Before I begin this story, I have to explain the heat of Cartagena. We have been to plenty of hot places. We camped and hiked in Death Valley twice. We have been to North Africa and the Sahara, Central America and Mexico. We had had plenty of time acclimate from Alaska, a month in south Texas and Florida. But there was something about Cartagena that was inexplicably hot. The air was heavy with water all the time so when you went outside, you felt instantly slick. Almost coated. Leaving the hotel in Cartagena was as complicated as we thought it would be. Mark had moved the van and camper to a parqueadero near the port, which was a half an hour cab ride away. He had to go get propane tanks and hook them up so we could run the fridge and the stove. He had to get mandatory Colombian car insurance. He had to take many cab rides on the back of the motorcycle taxis. We had to get the dogs. And we could not drive in the dark. By 4pm, the dogs, the kids, the bags and the propane tanks were at the parqueadaro. Mark noticed someone had stolen the camper license plate. We thought we might spend the night there and leave early the next morning but it became clear that we could not do that. The camper had been in the sun since it left Florida. The inside of the camper was 123 degrees. Even with all the windows open we could not be inside for more than a few minutes. The dogs were frantic – they had another cab ride (this time Trek rode on top) and they had been kenneled at a great vet office with a dog courtyard and other dogs but they were just literally freaking out. The heat did not help the dogs either. We had to move and get some air circulating into the camper and van and get the dogs and kids out of the sun. So we piled in and plunged into the Cartagena traffic. We are following the Pan American highway the entire time. All we had to do was find another parqueadero before dark. A parqueadero is a lot where you pay a small fee to park overnight and it has a guard that keeps an eye on your vehicle and sometimes services. Parqueaderos are everywhere.
The drive was fine. The van cooled down and the dogs relaxed and all was going well. Until it appeared the road had divided and we might be going the wrong way down a one way road so Mark pulled into a gas station and we realized we were right on course so he had to go around the block to turn around. Around the block was through a small town and it was a little tricky. Busses, cars, people, donkeys – and motorcycles are everywhere, literally tens of thousands of motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic. We drove through h the small town and at one point a buss passed us going in the other direction. At that exact moment, a motorcycle decided to try to pass us on the left and squeeze between the bus and our vehicle. It did not work. The motorcycle got stuck. No one could move – the bus, the motorcycle and Team DeCorso were frozen there and people were yelling and gathering and then there was a loud THUNK (did someone hit the camper?) and the motorcycle was free and we could all move. We moved about 100 feet and we came to where we had to turn left. A policeman was standing there with a whistle and he stopped the traffic so we could make our turn – and then noticed we had a crack in the windshield. We turned, he pulled us over and began explaining how we needed to get the windshield fixed. Right then. Except it was Friday at 5pm so we would need to stop driving immediately and get a hotel for the next three days. He had Mark’s passport, driver’s license and vehicle paperwork. The van, he said, was immobilized. It was 93 degrees and the sun was setting. A hotel meant the dogs would go where? How would this work? So I resorted to a lesson learned in the classic book A People’s Guide to Mexico. I begged him. And it worked!! He smiled and gave Mark back his passport, wished us a merry Christmas and waved us on.
But now it was nearly dark and we were nowhere near the parqueadaro. We drove on, nervously, because YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DRIVE IN COLOMBIA IN THE DARK!
The next town we came to was Arjona and it had a gas station so Mark pulled in but it was closed and we couldn’t get in and we couldn’t turn around so we had to head down the narrow the road until we could go around the block. The road where we could turn had a metal blockade at it and we were stuck. The only option was to back up about a mile through the donkeys and motorcycles and children. We were near a little store and a man there came to check us out and he said he knew a place where we could park overnight, we could follow him. A bunch of guys moved the metal blockade and we headed off following the guy on a motorcycle. He took us to a field ringed with small houses and told us to park. Then he went and told some people in a house that we were staying. He asked for 5000 pesos, about $2.75, and he left.
We got out. It was even hotter here than in Cartagena. The air was so thick with moisture we could almost not breathe. The camper had cooled down to about 100 degrees and we had to make dinner. We had some food in the cupboard but the fridge had not cooled down yet so we made some pasta. We sat in the camper, sweating and hot and feeling kind of overwhelmed and down. Our license plate was stolen. We had a motorcycle stuck on us. We had gotten stuck twice. The police had nearly immobilized the van. And we had not even gone 35 miles. It was suffocatingly hot and we were just literally dripping with sweat.
We needed water (sold in bags here) so Mark and Jack headed off to find water and returned to tell us that there were a bunch of kids outside. I peeked out and there were about 20 kids looking at me. So naturally I asked them if they wanted to come inside. And of course they did. And then their parents came over and came inside. We talked and they said there was a man in the town that spoke English so they dispersed some children to get him. He came over and we all began to talk. It was clear we were about to eat so the English-speaking man, whose name was Hilo, said we should finish eating and then come outside and sit in a circle with them. We agreed. As we finished our pasta, we could see them bringing chairs and chairs over and setting up a circle 2 feet from our door. We went outside and there were more than 50 people smiling at us. They had brought eight chairs for us. We sat down. And then the best Solstice Party ever began. They brought us gifts and snacks, using English / Spanish phrase books to ask us how to say things. Jack and Ryan were flanked by girls each. Girls were putting earrings on Jennah. Laptops appeared with Google Translate and Facebook. We tried to ask if avocados grew there – we had seen these gigantic ones in Cartagena. The word for avocado did not translate with the phrase book or Google Translate and in the process they brought us a bunch of exotic fruit we had never even heard of. One had skin like an avocado but was hollow inside except for a blob of jelly with some seeds and it was delicious! Tangy and sweet. There were berries with hard skins and seeds that Sylvia loved. And then at one point, we had a group realization about avocados and it was a beautiful moment. They gave Sylvia a teddy bear and at one point Annabelle asked for the Spanish word for tag and when she learned it, all the kids took off to play. Annabelle and Sylvia went off to play inside a house. Several times, the girls began chanting beso (kiss).
Many, many photos were taken. We had 59 people inside the camper. They asked us to stay for Christmas. Many times. We stayed up until midnight. One woman wanted to make us breakfast and we tried to decline because we did not have any breakfast food to offer at all. The woman who made us breakfast gave us 15 beautiful peacock feathers.
We woke up in the morning and one of our new friends brought us a pot of strong, sweet coffee. Then they brought us to see a toucan!
We headed to a house where they presented us with the best breakfast I have ever had – bacon that was thick and tasty, bollos, fresh homemade cheese, a HUGE amount of the best guacamole ever and fresh ice cold juice made from the sweet & tart unknown fruit. After breakfast, Hilo cut Ryan’s hair. Hilo was a really neat and interesting person. He had learned to speak English himself, some from American music. He was a hair stylist and he did a great job on Ryan’s hair.
We wished we had some things to give them because we had been given so much from the people of the town. We had been kind of bummed and feeling like maybe the trip was a mistake and the people of Arjona completely turned our day around. We didn’t have very much with us, most of the stuff we had was not so cool (like spoons) but I dropped a penny on the ground and the kids were amazed at the penny so we handed out a bunch of American change and there was a lot of explaining what the English word was and how many pesos each coin was worth. We were able to fill up our water tank from someone’s house. We left to a waving crowd of people. It is impossible to describe how wonderful our short stay in Arjono was. This had truly been one of the most amazing experiences of our lives!