The hotel’s rusted gate was swung open. To my left a plywood sign hung over an old plastic one. The place didn’t seem like it was open, but I was decidedly finished with the day so it was worth checking out.
I stood a little straighter to make myself as presentable as possible as I rolled my cart down the ramp towards the main lobby. With Savannah I was at the whims of the hotel owner.
A thirty-something man turned the corner chewing on something too big to be finished in a bite. He put a fist over his mouth, swallowed, then smiled to me.
“What’s happening, my friend?”
“Just passing through. Do you have any rooms available?”
“Of course, of course.”
“Can I see?”
“Of course. Follow me.”
The man led me down a winding stone path to a white angular building. The building was at one point the height of modernity but was now a ramshackle of a place. Doors leaned off hinges, cushioned sat overturned, curtains hung ripped.
A boy of about four was in bright orange underwear, hitting a stone on the ground with a stick. He jumped as Savannah passed then laughed and pointed. “Another dog!” he said to his mother who was sweeping the walkway.
“Here we are.”
The manager pushed open the door to a two room hotel room. I stepped inside. The first room had a red sofa, a red chair and a black coffee table. The second room had a queen bed and an empty television cabinet.
“It’s nice,” I said. “Is there air-conditioning?”
Air-conditioning was about all I cared about. It wasn’t insanely hot outside, but I wasn’t adjusted to the heat yet. Bogotá had ruined me in that regard.
“Yes. Yes.” The manager reached up and pressed the ‘on’ button. Nothing happened.
“Does it work?”
“Yes, but right now there’s no electricity. It’ll be working soon.”
“There’s no electricity?”
“Not right now, but soon.” The manager wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “There was a storm last night. We need to call and they’ll send power back.”
“Is this good?”
“Yea. It’s good.”
The manager moved past me and outside. I took a single step out the doorway.
“How much?” I asked.
The woman who’d been sweeping was now behind the manager. The manager turned to consult with her. She was large, her form undulating beneath a yellow shirt.
“One-hundred,” the manager said to me finally.
“One-hundred?” I said in disbelief.
That was about thirty dollars, far more than I was expecting or hoping to pay.
“Is that too much?”
“It’s very expensive.”
“How much can you pay?”
We were doing this transaction backwards, I knew. Unlike in America where the vender names their price and the buyer takes it or leaves it, in Colombia and most of Central America the buyer states what they’re willing to pay first and the vender decides if that’s reasonable. My American upbringing dies hard though. Naming my price first always feels rude.
I considered where to go from the hundred mil offer. I didn’t want to pay more than fifty-mil (about fifteen bucks), but since I’d yet to stay in a Colombian hotel I didn’t know what a typical room ran. Hundred mil could be reasonable, but I doubted it. Thirty dollar hotel rooms were the exception in Central America, not the rule. I suspected the same applied in Colombia.
“Sixty,” I said.
The manager smirked greedily and I realized I far out-paid what any locals would. I handed him seventy mil, thanked him, then went inside and laid out on the sofa.
No cell service, no wifi, and no air-conditioning.
The room was humid. My body was tired. I only wanted to lay down. After thirty minutes the humidity was unbearable though. I couldn’t open the door for a breeze or mosquitos would get in. Reluctantly I sat outside my hotel door and sprayed myself with deet.
Savannah ran towards a Bischon sniffing the ground across the way.
The Bichon glanced up, saw Savannah, and started barking its head off. Savannah stumbled as she doubled back and sprinted away with her tail between her legs. The Bichon chased Savannah across a bridge over the pool’s green water at about a third the speed Savannah was moving.
I chuckled but in more of an exhale than in gaiety.
I was wiped. There was a great pressure behind my eyes telling me to fall asleep.
Ten miles. Ten measly miles. By far my worse day on record.
It was an unpleasant thought but I wasn’t too broken up about it. One lost day out of how many? Tomorrow I’d walk further. Being back on the road always took some adjusting.
Looking around it became apparent the hotel had lost a competition some years ago to the ninety-dollar-a-night resort down the street. There was a two story waterslide painted like a snake that was broken and punctured. A cabana beside the pool had its bamboo roof caved in.
And there was no electricity. Why the hell did I pay twenty-one bucks when there wasn’t electricity? That was a fairly basic request.
Night came and I went inside. My legs were mottled by red bites from some invisible gnat. The bites didn’t itch but there were so many it looked as though I’d caught a rash.
Once it was dark I laid in bed. After reading I fell asleep.
At nine the lights blared on. I jumped up and turned them off without even recognizing there was power for the air-conditioner now.
A moment later there was a knock on the door from the manager.
“Electricity!” he boomed as I let him in.
“You have air now.”
“Ah! Yes! Thank you!” I said, finally realizing what electricity meant for me.
In the morning I was up early, thankful for the good night sleep permitted by a functioning air-conditioner.
At the first gas station I came to I bought a Red Bull. With only ten miles in the books the day before, I wasn’t taking any chances on not getting my miles in.
The Red Bull had my feet going. We walked in haste to Giradot, the hottest point I’d likely pass through in Colombia. Outside Giradot I turned to follow the highway between the central and southern mountain ranges.
There was a town in the jungle far, far ahead, where the mountain ranges converged. A Colombian friend warned me off that town as it used to be a stronghold of the FARC. So at some point before that town I needed to cross over the central mountain range. I had two good options; the first was continue north from Giradot, the second was walk between the mountain ranges then cross just before the ranges converged.
I was tempted to take the pass north of Giradot. If I crossed now I’d be able to hit Cali. The cab drivers in Bogotá insisted the most beautiful women in Colombia gather in Cali. And considering how stunning the women were everywhere in Colombia I was curious to see just how high the bar could be pushed.
Problem was the pass was steep, and with more traffic than than there’d be at the other pass.
That was enough for a decision. Easier walking always trumped a bad road to a beautiful place. I turned from Giradot.
The road rose gradually. For a while it was cattle ranches, then rice paddies, then beyond the rice paddies the land cleared and on both sides of me short-grass hills extended to the mountains. Horses wandered and champed. With few trees a breeze was constant.
I knew I’d chosen the right path.
That night I slept on a horse farm. The next day the grasses were replaced by jungle, then as the road curved towards the base of the central mountain range the jungle was replaced by dry, flowery fields. Yellow flowers painted acres of land.
I stopped at a sparse tienda where a cardboard sign hung with HAY GASOLINA scrawled on it – there is gas.
I approached the bars of the shack. A strikingly handsome old man answered my call of Good-day. On two shelves behind him were water bottles filled with murky fuel.
“A Gatorade, please.”
After passing me the Gatorade the old man hung his arms through the cage and smiled broadly. He reminded me of an older, Colombian version of Adrian Brody.
He gestured to my cart. “Where are you going?”
“Ah…Ecuador for now.”
“And where are you coming from?”
“In Colombia, from Bogotá.”
The man came around his shop to sit with me. “Are you going to the point? It’s right behind my house. Lots of bikers and men on motorcycles visit it.”
“I’d life to, but not enough time for me.”
“Well it’s very beautiful. Take a photo.”
I cracked the Gatorade and finished it after a few gulps.
“How is it down the road? Is it safe?”
“Sure. Have you been robbed before?”
“Kind of. In Panama City a man with a knife tried, but I ran away. Most people are good.”
“That’s true. Most people are good.” The older, Colombian version of Adrian Brody took my empty Gatorade bottle from the ground. “Would you like another?”
“No thanks. Time for me to get going. Always more walking.”
There were clouds. I couldn’t linger too long while there was good walking to be had. I wanted to save my rest for when it was sunny and sitting under a roof meant something.
I said goodbye then Savannah and I crossed the road. A white dog a little smaller than Savannah ran out of a house after us with it’s tail wagging. When it caught up it swatted playfully at Savannah then took off into the brush only to reemerge a moment later to swat at Savannah again.
Savannah sprinted the short distance her leash would allow then ducked so her chin was on the ground when the other dog came back.
After fifteen minutes of walking and playing, the white dog was tired enough and just walked with us.
He walked with us for four hours, wandering aimlessly across the street, nearly being hit by at least six trucks but always darting away from the bumper at the last moment.
Early afternoon we came to a small town with a few restaurants. I climbed the hill to the first one.
A bored woman with far too much blue eye-shadow approached as I sat down.
“Do you have pork?” I asked.
“No pork. We have chicken and beef,” she said in monotone.
“Okay. Beef, please, with rice and limonada.”
The woman frowned then walked to the kitchen.
The white dog was roaming between tables, sniffing at the ground with its tail wagging. A woman appeared, said something to no-one, then put a chain leash on the white dog and walked away.
I thought it immensely strange that we arrived five minutes before and already this woman had a leash ready. For whatever reason I doubted it was her dog. I thought of saying something, but there was nothing I could offer. I wasn’t going to adopt the dog, so better with that woman than on the street.
My food came. A pitcher of limonada, a frisbee-sized flat steak, a mound of rice, and pile of salad.
As I ate a chubby kid of about ten came over with his skinny friend.
“What’s that?” he pointed to my cart.
“That’s my home. Has all my things in it. Food, water, clothes.”
“Where are you from?”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “New York.”
The two boys looked over my cart and poked it in various ways. Once satisfied they pulled up two chairs and sat beside me.
“What’s America like?” the chubby boy asked.
“Ah…I don’t know. It’s nice. There are a lot less motorcycles and a lot more cars. Bigger roads too.”
“There are some, but not as many as here. Here everyone has a motorcycle. In America everyone has a car.”
An eighteen wheeler roared by. The skinny boy pointed to it. “Do you have those?”
By now four more kids had pulled up chairs. Five boys and a girl in a semicircle to my left, all asking questions of what America was like.
I chipped away at my steak between answering their questions. I was tired as always and only wanted to eat alone, but I didn’t mind having the kids around so much.
The chubby boy wore a white tank and slouched in his chair with fingers interlocked over his belly as though a mob boss.
“They have flying cars in America,” he stated matter-of-factly.
All his friends erupted in laughter and shook in their chairs. One boy clapped.
The chubby boy sat straighter to defend himself. “It’s true! It’s true! I saw them on television! Everyone in America has one!” he shouted. “They do, don’t they?” he said to me.
“Maybe there are one or two somewhere.”
“There’s only one?” a boy at the edge of the circle asked.
“They’re very rare.”
“See!” hollered the chubby boy. “They do have flying cars in America!”
I waved my hand. “No, no, no. I’m sorry…” I tried to think of how to explain in Spanish that flying cars were a dream, something experimental, but came up empty. “No one drives a flying car,” I said eventually. “Our cars are the same as yours.”
The chubby kid’s best friend punched him in the arm then snapped his head back in laughter. The chubby kid appeared stunned but handled the ridicule of all his friend’s amazingly well.
“Well,” I said, sitting down my fork and knife. “Time to go.”
I went over to the bored woman watching soaps.
“How much?” I asked.
She looked up at me with a lifelessness in her eyes like she’d been staring at paint drying for the last twenty years.
I chuckled at her expression, causing a brief, shallow smile to break across her face.
“Five mil,” she said.
I paid. A dollar-sixty-six for a steak, rice, salad, and pitcher of fresh limeade. I didn’t understand how that was possible, but I didn’t complain.
As I took my cart down the road the kids from the restaurant stood on the steps and waved. At the edge of town I saw the white dog again. He was seated at the feet of the woman who leashed him earlier. When he saw Savannah and I he bounded into the air only to be pulled back to the ground.
I wondered again whether he was originally that woman’s dog, but it didn’t matter, he was now.
Savannah and I continued as always. Towns became more sparse, a day of walking between them.