Will and Geoff ride mopeds through the hills outside Guatapé, Colombia. Later, they mistake a house for a bar and it works out to everyone's benefit. Will is happy. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- Guatapé is famous for its El Peñón de Guatapé (The Rock of Guatapé). It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. While the surrounding countryside rises into rolling hills, the city itself is situated in an expansive valley with rivers and lakes. And, right in the middle, there’s this huge rock that rises up about 650 feet. They built these switchback stairs into a crag on the side and you can climb it. Because the city itself is at elevation (6200 feet - a little higher than Denver, Colorado) the climb is exhausting, but the view from the top is spectacular. Highly recommended.
- It’s also famous as a vacation town for wealthy people from Medellin. Because, up until about twenty years ago, the intersection of wealthy people and “from Medellin” was a venn diagram location reserved for drug lords, the place is also home to the former vacation houses of people like Pablo Escobar. There are tours hosted by those both strongly opposed to the legacy of Escobar, as well as tours hosted by people in his family. The perspectives each choose to show are… exceptionally different. It’s safe to say that the legacy of Colombia’s drug history is considered by most Colombians to be a devastating stain, and entering Colombia should be done with deep reverence and respect to Colombian culture outside that legacy. If you’re there because you saw Narcos, check yourself and hit the reset button.
I hear with my little ear
- A choppy moped approaching and fading in Copenhagen.
- Nature sounds in Nebraska, which I respect is nowhere near Colombia. I apologize to the niche but vocal constituency of podcast-listening ornithologists.
- Nature in Valle del Cauca in Colombia. It’s about 200 miles south of the setting of this story. I visited Valle del Cauca, too, and it feels, looks and sounds similar.
[Sounds of nature, moped approaches and then fades]
I don’t think I noticed until right now, accelerating back onto winding mountain roads, quite how spectacular this day is. The sky is blue, sure, but it’s not cloudless, it’s not vacant. It’s those little cumulus puffballs that are more mesmerizing the longer you stare at them with the flat base and the whipped top, like Martha Stewart dolloped icing on a cupcake, right here in the middle of the rolling hills of central Colombia.
The mountains are vibrant and green and the valleys are speckled in yellow flowers and the hillsides with infinitely long wooden fences and barn houses and wow, I’m smiling. I haven’t smiled for a while - a long while, not on this continent, I don’t think. Not since... well, not since she left. But here it is, a smile right on my face. Safely masked under my moped helmet.
And I think I’m done running.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I continue to be Will Conway.
Have you noticed anything odd about this podcast?
Yeah, no ads. None. It's not that I can't. A couple of episodes ago, we actually got to the listenership where I could theoretically sell ads, but I made a decision early on where I decided I wouldn't.
These are immersive little stories. They're ten or fifteen minutes long. Do you want me to sell you Dockers for thirty seconds in the middle of that?
For this model to work, though, I need to grow the show. If you like Baggage Claim, my ask is that you share it - just two or three people. If you're new here, no worries. Hang tight, listen to a couple episodes and get back to me.
As always, text POD to (332) 877-9540.
All right, I'm gonna ask you to close your eyes for this episode... if you're not driving. If you're driving, God damn, please keep them open.
Here we go.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of nature]
Medellin is a city that revels in its own imperfection. It lives in a kind of victorious triumph over the stains of its past; a loud celebration of the conquering of obstacles though the obstacles themselves float in the wind with a hushed murmur, unspoken and disbelieved. It’s a city much like New Orleans, in which the lines between good and evil are drawn crossed and checkered on a dancefloor and the festive people of the city swing their hips with a foot on black and a foot on white and no particular concern for anything but blaring bachata. The people are at once festive and deeply aware of the darkest kind of history.
Something about the psychology makes it a perfect host for the escaping masses of North America and Europe, of those so scarred by their own imperfection that they run from their shadows, only to find those ethereal passengers at their sides again but dancing now, free from the binding tether to their arms and legs and not altogether committed to the pitch of the sun. It was in Medellin that I met two incredible travelers, both running from something though what I don't know. All I do know is it’s some personal brand of the generic yearning of the late 20s, when the meaning of life hasn't exactly revealed itself and we can all hear the clock ticking for the very first time.
But one of our friends left Medellin to go explore northern Colombia and, as all time does, our time as a collective concluded. And so I boarded a bus with my remaining friend, named Geoff, to the nearby vacation town of Guatapé.
Geoff is an endearing Irishman. He’s explored the world more thoroughly than I, having spent six months in southeast Asia, another six in Brazil and Argentina and more than a year in Australia, the place he now calls home. On his fourth international trip, he exudes an air of comfort in the unknown, relaxation in discomfort, and a passion for exploration.
I, too, had discovered something of a comfort in my own travels. I found the messy ball of yarn that was my brain when I lived in New York City disentangling into a seamless straight line. I left New York City in a huff, frantically escaping a painful relationship - an engagement. It felt devastating at the time; it felt traumatic and real and I just realized I had to get to the airplane.
But now, I'm honestly having a hard time recalling why it hurt so much. Now, it just feels like one of those things people do. It feels like a mistake. And that's okay. Mistakes are fine. Mistakes happen. Mistakes make us real.
It took a month on the road to figure that out. But honestly, I'm kind of happy it did. Now I feel more content - closer to my true emotional self than I have in years.
And so here we are, Geoff and I, riding mopeds through the Colombian countryside in the morning, stopping for lunch and a dip in a rushing river in the early afternoon. But even those memories are gently fading behind us as we make our way back to Guatapé. Geoff honks his weak rental moped horn and I slow to a stop. He pulls up beside me.
“We’re an hour ahead of schedule,” he says. “We still have time before we need to return the mopeds. I could use a beer. Next time we pass a bar, let’s pull off.”
I could use a beer, too. Geoff speeds up and I pull out behind him.
We ride on for an eternity, passing nothing but sheds staking claim to barnhood, grazing cattle, trickling brooks and mountain vistas. Colombia’s spectacular green mountains rise and sink, the sky decorates itself in a delicate cumulus sweater and locals play cards on patios and smile and wave as we pass.
A colorful blur falls behind us as quickly as it appears, but Geoff and I both catch it — the iconic yellow and blue signage of Colombia’s largest beer company, Aguila. Geoff glances over his shoulder to me. I tap my horn. We slow to a stop, redirect our motorbikes, and double back the way we came.
It turns out the blur is far from a bar at all. Geoff and I pull into the muddy drive of a concrete home, its corrugated tin roof rusting with age. Children playing with Tonka trucks on the patio. An older woman in an apron puts aside her broom and smiles in our direction.
“Hola,” I say with a timid smile as I pull off my helmet. “¿Tienes cervezas?”
“¡Si, si!” she says. She dusts off two chairs and pulls them from their table. I sense in her excitement our patronage is far from expected, and so does Geoff.
“You sure about this?” he whispers.
But it’s too late; I’m already halfway to her patio.
“Dos Aguilas, porfa.” I say and wave at the children crawling about her floor. The woman rushes to her kitchen as Geoff and I pass a glance.
Excited whispers float to the patio from inside while two children lead toy racecars and fire trucks around the floor, whirring and vrooming the way children do
“¿Como estas?” I ask the child nearer me. He glances over his shoulder to his bigger brother, back to me, and says something in Spanish I don’t understand. A teenage girl pokes her head out the window, catches our eye, retreats and giggles to an anonymous presence inside.
Time passes. I raise the ladder on a toy fire truck by my feet, allowing invisible little workers to put out a nonexistent fire on my chair. The boy crashes his racecar into my truck, knocking it on its side. My chair is destined to burn. I smile. He laughs and crawls along the floor, searching for more imaginary destruction.
Geoff pets a cat that descended from a tree somewhere. He checks his phone. Glances at me and taps his wrist. I nod. Our spare hour is down to twenty minutes.
The woman in the apron returns, and she’s not alone. A stout little man with bravado and a mustache steps out behind her. He greets us loudly as his wife places our drinks before us.
“¿Como estas muchachos?” he says as he shakes our hands with vigor. “Bienvenidos.”
He asks us if we speak Spanish - in Spanish - and we both make clear that our Spanish leaves much to be desired. But he doesn’t mind. He breaks into a monologue of rapid and exquisite expression that I can barely comprehend. I don't get it all, but I know he began with a dear appreciation for the arrival of foreigners in his country, in his home. He sees our presence as a sign of better times in a region that had been decimated by drug cartels, war and political upheaval since before he was born.
But my Spanish can’t keep pace, and I lose him. The essence of his appreciation remains in the tone of his voice, in the rising and falling of his enthusiasm. In due time, his eyes water with tears.
Geoff and I glance to one another. Geoff taps his wrist again. We are truly out of time. I stand.
“Gracias amigo,” I say. “Muchas gracias.”
I hold a warm smile as long as I can to fill the holes in my spoken language.
“Un momento,” he says. He raises a finger and steps back inside.
He returns, moments later, with nothing but a napkin. He raises his finger again. With the dexterity of a clown weaving a balloon animal, he twists and rolls. He folds and pushes and pulls.
And from his hand, where a napkin had once been, stands a vibrant rose, colored a deep velvety red but only in my mind.
He wipes away a tear. So do I.
“Para ti,” he says. “For you.” And he stretches his hand toward us.
Geoff and I accelerate back onto the road outside their house. The family of four waves as we pass. The youngest child raises his fire truck with a sly smile. And I have to think that waterfalls and canyons and snorkeling aren't why I chose to leave my life behind in the first pĺace. It was this. The little moments of human interaction that remind me of the goodness of humanity, of the decency of spirit, the wealth of experience I haven’t lived.
And so it’s right then, in the comforting solitude of my black and yellow moped helmet, that I feel my cheeks raise and my eyes squint. And I smile, only for myself.
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
My identity hasn't changed in the ten and a half minutes since I said it last, so yeah.
All right, you hear the episode. If you like it, share it. It would mean everything.
Also, keep an eye on this feed this week on whatever podcast platform you're on. I'm going start doing something above and beyond the normal Tuesday episodes. So keep an eye out - there will be a surprise one day this week.
If you like the show, please share it, and text Pod to (332) 877-9540.
if you want more information about this episode, me, the show or anything else, go to heybaggageclaim.com. That link is in the description below. It'll take you to the show notes.
All right, see you next Tuesday everyone.
[Theme Music Ends]