The Blue Route
Beneath my calm exterior I’m panicking. Arriving in a vast continent with very little knowledge of the language and very little planning does that to a person.
As I step out of the air-conditioned plane at Santa Marta the heat and humidity soaks right through my clothes, like washing straight from the drum. A rickety set of stairs leads down to the tarmac. Beyond them, the terminal building sits amid a sleepy construction site projecting a sense of half-hearted progress. I join the throng of passengers who are eager to seek the exit.
Baggage collection is barely tucked inside the doorway of the main building and we all take avoiding action lest we end up on the carousel ourselves. I wait patiently for my backpack to trundle along the conveyor belt. I’d seen it being wheeled past me on a trolley just outside and was tempted to ask for it there and then – the staff were simply pushing them through a hatch in the wall visible from both sides.
As this is an internal connection there are no customs to navigate. So I simply walk out. I had arrived in Colombia and that was that. Off I go then.
I was expecting a bus station at the airport, or at the very least a bus stop. But there’s no sign of either. Instead, there’s a beach and a sea of eager taxi drivers. The taxi drivers are intent on convincing me that my bus will never arrive. If it does show up it would take forever to get anywhere, they say. I know the buses are far cheaper than the taxis and I have plenty of time. Not quite forever, but it is only 9:30 in the morning. So I smile politely, offer up several servings of no gracias and swiftly sidestep them. Just as I do, a beaten-up blue bus pulls into the terminal loop. Blue bus, blue route, surely.
After some iPhone-waving translations and the studious inspection of my screen-grabbed address, the bus driver and his assistant seem to confirm my stop and off we all go in exchange for a few thousand pesos.
The bus cabin is decked out in plush blue curtains trimmed with white tassels. The whole thing is further decorated with stuffed bears. Including one through which the entire gearstick passes (it appears from the top of the bear’s head and won’t take much imagination to work out where it goes in). Garish posters of cartoon animals that wouldn’t look out of place in Akihabara hang from the curtains. The bus seems to be sponsored by PUMA. There’s even a suspicious looking ziplock bag full of red liquid pinned to the wall just above the driver. Be it some kind of blessing or ‘emergency blood’ I shall never know.
We start the journey by following the beach. I peer through palm trees at wooden boats gently rocking along the shore. White sand and clear waters beyond. The morning’s catch is displayed at the roadside hanging above makeshift market stools. Stray dogs trot between patches of shade sniffing out scraps. We join the main road and the bus takes on great gulps of polluted air thick with dust. But to close the windows is to suffocate in the heat.
There are photo opportunities everywhere, although at this point I’m too terrified to take them. I feel uneasy and self-conscious about the kit in my bags. It’s ridiculous really; my camera, laptop, a backup camera, additional lenses, a smartphone, spare batteries, an assortment of accessories…* I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in constant fear of being dumped in a shady neighbourhood and promptly mugged.
But after navigating several side streets to pick up locals with stops that are made at random, watching laid-back exchanges of notes and coins for rides, pulling over to grab iced-water for the driver, witnessing some sort of inspection in exchange for a few pesos, trying to decipher conversations had between passing busses through open windows, and finding that the bus was quickly heading well beyond its capacity, we’re eventually approaching my turnoff.
The turnoff shoots past.
I make a series of unintelligible noises (my default substitute for Spanish) in an attempt to stop the bus. Surprisingly it has the desired effect. Many hands help with my backpack as I squeeze my way between the other passengers and jump out into the blazing heat, my boots kicking up dust at the roadside. The bus zips off with a swerve and I’m left standing laden, sweaty, and disorientated.
I walk with a forced air of confidence and gently fend off chatter from the locals trying to sell me who-knows-what as I go. I find ‘calle 11’ (ca-yay on-say; street eleven) and make my way along it cautiously, hoping to find my accommodation. I’m on just the sort of quiet cut-through that stirs the imagination into fear of a mugging.
Thankfully, I discover a doorway instead of a dead end. I buzz through the gate and it closes behind me with a comforting click. Happy people this way the sign says.
Inside, the hostel is in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the neighbourhood. A tiled path leads beneath a natural canopy, the floor and walls mottled by shadows of foliage. The path gives way to a courtyard and a glistening pool. To my left a complex building rises up beneath hills thick with hardy shrubs and cacti, a Spanish casa in the vision of M.C.Escher. Blinding white against blue sky.
There’s a brief exchange at the front desk where I trade documents for a door key and then I’m in my room. It overlooks a garden packed with lush greenery. A local lady in a wide-brimmed hat and a loose cotton trouser suit is tending to her plants.** I grab my camera from my bag immediately. Finally.
I take a series of images of the gardener until I catch her in just the right position, making sense of a busy scene, a packed frame, and bringing the story to life. It doesn’t quite capture the intensity of my journey from the airport, but what it lacks of those streets it makes up for in the richness of this new land.
I’m looking forward to pointing my camera at South America. Already in stark contrast to my recent travels across Canada and the United States, and all the more welcome for it. But more than that, my initial feeling of panic has all but disappeared.
* This is not my usual setup, but it is necessary for life on the road. When I venture out to shoot street I take one camera with a fixed focal length or a prime lens, depending on the model. As it’s a mirrorless system, I always carry a spare battery or two.
** Those of you who follow my Instagram will know that I’m somewhat partial to a nice hat.
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