Just in case you guys were worried I have had it too easy living the good life, have no fear….I am currently broke down in a desert and havent made any progress in 3 days. Turns out God is real, and that bastard doesn’t have a very good sense of humor.
I kept delaying my departure from the beach as some decent waves showed up, then I wanted to stick around and see what Semana Santa was like at the beach as I was in Mexico City for the last one and missed the craziness. Things got pretty hectic, but from what I have heard I think Mexico takes the Easter holiday party title. It was still a good time, but I was sick of being the gringo by day 2 of this week long holiday. There were things I wanted to do to the van before taking off, but anytime I started into a project I drew a crowd, and the next thing I knew I would have to put it off for later. Then a motorcycle club of 50 or so showed up from Cucuta, and wouldnt leave me alone, or give me any space. They were great, they just wanted way too much of my time, and I was in the mood for some relaxing. Plus a few of their chicks really liked me, which worried me as I couldnt tell who was with who, and I figured I didnt want to mess with Colombian bikers from the Venezuela border, as they were probably like Hells Angels on meth. A bunch of other people constantly invited me to their fires, and wanted to hang out, at least 8 one of the nights, 8 fires, what the hell do I look like. Luckily it started to sprinkle that night so I hid in the van. Each day the girls who worked at the camp were now going to Tayrona in the evening to recruit people to come camp, and unknown to me were using me as one of the selling points, “you speak English, we have an American at camp”. Several times I met someone randomly who would say, “oh you must be the Californian whos been living here, I heard about you”. And anytime anyone who spoke English showed up it was,
“I want you to meet so and so, they speak english”. I started to feel like an ambassador, and not in a good way. Finally I had it and began blowing everyone off, turning into a hermit. It was surfing and sleeping….leave me alone dammit. It wasnt that bad, and as I have previously mentioned sometimes you feel like a rockstar being from the US, but that is only good for so long, then you just want to be invisible and do your own thing and relax. Luckily the place emptied out eventually and went from too much excitement to waaaay to boring. Ok, a few more days of surf and I am moving on.
After spending way too much time here I finally got the hell out of there, realizing I was way behind schedule once again it was time to rethink my plan. I wanted to check out the Guajira desert, an apparently beautiful place located in Northern Colombia bordering Venezuela. I also had friends to meet up with in Bogota, Pereira, Medellin, and Cali, but with the clock ticking I decided due to the difficulties of cities and having the van, I would stick to the colonial villages. That would lead me 1st to Barichara, reputedly one of Colombias most beautiful towns. The only problem, its a looooong way from the Coast, so its best to break up the journey. The problem with driving in Colombia, especially from the North to Central Colombia is there is not much in between, at least if your headed to the Santender region. There is pretty much only one two lane roads going to wherever you want all throughout Colombia, the options are limited. On top of the long distance, you have to deal with slow moving trucks constantly. The mountains and enormous and steep, full of curves, and everyone wants to pass, all the time. Knowing this I headed out at 5 am, and eventually found myself outside Bucaramanga my planned stop for the night. The problem with this, it was only 3 or 4 in the afternoon and I figured I could keep pushing. I kept going, but as the sun went down the traffic got worse, and while I made it fine, it was a long day of driving, but I finally arrived in San Gil.
Ahhh, cool mountain air! Located in the mountains, San Gil has become a tourist destination for extreme sports. There is white water rafting, paragliding, waterfall repelling, you name it. Thats all fine, but none of it really excites me, so I was just there to sleep for the night. It seemed like a cool place though and I could have spent more time there. I did the quick tour around the main square and hit the sack, exhausted. The next day I headed to the nearby Barichara.
Barichara is a pleasant enough place. Its beautiful, and would be a great place to take your girlfriend. There wasnt much going on, at all, so after two hours of checking out the place I took off to some other small spots and eventually Villa De Leyva. Another peaceful, attractive town, Villa De Leyva is full of white washed buildings, cobblestone streets, and famous for having the largest square in Colombia. The square is huge, and as you can see, empty. I think a bench or two would really pull this thing together. There is a small birdbath, I mean fountain. Turns out the fountain actually provided water to the locals, maybe it still does I dont know, but for such a big square it seems like a huge waste to me. Not at tree, nowhere to sit, nothing, just a rather unpleasant long walk along the cobblestone streets. I arrived late at night and found a spot to sleep right off the square. This was yet another town where I would go to sleep blending in with a street full of other cars, only to wake up around 3 or 4 and see I was the only one on the deserted street. Not a problem, but its always such a weird feeling, and sometimes you wonder why the locals aren’t parked in the street, what are they afraid of…what shouldI be afraid of??. Villa De Leyva had a safe feel the whole time, but sometimes you just never know. The main thing to do there is walk the streets, so thats what I did. I also hiked up the hill to the mirador, and man after a few months at sea level I was much more winded than I thought I would be. It was a great view, and pretty cold on top, which I loved. And look, I can see my house from here.
Another stop was at Zipaquira, and this is probably where things went bad. Famous for an underground Salt Cathedral…wait what? Yup, its a salt mine, and the workers had carved in a church, and religious sculptures. They then eventually made it slightly psychedelic to attract tourists. Its a cool place, and both the salt mines and the cathedral are in use. I took the included tour, where they walk you past the sculptures to the large cathedral and a few other things. I took the obligatory pictures, and then they let you loose to wander back to the entrance at your own pace for better pics. Yeah, they left me alone, you dont leave this kid unsupervised underground! After stopping to try and get some better shots as its pretty dark down there, I took my obligatory, patented tongue out shot, and then realized I was all alone. So I took this pic with the cross, no big deal, hey its what god wanted right…little did I know what he had in store for me, but that would wait. I left the mine and wandered around the town, eventually calling it a night. When getting out of the van in the mornings I always try and get out nonchalantly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, that day it didnt. A woman setting up her coffee stand right by the van smiled at me and asked if I slept there. I chatted her up a bit and she was the typical Colombian you hear about, super happy and enjoying life. I headed off but made sure when I returned to talk to her more as well as buy some snacks from her as she had left me in a good mood just from the short conversation. Now keep in mind this was a middle aged woman, not the “every Colombiana is beautiful” type of female, I just really enjoyed her energy. As I drove off I couldnt help leaving Zipaquira feeling great, her personality was amazing, I love when I bump into people like that, we need more like her in this world.
After reading several other bloggers positive reviews of the Tatacoa Desert I headed off in that direction. Tatacoa is known due to its lack of light pollution, clouds, and star gazing. The proximity to the ecuator means you can view both the northern and southern hemisphere constellations, virtually year round. That sounds great to me, some free camping, relaxing, and space. I love space, I have read a couple books on string theory that hurt my brain, but I cant get enough, that stuff is crazy. Well when I arrived there were tons of clouds, and everything was green…is this the desert I read about? One positive to this is it is unusually cooler…though still damn hot, and the combination of blue skies, clouds, and mountains makes this place beautiful, which seems to be a common theme in this country. I headed off down the dirt road into the desert ready for a few days of relaxing and nights of star gazing. I arrived at a fork in the road and wasnt sure which one was the main road. I picked one and kept moving. About an hour into the drive I got to a small pueblo of 5 or so houses. I talked with a woman who told me this was the end of the desert, and that I couldnt continue due to the river. Damn, that means I should have went the other way as others have driven a few hours in, no big deal, ill just head back.
As I am nearing the fork again this is where God bitch slapped me. I start to hear a metal on metal grinding. Oh shit, this isnt the first time I have heard this. I had tried to get it checked out a few months before in Colombia, but the guys were trying to play games with me thinking I was a stupid gringo, so I told them to forget it and left, thinking I would fix it later. Then it went away, and being parked for so long it completely slipped my mind. I decided I didnt want to take the wheel apart as it was high noon, and I was worried once I took it off I might not get it back on, pretty dangerous in a desert. Everything worked as expected, and as I stated it wasnt the first time I had heard it. Suddenly as I am going down a decent sized hill I find I have no brakes, oh wtf. I remain fairly calm and kick the emergency brake in the Astro…nothing happens. Luckily the hill wasnt very big for Colombian hill standards, and I eventually come to a stop. I take a look and see brake fluid leaking from the rear drivers side caliper. Luckily due to others misfortunes I know I can clamp off the hose and regain my three brakes to at least drive somewhere to get it taken care of. I pull out some tools but it is crazy hot under this sun, and having had two rounds of surgery on my back for melanoma in the past, I decide I am not doing it here. I am close to the entrance of the desert so rather than do it out in the open I throw it in 1st gear and crawl along hoping to make it to the village. 1st keeps me from going too fast, though there are a few small hills where its pushing it a bit since the dirt road is a bit rough. Everything is going fine until I see the church in the distance, and the giant ass hill that I need to go down to get to it…son of a bitch, that mother f’er is messing with me. Knowing there is no way in hell I can get down there with no brakes I pull under a tree and break out the tools. Sweet freedom is so close, just taunting me. Its F’ing hot, I am a sweaty mess, and I havent even started doing anything yet. Naturally the lugs are on too tight, so I arm myself with PB Blaster and battle it out for about 2 hours in the heat. Im finally down to the last lug but this one isnt giving and just rounds the corners so I cant get it off. I grab my sledge and reluctantly sacrifice a good craftsman socket as I have no choice, bashing it over the lug so it will hold and finally getting it off. The bad news, I find out my Caliper and rotor have pretty much exploded. I crimp off the brake hose and give it a test assuming I can finally get out of there….nope. Ah wtf, im low on brake fluid, and walk 20 minutes into town looking for a store or the mechanic. I find a hardware store and see some fluids, what luck. I talk to some people and ask if they sell the fluid as my car has no brakes…do you have a moto? No I just said car…it turns out no one here sells brake fluid, and there is only a motorcycle mechanic in town. Figures, guess this will have to wait until tomorrow. Turns out the desert is hot in the evening too, it didnt get cool until at least 11, and cool is stretching it…lets say it was an uncomfortable night…though I probably lost a few pounds of sweat so thats something going for me. The plan is to get the fluid in so I have 3 brakes and limp my way to Ecuador and fix everything there as it will be much cheaper. Apparently Colombia has a 50% import tax on auto parts, not really something I want to be paying right now. I jump online to try and figure out what I need to do, and other recommend the exact same plan, get to ecuador…sweet I am not a complete idiot after all. I take the collectivo into neiva and head for the centro. As I get to the city I see it. Hold up, a chevy dealership…stop, let me off here please! What luck, these guys will have fluid, and I can find out if I can get parts or not since its a North American vehicle, I am not optimistic but at least its a chevy dealer.
Its still early, so I head to the exito across the street 1st to grab some food and see if they sell the fluid cheaper. They dont, so I eat my food and grab a box for the leftovers. I head to the Chevy dealer…but am denied at the door. I am intercepted by the doorman wearing a crisp pair of blue jeans, white long sleeve shirt, and a cowboy hat, asking what I need. I ask him if they sell brake fluid, but he cant get past the gringo with the box of food as he keeps looking at it with confusion on his face, clearly not listening. “Do you know where I can buy it”? No. Ok, pissed off I just smile and laugh not wanting to deal with this guy, say thanks and walk away, it was clear he didnt want to help me cause I was a gringo. After 15 feet I decide I am not giving up that easy and go back, its a freaking chevy dealer, my chevy was bitch slapped. I show him a pic of my exploded metal collection, and tell him its a Chevy…can I just talk to someone about it. He hesitates, says ok, and escorts me in, and hangs out, listening to the dilemma. He eventually warms up to me, and in hindsight I think he blew me off cause I was using the word fluido, and here they use liquido. Its minor, but I think he assumed I couldnt speak any spanish, and once he heard me talking to the woman, albeit broken spanish, he started being more helpful. Its crazy, I have said dinero for money and gotten strange looks since they use plata here…give me a break I know you know the word, people who only speak french know what dinero means. Eventually I am surrounded by 7 mechanics, cause thats what happens when a gringo whos crazy enough to drive from the US needs help. Well, I didnt get much help but I did get a lot of attention. I had to show them all pics of the van, cause they dont know what an Astro is….even though I am trying to purchase DOT III fluid, so the vehicle doesnt matter at this stage. I also have to tell me story over and over 7 times as each new mechanic shows up. They dont sell it, but while I am there I try and get some Dextron III trans fluid as well as I am a little low, and have only found VI in Colombia. They only have VI, but eventually show me some generic Dextron and think it will work. Ok ill buy a little, better than nothing, especially since the guys at a different dealership tried to sell me VI,which cant be mixed with III. The chevy cowboy talks to the mechanics, and the next thing I know not only do I have a 6 dollar quart of the stuff, but they threw in another for free. Ahh, guilt is getting to you now cowboy, I will take it! The cowboy goes back to the door and the mechanics tell me I can find the DOT III in the centro so away I go. Then the cowboy is whistling me back, telling me the bus to the village where my van is is the other way. I tell him I need to go to the centro first, but appreciated his help one again. This guy is too nice now. I get to the centro and find the fluid no problem, grab a cab back to the Chevy/Exito to get the bus and he tells me to wait in the shade, he will let me know when the bus gets here. Suddenly he brings me a giant liter of cold soda for free…still feeling guilty huh cowboy. I dont even like soda but take it since he is being nice now. Its clearly his lunchtime but he hangs out for an hour waiting for the bus…though it never comes. He finally tells me I could try the terminal, so I head there and get the bus back to the village. I am glad I won him over but pissed I almost let him blow me off. Either way I am thankful I just laughed and said thanks originally, as I was pissed at his blow off attempt and barely bit my tongue.
I add the fluid and expect to bleed the brakes and roll to sweet freedom. Start the van and the pedal goes straight to the floor, God dammit. I jump online and eventually figure out that when the brakes failed and originally went to the floor while I was careening down one of the butt puckering hills with no brakes that I may have tore the Master Cylinder seal….the what? God Dammit. Now its been three days and I am no farther from that tree I parked under. To top it off I only have 17 days left on the visa I already extended, which I am pretty sure will be impossible to make it out of the country by then. I do know I can get a mechanic to write a letter and they will let me stay, though I would like to just get out of here now, I have had enough. Luckily its not a terrible place to be aside from the heat, and everyone seems very friendly, so it could be worse. I have had a few visitors stop to offer help or check on me, and I am not worried about leaving the van and getting robbed. Then a group of bicyclists stops by to offer help. Only this guy doesnt help anything, he just tells me I need god in my life….then I remember getting filthy with the cross…..God dammit, the big guy is still messing with me.
Turns out the bastard does have a sense of humor. Rather than having this happen in the cool mountain air he waited till I got to the hot ass empty desert to bitch slap my ass, as well as not delivering anymore Israeli girls in the meantime. I probably cant get the part I need without importing it, though am headed back to the city tomorrow to see what can be done. While I knew this was a risk when taking the Astro, I was really hoping it would happen in a country other than Colombia due to that importation tax, and somewhere other than a hot ass desert near the equator, in May! While I may not be very religious I told my friends I am converting to Muslim just to spite the old bastard. So much for the good life….I may be here for a looong time.