Colombian Storms and Worldly Sunsets by Daniel Goncalves

Travel Essay: I woke up in our bungalow just before the sunrise, the hazy purple glow beginning to shed light on the vast green leaves of the Colombian mountain jungle.  I looked over at Heather, her eyes were half open.  I looked away and said “Oh, good morning.  You watching me sleep, ya creep?”  She didn’t respond.  I looked back and got closer to her eyes to see that they were rapidly darting around, almost in mechanical motions.  She was in R.E.M. sleep, I guessed.  It was fascinating, yet also a bit scary.

I lay awake, thinking about the malnourished child who had taken the scraps off of Heather’s plate last night, and about the man in Cartagena last week who was trying to build a home out of rusted metal sheets and old rotted wood.  I had seen poverty, I lived in Harlem.  Hell, for a while, I lived in what we called “poverty”.  But project buildings and cockroach infested bathrooms seemed like a luxury suite compared to some of the living conditions I had seen here.

The sky turned brighter until it was a hazy baby blue. Heather woke and kissed me good morning. We listened to the screeching of the bugs as they welcomed the morning sun and the new day it birthed.  There was a big bug, probably some sort of spider, hanging by the curtains of the bungalow.  Once it left we got up and got dressed.  I asked for her contact solution, went out of the bungalow and up the dirt path to the main building of the Casa Loma Hostel, where the bathroom was, to wash my face and put my single contact lens in.  Around the main building were several people, I nodded to them, but we didn’t speak, for we didn’t know what languages the other might even know. I came back to see Heather applying eye drops.  “Your eyes itchy?”

“My contacts are dry.”

“You slept in them?”

“Obviously!  You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to be half blind around all these bugs,” she said.

I slid my phone and pocket knife into my pockets.  We ate breakfast at the hostel; scrambled eggs and arepas, while planning out our day. Locals and tourists alike had recommended Pozo Azul, a waterfall in the area.   I wrote down directions from the hostel guide in my journal.  We finished our breakfast and coffee, staring out into the bright and sunny day over the mountains.  I packed my backpack with essentials; wallets, water, a towel, portable phone charge, mini-first-aid kit, my journal, and a pen.  We walked down the long, steep, narrow path composed of stone cut into steps to the main street of the tiny village of Minca, up the rest of the short street, and turned right at an intersection (none of the roads had any signs, lights, or in most cases, even asphalt) and began the steep ascension up the dirt road through the thick jungle.  It was sunny at first, but then thick clouds blew in and shielded us from the intense sun.

We walked past the landmarks that were written in my journal; a hostel, a restaurant, and another hostel.  Now we were looking for a “path that veers to the left and over a bridge,” as the directions had said.  Motorcycle-taxis passed us every few minutes, with passengers riding on the back, their arms wrapped around their Colombian chauffeurs.  We were deep in the nature now, surrounded by trees with roots as thick as cars and branches as long as roads.  At a bend in the path there appeared three restaurants and a few hostels, and an old woman selling things out of her minivan.  All of them looked like an infectious scar in the middle of the rugged jungle wilderness.  We thought the waterfalls must be close, only a bit further up the mountain.  We ascended, looking for the “path that veers to the left and over a bridge”.  Two dogs left the crowded bend and joined us.  One was a short black and brown female, the other a tall, long-haired black male.  They were good companions, happy and energetic.  The female kept jumping into high grass and rolling around in it, which made Heather giggle.  We came to a dirt path that veered to the left and took it for about fifty paces, but a large iron gate blocked it off with signs claiming it to be private property, so we returned to the main dirt road, where the dogs were patiently waiting for us, and continued on up.

“Do you think we passed it?” I asked, after what felt like much too long.

Just then a group of locals came into view, walking the opposite direction of us, wearing bathing suits.  “I don’t think so; those people must be coming from the Pozo Azul.”  So, we continued up the mountain for another forty-five minutes.  We were near the top of it now, and all around at eye-level were the peaks of other mountains, and the dark gray sky hanging low.  My shirt was off and tied around my pack straps because I had been sweating so much.  As we looked to the gray sky it warned us with a distant rumble of thunder.  Then, all at once, the sky opened and released an ocean of rain onto us.  Lightening flashed across the sky followed by the low grumbling thunder of Zeus’s laughter rolling through the mountains.

I waved my hands at a truck driving up behind us.  He rolled down his window.  “Pozo Azul es circa de aqui?” I yelled over the rain pelting the roof of his truck.

Pozo Azul?  No no no amigo, Pozo Azul es muy abajo,” he said, pointing back down the mountain.

“Son of a bitch,” I said under my breath.  I thanked the man and turned around. Back down the mountain. “Some companions you are,” I called to the dogs.  “You couldn’t tell us we were going the wrong way?”  They looked up at me dumbly, with tails wagging and tongues hanging out, not bothered at all by the chaos of the storm.  I felt a tingling as my hair rose and a lightning bolt struck a tree no more than twenty feet away from us, the crack of thunder rattled my rib cage and sent me to the sky as Heather screamed.  “Calm down,” I yelled as I landed back on my feet, trying to hide how startled I was.  We walked a little faster down, and after a while the sky had cleared, the storm had stopped, and we were back at the bend with all of the restaurants and hostels and the woman selling food and coffee out of her van.   The dogs left us, disappearing into one of the buildings.  There was a path that motorcycles were going down, so we asked someone if that was the way towards Pozo Azul, and they said it was. It did not match the description of the hostel’s directions.

So, we hiked down the path, thinking we must be close now. The path was winding, it rose and fell like crests of waves through the muddy ground.  Hordes of moto-taxis ripped past us, unapologetically spraying us with mud as their wheels spun.  Then, finally, the path descended into an opening of a natural pool of water coming from a short waterfall.  A mixture of relief and confusion came with the view.  It was much smaller than the pictures had made it seem, but it was a waterfall no less, and our joiurney had not been in vane.  Across the natural pool was a muddy slope of a path that looked like it led higher, to the other side of the waterfall, which someone at the hostel said was more secluded and prettier than this one.

Heather and I took off our shoes and socks and crossed the pool, where a large family of Colombians was bathing in the waterfall, then put our shoes back on and ascended the slippery slope.  My legs were like weary stones after days of travelling, and the weight of the backpack strapped to my shoulders nearly dragged me down when the mud slipped beneath my shoe, but I swung my arm and luckily grabbed a sturdy, thin, tree for support.  I then grabbed Heather’s hand to pull her up. We went across a little path which opened to a smaller pool with a wider waterfall and smooth, red rocks everywhere.  The jungle canopied around us with its lively vines, leaves, and branches.  We took our shoes socks off again, undressed, and submerged in the water.  It was ice cold from the snowy caps of the distant mountains.  The chilling water was refreshing to my sore body, the frigidness nearly instantly reducing the inflammation in my muscles, and cooled my sweaty skin.  Once it got too cold to manage, we pulled ourselves out, put our shoes back on, dried ourselves with the towel in my backpack, and went back up the trail.

We walked mostly in silence until we got to the crowded bend. I bought an empanada and a brownie from the lady selling things out of her minivan.  Then we took the long walk back down the wide dirt road, to the downtown area of Minca, past the church and up those rock steps of the mountain to Casa Loma Hostel.  Each of us took much needed ice-cold showers (the hostel drew its water from the same mountains as the waterfall) and sat our weary selves in the main area of the hostel to write and draw.

Right before sunset everybody in the hostel came out of their huts, hammocks, and rooms to the main area and we all stood at the edge of the grounds watching the sun descend to a mountain peak on the horizon, as the Santa Marta city lights in the distance began to flicker on and the far-away sliver of ocean disappeared slowly into misty darkness.  The sky was fiery with orange and pink hues I had never seen in a sky, and the sun was an angry red as it settled into a perfectly round notch in the mountain before ducking behind the tree line and taking with it the last bright light as if it were it’s final breath before submerging under the Earth.  I held Heather from behind with my chin rested on the top of her head as we watched, and over a score of people from dozens of different countries all watched that same beautiful, life-giving sun take it’s nightly rest.  For a moment I forgot about the soreness in my bones, the weariness of my mind, I even forgot about the kids asking for scraps of food in the street, and the man trying to build a shanty home for his family, and my cousin getting shot at in the middle east, and the billions of people all over the world arguing over the same things in different languages, and the fact that many of those arguments were the fuel for wars likely being fought between the home countries of various people in this very hostel.  In that moment, there was no such thing as those invisible borders we called countries, and there were no words in any language to describe the feeling of this sunset.  We were all in our most natural state; just a tribe of hairless ape-descendants staring in awe at the natural phenomena of our world, and all we could do was smile at each other in some ambiguous understanding of it all.

BIO: Daniel Goncalves is a young writer who wrote this account of a day he spent in the beautiful country of Colombia.

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