By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.
Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.
Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.
It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.
My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!
If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.
Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).
Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.
Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).
Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.
Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”
Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.
Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.
Get out and wait on road again.
Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.
Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.
Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.
Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.
Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.
Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.
Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.
Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.
Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.
Get out at Riohacha.
Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.
Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.
Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.
Share car-taxi with them.
Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.
Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??
Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.
In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.
We smelled a dank odour.
“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.
“Si,” they confirmed.
It smelled like fox to me.
“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)
There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.
I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.
I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.
I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.
One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.
We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.
Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.
The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.
“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.
“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)
Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.
Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.
It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.
I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.
I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.
I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.
We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.
We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.
A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.
The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.
Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.
Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?
That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!
We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.
That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.
Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.
I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.
“You’re not from this land,” he said.
“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.
After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes you just have to walk away.
It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.
I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.
We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.
Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.
Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.
Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.
The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.
And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.
You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.
Have you ever had that in-between feeling? Like in high school when the PE teacher had a stroke of genius and implemented a semester of water polo.
There we all bobbed, treading water with similar competence to the way a baby feeds itself. I was as at home in the water as a fish in the sky. Not a flying fish. Just a regular Spanish mackerel.
I rotated my legs valiantly in eggbeater kick, my nose inches above the mocking stink of chlorine, waiting, bobbing, hoping nobody would throw the ball my way. The shouts of my classmates echoed off the Fairholme swimming-pool walls.
I lifted my eyes to a beam of sunlight stabbing in through the top louvre on the western side and thought how I would always remember this moment in time; treading water, waiting.
That is how the past two months have felt to me, since returning from South America.
As I sat on my Brisbane-bound plane I realised I shouldn’t be on it. That I should have stayed over there and done all the things I wanted to do.
(Including but not limited to sleeping in the jungle with only a can of deodorant and a lighter to make a flame torch against jaguar attack, volunteering at a hostel for a few months and using my savings for nothing but surf lessons and coconuts, and above all becoming fluent in that curly language they call Spanish.)
To clarify that statement, the reason I returned early was for Christmas with my family; to meet our cousins’ two new babies and eat prawns around the pool with the extended family, which we haven’t done in years. And I am happy I’ll be here for that. It puts a huge grin across my freckled face actually.
But there is something nagging at me. I feel like Red Riding Hood – who has left the path when she shouldn’t have.
They say the difference between entrepreneurs and us normal people is tunnel vision. Entrepreneurs have the ability to look directly and unwaveringly at their goal.
The problem with my goals is there are thousands of them, all swinging their buoyant red-poppy heads in the breeze, all begging for immediate attention.
It is no easy task to distil my focus.
I am learning though, as the years creep merrily by, that we have other senses. Mostly these get ignored.
It takes discipline of perspective to listen to these extra senses. It is something you have to consciously work at. Most of the time you are giving yourself advice and signals, which you ignore.
If I have a conflict in my life, big or small, my body is aware of it before my brain consciously is. I will wake with a knot in my stomach. I will feel wound up like a coil, ready to act with instinct in a burst of action.
This is not a good thing! Success in this situation relies on the brain catching up and considering the action I am about to take.
This is knowing yourself. This is what self-discovery is all about.
Once I fired off a reply email. It was following a rather unfounded complaint to the local paper I was working at, in my undertrained and overworked position as senior journalist. I was still a green sapling in the journo world, but like most papers in regional areas, the young ones have to step up to a role often beyond their experience.
We had no editor, and the former senior journalist had just moved to a bigger newspaper….so I was it.
This is a great thing for training and character building, but it often means you are learning by trial and error.
The next morning I woke with a knot in my stomach. Lying there, looking up at the white ceiling of my Dalby house, I let my thoughts filter idly in and out of my brain like the tide.
Why was I feeling like this?
Aaaaah. The email. It was only the next day I realised I had taken the wrong tone in it. Thanks hindsight…..right on time as usual.
From this I learned. Never write back to an email involving conflict/drama straight away. Go and make a coffee. Write a draft. Mull it over.
What is sent cannot be retracted.
I think the key to life is to never stop learning. That is how the world goes backwards; when people start to think they know it all. That is how we close our minds.
Back to the other senses though…..that is one of the main things I want to get out of 2015. Learning to listen to my inner voice properly. Learning to say no to things I don’t need or want in my life, and to keep my own focus when there are a million beckoning hands on the sidelines.
My problem is I can enjoy most situations, so I am easily led to distraction.
If you have ever felt this also, you may enjoy this poem by one of my all-time FAVOURITE poets, Mary Oliver. Read it. Get shivers. Listen to yourself.
The Journey- Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The thing is we haven’t been taught how to do this. Schools should teach quiet time of reflection. Halfway through the 90 minute Maths-B double lesson all the students should be asked to lie on the floor, close their eyes, and reflect on how they are feeling in life, what they want to get out of the week, and whether they are doing enough to keep their bodies and minds in harmony.
Instead we have to learn it the hard way: through teenage angst, overloading our poor adolescent shoulders with the worries of the world, and listening to advice from all angles from people who don’t necessarily know what you need.
We need a form of unlearning. Of quieting the outer world. Turning off the TV and sitting for a moment on the front lawn. Digging your fingernails into the grass and thinking about your name and your place in the scheme of things.
“the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,”
Oh Mary. So wise.
My in-between feeling is still there, but it is a necessary one. It’s stopped getting me down, I’ve realised I am supposed to be treading water at the moment. It reminds me not to just sit and get mouldy. It reminds me I’ve got places to be.
Thanks inner voice. I get it now.
30 soles for a Swedish massage….why not.
We limped with aching muscles up the stairs, the two Peruvian ladies leading the way. Peruvians are tiny and beautiful, like the Burmese.
“No ropa, solo las bragas,” she said. (No underwear, just nickers).
Hmm….problem number one. I explained in atrocious Spanish I’d put almost everything I owned into laundry that morning and wasn’t actually wearing any.
“No problem, we are all women,” she said in Spanish.
She began working on my back, running her knuckles down the length of my spine to the plump of my bum.
I pointed out the two ferocious knots on my right shoulder begging for attention and she did her best to skirt this problem. Sigh.
It was soothing nonetheless, as oil and touch inevitably is.
By this time her little daughter had climbed under my table and was firing a rapid succession of “hollas” at my upside down face.
“Holla,” I replied once to her ten. She was cute as a button in her little red trench coat and striped stockings.
She found the sight of an immobilised gringo impossibly funny and kept kneeling so her face was an inch from mine.
She was about four and told me her name was Mina….or something like that.
“Mi nombre is Lisa,” I replied.
I blew her hair and she giggled so much she fell over. I tried to focus on the massage while I laughed. Deciding we weren’t quite close enough she brought her nose right up to mine and rubbed it like a bunny. Only in a South American massage! I liked the informality though, it felt more natural.
Eventually her madre took her outside.
“Ciao chica,” I called to my new friend.
The small lady began massaging my hair, which was more like mussing, less like massaging.
The shoulders, though brief, felt good.
“Muy fuerte (stronger) por favor,” I requested.
She climbed on the table and used her tiny frame to lean into her elbows.
It was similar to a small goat walking across my back.
She moved to the base of the table and wrapped a hand around my big toe, lifting my leg by this odd hoof-handle.
It reminded me of a baby clasping your finger.
With the other hand, which felt smaller and stronger, she began pounding my tender calf.
Dear God. Give me back the Inca Trail….. the thousand steps of death were like feather fingers in comparison.
A tear sprung involuntarily from my eye and sat in a pearl on the carpet beneath my face.
It took a good 10 minutes to soak in. Must be the same carpet old people put in their bathrooms. Weird.
I couldn’t help worrying about the views she was being subjected to from her vantage point at my spread calves.
“Change positions,” she said in perfect English.
Then the brand new experience of a pectoral massage. The arm massage enlightened me to muscles I didn’t know existed, and the quad massage required a teeth-clench. Oh Inca Trail you were cruel.
Overall the experience was painful but freed the muscles to some extent. You certainly get what you pay for though… as all requests in poor but decipherable Español to work on problem areas were ignored.
It was very much a repeated process for each client, rather than the necessary tailored approach per client.
The ferocious knots would have to wait until a better-researched option in Lima. At least some of the Inca Trail pain had been persuaded out of my legs.