Around the World With a Vagabond

Thieving Fishermen, Chickens in Trees, and Leaking Tents: Survival in the Colombian Jungle December 21, 2009

There are far easier ways to enjoy the Caribbean – but easy isn’t really my style, nor was that the case for the other three. We could have booked a hostel, and meandered jovially down to the beach – but why bother with that when we could throw ourselves at the mercy of criminal locals, an unforgiving ocean, murderous jungle insects, and hostage-seeking guerillas? The choice was obvious.

Morgan and Meg had discovered that beautiful Tayrona National Park was not only a tropical beach paradise, hugged by lush, green, jungly mountains, but there were trails! Jungle trails that led to lost cities, secluded beaches, and forgotten treasure!!!

Okay, maybe not that last part, but it all seemed awesome.  The plan was to jump aboard a fishing boat in the village of Taganga. This boat would take us to Cabo San Juan, where we would hike about a mile through gentle mountain paths along the coast to the entrance of the park. The friendly fisherman would be able to get us wristbands into the park for cheaper. If they bought the wristbands for us, as locals, they would only have to pay half-price. They would also kindly stow our booze for us, as no outside alcohol was allowed. How thoughtful.

Upon being banded with our sneaky discount wristbands, we planned to then hike through the Colombian jungle. Carrying three days worth of food and supplies in shopping bags, we would hike for several hours making a pit stop at a lost city, then continue on to the remote beach of Playa Brava. Once there, we would pitch our tents on the sand, the boys would catch fish and crabs for us to eat, and Meg and I would find something useful do.  Collect coconuts, perhaps.

But, as is typical of many grand schemes, our plan didn’t necessarily go as expected. I’ll start with the boat trip.

The boat was wooden and narrow, with large plastic containers filled with gasoline lined down the center. There were about a dozen passengers in all – every one of us tourists.

The sea was angry that day, my friends – like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. The swells were at least 10 feet high. I hope readers take a moment to appreciate how high a ten foot swell actually is – especially to passengers in a small wooden fishing boat half a mile out to sea.  I was sitting near the bow, and one of the fishermen shouted “Chica!” at me and gestured for me to trade spots with Chris, sending him to the front. It was a crazy, bumpy, painful, and thrilling ride, and all of our weight needed to be evenly balanced!

For 40 minutes our aged and rickety fishing boat slid up and over the rising swells at a dangerous speed. I’ve been in situations like this before – on a boat at sea entrusting my life to people with whom I can’t communicate.  This was far scarier, but I took comfort in the fact that at least this time I had a life jacket.  At least this time I could fathom making the swim through the viscous waves towards the rocky cliffs. At least this time, I could wrap one one arm around my seat, and with the other arm cling to Chris’s leg.

And it went on – the wind whipping hair back from our faces, the sun beating down on our bare arms and thighs, the waves drenching us with every third wave. It was exhilarating!! Then it was scary.  And then it was painful.  The waves got bigger, and the boat seemed smaller.  With every speedy race over a swell, the little boat landed hard.  I glanced at the other passengers and saw many who were only looking down. Morgan was grimacing. Our backsides were slammed against the hard seats over and over.  I later saw that my back had a small wound from getting nailed by the hard edge of the boat so many times.

I entertained conflicting thoughts:  Could I actually survive a swim in these waters towards the cliffs? If I did, would the waves only beat me to death against the rocks when I got there? I had to have faith in these fishermen. After all, didn’t they grow up on the water? Hadn’t they been boating these waters their entire lives? But then (and it does no good to ever think these next thoughts), what if our blindly trusted fishermen were incapable? What if they were dumbasses, looking for an easy buck? Every village has its dumbass, and I was hoping to God that we hadn’t settled into a dumbass fisherman’s boat.

Over and over the boat slammed against the water, the speed never decreased, and I had a death grip on Chris’s leg. Panic ensued. I gripped tighter.  All of the passengers were screaming and grunting as the dangerous waters had their way with the little boat. Terrified, I gripped Meg’s leg as well as Chris’s. High waves, soaking passengers, rough waters, and then – DOLPHINS!!

Right there, along the boat! Little tiny ones! Jumping in pairs and riding through the waves our boat was making! There were 6, and then 8, and then maybe 10! They arched out of the water and played in the currents! I had turned my torso around and was half hanging out of the boat watching the dancing dolphins with so much glee! We all were! There’s never any danger when dolphins are around! It was so cool and exciting and then – SLAM! Back against the wooden sides of the boat. The dolphins disappeared into the depths, and we all resumed our terrified expressions and held back the nausea until we finally reached the pristine turquoise waters of Cabo San Juan.

Thieving Fishermen

Feet on sand, and happily thanking the fishermen, I waved them off and we started the short trek to Tayrona Park. Moments later we were confronted by park staff.  By “park staff”, I mean a short, fiery Colombian woman and military personnel with a big gun. I would call it a machine gun, because it looked that big and complicated. (By the way, in my world there are only 4 kinds of guns: a handgun, a shotgun, a machine gun, and a squirt gun. Oh yeah, and a marshmallow gun. I once found a marshmallow gun in a kid’s room when I was nosily checking out the kid’s toys. But I digress.)

The short, fiery Colombian woman demanded our wrist bands.  The machine gun man wanted to search our bags for booze.  We had neither.  Bad for the short, fiery Colombian woman.  Good for the machine gun man. There was much confusion, and much argument that followed in Spanish and English – but in the end, our supposedly discounted wristbands were not to be.  We paid the fishermen too much, and had to pay the short, fiery Colombian woman full price for our entrance fee.

At least we were able to walk to the far corner of the cove and meet the fishermen who were able to sneak us our booze. It was shortly after this that Morgan discovered his knife was missing from his bag.  Not only had he had this knife since he was a kid, it was also supposed to help us catch food for the next few days.  I had a knife, but I could only poke people with it and make them laugh. Morgan’s camera was gone as well. Those thieving fishermen bastards.  Morgan had conversed with them in Spanish, too!! They had a deal!

It was decided since the fishermen were still at the beach, and their boat was tied, that Morgan, Chris, and Meg would confront the fishermen, and then search the boat for the missing knife and camera. I bravely stayed behind to look over our bags, and save a table at the hut cafe.  Watching from a safe distance, I watched the exchange of Spanish and animated gestures, then the group of fishermen and travelers headed over a rise in the sand and off toward the tied-up fishing boat.

Moments passed, and I began to wonder. If there was a scuffle, how would anyone know?  It was certain we were down a weapon, and the fishermen were up one.  And so I waited alone with these thoughts.

A few minutes later, the trio of travelers returned along the shore and to our table under the hut. Knife was still gone, but Morgan’s camera had somehow fallen out of his zipped-up bag and onto the shelves under the steering wheel.  He got it back with little trouble.  Shame about the knife though.

Jungle Boogie

It kind of bothers me how often real life is compared to simulated life – with the replicated part being perceived somehow as superior.  We found ourselves doing this a lot.  A heavily starred sky is just like being in a planetarium! The uncivilized jungles were just like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jurassic Park! I guess it’s just because it’s the simulated and replicated life that we experience first. Kinda sucks, though. I feel like it lessens how awesome the real thing actually is.

But yeah, hiking through the Colombian jungle definitely had that Indiana Jones vs. the Velociraptor feel. It was an hours long trek, over a marked but seemingly unkept trail. The path was overgrown and narrow.  For much of our way, we clambored up boulders, hoisting each other and our bags of groceries up and over. We crawled through caves, used the canopy of hanging vines to keep balance, and clung to roots as leverage.  It was hot. It was sweaty. It was hard. It was awesome.

And the wildlife!! The path we took had two parts – the first led to an abandoned lost city and was more frequented by hikers. The second was frequented more by burros and workhorses carrying heavy loads. When we told others about the jungle creatures we encountered, they were amazed! Other hikers didn’t seem to have had run-ins with very much wildlife at all!

We saw monkeys! Black cute little things with white furry heads peaking out at us from behind branches! Long and scaly green iguanas scratched down the trunks of trees! Chris and Morgan each saw (and frightened away) wild boars!  A hike to a waterfall led to the discovery of an orange and brown snake slithering in the rocks! This freaked Meg right out. Our trail was criss-crossed frequently by large, red, leaf-cutting ants. The ants diligently carried their piece of leaf single file – until Chris interfered and was the cause of a massive tree-leaf traffic jam.

Our campsite at Playa Brava was overseen by a small farmstead. Burros and horses grazed in the grass meadows, and at night, clucking, fat, red chickens somehow managed to flap their feathers hard enough to allow them to reach the branches of an avocado tree.  It looked like a chicken tree, so bare were the branches of actual leaves, and so many were the chickens clucking nervously from the treetop.  Huge frogs (or toads?) creaked in the night and took refuge in toilets.  Mosquitoes and bugs ruled the evenings,  crabs with eyes that comically popped out of the top of their heads suspiciously crept along the sand, and insects the size of sparrows were on the attack.  I think these last ones might have been only large grasshoppers alighting on our clothes, but it still freaked the boys out.

The worst part of jungle wildlife by far were the spiders.  I have only seen spiders this big in the movies – Arachnaphobia, specifically.  Along the trail, Chris spotted some fresh mountain water, and I joined him in scooping up the cool refreshment. I took a drink, looked up, and shrieked.  There on the rock just above where I had been drinking was a spider the size of my hand. It wasn’t a tarantula. I don’t know what it was, but it was thick and meaty and big. Staring another minute and I shrieked again. There were TWO! Two friggin spiders!! Clinging to our water rock! It was horrifying.

Over the next three days of climbing, hiking, and camping, I discovered that whenever we were near water, these spiders were also. Huge, and  . . . . . . spidery, they clung to the rocks, and barred my way on more than one occasion.  I did okay not to completely panic, but on the third day, as we were climbing out of the jungles, we came across a small stream. This stream was so narrow, I probably could have straddled it. However, there were large rocks jutting out of the shallow water, and on each large rock sat a large spider.  I was still doing okay, until the boys started to splash water on the spiders in an attempt to see them move – and move they did.  Their placid legs quickly and aggressively scrunched up, and the giant spiders leapt from one rock to the next.

I freaked.

I had to jump across the stream, but the  giant spiders were everywhere, and now they were jumping. The others saw my panic and tried to encourage me to just cross the stream, and not to worry. There was only one way out of the jungle, and I had to jump through and over the giant spider waters. Chris was behind me.  I half closed my eyes, and as fast as I could, I hopped, skipped, and jumped across the stream of giant leaping spiders. I reached the other side safe and sound – and then burst into tears. Fucking spiders.

I felt like a stupid little kid, but I couldn’t help it. I was terrified. We carried on away from the stream. Meg handed down a coconut candy to console me. I sucked on it and tried not to think of the giant spiders anymore as we made our way through the jungle.

Mosquito Hammocks and Unrewarding Fruit

I’ve left out the actual camping part of our expedition. We’d carried our belongings and our shopping bags up and over pretty steep hills.  It was a very strenuous hike, and we were exhausted. Upon arrival we were greeted by the afore-mentioned chickens, grazing horses, and small children running in sack dresses.

It was rare that these small, sack-dress children ever walked.  They were constantly running, usually carrying brooms.  Playa Brava was a secluded beach, hugged closely by the dense jungle.  A family and a few workers (the sack-dress children’s parents) lived on a small farm and looked after the beach. Palm trees laden with coconuts sprung along the shore. There were cold water showers, a rustic kitchen, hammocks swaying from the beams of a hut, and electricity generated from sundown til 8:00 pm.

We’d brought with us rice, crackers, avocado, and cans of tuna.  The tomatoes had been squished along the way, as well as one and a half of the ripe avocados. No worries! Crackers and guacamole it was.  We still had the rum and vodka the thieving fishermen had snuck into the park, so we thought cracking open a few coconuts for the milk would provide us with a good mixer. Morgan proved to be very adept in the rustic kitchen – complete with spider-filled pots, open fire, and creeping beetles. He was loving it! He whipped up boiled rice mixed with grated coconut, and bargained with the farmer for 9 fresh eggs. He cut up onion and tomatoes and scrambled the eggs and let me tell you – these were the best eggs I have ever, ever eaten. So fresh, and so yellow, and so flavorful!! The coconut rice was tasty too.

How we got the coconut is a different story.  It looks easy enough in the movies, but finding, retrieving, and hacking open a coconut is incredibly difficult. First Meg and I cracked ourselves up watching the boys try to knock coconuts out of the palm trees. They had to pick up an already fallen coconut, stand under the palm tree, and aim. Then, with all of their might, they had to throw the coconut straight up into the cluster of coconuts still attached to the tree, and hope to knock more out.  They did this for about 20 minutes, and managed to get about 6 coconuts. Not bad!

Then came the hacking part. Morgan borrowed a machete from the farmer, and went to work. He hacked and hacked, Chris hacked and hacked, but all they did was mutilate the poor coconut.  After 20 minutes of swinging away with the machete, they were no closer to the edible part of the coconut than they were when it was still in the tree.

The farmer saw what was going on, and showed the boys the proper technique to use when machete-ing a coconut to death. They quickly got the hang of it, but it was tough, tough work. Half of the time, they swung the machete too hard, splitting the coconut so that the precious coconut milk we wanted so badly to mix with our rum leaked out and onto the ground in seconds. But the other half of the time they were successful! Sweaty and tired, but successful!

Unfortunately, there isn’t very much milk in coconuts. It’s more like water anyway, and the coconut flesh itself is somewhat bland, and dry in texture.  There is some flavor, but not much. All together, it took the better part of an hour to knock down, break open, and cut up the damn coconut. I decided that coconut must be by far the most unrewarding fruit on the planet.

At night, we crawled into our tents. Mosquitoes, ants, and all sorts of other bugs crawled into our tents too. I love tent camping, but this trip definitely had its pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Sleeping in a tent is just cool.
  • We were lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean only a few meters from our tents.
  • With the mesh flap sealed, and the main flaps open, we could see straight up into a sky brilliantly shining with millions of stars!

I guess that’s about it.

Cons:

  • The tents we bought were cheap, and the mesh designed to keep out the insects failed. Looking closely, the mesh was more like a hundred little doors inviting any bug in to make himself at home. In the night, Chris and I would often wake succumbing to the burning itching of dozens of insect bites on our legs and feet.  We dutifully passed the calamine lotion back and forth in the dark before trying to get back to sleep.
  • The tents were also small. I fit lengthwise just fine, but 6 foot tall Chris didn’t at all. Each night he was a contortionist, trying to zig-zag his body into a position of some comfort.
  • Sand and rocks found their way into the tent too.  We tried to do the brushing off thing but – fail.
  • “Waterproof” was not on the label.

We were awakened one morning by the pleasant pitter-patter of rain on the tent fabric. It was lovely, and then it increased in rapidity. Then it just rained damned hard. A few moments later, I noticed dripping along the mesh.  Then the dripping became a small stream.  A small stream of water is nothing to fret over, but then again, it was a small tent. Then the sides started to accrue strands of water that beaded and clung, which moments later, just gave up the cause and waterfalled into our tent.

Between us, we only had one sheet, which was pretty much useless.  Especially when it began to soak up the rainwater. So Chris and I, patchy with pink calamine lotion, limbs piled and criss-crossed over each other, had slept straight onto the plastic bottom of the tent, using our backpacks as pillows.(Our backpacks were filled with books and tuna cans, and were not soft whatsoever – but it was all we had.) The tent floor provided a thin barrier between the rocky ground and jungle creatures.

And we now had rain seeping and dripping into our flimsy shelter.  But, we were both too tired from the uncomfortable sleep to actually do anything about it. So, we squirmed this way, then that way, doing our best to twist ourselves around the obtrusive backpack pillows, the quickly rising puddles, trying not to itch or fully open our sleepy eyes.  I think we managed this for maybe half an hour. The rain did not let up. The puddles did not drain out. The tent bottom did not get comfortable.  So we got out of bed and wandered to the hammocks to take our chances with the morning mosquitoes.

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