Stranded in Colombia Part II: Back to Cartagena

Eight days after our rogue wave ordeal, we were ready to head to Cartagena- 300 miles away from Cabo De La Vela: the boat was inspected and turned over to Customs, a statement was given to the Port Captain, a full report was generated and sent to Bogota and all the legalities concerning leaving Vento Dea in Colombia were taken care of.  We have asked around to villagers and local Coast Guard officers on how to get to Cartagena. They all said basically we needed to get a ride to the nearest airport, in Riohacha, and we could fly to Cartagena.

“Fly? What do you mean fly from Riohacha? There’s no flight from Riohacha to Cartagena. And if there is, you don’t wanna take it!”  This advice came from a friend of the Port Captain, a large man with a thriving business in the shipping industry who was in Cabo De La Vela to watch the kitesurfing competition. Up until that point we had made plans based on information the well-intentioned villagers had given us. For some reason it never dawned on us that they had never been to an airport and they must have assumed that at the Riohacha airport, with their many planes, one of them surely must fly to Cartagena. Although this train of thought is logical, the businessman then told us that our only/best option was to take the bus from Riohacha to Cartagena, which should be inexpensive and take about 6 hours.

“And we could take our dog in the bus without any problem?”

“Of course.  Nobody cares of your dog. And if the driver gives you a problem, just slip him 5000 pesos then he gives you no problem. This is Colombia.”

So we packed all our belongings, salvaged from the boat: some clothes, some lines, some random small equipment and tools, the guitar, the windvane and the new outboard engine (we donated our yellow dinghy to the kitesurfing school). We packed all that could fit into two big duffle bags. At 4 AM, the village truck came to pick us up. The two men piled our duffle bags and the windvane onto the rooftop alongside Styrofoam containers that would be filled with soda and beer and ice in town. We hopped onto the back of the pick-up truck with our backpacks, the guitar case and Gidget in her small kennel – the first passengers in the truck. After two hours of driving through the bushes and the desert, we were jam-packed along with 14 other villagers, 2 toddlers, 1 baby, 2 cases of empty glass bottles along with 2 goats. We were jammed in there so tight that the only thing you could do during the ride is close your eyes and pray your legs don’t fall asleep because it was impossible to move.

As the sun began to rise and there was enough light to see one another all the Wayuu ladies began to chatter in a native dialect. We had a pretty good idea who they were talking about even though we speak no Goajiro.

“blah blah blah china”

“Oh, china blah blah blah”

“Blah blah china blah blah”

Although I am sure to an outsider it could be construed as rude but I think they were more curious than anything; there is a good chance that they have never seen an Asian in the flesh.

Once we got to the central market district in Uribia, one of the men asked us where we were going. I answered to Riohacha to take the bus to Cartagena. He then pointed to an old Toyota Camry behind the truck sporting a sign on the windshield made out of cardboard scrap that said RIOHACHA. So we got off the truck, transferred all our belongings into the trunk of the car and paid the truck driver. The car driver then put Gidget in the front seat, we sat in the back with our backpacks and off we went. Or so I thought. Obviously the driver didn’t seem to think that the car was full enough because he drove around the area 3 more times to find 1 other passenger. We had to rearrange so Gidget (in the kennel) was between us in the backseat while the other passenger sat in the front.  We couldn’t complain though, it was still much more spacious than the back of the truck.

One smooth and short hour later we arrived at the bus terminal in Riohacha. As soon as we stepped out of the car, a man approached us asking where we were going.  After I answered, he began to scribble something in his little official-looking notepad. Jerrad and the driver was unloading the trunk when 3 other men came, grabbed our luggage under the direction of the man with the notepad and started wheeling them away.  I had no idea who these men were or where they were going with our stuff. The first man, who was still scribbling something that I could only presume as bus tickets, said something to me but, even with tremendous brain power and concentration, I failed to comprehend most of the fast, Staccato-style strings of Caribbean Spanish words coming out of his mouth. I just started following the men while Jerrad finished paying off the car driver and the ticket man.

They took our bags next to the bus and one of the men started loading them. He then said (repeatedly, so we could understand) that one of them had an “excessive weight” to be loaded onto the bus. This was where Jerrad took the advice of the businessman and gave the busman some Colombian pesos. Excessive no longer; plus Gidget also got to be inside the bus with us. Right after that I told this man that I needed to go to the bathroom inside the terminal and he gave me a hand signal to go. I left and came back only to see the bus pulling out of the parking spot. Apparently the bus driver along with the man stepped onto the bus the second I turned the corner inside the building and they decided it was time to leave. Jerrad had to stop them to wait for me.

la_guajiraWe left the terminal at around 8.15 AM. After an hour or so we were no longer in the arid desert region of Colombia. Back in the lush and tropical rainforest region, it wasn’t long before the rain started pouring and for the bus to start leaking.  Water was dripping in various spots – some passengers were annoyed, some took out their umbrellas, one man held the cushion above his head, some were laughing and taking pictures but a few were not amused at all. Water was dripping on us as well, and truth be told it actually felt slightly nostalgic: it was like being in Vento Dea again… I closed my eyes and took a short nap, daydreaming that we were still sailing in the Caribbean instead of being inside a leaky bus.

After about 7 hours, we arrived in the bus terminal in the city of Barranquilla. There we had to transfer to a smaller bus to Cartagena, which was less than 100 miles away. They started loading our belongings to the smaller bus but then came to realize that our bags were too big. More commotion on our luggage, more Colombian pesos slipped, and the problem disappeared. We were transferred to a bigger and more comfortable bus and were on our way to Cartagena shortly after. After 3 hours on the bus, we finally checked in to Hotel Casa Andrea in Bocagrande, Cartagena – slightly exhausted from the trip. A total of 14 hours were spent on the road that day, in which ten of those were from Riohacha to Cartagena, much longer than the 6 hours we were told.

We had a lot to do in Cartagena, but our first business was to deal with our immigration status, having left and re-entered the country illegally after our boat accident. We took a short taxi ride to the Immigration office, explained what had happened and told the officers that they could call the Port Captain for all the documents they might need. Of course nobody wanted to call the Port Captain – God forbid one government agency communicating with another. Instead, one officer decided to call our agent Danny (all official paperwork for a sailboat entering the country was done through agents – Danny was our agent the first time we entered Colombia). Danny then told us to write a semi-official statement basically explaining what had happened, email it to him and meet him back in the Immigration office later that afternoon. We came back, waited around and finally met him. All three of us were brought in to speak with another Immigration official named Arquimedes. We told our story again, showed the letter from the Port Captain and some pictures of the boat I took on my phone. Arquimedes looked skeptical, but he did called the Port Captain’s office requesting copies of the official statement and report. Danny then told us how simple the process was. Our statement was all Arquimedes needed and he would fix our status. No problem. Danny’s role was over and he left. However, it was not as simple as what Danny said. Arquimedes then told us, using Babylon translator on his computer, that they needed to cancel our exit stamp. They couldn’t just give us another entrance stamp because technically we never left Colombia and we never checked in to another country. To cancel our exit stamp, he needed to present all our documents to El Jefe (the boss) so they can be approved and signed by the big boss himself. Arquimedes said it wasn’t going to happen that day. So we went home after being told to return the next day.

We came back 2 more times the next day only to hear Arquimedes repeat the same phrase: the boss hasn’t signed it yet. He then told us that he would email us when it’s ready. Again we left the Immigration office empty-handed. In the meantime we busied ourselves taking care of little things that needed to be done before we leave Colombia. We went to Servientrega – the Colombian sister company of DHL- to try and ship our windvane back to the US, however they required an original receipt to send any objects anywhere, no exception.  So we decided to just have it as a checked item for our flight and hope that it would not be a problem. Then came the “finding-the-store-that-sells-whatever-random-things-you-need” game. We had to hunt down for things like bubble wrap as well as needle and thread to fix our duffle bag.  In the States, things like this can usually be found at your local drugstore, but it’s not quite that way in Cartagena (or many places we’ve been really). Although Cartagena has stores that are similar but they never had what we needed. Here what you need is a Variedades: a tiny store selling a variety of random things – so random that no two stores sell the same thing. For example, we had to ask a few locals on the street and visit 3-4 different stores before we found one that sold needle and thread – at an unmarked counter in the back of a souvenir store, where there was a display case and a shelf comprised of all sorts of oddities.  Luckily on one of the days we happened to stumble, on our first try, into one Variedades who sells a big roll of plastic bubble wrap – a joyous victory since that meant no more time wasted looking around every store on the blocks surrounding our hotel.

Meanwhile, as we kept checking our email we heard nothing from Arquimedes.  One day, we came to realize in the afternoon that his email might be in our spam folder – and of course it was. Having sent the previous day, it said to come before 6PM that day or come the next day early morning. Shit, it was 2.30PM already and it was Friday – for all I know the Immigration office might close early or something and we would not be cleared to fly back to the US the next Monday. We rushed back to the yellow Immigration building to see Arquimedes, who thankfully was still at his desk. He then explained that he had all the paperwork ready and our information entered in the database, but el jefe still hasn’t signed it (what a surprise…). However, our Immigration buddy here was just going to stamp our passports so we could fly out on Monday. Wait, that’s it? You made us come back 4 times to the office only to do something you could’ve done on our second visit? The answer is yes and yes. That Friday afternoon, possibly hoping to get rid of us forever, our buddy Arquimedes artfully stamped ANULADO over our exit stamp. He gave us our passports back, we shook hands and said goodbye.

Finally! After our life-altering accident and everything else we’ve been through, soon we would no longer be stranded in Colombia. We could leave and go home to our family. I was getting teary-eyed thinking of coming home to a familiar place and people where we could just unload and refocus, especially after the crazy couple of weeks and especially after the accident that could very well turn out much worse than it did. But our stressful time in Cartagena was not over yet. During that week, we also had to figure out how to ship Gidget out of a country where, due to its drug trade, no airlines directly ship out dogs from – a nightmare in and of itself.

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