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The Road to Cusco: Ipiales

2pm. We pulled into a services for buses. Pulling out my phone and looking at the maps app, we had only covered a small portion of the distance in this 6 hour leg. My info had the journey as 10 hours total.

“Manana Manana,” The driver replied when I asked him when we would arrive. I spotted a couple that I had noticed before at the Bogota station boarding the bus in front of mine. That bus was going directly to Lima. I could have got that one if it had appeared on the options I found on the internet.

Meanwhile, I checked my wallet, I only had about $12000 cash which is about £4. If I were an extra day on the bus then I would have to make that last. I blew $3000 on an empanada and a coke. The internet access had been dire all the way from Bogota, although there must have been sporadic connection since messages would sneak through while I wasn’t paying attention. I’d booked the hostel in Ipiales on false travel information and I was kicking over the volcanic stones in the car park thinking how to alert them of my twelve hour delay when the driver returned to allow us to reboard.

At 8pm, the cabin lights flickered on as we pulled into another services. I had no plans for feasting on the high fat carnivorous menu with my remianing $9000 but I was glad of the stop as I didn’t want to go into the toilet on the bus. Despite the low temperature, the smell of overflowing urine began to pollute our breathable atmosphere.

Daybreak revealed a beautiful sunlit landscape as the road followed the gorge towards Ipiales. Reading lonely Planet about Ipiales told me that it was an uninspiring commercial town and Pasto was much better. We had already passed Pasto in the dark just before dawn.

Arriving in Ipiales wasn’t much to write about apart from being a relief to end the 23 hour bus journey. Small and dirty was my first impression, which I revised a little later. The town was bigger than I thought.

After collecting my bag and blowing another $3000 on breakfast at the bus station I marched up the hill toward the hostel. The air was pretty thin as I was at over 9000ft altitude. my lungs were clutching at the petrol fumes and scraping as much oxygen out of them as possible but not fast enough to prevent me having to stop to catch my breath.

Walking along Calle 13, I stopped at the marker that indicated the hostel on the satnav. Nothing. Checking the email for the address, the numbers suggested it was further down the street – yes, there it was, a narrow doorway like an unread and forgotten book on a bookshelf squeezed between a closed down cafe and a sex shop.

Jose answered the door and welcomed me into reception. Jose spoke no English but I hammered away at my best Espanol and secured a room for four nights totalling £18. The room had no window but the door opened onto a balcony over a covered courtyard. It was perfect.

This week was Semana Santa hence the stopover for four days. For Colombia, a country with a Catholic population of 90%, this week-long Easter celebration is the most important religious festival of the year. The whole country mobilises for a national holiday. Shops closed, Churches opened and regular services thrown into uncertainty. Which was why I was here in Ipiales: to sit it out. Today was Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were the big days.

One of the other guests told me about Santuario de Las Lajas, about the only thing worth seeing in the area. It was getting late so I noted it for tomorrow, Thursday.

The mornings at this altitude are cool, like bright April mornings back in England. Full jacket and jeans was the dress for the day. Walking down Carrera 6, I dipped into an unusually large supermarket to stock up on peanuts, my emergency energy supply. The cashier said something and held out her hand, I gave her some money. “No, documento.” She wanted ID… for peanuts… so I fished out my passport and watch her type some details into her register. It may have been a membership deal but I didn’t know and wasn’t really interested. It was amusing and I complied only to get my nuts.

Not far down the road, I hopped on a passing collectivo. A collectivo is like a taxi that waits for a full load before moving off only this was a bus with the word ‘Collectivo’ written down the side.  It stopped about a mile and a half short of Las Lajas but I could see the sanctuary almost straight away from the road, way down below me in the gorge. The road gently descended the mountainside sweeping around the contours which made for an easy walk. A block paved path eventually forked away from the road and quickly got steeper, scaling down the side of the gorge.  I’d lost sight of the sanctuary but the increasing presence of more and more vendors selling nik naks from selfy sticks to plastic virgin marys and religious candles confirmed the route.

Local intel told me there is usually no-one here on a weekday but this was no ordinary week; this was a holiday, a religious one at that. Families milled and sauntered between vendors making progress difficult. They have a knack of walking both slowly and into you at the same time.

I had the usual meander around the attraction, buying nothing but an ice cream and climbed off the path to record a quick Youtube video before making my way to the cable car station I’d happily noticed on my arrival. Teleferico, they call it here. I was hauled high over the deep gorge up the mountain and returned to near where the bus drop-off was, relieving me of the thought of that long high altitude oxygen depleted climb back up the mountain nursed in the back of my mind all the way down.

Flagging down a collectivo outside the teleferico station, I asked for Charco, and with a nod from the driver, sat down and watched the scenery pass by out of the window.

Charco is on the outskirts of Ipiales. It had a mention in Lonely Planet and looked pretty and colourful from a distance with the multicoloured houses stretching up the hillside. But the centre was nothing special apart from restaurants having some kind of rat on a spit over charcoal. It was cuy, later revealed as guinea pig. There wasn’t much else available for lunch here apart for a chicken place around the corner.

Between leaving the spit and arriving at my table, The cuy appeared to have been opened up and hammered flat. Flipping it over revealed kidneys in tact below a rack of ribs and either side of a thin spine. The skin was tough with the texture of leather but the flavour of pork rind. I threw that to a dog and watched it struggle to chew it into small enough pieces to swallow.

Back in Ipiales, restaurants were uninspiring enough to avoid going out, battling with the holiday crowd and I stayed holed up in the hotel for the rest of the day, snacking on peanuts.

Friday was a disappointment as I ventured out. Almost everywhere was closed. reminiscent of how Sunday’s used to be in Britain in the days before commerce steamrollered the laws protecting the Sabbath.  I retreated to the WiFi at the hotel.

Night time was disturbed by lots of drumming and marching in the street and later, boisterous guests disturbed my sleep lumbering along the wooden balcony and unmoderated chatter and laughter.

Saturday, all the shops were open again and, after breakfast, I spent the day writing. Overdoing it to the point of feeling tired and fed up before turning in early.

Sunday, I awoke early due to the noise of early rising guests through paper thin walls and lay in until 7.30. The internet wasn’t working which prompted me up for an early shower and to pack for Quito and beyond. I packed and left the Hotel and headed for the frontier taxis via La Taverna for breakfast but, even though the door was ajar and there was activity in the kitchen, it was not yet open. Too impatient to wait, I decided to postpone breakfast until the bus station at Tulcan, just over the border in Ecuador and strode around the corner toward the frontier taxis.


The Road to Cusco: Bogota

Helping build the cabana was hard work and it was highlighting my lack of fitness. Bending, lifting and climbing was physically draining although regular water intake and mambe helped fuel me for the workday.

Thursday saw the arrival of Vladimir and Daniel. Daniel was experienced in cob building, He arrived just after we had been talking about cobbing the walls. Luis said people magically appeared just as they are needed. What seemed like magic to me seems like hard reality for Luis and Miguel.

Though the work was hard, working with such a group of positive people was fun and fulfilling.

By the time Saturday arrived and there was to be no work to be done, I missed the physical activity and the camaraderie shared in working on a shared project. Tonight was to be an Ayahuasca ceremony held as a farewell to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were ready to move permanently to Nuevos Horizontes.

Miguel asked me if I was drinking [ayahuasca] and I replied that I was in two minds as I didn’t feel the need. He told me that they hadn’t had a ceremony since I was last here and that I happened to have arrived at the right time, so reflecting on my philosophy of following signs and omens I accepted the invitation.

All of us would be staying at La Palmita but I would continue to San Gil the next day to embark on my journey to Cusco, so I packed all my things together with pillow and blanket and took them with me.

It was a long lead up to the ceremony as people arrived at La Palmita throughout the afternoon and into the evening. I gathered some firewood from down by the river. I felt hungry and thought about how close we were to San Gil and its restaurants. Did I really want to feel nauseated throughout a restless night camping out on ayahuasca when I could be tucking into a pizza and some wine followed by a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed?

I felt nothing this session apart from the laxative effects the lasted the following day. I slept a little but felt tired and a little nauseated. I enjoyed spending time with the people around the fire but felt disappointed that there were no messages or revelations. I awoke early but it was after dawn, maybe 7am. All was quiet and I thought everyone had left but discovered people tucked up sleeping all over the place.

It was lunchtime before we were ready to leave and we were all hungry so arranged to make our way to Gringo Mike’s for burritos. I dropped my bags at El Dorado and enjoyed the company of my Finca Family for the last time before heading south again. Tomorrow was to be a bus ride to Bogota with a connection of unknown time to Ipiales.

The food was plentiful and satisfying and we retired to El Dorado. Me for my last night, Bree, Connie and Daniel for a taxi back to Nuevos Horizontas.

I wanted some chocolate to take with me and the local supermarket was closed. Bree told me about the mall and huge supermarket across the bridge I had never seen before. There was no local chocolate but peanuts would keep me energised for the journey.

I awoke before 8am and spent some time online before packing. The plan was to catch an early bus to Bogota for making sure of arriving to open ticket offices there. It was gone lunchtime before I finished online and ready to head to the station. In fact, I thought maybe I could stay at El Dorado just one more night and go in the morning but decided to be proactive and just go. There’s a bus every hour to Bogota and I’d missed the 15:00 by four minutes but a fifty six minute wait isn’t too bad, even though it put the departure at 4pm. It’s six or seven hours to Bogota so it was looking like a midnight arrival.

The bus was late and we set off at 16:40. No use worrying about the connection. Just have to see what happens when we get there. My patience has been tested and been found to be resilient.

The ride was comfortable and not too crowded. It was too early to sleep so maybe a night bus might have been a better decision but then what about the mysterious connecting bus? Shut up, mind, relax and go with the flow.

It was past midnight as we rolled into Bogota Terminal. The arrivals building is long and narrow with vendor’s stalls along one side. On its own, it’s almost as big as some bus stations in the UK except that I knew from my previous visit there was another part somewhere else that was at least the size of Waterloo station. Although it looked like a dead end, zooming in on Google maps revealed the northern end of this part of the terminal turned left down a passageway and joined up to the bustling departure terminal. The passage was like a mall with vendors kiosks lining the edges. Emerging into the hall, most ticket offices appeared manned and cleaning staff were busy ferrying polishing machines up and down the tiled floor, while itinerant travellers lugged their bags between cafes, benches and toilets.

I picked a random Kiosk and asked “Autobus por Ipiales?”
“No, Bolivarteras!” She said pointing to the far end of the terminal. There were three large halls here, all bristling with ticket kiosks.
“Escribe?” I asked, and she wrote out the name and off I wandered to match the text on the paper to the text on the signs.

Bolivarteras was tucked in the corner next to the departure gates annexed to the last hall and there was a lonely looking official enclosed in the kiosk like an attraction at a zoo.
“Uno por Ipiales”
“No hasta las ocho y media.”
“Si, Uno por favor.” trying to make a sign for one-way resembling a nazi salute.

It was now 00:30 and the bus was due at 08:30. ‘This too shall pass’ came to mind and I sat down for an hour until my decreasing body temperature urged me to go and look for a coffee. It was a long night serenaded by cleaning machines and distorted announcements by the various transport companies.

I still nursed the laxative effects of the ayahuasca but fought the urge to visit the toilets at one thousand pesos a throw. I broke out the tablets that Thomas gave me that combats that sort of thing. It might not act that fast but I didn’t want to be vulnerable on the bus either. I managed to only piss away two thousand pesos…

It was a slow sleepless eight hours as I watched the daylight slowly chase the darkness away and crowds gather for the various buses pulling into the bays. The bus to Ipiales was packed and I was behind a family with three young kids. My fingers were crossed for a peaceful journey. I quickly visited the bus toilet, as I was intent on saving another thousand pesos by avoiding the services in the terminal, and then settled in my seat hoping I wouldn’t need to go again looking at the state of it.

Ten hours, according to rometorio.com, and I would be in Ipiales. That’s about 6.30pm. The Senorita to my right helped with the WiFi password as I had no clue what the driver was saying and I logged onto Hostelworld.com to look for hostels in Ipiales: nothing. Booking.com? Success. Hotels but at hostel prices and I booked a room for 5 nights for under a fiver a night. I estimated check-in about 9pm to give me some leeway and I sat back in my seat to while away the hours as the bus pulled out into the peak morning traffic under the low, grey Bogota sky.


La Familia

I’ve been out of the company of good friends for a while so feel like some camaraderie. I like solitude but it can get too much sometimes. “Don’t go for comfort,” Ayahuasca told me. Solitude is often comfortable for me but not long term.

Now that Cartagena was out of the way, what are my options? Well, there is a motorbike for sale in Cusco, Peru. Peru has fewer restrictions on bike ownership than Colombia, so it would be easier to get one in Peru. I like the sound of biking around South America but I also want to return to the UK for the Summer. Where would the bike go in the meantime? Perhaps better postponing that one until Autumn but will I return? These are the ramblings in my mind at the moment. These savings aren’t going to last forever either but my new spiritual wisdom tells me not even to worry about that. Focus on the moment we have now.

The bus pulled out of the terminal at 17:45 with three of us aboard. Bonus, I could stretch out and scatter my laptop and cables across the seat next to me. I awoke in Barranquilla in darkness with crowds of families clambering aboard with flapping blankets and bulging bags. I gathered up my belongings allow space for a man and his rucksack and squeeze myself up against the window. Barranquilla, only 14 hours left to San Gil. I slept as best I could and read my kindle books between times while my knees began to ache with lack of space for movement. WiFi connection was strong to the router but internet wasn’t connected from the bus to the outside world. Read Kindle.

I awoke with my head resting on my shoulder, dribble on my jacket and a neck pain that warned me not to straighten up too quickly. It was daylight and I recognised the valley from the trip before. 7Am, we were just North of Bucaramanga. Gisela lived here, I should have checked whether she was back here or still at La Finca Nuevos Horizantes near San Gil. We get on well despite the language barrier, neither of us speak each other’s language. An opportunity for accelerated learning, perhaps.

The mountain ridge extends from a few hundred feet above sea level to over 6000ft and the smooth ribbon of asphalt winds along the mountainsides along the crest and down the other side. Bus drivers like overtaking, even on apparently blind bends and we power pass straining trucks and lycra clad cyclists pumping stringy legs up the endless inclines. I try not to look out at the sheer drops just over the other sides of the barriers but I’m compelled to check through squinted eyelids.

San Gil is familiar ground to me now and I catch the bus from the terminal into the centre. I needed internet for checking out hostel options so settled for a breakfast burrito at Gringo Mikes. I had been to El Dorado before and the phrase “Don’t go for comfort” echoed around my mind. All the hostel’s looked comfortable. I felt I should go somewhere new but I remembered I was hungry for Familia: community. El Dorado was the meeting point for the La Palmita/Nuevos Horizontes folks I had left behind so settled for that.

I walked in and Melina at the desk said “Paul, you’re back!” with a welcoming smile and I noticed Mitch and Steve catching up on Skype calls. Mitch had returned from the UK only yesterday and we enjoyed a mini-reunion at El Dorado. It was good to be back and absolutely the right choice to come back to El Dorado. It feels like home. Mitch asked if I was going to the farm. “We are drinking Ayahuasca tonight.” No, I didn’t feel the call and, anyway, I was still processing from the last experiences. I’d stay at El Dorado…

I shouldn’t have chocolate or coffee since they are migraine triggers. The coffee here is free and delicious. Bogota, Medellin or Cartegena do not seem to have decent chocolate like San Gil. Santander chocolate is world class and seems to be only available locally. I crossed the square to the minimarket and gave Melina some of my chocolate biscuits on the way back in. She said she had the same room for me, a 3-bed dorm with no other guests. I spread the contents of my bags out onto the neighbouring bunk intending to sort through the dead weight that I no longer needed but then left it until the morning. Last minute, as usual.

It’s warm enough to sleep without covers here so I laid on top of the bed in shorts and Tshirt. When I got up and tidied my things away, the room looked already made up. The laundry was in and I was packed and ready for a ride to La Finca. Mitch was due sometime today.

There was an email from Nikita in Cusco, Peru. He is selling a Yamaha YB125 cheaply since he has completed his South American adventure and ready to go to Africa. Riding around the Andes appeals to me and I investigate the journey to Cusco. Nearly 4000km and 4 days bus journey.

I settled into the hammock with my laptop and waited for Mitch. I had all day to catch up online so it didn’t matter when I was to be picked up.

Later, Luis and Miguel arrived at El Dorado: Sunday is their day off and they kicked back to watch a movie. Miguel told me there was a problem with the car so Mitch wouldn’t be picking me up. “Maybe Tuesday.” I booked another couple of nights at El Dorado and walked next door to Gringo Mike’s for a quiet dinner for one.

Monday. My schedule was clear, which usually invites overwhelm as to do lists start to condense into the empty space. Blogging; what was it going to be like retreading old ground? I thought to myself “If I’m going to become an interesting writer, I need to be doing interesting things to write about.” I emailed Nikita to say I was interested in his bike and I would leave San Gil Monday to travel down to travel down to Cusco by bus. Imagination filled in the uncertain future story with scenes of bandits chasing me through the jungle and landslides washing me off the sides of mountains. Yes, it would be exciting but not in the way my mind paints it.

Tuesday morning and there was a knock on the door. It was 8 am but I was already awake. It was Mitch “Are you ready, we are having breakfast at Betty’s on the corner if you want to join us then we’ll go to the Finca, yeah?” “Yeah.” I got up and dressed and walked down to the cafe on the corner…

We stopped at La Palmita on the way to pick up some things and noticed Michael from New Zealand was there. He was part of my Aloha Ke Akua family and had arrived in San Gil yesterday. Miguel was staying at La Palmita so there was plenty of space for the Finca supplies, Mike and me.

Walking down the track from the entrance, I could see the guys had been busy. there were a number of new structures and the tents were now under cover since the ultraviolet rays cause them to leak after a time in the sun.

Connie was there laid out in the Maloka. She was reacting badly to the Kambo treatment and returned to San Gil with lack of energy and swollen lymph nodes. It seemed like a viral infection but she wasn’t sure. As the days past, her energy returned and she made a steady recovery.

There was steady activity in one of the new structures with new bamboo uprights being erected under a plastic roof. I helped Mitch with some cross members and retired to the Maloka after lunch while it rained. At the end of the day, there were 2 new sturdy bunk beds assembled and ready for guests, not realising that this was for me and Mike.

I felt very grateful but a little guilty that I didn’t put a little more effort into the assembly. All in all, I felt like I was home again.

Over in the trees, I noticed a bamboo framework of a new structure. This was going to be a permanent cabana for guests. This looked like an interesting project and I decided to commit myself to help with the construction while I was here. After all, it would only be three or four days work before I have to leave for Peru…


Medellin: City of Eternal Spring

After the third day of rehydration, I felt strong enough to get moving although the headache was still with me. I ate an early breakfast but then made the mistake of going back to bed. It was approaching 11 when I awoke again. I had made up my mind to go to Medellin.

What’s there? Warm weather, that’s what. I wanted recuperation without the need for insulation. I could call myself a climate tourist now I guess.

Monserrate had been on my itinerary for Bogata for a while but today, I couldn’t be bothered only for a nice view. An extra 1500 ft elevation on top of this headache? No, I can google it later.

I packed my bag and arranged for an Uber ride to the bus terminal. I was out of here. The bus was due at 15.30 and I had no idea how long it would take to get to Medellin. It didn’t matter. I had a couple of hours at the bus station, long enough to down a couple of empanadas and a coke. Surprisingly, my headache had disappeared sometime before the arrival of the bus. Remembering a previous experience on a freezing bus I picked up a fleece blanket from one of the stores in the terminal. I felt better already.

The bus crawled its way through the Bogota traffic and into the countryside. The daylight was fading and we ascended into low cloud shrouding the Andean peaks. It was a grey-green Tolkien-like scene as we wound our way around the contours, westward toward Medellin behind groaning trucks hauling their load uphill or restraining it from running away downhill. The scenery was beautiful. Palm trees in a misty Welsh landscape would be the best way to describe it. I managed to get some sleep between the same old boring Vin Diesel movies dubbed in Spanish.

We arrived at the Medellin terminal shortly after 2am. It was warm enough outside just to bed down on a bench in the terminal for the night but the Cattleya hostel I had booked online during the journey was only a few km away. A cheap Uber trip later found me resting on cool white sheets over a soft bunk.

The proprietor had cheerfully put me in with a British couple that had only just gone out for food (at 3am). It would be a relief for easy conversation without grasping for foreign words and phrases for a change.

My roommates arrived with their takeaways and drinks seemingly less than impressed to find a new companion sharing their space. These Brits turned out to be a pretty glum couple and were not interested in introductions or social interaction and so I drifted off to sleep under the smell of cold pizza and muted youtube soundtracks on iPhones.

There’s nothing special about Brits. Personality has no affiliation to nationality. The cool atmosphere was enough to get me up and out of the hostel as soon as possible. I was up at first light for a good warm shower as it had been a few days since I had either the energy and the pleasure. It was still too early to hit the street so I went back to bed for a bonus nap.

Awaking with the sun shining more insistently through the curtains, I quietly packed my bag and left my slumbering companions with a quiet click of the door latch. The morning was like a perfect Spring day in England, warm and bright with the dappled shade from the trees lining the Colombian avenues and I soon settled on a corner table on the patio of a street cafe a block away.

I was up too late for the breakfast menu so opted for a long brunch of chicken and rice plus a couple of thick Mango juices. I actually felt hungry for the first time in days.

After a short walk, I was at Enso hostel, cheap but roomy with a large common area. It looked like a party hostel but didn’t seem too noisy. Mike was the gregarious proprietor, an ex-construction worker from Britain who had been here 9 years and taken over Enso in the last few months. He pointed to the Metro map painted on the wall and told me about the cable cars and Comuna 13, the site of the bloody “Operation Orion” drug offensive of 2002, basically a two-day war on the streets.

Enso was cheap, in a good location with a free breakfast. The communal area was a bright covered patio area ideal for catching up on my online work.

I already felt better in this climate. I didn’t do much the first few days apart from catch up on some blogging and revive the book I had started after the collapse of my marriage all those years ago. What was ahead of me? Mainly Thomas’s boat move from Martinique to Sardinia. I needed to get there for him next month so it was time to look into sorting that out.

The original agreement with Pantelisa was all flights paid so I contacted Toni to talk about a flight to Martinique. He felt offended I should ask and argued that I had decided to stay in Colombia. Apparently, ‘it doesn’t work like that.’ I guess it works how whoever says it does. An agreement is an agreement. They are either honoured or broken.

It doesn’t matter, I would have done the voyage anyway.

I contacted Thomas to ask what his arrangements were and he told me that work and home commitments now prevented the voyage. So the trip homeward bound was off. Like any unmet expectation, a gaping hole in my schedule had suddenly opened up. What was I going to do now? It is still cold back in the UK so I wouldn’t be going back before the April. There is time to think. Colombia is a cheap place to live while making plans. It would be easy to think “I’m stuck here.” But I’m not really. I simply found myself at a junction in time, with Medellin being not a bad junction to be. “What else is possible?” my friend Greg asks; a trick question since any answer becomes a limitation. That door remains open to see what opportunities roll by.

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ Alice speaks to Cheshire Cat               
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

The world is my oyster and I know not what I want. “Your path is infinitely long and wide,” Ayahuasca had told me “Do what you want.” Good, I’ll hang around the hostel for a few days then. There is no need for haste.

Enso hostel was proving to be annoyingly noisy. Not volume wise but quantity. How can anyone watch a movie and listen to rap at the same time? Hence the move to Samarian.

Samarian is a smaller and quieter hostel and promoted as a digital co-working venue with good WiFi and plenty of workspace. Just what I wanted. While there was a TV no-one used it while I was there and there was no music either. I indulged myself in reading, editing and writing.

Tanya, an attractive, petite and competent Colombian receptionist welcomed me with a smile and functional English. She ran the place almost single-handed every morning, cooked a nice breakfast and made really thick Mango juices. I ate eggs and avocado with Mango juice every morning.

I stayed at Samarian a week. The Atlantic voyage was off which left opportunities for the future but there were a few loose ends in Cartagena: bits and pieces I had left behind that Michael had kindly offered to take care of for me while I was away.These odds and ends were the only reason left for returning and, in hindsight, a mistake to leave behind.

Looking at the Metro map, Caribe station was right next to the bus terminal and Floresta was a short walk from Samarian Hostel. Trip advisor indicated the bus at 20:30 but I thought I’d get there early.

“16:30” said the ticket vendor. It was already 16:15 I boarded straight away. Fifteen hours later I was pulling into Cartagena in the morning rush hour.  The traffic was busy past the bus stop outside the Transport Terminal. Through the noise, I overheard a bus conductor say ‘Manga’ on a passing bus and I hopped on as it crawled by. Pantelisa was moored at Manga. I could find my way to the marina easy enough from there.

Michael was already aboard and Toni arrived a few minutes later Greetings were cordial but I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Pantelisa looked good and had some nice interior restyling. Toni and Michael went about their business while I gathered my things and returned to the bus terminal.

I bought a ticket to San Gil, it will be good to be amongst friends after this period of solitude. Now that these ties to Cartagena were tidied up, I relaxed back into the orange plastic seat at the bus station feeling a new level of freedom.


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Bogota: Fire and Ice

Six days later I check out of El Dorado under £30 for 6 days. If Wiltshire Council hadn’t changed the rules in their favour and started charging Council Tax on empty properties then I could afford to live here almost solely on the income of my flat. As it is, I’m paying off the banks and the government and then bleeding away my savings in order to survive. After a Mango smoothy at the market, £0.65, I flip-flop my way up to the bus terminal and board the luxurious Berlinas bus to Bogota. Power and WiFi means I can liaise with my AirBnB host along the way.

The bus stops at Vado Real, rocking across the shale covered car park leaving a dust cloud in our wake. The passengers start to disembark after the driver says something in Spanish but I stay behind. Later, he beckons for me to move. It seems he is on a break and I absorb some of the sun’s warmth to take back into the airconditioning when we board later.
In the cafe, I spot Mike and Melissa. They are on their way back to San Gil. The small world feels smaller with each chance meeting.
With the driver suitably refuelled, we all clamber back onto the bus. The route to Bogota has views of the towns and countryside only normally seen from aircraft as the bus winds its way through the Andes.

5pm arriving on the outskirts of Bogota, the traffic is slow and the grey clouds low in the sky threatening rain. Only the clouds are not so much low as the city is high, eight and a half thousand feet above sea level.

The rain starts to fall and crowds of motorcyclists dismount under the bridges to don their waterproofs. The dark wet cityscape is reminiscent of cities in the higher latitudes of Europe: Cold, wet and busy.

Two hours later we were pulling into the bus terminal. The rain had stopped and left a sheen on the roads reflecting the city lights in the spaces between the traffic. My taxi driver “No habla Ingles,” and I no Espanol. I’m learning Spanish enough to be able to say “My name is Pablo and this is my grandmother’s horse,” but not much of anything useful. I show him the address on the AirBnB page on my phone. Clicking the link opens Google Maps and message “Address not found.”

I find the location by deleting the word ‘piso’ out of the address and the driver borrows my phone to home in on the marker on the map. He drops me 100 metres past the address and points further down the road. I start to walk the other direction and a barrage of Spanish comes forth which abates when I turn the other way crossing the road saying “Gracias.” I wait round the corner of a bakery until he drives away and resume my original course toward the marker on Google Maps.

My host opens the door and I’m shown to the studio on the 4th floor. It’s self-contained and comfortable but access from the street necessitates ringing the doorbell which puts me off going out. It’s 8pm and hunger takes me out into the street for a Pizza and coke (No cerveza) at the corner bakery I was hiding at less than an hour before and return satiated to settle down for the night.

I’m in Bogota without a plan. Sightseeing is not my thing and I wonder what I should do next…

Awaking at 6am as the airlines resume their departure and arrival at the airport next door, I check the time and nestle under the covers for warmth. It feels like an early spring morning in Britain.

Estefania is picking me up at 10am. This is her mother’s house so I’ll be moving to Estefania’s 12th floor apartment for the following days. Estefania arrives with her husband Edwin and we communicate via Google translate. I suggest that I want to buy a hammock and it is related to me that foreigners get charged top dollar and that we should all go together and negotiate local’s prices.

I don’t like shopping in company and, anyway, I’m not in the mood, so I decline for today and opt for some online work in the apartment while Estefania and Edwin go out for a few hours and I lock myself in as instructed.

The apartment is new and modern. Security is tight which prevents my return into the complex without the company of the hosts, should I wander out. I expected a bit more freedom and independence but the family are friendly and accommodating, which makes up for it.

I settle down and catch up a little on writing but start to feel more tired and cold. Bogota is not known for its warmth, and I snuggled under the blankets.

The next day, I’m not feeling right. Fatigue and a fever. Burning hot above the covers shaking with icy chills under the blankets. The happy medium is balanced on an unattainable knife edge

Estefania brings me some food and a small glass of water. The language barrier is a heavy one. I’d like some more water but the effort to ask is too great and I fall back to sleep instead. Everything stops, I have no energy and spend most of my time sleeping and my AirBnB time slowly dwindles away.

A search of hostelworld brings a nice looking hostel in Usaquen, Rua 116, and Edwin helps me organise an Uber ride. I’m on my way. Yesterday, I felt I was getting better but today, not so much. Even so, It felt better to be up and moving than dissolving in a hot and cold bed.

Rua 116 is in a quiet back street and I sign in at reception: top bunk in a dorm on the top floor. If I have altitude sickness, this won’t help. The stairs are an effort to climb and I pile everything on the bunk and take advantage of my current mobility to go back downstairs and wander around the block. I find a coffee bar on the corner of the main road. This could be a ‘Costa’ or ‘Starbucks’ in any city in the world. I could be in London. I’m cold: the only person wearing shorts and flip-flops. It’s 13C. Normal for Bogota, and I take my Latte upstairs to work out my game plan. I have no energy for shopping or sightseeing. I want to get warm and get some energy but I don’t feel hungry.

Back at the dorm, I burrow beneath the covers and shiver myself warm before falling asleep. Each time I fall asleep, I enter the same dream world, if I dream a particular way, it is shared for those around me. I don’t understand it but the dream and its world feel every bit as real as this waking moment. I awake in the dark drenched in cold sweat, bound in clammy sheets: a dolphin caught in a fishing net.

There has to be a cause for this and Google comes out. Yellow fever, no. Malaria, no. Dengue, no. Trawling through the fear-mongering sites, one needs a tough mental constitution to remain buoyant…

Altitude sickness? Bogota is at 8,600ft elevation, the fourth highest capital city in the world. It shouldn’t be a problem as San Gil is 4,500ft. I never got altitude sickness from Cartegena (sea level) to San Gil (4,500ft). I was already over half way up. No, the symptoms weren’t a match. Dehydration? Although fever wasn’t mentioned, the other symptoms coincided.

I backtracked through my recent movements. AirBnB, I had a few small glasses of water but had always been thirsty for more. The bus from San Gil, no water for six hours. Thirty minute walk to bus station in the sun; I had a mango juice for that.

Eldorado hostel, the water filter broke a few days before leaving and I was drinking the free coffee but not much water. The Kambo session at Nuevos Horizontes. I had plenty of water during but after?… not sure.

The firefighting? I gave up my water bottle for the cause and didn’t see it after that. Perhaps visits to the hose with a glass had been fewer than I expected.

Yes, it was all adding up. A steady decline in water intake over a long period. Perhaps this was the reason for being drawn to Bogota. I had no real interest in the city. The sudden altitude increase bringing my condition to a critical head. Coincidence that I was bedbound directly across the main road from the hospital. Even so, a list of rehydration items was compiled and I shuffled my way to the supermarket near the hostel for: coconut water, sea-salt, bottled water, bananas, yoghurt and strawberries. And sweated my way back to my drying bedding. It may be cool here but things dry out quick; including humans.

I optimistically quaffed and munched my way through my remedies, slowly getting sick of the flavour of yoghurt and coconut water. I felt nauseated but a little better apart from the relentless neuralgic headache that seemed ever present, and appeared immune to paracetamol.

I awake from a hallucinogenic nightmare. There are times I’ve dreamt I’ve died and been relatively happy about it. Not this one. A multicoloured hell and so many things left incomplete. It was becoming light and reality was slowly re-establishing itself in my mind to my relief.

The expected improvement from my rehydration wasn’t forthcoming. I was perhaps feeling slightly worse. My physical strength was quickly deserting my limbs. I lowered myself out of the bunk and made my way down the four flights to breakfast. At reception, I changed my bed to a lower bunk in the same room and asked about calling for a doctor. The receptionist called straight away and told me two hours and $100,000. Wow, this sounded like the states. XE.com told me $100K Colombian was about £25. The doctor was ordered.

The doctor could speak no English but my dorm buddy who was there securing dual citizenship for his one-year-old son thankfully agreed to translate.

I had severe and extreme dehydration plus signs of an early throat infection. Heart and blood pressure were good. I was prescribed some concentrated electrolyte-rich coconut water for three days and a concentrated antiseptic gargle. I was to sip small amounts of this special coconut water every 5 minutes in order to absorb the nutrients. A three-day mission. Each day I poured 10 or 15ml amounts into a small cup and downed them one by one and set a 5 minute timer between each. The bottle was 400ml so it was a three to four hour task. I felt good about that as it kept me focussed and felt I was optimistically on the road to recovery.

Day by day, I felt a little better and strength returned to my limbs. I had to remember to drink water too. The tap water in Bogota is clean enough if a little over chlorinated. By the second night, I felt well enough to go out to dinner but could only manage half the Thai Green Curry. Not cheap by Colombian standards. Still, it was some nutrition and fluids all in one.


El Dorado

Feb 14 Wednesday

7am and I had remembered I had volunteered for Kambo. Why? I didn’t need it for anything in particular. Said it, do it!

Three yoga mats were spread down by the river bank. Graciela was next to me. Three points burned into my arm. “Put your hand up if you are going to faint OK?” I passed out last time, about a third of people do, apparently. “OK,” I nodded.

Greg was playing the guitar, and that with the sound of the river flowing over the rocks was soothing for the soul. Ryan said he was going easy on me OK? OK. Six cups of water were hard to down and that in itself already had me feeling nauseated. My stomach as full of water to the point I felt that drinking any more would come up my throat and leaked out my ears. The Kambo was applied and ten seconds later, I felt my heart beat harder and heat rise in my face. Hands started to tingle. Head swimming. It was a long time before purging. I kept sipping water and then it came. Such a relief, so much easier coming up than going down. I sat for a short time while the effects slowly wore off. I looked across at Graciela, her head was down, she didn’t look back. Greg quietly strummed a calming song as we passed through our experiences. Almost a lament.

After some reflection and a prayer of thanks, I stood and emptied the bucket into the bushes and went for breakfast feeling cleansed, happy and energised. I’m glad I participated, it was easier than last time. I knew what to expect and it truly felt healing. I thanked Greg for the music and he said: “I watched you die, man.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded like a nice compliment.

Steve asked how it went and I said it was good, better than my first time although I nearly passed out. Ryan said “Actually, you did. You were gone for a couple of minutes.” I had no recollection of that but it made sense of what Greg had told me: “I saw you die, man.” Nothing in my memory, dreams or otherwise. It was like two minutes had been cut away and life seamlessly spliced back together so all I experienced was a blink.

After breakfast, we sat around the table in the new Maloka for a final gathering as there were so many of us leaving. Greg gave me a gift of tourmaline quartz, as he was so moved by my Kambo session. I was honoured.

I took a final bath in the river and got my bag ready for leaving for the town
Fabian arrived in his 4×4 to take us to San Gil and we piled our bags onto the bike racks on the roof and rocked and rolled our way down the track into town.

Dropped off outside El Dorado. It was about lunch time so we all walked a few doors up to Gringo Mike’s American style restaurant for a farewell lunch, before Ryan, Rike and Greg left for Aloha Ke Akua.

Living simply out in the countryside with wonderful fresh food is beautiful but eventually, small things become luxuries, like chocolate, cookies and even dry crackers and it’s easy to overdo it landing back into so-called civilisation. And so:, onion rings, veggie burger, fries, frappe and 70% chocolate brownie was scoffed to the point of nausea.

The next few days, people I knew came and went while I caught up on some writing. El Dorado is a hub that our little community seems to use as a meeting point while in town. I like it like that. Quiet enough for space for myself with healthy amounts of social contact. El Dorado is only about twenty metres from the central Parque Principal of San Gil but the street is relatively quiet.

Out in the park, families mingle and children play. Police are on the streets but they are there quietly watching their community rather than for issuing fines and penalties and generally milking the public. there’s a safer feeling here than back in the UK. The people appearing more friendly and generally happier.

Mika joins my dorm. It turns out he knows Mike and Melissa and is aware of some of the places I’ve experienced lately. As large as Colombia is, it’s a small world.

Stepan is from the Czech Republic and has lived in Colombia for three of four years. Paul my tocaya (namesake) from Chicago arrives and the three of us enjoy some time around the Mambe table. A mambe circle is a sacred and special gathering. It’s what going down the pub promises to be and fails at.

Ambil is a tobacco paste and we honour its spirit, the spirit of grandfather tobacco before taking it. Ambil is masculine and gives clarity of thought. Mambe is feminine. Ground Coca leaf and brings sweetness of words. The combination brings respectful communication in both speaking and listening.
It didn’t taste great at first, but then again, neither did beer.

The next day at 10.30 Stepan takes me to his studio on the back of his bike and treats me to a Shiatsu massage. The suite in his villa looks out into the Santander hills and the sound of birds and crickets sweeten the warm mountain air. The massage is unusual in that some preparation in cleansing the energy is attended to first and I take some rapê to relax the mind.

The process is holistic and attends to mind, body and spirit. At the end of the session, I fell asleep on the mat. It’s hard to tell how long I was there for but I was ready for lunch when I got back and headed to La Balcon for a Pizza.

Connie joins me at El Dorado later. Connie is German but sounds South African because she lived in Botswana for years. She is an inspiration and on an intensive Kambo treatment. She was a powerhouse at the farm carrying 5 metre long bamboo poles down the mountain down to the camp, inspiring us guys to try and keep up, making short work of the stack of 200 or so.

Connie suggested a great Pizza restaurant around the corner for dinner together. I didn’t mention I had already had one for lunch but just said “That sounds good.”

I’d not had pear and blue cheese on a pizza before but it was really rather tasty. I was surprised to find the proprietor and the man sitting behind me was communicating in German, adding to the many German speakers I had been encountering so far from Europe.

I could have been speaking German by now if I wasn’t working so hard on Spanish. I find learning another language difficult. English is bad enough. Bree, at La Finca Neuvo Horizontes, gave a grammar lesson which helped make sense of the verbs. Why have 5 different words where one would do, and why do words have a gender? It’s going to be a long haul with a language that has the same word to mean either Pope or potato.

Any comments, feedback or suggestions are gratefully received. Please add one using the comments link below.


Scorched Earth

Feb 11th Sunday.

Day of rest. In the morning, we could see isolated plumes of smoke rising out of the treeline above us. Small fires that looked like evidence of campfires rather than a broad forest fire. We took shovels and water up the track to the ridgeline and made our way into the forest. The brush beneath the trees was black and charred along fifty percent of the forest floor with pine trunks charred up to two metres high but the trees had resisted catching fire.

My foot slipped and my left flip flop broke. I was bare-foot with pickaxe and water container. The charred floor was cool underfoot except where the sun penetrated the canopy. My built-in sensors for detecting underground fire. We spotted a few small plumes on top of the ridge and doused them with water. As small as they were, the heat was intense and the charred roots and branches hissed and steamed a long time during their dousing taking surprising amounts of water. The bigger plumes were down the steep sides of the mountain. Peter had already set off down the side to find the source of the biggest plume and various people went to help.

I continued to where the black ground seemed to end abruptly on the ridge and go no further. I’d doused the few smouldering spots I could see and made my way back along the ridge. Luis was now at the top with a dustbin of water. It must have taken some effort to drag that up there. I joined the chain of five men down toward the source where Peter was and passed buckets of water down the line from the bin. Over the next couple of hours, we put out all the fires that we could find and returned back down to the camp.

The view down the valley was apocalyptic and the mood was muted but I was optimistic. The fire had not damaged any of the tents or living area and cleared swathes of land that we were cutting back with strimmers. On top of the soil was a healthy black layer of charcoal. What wasn’t certain was the fate of the trees as the fire spread through the forest floor. To me, it looked like a miraculous event: a purification, a reflection of my internal purification of yesterday’s Temazcal. A clearing for new growth. A fresh start. A rebirth

Peter had turned the original charcoal pit into a pond by putting a spring water hose into it and we gathered some of the smouldering logs around the orchard and dumped them hissing into the pool.

The rest of the day we watched the hillsides for signs of fire and Joni, an energetic young Colombian, raced up the ridge with water and machete to deal with any we discovered.

We had done as much as we could do. The day was hot and dry and we were lucky that the wind was light enough not to breathe life into any embers that might still be smouldering up the hillside.

Luis left to go on holiday to Ecuador and it was left to those of us that remained to pray for rain. I took my scepticism to bed to listen to the guitars drum and singing which lulled me to sleep. I don’t know what time the rain woke me but through the snare-rattle of the rain on the yurt roof, I could hear cheering and singing as those that were still up were celebrating the steam rising out of the woods as the rain was quenching the remaining embers of the fire.

Coincidence? There were too many happening since my odyssey from Turkey to Colombia and the spiritual path I was now exploring. And does it really matter what you call them? Since the retreat at Aloha Ke Akua, I was being constantly exposed to miracles in life that I previously had closed eyes to. Shown how ungrateful I had been in the past and how I’d taken for granted all that I gained and lost throughout my life. Clung on, far too long, to assumptions and judgements that no longer served me. Now I was happier observing and witnessing what was happening in the moment. There was far more value for me, now, in observation and acceptance than assumption and judgement.

Feb 12th Mon At breakfast, there was no more evidence of smoke or fire but half the hillside looked like it was now entering Autumn with the leaves turning brown. It looked as if some of the trees were not going to survive the blaze. I didn’t really know if they would or not.

Miguel arrived and didn’t speak much about the fire. What could we do about it anyway? We had practical issues to attend to like moving 200 bamboo poles down the slope from the top of the ridge to the new Maloka that was being built next to the kitchen.

Connie is a slight woman of 59 who went about it with gusto. She was here for the Kambo for treating a serious health issue. She was already off her medication and a good way through several Kambo ceremonies and up and down the hill hauling 5 metre, 15cm diameter poles on her shoulder. She and Graciela who were pulling poles out of the hut and dragging them to the steepest part of the track like a freight train were showing us up. I made a bridle for tying two poles to drag down the hill after bruising my sides by wedging the poles under my arms the first dozen trips. The bridle worked well and it was easy to transport two at a time without damage to me or the poles.

The shale and gravel were sharp under my bare feet and as the sun rose high in the sky, the blackened earth began to burn my soles and I surrendered to the kitchen and the river with the thought of finishing off tomorrow as we had already brought down at least half of them.

After lunch, the clouds sheltered us from the sun and the ground cooled down. Connie was back up the mountain track again, bringing poles down making us look bad so I padded my sore feet up the gravel track to help finish off the job with the help and inspiration of Steve, a young fitness fanatic. I was out of my league, fitness wise, but I discovered a secret weapon from the family here: Mambe and Coca leaves. That gave me a turbo boost and the initial fatigue I had felt in the morning had disappeared by the afternoon. It didn’t do much for my bruised sides and sore feet but the job was now done. This freed up tomorrow for whatever else.

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Fire and Water: Temazcal

Feb 10th Saturday

On the outskirts of Baricharra, Jorge has a Temazcal a Sweat Lodge in his Garden: a bamboo framed tent about four or five metres diameter and a metre high. I planned to sit in my briefs since I lost my swim shorts somewhere between Santa Marta and Aloha Ke Akua but the dress code demanded shorts so I emptied the pockets of the canvas shorts I was wearing and removed my Tshirt. I was ready

Our community from La Finca Nuevos Horizontes sits in two concentric circles around a fire pit. The pit is loaded with volcanic rocks that glow orange in the dark. Herbs and plants are scattered upon them and fill the space with thin smoke and thick, sacred aromas. The door is closed and water is splashed over the rocks and the moist heat builds rapidly. I feel claustrophobic as the hot humidity closes in upon me in the blackness of the lodge, and sense panic rising within. I have the urge to escape but I choke it down with reason: for fear of looking bad.

I had been in saunas before bit I’d never attended a sweat lodge. these are not the same. There is no ceremony to a sauna and you can move about and leave when you want, and there is light. In a Temazcal, you are there for the duration of the ceremony…

How long would I be trapped in this oppressive heat and darkness? I trust that I am safe amongst friends and resolve to endure it as long as necessary. Part of the ceremony is to introduce your self and your parents out loud and state your intention. My intention followed on from the recent Ayahuasca experiences: to maintain connection to the great spirit and gratitude to the ancestors. 4 songs are sung one after another to the beat of a drum. The sweat drips down my bowed forehead off the end of my nose onto my thighs. My canvas shorts are already soaking from the rivulets rolling down my torso. The earthen floor feels cool and it’s tempting to lay down. The songs finish and the door is thankfully opened and I blink in the light and gasp at the cool air that drifts to meet my skin.

More rocks are introduced and we are again consumed by darkness and more heat but the initial fear has now melted away into the darkness, the lodge is representative of the womb of our mothers. The thought makes the experience less uncomfortable and something to welcome. More songs, the heat consumes me. When the door is opened, I relent and lie on the floor next to my companeros. The cover is lifted at the back of the lodge to let a breeze through. It feels so good, even though lying down feels like succumbing to a weakness. We resume our positions when the third set of rocks are introduced. More plants smoulder on the rocks and fill the lodge with wild fragrances.

Mitchell seems to be struggling with the heat and moves away from the rocks pushing me against the wall. I feel OK in myself now, engaging more in the process,  and at the start of the fourth round, I exchange places and move into his space in the inner circle. There is heat here radiated off the stones as well as the steamy convection circulating around the lodge. I face the stones resolved to keep focussed on my intention knowing that this opportunity will soon pass. I’m here now and, whatever I do, I will emerge from the lodge whenever the ceremony is complete in time – I may as well give it my all.

The fourth session completes more quickly than expected and we emerge into the Colombian breeze drenched and muddy. Edward, the young 18-year-old from the UK had been laying down and looked as if he’d just been dug out of a potato patch: King Edward.

Whatever my preconceptions were of the sweat lodge, I emerged filled with peace and gratitude. This was more than a ceremonial sauna, it was a spiritual rite and I felt even more bonded to this community, La Familia… I took a shower and washed the mud off my canvas shorts and hung them up in the breeze as long as possible, and wandered around in my t-shirt and underwear, while eating fresh pineapple and Strawberries, before experience the chill of putting damp canvas shorts back on. They aren’t cold for long. Things dry fast in this part of the world.

There are strangers in the headlamps as we approach the entrance to the farm in the valley below. There is an exchange in Spanish between Luis and the stranger. There has been a fire. It’s dark and we cannot yet see the extent of it. Below the mountain track down to the camp, I see the glow of what looks like a charcoal fire but it’s not in the location of the charcoal pit that Peter had been using down by the river.

The air smelt burnt but cool. When we reach the kitchen, we can see little damage to the camp but the surrounding brush is thinned and blackened and two or three isolated fires can be seen flickering in the trees up in the mountain near the pines at the top of the ridge. There is not much we can do in the darkness. Peter is distraught.

His charcoal burning was the source of the blaze which caught the tinder-dry grass not far from the charcoal pit. There had been no rain for over a month; this was the dry season. Luis lit a cigar and prayed for rain to come before the cigar was finished. I was Skeptical, as usual, even after all the spiritual ceremonies I had immersed myself in. Before the cigar was finished, it started to rain. Coincidence? The timing was immaculate but admittedly the rainfall wasn’t heavy enough to douse the fires. We went to bed trusting all would be OK. Although the power of Peter’s remorse kept him up and checking the mountains in the night.

Odd! We are all away for a day to be purified using fire and water and returned to a purification of another kind on the land. What was there to be concerned about?

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Ayahuasca: Nuevos Horizontes

Feb 8th Ayahuasca 3

It was a late start and, despite earlier discussion, the clearing for the Maloka was ignored as the venue for this Ayahuasca ceremony and we huddled around the fire normally used for cooking next to the kitchen. There felt more of a chill in the air this evening and I edged my chair closer to the fire. Everyone is quiet with an introspective look in their faces as they glow orange from the flickering flames in the night.

It seemed like hours before we were called to the altar although I didn’t mind. Sitting around the fire in a silent group has its own mystical power.

The cup was small and the flavour more pleasant than I remembered. The flavour is irrelevant, this is sacred medicine. I returned to my chair and felt my body starting to cool despite the heat of the fire. I went to the tent to fetch a blanket to wrap myself against the evening chill. It took a while for the medicine to kick in and I felt almost drunk. The earth beneath my feet and the coals within the fire took on geometric shapes and the flames flickered blue, green and yellow.

I remembered I should ask questions that I wanted answers to. Once again I asked, “What is my path?” The answer came as a feeling and a thought: “This is it. You are on it here and now. The path is infinitely wide and infinitely long. What you are looking for is a limitation…” This reminded me of what Miguel and Luis told me before the first ceremony. “You are already on my path, let happiness be your guide.” I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. I wanted that ‘limitation’ for giving me a direction. Without it, I was a ship on an infinite sea without a compass, but I felt liberated by what was revealed. This answer told me that my ship had a rudder and I could steer anywhere I wanted. I needed better questions for getting specific answers but I had not prepared well enough.

I had no more questions but felt relatively content and accepted the moment as it presented itself. I relaxed into the experienced and felt great warmth for those around me, this community of courageous souls, this family. Keely was to my left, still and silent in a chair enveloped in blankets. She was like a temple with doors closed, I couldn’t tell what was going on inside. Rosalie laid down on the floor beside me, her fingers caressing the soil. She reminded me of Deb and I felt Deb’s spirit was around me. I was not alone and experienced great peace and tranquillity. I felt I was no longer there for me. I was there to share this space with others and I watched these souls as they moved through their own experiences, prepared to help but not to interfere. I experienced very little nausea this time and did not need to purge or feel a need for a second cup. This night was easy on me.

The moon rose over the mountains to the east judging the crescent of the moon, the sun not far behind. and as the guitars came out, I went to bed, sung to sleep by the voices around the fire.

Feb 9th Ayahuasca 4

The day after an Ayahuasca ceremony feels different to a normal day. There remains a spiritual connection and I’m fascinated by other people’s experiences. I found out that Rosalie had missed the first two ceremonies at Aloha Ke Akua and that last night was her first. It was really none of my business but I was glad she had had a good experience.

The remainder of the day was fairly restful. I spent some time down by the river and thought about some questions to take to tonight’s ceremony. I slept a little in the afternoon. A fire was lit in the new clearing for the Maloka and people had already arranged their mats for sleeping outside. I claimed a chair near the fire and brought a blanket even though it didn’t seem as cold as last night.

On the opposite side of the fire, 5 people sat cross-legged on yoga mats. We were silent, faces reflecting the glow of the fire. I had forgotten my notebook but remembered most of the questions I had written down so decided to leave the notebook in the tent. Keely was to my right and Carlos, a middle-aged Colombian who I had never met before but had arrived that night was to my left wearing distinctive red sandals.

After taking the medicine, I got comfortable in my chair with the blanket wrapped around me. The medicine made me feel cold so I edged toward the fire and wrapped myself tightly in the blanket. I was shivering and I leaned forward to lie on my thighs half curled up wanting to lie down and go to sleep. I was thinking of the questions I had thought up earlier. I looked at my feet and saw Mayan or Aztec style patterns in the soil and faces carved within them and a message came to not go for comfort.

In a dream when I look away and look back, the patterns change. Here when I looked away and looked back, the same faces were still there. These were representations the anscestors; all the souls who had gone before. They told me I had the gift of life. It was mine now and I was the bearer for all that preceded me. I felt both gratitude for that and guilt that I had not been grateful for the gift of life I had been given up until now. Ultimately, my life was up to me I should do whatever I want and listen to my heart and the clues and signals along the way, my intuition.

Then my negative traits were shown to me: judgement and resentment. I felt uncomfortable but the answers to my questions began to come. This must have been a long time because Bryan brought his guitar to the fire and the music started to play. My resentment was highlighted as I wanted the silence to concentrate while the answers to my questions were being delivered. What are my talents? “You are already using them.”

I felt the discomfort and curled up in the chair. “Do not go for comfort” echoed in my mind. I fixed my eyes on Carlos’ red shoes; an anchor in my experience drifting in a sea of discomfort in front of the fire. How can I best serve with joy? “You serve by being joyful, everything else follows.” Carlos sat like a rock, immobile in his chair, feet firmly planted on the ground, the faces of the ancestors continued looking up at me. Immovable stoic stone faces in the earth and in the corner of my vision. Carlos’ red shoes planted into the ground.

How do I find my ideal partner? “She will appear when you are ready, do not be attached to whoever comes…” That used to be an important question for me but had since become a simple curiosity as I came to appreciate myself…  but this answer was a clue to my failed relationships: attachment, to own or belong to… it had been the undoing of my relationships, that and ingratitude.

My biggest lesson of tonight was that of Gratitude for all those that have gone before: people and events; for they truly have given us the world we have now. I don’t really need anything else apart from gratitude, my questions highlighted all my ingratitude that went before. I was done but stayed by the fire wanting peace but thinking I should be enjoying the music.

Eventually, I stood up and made my way across the grass toward the toilet. It seemed like a long hike into the wilderness and I felt happy in the cool night air away from the fire and the music. Again, there was no purging and the medicine stayed inside me. I filled my water bottle at the hose and went to sit in the kitchen in the dark and to experience solitude for a while before going to bed.

I didn’t know what the time was but the moon was not yet up so I guessed earlier than last night. Luis came by and shared a few words, then Bryan came by to pack away his guitar and shared a few words too. Lying in my bed, my mind flickering colourful flames of thought, I cast my mind back to the hours wishing for sleep while bent over in the chair. “Do not go for comfort.” The message had said and I stayed with that all night. And here I was, now comfortable, yet unable to go to sleep.

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New Horizons

Saturday 3rd Feb,

Luis and Miguel organised a ‘minga’ for the weekend; communal work on the new farm, La Finca Nuevos Horizontes, where friends and family gather to help out. I was in and joined a Fabian and Lara in their car to bounce along the mountain track to the farm.

Although the farmland follows a ravine, it is still 1100 metres above sea level which keeps the temperature very moderate. Descending the hillside from the parking area down to the river, we look down on a grove of Banana, orange and Papaya trees and further up parallel to the river to the encampment.

Apart from the compost toilet, the kitchen is the only structure yet established on the land: a bamboo shelter with a black polythene roof with two tents one side and a yurt and tent the other. Crystal clear mountain spring water flows constantly from a pipe resting on the river bank and is extended to irrigate the bananas, Oranges and papaya. Facilities are basic but it’s all we really need. Nothing else is required. The water needs no filter and tastes cool and sweet straight out of the ground. The flow is persistent and the unfamiliarity of watching the flow looks wasteful but is the epitome of abundance. Nature provides all we need and the water never stops flowing.

The water tastes clean and pure and keeps us energised throughout the day. I take a machete and rake to help mulch the trees with fresh cut grass from around the grove and the cutting activity clearing the overgrown land further up the river bank. My ankles itch despite frequent application of the insect repellent that I’m trying to ration for lasting the weekend.

After lunch, it’s “river time.” The land levels out under some trees near some rapids. The water here is fresh and cool spilling over time-worn boulders singing its song of relaxation to the people lounging in the hammocks in the trees on the bank. It’s a long break after a delicious lunch and I grab an extra 20 guilty minutes sleep in the hammock when everyone resumes work. It was much needed and I took a little more energy to my tasks.

The people here are half my age and twice as energetic. Steve and Mitchell are from the UK. Steve, an ironman enthusiast and Mitchell both attending regular CrossFit sessions in San Gil, as well as physical labour. There are some people from Bucaramanga here too that don’t speak English but we all work together happily

5pm comes and we knock off work retiring to the kitchen shelter.

The tent needs no mosquito net, the bugs that cause the problems are strictly daytime pests and my ankles drive me crazy until I fall asleep.

I’m awake at dawn but lie in until the breakfast bell at 7.30 and resume raking and watering. The sun does little to help dissipate my generated body heat. I drop down to the river bank where there is a flat boulder about 2 metres by 1 where I can strip off and plunge into the river.

I don’t need a towel, the sun and air are warm and dry and I sit on the rock to air dry for a couple of minutes and get dressed. My ankles don’t itch now but the bites were looking angry.

After lunch, it is river time and no more work is done for the rest of the afternoon. We pack up and load up the Jeep to go back to La Palmita. It’s only 12 Km but it takes half an hour as the track is so rough. My right ankle is swollen and painful and I duck out of going back to Nuevos Horizontes the next day.

Sunday, I take to the hammock under the maloka reading Neale Donald Walsh’s “Conversations With God” napping in-between times. I feel a bit guilty for not helping at the farm. The residual effect of decades of work-a-day conditioning even though there is no pressure here to do anything.

My swollen ankle is painful to stand on and needs some respite from the sandflies. I keep it elevated for most of the day.

Monday, the swelling has gone down and the itching is not so bad. It’s a half hour walk to San Gil and I look for an outdoor or camping shop. Nothing! The adventure capital of Colombia does not cater for the adventurer. I return in my flip flops with insect repellent instead of hiking boots and socks.

After a day in a hammock at La Palmita, I was back at La Finca, legs sprayed up with deet. It was quiet and there is no pressure to work but still, a lifetime of ‘employment’ conditioning to look busy when the boss was about is hard to shrug off and my mind lugs my tired body over the land.

Feb 7th, More people arrive now, mostly from the Aloha Ke Akua retreat a week or two back. and we clear a square for the new maloka, Many hands make light work and within an hour or two, a square is cleared…

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