. (Yeah, don’t ask how, but this man showed that it was possible.) He told us that the neighborhood was calm and that it was best for us to take a taxi. The man in the suit took it upon himself to call a cab driver friend of his and I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. Upon returning I noticed the man in the suit wasn’t there anymore and that the other man was talking to the police on the phone. This was the dialogue:
«Hello, sir. I have here two young ones, two Argentines that have arrived with no place to go. They tell me there’s a Traveler’s Hospital Club (I lost it!! God give me the power not to burst out in laughter!) Yes, sir. It’s a hospital that takes in travelers, and they have to meet up with Juancho who’s from there. He must work in that hospital. But I don’t know one Juancho from Armenia (Armenia has 250,000 inhabitants). What happens if they get robbed? That’s why I’m telling you it’s better to report it, for someone to know where they’re going, so come please to take their testimonies because Juancho sounds a little suspicious to me.» (Based on what?)
The thing is that with the police on their way we couldn’t leave, and while we waited the man told us: «I already cancelled the taxi. Let’s see if the police will take you. That way you save on the trip,» and he finished the phrase with a wink. The truth is that if they took us we were going to save about two dollars, but what was our contact going to think? What if they wanted to search him or something? He was trying to help us! How embarrassing! When the police finally got there and saw our faces they understood that the man was overly worried, and as they put us in the taxi they explained to the man that «not everyone is so untrusting with the internet. Nowadays, it’s common.» And he replied: «But how can it be common for these kids to sleep in a hospital?» I laughed a lot on the way and tried to recreate the mental image that this good man had created, of the Traverler’s Hospital Club that takes in travelers! People worrying on a personal level about your safety can happen if you hitchhike in Colombia.
In the end, Juancho was no sort of drug trafficker, and he put us up in his house for a night. We left the next day with the goal of arriving to Salento, happy about the previous day but a bit tired still from all the work in Cali. We headed towards the exit and got as far as we could go. No one stopped and my patience was getting low. At the traffic light, a boy of 17 years was working as a live statue and collected coins from the drivers. We got away from him so as not to bother him, but after waiting half an hour we saw that he was coming towards us. He shook our hand and asked us where we were from and if we had eaten . We told him yes, that we were okay, and he said goodbye. After ten minutes we saw him coming towards us again. He was bringing two cups of coffee and five empanadas. He sat for a moment with us, but he didn’t want to have breakfast, and he hurried off to his post. That simple gesture moved me so much I cried. I thought about it a lot, and I felt so thankful. When we finished eating breakfast we continued on with our task without much result. We saw the boy coming back again. This time he gave us his hand full of coins. We didn’t want to take it, and we were arguing for a good while. Yes, no. Yes, no. His last sentence was emphatic: «I feel better if you all have them. I do well for myself. Don’t turn them down just because you see me working in the streets.» There was no other way out but to accept the coins and to hug him so thankfully. There were 6000 Colombian pesos ($3.00 USD).
When I told my mother that same night what had happened, she again told me something that since the beginning of my trip she has told me many times: «They are angeles that God sends for the road.» I don’t like to contradict her about matters of faith, but the truth is that in this case I must make an exception. To think that they are angels gives them a divine and heavenly aura and it takes away the merit of their acts; it’s like saying that they behave that way because they are instruments of God. And I saw them: they are people of flesh and bone, of sorrows and smiles just like any other human being. And they are good because that is the essence of man, although they don’t want us to believe otherwise. When someone tells me that what we’re doing is dangerous I always respond: «I am convinced that in this world there are more good people than bad. It’s just that the bad ones get along better with the press.»Beacuse of that, meeting marvelous people, with open hearts and overwhelming kindness can happen if you hitchhike in Colombia.