January 31, 2008
Crossing the Gap, Day 1
It was finally time to leave South America. My first step was to take a bus from Medellin, the big mountainous city in the center of the country, to Turbo, a small port on the Caribbean coast. The bus started along the same road I already inadvertently knew from the other day, when I witnessed a group vomiting session due to a case of Colombian Mad Bus Driver Syndrome.
There were several interesting characters on the bus. When I saw my assigned seat, I was disappointed but not surprised to see a walrus of a man in the seat next to mine. I always hoped to be paired with a young, attractive girl on my long bus journeys, but normally got wedged next to a man who spilled over into my seat. We exchanged the familiar glance and head nod of strangers who knew they were in for a long ride, and proceeded down the road with our arms and thighs stuck together in the sweaty heat of the tropics.
On our first stop for breakfast, I started talking to a twenty-three-year-old guy who appeared to have a mixture of black and indigenous backgrounds and was heading to Turbo with his mom. He was completely fascinated by me, and proceeded to ask me question after question without even bothering to listen to the responses. "Where are you from?" "For how long are you in Colombia?" "How is it possible to travel in Colombia?" "How much money does a ticket from the USA cost?" "Do you know Brad Pitt?" "How many kids do you have?" I was holding my own with the difficult task of simultaneously eating and answering his questions in a non-rude manner, but his mom quieted him down by saying, "He sure asks a lot of questions, doesn't he?" His line of questioning wasn't unusual, but the fact that his brain seemed to have been transferred from a little kid to a grown-up's body did.
Across from me was a British man, married to a Colombian woman, living in Spain. They were on the bus to visit some relatives in some little town in the middle of nowhere. He told me all about the current state of the American presidential elections, news which I'd been getting a lot of lately from people from all over the world. The fat man asked if he could have the aisle seat because he was getting off soon, abruptly ending my conversation with the British guy, but I was happy to be on the verge of having some breathing room.
Two hours later, the fat man left and finally no part of my body was touching another human being's. He was replace by a girl who I took to be about twenty-three and was much skinnier, although her pregnant belly began protruding as soon as she sat down. She had a mature attitude but didn't understand a word I said to her for some reason, and I quickly became frustrated and stopped trying to make small talk. Later she revealed that she was only thirteen and had been working in Medellin. She was taking the bus home early to surprise her mom. Her situation saddened me, but I couldn't help but think what a surprise that visit was going to be.
After starting in the mountains, the bus quickly dropped back down to sea level and we entered a thick jungle that was only interrupted by the occasional town and many banana plantations. I got through the monotony and heat of the trip by sleeping, something I had perfected in two years of bus travel. Most of the road wasn't paved, however, and I frequently was awakened when my head slammed into the window next to me due to a ubiquitous pothole. Just five years ago it would have been unthinkable to take this route due to the region's paramilitary activity, but nowadays there is enough military presence along the road to make it safe, at least during the day.
I arrived in Turbo in time for sunset after ten solid hours on the bus. It was a small city and very poor, but not dangerous. In fact, everyone I talked to had the laid-back friendliness that characterized all of my Caribbean travel so far. The next step for me in leaving Colombia was to get a boat to the Panamanian border, and I found out that one was leaving early tomorrow morning. Today was a long one, and in spite of the bumpy road, everything had gone smoothly so far.