Sunday, May 10, 2015

Semana Santa in Cali, Part I

PART I: The Journey
Now I must tell you about the adventure that I most unwillingly undertook during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.  We had the week off from school, and I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with our apartment, especially the kitchen and laundry room.  I anticipated lazy mornings of reading in bed and pleasant visits to the local museums we always say we are going to check out but never do, and at least one lengthy afternoon at the house of a colleague with whom I would PLAN ALL THE LESSONS so that I wouldn’t have to do any more last-minute-night-before planning this year.

You'll enjoy it! Really!
My partner in crime, however, had a different plan.  He only teaches for three or four hours per day, and that is only Monday-Wednesday, so he spends a lot of time at home.  He was determined to get away from the city, and where better to go than Cali, his hometown, where his mother and aunt would spoil him to death by doing his laundry and cooking whatever he wanted and treating him like the little prince he has always been to them.  Of course, we had just paid for two expensive flights to and from the US, so his brilliant idea was that we should drive to Cali, adding a “super fun” road trip into the mix.  Never mind that I absolutely hate being in the car, and that my least favourite part of my job is that I have to be in a van for one to three hours each morning and evening (depending on traffic).  Never mind that the route to Cali is a good eight hours long without Holy Week traffic over one and a half of the three strands of the Andes that run vertically through Colombia (Bogotá sits in the eastern cordillera, Cali sits in the valley between the central and the western cordilleras).  Never mind that the last time I went on a Colombian road trip up into the mountains (to go on a hike with Nueva Lengua last year), was also the last time I threw up in a car, thanks to all the twists and turns.

"You’ll be fine, my lady,” he tells me encouragingly.  “There will be so much pretty scenery, and we will stop and taste local foods at little roadside stands, and I have made us a playlist of over 600 songs that incorporates Iron Maiden, Cuban folk bands, and random jazz selections to keep you entertained. You will love it.”

To be completely fair to him, he did offer me the chance to stay behind.  But I knew that I would end up wasting my time and staying hermit-like indoors all the time if I were alone, so I decided to go along.  In the chilly darkness of the wee hours on Palm Sunday, we roused ourselves, loaded the car with a suitcase, a few snacks, and Maurizio’s cousin Juan Pablo, who was coming with us to visit his own parents, and we set out on our adventure.  It was about 4:30 a.m., and the roads, while never deserted in a city of 8 million people, were relatively clear.  We were using Juan Pablo’s Waze app to direct us, and I enjoyed the occasional little ghost avatars that showed up on the screen, indicating another Waze user on the road.  We headed south, through parts of the city that I had only seen once before on a volunteer trip to a rec center in the poor southern barrios.  We watched as the houses and lights on the mountain to our left became more and more sparse: first the street lights vanished, as large portions of those barrios have no electricity or running water; then the neighbourhoods thinned out into occasional houses, and then into wilderness.

The Devil's Nose
As we left the city our altitude began to decline, and our ears sensed the pressure changes and needed to be popped with yawns every ten minutes or so.  Day was beginning to dawn, and the scenery was pretty enough in the morning sunlight; I was actually beginning to enjoy myself a bit.  As we came around a bend, Maurizio pointed out an outcropping of rock that hung over the road in a sort of hooked beak.  He said it was called “Nariz del Diablo,” or the Devil’s Nose.  As we drove under it, some rainwater fell from its tip onto our sunroof, and I exclaimed that the Devil’s Nose had sneezed on us.  Whether that was good or bad luck remained to be seen, but we would find out soon enough.

Around 7:45 we were all feeling quite hungry, so we stopped at a roadside place for breakfast. There are many such places along the roads in Colombia; usually consisting of a very small kitchen-building fronted by a large awning under which are set plastic tables and chairs.  Generally there are one or two people in the kitchen, one or two waiting tables, and one inevitably standing by the side of the road waving a brightly coloured rag, trying to attract people into the parking lot, and directing you when you enter and exit.  There is a restroom, but no toilet paper, so you have to bring your own (I always keep a roll in my backpack).  The fare in these places is always simple, and the choices few, but it is usually hearty and tasty.  This particular location, the first we saw after coming down the mountain into the valley between the two ranges, had only three options.  You could have a traditional Caldo de Costilla, which is a soup of beef, potatoes, and herbs that is typical of the Andean region; you could have a whole fish on a plate with rice and beans; or you could have eggs.

Maurizio had been hoping for some eggs with arepas (a kind of thick corn pancake) and cheese and some good bread and hot chocolate, but this place only had plain store-bought bread (which he hates and will not eat) and over-sweet coffee.  I ordered the Caldo de Costilla, because I wanted something out of the ordinary, and we eat eggs and arepas all the time at home.  Unfortunately, the moment it arrived I realised I could not possibly eat it.  I had forgotten, in my early-morning stupor, to ask the question I must ask of all Colombian soups: “tiene cilantro?”  Because 90% of them do.  And cilantro, as those of you who know me can attest, is the only food in the world that I absolutely cannot abide anywhere near my food.  This costilla was so covered in the horrid stuff that I could not even smell it without turning sick.  I gave my cilantro soup to the boys and ordered two eggs, as we had already decided that we would stop to eat again after crossing the next mountain, so we would just get a snack here and move on.  That turned out to be a poor decision, but we had no way of knowing it yet.

Coffee trees and a patriotic hillside farm

We got back on the road around 8:30 and headed through the valley.  There was plenty of plant life to see, and some rather brown, but still pretty, rivers to cross, and everything looked fresh and pleasant in the morning light.  There were tiny, bright particoloured birds flitting here and there, and as we came to the end of the valley we saw hillsides covered in coffee plants, which reminded us that we were heading into the Cafetero region of the country. At one point, off in the distance we could see a snow-covered mountain peak, which greatly excited Maurizio.  We soon began to wind slowly upwards into the central cordillera, and now there were banana trees to be seen everywhere, many with blue mesh bags hanging from the ripest bunches, so they can be cut and bagged simultaneously.  The little stands on the side of the road displayed big bunches of these bananas, and we kept saying maybe we should buy a bunch, but we never did.  Another poor decision, for very soon we would wish we had some in the car.  At this point, the boys began talking about La Línea, which is the line that marks the middle point of the central cordillera, when you stop going up and come back down the mountain.  It is very high up, obviously, so the road curves and twists back on itself many, many times before you get there.  Still, we anticipated that our journey over the mountain would take maybe two hours at most.

We were wrong.  At about 10 a.m., having made excellent time thus far on our journey, we found ourselves in the first stage of the traffic jam that was to last for the next seven hours.  Yes, you read that correctly.  SEVEN. HOURS.

The road that passes over the mountain chain has only two lanes for the majority of its length: one lane going in either direction.  When we first came to the traffic jam, we just assumed that something—a broken-down tractor-trailer, or a minor fender bender in a place where there was no shoulder—was blocking our lane somewhere around the next turn, and that cars would go around it in the other lane, which seemed to be moving along normally, whenever there was a gap.  Twenty minutes later, however, we had not moved, and were beginning to get restless.  Some enterprising mountain peasants had come out into the road to sell water bottles and peanuts from packs on their backs, and we asked one of them what was going on.  He said that far ahead there had been an accident between two of the large semis, and that it was completely blocking the road.  This made no sense, because the traffic still continued to move smoothly in the opposing lane, but it was the only information we were able to get.

Enjoying the nice day before we knew what we were in for...
We decided to get out of the car and join the many other travellers who were stretching their legs and taking in the fresh air and enjoying the mountain view on this beautiful day, because they had no other choice.  And, to be completely honest, it was kind of nice, at first.  It really was a beautiful day, and there was a nice breeze coming up the side of the mountain.  We could look down and see lots of trees and fields, and a few houses here and there in the distance.  I could hear water running, though I could not see it.  There were a couple of slugs who had dragged themselves over the concrete curb and into the road, whom we watched with interest.  Juan Pablo took out his phone, got down on the ground, and took a really professional looking, National-Geographic-style video of the largest one slugging along, as slugs do.  We snapped a few photos of the line of cars and the people lounging about on the side of the road, and we even struck up a brief conversation with the family in the car ahead of ours.  Suddenly, we noticed that everyone up ahead was diving back into their cars and starting up.  “They must have cleared it!” we thought, and we, too, got into the car.  The line of traffic moved forward around the next bend, and made some small progress upward before it stopped again.  We assumed this was temporary, so we did not get out again.  And indeed, we were soon moving again, albeit at a crawl.  The crawl continued for about three minutes more, and then we stopped.  Then another two minutes of movement, and then a stop.  We made it around another bend.  And then we stopped and stayed where we were.

This stop was to be the longest of our journey.  After 20 minutes we got out again.  We took a walk.  We spoke to some more entrepreneurial peasants.  No one knew what was going on.  We walked up the road to a little tienda to use the bathroom and see if we could get some food, but the store was entirely sold out of just about everything.  We bought their last piece of chicken and a bag of nuts, and got them to brew us a little cup of coffee, because by now it was clear that we were going to be here for a while.  The traffic coming in the other direction had slowed and was now at intervals stopping next to us, and an inquiry to one of the truck drivers was met with the awful prognosis that we had at least five more hours of this to go, as he had been in it from the other side for that long. Even he, however, had no idea what was the cause of the jam.  It seemed to be merely a result of too many people on the roads, but that didn’t explain the utter standstill.

Hopefully this won't happen anymore when they finish those tunnels!
This time it lasted for nearly two hours before we moved on, and from then on we had little 10-30 minute stops for every 5 minutes of slow-crawl forward.  The other side of the road was in the same situation, and no one could do anything about it, because there were no turnoffs or side roads or even motels for those who wanted to give up and wait till tomorrow.  There were signs of construction here and there, as they are planning to build a large highway-tunnel system through the upper part of the mountain, to reduce traffic on this winding roadway (for good reason, obviously), but none of it blocked the road or seemed to be in progress.  I think we would have been most selfishly and sinfully gratified if we had at long last come upon a gruesome, fatal accident...or a half-cleared landslide...or a nuclear explosion...or something which could have been a catalyst to this ridiculousness.

Poor visibility in the clouds
The road began to twist back and forth more regularly, and the air turned wet.  We were coming up into the clouds which had loomed over the peak of the mountain, and approaching La Línea.  It still took us another hour or so to reach it, and the cloud and fog were so thick there that we could hardly see the car in front of us, much less the sign for the landmark. It was nearly 4 pm now, and we celebrated having crested the mountain with a halfhearted “yay,” before beginning the long descent—which actually gave us some slight insight into part of the delay, though still did not entirely resolve the mystery.

A glimpse of the many tractor-trailers as we round a bend
The road on the ascending side of the mountain had wound in a leisurely fashion, like a river, with wide, sweeping bends.  On this side, the turns were much tighter, the drop-offs much steeper, and whenever a large tractor-trailer came around the bend coming up, we had to wait, because it swung wide to make the turn in order to avoid jackknifing on the hairpins, and thus came far into our lane.  There was a ratio of about 5 trucks to every car on this road, so there was a lot of waiting—but we did it without complaint, because the alternative might have resulted in a flipped-over truck blocking both lanes for another seven hours.  It seems to me that they had better finish this tunnel thing as soon as possible, because that trip is killer, and those trucks are almost always there, because it is the only road between the capital city and this part of the country.

Around 6:00 we reached the bottom of the mountain (it was much faster on this side, despite the truck-delays) and made our way into Armenia, where everyone else who had just left the mountain was now stopping to dine.  The boys were ravenous, even though we had eaten pretty much all of our car snacks, so we found another roadside location in which to have some dinner. This place had a sign which advertised hamburgers and sandwiches (of which it had neither) and an Asado, or barbecue, which smelled quite good.  Our aging waiter actually came out to the car to meet us, and to ask laughingly if we had just come off the mountain, too.  He showed us a table inside, and gave us a simple menu that featured grilled meats and not much else.  But there was a nice frijoles dish (black beans in their own rich sauce, a side of meat, rice, avocados, and a plantain), which both Maurizio and I ordered.  He brought us some disgustingly sweet panela lemonade (sweetened with sugar cane juice) and a bottle of water, despite my request for tap water, because he said the water was not safe to drink there.  They always say that.  We ate quickly and thankfully, and then made our way back to the car for the final three hours of the journey to Cali.

Juan Pa naps in the back seat
Juan Pablo, despite being the tallest of the three of us, had heretofore suffered valiantly in the back seat of the car.  He now offered me his place, and took mine in the front.  He had left me a pillow, and I stretched out across the back seats and promptly fell asleep for the majority of the ride, except when we passed through a toll booth and the light in my eyes woke me.  We dropped Juan Pablo at his parents’ house and arrived at Maurizio’s mom’s house at about 10 pm, twelve hours after the start of the traffic jam and over seventeen hours after the start of our “super fun road trip.”

Next time we fly...or I will stay home.

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