Travel writing: Salento, Colombia

“Por ahi?” bellowed the petite moustachioed man, pointing quizzically at the luscious green Colombian mountain slopes. He snatches the map from my hand and runs into the rickety road, halting an ominous looking jeep. “Discúlpeme señor…” I try to inject, grabbing the map back.

 A tall young man in flashy sunglasses arises nonchalantly from the back of the jeep and nods coolly. He smoothly heaves my rucksack onboard.  I reluctantly follow, levering myself on the metallic flooring which was already tinged with heat from the morning sun.

As the jeep jerked forward and darted up into the highlands of the Cocora valley, discarded bullets strewn across the floor rolled dramatically back and forth.  My nervous disposition mirrored back at me from his tinted eyewear, as the undulating green hues of the terrain blurred past behind him.

His hair was gelled firmly in place. Each strand remained static despite the morning breeze causing even the tallest wax palm tree, Colombia’s national symbol, to sway mellifluously in the misty panorama around us.  Below I saw the orange and olive bronzed roof-tops of the sleepy town of Salento tucked safely away in the valley.

He remained worrying silent, clutching a transparent bag of grey powder firmly in his lap. “Polvora” he said deeply, catching my gaze. I attempted a stealthy reach for my Spanish dictionary, only to scramble through the raft of sticky coconut candy wrappers and ‘Zona Cafetera’ leaflets I had acquired a day before in the 1999 earthquake battered town of Armenia.  As I scour the dictionary, the town’s feeble shack-like housing seemed increasingly idyllic.  “Gunpowder” I whispered to myself.

My attention turned to the rusty circular metal weights wedged beneath his large arms on the seat. Using just his other hand he skilfully unscrews a bottle of Aguardiente, Colombia’s sugar-cane based alcoholic beverage, and pours it into two shot glasses on the floor without any spillage. I began to run scenarios in my head for all the unscrupulous things he may be doing with these items.

The jeep began to slow dramatically and even the morning dew resting atop the leaves in the coffee plantations became visible.  The pong of diesel emanating from the jeep vanished suddenly and was replaced by the fresh aromatic whiff of coffee. It fanned through the morning humidity like we had entered a strongly air-conditioned Starbucks.  I receive a tap on my knee, the man holds up the shot glass in offer. I politely wave my hand, as he shrugs his shoulders and rapidly downs both.

Aqui” he yelps, and the vehicle halts. Carefully arising he points to a widening in the trees “hostel” he says nudging my rucksack off the jeep. I jump off, as he places a crumpled piece of paper firmly in the shoulder straps of my rucksack. He winks and the vehicle speeds off, unsettling road dust in its wake. The paper read: “Tejo ranch 1km: drink and throw metal weights at gun-powder!”

There is a whole new character hidden in the shadow of Colombia’s stereotype.


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