To hitchhike in Colombia wasn’t exactly on my to-do list, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I was about to experience a sickness that would keep me bedridden for the next 2 days, but I didn’t know that, yet. Exhaustion was taking over and carrying my backpack for another half n hour was the last thing I wanted to do. My energy was drained, the heat was unbearable and I hadn’t had a drop of water in over 2 hours. In order to exit Tayrona National Park, I still had a long way to go.
Get to the bus, just half n hour more, I kept telling myself. The sun had already dropped beneath the trees and I was left with the infrequent lighting of cars passing by and the company of thirsty mosquitos. It was an evening for thirst.
Just half n hour more, walk faster. No, save your energy, I battled with myself.
Up ahead I saw what I dreaded most: a hill. Not a very big one, but my last meal was breakfast, it was 80 degree heat and humidity, I had already hiked 4 hours and I hadn’t had a drop of water in 2 of those hours. My health was diminishing.
The Only Solution: Hitchhike
Shuttle buses passed by as a cruel reminder that I should have gone to the shuttle bus pick up station rather than believing in my ability to walk. Pain weighed on my shoulders and my feet, so in desperation, I did the one thing I knew how to do with the hopes that the shuttle driver would take pity on me: I stuck my hand out.
Hitchhiking with a thumb isn’t familiar in other countries. Many seem to think I’m giving the thumbs up: Good job on your driving skills! Thanks for not hitting me as you pass. Instead, a limp hand held out, palm face down, indicates the need to warn a driver. It’s often used in place of turn signals and immediately communicates to a driver to pay attention.
Several shuttle buses passed me by, and that godforsaken hill grew closer. Eventually, I would have to climb it, no point in wasting time avoiding it.
Another pair of headlights approached me and I held my hand out again.
A car pulled up next to me and the driver asked, “Are you looking for a ride to the exit?” Jesus exists and his name is Juan Pablo. He had two companions, Paula and David, both a bit shyer than their driver, but invited me into the car all the same. The drive to the exit was another 15 minutes but the car was silent, everyone exhausted from the physical traumas of Tayrona National Park.
When we reached the exit I was ready to say goodbye to my saviors and catch the bus to Santa Marta, and then finally to Taganga, but Jesus and his two disciples were discussing something in Colombian. Yes, Colombian, because only Colombians speak with a rapidity to be almost incomprehensible. Juan Pablo turned around and said in perfect English, “We are going to Santa Marta, too. If you want, we can take you there and then you can take a bus to Taganga.” I silently reminded myself to go to church when I got back home.
Not So Lucky Afterall
The drive to Santa Marta was one hour. Getting to know my new companions was useless. Their eyes tried to stay open, and their heads jolted forward as they tried to avoid falling asleep.
Soon, I woke to Juan Pablo stopping the car and the three Colombians discussing something rapidly again.
“So we are not going to go to Santa Marta,” he explains, “Instead we are going through Cienaga. We can drop you off there and you can take a taxi if you like, or do you prefer bus?”
“I just don’t know where the bus in Cienaga is,” I said, my doubts about the church coming back. We were stopped in the middle of what looked like a highway, no city in sight, just traffic and the glares of headlights all around us.
“Ok, we will take you to the bus station. We don’t know either, but we will try to help.”
A Fifth Passenger Joins Us
They pulled up to a random shop on the side of the road and yelled out the window in Spanish, “Where is the bus to get to Taganga?”
The man that ran the shop came up to the window and tried to explain, but second-guessed his own explanation and turned to another man on the corner, “Hey! How do you get to Taganga?”
The new man was an old man who shuffled up to the window. He straddled his bicycle and with confidence said, “Yes, yes! I know how to get to Tanganga! It’s over there, the bus is over the bridge, just a little walk.” I looked back. In the pitch dark, it didn’t look like a little walk.
My driver asked him if it was safe because only one person will be going by themselves. “Yes, yes, very safe, you can walk,” the old man encouraged. “If you want, I can walk you. I can go with you.”
Juan Pablo turned to look at me, his face full of doubt. I couldn’t see the old man’s face and his accent was heavy, which made me doubt the situation myself.
“Who is going? I will walk with them,” the old man repeated.
“It’s her, in the back. Just give us the directions and we can drive there,” Juan Pablo repeated, sounding doubtful. The old man had given the directions again, but no one understood and we all sat helpless.
Suddenly, the man started speaking rapidly and everyone in the car had a laugh. The old man walked away with his bike, handed it to the nearest man, and then opened the car door to join Paula and me in the back.
“I will show you, let’s go,” he said. “Back up.” We were on the side of a highway, even Juan Pablo was unsure of these instructions. “Back up!” The old man repeated himself. Juan Pablo backed up, keeping close to the shops, weaving between telephone poles. “Keep going, keep going, keep going. Ok, now do you see that opening? Go that way!” Juan Pablo put the car in drive and cut across the highway for a small opening to the other side, going back the way we had originally come from.
Trusting My Gut
We followed the highway down a bit, the old man pointing out to us all the buses that we had to look out for. Five minutes into the drive he had us pull over on the side of the highway again, where four burly men sat with their motorcycles, deep in conversation.
“Ok, now we wait.”
My driver’s final destination was Cartagena, a four hour drive away, but they wouldn’t leave me, “We want to make sure you’re safe, first.” I glanced over at the men on motorcycles. They paid me no attention.
I stood outside with the old man, suffocating in the air pollution. Cars drove passed us, other buses drove passed us, but none of them were the right ones.
Paula got out of the car to stand with me and the old man, a nice gesture to ensure my safety, but I started to have doubts. My trust began to shift toward the old man, and suspect the car that I had ridden in. I could feel Paula shifting her weight impatiently as I squinted at the highway. She walked back to the car and I was left with the old man again. He continued to point out every bus that passed, “See, it looks like that bus, but that’s not it. Just wait. It will come.”
Paula came back after a couple of minutes and said to me in broken English, “We don’t know when the bus will come”– The old man had turned around at Paula’s voice– “We think you should take one of these motorcycles”– The old man roughly shook his head– “People do it all the time, and it will only cost you 10,000 pesos. It will be faster than a bus.” I glanced over Paula’s shoulders. The four burly motorcyclists had approached us.
“You’re going to Taganga? Where in Taganga? One of us can take you,” the largest one said. They looked more like a motorcycle gang than a form of transportation. It wasn’t so much the information that Colombians use taxi motorcycles as a form of transport that I had doubts about so much as the fact that four large men surrounded me and they all could squish me with their pinky finger.
The old man continued to shake his head. “No,” he spoke for me, “The bus is going to come. Just wait.” I looked at Paula to indicate that I preferred to wait for the bus. Her shoulders slumped and she walked back to the car.
What We'd All Been Waiting For
Juan Pablo got out of the car next and I told him again that he didn’t have to wait, that I appreciated the ride. “No, no, we will wait for you,” he smiled.
When the bus came, I had never read a more beautiful word on a bus: “Taganga” in big white letters. “There it is! That’s the bus!” the old man exclaimed. He continued to speak Spanish, gloating of his directions and trust in waiting.
The bus stopped a few yards away to pick up another passenger so I quickly hugged and thanked everyone and ran for it, afraid it would leave without me. Then, with the strength of a parent who grabs their 2 year old running into traffic, the old man grabbed my upper arm and swung me back, “The bus is coming,” he said sternly, “Wait.” I giggled just like a child being swung by their parent.
Everyone was laughing at how easily the old man had pulled me back, and I smiled at how childish I probably appeared. As I boarded the bus, the motorcyclists, the passengers of the car, and the old man all watched me, a foreigner that stumbles around the world guided only by living angels and guardians.