BOGOTA TO BARRANQUILLA, 18 HOURS
I ran as fast as I could with my backpack firmly strapped to my back. My sleeping bag and assortment of toiletries and other items wrapped in it was cradled in my arms. It doubled as my “carry on” and the sleeping bag would come in handy as a blanket. On these large buses that cover long distances they keep the AC system cranked to the max. I prepared for this, dressing in five layers – with a sixth handy – for the 18-hour journey.
I was late for the 7 p.m. bus that would take me from Bogota to Barranquilla. Mauricio Mellan, my couchsurfing host who I now consider a friend, drove through rush hour traffic like a true Bogota local, dodging taxis and buses and motorcyclists. We made it to the bus terminal in just enough time to hug goodbye and quickly agree to meet perhaps in Medellin. I was supposed to make that Medellin trip with Mauricio on Monday, but I woke up Thursday with the sudden urge to experience carnival in Barranquilla. Weeks before, several Colombians I met along the way had asked and even gently suggested that I should go to Barranquilla for carnival. Somehow I was not moved by that. I was thinking about other things, such as visiting colonial Villa de Leyva, and the Salt Mine Cathedral, not getting carnival bacchanal.
Well, in the shower – where I do my best thinking – I asked myself what in the world was I still doing in Bogota. The city was cold, wet, and dreary and I had had my fill of the place. The only reason I was still in Bogota, I thought, was to hitch a ride to Medellin with Mauricio. Not reason enough. Move on!
So the obvious destination was carnival. Barranquilla is where everybody would be this weekend, partying it up and having a good time.
Colombians love their country. They talk it up. They love to describe its beauty and all that it has to offer. They describe cities and villages like they are national jewels. Most of them, however, describe Barranquilla as dirty, chaotic, and dangerous in some areas, and only worth a day’s visit, if that. The only thing worthwhile about Barranquilla, they would add, is carnival. People from Barranquilla, such as my first host Mar Ortega, take offense to this less than flattering description of their city, of course. People from the coast and from Bogota take friendly jabs at each other. Bogota folks like to say people from the Caribbean coast are loud, talk too fast, drink and party far too much. I would not go as far as to say there’s a regional conflict – they are all proudly Colombian – just friendly ribbing.
Well, soon I would see for myself what Barranquilla, where singer Shakira and other notable Colombian artists are from, is all about. In the meantime, I am just outside of Bogota on a mountain pass, rain and fog forcing the bus to slow to a crawl. I don’t mind. These are serious mountains we are climbing and descending and I for one like the fact the bus driver is moving at a snail’s pace. As assistant world editor at the Miami Herald, I read more than my share of stories about buses in South America going off some cliff side, and I don’t wish to be tomorrow’s headline. Go slow, bus driver. Take your time compadre.
As I made the decision to go to Barranquilla, I had to hustle to get to the bus terminal to buy a ticket, book a hotel, eat lunch and pack. I decided not to even request a couch in Barranquilla, useless during carnival, and find a hotel instead. Of course all the prices were jacked up for carnival. And there definitely wasn’t a couch to be had as I noticed in the Couchsurfing Barranquilla group. In that forum I posted an SOS. Could anybody advise about hotel, with wireless internet, near the carnival action, safe, clean. Almost immediately the responses came, one from David, a 22 year old guy from Barranquilla who made a hotel suggestion then offered to help me find a reasonably priced hotel. I found a hotel online and called David from Bogota to ask if it was in a good location and safe. He said yes on all fronts then offered to pick me up at the bus station and take me to my hotel, then again pick me up from my hotel to take me to his home to celebrate carnival with his family and other couchsurfers he was already hosting or helping to enjoy Barranquilla. I was blown away by David offering to do this and had to ask if he was doing this out of pure friendship or he was seeking to be paid. David said absolutely not. No money. His gesture was being offered out of friendship, nothing more. Cool, I thought.
When I made it to the bus terminal in Soledad – the bus and airport that serves Barranquilla are actually in a neighboring town named Soledad – I called David. He sounded like he had just awaked or maybe just tired. David said he’d be right over to the terminal. I waited. And waited. And waited, turning down offers from taxi drivers. After more than an hour, here comes David, who looked like a high school linebacker with braces. We greeted and David said they were others waiting inside the terminal. There, a group of six people from Israel and one guy from Austria, all couchsurfers. The obvious question came to mind: was David driving a bus? How was he going to get all of us to our respective homes for the weekend? He had found hotels or apartment to rent for some in the group. They were going in a different direction, I to my hotel on the other side of town. After trying to get an answer as to exactly what was the plan, David revealed that he did not have a car – or a bus – and that instead he would get us all taxis. So let me get this straight: I waited an hour and a half for David to get me a taxi when I could have gotten a taxi on my own? As I got in the taxi, a bit befuddled by David, he said he’d come to my hotel at 6 p.m. to pick me up to join the official kickoff carnival festivities. He went off with the others to get them into taxis, all – as me – with their large backpacks.
So here’s what I think was going on in David’s mind: Here’s a kid from Barranquilla who only recently signed up to couchsurfing and he was just excited about meeting visitors from other countries. So he volunteered to facilitate their visit, as a sort of self-appointed one-man greeting committee. David had really good intentions and a really good heart, but in this instance doing more harm than good. It would have been better for him to say upfront he had no means to transport any of us from the terminal and perhaps would be better to allow us – me! – to proceed to my hotel. After an 18-hour trip and you are standing outside in the intense sun waiting, you’d rather get to where you need to be and soon.
I hold nothing against David. His heart was in the right place. By the way, I think he took on too much. He never showed up to meet me at my hotel and I went to the event on my own, where he turned up, happy and dancing through the crowd to cumbia. No explanation, no response when I said I called him but he didn’t pick up. Moral of the story: sometimes you have to depend on the kindness of strangers. But be ready to do for yourself.