Tuesday February 13th

Where were we last night? Because of the late arrival we saw nought of Chinu but then the hotel was in the middle of nowhere. Approaching sea level and it’s getting pretty hot and steamy at all times of day and night. But it’s another transfer for two hours or so crossing a flattish plain.

Dashing across the countryside isn’t the same, but what it does do is emphasise the scale of the place. It reveals another dimension to the countryside that, taking into account the size of the country, really has surprised me and that is how populous it is. Often there is mile after mile after mile of a ribbon development of humanity all linked by the importance of the road and something I’ve not been able to photograph easily.

What most people are involved in is agriculture so we can see the cattle, mules and horses still being used as beasts of burden to transport goods – bundles of firewood or fruit or ladders or the family. Anything really. The houses are unendingly simple in all things, small in size going from one roomed, lean-to and cobbled together wood with a tin roof, then breeze block or brick with a little bamboo fence and growing up to the literal house on the hill behind a gate and razor wired boundary wall with horses in the paddock. 

Selling stuff. An endless number of figures shelter from the sun under a tree or a rickety table trying to persuade passers by to buy a mangosteen or some other fruit, a bottle of water or have a glass case stocked with a few pastries. In the villages the shops are bigger, still very, very plain and not at all shops as we perceive them – just a few shelves almost inevitably selling the same stuff as every other shop. The same with the bars and restaurants. It must be a very precarious living for all these people. I just cannot imagine sitting in the sun, next to a table of fruit, next to a hump in the road waiting for one driver in a hundred to slow down and decide at that moment – that’s just what I need. And yet there are thousands doing it for a few coppers. 

I often feel completely churlish at how I/ we complain about the lack of a hot tap, or of a different meal or that my room is too small when I’m passing through on a bike and in clothing so far beyond the means of these people who greet me with smiles, a thumbs up, some encouragement, calls of ‘Solo Nairo’ or ‘Quintana’.

This a palm oil plant – not great stuff, creating a monoculture that’s destroying much of the varied cropping people here have grown up with.

In the middle of the day it’s all the kids, or at least the ones from families who can afford it, returning from school in smart uniforms on bikes, buses and walking. Their mums do endless washing. Sometimes you can smell the washing powder as they dry on the line, wall or ground. No matter how basic the existence there seems to be a palpable optimism and cheerfulness even in the weatherbeaten faces of the old guys who look ancient but may well be younger than me.

More later- off to the sunset.

More rumination. The inventiveness of people seems limitless.  A good example I’d say is the roadside workshop. Much of the mechanical stuff here is old so there is a constant demand for mechanics to strip and repair aging equipment so that it can limp along to the next breakdown. The guys in these places probably work miracles with hammers and tongs.

A regular companion has been the long distant trucks which, on the other hand, can look ultra modern. There are cleaning posts where the cabs can be driven up so that the underside can be cleaned. Made by Kenworth of Montana they are almost always immaculate gleaming monuments to chrome and stainless steel..

It’s more miles by bike into Tolu, a small Caribbean seaside resort. Hot riding made tougher by the surface and for a seven mile stretch it was more like off road biking. But we got there and saw lots getting there. It’s another side of Columbia – a sort of kiss me quick kind of place which is in desperate need of repair and visitors. We’re now definitely in Spanish colonial slave country, many black locals are their descendants. 

Tolu was also home to one of the few little mobile coffee trucks – seemingly one of the few ways to get decent coffee when not in a big city. Not cheap but I’m told it was worth it. 

Along the way we cycled through an area renowned for sombrero manufacture, now probably replaced in popularity by the baseball cap except for the older man but still sold to tourists and probably exported worldwide. But how is this for a town symbol on the only roundabout in town?

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