“We are in the middle, we are caught between two protests.” A broad shouldered man explains to me in Spanish. “We must go now.” This is all I understand for certain. He takes his ball cap off and slaps his leg with it. The cap is soft and shapeless from the time he has spent using it to emphasize his point. I noticed he also uses it to exaggerate his gestures when berating our bus driver. The man is bald but his head isn’t shiny, he isn’t sweating. In fact, his T-shirt and jeans are pristine. He seems exasperated but not really upset. I instinctively trust him, I follow him to the table. I’m sweating.
We are in an open air truck stop between Medellin and Salento. The roof is a bright red and the concrete pillars are a brighter yellow. Maybe thirty aluminum patio-style tables form neat rows in the center. We’re sitting a table near the back with three other men from our bus. The rest of the tables are empty. The other passengers on our bus, Colombian women, have locked themselves inside. This was against the advice of the bald man, “You need fresh air!” he says in Spanish, “It’s going to build up in here!” He slaps his leg restlessly with the cap. The bald man has moved the fan behind table so it is blowing in the fresher air of the river and valley, rather than from the road. Lushly forested mountains rise up around us, obscuring the protests just down the road and around the curve. The bald man orders us to buy more water and drink some, I comply and my throat feels a little better.
Something is burning our noses and drying up our throats, again. Our eyes water and redden. It doesn’t have a smell, it’s invisible, it just burns. I’m not sure what it is, everyone has t-shirts or rags over their faces but seem fairly calm, if grim. Toxic gas? Are they spraying some kind of pesticide on the mountains? I’m carefully studying a bird, I wonder if this is how miners watched their canaries.
A younger Colombian speaks English, “it’s a.. a cloud to make the crowds break up.” Tear gas. “Why are they protesting?” He looks guilty and shrugs, breaking eye contact. I wince, I wonder if it has something to do with the US. We look to the road, police are moving past us again. This time marching in uneven lines, they’re wearing riot gear. A cross between a tank and a large truck rolls by. It’s followed by several motorcycles bearing policemen. Some of them wear the typical dark green fatigues and neon yellow vest, POLICIA stands out across the back. The only store here is across the road, they roll down a thick metal shutter over the door. The windows are already barred. The truck stop feels emptier.
I can feel the unease tightening my muscles, a tense-ness creeping across my shoulders. I am grateful for my tennis shoes. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. It appears the road closed right behind us and we stopped as a precaution, getting stuck between protests as another one closed it in front of us. I had noticed a heavy police presence on part of the drive but there is often a heavy police presence in Colombia. In almost every city we’ve been in police are stationed on the corner of every block in two’s or threes. In some places they had big dogs, German Shepherds and Rottweilers and mixed breeds, wearing black muzzles with them. Green tents are set up in squares with several police milling around carrying what I think are AK-47’s. Certainly some kind of automatic rifle. The riot gear is new. The tank is scary. I text my dad, he soothes me and I tell my parents I love them. We’ve been stopped for several hours, the burning sensation has crept into our heads once, twice, three times.
“Get in the bus! Get in the bus!” The driver is shouting at us in Spanish and we move quickly to him. We crawl into our seats. It’s more of a van really, seating 15 people in tall cushy chairs. The van begins rolling towards the road even before everyone has rushed in. We slowly drive up the road, flanked by police.
“Shut the curtains.” The driver stage whispers back into the van. We peak out through a space where the window is clear, you can’t see much. We pass knots of police and knots of people, a small town and lush forest. Nothing is terribly striking or unusual. We make our way past one town and pass the traffic stopped on the other side of the road. Trucks with cattle, people on motorcycles. We exhale for a moment, we are stopped again before making it to Armenia, but we don’t get out.
The time passes warily and it’s a relief to finally arrive in Salento. We get off the bus and begin walking in the wrong direction, accompanied by the only other backpacker making the trip with us. He’s Israeli. He praises the US, we talk about the Iron Dome and wander around Salento a bit aimlessly. Pausing on a corner we must look lost as a tiny Colombian woman sees us and smiles. She comes over and lays a hand gently on my arm. “What are you searching for?” she says in Spanish. “Casa de la Lili” She gives us directions and we make it the first turn before we are confused again. A Colombian gentlemen spots us peering around at the street signs. He smiles and counts out the streets motioning right, “A la derecha” I repeat after him slowly and he grins, nodding. I have the feeling he doesn’t think we know where we are going. He’s right. With the help of one more friendly Colombian, we find Casa de la Lili and she welcomes us to the hostel with coffee. It’s divine.
Last August farmers or campesinos protested the Colombian government’s recent free trade agreements with the United States and European Union. They blamed these policies for flooding the market with agricultural products and at prices too cheap for the campesinos to keep up with. This combined with increasing costs in production, fuel & fertilizers caused massive losses for farmers who were faced with mounting debts. The weeks long protests ended after the government agreed to measures to reduce debt, improve prices on agricultural products, increase access to loans and help control fertilizer prices. Since August the campesinos do not feel like the reforms and promises from August have been kept. The government says many are long term changes.
Currently we have made it from Salento to Cali but protests have closed all roads south of here and all buses are cancelled for the time being. Our plan was to travel by bus to Popayan and then down to Ipiales, which is right on the border before heading into Ecuador. Even if a road did open temporarily con afuerza or with force, taking a bus through it would be risky, akin to crossing a picket line. We will instead be spending the week here in Cali, taking salsa lessons and Spanish classes before flying from Cali to Quito, Ecuador on Monday the 13th. We love Colombia, the people here are consistently kind and wonderful not the mention some of the amazing places we’ve seen and things we’ve been able to experience. We’ve already spent twice as much time in Colombia as we had anticipated and it will be bittersweet to leave.0