A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Bogota. A True Story.
We have been traveling now for two and a half months. It truly has been a blessing to experience the vibrant cultures of the Mexican and Guatemalan Maya, the Kuni of San Blas and the Peruvian Inka; as well as the lack of culture in Panama. I guess as with every experience, the juxtaposition was required as a reference point. I have also been fortunate enough to meet some pretty incredible people, including an authority on Mayan myth and astronomy, several expats from around the world, and a slew of “shamans” (Word to the wise. Anyone who tells you they are a shaman, probably isn’t. Regardless, they are still very often knowledgeable and interesting people.). I’ve seen some incredible sights, and have experienced events and phenomena that I was certain, before this trip, were impossible. This is the story of the synchronicities that make up one of the most unbelievable events in my life thus far.
My boyfriend, Jude and I decided to meet up with two friends that had also been traveling and embark on an adventure together. After two amazing days hanging out with the Kuni on the pristine islands of San Blas, (which included taking part in a coming of age ceremony where we danced and sang with 20 Kuni grandmothers in traditional dress, who were drunk off their asses) we headed to Cartagena, Colombia. It was a nerve wracking flight on a tiny 40 seat plane and we couldn’t be happier to land, find a hostel and get some much needed sleep. There was a row of taxis at the airport, and we piled into the one that my friend could negotiate the best price with. Between the four of us and all of our luggage, we barely fit into the tiny cab. When we got to the hostel, we took half the luggage out, but told the cab driver to wait in case we had to go elsewhere. There turned out to be no room for us at that hostel, but the guy at the front desk assured us there was a place just around the corner that would have enough space. So we thanked the cab driver, paid him and took the rest of the luggage out of the cab. Once we got the name and location of the other hostel we started putting on our backpacks, and realized we were missing something. It was a backpack, and it was definitely in the cab. In fact, it was in the front seat right beside the driver. It also happened to be the very last thing we wanted to lose. That specific backpack was the “important stuff” backpack. Inside, among other things, we had four or five special books, 3 iPods, a digital camera, and our laptop. The realization that it was gone hit me hard. Trying to be as calm as possible, I informed Jude that it was now our only mission to find this taxi driver.
Jude set out for the airport again, in hopes that the cab would have returned there to pick up more people. I spoke to the guy at the front desk of the hostel we were dropped off at so he would save our bag for us in case the driver came back. He agreed, but also assured me that it was best to forget about the backpack entirely, as taxi drivers were notorious thieves in that city, and even worse, we had gotten into an independent cab, so there was literally nothing we could do to track him down. I felt like I’d swallowed a bag of rocks. I smoked a cigarette and ran through the inventory in my head again. The books were gone. The ipods were gone. My laptop was gone. All the music I was writing- gone. All my pictures- gone. As I realized 90% of the cars passing me were identical cabs, I lost most of my rational thought process. All I could do was hold onto my crystal from San Pedro and absolutely believe that I could will the cab back with my mind.
I stood outside forever; watching, willing. I met some lovely British people from our hostel, which we were now checked into, who boozed me up as soon as they heard what had happened. I spoke to street vendors and locals and realized Cartagena was an exciting, energetic, and fun city, but I never took my hand off my crystal, and I never stopped examining the faces of each cab driver. The bustle slowly started dissipating, and I realized that Jude had been gone for over two hours. All of a sudden, I began to panic. It could only have taken a maximum of 10 minutes for Jude to get to the airport again, and another 10 to get back. It was already 1 in the morning and I had absolutely no way to contact him, nor to find him, were he to somehow have gotten lost, or worse. My mind was racing and I woke up one of my friends in a teary panic. She assured me it would be fine, that he would be back, but I could see even she was a bit worried. I started telling her that I didn’t care about the bag anymore. That I hoped the cab driver sold all my stuff already and had spent all the money. That I didn’t want or need any of it, and I’d gladly accept that it was gone if Jude would just come back. I was absolutely beside myself- physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted- when the doorbell rang. I knew instantly it was Jude. I was so happy to see him, I completely broke down. I couldn’t even make myself care about the stuff we’d lost anymore, it all seemed so unimportant in contrast to something happening to Jude. The idea of losing him put everything into perspective for me.
The next three days in Cartagena were great. We partied on the beach, we got drunk, and we ate well. We explored the city and enjoyed ourselves. But every single time I saw a cab driver, I would examine his face. I examined so many people that I was sure I wouldn’t even recognize our driver anymore, had I actually found him. By the time we decided to move on to Bogota, I’d pretty much given up hope of finding the driver, much less our stuff. It had been three days, which was more than enough time to pawn the contents of our bag for a few hundred American dollars, at least. But Jude and I kept hoping and telling each other to believe that we could manifest it back.
We decided we would bus to Bogota, since we were trying to budget ourselves, but when we went online to find out about tickets, we quickly changed our minds. The trip to Bogota would take 22 hours, on a bus that ran through a not-so-friendly part of Colombia. We read several accounts of people warning that the mountain roads were dangerous and full of rebels, and that if we didn’t go off a cliff in the bus, we had a good chance of being robbed or hijacked. And the tickets would only be about $50 cheaper than flying. So we made our decision to take a plane instead and booked our flight for that afternoon.
By the time we’d packed our stuff, and checked out of the hostel, we had just enough time to flag down a cab and catch our flight. My friend loves to bargain, so she took it upon herself to find us a cab for a great price. The first cab had a giant sound system in his trunk, we wouldn’t all fit inside. The second cab was insulted by the first offer my friend made and wouldn’t even negotiate, he just drove away. The third cabbie agreed to the price, but was driving a tiny hatchback, and unless one of us rode on the roof or ran alongside, it didn’t look like he’d be able to transport us. I looked at the time and realized we’d better get a cab soon, or we wouldn’t make our flight! The next cab my friend stopped agreed to the price and was big enough for all of us, so we quickly piled in and sped to the airport.
When we got to the check in line, we were informed that our flight had been delayed. We had an entire hour to wait, which we all laughed about when we thought about how frantic we had been to get a cab. We decided to go into the boarding area and relax a bit. But right before going in, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to have a cigarette once we went inside. As I looked outside to see if there was an area where we could smoke, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was certain my mind was playing tricks on me. I turned to my friends and asked, “Isn’t that the cab driver?”
I couldn’t believe it. He was just standing there, the only cab driver outside, and I was staring right at him. We debated for a second. No, it couldn’t be him. Yes, it could be him. My friend decided to just go up and ask. As I followed her closer, I became more and more certain- it was definitely the same cab driver. I was absolutely elated, but at the same time, a feeling of dread washed over me. This was the final moment of closure. I would ask him about the bag and he would pretend like he had no idea what I was talking about. Or he would tell me straight up that he had already sold the stuff. Or he would tell me that he had the bag, but it was back at headquarters, or his home, or any other place we would never be able to get to before our flight left in less than an hour. I walked up to him and said to him in Spanish, “My friend. Do you remember me?”. He looked confused and my heart dropped. That was that.
But then his face lit up. “Oh, of course! You left a black backpack in my taxi a few days ago.” I was stunned. I didn’t understand why he would admit to it, he might as well just let me down easy and pretend like he had no recollection of the event. But then, the unimaginable happened. He told me to follow him, and he popped his trunk. There it was. Our backpack. It was tethered to a metal part inside his trunk. Apparently he had secured it there so no one else would steal it. He untied it and gave it to me. As I opened it, my eyes began to water. I was absolutely overcome with emotion. Every single thing was in the bag- the laptop, the iPods, the books. Even our chocolate from San Pedro was exactly where we’d left it. Not only had the cab driver NOT stolen our stuff, he hadn’t even opened the bag. I hugged this stranger with my entire being; crying, thanking him, telling Jude to give him money. It was one of the most emotional and amazing moments of my life.
I felt like I was flying. I felt like I was blessed. For the first time ever, I understood that I was on the right path. All of these things had happened to show me that I was exactly where I was meant to be. My view of humanity was changed forever. I had absolutely written off the cab driver as a thief, possibly because I was projecting onto him what I would have done, had I been in his situation. I understand now that people are inherently good, and that if you believe – like we had believed we would manifest this bag – that amazing things can and will happen. Every single event is important, and every single second is ours, whether we understand and appreciate it at the moment or not.
First and foremost, DON’T GO TO PANAMA CITY! It was completely devoid of culture, and there was nothing to see. Luckily, we were only there for a few hours before we got into a cramped 4X4 and trekked for hours through windy dirt roads until we got to San Blas! We were picked up in a little canoe by Kunki, the brother of Nixia, who “owned” the island we stayed on. In this island paradise, we met Adrienne and Angela, friends from Toronto, who’d been travelling for 5 months. We spent two glorious days partying with the Kuni Natives on deserted white sand islands, who’s main inhabitants were palm trees. Amazing.
A Day at Lake Atitlan Nature Reserve.
We took a day trip while in San Pedro to Panajachel to visit their amazing nature reserve. We were lucky enough to run into some monkeys and Tres Marias Raccoons (which everyone just seems to call Mexican Raccoons, even though these were Guatemalan ones), which we fed tons of Bananas. The Nature reserve included a large area where coffee beans grow wild, and we could pick them. The memebrane on the inside tasted really sweet but the green beans were not very appetizing at all. Beautiful place, highly recommend it!
After a month and three weeks in Mexico, we finally got another stamp in our passports. After a super sketchy border crossing into Guatemala (could have been smuggling nuclear weapons and no one would have noticed or cared), we headed towards Lake Atitlan, and grabbed a boat to the town we were staying in, San Pedro. Lake Atitlan is a very special place. In fact, legend has it that the lost civilization of Atlantis lies at the bottom of it. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains, crystals and volcanoes, one of which was directly behind the guesthouse where we stayed.
After a crazy ride up a mountain in a giant bus, we arrived at San Cristobal. Being the home of the Zapatistas, the city is full of indiginous and revolutionary culture. The Zapatistas were the leading force behind the revolution that happened one hundred years ago this November. Interestingly enough, this year is also the bicentennial of a revolution. Needless to say, the police presence is heavy. As is their weaponry.
We called Palenque home for over two weeks. Set in the impossibly humid rainforest, we shared our little apartment with various critters, including albino geckos and shoe dwelling spiders. The Panchan, a little hippie village just outside of Palenque national park, was a great place where we met some really nice people, but more importantly, it was home to Don Muchos, which served the best Italian food we’d had in a long time. This may have been a big factor for us when deciding to prolong our stay.
Calakmul and Balam Kul were an amazing day trip while in Campeche. To get to Calakmul, we had to drive three hours to a national park, and then go down a gravel road for an hour at top speed before we made it to the ruins. We saw some awesome animals, and got our first look at MONKEYS!! Swinging through the trees and all! Totally made our day.
We wanted to go straight to Palenque from Tulum, but when we figured out it would be a 12 hour bus ride, we decided to find somewhere cool along the way. The first thing we saw on the map in between the two cities was Campeche. We started reading about it and realized we HAD to go see it. When Campeche was stolen from the Mayans by the Spaniards, it became a powerful coastal city. Which made it very susceptible to - that’s right- PIRATE ATTACKS!! Real pirates, in massive galleons, flying Jolly Rogers, regularly stormed and pillaged the town and killed the children and raped the women. BAD ASS! To stop this from happening, the Spaniards used their Mayan slaves to erect a huge wall around the entire city, armed with cannons, and with only two entrances, the land door and the sea door. Today, several walls are still standing and the two doors still flank either end of the downtown core, which has been painstakingly restored (over 2000 buildings in all) to its original colonial splendor.
Tulum was our home for a week. We even stopped getting pestered by the local vendors by the end. While in Tulum, we took a bus to Coba, where we got a tricycle taxi ride around the massive site and climbed the highest pyramid we’d been to thus far. At Coba, we were told that a sac be (sacred path) could be followed all the way to Chichen Itza, about a hundred miles away! Very cool.