The seven-hour bus ride through the sticky night to a city called San Gil, Colombia, made the Matterhorn at Disneyland seem like training wheels: roller-coaster-like turns followed by potholes in the road the size of a kiddie pool.
My driver would calmly put the bottle of Don Medellin rum down, which a fellow passenger had given him, give the oncoming truck in his lane a honk and calmly swerve out of the way.
I tighten my grip on the seat and close my eyes – until I’m awakened suddenly by our bus colliding with the side mirror of an oncoming truck. The bus shakes with the impact and the mirror explodes. I’m asking myself if this is all worth the effort while the lady in the seat adjacent to me begins to recite a prayer in Spanish and frighteningly mutter, "Por Dios! Vamos Rapido!"
At 4:30 a.m., long gone from any major city, the bus comes to a stop. The driver’s attendant gives a whistle, motioning me off. As I exit the bus, the bugs are humming, the jungle rattles pulses of animalistic noise, and there isn't a building in sight. I’m thinking, what and why the heck am I thousands of miles from home on the side of a desolate road in the middle of the Colombian jungle with no clue where this "San Gil" was? Oh yeah, that's right – this was traveling.
I was ultimately destined for the lodging of a friend of a friend named Andres, who had a farm in San Gil located up in the Colombian hills on the outskirts of town. With my 40-pound pack slung over my shoulders and my blue bandanna tied across my forehead, I felt like Rambo clawing his way through the jungle whose mission was to locate the contact: Andres.
After walking about two miles down into town, the first glimpses of the sun began to peak over the horizon. The town of San Gil hugged the valley humbly between two lush green hills. Slithering its way through the maybe 200 buildings was a cool river, helping chill the over-intrusive humidity. The town itself was centered around a small square, and scattered farms dotted the rolling hills on the outskirts of town.
I make my way past bug-eyed children giggling and pointing at this mangled stranger with a blue bandanna. After fumbling with a rusty pay phone outside of a butcher shop, the butcher inquisitively comes out in his red-streaked apron and offers me his cell. I caIl Andres at 5:15 a.m. after being up for nearly 30 hours and explain I’m in his town, not sure what part, but what’s the deal man? All he tells me is to call him in four hours because he's sleeping.
In my fog-eyed delirium, I trek over to the quaint square in the center of San Gil to wait. I fall asleep on a bench and hug my pack as the sticky morning heat progresses. I wake up three hours later to a mass of locals. Toothless old men begin to take up the benches in the square, sipping coffee and grunting conversation. Vendors are setting up their jewelry stations made of cheap fishing line and scrapped beads, children chuckle, chasing chirping birds, and women’s skin glows in the sun.
I make my way to the far corner of the square to buy fresh papaya along with a large cup of black coffee (for you Starbucks junkies, their "large" is in a Dixie cup) from a woman attired in a flowery apron. I pay the woman 500 pesos to use her phone to call Andres. Answering in a groggy croak, he says to sit tight and wait by the fountain for him.
After 45 minutes of playing slap hands with two schoolchildren, one of the few motorcycles I’d seen that morning putters up, and the helmet-clad rider gives a wave in my direction. Immediately, Andres’s kindness radiates with the morning light. He grins from ear to ear, he’s laughing as he talks to me, and I almost feel as though this man was paid to show kindness. I soon learn I am wrong. He is a simple man who lives on a farm with two dogs and his daughter. He’s an electrical engineer and teaches at a small university in town.
Andres throws my pack on his motorcycle, I strap on a helmet, and we’re off to his place. I’d never ridden a motorcycle before. With the wind nipping at my clothes, my arms around his waist, it was a feeling of complete helplessness. I had no control over whether we crashed or someone hit us as we hauled ass through winding roads. We turned off on a dirt road and followed it one mile up into the rolling hills.
Andres’s house is on a farm. He has an electric shower, two dogs (one of which needs to go to rehab for her addiction to fetching sticks), one motorcycle, and that’s all he needs.
A realization came over me that this man had the most basic, bare necessities, and he could not stop laughing or smiling all day long. That night I lay in the hammock, not a light of civilization around, thunder approaching on the horizon... Soon it began to rain, and I dozed off to a feeling of noiseless comfort.