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Flying in to Colombia in the very dodgy 1970’s


It was only possible to plan so far.

It was only possible to read up and imagine how it would be. But books told mainly of the obvious and not the incidental and while others who had been that way had told a little more and the music had spoken for itself, it was only the simultaneous assault on all the senses that now confirmed arrival.

And now that it was happening, it was just a little frightening. Rather than holding court in some pub, throwing out exotic place names and outlandish ideas in secure surroundings where we could impress without contradiction and then drink up and go home, we were now on our way. After grappling with the language to find a room, would we now, without the security of greater numbers, go out to a bar with the same aplomb? Could we eat and drink what they had without wrecking our insides? Could we then go back along dark streets and not be rolled? The intelligence varied; now it was academic.

John Worrall book coverIn a shuffling line along the cabin of the landed Electra, we reached the door and turned into the heat, pausing for a second on the top of the steps as if on a high board which in some ways we were. The humidity came first, penetrating with the first non-air-conditioned breath, laced with kerosene in motionless air under a clear blue sky. And then came the light, the razor light, flaring off the concrete, hard and blasting, even in late afternoon.

In that sudden change, no one spoke. The five of us and a dozen others went mechanically down the steps with a handrail hot to the touch, spreading out at the bottom on the concrete where, the smell of rotting vegetation now mixed with the kerosene, moving towards the terminal building, a long, low structure set steadfastly against the heat. Clean, adequate and not very busy, it took this quarter plane-load without difficulty and our passports were stamped, our packs ignored – we were on the way in.

Beyond the barrier, a pretty young woman in jeans and T–shirt with long black hair moved towards us as we raised the packs. She smiled broadly while a large, uniformed man drew on a cigarette, chewed gum and eyed us without expression. She carried leaflets issued by the American ambassador and we were each to buy one for a dollar cash. The leaflets were about drugs and the penalties for possession. The Colombian and US Governments were trying to stem the flow and the ambassador assured us that he would not help anybody caught in possession and that there was no Habeas Corpus in Colombia.

As we glanced through them, a tall, long-haired, bearded American, a man in his 20s, strode up.

“Hey! Did you pay for those leaflets?”

We turned to look at him.

“They’re supposed to be free! We paid for ours when we arrived! It’s a fucken rip-off! Go and tell that asshole to give you your money back.”

He paused in exasperation, looking at us and seeing that we probably wouldn’t.

“Well, go on! She’s fucken ripping you off, man!”

We looked at the woman who had moved away and was talking to some Germans.

“Hey and watch out on the streets, then!”

We turned back to him.

“They’re bastards! ‘Specially up in Bogota. We lost a whole bunch of stuff. They’re just a load of thieving bastards.”

He was choking with emotion.

“And watch out for the DAS, too.”

“The who?”

John Worrall book cover“The DAS, the police who look for the dope. They’re the worst of the fucken lot. Oh shit, man, you gotta watch everybody.” He threw up his hands and walked off.

We looked at each other and then across to the girl. She was taking money from the Germans. We drew breath and without speaking, moved towards the exit.

There, another man, a ragged middle-aged Colombian, tall and thin and the colour of mahogany, approached us. He wore a battered jacket over a grubby T-shirt and both were too big. His trousers were dirty and torn and they didn’t reach his ankles. His shoes which held his bare feet had no laces.

“You want to change money?”

“No thanks” we said defensively, still moving.

But he waved at the bank office. We did need to change money. We paused and looked at him and then at the bank. We went to the window and he waited. With money changed, at 31 pesos to the US dollar, we raised our packs again.

“You go to the city?”

“It’s okay” we said.

“I show you the bus” he insisted, quietly.

He walked out through the doors where we were going anyway, and together we emerged onto a wide, dusty parking area the size of a football pitch almost devoid of cars but strewn with bits of rubble looking like the remains of many cleared buildings; small shacks had survived at either end. Along the far side ran a road on which a couple of cars were passing; the smell of low-grade fuel hung in the air. It was very hot. The man walked slowly towards the road, glancing encouragingly at us and, seeing no other obvious course, we followed, eventually to cross the road and pause in the shade of a low, dusty tree. The road was straight and potholed, running off to the west past scattered, nondescript, intermittent, low suburban buildings interspersed with stretches of outer urban scrub which, in the middle distance, merged into trees. Apart from an occasional car, there was no sign of life. In the other direction, a mile or two away, lay the city, the tops of its high-rises shimmering in the haze over more interven
ing scrub.

We stood in the dust under the tree for ten minutes and a few trucks went past, V8s coughing under long bonnets and revving in low gears despite the flatness; Ford and Toyota pick-ups sounded more comfortable. We discussed the question of accommodation in hushed tones. The man stood impassively by. We each had our South American Handbook and we would choose something from that. The intelligence was most emphatic on the Book’s merits – the Gringo’s Bible, they called it – and we would not accept other guidance on that point.

John Worrall book coverA bus arrived, old, decrepit, dented and semi-windowless with a roof load like a badly stacked pile of fruit boxes. It was filthy and crowded and it decelerated slowly as though not to shed its load or even superstructure with any sudden changes in momentum. We took a full minute to get aboard, pushing gingerly into the midst of those standing, hanging then from straps and pressing against others. We tried to be nonchalant as seasoned travellers should but it couldn’t work. Our packs were clean and likewise our jeans fresh from the ship’s laundrette three days before. We were nothing new anyway; it showed in the way people looked at us. They had seen it all before, nervous gringos groping their way. They just watched us knowingly.

A man, 30-ish, with a moustache and a creased suit, squeezed between the passengers collecting fares, a thin wad of grimy notes folded long-ways between his first and second fingers. He nodded to our accompanist and knew where we were going, taking pesos from those we offered and giving change without speaking.

Deep in among the concrete structures of the inner city after 20 minutes, the bus slowed to a crawl in thick traffic: cars, taxis, trucks, horse-drawn carts. There were many people moving along the pavements. We stood, swaying with the bus’s motion, watching for a likely spot to get out but watching also the man who was still with us. He nodded assurance that we were on course. Then he whistled and the bus stopped.

“You follow me to hotel.”

We had a hotel, we said, stumbling in turn down the bus steps.

“No. This one very good hotel.”

We ignored him and regrouped on a crowded pavement looking at our Handbooks. People pushed past; the light was suddenly fading and the streetlights were on. There was the noise and smell of heavy traffic and food stalls and there were small shops lit up with merchandise standing outside. There was movement and clatter. We stood like an obstacle to the pedestrian flow, refusing to be persuaded by the man, determined to find our own hotel. He hovered. We began to attract attention. Youths gathered, sniggering at our dilemma. They tried to read the books over our shoulders and spat absently as they discussed us. The man became agitated and asked again that we should follow him. To maintain our point, we showed him the name of the Pension Colon, one which we had picked out there and then and at random from those listed. That’s where we wanted to go, we said. He shrugged and said he would take us there. The book gave the street name and it was something of a surprise to find ourselves in it two minutes later. We followed in single file, walking behind him like a jungle expedition until he stopped in front of double doors in a blank wall with a grubby sign bearing the name. It looked rough.

We thanked him. He hovered. People were still pushing past. We thought that we had better give him something. He confirmed his with the questioning word, “Propina?” We gave him ten pesos, just over US30c. This he observed with continuing politeness, was “very small”. We gave him another ten and it was enough. He shook hands with us all, his bony hand almost lifeless. Then he disappeared into the flow.

Downtown Barranquilla

The doors were tall and narrow and behind them, a dark, grubby staircase led upwards and we followed. A fat, sweating man sat at a table in a cupboard under stairs on the first landing. He exhaled smoke and regarded us.

Cuantos?” “How many?”he asked before we said anything, but at least our Spanish understood that much. We told him and he gave us two rooms, two among 20 or so flimsily partitioned out of the second floor.

The place was indeed rough. The rooms were cubicles with three quarter height partitions – perhaps to aid air circulation – and three beds in each, all with bare, stained mattresses. That which Jim, Andrew and I shared was lit by a fluorescent tube on a timber batten nailed to the wall next to the door; a large fan hung from battens nailed to the ceiling which sagged under its weight. The fan was operated by crossing the bared ends of two wires hanging close to the door. Someone had thoughtfully bent them into hooks but they still swung backwards and forwards when the door was opened, threatening contact with anyone going through. When we tested the fan, it oscillated so wildly in gaining momentum that it threatened to tear itself way from its bearers and drop on us. We unhooked the wires.

The toilets were in a couple of cubicles along the landing. They were blocked and had been for some time. There was used toilet paper all over the floor. The space in front of the cubicles was for showering where cold water flowed, at the turn of a distant handle, from a couple of open ended pipes extending across the ceiling. The rubberized floor where the water fell was washed clean but the edges were thick with slime.

But for one night it would have to do. With packs against the cubicle wall, we sat on the mattresses for a minute or two without speaking. Mosquitoes were coming over the partition in numbers and there were no nets. But we were all taking anti-malaria pills, even Jim. So we would go out and find food. It was far too early to sleep and anyway, there was too much to think about.

Andrew had a small padlock and fastened our flimsy door with it. I had left my camera bag behind a small cabinet, incongruous in such a room. The debate had been whether to carry something of promise to a mugger on apparently dangerous streets or to leave it to take its chance with intruders. I opted for the latter for the first and last time. Outside, a man was leaning against the wall, his hands folded behind him in military fashion. He watched us leave. Those hands might soon be working on that flimsy door; the thought stayed with me.

The street carried the smells of cooking, exhaust fumes, horseshit and blocked drains, its noises centring on the music, cumbia, an erstwhile African courtship tempo long since made the rhythm of the South American Caribbean – frenetic pianos, accordions, trumpets and much banging of percussion comprising mainly tin cans, it seemed. It issued from every bar where sound systems were pushed to the point of distortion and patrons leaned on each other in the smoke, unable to compete with the noise or reason with the liquor. They just banged beer cans and bottles in the gloom.

Up in the square, next to the cathedral, a market, busy and festively lit, was selling toys in the Christmas rush. Radios hanging on stall canopies played Spanish carols from several different stations. People pushed and bustled, shuffling and carrying, beggars solicited and there were gringos, moving at a slower pace, gaggles of six or ten, laughing and shouting, Americans and Europeans. They could be heard above everything else. We were of that ilk though not yet that loud. For a while, we thought we might do the local thing and eat at a food stall but our nerve faltered and we chose a small café which was more than just a bar – its radio was at a bearable level – squeezing in through narrow doors and down a single step, taking a vinyl-topped table while men, a dozen or so, elbows on tables, smoked and watched our arrival from under hunched shoulders. The waiter gathered that we wanted coffee when we ordered in Spanish. We went on to order la comida, the standard meal, not knowing what would arrive, though
Tristram and Julie were vegetarian and played safe with papas fritas. A few months in reportedly carnivorous South America would probably test that philosophy.

I looked at the others as we waited for the food, the four of them lounging now, long-legged in their chairs, gazing around, taking up a disproportionate amount of space while locals looked on.

The comidas arrived, each a plate of nondescript meat on a bone with papas fritas and a little enslada. Had the salad been washed in treated water or was our first dose of gut-rot right there on the plate? We looked at each other and shrugged. In the middle of a big town? The water was probably ok. But we left the salad.

Even so, the transaction instilled confidence. So far, so good. We discussed plans as we ate, growing louder as we settled, sitting up to the table then, inward looking in a sort of conversational kraal. The consensus was that Barranquilla was only the port of disembarkation. Cartagena two hours down the coast was better by all accounts. It would be the place to spend Christmas. There would be plenty of gringos down there.

Only half in the discussion, I thought separately about hanging with gringos. That hadn’t been the plan. A trip, a Long Trip, had to be an individual thing; you couldn’t go sharing it unless that really was necessary, and it wasn’t. These were early days and it was ok to tag along for now but very soon, it would be done alone. Here was Tristram from England and Julie from Sydney travelling together, Andrew from New South Wales and Jim from Adelaide, travelling separately but happy for now with the common effort. Me? I just wanted to travel without obligation and that was in the hands of only one person.

John Worrall book coverWe were back well before midnight. The streets were getting raucous by then; the town had been raising the pace all evening and was getting into its stride with a sort, “Life-is-poor-but-at-least-we-have-the-night” defiance. The man was still standing at ease outside the pension but he moved away as we approached. Then we saw that it was modesty and not military training which required his stance; his trousers were like film sets, they had a front but no back, nor, for that matter, anything underneath.

The mosquitoes kept us awake and we had to use the fan. We set the thing in motion, hooking the wires and pressing ourselves against the partitions while it picked up speed. Again it swung from side to side alarmingly but at higher revolutions gained some stability. We watched it for a while but then lay down and slept with our hands over our heads.

Extracted from A Bus to Somewhere Else. Travels in South America, an ebook, available at and, by John Worrall.

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