Day 52 – La Pintada Antioquia, Colombia

The warmth, generosity, and sense of humour of the Colombian people has blown me away.  Over and over again, people have gone out of their way to help us.  Every place we stop, we make instant friends.  Last night, I was parked at the side of the road waiting for Ted to catch up about 25 km outside of Medellin.  I was looking through my Lonely Planet trying to find a cheap place to spend the night in the city.  A friendly young guy named Pastor came up to me and asked if he could help.  Soon he was on the phone with his friend (a taxi driver) getting us directions to a cheap/safe hotel.  He explained where we had to go and we set off.  It wasn´t the best situation because the centre of Medellin was still about an hour away, and it was already dark. 

However, a few minutes after we left, Pastor came up beside me on his motorcyle and signalled me to slow down.  He asked if we wanted to go to Medellin, or if another hotel would be alright.  I said that any hotel would be fine.  Pastor offered to lead us to a good hotel in the town of Girorhota.  We followed him into a quiet friendly town where he found us a nice clean hotel with a locked parking lot for our motorcycles.  It was only 50,000 pesos (about $25) for a room with two beds and even agua caliente.  Pastor showed is a place where we could have a few drinks and then went to join his fiance, Claudia, for Sunday mass.

Pastor and Claudia joined us for a beer after mass.  Pastor said it was his first international experience, and he was happy to help us in any way he could.  We practiced our limited spanish and Claudia and Pator practiced their English (which was better than our Spanish).  Claudia has just completed a degree in microbiology and Pastor works by day and studies by night to become a computer engineer.  This is but one example of the amazing friendliness of the Colombian people.

The day before yesterday when we stopped at a gas station in Bucaramanga to ask directions to the highway leading to Barranca, we drew a crowd of about a dozen people, all eager to help us.  We got our directions, but we were told that it was a 2 hour drive.  Since it was already 4:15 PM, we´d be arriving just as it was getting dark.  This normally would not have been a concern, but earlier that day another friend that we had made in the parking of spectacular chicomocha national park had told us that Barranca was peligro.  I asked the guys at the gas station whether Barranca was seguro.  They smiled and shook their heads, and made gestures with their hands meaning “mas o menas”.  Another guy told us it was dangerous at night.

Looking at the map again, I saw a town about halfway between Bucaramanga and Barranca called San Rafael.  I asked the guys whether San Rafael would be a safe place to spend the night.  Immediately about half a dozen guys made throat slitting gestures.  I guess that meant no.  Another guy said something about “gringos” and “motos” as he made the throat slitting gesture, and everybody laughed heartily.  Since Barranca was dangerous at night, and apparently they´d slit our throats and steal our bikes in San Rafael, we pretty much had to spend the night in Bucaramanga, a modern city of about 600,000.

We asked the guys where we could find a cheap/safe hotel (borrato y seguro) and after some discussion, one guy drew us a map and gave us the name of a hotel.  As usual, it didn´t take us long to get lost in a Latin American city.  I stopped and asked some policemen how to get to the hotel.  They immediately warned us that the street we were on was dangerous.  The tried to explain where to go (in Spanish of course), but it soon became clear to them that we were going to get lost again.  One of the policemen asked if I had an extra casco.  When I said I did not, he told us to wait.  5 minutes later he returned with a helmet, hopped on the back of my bike, and directed us through the chaotic traffic-choked streets to an oasis of a hotel, with a secure underground parking lot for the bikes.  It was 45,000 pesos (about $23).

Once we were settled, we decided to go grab a bite to eat.  We asked in the lobby where we could find a good restaurant.  The girls working at the front desk did not want us to go wandering alone at night.  They told us it was dangerous.  Before I realized what was going on, one of the girls had decided to give us an “escort”.  Cool, we had a bodyguard.  Maybe she was worried that we´d wander down the wrong street.  Maybe she just wanted to walk with us.

She led us to a restaurant serving fried chicken.  It seems that fried chicken is a local favourite.  While eating, we realized that at the back of the restaurant there was a bar and what looked like a bowling alley.  Except it wasn´t bowling.  The lanes were gravel and in the open air.  The pins were 3 wooden stakes lined up so that you could only see one from the front.  You didn´t roll the balls down the lane.  You did a kind of softball pitch and launched them the length of the lane in the air.  Pin jockeys stood at the end of the lanes, righting the pins and throwing the balls back to you, bounching them off pieces of wood in the middle of the lanes. 

The balls were lead shells filled with various amounts of sand so they were different weights.  Ted and I decided to give it a go.  A lane was cleared for us, and after watching a couple of our horrendous throws, lighter balls were quickly found for us (mujere balls?).  The object of the game is to be the first to score 15 points.  Each pin is worth a point.  You get two balls per turn.  Ted and I must have gone 10 rounds without either one of us scoring a single point.  We changed the game to first to 5.  I was the first to score, with a “strike” for 3 points.  After another 10 rounds, Ted got a strike.  Then he edged ahead with a single point, for 4.  I managed to tie before he won with another strike.

Although no one in the bar spoke a word of English, soon Ted and I found ourselves split up and partnered with a local from the bar.  They thrust a beer into my hand, and a group of 4 of us played a game.  I didn´t score a single point, but my partner might have been the champion of Colombia.  He won the game by scoring 5 strikes in a row.  Amazing.  One of the guys who was watching started giving me pointers on my technique.  In slow motion, he showed how to throw the ball.  There was definite twisting of the wrist on release.  I decided to try adding the twist.  You start the throw with your hand underneath the ball, and end with your hand over top the ball.  Seems easy enough.

I had a mental image of the ball flying off to the right and landing in the next lane.  I compensated for this perceived flight path by releasing late.  Too late.  The ball went way to the left.  To my horror, I saw that one of the pin jockeys was standing with his back to me facing the side wall.  My heavy lead ball was on a collision course with the back of his head.  I yelled “look out”, but he must not have understood English.  The ball crashed into the gravel, making a good-sized impact crater, about an inch from the back of his right shoe.  He had been relieving himself.  I wonder if the sound of a ball whizzing by his ear startled him enough to dribble on his pants.

Luckily he was good natured about it, and was happy when I bought him a beer.  Every time he walked by after that, he smiled and wanted to knock fists.  Interestingly enough, we weren´t allowed to play anymore after that.

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