Portrait of a bad day

20 Mar

Pereira, Colombia
[by Paula]

Life on the road has so many advantages it’s hard to know how to begin to quantify it. I don’t think we need to explain, any more than we have, how it feels to be free – at least for this chapter of our lives.

But despite all the obvious privileges, when you are travelling there is no reason to presume you can escape having a bad day sometimes. You know, those days that come along specifically to be utterly, unambiguously, shit. There’s just no getting away from it, and any traveller that tells you otherwise might just be fibbing a little.

We had one of those recently, and it went something like this. (*all times are approximate)

Camping spot, near Honda

Nice spot. There’s just one flaw….

4pm: We are en route to the town of Honda, between Bogotá and Manizales. We’re pleased to have left Bogotá behind and, after a brief stop at the mechanic as we left the city, are reassured(ish) that we have no major mechanical issues to worry about. Before Honda we come upon a road block – unbeknown to us this section of the main route across country is currently closed every day from 11am til 6pm. Not wanting to drive after dark we turned back and find a good camp spot a few miles back. The owner asks us to camp in a spot with a great view over the mountains, but it’s down in a bit of a dip.

10pm: The rain comes on with gusto. It rains and rains, all night. Jeremy has half-awake concerns about whether we will wake up in a quagmire.

7am: We wake up in a quagmire.

8am: As we try to exit the campspot the van creates a nice deep sticky trench for itself and sinks into the mud. The owner and his wife try to help push us out, and we make several attempt to get some grip under the tyres with rocks and our levelling blocks. It’s still raining – everything and everyone is caked in mud. The main thing is, we have to get out of there soon so we can drive the section of road that will close at 11am for seven hours.

9am: The owner calls a neighbour with a truck to haul us out.

Stuck in the mud


10am: After 5 rope-snapping attempts, we are still well and truly stuck.

10.20am: New rope found. Finally freed! I’m sliding the van all over the place as the truck drags us out of the dip, with Jeremy et al pushing from behind. “That looked like fun!” said Jeremy. No, it wasn’t. No time to wash the mud off, we make for the road so we can get out of the area before 11am. As we try to ascend the very steep driveway, the car loses all power and stops in the middle of the hill. I roll back, put it in first and take a run at it. It works, but we are worried about the severe loss of power, which is something that’s been happening on hills recently.

12pm: After grinding through queues of trucks we’ve made it to Honda, and quickly check emails for news we are hoping to get from various editors we have pitched story ideas to. Nothing. Grr. We head for the steep mountain road to Manizales, where there is a coffee finca we really want to camp at for a few days.

2pm: The van has been behaving terribly since we left Honda, bunny-hopping up the hills, losing power one minute and leaping ahead the next. It smells of burning plastic. We pull over at a hilltop cafe and see there is something like hot wax pouring from under the van, and solidifying on the ground. We ask the owner to call a mechanic, and two arrive from the next town. Our car scanner shows that two more of the (new) ignition wires are misfiring, along with some other long-running issues we’ve had with the catalytic converter and fuel/air mix – possibly all related, or not…

3pm: The mechanics insist that the hot grease is nothing to panic about (really?). We follow them into the town and they look under the bonnet. We explain about the ignition wires, and they say we really have to drive on to Manizales to find a specialist. That means climbing up to about 4,000m (more than 13,000ft) before descending again. We decide to go for it.

3-5pm: Hellish 2 hours of more of the same. Feels like the van is going to keel over any moment, and there’s hardly anywhere safe to pull over. Jeremy keeps telling me to move back in my seat, he can’t see in his wing mirror because I am a hunched-over ball of tension, leaning forward with my head in my hands. We are willing the van to just get to Manizales. We think we will make it although it will probably be dark when we do.

Road closed

Sorry, on account of you officially having a Bad Day, we have had to close this road.

5pm: (one hour before dark). Another road block. The route is closed ‘for about an hour’ for urgent road works up ahead. No choice but to sit it out.

6.15pm: The road opens and we sputter ahead. We are going so slowly we are a hazard to ourselves and others. We come over one of the highest passes at twilight and can see the belching, snow-capped volcanic peak of El Ruiz ahead of us. The clouds are below the road. Spectacular.

7.15pm: Feels like we are never going to get there. Big delay when the road goes to one-track and two lines of traffic have a face-off. The truck ahead of us, and one coming the other way, have half their wheels up on the bank and are so tipped as they nudge past each other that the tops of their trucks are touching. I’m picturing being there all night if they topple over.

8pm: We finally arrive at the outskirts of Manizales. We’ve been so preoccupied we didn’t notice that none of the leaflets or guidebook actually have a proper address or directions to the finca we want to go to, but we know it’s about 20 minutes out of town. We stop and ask the police if they know it. The officer calls the finca – they say that it’s too complicated to find it in the dark, and suggest we get a hotel and call them in the morning for a chaperone. Tiredness, altitude and sheer bloody-mindedness affects our decision-making. We really, really, don’t want to go to a hotel, so we decide to screw that advice and try to find it anyway.

9pm: We are still asking around random taxi drivers and petrol stations for directions, and getting closer to finding out roughly where it is, although no one seems sure. We head out on what we think is the right highway.

Nevado El Ruiz

The always-active El Ruiz volcano. An eruption in 1985 killed some 25,000 people.

9.30pm: We follow a sign to the area where we know the finca is. It immediately becomes a narrow downhill track with towering grass and bushes at either side, so we can’t see a thing ahead or around us. We are very tired, starving, and getting quite scared. All I can think of is that squeezing through this path reminds me of the Stephen King film Children of the Corn. We don’t really want to go on but there is nowhere to turn round either.

10pm: We finally see some light ahead and have a glimmer of hope it might be the finca. But as we turn the corner we see it is a luxury mansion. We pull up and the owner leans over his balcony to see what the hell is going on! Jeremy calls up to them for directions to the finca. Him and his grandson come down to the gate and explain that the owners of the finca are relatives of theirs. They know where it is, but it’s a bit complicated to get there – the most direct route requires crossing a river and the road has been washed away. As they explain the way we need to go, I finally crack. I just want to drink a barrel of wine and go to bed. I ask if we can safely sleep on the track near their house, as it is too late now to try to find the finca.

They insist we come into their property and park next to the house. When we pull up it looks like a scene from Father of the Bride – huge luxury home, swimming pool, and a manicured garden set out with gazebos and tables adorned with cloths and flowers, as if they are hosting a wedding. The whole family comes out to greet us – turns out the owner’s daughter is turning 50 the next day and they have gathered there to have a party for her.
They are so kind, asking if we need food or drink, and chatting to us about our trip. They say they will escort us to the finca in the morning. They show us to a bathroom we can use, and I am mortified to even step in there as my feet and legs are still caked with mud. Everything is so shiny and smart. We must (we do) look like tramps.

With Simon and Santiago

Getting ready to leave the morning after – pictured with two members of the family, Simon and Santiago.

11pm: We cook our dinner in the van, and every time we look outside we chuckle a little and cannot believe that this is how the day has ended. A horrid, stressful, day that ends with an act of kindness and some semblance of a sense of humour from us – not entirely atypical of this trip.
We pray that the van starts up in the morning and that this family does not have to have its posh party with our muddy van stranded next to the gazebo.

Days: 496
Miles: 16,371
Things we now know to be true: Tomorrow is, always, another day.

3 Responses to “Portrait of a bad day”

  1. Gary Rubin at 10:13 pm #

    Just wanted to let you know I am following your trip assiduously………………..love your short story like tales………………………as my Irish Catholic mother in law always says; this too shall end” and that is what I hope for the van—to once and for all find peace with it’s bloody and troublesome ignition wires and to happily bound on down the SA roads…Happy trails and good on ya!

    • seventeenbysix at 7:29 pm #

      Thanks Gary! Tell that mother in law to say a prayer for us. I don’t think it counts that we don’t believe in the power of prayer!! 🙂 We will get there, we will. Lots of love from Colombia. The Dears xx

  2. Rhonda at 2:32 pm #

    THAT was a tough one but it’s it wonderful to find, even in the middle of nowhere, pure kindness from a stranger. That thought always keeps me going.

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