Saturday, August 19, 2006


popayan patio

I doubt whether any of my readers have heard of Popayan. It is a modern city developed round an unspoilt 16th century core that occupies a round topped hill. All the houses are painted white in the historic zone. The streets run at right angles. Look down any street and you see greenery at the end, either trees or hills or mountains. The plaza occupies the crest of the dome. The plaza has a cathedral and the standard competing banks and government buildings. It also has an arborium. A bronze statue of a martyr of the War of Independence is the kernel. A ring of massive conifers surrounds the statue. These are ringed by a circle of royal palms. The outer ring offers a mixture of different trees, two of which are clothed in pink blossom. Offices, factories and universities are in the modern barrios so the city center is semi deserted much of the day and the churches are closed. In Colombia, churches open for the celebration of the Eucharist or for mass, weddings or funerals. They are not offered by the priests as tourist atractions. I did a funeral at 4.30 in San Francisco, a celebration of the Eucharist in the cathedral, the parts of three masses at San Augustin, La Encaration and Santo Domingo and a full mass uphill at the tiny La Ermita - the priest was young and it would have been rudely noticeable to leave with only twenty-two in the congregation. The church felt good and the priest delivered a kind sermon. A juvenile U2 sound-alike performed in one of the other churches - I don't recall which. Would guitars have been standard fare when the churches were built? Apart from which, what can I write? That Popyan has it in spades over any other Spanish Colonial city I have visited on this trip. The feel of the place is right. It is a place where you could live. It isn't purely, or even more than minimally, a tourist destination. It is a city where local people work and study and bare families and struggle to survive. It is clean and the architecture in the center is beautiful. The people are friendly. I was directed to a great restaurant last night and today I found a cafe with six pool tables and seven slightly bigger tables without pockets and an advertisement at trhe door for an anthology of poetry. A bunch of tables in the entrance were occupied mostly by elderly gentlemen drinking beer: you can't make a living serving coffee in Colombia; too many places give it away free. This evening I mingled for a while with the young at a cultural center. Tomorrow I head for the border.


san augustin

A right turn off the Freeway takes you 80 Ks through hills to Popayan. A cop on a Yamaha tooted me and waved as he sped by up the first hill. Warming - and I think of the horrid little American with the yacht at Portobello. Of Colombia, he said, “The cops will shake you down.”
The road to Popayan follows the crest of a ridge for part of the way. The sky was dark directly overhead; to the east a long clerical-grey blanket lay across the peaks of the Cordillera Central. The mountains to the west were further away, their spiky summit sun-lit, pale grey cloud clinging to their lower slopes. Between lay a hilly land of paddock and woods over which gaps in the cloud let through the sun so that the hills were a patchwork, both light and sombre.
On one hill, a Renault, overtaking across the double yellow lines, had hit a truck head on and been thrown against the retaining barrier. Cops were measuring skid marks. A parked ambulance presumably contained the dead. I caught up with a second ambulance, lights flashing, on the next climb and followed it into Popayan
At 1760 meters, Popayan is cool and served the sugar planters as a hill station. The center is white Spanish Colonial. Dusk and I searched for a Colonial type hotel with atmosphere as recommended by the FOOTPRINT guide book. The first didn’t exit where the book said it existed, the second was full and I couldn’t find the third. I pulled up beside a late teenager on a scooter eating a creamy desert out of a plastic container. She lead me to the hotel, full. So she took me a short way out of the center to a modern hotel without atmosphere but clean and with parking and hot water at $10 a night.
My guide is a final year medical student, her first name: Lady…


For outsiders, Cali is remembered for the notorious Cartel. For citizens, Cali is the salsa capital of the world. For me it is one more big modern city and to be avoided. There must be a peripheral freeway. I missed it. I was saved from panic by the driver of a new double-cab pickup who led me through the center to the avenue that leads to the Pan American Highway. The friendliness of fellow drivers and bikers was confusing. At one time I was sandwiched between a bus and a pickup loaded with matresses, both drivers yelling questions on my journey. Answering both while keeping up with my guide - not easy!


Glorious day. I ride towards Cali across what I believe to be a flat valley. Hedges part-hide mansions built by coffee barons in golden years. With coffee prices rock-bottom, For Sale or For Rent sighns are common. A gorge opens to the right. A gorge opens to the left. I am on a promintory that narrows and down I ride to a vast plain of sugar fields and cotton. A small stream borders a field of cotton. Giant bamboos grow along the stream bank. The cotton is in bud, the surface of the field white. The feathery fronds of the bamboo are a pale brilliant green.
I stop at Buga.
Here, on the Guadalajara river, Christ appeared to the early Spanish settlers in the years from 1570 to 1575. A huge red-brick basilica celebrates the visitations. The basilica was completed in the early 1900s. It has been brought right up to date with lighted red sighns outside marking the bookstore and the office that receives applications for masses of remembrance. This is religion for the TV age in competition with the TV evangelists. Video is projected on flat screens, the screens attached to the pillars. Electronic noticeboards display the time of masses. The arches supporting the main dome are lined with electric Christmas lights. Gold leaf abounds and so do worshippers; the pews each side of the central aisle are three-quarter full for midday mass. The priest is in mid sermon when I enter. He is in mid sermon when I leave. I gaze down from the entrance at an avenue of shopping arcades. All the shops sell religious tat. The streets leading left and right of the basilica are similarly lined. The whole forms a cross on which is crucified both religious and artistic taste. A recreation of the tower of the original church stands beside the basilica, the church built by the original settlers. It is small, simple and unadorned.


Reach the crest of the pass and the wind hits. Visibility clears. Pale fluffy cloud, way below, roles against the mountain face. Overhead, darker cloud threatens rain. I have underestimated time needed for the climb and head downhill in a race against nightfall. I have to brake to a halt three times or be crushed by oncoming trucks both overtaking and swinging wide on the curve. The city of Armenia lies at the foot of the mountains. A young cop stops me in heavy traffic on a bridge into the city. By law, Colombian bikers display on their chests and back their bike plate numbers. I don't. Why don't I? A senior cop arrives and tells the young cop to stop being stupid. He then stops a local bus to check with the driver what street a hotel is on.
I have comented previously on the extraordinary helpfulness of Colombians and of their friendliness and the interest they take in my journey. I do so again. They help and they help and they help...


Wow! 3350 meters in altitude with Colombian drivers playing chicken all the way. Colombians regard double yellow lines in the road as a challenge. Drivers of huge trucks overtake on blind curves, add a car on the outside hard-shoulder and a couple of bikes whipping through on the nearside hard-shoulder and you have the picture - I forgot one detail, the almost share drop. And one more detail: that everyone drives in the same manner and they understand each other and are miraculously good natured. Did I mention the cops? The cops are dressed in camouflage and would be invisble but for phosphorecent chest stripes. They stop the occasional bus and check papers. Mostly they are unmpires ready to call foul on one or other driver in a collision. Meanwhile local farmers carry on their trade as if they were farming a flat field rather than a precipice. Lose your footing and you slide a few thousand feet. Terrifying! The men are small and dark and wear hats and boots and ponchos. Vegetables are the product. Posts and wires for tomato vines march up a near vertical slope, a dozen pack horses carry sacks of potatos.
Farming gives way to forest for the final few Ks. I have both my jackets back on. Cloud closes in. Self and Honda are confident...


I added an extra vest and a second pair of trousers and was cold as I rode away from the hotel at 7 a.m. this morning. Mist shrouded the road for the first 20 Ks. Sun broke through and I found myself in a land of lush green hills that was even more reminiscent of Westmoreland and the Scotish Borders. I funked Bogota. I am not in the mood for big cities. I entered on a freeway and left on a freeway. Two cops on a bike pulled alongside at the midway point to ask where I was going and wish me good luck as did the young driver of a new blue GM Corsa. Beyond Bogota the road drops, following a river. Each side of the road sprouts weekend homes and hotels and restaurants with pools. The traffic is continuous. Colombians must enjoy noise. I stop and peel off a pair of pants, two jackets and a shirt. A great flat hot plain lies ahead. I ride between huge paddy fields, vast fields of cotton and a few fields of targon that my informant believes is used in brewing beer. Much of the road is shaded by trees. I pass Giradot and cross a long bridge that feels as if it is a thousand feet above a river that flows through a narrow gorge of greenery. Ibaque is next, then the Quindio Pass - 3350 meters at the crest.


At Tunga last night I was part of a group at the hotel sitting on couches in the lobby and drinking great coffee. The couches were upholstered in shiny brown fake leather. Two elderly farmers (OK, probably ten years younger than me) were buying a new trailer for what they call here a Mule or a tractor-mule – the part of a trailer-truck that has the engine and the driver. The trailer was an investment. They wore thick grey ponchos all evening. They sat side by side on a couch half listening to the conversation and half watching the TV news. They were with a younger guy, fifties, tall and sort of city, who had a trailer catalogue. A fourth man was from Bogota and worked for a company curing and selling hams. The usual questions came: where was I going, where had I started out, what were my impressions of Colombia? I said that I had only known of Colombia from the movies and books. The Colombia I had ridden through came as a surprise. It seemed so normal and so agriculturally rich and developed.
“Americans only know Colombia for cocaine,” the city guy said.
“And Europeans,” The ham man added. “All foreigners think the same.”
“It’s the movies, I said.
“American movies,” the city guy said. “Americans finance the drug trade and they blame Colombia. Drugs is an American problem.”
I had heard the same in Guatemala from both a senior police officer and the head of a security company: that 90% of crime in Guatemala was financed by the US.
This morning the ham guy took two small painted amulets of the Virgin and Child from round his neck and gave them to me for protection on my travels. Colombians are extraordinarily kind.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


A University City, Tunja is full of students. In architecture it is mix of the historic sublime and mediocre modern. I attended 7 a.m. mass this morning at Villa de Leyva in the parochial church on the plaza (the only time it was open during my visit). The church is big and plain. I like plain. We were a congregation of twelve. I felt nothing. Santa Domingo is small and panelled wall-to-wall with carved wood, richly gilded. I don’t like ornate yet I was overawed – and I felt at home in the two wonderful early colonial mansions. One has a view from the upper gallery of the Carta Bar except that this is Colombia rather than Scotland. We are at 2,800 meters above sea level and I walk a couple of hours without feeling breathless. And I buy a smart rain jacket marked down to $28.
Small, dark cafes abound where students can discuss metaphysics, revolution, rap artists or footballers. I find a light cafe and eat fresh strawberries without cream or sugar. Two pretty young women enter. They select a huge pastry filled with berries and cream and topped with ice cream. I warn them that such joys are short-lived
Tivasosa is 48 Ks Northeast of Tunja. The town is small, tidy and clean. The central square is pretty, no more. The mayor is a man, so is the Chief of Police. So much for my informant! I ride back to Tunja. Friesian cattle graze small fields protected by small woods. The hills are so Westmoreland, I expect to meet Tom Louther on the road walking a lercher. Even the thin drizzle is familiar and I am cold despite the addition of the new jacket! I am also happy - loneliness has no place in this landscape.


I eat breakfast at the Hotel Villa del Sol. The owners and staff are in the kitchen. The quietness with which they speak and work reminds me of the San Bas Coona. I expect cold up on the pass to Tujan and dress in long-coms, thick Chinos, high socks, thermal vest, cord shirt, short-sleeve jumper, wind-cheater. I was tired on Monday and anxious to reach Villa de Leyva and suffered the mountains merely as a barrier to cross. I am fresh today and glory in the climb. Centuries of erosion has stripped the mountains bare. The rock has a rose tint which darkens as cloud shadow snakes over the ravines where a few small vegetable gardens nestle. Reach the crest and I am back in Westmorland and the Scotish borders. I stop at a police post to discover the altitude. A cop tells me, close to four thousand meters. He and his partner shake my hand and wish me well on my travels.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Villa de Leyva is a classic example of early Hispanic urban planning. All streets meet at right angles. No house is sufficiently tall to block the breeze from its neighbours. The exteriors are simple – display of wealth was both dangerous and vulgar. Peek through doorways and you glimpse greenery and perhaps feel a soft breeze cooled by a fountain or pond. So, yes, Villa de Leyva is very Spanish. It is also very Arab.
Hundreds of years of Moorish occupation must have left few Spaniards of pure Hispanic blood (what ever that is). I am part Spanish. Thus, almost certainly, I am part Arab – and also Italian, German, Scots and God knows what besides.
That Spanish/Arab part imagines those settlers in 1570. They were men of small stature, small education and many superstitions. I scan the parched mountains that surround the flat green valley of which the town is kernel. I imagine that the mountains must have made those settlers from across an immense ocean finally feel safe: safe because the mountains enclosed an understandable space, and a space they could defend. I wonder how many (or if any) closet Arabs were of their number. Historians tell us of closet Jews. We remain in ignorance of Moslems. Strange…


carmelite nunnery
I attended two clinics in Panama to have the stitches removed from my hand. Two further fragments have surfaced. I walk two blocks to the hospital in Villa de Leyva. According to the doctor, my body will reject the fragments. Once they surface, I can pluck them out with tweezers. I cross the plaza to admire the Carmelite convent. Founded in 1645, the convent remains occupied by nuns of the Order. The walls of the houses opposite are recently whitewashed. Spattering of whitewash on the cobbles shoots me back in memory to a rented house in Ibiza Old Town with my two elder sons, Antony and Mark. I am overcome by a longing to hold them in my arms as they were then, silken-skinned midgets bronzed and bleached by Mediterranean sea and sun. In my longing they meld with their half-brothers at the same age. The sense of loss leaves me exhausted and I sit on an oblong marker stone in the plaza. French Chef Bertrand and his family pass by and I take their photograph. The pain ebbs. The sun shines. I watch people cross the cobbles. A group of Spanish-speaking Black people are obvious tourists. Few Black Colombians live up here in the mountains. Villa de Leyva is Indian, white Hispanic and a mix of the two. Yes, and a sprinkling of incomers drawn by beauty and a low cost of living. I need Bernadette. I head for an internet cafĂ© and check e-mail. Bernadette reports that Mark and Josh have been discussing universities on the telephone. Melding…


bertand & family

Villa de Leyva, a chill evening and the vast cobbled plaza is deserted. It is a space that demands movement, cattle, horses, market stalls. Its emptiness threatens my composure. I feel very alone as I walk up hill to a restaurant recommended by the woman of all tasks at the hotel. She is a woman to be admired and trusted, very matter-of-fact. She tells of her daughter, five-years-old. No, no husband - most men here are irresponsible. Better to remain single than share life with someone for whom you have no respect.
She is a good guide to a good meal. I have fasted all day and order charusco. The steak is vast, tender and full of flavour. I flirt with a young woman (two-years-old). Her father is French, chief chef at the French Embassy in Washington. The mother is Colombian. They met while Bertrand was chef at the embassy in Bogota. He and I drink coffee together. He talks of his future. He has a reputation in Washington. He would earn top money in a restaurant. The thought of living in the US horrifies him. Everything revolves around money. I hear Ming speak and the Korean monk (see blog: COMMUNITY UNDER THREAT). Bertrand would like to try Chile. An opening at the embassy would give them time to look around. He has already researched fees at a good private school: $2,500 per annum. His wife wants to move home to Colombia.


Turn a corner and I have changed climate and landscape. Here all is green. Trees shade coffee bushes and stream hangings of silver grey moss. Dairy cows graze upland paddocks. Honey is for sale beside the road, apples, pears. I pass patches of tobacco, the drying barns open-sided - what tobaco grows at this altitude, so different from the humid climate of Cuba to which I am accustomed? These uplands seem used in a similar manner to land in Europe - rather than the industrialised agriculture of the US, treasured fields created by centuries of backbreaking toil. I think of up-state New York and those small fields of the early settlers now abandoned as uneconomic and abandoned to woodland. I wish Anya was here. The highway leads to Bogota. I take a left fork to Tunja. The road rises to around 2500 meters. I ride thru a narrow defile, a stiff chill wind blows in my face and the Honda is a little breathless. Beyond are fell lands that recall the Cheviots and Westmorland, though without the dry stone walls. We drop into Tunja then climb again into barren mountain. A final drop takes us into a wide bowl. Villa de Leyva is to the right. All the houses are white washed. Most are single story. Cobbles are small; the stones surfacing the streets are big and the Honda bumps under its load of Toad and luggage. I find a pretty room with bathroom, $20 for two nights, at the hotel Villa del Sol. The hotel is spotless, the shower pipeing hot.


A statue to the Virgin Mary stands on the inside of a curve near the top of the ascent. Healdlamps rather than flowers are the offerings. Some of the lamps are connected to a power supply. The statue must be a beacon to night drivers. I stop at a cafe at the summit of the pass and ask the lady why headlamps for the Virgin.
"They last longer than candles," she tells me. She asks where I have come from and where I am going and refuses payment for my coffee.


near the top

The highway from Bucamananga follows a green river valley a short way before hitting mountains. The Honda and Toad are well rested. We face only 300 Ks to Villa de Leiva. No reason to hurry and I am one with the bike as we swoop into the curves. We climb and climb. These are dry mountains. Brilliant sun sparkles on the rock. Even the air feels brittle. Views are astounding.


Good things come in threes - so the saying goes. The Pole with the Brit is a software engineer. Ming is an electronic engineer. Tonight I ate my dinner on Giron´s central square with a chemical engineer. A Bolivian of German and Serbian heritage, he lives in Giron and has established the first biodiesel plant in Colombia. Palm nuts provide the raw material. Three of his plants have been sold in Bolivia. Though in his sixties, he remains as enthusiastic as a kid (dumb statement - so many kids profess to being permanently bored).


story teller

Giron is bliss. I walk and walk and people greet me with smiles and a Good evening. I find two smaller squares. Both are shaded. The first is overlooked by a small, simple, 16th century church. A story teller performs in the square to an attentive and appreciative crowd. He relates the fable of a German immigrant family and their Alsation. The punch line is that there is no point to life without heart. I watch the kids seated crosslegged on the cobbles. Spellbound is a good discription. No wriggling, no Mum, fetch me a coke...


420 Ks and I shower, rest an hour and shower again before venturing out. Sunday and the passeo is in full flow. This is how it should be, people thronging the streets, the young courting, eating food off street stalls (corn, grilled meat, beef sausages, icecream). Bells ring. The religious enter the church for mass. Others cross themselves.



I have ridden 420 Ks. The final section was thru hill country, green with notices on the road side advertising swimming holes in the rivers and camp sites. I am too tired to enjoy and spot with relief the right fork to Giron a few Ks short of Bucaramanga on Highway 45A. Giron is an all-white Andaluce town transported to a bowl in the Colombian mountains. A small river runs thru. All roads are cobbled. Most houses are single story; all have pantiled roofs and wood shutters. I find a room on the first floor of a beautiful boutique hotel on the Plaza Central ($8). Trees shade the plaza. Sunday and the town is full of day trippers.


Both Ming and I had imagined the Darien gap as impenetrable swamp. We saw fold upon fold of jungle-covered mountain. Colombia has an image problem and Hollywood is a lousy PR agent. The image Hollywood projects is of brave citizens of the US (Harrison Ford) fighting cocaine barons of Medellin and Calli. The scenery is jungle. The men wear grease in their hair. Tom Clancy is a promoter of the same image. I am on the road by 6.15 and travel for six hours thru a vast parkland of great trees and lush paddocks, fat cattle and sleek horses. Everything is cared for and there is almost no litter - but why fences, I wonder. Surely here, where shrubs grow fast, hedges would be more economic and more decorative. To my left rise mountains – dangerous territory. Trees line the road and I ride in a green tunnel from which soldiers in camouflage emerge every kilometre or so to wave at the weird old man with a beard on the small white Mexican bike. I pass plantations of oil palms. Crossing a river, I note that cormorants float low in the water. I recognise, but can’t put a name to, a pair of birds, black with thin curved beaks. Nor can I name a small raptor with white patches on tail and wings. Fun to carry a bird book – I don’t have space.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Navigating the truck-infested highway is exhausting. I stop early at a town that has no reason for existence other than servicing trucks and drivers. I find a reasonable room with bath, fan and lock-up parking for $6. I sit on the terrace and drink soda with fresh lime. A gang of curious ten-year-olds and a young waitress sit with me. They question me on life in England, bikes and travel. I question them on family, school and ambitions - and the waitress on boyfriends, wages and her opinions of the town (jail from which she hasn't sufficient schooling to escape).
I drink a beer with dinner, a rich chicken and vegetable soup followed by steak and onions with plain boiled rice. Add the fresh-lime soda and the bill comes to $2.80. Trucks thunder by. None of the drivers are black - why do I notice such things? Early to bed: I intend reaching Giron tomorrow (420 Ks): a small Spanish colonial town that is a national monument.


Highway 45 to Bogota splits from the Santa Marta highway fifty Ks from Baranquilla. Truck traffic is heavy. Many trucks are empty. I discover later that these are returning to the coal mines at . The mines are US owned. My informant is an ardent supporter of Venezuellan President, Chavez. He tells me, "Gringos take everything and leave us with nothing but desease (presumably silicosis)."
The empty trucks spit coal fragments. My faces stings. My gloves and shirt are black. Traffic is too heavy for enjoyment of the countryside. Soldiers guard the road, seldom a kilometre between posts. Police man road blocks. Most police wave me thru. The two that stop me don´t ask for my papers. They are curious as to how far I have travelled and how far I intend traveling. I have a stock reply: What should an old guy do with his remaining years? Watch TV? Or get out and learn and meet knew people?
They ask what my wife thinks of my travels.
I reply that Bernadette is relieved to have me out of the house for a while.


From Baranquilla, I continue along the coast towards Santa Marta. The highway runs between sea and lagoons. Fisher families live either side of the highway. They live in flimsy shacks crammed one against the other on salt flats that frequently flood. The shacks must be damp. The heat here on the coast is intense. The air stinks of hot wet salt and last week´s fish. Canoes under small square sail slip across the silken surface of the lagoons. Photograph them and you have beauty. Photograph reality and you come close to Hell.




Mobile and South America lies ahead. The sky is blue. The few clouds are charming puffs of white. I have escaped the rain.
Though wet, Central America was easy. The countries are small and crossed in two or three days. South America is big. Colombia is big, even that half that has roads.
In heading directly south to Medellin, Ming retrod our first day´s travel. I decide to circle. I head north-east along a coast of beaches and brilliant blue sea to Baranquilla. I spot a Honda agency in Baranquilla. I need a replacement mirror for one broken while unloading from the Hell ship. No mirrors - however the agents (husband and wife) insist on giving the Honda a quick service - free. A young mechanic works while we chat. My travel impresses. I feel a fraud. I have ridden a bike, no big deal. I have enjoyed myself, met interesting people, made new friends, made a few dumb mistakes.