Aaron and I woke up early as planned, packed our things and checked out of our hostel. Our plan was to head to the Pacific coast of Colombia for the week before going back to Cali for the weekend to hit the town.
We left our bags in the hostel whilst we searched for an Internet place to email our families and let them know we’d most likely be out of contact for the best part of the week. This is always something I would rather do, especially when I am in a place like Colombia which isn’t exactly renowned for its safety.
As I looked on the Internet in particular the BBC, I noticed a small headline in the Americas section, "Bombing Spate In Colombian Port Town Injures 5". Interested to know exactly where this happened, lo and behold it was in Buenaventura, the exact place we were going.
Erring on the side of caution, we decided not to go to a town in the middle of a spate of bombings. Maybe a week on the beach wasn’t going to happen.
We went for breakfast to discuss our next move. Sitting at one of the tables was a man we had met in Pasto. We started talking about plans, the usual. He mentioned in passing that because of the upcoming elections that weekend, everything in the country was shutting down. Everything. Shops and banks wouldn’t be opening, buses wouldn’t be running, even bars were being forced to close. This was going to start on the Friday and last until the elections on Sunday.
There were two stories as to why everything was closing. The first was that in the run up to the last election, there was a bombing in a bar in the capital, Bogota, that killed lots of people. The closings were in an attempt to curb the effect of any bombings. The second story was that if the bars and shops didn’t close, Colombians would either go shopping instead of voting, or get too pissed and forget to vote! I prefer the second story, but it was probably the first that was true, especially since the President had declared war on the terrorists. The paramilitary group, FARC, had come out and said they would be trying their best to oust the president from office.
We returned to the hostel, took a taxi to the bus station and made our minds up on the spur of the moment. The two options we were considering were Popayan and Medellin. Both towns were supposed to be pretty decent places. Popayan was two hours away, Medellin nine. When we got to the bus station, for some reason I went a little crazy, and made the decision that we should get on a bus for 22 hours to the Caribbean coast and stay there for the election week.
The thinking was that a small beach town wasn’t likely to be the target of FARC terrorists. Also the laws regarding alcohol sales might not be enforced as highly! So we boarded a bus for Cartagena on the north coast.
The bus was quite comfortable and we were pleased with our choice. I was looking forward to getting a decent sleep for the first time on a night bus, thanks to my Valium pills. Before, though, I tried to get through some more of Atlas Shrugged – a challenging read. The story is interesting and well written, but not the type you can pick up and put down at will. It takes a fair amount of concentration.
I read most of the time until a group of Army soldiers – aged about 14 – stopped the bus, and made every male get off whilst they searched us at gunpoint.
When I took the pills is when it got interesting. Ten minutes after, we pulled up in a traffic jam. Bear in mind it is about midnight on a road where you wouldn’t expect traffic. The bus didn’t move for about an hour. Everyone was getting more and more tense.
Aaron and I were the only two tourists; the rest were locals. Normally the locals were relaxed – something was wrong. No worry, I was drowsy. I looked out the window and saw flashing lights in the distance, like gunfire lighting up the midnight sky. This went on for about another hour. Aaron and I were getting a little more nervous, having heard the stories of travellers being kidnapped and taken off into the jungle.
There wasn’t much we could do. It was the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. We had to wait it out and hope that whoever was holding up traffic, wasn’t in the market for two English lads!
After two hours, there was a knock on the door of the bus. A guy covered head to foot in camouflage, with a scarf/bandana across his face, holding a AK47, came on board. We’d been searched before and made to show our passports, so I was expecting the same, but this man wasn’t the police or the army. He wore no badges or ID. We concluded he must have been with the FARC.
Whether or not we were right in our conclusions, I have no idea. For the next hour we were not sure what to think. When we were finally given clearance to move on, we felt tremendous relief. We sat back and fell into a deep, Valium-induced sleep – comfortable in the knowledge we had survived our first FARC experience.