In Pablo Escobar’s Backyard

 

Salento, Colombia

Yesterday was the first time I felt truly scared and unsafe in Colombia.  In fact, it’s the first time I felt that unsafe in any of my travels.  I was going from Cartagena to Salento, a tiny town in the Coffee Region.   I wanted to hike the beautiful Valle de Cocora.  To get there, I had to fly through Bogota to Periera and then drive another hour to Salento.  To complicate matters, it was raining hard and long in all four cities.  I knew I would arrive really late, so I emailed the hostel to let them know, and asked for confirmation that there would be someone who could let me in.

When I landed in Salento I was exhausted, and my Spanish were diminishing along with my energy.  The driver was clearly frustrated with my language skills (or lack there of). As we drove around Periera, I started to become concerned that we weren’t on a highway yet.  In fact, we were on small streets in a rundown neighborhood.  When I asked, he said we needed to stop, and something about a mobile phone.  I was confused and uneasy as we pulled up to the taxi office.  I didn’t understand what he was asking me, so he repeated himself in a louder voice.  I still didn’t understand, because I didn’t know the Spanish words not because I’m hard of hearing.  He started yelling, I got agitated.  We were not off to a good start.  I finally understood he wanted my name, phone number and passport number.  It seemed highly unusual, but I was at his mercy now.  I had no idea where I was, and I definitely was not getting out of the car and walking alone in that neighborhood.  Then he went inside the office for 15-20 minutes leaving me in an unlocked car by myself.  When he finally comes back, he doesn’t speak to me, and I don’t really want to talk to him either.  But we’re on our way so fine.  Let’s act like 6 year olds.

Then things got really frightening.  We stopped at a traffic light, and a really, really creepy guy walked up to the car and just stood next to the driver’s window in a very intimidating manner.  I sat frozen and intently watched the taxi driver for some indication on how to read this situation.  Finally the creepy guy disappeared behind a bus in the lane next to us.  Then his scary-ass friend, wielding a baseball bat, came around the front of the bus and headed right for us.  I felt my heart in my throat I was so scared.  I thought ‘This is it.  This is where I finally push my luck too far’.  My mind flashed to the book I had just read about the Colombian hostages.  I snapped out of it as the driver quickly locked the front two doors, and I quickly locked the back two.  I simultaneously started saying my prayers.  It felt like everything was moving in slow motion, but then all of a sudden both scary guys became more interested in the bus next to us.  The light changed green and we took off.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but wondered what happened to the people on the bus.

The cabbie and I bonded after this.  Being scared shitless does that to people, I guess.  The drive to Salento on winding, twisting roads in the heavy rain and thick fog was treacherous.  Of course, there was no seat belt, and the odometer jumping around from 20 to 200 like a lie detector machine didn’t comfort me. The closer we got to Salento, the tighter the turns became, and I could see the driver was struggling to maneuver in the dark of night. I was nervous and I think he was also nervous, because he started talking to me for the first time all night. I felt bad he had to drive back by himself in this weather.

We finally arrived in Salento, and the town was deserted.  No one was walking around (although the weather was pretty crappy), very few cars were on the street, most of (if not all) the buildings were dark and closed up.  It looked like an abandoned town in an old western movie.  As we pulled up to the hostel, my heart sank again and I knew my earlier fears were well founded.  The hostel was closed, and no one responded to our knocks.  I was so grateful that the driver didn’t just leave me.  Neither of us was sure what to do next, and we both just looked at each other and shrugged.  We asked the one passing car about other hostels, but apparently they were all closed for the night too.  For the umpteenth time that day, I was scared.  I probably would have cried, but my mind was too busy planning and thinking of various scenarios.  Do I go back to Periera, hope I can find a hotel at 2 in the morning, and pay this taxi fare again tomorrow?  Just as I was about to lose hope, I spotted three blonde guys on a balcony down the street. It had to be a hostel.   Maybe they would take pity on my sorry ass.  Luckily there was an extra bed in the dormitory. They threw down the key, I hugged my driver goodbye and quietly climbed the stairs to the hostel.

As I sat down to share a beer with the German and Dutch guys, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that everything worked out and I had a safe place to sleep that night.

 

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