I was roughly a hundred kilometers from Popayán and the landscape was transforming from farms to desert. Gradually the trees turned prickly, and fat cattle were replaced by gaunt horses roaming the dusty earth. Cars were rare. Houses were rectangular blocks of dried clay.
In the unbridled heat, I crossed a long yellow bridge above a dry riverbed, then pulled into an isolated restaurant off the road. I parked my cart then dropped into a plastic chair and flicked sweat from my eyebrows. Savannah and I had just went three hours without a break.
A black woman – the part of Colombia I was in was all black – leaned on the counter and gazed uninterested out to the road. She wore a gray t-shirt and her short hair was braided. On the right side of her head there was a patch above her temple without any hair at all.
“Do you have any juices?” I asked between breaths.
The woman’s eyes slowly came to mine. They were pleasant, but bored. “Sodas.”
“No natural juices?”
“Do you have limeade?”
“A cup of limeade, please.”
The woman turned to the white fridge then pulled out a tub from the freezer. I went to the counter.
She filled a tall metal cup with limeade and ice. Immediately the metal perspired and at seeing that I knew I wouldn’t even take a seat with the first cup but simply drain it with unseparated gulps then ask for a second.
Once I was handed the cold cup I took two gulps then stopped. The limeade was actually too cold to drink all at once. There was ice in it. Ice! In Central America and Colombia ice was unheard of outside of cities.
At the blue plastic table I sipped my frosty drink. My legs were sore but not crippled. Savannah and I had walked nineteen miles already and it was only one.
Once my limeade was finished I dropped the remaining ice into Savannah’s water bowl.
“Another, please,” I said, sitting my cup on the counter.
I was refilled and again the cup was perspiring.
A larger woman came out of the green house the restaurant was diagonally attached to. She held in her arms a baby girl with an afro and curious brown eyes.
The two women leaned on the counter together, only three feet to my left. The baby stared at me.
For a while there was silence.
“What is that?” said the larger woman, finally.
I looked to her, then followed her gaze to my cart.
“But it’s for a baby, no?”
“It is. A bit too hot to have a baby in there though,” I joked.
The woman squinted. “You can open it, can’t you?”
“And your dog? Does she ride in it?”
“When she was younger, not anymore. Now it’s always walking for her.”
“I have a suitcase, with wheels.” She grinned mischievously then with her hand mimicked rolling a suitcase on the counter. “Trade with me.”
I chuckled. “That’s my home!”
“But look at my poor baby, she needs it.”
The large woman lightened her smile. The woman with the bald spot looked away when I glanced at her.
A grandmother came out from the house and sat at the table across from me. Her skin was dark and with her age she’d lost any sharpness in features so reading her face was impossible at my distance. She spoke but her hoarse voice was as nondescript as her face.
At a lull in the women’s conversation I asked them about the road ahead.
“At the intersection, which road should I walk to Pasto? Left or right?”
The two woman, elbows on the counter, looked worriedly at each other. “You should take a bus. Those roads aren’t safe.”
“But which is safer?”
The two women answered at the same time.
“Left,” said one.
“Right,” said the other.
Then they conferred.
“Right,” they decided. “Stay on this road, follow it straight. But the road isn’t safe.”
I’d learned from a few bad turns back in the U.S. to constantly be reaffirming my path through the locals. Nearly every time I sat in a restaurant I asked about what the road ahead was like. Was it a good road with a shoulder? Were there shops? Was it uphill? Downhill? Was it the safest route?
Now, there were two ways to Pasto so it was a matter of finding out which was best. What concerned me though was that the safety of the roads were brought up without me asking about it. Other than the U.S.-Mexico border and the whole country of Honduras, I couldn’t remember the last time the safety of the next area was brought up without provocation. When people told me places to avoid it was generally after I asked, “Are there any places I should avoid?”
“So the right is the safest?” I asked.
“If you must walk, yes.”
I stared at a tree’s twisted shade to think. The three women talked. Every once in a while my ears perked up when they mentioned me or Savannah.
Some time passed before a man and his son parked their motorcycle then took a seat with the grandmother.
The man spoke gregariously with the woman, he was continually nudging the grandmother to get her to smile, but it wasn’t until I heard “Gringo,” that I started listening.
“He speaks Spanish,” said the large woman.
I was looking at the man when he turned to me.
“Enough,” I said.
I paused, unsure if the word for handsome had another meaning.
“Do you want a Colombian woman?”
“Beautiful women, the Colombians.” The man, about forty-five, dark-skin darkened further from sun exposure, grinned and nudged the grandmother – who giggled.
“He’s walking to Pasto.”
The man glanced to the large woman then looked down at his food to fill his spoon. “No he’s not.”
“He is. We told him to stay straight at the intersection.”
Still chewing, the man bought himself time by waving his spoon in the air until he swallowed. “Take a bus, or a truck. You? A gringo? If you walk that road you’re going to get killed. There are many bad men on that road.”
“Colombian’s are bandits.”
I laughed, thinking he was joking.
“If there were four of you I’d say maybe, but you’re alone and you’re white.” The man chuckled then abruptly dropped his jovial expression and spoke severely. “There are no police, no military. Men wait in the hill with binoculars.” With both hands he gestured binoculars over his eyes. “Then whoosh!” He slapped his hands together. “They’re on you. Gun to your chest.”
“It can’t be that bad,” I said.
But the man and the three women all nodded.
“They would kill you for a few pesos, now you have that cart!”
The grandmother scratched her cheek with all four fingers and shook her head.
I could think of nothing else to say. Bad visions were beginning to play in my head. They all started up in Spanish too fast for me to comprehend. The man kept making a gun with his hand. I made out “rob” and “die” about twenty times.
“Why not take a bus?” appealed the large woman.
“I can’t. I’m walking.” I took my water bottle and went over to a sink in the corner to fill it.
“Take a bus to Remolino,” said the man. “Past Remolino it’s safe.”
“Remolino is to the right?”
“How far is it?”
“Only twenty-five kilometers? That’s nothing. Half a day. I’ll walk.”
The grandmother was mumbling and continued to scratch her cheek. The man mumbled back and scratched his cheek too.
“What is that?” I said, scratching my own cheek.
“Thieves, robbers. There are lots of robbers on that road,” answered the man.
The dread in all their eyes was pouring into me.
I’m not one easily influenced by others, but with each passing sentence the locals were convincing me not to walk the road ahead. I envisioned men laid out in the hills above the road, spotting me then swooping down to the road. Would they really kill? Why not? No cops around, just toss the body off the road into the desert. Another unsolved murder.
I tucked my water bottle into my cart. Even with everything the locals were saying, I still wanted to walk. Taking a truck felt like cheating.
Yet I’d never gotten a talking to like this before.
I hesitated with my hand on the cart’s handle. “Is it that dangerous?”
They all nodded and spoke at once, each voicing their own argument. Eventually the voice of the woman with the bald spot rose over the others.
“Take a bus. Take a bus.” She was actually begging, with her hands clutched together.
I looked down to Savannah and she stared back up at me. I always asked locals for their advice, what good was that if I didn’t take it?
“Do I wait across the street?” I asked.
“Yes. Just there. Wait in the shade.”
“Alright, thank you. Oh! And how much for the limeade?”
The women at the counter both waved their hands. “Free.”
“Thanks again. And thanks for the advice.”
I rolled my cart down the three steps then across the road to the shade of a tree. Then I sat on the curb for two hours, maybe ten cars passed, further confirming how desolate the upcoming road was.
Finally a pickup going my direction arrived. A young man was driving and hopped out to help load my cart.
We got underway and were talking.
I watched the mountains stream by like the end scene in a movie and thought about everything I was missing by not walking.
But to my left were the same slow-slopping dry hills I imagined; with thickets large enough it’d be easy for a man to hide in.
I knew intellectually that in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter if I was skipping twenty-five kilometers. At the start of the walk I purposefully gave myself no hard and fast rules for situations exactly like the one I was in.
At the same time however, a part of me felt as though I were cutting a corner. And worse than just thinking I was cutting a corner I feared cutting corners would become habit, that I’d always be taking the easy way out.
Was I being prudent or just lazy? It was impossible to find the distinction.
“Hey,” I said looking at the young driver in the rearview mirror. “This road? Is it that dangerous?”
Bright youthful eyes met my own. “Oh yes. Robberies everyday. No one drives it after six.”
“If I walked it now, you think I’d be robbed?”
“If you walked? Yes sir.”
I broke eye contact, then rolled down my window. I rested my chin on my arm and watched the mountains. Latin music played from the tin speakers.
Prudent, I decided. I was being prudent.