Biking in Colombia: The cross and the collarbone

Travellers are advised to carry a red cross when they venture into Colombia, but it failed to protect Ted Simon from the antics of a Honda Civic. Here he files the latest dispatch from his round-the-world motorcycle tour

Risk management on a trip like mine still seems to me to be a largely futile endeavour. The expected dangers hardly ever materialise, and there's no way to prepare for the others. In any case, I learned many years ago that the odds in our favour are vastly higher than we imagine.

Risk management on a trip like mine still seems to me to be a largely futile endeavour. The expected dangers hardly ever materialise, and there's no way to prepare for the others. In any case, I learned many years ago that the odds in our favour are vastly higher than we imagine.

A modicum of fear is a useful preservative, but I try not to let it affect my behaviour. Sometimes, though, I fail. Even in the Seventies, Colombia's reputation for theft and violence reached out to me long before I got there, and induced me to take precautions.

I remember sharpening my kitchen knife (though what I had in mind to do with it escapes me). I also put padlocks on my boxes, but they were of little use as I soon lost the keys, and had to have the locks sawn off.

In the event, no aggression came my way and I experienced only wonder at the beauty of the country and admiration for its people. My memories of it were so warm that ever since leaving England a year ago I have been looking forward to seeing it again.

But things are not what they were, and a distinctly different set of horror stories now emanates from Colombia. Two major guerrilla groups have de facto control over sizeable areas of the country. The Farc, largely to the East, is financed mainly by drugs money, and carries out widespread bombings, raids and assassinations. The ELN, still thought to be the more ideological bunch, specialises in kidnapping and extortion, with a special presence on the very roads I meant to travel. Paramilitary death squads add to the mayhem in the name of right-wing justice.

One could hardly approach this kind of situation without qualms. What is a biker to do? I did the sensible thing, and before going into Colombia from Ecuador I asked around. The advice I got was pretty straightforward.

The danger is mainly on the more deserted stretches of the highway, either between Pasto and Popayan or north of Medellin. In these areas, where the ELN is active, ride early in the day and never at night, because guerrillas like to get away under cover of darkness. Watch for oncoming traffic, because its absence could signal a road block. And keep asking the locals what's happening.

I have only ever heard of one motorcyclist who was kidnapped, and it was my misfortune, in a sense, to meet him just before entering Colombia, because I was already quite scared enough. I found him hanging out with Ricardo Rocco, a passionate rider who lives in Quito and lavishes hospitality on every biker who comes that way.

Glen Heggstad, the gringo kidnappee from Minnesota, who spent five weeks of hell as the guest of the ELN, did his best to dissuade me from going to Colombia at all, but having failed at that, he said, "If I had to do it again, I'd carry a red cross. The Red Cross is about the only thing they respect."

Well, I didn't care for the idea at first. The ethics seemed shaky, and anyway I couldn't imagine a guerrilla saying to himself, "Oh, he must be one of those Red Cross bikers I've never heard of."

But Ricardo was very taken with the plan, and made me a big red cross out of craft paper, so I took it along, meaning to ditch it later. Then, on my way to the border I began what became a long series of imaginary conversations with guerrilla comandantes.

"Yes indeed," I would say, trying to ignore the muzzle of the AK-47 nudging my ribs, "I really am a Red Cross volunteer.

"We carry urgent medical supplies and blood. Well, no I don't have any with me at this moment, actually, but they're waiting for me anxiously in Medellin ..."

After a bit of rehearsing I had almost convinced myself it could work. Anyway, it was better than nothing. I swept my ethical doubts aside, and as soon as I'd crossed into Colombia I stopped at the roadside and got the red cross out of my tank bag.

An old man saw me from his garden, and came out through the gate to talk.

"How's life?" I asked.

He sighed, mournfully. "It is very difficult, very dangerous."

Then, as the big, bold image unfolded on to my windshield like the banner of St George, he exclaimed: "Ah, la Cruz Roja. Nobody will molest you now."

I took his words as a blessing and set off for Pasto. The road climbed to 10,000 feet, and swooped around the high passes before bringing me down again to the headwaters of the Cauca river, and by then the landscape had completely distracted me from my paranoid dialogues with imaginary terrorists.

Even after the glories of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes, Colombia is astonishing. Such scenery defies analysis, but I think I have identified two of the characteristics that make it so remarkable. For one, the ranges are broken up into individual mountains, so that looking out one can see past them across an endless succession of peaks and valleys. And secondly there is the vegetation.

All the mountains are clothed. The highest of them wear a thin, velvety cloak of emerald. The lower ranges seem astonishingly fertile, and the soft contours are covered in fields and copses and small plantations, all so comfortable and domesticated that one might be Frodo Baggins looking out over Middle Earth.

This is what causes me to feel so much poignancy and resentment. Here is a country that is not just gorgeous, but also eminently habitable. All the people I have met are pleasant, kind, lively and bright. For such a country to be plagued by so much violence and disruption, for such a people to have to live with a constant sense of menace, is an abomination. And for the principal cause of all this terror to lie (in my opinion, at least) in the addictive behaviour of a few million gringos is outrageous.

I left Pasto, a most civilised city, early next day and was safely in Popayan by lunchtime, looking for the converted monastery where I stayed in 1975. Since then, a massive earthquake had hit the city, but there is no sign of it now. The old, white colonial buildings seem untouched, and the impressive Hotel Monasterio was still there, huge, elegant – and empty. After all, who would be a tourist in Colombia?

The next lap, still along the Cauca Valley, took me through Cali, a sprawling city where for a while I got lost, and then through the heat of the sugar-cane fields to Buga, which has an immense brick cathedral and a reputation for miraculous happenings.

A kindly pot-bellied gent on a Honda ushered me into town, and found me a cheap hotel with a small pool that hissed as my overheated body fell in.

Next stop Medellin, and quite a long haul, so I left early again even though there was little danger on this road as it passed through many small towns and villages.

Colombia is generally a paradise for motorcyclists. Most of the roads wind up and down and around the hills, opening up electrifying vistas, but the big trucks with their high tarpaulined frames are a challenge and the traffic was heavy.

I was doing well, and less than an hour from Medellin, when the driver of a silver Honda Civic began to annoy me. I have survived all these years by refusing to play games on the road, but the little Civic was determined to stay in front of me, making it impossible for me to overtake the trucks. I could have waited, but I wanted to get past him. Lamentably, I chose the wrong place to do it.

I was already through, at maybe 40mph, when the road curved dramatically to the left. I had just a fraction of a second to recognise my folly and know that I couldn't get round. Then I was on my back between the bike and the concrete gutter, wondering if I was still alive.

It was the most mundane and stupid of accidents, but the response was instant and generous. By the time I knew that I was still breathing, two pick-ups and a motorcycle had stopped, and people were all around me. One couple was kneeling beside me. The others were gathering up all my stuff – tools, clothes, my computer case – that had spewed across the road.

They were unbelievably caring and gentle. I got my helmet off, and saw that the visor, opaque from contact with the cement, had saved my face. The jacket too had done its job: some of the fabric was melted by the abrasion. One glove was ripped open, but the hand was only lightly skinned. My jeans too had done good work, although beneath the fabric there was a huge bloody mess above one knee.

I tottered to my feet, amazed that nothing seemed to have broken. Lucelly and Nelson, two lovely people, took me over to their friend Sergio's truck. Then they gathered a small band of helpers and loaded my sadly abused bike and all my bits and pieces into their own pick-up.

I sat down in the truck and came out of shock, to feel bones jiggling about below my neck. One collar bone broken, and a sharp pain from a cracked rib – what a small price to pay. Once again, I have to count myself very lucky indeed.

The hospital (really no more than a clinic) in the small resort town of La Pintada treated me for $25. They took an X-ray, washed and dressed my wounds, and put my arm in an improvised sling. The young doctor, who told me he had trained in a facility funded from Moscow, said it was a good break because the two ends were still together. "It will repair itself," he said. "In 10 days you'll be fine."

I really wanted to believe him.

I spent a very uncomfortable afternoon and night hobbling around in a hotel full of young, athletic holidaymakers, but next day I made contact with Tiberio Jaramillo, another enthusiast in Medellin, who had been expecting me. Within hours he arrived in La Pintada to whisk away me and my wrecked machine.

I've been in Medellin for a week now, and it will be several weeks more before I'm back on a bike. Until three days ago I was living and sleeping in an armchair, but the pain is slowly subsiding and to take advantage of my increased mobility, I've moved to a hotel close to the centre of the city.

In the mornings I take a taxi to Tiberio's motorcycle workshop and sit with my computer. In the evenings, I totter out onto the big avenue, called La Playa (The Beach) and, curiously enough, although we are many hours from either the Pacific or the Caribbean, it feels as though the sea might actually be behind the next row of buildings. Particularly after dark.

It could be the warm air, the palm trees, the profusion of ice-cream parlours, or it could be the people. Even when they're busy they seem relaxed, and in the evening very few are busy. It could be the cafés, restaurants, fried chicken outlets, roadside grills, and heaps of fruit on the pavements.

CD shops fire snatches of music into the air. People at all levels of prosperity, in glad rags and sad rags, stand and sit around, eating, drinking, talking. The girls in their low-cut jeans are slimmer and more beautiful than I remember them from 27 years back. This is a big textile centre, and very fashion conscious. There's interesting art, and good music. It's a great city to be recovering in.

Ten years ago, under Pablo Escobar's reign of terror, bombings and assassinations were everyday events here, but they've come out from under.

Surely, some day, all of Colombia must shake off its nightmare. If it were up to me, I'd decriminalise drugs. But then, what do I know ...?

For more information about Ted Simon's journey, go to www.jupitalia.com 'Jupiter's Travels', Simon's account of his original journey around the world, is published by Penguin, price £7.99, ISBN 0140054103.

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