March 5, 2018
Having studied the map of the region, I have decided to not go to Villavicencio today, rather, to spend at least one more day in Casanare, hopefully with relaxing visits to neighboring towns that are not too far away, and in the next few days stop off in Tauramena and Monterrey, en route to Bogota. Great plan! (I hope …)
I leave the hotel room later than expected, not that that is anything new. It does matter, since I had been intent on walking to the bus station, rather than taking a cab, and still haven’t had breakfast. But why is it so dark outside?
It isn’t just heavily overcast, but also cool. Cool, albeit very damp. It seems to come almost as a shock that right here, not that far north of the equator, at sea level, it is actually cool. Cool to the point that I am somewhat astonished by the fact that I for once did not take a rain jacket along, and risk getting chilled. Never mind getting drenched …
Carreras 23 and 24 offer no discoveries of any sort, and certainly no aesthetic inspirations on this drab heavily-clouded day. Scattered small tiendas with a handful of chairs and tables offer assorted vague and largely worthless snack foods, one or two gas stations, a few depressing churches, a massive concrete cube dedicated to some sort of shopping centre, and a family intent on clearing some trees from their block, including a cedar, almost identical to the cedar that obliterates much of the land back home.
An almuerzo in a roadside diner across from the bus terminal, hardly worth describing, as it is exactly the same as so many others, although no worse in quality. For COP $6,000? Even in this rural outpost, the bus drivers are nattily dressed, slacks, white shirts and ties, and are quick and articulate in answering my questions regarding possible bus itineraries. It is hence probably best that I adhere to my initial plan of the day, that is, to visit Pore and Paz de Ariporo, without digressing to Nunchia or Tamara, due to the late start, and the fact that the weather does not seem to be particularly promising.
The flamboyant Libertadores driver unleashes an invective that is too quick and lacking in phonetic clarity to allow me much of an understanding of what he is saying, hence I do little more than nod my head and issue the occasional ‘si, si’. Fortunately, a woman takes the seat between the two of us, and assumes the roll of his audience, as I turn my head to gaze at the mist-enshrouded landscape rolling past us, the formerly parched grasses now a muted gold, the low tree canopy a palette of densely brushed greens, crowned in an opaque haze. The droplets of water scattered across the windshield grow occasionally to rain, the rain gradually building to a persistent and violent downpour that will put the idea of the day’s excursion into serious doubt.
I am not stopping in Pore. The van is not entering town, we are nowhere near the town centre, the downpour is torrential, and I stand to get drenched the moment I step out of the vehicle. Even though I was considering not going to Paz de Aripopo at all, given the fairly inconsequential images I saw on the net, I am holding out for the possibility that the rains may abate when we arrive in town. The driver continues, hardly caring whether I stay or not, as I will have to pay for whatever distance I decide to pursue.
Paz de Aripopo isn’t another 10 minutes away, as he claimed, but at least 1/2 an hour. In this case, a welcome period of time, since the torrential downpour can’t continue indefinitely. And even stepping out of the buseta and rushing into the small terminal, the volume of water hurtling upon us makes its mark on me. I stroll back and forth in the small building, trying to be optimistic, the gathered populace visibly unprepared for the sudden heavy rains surprised at the appearance of this outsider in their midst in this particularly inauspicious time, although it would seem even much stranger to them if they knew I came here to sight see.
I stare at the antediluvian downpour outside the building. On one hand, I do have an umbrella that should provide a good line of defense, but given that I am here to explore the town and take lots of photos of my wonderful adventure, I am more concerned with not getting my very expensive camera soaked, or for that matter, myself. Vast pools of water expand before us on the streets, hampering the possibility of venturing very far, if anywhere.
As luck has it, the rain begins abating, and within half an hour following arrival, it is reduced to a mere drizzle. The light is far from fantastic, and I still need to juggle the umbrella, camera and camera bag in my hands while attempting to take photos, without of course dropping the camera, which I have a solid track record of already.
More tellingly, simply passing by shops elicits stunned reactions from primarily women. A group of young women seated at the table next to me at the bakery remain fixated on my presence, although a round of cheese rolls and coffee assuages them momentarily. A group of school girls chats obsessively about the photo I took of them at a distance. Sales clerks’ eyes lock on me as I pass by their stores, fidgeting with my camera. In short, Paz de Ariporo is good for the male ego …
Beyond the endless attention from young females, there is little else to redeem Paz de Ariporo, a small, utterly inconsequential town with no character whatsoever. Which would be fine, except that I have no idea why the guide on the safari recommended the town so highly. Several roads lined with shops traverse the town, with a substantial and quite empty plaza set to the back. I am told that the bus station is effectively the centre of town. Closer to the station, businesses seem a bit larger and more prosperous. The dominant business as so many other places in the country is the sale of agrochemicals, veterinary medicines, never mind the droguerias that lines the streets of Colombian towns.
The streets are hardly lined with people, most of the few that venture out on the streets shrouded in rain gear, which makes sense of course. Nevertheless, there are brave souls on bicycles that risk getting caught in the next torrential onslaught, which happily does not come. And beyond the doting female populace, the town is also graced by many beautifully flowering trees, which also render the most mundane towns in the country so appealing.
The relentless frenzied appeal to board buses continues at the bus station, here as in every other town in the country. ‘Yopal, Yopal!’, ‘Pore, Pore!’ and ‘Arauca!’ are heard over and over. One day I will make it back here and hopefully be able to spend far more time in the llanura than this very short week. For now, the best I can do is get to know the towns in the area of Yopal.
I would like to reach Pore prior to the light falling too much – or another downpour erupting. Happily, that mission is accomplished, and a short walk from the carretera I already see the ruins of an earlier Spanish settlement, the walls of a larger structure and accompanying walls from centuries past being reconstructed amidst the spacious cobblestone alleys.
Pore’s claim to fame is that it was one of the stops for the country’s liberation army as it migrated through the llanura from Venezuela, and then some distance to the west climbed into the mountains as far as Socha prior to fighting the battle that decided the country’s independence in August of 1819. And next year I imagine there will be big celebrations, although at this time Pore is a quiet burg, deep in a peaceful sleep …
I am sceptical as to the quality of coffee I could be offered in the likes of the Colonia coffee shop facing the plaza, but the wiry owner assures me that she does make a good coffee, be it compact espresso-style or using a filtering process. I reflect on the fact that I have little to lose, and in any case, I shouldn’t be drinking more coffee. But she is true to her word: the press coffee she produces is lustrous and strong, and couldn’t be better.
To her dismay, it gives me an incentive to engage in my usual diatribes, which may be entertaining to the desperately bored, and eventually elicits the characteristic yawns of the usual tortured audience. Colombia’s malaise? I can present innumerable examples of the country’s successes. Colombia’s lack of appreciation for its heritage? Again, innumerable examples are available for how other cultures have done so much of a worse job.
The light is falling and I must be off on a first and final round of the cobblestone streets ringing the plaza, completely devoid of life other than the machine-gun toting, social media-obsessed soldiers, annoyed by the fact that they have to call their hysterical dogs off of me, although I also can’t desist from provoking the men by threatening to throw rocks at their dogs. The dogs mean no harm? That’s not the kind of message an aggressively barking Rottweiler gives me, snarling viciously mere feet away from my bare legs. When it comes to dealing with dogs, Colombians may possibly mean well, but in the end have a lot to learn.
Pore unfolds in linear blocks that radiate around the central plaza, the seemingly inconsequential town impressive in the cleanness of its lines, the continuous cobblestone paving, the consistent single-story adobe architecture, and from the occasional views inside peoples’ homes, the ample and comfortable homes found within the walls before me.
Happily, I don’t have to wait long for a Libertadores van to leave for Yopal, as comfortable as always, the remaining passengers apparently local businesspeople. We advance at a steady speed, continuously slowing down to traverse speed bumps, which seems somewhat ridiculous given that this is supposed to be a highway. Not long out of Pore, we come to a halt, waiting a protracted period of time, effectively putting my plans for the evening to rest, given how late we will now be arriving.
Sobering is the sight that we pass by when we are finally allowed to proceed: a jackknifed tanker plowed into the cab of a Libertadores van. I have no idea as to how the accident could have happened, other than something having caused the tanker driver to suddenly brake and lose control of his vehicle. I am later told there were five injured and no deaths, which seems amazing. And the reason I have not seen any other accidents is that Colombia imposes very harsh penalties for drinking and driving, which I find very impressive, despite the reality of the scene we have just passed.
I finally manage to leave for the Fitness Zone gym on Carrera 24 on my last day in Yopal, and guess what – it’s only 8:30 pm, and closed! So much for staying in shape, I fume, striding briskly along the riverfront avenue. Trite as it may seem, even on vacation it seems there is never enough time to take care of the things that seem necessary, not that I have that ambitious …
I am not really the burger type, but it seems that burgers are probably the most dependable option in this culinary vacuum. Arepas? No thanks. Hot dogs? No thanks. Grilled meats? Neither. I would enumerate more options, but that’s pretty much it in the country. Of the two Japanese places in the posh corner of town, one reeks of grease, not a good start, and the other offers Japanese food for prices higher than I would pay back home – with no assurance that what is prepared is even remotely appropriate.
It feels very good to be able to sit down at my table in the spacious hotel room one last night, and write to my heart’s content while listening to good music. I could spend most of the day doing nothing else …