Intrepid Den: MINISCULE MOUNTANOUS MINCA

Here’s the latest blog from Intrepid Den, tinged with sadness at the end.

This is possibly the most bonkers day of my life. Maria’s friend Hector arrived in his big 4 wheel drive truckette to take me to Santa Marta. Maria hitched a lift and told me that he’d take me to Minca for 50,000 pesos – all of £12.50. I’d read that I could get there for 5,000 so declined the offer. We dropped Maria off at the market clutching an enormous rolled up orange thing which might have been a single mattress, but this is Colombia, so who knows what it was. Maria and I hugged and kissed, as I knew we would. I thought of taking a photo but somehow, the moment just got lost and Hector took me to Casa Familiar and the lovely Fabio, who once again embraced me like a lost lover. He took my enormous bag from me and locked it away, I reassured him that I would be back on Saturday and off I went to the ATM twice – it is so difficult to just get what you want vis a vis money withdrawals. And then to the supermarket to stock up on rum (well, what else was I going to do for three days in the mountains) and then to the chicken place to stock up on protein.

All ready, I headed for the place where I was assured, I could get a collectivo taxi to Minca except that I just couldn’t find this place. “Minca” they told me, was all I had to say and as if by magic, it would all become real. I said “Minca” here, I said “Minca” there, I said “Minca” everywhere and no one had a clue. One kid hanging out of the door of a bus beckoned me to get on and in no time at all, beckoned me to get off – I didn’t even have to pay but where was I? And NO ONE spoke English. Finally, a bus stopped, I said “Minca” and he waved me on. Well, we drove around Santa Marta to parts I have never seen before. We went near to the bus terminal, where I was convinced he would drop me off, except we didn’t even stop at the terminal. The next thing, we were driving around a new housing estate which looked absolutely bloody awful and then there was only me on the bus. I said, once again, “Minca” and he slapped his head with a gesture which meant that he had totally forgotten that I wanted to go there. By this time, we weren’t even on what we would call a “road”, this was just dust and gravel.

Never mind, he was on a mission to get me to where I needed to go. He drove past what passes as bus stops, not even bothering to stop, just gesticulating that there would be another bus along in a minute. And then finally, on a sand road, to what seemed like nowhere, he told me to get off because this was where I needed to be. I got off and all I could see was one shop and a few motorbikes. The driver gestured to the motorbikes and drove off. “Minca”, I said again not believing that I would ever get there and a kid on a motorbike said “Si” and gunned his motorbike into action.
“You’ve got to be joking” I said to no one who could speak English except me. I was told that the road to Minca was too dreadful for a bus to make it through and there was this kid, on a motorbike suggesting that he would take me there. All I had on was a little top, a little skirt and a pair of moccasins with a shoulder bag containing almost everything of any value to me – laptop, camera, credit card, passport, plus a bag with some clothes and toiletries. I told him I needed to smoke (and seriously think about this). But what else was I going to do? I slathered factor 30 suncream on my bare arms and legs, put the pathetic toy helmet he offered on, climbed onto his bald tyred bike, wedged my bags between me and him and off we went. Never forget that I’ve been riding bikes for most of my life and I hardly ever trust ANYONE on two wheels because usually, they are crap and I am better, and off we went.

I was reminded of my despatch riding days and being on the back of “Mad Mick” – appropriately named, who used to race around the North Circular as if he had right of way against oncoming traffic, with me on the back. On one occasion, I was so terrified, I thought I was going to be sick in my own helmet. Today, it wasn’t dissimilar. To call the thing we were on a “road”, is a massive exaggeration. Mostly, it is worse than a path that donkeys would falter on. It is a steep, winding, mountainous track full of pot holes, craters and sand, which with bald tyres, you don’t grip, you just slip and there was I, sitting astride this beast with bare legs and arms, just waiting for the bike to skid over and my skin to shred like coleslaw. I even wondered if my insurance would cover it or would it just be considered an act of lunacy and void my policy. At one point, we were even racing another bike – I wanted to shout “SLOW DOWN – IT’S NOT A RACE” but with no Spanish I just gripped on until my fingers ached. I couldn’t even look at the road or over the edge at the sheer drop, but knew that we were climbing really high because my ears were popping – or was that my brain?

Somehow, we made it to Minca intact. We rolled over a metal makeshift bridge into town and suddenly I was aware of the mountains, so close I could touch them. There was snow on the top and clouds on the ridge. They say that the rise in altitude from Santa Marta to Minca is one of the most extreme in the world – just 15 miles and you are from sea level to mountains and I’d experienced every inch. He finally dropped me at the base of a track that led up to my hostel, I gave him back his helmet and 7,000 pesos – less that £2 and I was so relieved to have made it and to have had such a stark raving mad journey, once again, I was hugging a complete stranger. Well, this is Colombia!

I walked up the very steep path with beer bottles half buried in the soil to act as steps(just imagine) and almost by accident, found Hostel Colibiri which rather quaintly, means “hummingbird”. There was a man sitting at a table who I thought might be the English, French and Spanish speaking owner, but he wasn’t. He was a Dutch guest who, like all Dutch people, speak English, He told me that there was a power cut and I told him about my crazy journey. He and his wife have been travelling through South America for six months but I think, even he, found my account alarming. At some point, someone who also wasn’t the owner, turned up and showed me to my room replete with a mini bust of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. I dumped my bag and headed back into town.

“Town” is perhaps too grand a word for Minca. It is tiny. One little church, two streets and that’s about it. You wonder why people even bother to come here except that there are millions of birds, a river and waterfalls, a coffee plantation and, the reason why I am here, CHOCOLATE! The mountains dwarf the town – it is like a miniscule oasis of flatness where people could settle and build something that they could live in. There are a few bars and restaurants, which I presume used to be houses before the tourists arrived and not much more. I found a map with one word of interest to me – and I don’t mean to keep going on about it but I am addicted, and that word was simply CHOCOLATE. I followed the sign and found a little stall, all on its own, the other side of the bridge which had a sign saying “Kakaw”. Somehow, I seem to know the name for the thing that I love in every language. The stall lady told me that in one hour, the chocolate would arrive – I had nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Sure enough, down the hill, came a woman in a hair net, with a bag FULL of little heart shaped jewels of such extreme delight I think I lost my mind. 2,000 pesos for three – 50p! I bought three. I didn’t want the ones with fruit, I just wanted the ones with cocoa. I just sat there and ate them, letting them dissolve in their pure goodness of thick, dark, bitter sweet perfection. For the second time in one day, I questioned my sanity and then bought three more. This is chocolate that I’ve never tasted before. It makes even the finest chocolate seem like junk So I bought another three. The only thing that might come close, is the chocolates that my nearly god daughter Tess makes me for Christmas. I was so satiated, I saw no reason to move and eventually, the man who seems to be in charge, invited me to stay for the chocolate making “tour”. I just sat there. They gave me a little cup of organic coffee to sustain me, raw cocoa beans to suck, dried beans to peel and chew and finally, a course in to making the perfect chocolate – they even let me caress and press the mixture into the little heart shaped moulds and it’s just roasted and ground cocoa, coconut oil to bind it, panille which is the juice wrung out of the sugar cane without the bulk of the sugar, and that is it. No milk, no cocoa butter, no cream, no nothing.

Probably delirious, I staggered back to the hostel and the “Bolivar Suite” as my room is very grandly named, took a shower to rinse the dust of the journey from my body and then there was yet another power cut. I know wi fi is almost non-existent up here, but to have no electricity means that I can’t even write. I asked the owner Romario what I was supposed to do? He gave me a candle for my room, invited me to join him and the other guests sitting in candle light and we talked! Mostly I spoke to the Dutch man from earlier about his travels and all things Dutch – I am curious as to what Holland creates and sustains itself from – hi-tech micro chip machinery for one, and once he’d gone, I talked to Romario who is, of course, supremely interesting – why else would he be here, high in the mountains with a Colombian wife, a precocious funny pretty little daughter, a hostel and a loaf of bread in the oven which he bakes every day. We talked about how perma-culture ruins the soil, his time living in Hammersmith (where I used to live), Paris where he is from (and where I used to live and was married) and many other things, and I thought, I only came here for the chocolate, but in one day, I’ve had, perhaps, the most interesting day I’ve had in my entire time in Colombia. What a difference conversation makes. And not only that, up here nature is SO noisy. In Taganga, there is just the wail of the wind. Up here, the land is alive, probably with things that will eat me alive. But with my 100% deet insect repellent, I’m prepared to risk it. I like Minca!

DAY 2

I’d paid extra to have breakfast and Romario promised me fruit in abundance and coffee with non-lactose milk. We waited until 8.30 when the Dutch couple gave up and left and then the Colombian kid from yesterday arrived . I expected him to be buckling under the weight of a tray, possibly balanced on his head, covered in a vast array of tropical fruit for me to gorge on. But no. He had nothing edible whatsoever. He opened the kitchen and all that was there was a swarm of tiny fruit flies, the fibrous end of a pineapple and 3 half mouldy strawberries that tasted more like carrots – I ate them anyway. I even risked a slice of his home made bread – I was starving. I looked around for the coffee – the kid pointed at the cold coffee left over from yesterday. “Caliente” I said meaning “hot”, so he poured it into the kettle and boiled it up for me. Only in Colombia. I am now here on my own – everyone else has checked out and I am seriously wondering if I can stay up here for another two nights, on my own, po
ssibly sitting in the dark… I was reminded of the film “The Shining” when Jack Nicholson heads up to the deserted hotel at the top of the mountain to write, and goes stark raving mad. Did I really want to risk it?

I couldn’t. I found myself, on automatic pilot, packing my things. I paid the kid for one night and he had the cheek to mention breakfast. Even though he spoke no English, even he understood EXACTLY what I meant. I picked my way, goat-like, down the track to the road and walked into town. I just had to say Santa Marta, and with the Dutch couple and an old man, that made us four and we were ready to go. We climbed aboard and old worn out Land Rover and with a bang and a cloud of smoke, we creaked out of town. Without being scared out of my wits, I noticed just how beautiful the route up or down the mountain really is. The vegetation is so lush and verdant and there really is snow on the top. The river can be seen rolling over boulders, racing down to the sea and the air is charged with positivity – just what I needed.

We finally approached Santa Marta, but didn’t head along the bus route, instead we took a new super duper ring road which I had never seen before. There is word that the road will continue to Minca and why would they do that? Because the Colombian government has legalised the use of marijuana for medical use and guess where they are going to grow it? Yep, up there in them hills. I asked if meant land clearance but no one could tell me – I suppose that means yes. And the most ridiculous thing was, that the fare in the Land Rover was the same as the motorbike – just 7,000 pesos – less that £2. What a country of contradictions.
Back in the relative sanity of Santa Marta (and I never thought I would say that), I found yet another menu del dia and tucked in. And then it was back to Casa Familiar, yet again. My old room was occupied so they took me up to another room with no real window, no natural light and it just wouldn’t do. Google Translate was loaded up and I told Fabio I’d have to find somewhere else. In the end, for a little bit more, he gave me a double room with a view of the mountains – it would do for the three nights I had left. What else I was going to do was a mystery. I’d walked nearly everyone of these streets that were worth walking, so I bought a book from the “library”, plonked myself on the big clean bed and just got on with it. Later, I did wander out for snacks and my theory that this is a red light district, was confirmed. Despite a few calls of “Chica”, I don’t think anyone was under the impression that I was for sale – for one thing, I’m not 16 and for another, most of my bum wasn’t hanging out of a tiny pair of shorts. Of course, had I known, I could have bought a pair…

I later found that I had been charged as a “no-show” by the Colibri loosely described as a “bed and breakfast”, so now I am in a dispute with them – I wonder how that will turn out?

IN MEMORIAM

Yesterday, I learnt, by email, that my brother-in-law, who had been gravely ill, had died six days short of his 60th birthday. I knew his illness was terminal, but I still expected him to be there when I returned to England in May. Nothing prepares you for that news and it is the loneliest thing I have ever experienced. There is no one to talk to about it, no one to hug, no one to raise a sympathetic eyebrow to you, no one to do anything with. Travelling alone is a test of everything that you possess. Your fortitude to deal with difficult situations, to make decisions for better or worse, to get used to only have yourself for company, to overcoming fear of both the known and the unknown, developing your instincts to keep you safe, being an attractive personality so that others will want to engage with you and getting used to talking aloud to yourself when you are, inevitably, all on your own. But to grieve and mourn on your own is the loneliest thing you can do and there is no respite.

Travelling isn’t all about having fun experiences and it is important to consider how you will deal with bad news. I considered not mentioning it because it isn’t entertaining but that would ignore the fact that when you do travel, things beyond your control will always happen and if you think that they won’t, then you are wrong. You have to be prepared for everything. It’s not just one long raucous hullaballoo and when you are in communal places, like the kitchen, and others are talking about how awesome Nicaragua was and all you want to do is cry, you have to disguise it so that you don’t look like a depressive nut case, and then you have to go and sit on your own, because that is the only place that you can bear to be.

I know that he would not want to cause me any despair and in that knowledge, I will probably drown my sorrows in the only way I know how and then try to celebrate the many happy memories that I have of his life, rather than mourn his passing. He was a remarkable man; my sister Colleen’s wonderful husband and father to their two fantastic sons, Ryan and Mark – I will miss him.

Michael Waters, please rest in peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *