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La Palmita

I awake before dawn in the sweaty Cartegena air and lay still in Pantelisa’s cockpit watching the sky slowly brighten behind the lights on the dockside cranes.

I feel relaxed but there are still jobs to do on the boat. I help Rolf troubleshoot the sticking sail sliders with a workout on the winch, hauling and dropping the mainsail a few times, while the sun turns up the heat in the marina.

It’s still uncertain as to when to move Michaels boat from St Kitts to Colombia so I pack my rucksack and walk into the Old Town with the intention of catching up on some writing and making my way to San Gil via the bus terminal while I have the time.

I pass Papa’s barbers and go for a haircut in an old 1950s barbers chair. It felt like a film set and I got a good old-fashioned trim including ears and nostrils for under £3.

Espiritu Santu is a cafeteria in the heart of the old town. It’s a wide and deep hall reminiscent of a school refectory although it is waiter service. Fillet of fish with fries and coconut rice with a salad and two juices for £5.50. Not as cheap as outside the city but still a great deal. The hall is busy and reverberates with boisterous latino chatter, too much for concentrating on writing so I browse the internet on my phone instead.

It was hard to get a handle on where the bus terminal was as the results are scattered all over google and the map of Colombia. Approaching a taxi on the rank outside the city walls, I accept the price and hop in, confident I will make the bus on time. There is one bus a day to SanGil from Cartegena and I arrive at the terminal an hour before the 17.30 departure.

The Expreso Brasilia bus is modern with the most comfortable chairs that recline well back. National Express in the UK could learn a lot here. The air conditioning was set for maximum cooling which is not so bad sitting with the sun coming through the window but with the onset of nightfall, arctic conditions ensued. Outside the city, the fun started, horn blaring and trucks being overtaken in the dark along highway 90. It reminded me of the journey along the Sinai from Sharm el Sheik to Cairo. I turn my focus to updating my blog until my battery dips into the red at 5%.

At Barranquilla, I had the driver retrieve my bag so I could get my jacket but I had nothing for covering my legs and feet. I glanced across the aisle at the guy in lumberjack jacket and balaclava nestled under his blanket. He had local knowledge, I can’t expect conditions to improve. I discover a socket outlet between the pair of seats and power up my laptop; bonus. I can get a lot of work done here as I expect the journey to be over 12 hours and the computer gives a little warmth for my legs. At 2am I get tired and curl up to stay as warm as I can and grab a couple of hours sleep. With a blanket, it would have been perfect but the cold kept me from decent rest.

At daybreak, we follow the valley looking at the rapids in the river below and start scaling the mountains, overtaking heavy trucks lugging their burden up the gradients. The roads are smooth, the view spectacular and the bends sharp with long drops the other side of the concrete barriers. I’m all typed out on the blog and instead enjoy the view of the sun bathed vista the other side of the window, legs curled under, sitting on my feet.

I think of how to ask the driver how far San Gil is and remember I have data for checking maps.me. This town is not San Gil. It’s Bucaramanga 60km north. We’ve been driving for over 15 hours and we have at least another hour and a half to go.

The bus pulls into the San Gil terminal dead on 10am. I’m hungry and thirsty since I brought no food and my body relied on my excesses at Espiritu Santu. There are food booths at the terminal and I ask for a vegetarian pastry “Tiene sin carne?” “Con pollo?” Chicken, as close to vegetarian as I could get, except it had some sort of chorizo in it as well. Vegetarian seems to be an alien concept in local circles in Colombia. I was hungry though and it refuelled me for the half hour walk to the centre of San Gil.

“The adventure capital of Colombia,” Lonely Planet tells me as I walk by industrial units and garages along the main road, aromatic with spent engine oil. The sun was burning away the bus induced chill and I dispensed with my jacket as I crossed the bridge into the city centre. Google maps paints a street grid on my screen. Is this plaza the city centre? Gringo Mike’s restaurant is across the square. Likely, being a gringo, he should speak English and would know and I head across the square.

I hear a call “Hey Paul!” Mike, Malissa and Bryan from the Minca retreat approach from across the square. They had just arrived in town from Finca Palmita and were on their way to the market so I tag along. This is indeed the city centre. After a refreshing natural smoothy in the market, we share a taxi back to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were at their new property working and Mike gives me a tour of the place and I’m shown my bunk on the first floor of the Maloka.

At the foot of the garden is the river, cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to bath in. It has none of that fertilizer smell that runs off the land into British rivers. I strip off to cleanse myself in the pure cool water and stay well below the surface while a whitewater raft drifts by full of whooping adventure seekers. I wait until they are flushed away before shaking off the water, getting dressed and settling in at La Palmita.

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Ikaro

Santa Marta is a grid system of streets: Calle x by Carrera y so it’s easy to guess a route to roughly where you want to go. Ikaro is in a pedestrian precinct near Parque de Los Novios on Calle 19. I leave the bike at the side of Calle 18 and walk around to Ikaro and up to the counter. I spot Helmut and Inka out the back of the kitchen and stroll around and treated to a nice cup of Mate Green Tea. No sign of Jason. I book into the hotel across the road and flick on the air conditioning and spend a cool couple of hours online.

When night descends I emerge into the street to buzzing activity, music and crowds. This place is busy. I fetch the bike off the street and push it along the precinct and park it in the well lit Plaza next to a cleaner looking bike and go for dinner at Ikaro. It was good catching up with Inka and Helmut. They had been upstairs in the double suite above my dorm at Aloha but our paths never really crossed.

I awoke early and continued updating the blog to the point of arriving in Colombia about 2 weeks back. I was living my life faster than I could write about it. I went for breakfast at Ikaro before the 10.30 cut off and checked out of the hotel before the noon deadline then hit the road to Cartegena. Carrera 4 led me south straight onto highway 90 along the isthmus that had been visible from Aloha. The Cienaga outskirts are depressingly run down and polluted. A contrast to the beautiful sunsets seen from way up in the mountains.

The air was hot, even along the shoreline. And the bike was humming along at 100kmh keeping the air flowing around me to cool me as much as possible. Without riding with a group, I could find my own pace and not push it too much with the traffic. Overtaking was easy on the long straights and sometimes along the generous hard-shoulders when the oncoming traffic was busy.

It’s about 200km from Santa Marta to Cartegena with Barranquilla in the way. I found the Barranquilla ring road for the easier route away from the congestion.

There’s a volcano near Cartegena. I passed a sign: Volcano 18km. It was the only one I saw and I soon found myself at the Cartegena City limits just as rush hour was starting. I wasn’t going back now. I got my bearings and used the sun as my beacon for finding Club Nautico in Manga.

The Cartegena rush hour is frantic, tight and noisy, elbow to elbow with motorcycles, taxis and buses. The licencing laws ignore motorcycles under a certain size which results in swarms of 180cc and below bikes. As soon as the dock cranes become visible, I know I’m home. I see Mike and Toni on the way to the bike wash so they get to see Minca mud rather than a pristine bike.

I have dinner and a few beers at Toni’s boat and eventually follow Michael to Pantelisa squeeze between the baggage in my old cabin on for the night. Compared to Minca, Cartegena is hot and sweaty and I go up to the cockpit at 3.30am to sleep in the slight hint of an intermittent breeze.

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Rio Elemento

I awoke before lunch, hungry but with a feeling of profound contentedness. That ‘never again’ feeling was now a distant memory and I was looking forward to tonight’s second ceremony. It was to be lighter, focussed on celebration with a later start.

Naturally, a good part of the day was spent sharing experiences. It turned out that last night had been one of the most intense yage ceremonies ever experienced by both Aloha and the facilitators. Being my first time, I thought that this had been ‘normal,’ if there is such a thing.

The previous day after the herbal bath Tim had told Miguel and Luis he had had a vision of the indigenous ancestors and consequently the dose was scaled back to half.

Miguel confessed that I had slightly more as the medicine put more of itself into my cup, which cleared up the mystery of how everybody else seemed to be able to walk unassisted. It was a perfect introduction for me and the learnings came for many days after this night.

We spent a good deal of time sitting around the fire with the guitars playing and whoever wanted to sing along. Makete is a world-class musician and songwriter and played a fabulous set in front of the fire. He stopped and asked, “Are we drinking medicine tonight?” It was probably midnight by the time the ceremony was underway.

I drank my second ever cup and this time, with logistics in my mind, topped up my water bottle and went to the toilet straight away while I was still able, and then got comfortable in my spot.

This time the taste of the medicine had an association with vomiting and I could see how it would become harder to keep down if I thought about it too much. the dose was lighter and the effect was slower to arrive. There were no psychedelic colours, everything looked normal and I could walk OK. I felt light headed and made my way to the ridge to walk around ready for the purge. It was a while coming and I helped it along deliberately in order to feel better and go and sit back down.

I laid down in contemplation. Nothing profound appeared to be happening and I was fine with that. Instead, I was reflecting on last night and thanking the stars and mountains. I felt almost as if I was drunk but with sharpened awareness instead of the dullness that alcohol brings.

I was recovering by the time the next cup was being offered and I stepped up to the altar. It was harder to keep down because of the flavour. I purged fairly soon after and walked around for a while, visiting both the main fire and the quieter fire in the purpose build circle below, warmed my bones and contemplated whatever came to my mind then returned to my spot to sleep.

In the morning, I awoke just before dawn and people gathered around the greying embers of the fire to close the retreat and share experiences one by one. I didn’t know what to say but the right words seemed to come out on their own without thinking about them. A deep feeling of gratitude, not just for the Ayahuasca but all the processes leading up to it and beyond. Every part of the retreat was like a jigsaw piece that interlocked with the next to build a larger picture of part of the universe and my part in it.

This week had bonded our whole community. Deeper than I have ever experienced before. The retreat was closed and people began to drift away, and as people left, the energy of the site began to wain. Aloha still had its own feeling but the energy that we all brought to the retreat had been palpable.

Tim left straight away and I promised to meet him at Rio Elemento hostel in Minca the next day. Rosalie left too but most of us stayed at Aloha for one more night.

Monday, I got ready to leave after just one more cup of tea. The tea would be ready in 10 minutes but still wasn’t apparent an hour later. I might as well stay for lunch, so I waited. Another hour later, I felt I had already overstayed and I prepared to leave. Lunch was about to be served but I had made up my mind and took my helmet and bag and retrieved the bike.

I rode the opposite direction to the way I came and followed the loop around via Los Pinos and Pozo Azul. It was an easier route with far more paving and probably took the same amount of time even though the distance was further. I spotted Sam in a juice bar and went to offer her the cup of tea that I’d promised the day before. Herbert and Alle were there too so the offer was quickly forgotten as greetings were exchanged. The juices were nectar to my taste buds. Greg, Adam, Sheryl and Jason joined us and so we had a mini-reunion tagged straight onto the Aloha departure.

As we disbanded I made my way to Rio Elemento. They were fully booked but there was a hammock I could rent. Perfect, I took it and Jay, the owner, proceeded to give me a tour of the place. There is plenty of space here and a good sized pool and walking around the pool toward the river, the familiar blue eyes of Rosalie pierced my awareness. I didn’t expect to see her here – it was an unexpected pleasure.

Greg, Jason and Sheryl joined us as I returned to the terrace above the pool… I wanted to catch up on my blog but it wasn’t going to happen here right now. I went to dinner on the terrace and Gerhard joined me at my table. Gerhard was 57 and saw me as a fellow older traveller. I keep forgetting I’m old. Most of my peers are half my age. Greg and Jason joined us and Gerhard shared so much wisdom from the lessons from his recent divorce, we were all inspired. He admitted that he didn’t love himself until after his divorce. A tough lesson that I recognised through my own history.

There were four hammocks in the corridor and it looked as if I was last to turn in. I kicked off my flip-flops and settled down wearing my shorts and t-shirt with a blanket over me and drifted off to a fitful sleep. I woke at dawn slightly chilled. It was a cold night and I got up for an early breakfast. Greg, Rosalie and I went down to the river for a swim. Bracing mountain water got the blood flowing.

There was no check out time as such so I retired to the hammock to update my blog until the middle of the afternoon. I had promised to meet Helmut, Jason and Sheryl at Helmut’s hotel and restaurant in Santa Marta. It felt time to revisit ‘civilisation’ so I eased the bike through the mountain passes toward the city…

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Ayahuasca 1

Thursday felt like a rest day. I needed it, not because of the Kambo but because of the Men’s Circle and Purpose Spark process cracking open my psychological shell.

Keely and Makete were my Purpose Spark team and we had already shared a lot but sharing didn’t get any easier: exercise after exercise putting us on the spot without time to compose ‘impressive [inauthentic]’ stories, relying solely on truth and vulnerability. “Vulnerability is a muscle.” Greg, the facilitator told us. It was a powerful muscle too, I could see its power to inspire in listening to other people’s heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a muscle worth exercising.

Pen and paper crystalised all that bubbled up within; dormant baggage from the past buried under the blanket of suppressed emotions that I never knew remained hidden deep down in my bilges.

Shortly after five, we headed down the mountain ridge for the sunset hike. It wasn’t far to a small plateau on the peak at the end of the ridge below Aloha and we watched the sun descend over Cartegena and beyond.

People started to return to the farm when the sun started dragging the twilight away with it and eventually I am left sitting on the ridge with Ryan, Makete, Jason and Bryan. All have had Ayahuasca before and I learn about the revelations that each have had from their ceremonies. I’ve never done an ayahuasca ceremony before so I was fascinated by what I might be in for tomorrow night.

I was feeling the evening chill but did not want to miss this conversation. The moon although far from full gave us all a silver sheen and we sat like ghosts on the mountain.

Friday morning, I was beginning to feel flashes of doubt. It could be apprehension or fear of the unknown, but both are a disease of thinking and I let those thoughts go. I felt fulfilled and at peace with all the processes that led up to today and I felt I didn’t really need the ayahuasca but Miguel and Luis had reassured me that it is good for opening us up to the spirit world, where consciousness lives… and for me, where consciousness lives is worth exploring.

It was a day of silence today and I grew tired that afternoon so went to my bunk for a couple of hours sleep. The ceremony wouldn’t start until at least 8pm. It was dark when I awoke and everybody had already got their bedding out on the grass. We were all to spend the night around the bonfire. All the best spots closest to the fire were already taken and I settled into a place further away next to Edward and Keely.

The fire was soothing in its warm orange glow and sparks floated up to meet the stars in the cloudless sky. The ceremony began with ritual chanting and dancing around the medicine before it was dispensed which, even though I didn’t understand the words, stimulated my own appreciation and respect for the ceremony before I drank the ayahuasca and followed with water. I went to sit down and wrapped the blanket around me.

I had heard that the medicine tasted really bad. It was distinctive and strong flavoured but not bad. 10 minutes later I began to feel nauseated and disorientated but didn’t want to be the first to move, and started to wonder if there was some sort of protocol to follow. Others had drunk before me and they weren’t moving. Edward moved to the ridge and I followed a moment after finding my own space. The grass was turning fluorescent violet and turquoise and appeared as a geometric web. Reality as I knew it was falling away along with my ability to move.

I already knew that the secret to the medicine was to surrender to it but I had a dilemma: I was stranded in the grass at the edge of the ridge. I couldn’t  surrender yet, I was too far from my bed and I needed to go to the toilet to purge these laxative sensations. With both locations slowly receding further into the distance, pretty soon, it was going to be a long journey to either. I rested on my hands and knees heaving saliva into the violet grass webbing and praying to the purple mountain in the indigo sky in front of me. Even though I wasn’t wearing my glasses, everything appeared vivid and pin-sharp with the colour and contrast turned to 100%. Imagine your drunkest night after a party but sandwiched by full awareness underneath it all and a layer of dreamworld on top: a lucid dream on a roller coaster…

I wanted to purge but I felt empty and moved slowly toward Miguel and Luis for some water. Copious amounts of water stimulates the purge.  Standing up on shaking legs, I downed a glass of water. I didn’t want another… “Never again,” I thought as I staggered back to the ridge and laid in the grass.

I was conscious and had all my senses within these new scenes and feelings. If I was to make it to the toilet, it had to be now while I could still move. I put my hand up and Miguel came to help me. Bryan walked me to the block. My legs were weak and I needed support. I passed Tim who was bent over purging the weeds next to the path to the toilet block,  which inspired my own next to him. I felt a bit better as I made it to the toilet. The shadows across the path from the bathroom lights gave the path geometric pattern that was rich in colour. It was hard to walk upon and work out where the steps were.

The room was intense orange and green with shadows taking on geometric patterns. It was blissful sitting there letting everything go both in body and mind but I was aware that others would need it too so didn’t stay too long. The benefit of the trip to the toilet was that I was led back to my bed. I’m thankful for the help I received and remembered the message from the Kambo: “Allow others to help you…” Thank you, Miguel and Bryan.

I wrapped up in both blankets and faced the fire. I felt safe now and laid down. Laying down made me feel sick again and I crawled out to the edge of the grass. I purged a bit more but not much. I think I was done and settled down under the blanket again.

Miguel came to me, his silhouette vivid out of the night sky and asked: “How you doing, Okay?” I said I thought I was resisting. He replied “Good, keep going.” laughed and disappeared. I smiled and relaxed into the experience

Everything looked vivid and alive,  and I thought grateful thoughts of how my mum had brought me up almost single-handed and empathy for my father’s dementia and wishes for him to stay strong for whatever he was going through. I felt no profound messages coming through from or for myself. Instead, my awareness was going out to the stars as though I was an astronaut in orbit but still feeling the Earth on my back. The world became silent apart from my breath. The sky came over the mountain in front of me Cassiopeia was above and Orion was following the moon to the western skyline.

My feet were cold but I could feel they were under the blanket. The tree to my right was violet and turquoise and stood out against the sky. I wished I could photograph it all, it was so beautiful.

I didn’t need anything and knew I could surrender completely but there seemed to be nowhere else for me to go. I just breathed into the night sky appreciating my existence in this moment.

Couldn’t I have just one secret message? A clue to my ideal role in life perhaps? No, nothing, just a feeling gratitude and being alive. That was good enough. Words came and went that I had not heard before. Words with no meaning but felt good speaking into the stars.

People started coming to the fire and singing with the guitars and although I was perfectly aware of all that, I was still down the rabbit hole and a second cup was offered to those that felt the urge to go deeper. Should I? I didn’t know and, anyway, I couldn’t move which I took as a sign to stay put.

Six hours after taking the medicine, I was coming down to Earth, I felt such peace and descended into a warm and tranquil sleep. When I woke it was dawn. The blankets and pillow were moist with cool dew, but I was warm and comfortable. I thought about what revelations I had this night and couldn’t really define any as the sun slowly rose above the mountain so I took up my bedding and headed to my dorm with a feeling of peace, gratitude and fulfilment, which was probably the revelation I was really looking for…

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Kambo

Wednesday morning dawned and I was still nursing fatigue from some sort of stomach bug and didn’t feel like getting up for yoga but I went anyway. Sam was leading this session and she turned out a real joy. Less of a workout than Rike’s session on the first morning after I arrived at the retreat. I was beginning to feel better. Just in time for the Kambo ceremony.

Legend has it that an ancient tribe in the Amazon were struck down by a mystery illness resistant to all their know medicines.

One of the shamans, Paje Kampu, embarked on a vision quest to see if he could divine the answer from the great spirit. He trekked into the jungle and cooked up some ayahuasca alone in a remote spot and drank it at sunset.

In his vision, the queen of the forest led him to an enormous tree and showed him how to call for a small bright green frog (phyllomedusa bicolor), whereupon he stared up into the branches and sang. To his surprise, a bright green frog climbed down onto his shoulder. The queen told Kampu, “This frog is the prince of the forest. He is poisonous and has no predators but, fear not, the poisons of the forest are also medicines.” And the queen showed Kampu how to work with the frog.

Kampu returned to the tribe and set about treating them with the new medicine. Not only did it cure the tribe of the mysterious disease, it served to cure snakebite, malaria and curses.

Amazon tribespeople harvest Kambo by calling the frogs using the same sacred songs and play instruments that mimic its voice. The frogs descend from the high trees where they live, allowing the shamans to suspended them on strings who release them as soon as the frog allows the secretion from glands along the side of its body to be scraped onto a stick, where it is then dried and wrapped in leaves.

This enigmatic frog has no natural predators. It is not an endangered species. Except, as usual, by the threat of destruction of its habitat by money-hungry humans.

Attempts to breed the frog in captivity by Big Pharma have failed: captive frogs do not secrete the medicine. Scientists are mystified as to why not.

Edward, an 18-year-old from England was feeling ill and came to say he wasn’t going to do the Kambo as he felt so ill. We said “Kambo is a medicine, you’re closer to the Kambo than we are since it makes you purge anyway. He turned and his illness caused him to turn and projectile vomit into the weeds before returning to bed.”

It seemed a shame to come this far and not go through with a session so I went to the cabana to talk to him. I said “How would you feel at the end of the week and you missed the ceremony having come this close? If it were me, it would bother me and it might even heal this sickness.” He said he could always do it again another time so I said “OK, if you’re sure.” and left. Ten minutes later Edward appeared, ready for doing the Kambo.

We were split into four groups of four and five and I was in the last group along with Adam, Herbert, Edward and Tim. Michael from New Zealand was in the first group and was shouting out in distress as the Kambo was forcing his body to purge. This wasn’t helping the anticipation. Someone said it feels like we are gladiators waiting for the arena where the lions were eating the warriors. Tim was about to go to meditate when Ryan came up to say the energy felt different and that we should go into the third slot, cutting out Tim’s meditation opportunity.

We sat on our mats removing our shirts and downing two litres of water as quickly as possible as the ceremony started, the surface of the skin on the shoulder were burned away ready for the medicine to be applied. It wasn’t long before I started feeling the effects. My hands and arms began to tingle and I bent forward to the bucket ready for the purge and promptly passed out.

I was in a dream world and I felt a hand on my cheek and a distant voice say ‘breathe’ and I slowly came round well away from my bucket. I felt nauseated and began to heave into the bucket. “Never again.” came the thought. Not much was coming up and I was urged to drink more water. I couldn’t take any more. I had water in my mouth but felt unable to swallow.

The feeling was beginning to subside. Ryan said, “I’m going to burn another dot OK?” “OK I said as I prepared for a second wave.” and the tingling and purging rose within me again but I didn’t faint.

“Come on, what are you holding onto?” Ryan asked. Good question. A thought that didn’t feel my own came to me “Allow people to help, don’t do it on your own.” I looked around me and there were bodies scattered all around with Herbert facing the other way. I wanted to go to the toilet and I was helped by Rike and Luis. This was the first time I had been helped onto a toilet and executed this most private act in company. I didn’t care though. It was necessary. Back on the mat, I purged as much as I could but far less seemed to come up than went down.

I looked across at Adam who rose out of his bucket with a smile and said: “You’re a warrior, man.” Exactly the thought I had about him. His heart and soul were in it. Apparently, we all passed out apart from Herbert who was disturbed by the sight and turned round to focus on his own process. Edward was laid on his side but conscious and Tim was really going through the mill. Tim had seven dots since he’d had Kambo before. I had three.

It was a relatively long session since it was an intense group but we were soon out of it and I began to feel cleansed. The sickness that I had experienced the last few days was no longer there and on top of that, I felt happy. My shoulder was a little sore where the burns were but I felt good deep inside. Never again? Maybe one day…

 

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Purpose Spark

Saturday morning and there was no wifi or signal at Aloha so I fired up the bike to explore Minca, get some more offroad practice and maybe catch up on some writing. I do like multiple reasons. In a way, going downhill is harder than coming up. It’s easier to come off under braking especially locking the front wheel. Best not touch the front brake if possible.

Wherever I went in Minca, there was no WiFi. Ordering tea for the purpose of using the Wifi resulted in me drinking tea impatiently thinking of internet connection. This wasn’t working out. I gave up any online interest although the phone now had a signal for checking messages and other small-screen keyboardless stuff. Walking around Minca revealed some tucked away hostels and juice bars. More than was first apparent although it is still not a large town. What’s clear is that there is a business opportunity here due to the growing number of backpackers now that the road is paved to Minca.

I crossed the small bamboo bridge across the river and made my way back toward where I parked the bike and heard someone call “Paul!” It was Herbert and Alle in a cafe and I went to join them for a while. They had hiked up to Pozo Azul waterfall and recommended I go since I had transport. Taking this as another omen, I took the bike up and swam in one of the upper pools where there were no people. The water was cold, straight off the mountains so I was less than a minute, enough for a wash and cool off before riding back down to Minca. the ride was better than the swim.

The softer parts of the track up to Aloha had deeper ruts than yesterday and although I was riding better, I got off at the deepest stretch and walked along the edge while keeping the bike under power to guide it through the ruts.

Sunday was a day of reading and sleeping. I was beginning to feel cold, I had caught some sort of chill which sapped my energy so retired to bed and stayed there until Monday lunchtime. I was off my food. I met Greg and Adam round the campfire that night who were fascinated by my life journey to that point, especially sailing from Turkey to Colombia and find myself here, now at this retreat. I said I was simply following the omens. Talking with Greg and Adam was an unexpected pleasure. It’s rare to speak openly with people right off the bat, at least for me it is, but this place around a campfire had something special.

I had committed to the timetable for the retreat but Tuesday morning came and I hadn’t the energy to face yoga at 6.30 so missed the first session. I needed rest and recuperation and wasn’t in the mood for socialising, Even less than usual.

Greg runs Purpose Spark and an exercise had us randomly selected our various groups of three. Mine included Keely from Gravesend and Makete, a hugely talented songwriter/musician from Montana. The various sharing exercises opened us up in preparation for the sessions to follow, including the medicine ceremonies.

My automatic judgments were still running riot in my head but I got used to telling them to shut up while I started to get to know this community…

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Aloha Ke Akua

The ATK TT 180s need attention and Michael and I ride them to the dealer. I never tire of riding here. It’s exciting and takes skill to survive and thrive. The taxi drops Michael at the Old Town and continues to drop me at my bus at the Berlinave Bus Terminal so that I can continue to Santa Marta to collect the 125 and ride up to Aloha Ke Akua for the Sacred Medicine retreat.

4 hours, I understood the journey should be. 5 and a half hours later, it was dark and the driver pointed down the road toward the Marina where the motorcycle was stored. “Si, gracias!” Instead, I head for the main road for pizza and beer. I’m hungry and decided I didn’t want to ride into the jungle in the dark. I needed to find the Positano hostel I booked online while on the bus.

The hostel was 20 minutes walk from the pizzeria but easy to find via google maps. Clean and cheap, I dumped my rucksack in one of the three dorms and went to cool off in the pool before settling down in my bunk logging onto the wifi.

Breakfast was basic but filling and the Colombian coffee, divine. I normally steer clear of coffee as I believe it’s not healthy for me but how bad can something be that tastes so good?

There’s no rush to get to Aloha so I leave the hostel at the check out deadline and sweat my way across to the marina 10 minutes away.

I have trouble starting the bike until I find the choke lever on top of the carburettor. I’m up and away, across the city to highway 90 and looking for the exit to Minca. It’s not long, I veer off the highway and into the twisty tarmac scaling the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Some of the hairpins are sharp and I use the scooter with its pillion up ahead as my guide. If he slows sharply, there is good reason. The road is a bikers dream, smooth, undulating with sweeping curves and hairpins. It reminded me of Devon with a tropical twist.

Suddenly, I’m in a village swarming with caucasian backpackers, hippies and gap year travellers. This must be Minca. I was expecting a mini Santa Marta but Minca had the air of a frontier post. A jumping off point into the wilderness for intrepid explorers. The tarmac came to an abrupt end on the bridge and my route was a T junction to the left that looked like a concrete drive to a private property. It was good that I stopped for a wander so that I got my bearings although either way would turn into dirt track soon enough.

I didn’t want to drag my rucksack around Minca with the hostel’s location not clear in my mind so I got back on the bike and headed up the track to Akua Ke Akua. The concrete didn’t last long before it turned into a single dirt track. It was pretty rough in places and I soon caught up with 4 wheel drives lumbering their way up the track like overweight hippos.

Where the track sloped down into a hollow, rain collected into muddy pools that vehicles hollowed out deep ruts. Sometimes there was an easy line for a motorcycle to skip around or over the ruts but sometimes, through the mud was the only way. Local moto taxi riders on standard road bikes with pillion and backpacks were making it look like child’s play. I found it just as difficult as my weekend at the BMW off-road school that I attended 10 years ago. I was conscious of my laptop on my back too. I didn’t want to tumble in a muddy puddle.

Like most things, the secret is to commit to a path and go for it. Hesitate in the middle of an obstacle and you’re off. If you take a few miles an hour extra then you can be through the worse with the momentum and picking up traction on the other side. I started standing on the footpegs and powering through the shallowest ruts if there were no dry path. Sometimes I slid around a little but never came off.

I stopped to check the Sat Nav which told me I was on the wrong track. I didn’t remember a junction but turned around anyway, descending the mountain for ten minutes. I asked a passing moto taxi rider who pointed the way back up the way I had come saying “Past Casa Elemento.” I had been at the sign to Casa Elemento before the Sat Nav was telling me lies. I followed the moto rider and passenger to Casa Elemento who pointed the fork to Aloha Ke Akua. It was an enjoyable ride but the bike and I were now plastered with mud.

Walking through the gate, I met a young muscly lumberjack looking man with a wild beard and announced that I was Paul, come a few days early for the retreat. It was clear this was the first he had heard of it so I gathered that this was not Ryan I had been messaging on Facebook. This was Jason, his business partner.

It was 5 minutes until lunch, just in time for a quick tour of the farm before settling down to eat. I was in cabana number two, a palm-thatched 4 berth dorm with a stunning view south-west over the mountains and the road to Barranquilla and Cartegena that I had become so familiar. After lunch, I settled into the hammock taking in the warm mountain air listening to the birds and grasshoppers, contemplating the series of coincidences that led me to this place: Thomas’ candid share about his ayahuasca experience; Herbert’s partner booking him into Aloha Ke Akua; the use of the bike from Santa Marta. A book lay on top of the locker: “The Celestine Prophecy” a story about coincidences not being accidental. What a coincidence. I felt I should read it and sat back in the hammock feeling I was in the right place at the right time. It was Friday afternoon and the retreat didn’t start until Monday.

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Submarine

“Can you wear this uniform?” as Micheal hands me some surf shorts and a white t-shirt. I don’t mind. My laundry needs doing anyway.

We prepare Pantelisa for mystery clients. Not a mystery to Michael, a mystery to me until he shares more details as the day progresses. Three gay guys on a complimentary (exploratory) day out to discuss the possibilities and opportunities for chartering Pantelisa.

Frank is a warm and ebullient American from New York with a talent for marketing as I listened to the conversation throughout the day. Joshua appeared to be his partner: a Colombian with a good command of the English language. The second Colombian, I couldn’t catch his name, did not speak English and was left on the sidelines throughout the day. I sympathised since I was reminded of the occasions Herbert used to prefer to speak German on the crossing.

We slipped the lines and gently reversed out of the berth avoiding the web of lines holding the other vessels to their berths, and headed out of the harbour toward Isla Grande, turning south as we pass the two old forts that used to guard the harbour entrance. Michael gives an impressive history lesson on the forts as we bi-sect them.

Isla Grande is quite a long way for a day out. It takes at least a couple of hours to get there. We would like to get the sails out but there is not a breath of wind as we motor down the coast. Our course looks like we might approach close to the treacherous reefs around the island and after some contemplation, we turn East to stay in deep water well away from the coast of Isla Grande.

We anchor south of the shallow channel between two islands and see quaint palm-thatched beach huts on the shore. The water is deep enough to go closer to them but my skipper is happy where we are and we settle down for a few beers and a swim in the warm Caribbean water.

We don’t stay long as the day is short to fit so much in. Toni suggested a lagoon nearby that was deep enough fro Pantelisa’s generous draft of 2.2 metres. The plotter indicates a reef on the chart of at least three metres. Reefs are worrying, they are not often flat all the way along. I stand at the bow looking ahead into the green depths to get ahead of the game. The channel markers seem reliable and we read 3 to 4 metres plus all the way along as we enter the lagoon.

There#s a party beach at the entrance with booming music and moored motorboats. We are the only sailboat to drop anchor just inside the lagoon and a flotilla of locals swarm around us selling fish and whatever else as I seek refuge below and allow the clients to enjoy their negotiations. Me? Quero de nada!

We enjoy a lobster lunch and 80’s disco music before hauling anchor to Playa Blanco, a busy white sanded beach stretching for a mile or two up the coast. I’m not convinced by the holding of the anchor. The breeze is light but we are on a lee shore (blowing on) as is common in the daytime on a warm day when the thermals draw the sea air inland.

I dive on the anchor. There is plenty of chain but the anchor is resting on rock. Pantelisa is being held purely by the weight of the chain and anchor since there is nothing to dig in to. We aren’t moving and we aren’t staying long but I keep a weather-eye on our position.

Heading home, we deploy the Genoa to give the clients a sailing experience, even though there isn’t quite enough to stop the engine and let nature carry us. It was nice seeing a sail full of wind though. That was enough.

Rounding into the harbour, a vessel on AIS is barely visible on the surface. Anonymous in its detail on the plotter, we see the conning tower. It’s a Colombian Navy submarine. We wave to the three officers on the tower. As they pass to our port side.

It is dark by the time we reach Cartegena and we navigate all the way into the Old Town Quay. The icing on the cake for the clients. Michael asks me to contact Toni to invite him for food or drinks. Toni isn’t happy and asks if the US flag was still up. Yes, it was but I put it away as I hear that foreign vessels aren’t popular in the town, especially US flagged vessels.

The atmosphere aboard becomes muted but Michael and I stay for a glass of wine before returning to Club Nautico.

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Easy Rider

We were up before dawn the next day Santa Marta bound to collect the motorcycles. Rosalie cadged a lift too and we were huddled in the Land Cruiser bouncing along the rough concrete streets of Cartegena before the morning ‘workaday’ crowd barrelled onto the roads to race towards hated jobs.

I was warned that my backside would be sore from the motorcycle ride but it was already getting that way being perched in the centre of the rear seat of the land cruiser.

Along highway 90 are various stalls grouped into roadside villages and we stopped at one for some natural coconut refreshment.

We headed up in the foothills near Santa Marta to collect Daniel, the 5th member of the bike squad. He had a bike at his house but Michael took that and Dan joined us in the Land Cruiser.

Rosalie bailed out later near a random street in Santa Marta and we headed to the Marina.

The motorcycle key management system was of Latin style, you know, none. We spent some time trying random keys in random bikes. Toni said “I don’t know why you guys put tags on these keys. There was no response like he was speaking a language from another planet. Pretty soon we took off through the streets of Santa Marta, weaving in and out with Colombia’s best.

Rolf was following in the Land Cruiser squeezing through spaces like he was on a bike too, driving like a local. We had arranged to meet at the first fuel station out of town but Dan had passed us all and disappeared over the horizon. We stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe where Michael managed to reach Dan on the phone and told him to wait at the toll gate where he was and we continued our lunch.

We collected Dan at the toll gate and had to take him to the next fuel station. Dealing with locals here seems to be the equivalent of herding cats. I get the feeling almost nothing is thought through. Early days though, maybe it’s just a series of one-offs.

The road to Cartegena is smooth and flowing with long spaces between the traffic. There is a hard shoulder most of the way which makes a convenient undertaking lane if there is oncoming traffic visible along the long straights.

My bike was an ATK TT 180 enduro style. Dan was on an ATK TT 125 and seemed to have the legs of the 180. We were weaving in and out of the traffic toward Barranquilla to rescue the boat batteries from bureaucracy. The hot Colombian air was hardly cooled by the coastal breeze and the sweat could be felt sticking my t-shirt to my back under my backpack.

The motorcycles swarmed like bees through Barranquilla. We were Gladiators in the motordrome making our way to the customs office.

Dan and I waited in the shade of the trees while Toni, Michael and Rolf entered the dead air-conditioned atmosphere of the government office. Barranquilla is hot and dusty, the longer I sat, the dustier I became. After 90 minutes, Toni said we might as well head back and they would follow later. With that, we took off.

I asked Dan “You know the way back to the Marina in Cartegena right?”
“Si, no problemo!” and proceeded to weave through Barranquilla stopping every few hundred metres as Dan asked the way…

Out of Barranquilla on highway 90, you can’t go wrong. It’s the only highway between there and Cartegena so all we have to do is sit there and allow the road to roll away under us village after village.

The toll gates are free for motorcycles so we coast straight through a metre wide path along the side passing all the impatient car drivers that had raced past us miles back as they fumbled for change and waited to pay their toll.

The villages have speed humps too. Traffic builds in queues as the trucks slow to crawl over them. Dan and I filter down the inside or continue at speed and stand on the footpegs over the speed humps. The bikes rise gently under us as we roll steadily into the open space ahead.

We hit Cartegena at 5pm, rush hour, and the battle with the traffic is joined a few hundred metres at a time as Dan resumes his relay of direction finding. I learn to keep more distance between us as Dan can spontaneously come to a halt at unlikely looking junctions. Eventually, I take the lead as we come into sight of the dock cranes at Manga. I know the proximity of the Marina to the docks and we soon reach Club Nautico as we follow the coastal streets.

I’m parched and ready for a beer. Dan has no money (he says) and I buy him a couple of drinks as we wait for I’m not sure what. I presume Dan is staying the night on Pantelisa but I say nothing. I’ll leave that to the guys when they return from Barranquilla.

Hunger creeps up on me and I invite Dan for a Schwarma up the road. The food is cheap and good. Dan is a good guy and helps me carry beer from the supermarket back to the Marina for the guy’s return. Rounding the corner, we see the bikes are back, placing a hand on the engine reveals they are still warm so not long returned and we make our way to Toni’s catamaran. They are just finishing dinner so just in time for drinks and a fuzzy head for the morning.

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Cartagena de Indias

The leg to Colombia felt very much like a continuation of the Atlantic. We were 50 miles north of the Colombian shore to avoid the rising sea as the waves enter the shallows steeply near the coast.

Even so, to the south, we could see the white bloom in the night sky, reflections of the city lights of Santa Marta and Barranquilla. Tomorrow we would set foot in Colombia at Cartegena.

Moving the spinnaker boom to the port side to get a more southerly bearing to the wind revealed a break in the mounting on the mast and the boom had to be retired. Not a big problem as we had only one day of sailing left to go.

The hazy high rise skyline of Bocagrande condensed into view out of the distant mist. The coastal boundary of Cartegena. The entrance to the harbour was protected by a shallow rock barrier where in the past enemy ships might founder as they attempt an invasion of Cartegena. Rolf could not determine the depth or width of the channel that suggested an entrance and we decided on caution and headed south to round the southern point of Isla de Terra Bomba.

We hailed Eidleweiss on the VHF, Toni’s vessel, and received a broken response. 10 minutes later the transmission was much clearer. Instructions were to head toward the Bocagrande skyline and adjacent rock barrier.

Concerned that there might be a mistake, I asked if they could see us on the AIS. “I can see you in real life!” came the reply. The channel through the rock barrier was narrow but deep enough for cargo ships. This would save 4 hours or so.

Approaching the barrier we observe a dinghy well away from the shore waving a Swiss flag. It was Toni and Michael welcoming us to Colombia. This was why the transmission was so improved. The handheld radio had been less than a mile away from us.

The harbour was dominated by a statue in the bay surrounded by cardinal markers. It looked an odd place to have a statue until I learned that this area was a broad and shallow reef.

Soon we nosed our way into a narrow space between vessels on the end of a pontoon in the Club Nautico Marina.

Mission accomplished. Pantelisa had been delivered to Colombia.

Herbert left Pantelisa within a couple of hours as he was now reunited with Alexandra who was already based at a high rise AirBnB pad in Manga nearby.

Crossing an ocean for a loved one was something I’d only ever encountered in poetry and music. Herbert lived it. My reward? Homelessness came to mind. Pantelisa had been my home for the past three months and now my plans were lost in a fog of uncertainty. I was booked onto a Sacred Medicine retreat near Minca in a weeks time. All I had to do was to tread water until then. Michael and Toni allowed me to stay aboard and help with Pantelisa for the time being which was a relief. I heard that Toni needed some motorcycles moving from Santa Marta to Cartagena. A 200Km trip that sounded an interesting gig so I offered to help, even if it meant moving them one by one over the next week.

Toni had some business retrieving some lithium boat batteries that were being held to ransom by Colombian customs so a plan was set for four of us to drive to Santa Marta the next day and return via Barranquilla with four bikes. The fifth being left behind so that I could ride to the retreat in the mountains at the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Michael wanted to retrieve his Kawasaki Ninja today so I went with him in the Toyota Land Cruiser via the Tigo cellphone dealer so we could both get a data Sim for Colombia. In true manjana style it took over 2 hours to get the sim. Long enough for me to lose track of our parking token required for exit to the car park necessitating a €5 bribe to the security guard.

The Ninja was located at an apartment on the coast so Michael and I drove along the beach nearby to grab some lunch. The beach reminded me of a rustic version of Miami. Miles of straight sand lined with luxury apartments as far as the eye could see.

Michael walked into the building and emerged from the garage a few minutes later on the sports bike and turned toward central Cartegena with me tailing in the Land Cruiser. The traffic is a crazy competition to be the first to fill spaces in the traffic ahead. I couldn’t always stay right behind the Kawasaki but the distinctive black and yellow helmet was always in view.

Arriving in Manga, Michael stopped and pointed across the road and I noticed Rosalie looking bemused that Michael was on a motorcycle with me following in a Land Cruiser. Yesterday, we were simply boat crew. Rosalie hopped in and caught up on the afternoon’s events on the way back to Club Nautico.

I had no Colombian currency. I worked out it was roughly £3.00 for $10,000 (Colombian Pesos). The problem was solved by paying for dinner with Debit card and gathering in the cash contributions from around the table. I was already on the way to becoming a Peso Millionaire.

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