Pueblo-Hopping – A Quick View
Pueblo-hopping is similar to island-hopping off the exotic South Pacific, yet with the flavour of time lost in history, of modern static in the hands of heritage. There’s something special, almost ephemerally picture-perfect about pueblo-hopping. Not only does one see a tiny village for an instant, enough time to snap a lovely photograph and breathe the fresh air of a new place, but also one doesn't have time, history, or experience to taint the perfection of a place seen for only an afternoon.
A few words in a journal, several photos in a scrapbook retain feelings long after the town changes, after things happen that we will never see, after our visit has been forgotten. That is the beauty of summer love, of travel, of meeting people only for a moment, they don't reach reality.
Cartagena, City Where I Lived
People make a town; a town makes the people. So does Cartagena create its vast and curious faces, its stark changes between poverty and wealth, black and white, pleasant beaches inside chaotic crowds. It is a city of contrast, not because I stopped by for a few charming days to soak up the sun and the colonial city, but because I came to live. Perhaps it would mean something different had I breezed through as a traveller wearing my sunglasses and holding a guidebook. I didn’t.
Bucaramanga, City Where I Passed Through
Bucaramanga, on the other hand, a quaint city high up in the Santander district of Colombia’s interior mountain region, holds stark changes for me. I only passed through. I found a tranquillity in those sleepy streets. For 40,000 pesos (about $18.00) I was on a fourteen-hour bus ride, round-trip, half-way across the country. I had envisioned a different bus trip; reality found me sleeping for the majority of the journey. I had imagined threatening, cracked roads winding through jungles with howling monkeys and coarse guerrillas, popping out from the dense woods with guns and motives. I had imagined rickety buses with stains on the ripped metal seats and holes in the dusty windows, military men patrolling highways, weird jungle smells, and that constant fear of being robbed, clinging to my bags. This was the reality – a Hollywood movie was playing on the air-conditioned bus with refreshments and friendly chit-chat. I was pleased to discover that the bus companies pay the FARC a lot of money not to mess with their customers.
Along with Bua, my Thai friend and Micha, a Spanish-speaking, German co-worker, I arrived at the University of Bucaramanga, where the conference was being held, and where we met Heather from Canada and Leen from Belgium. It was after this first meeting that we decided to make a weekend of pueblo-hopping. Setting off for the "bohemian village of Giron," (to quote Lonely Planet). We found a new Latin American world, one that is so under-represented, imperative to include.
Bohemian Village of Giron
Giron greeted us with cobblestone streets, white-washed limestone churches and townhouses in perfect white rows with matching Spanish tile roofs in red, earthy clay; tall, European-styled churches with Catholic statues, and, in our case, a funeral procession led by a hearst with the man’s name plastered all over the casket in glittering, painted letters. We passed shaded patios, small stone bridges over tiny creeks, wandered along the mountain town, lost in time.
While crossing above one small stone bridge, we saw children tossing a ball in a friendly game of catch, along one of the side streets tucked gently inside the village. Upon seeing us, they started to giggle, point, stare at their unlaced shoes, cover their faces in shyness, peeking through a crack in their fingers. We greeted them and continued our stroll. A group of four had split off and decided to follow us. They fascinated me – their innocent eyes, their mouths open wide, ice-cream cone faces, their persistent, curious questions. They wanted to play.
Despite having said our buenas tardes, we had four tiny sets of feet trailing excitedly behind us into the restaurant. The children, it seemed, had decided they’d not had enough of us; one called out "Kristin. Kristin". I turned to see the eldest girl waving a small yellow flower for me. I paused to pick the beautiful yellow gift from her hands.
Alhough time had paused, the afternoon sun was beginning to peak, long shadows drifted across Spanish verandas and white windows, eventually beckoning us to Bucaramanga. We kissed the magic of Giron goodbye, tapped the children on their heads and waved farewell. We arrived at our cabana, lit softly in romantic afternoon sun and slept, trying to better understand life.
In the following days, we found magic in San Gil, a town with a mystical natural park of long, high trees dressed in silver shawl parasites and white-water rafting (where I saw exotic birds, parrots, hairless cows bathing on the shore and our guide, Ruben Dario, as the famous poet himself). Barichara is a 300-year-old colonial gem (where we celebrated in the town festival with the locals, the coffee crops and the cows). Mesa de los Santos is a village of lush canyons stretching far (which we explored by jumping into the back of a Toyota truck and hitchhiking up the vast farms of Colombia's countryside to the Chichmocha canyons). We left with our wanderlust temporarily satisfied, life finds itself in moments of rare pleasure when spontaneity takes hold.