Defining Ithaca: Journey versus Destination

He was called Jimmy, he told us as we sped along the mountain roads in his taxi, because when he was little, a North American came to stay with his family and the anglicised pronunciation of his name stuck from then on. As we ascended above the city of Cali, in southern Colombia, and the magnificent, mountain-framed view spread out below us, he addressed each person in his shared taxi, asking names and origins until we all felt thoroughly acquainted. The journey was only meant to take a couple of hours, but Jimmy managed to stretch it out with stops for food, tinto, the sweet black coffee Colombians drink at every  opportunity, or simply to have a quick chat with a roadside friend. Midway through the journey, we pulled over at a pineapple stand, the huge fruits displayed in rows on shelves made of wooden branches. I had never seen such beautiful pineapples, ranging in colour from pinky-orange to greeny-yellow, and when the vender sliced one open for us, it was so fresh that our tongues were soon burning. On the opposite side of the road, fields of pineapple plants stretched away from us, the weight of a purplish-green fruit nestled in the centre of each bunch of long leaves.

The journey with Jimmy may have been slightly protracted, but it was a perfect example of Colombia’s ‘X factor’. Colombia has a vibrancy that neither Sam and I can put our finger on exactly when other travellers ask why the country has fast become our favourite so far, but zipping along those mountain roads as Jimmy chattered away, the wind gushing through the open windows of the car and the sunlit landscape around us becoming more spectacular by the minute, I felt a surge of excitement and joy. Growing up, I had the print-out of ‘Ithaca’, a poem by C. P. Cavafy, on my bedroom wall, given to me by my dad. In the poem, Cavafy conceptualises Odysseus’s ten year journey back to his home island of Ithaca. When I left to go travelling, my dad gave me another copy. There in Jimmy’s car, I thought of the poem:

… do not hurry the journey at all
Better if it lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way

 

Jimmy dropped us off at a roadside conglomeration of basic concrete buildings and wooden huts centred around a single set of train tracks. We were immediately surrounded by touts trying to sell us tickets for the next leg of our journey. In fact, the mode of transport for that next leg was the main reason we were there. The journey.

San Cipriano, our destination, was a small, Afro-Colombian village in the middle of subtropical forest close to the pacific coast of Colombia. The only connection to the village was the railroad. No trains run. The locals had therefore come up with their own resourceful solution to the problem.

We clambered aboard that solution. A wooden platform with runners had been placed on the train tracks and a motorbike had been fixed to it with metal brackets, its front wheel resting on the wooden planks, its back in contact with the rail. Several of us squashed together on a wooden bench placed on the platform and our driver mounted the motorbike. We began gliding along the rails, the back wheel of the motorbike powering the whole contraption. Soon we were whizzing through the jungle and over bridges, jerking at regular intervals as we crossed joints in the rails. Despite the speed we were travelling at, I could feel the thick humid air settling onto my skin. We passed clusters of wooden huts, brightly coloured laundry hung between wilting posts, the odd motorbike trolley sat to one side, cumbersome-looking once it was off the rails. Children playing by the rail side didn’t bother to even look up.

Then the inevitable happened. We rounded a bend in the tracks and another moto-trolley was gliding towards us. Barely thirty seconds later, another followed behind. We all slowed and the face-off began. Our trolley had more passengers. But on their side, there were more trolleys. To complicate the matter, another one glided around the bend and slowed behind ours. Now we were even.

After a couple of stubborn minutes, our side lost, and we all dismounted. Our trolley and the one behind were hauled off the tracks and we waited until the oncoming vehicles, now numbering three, had passed. Then the trolleys were dragged back onto the tracks and realigned, and we all clambered aboard and set off once again.

We lose the face off

After twenty minutes or so, we arrived in San Cipriano. We climbed off the trolleys and had barely taken ten steps before we had picked up several locals. Did we need a place to stay? Did we want to go to the waterfall? Did we want to go tubing? We had a tip-off for a hotel from friends who had visited a few days before, so replied to everything with a polite but firm ‘no, gracias’ and began walking through the village. We kept politely refusing all offers, but I did the dangerous thing of smiling at someone and soon we had collected several more locals. We weren’t used to being hassled. In countries like India or in South-east Asia it is commonplace and when I was travelling there I had developed a thick-skin, but now I was used to the by and large hassle-free environment of South America. Feeling like walking moneybags was unpleasant. I tried not to react to the slight edge of aggression in a lot of the offers and remained polite but firm. I was also well aware of the evident signs of poverty around me. The village was really just a strip, one dirt path lined with houses either side. Some of the houses were brickwork and I could see tiles set into the concrete floors through the open doorways, but most were shacks of flimsy-looking wood. Many houses had a second floor, either unfinished or deliberately open, with lines of laundry hung beneath corrugated iron roofs. The trees of the jungle pushed in around the houses and sometimes a palm managed to squeeze between the buildings and grow. The odd horse grazed on the strips of grass which grew on either side of the dirt track. The humidity of a day well on its way blurred the place, softening edges and fading colours. Every now and then we caught glimpses of a clear, shallow river flowing to one side.

By the time we reached the other end of the village we had managed to lose most of our entourage. We found the recommended hotel. Made of concrete and with all the floors tiled it stood out. Evidently business was doing well. A boy who had been playing football on the street ran upstairs to fetch his ‘aunt’ (though it is possible that everyone in the village was related, I have a feeling that the term was used to denote respect more than a familial tie). When she arrived, we enquired about a room and once we had been shown one and decided to stay there, we asked about food. Being vegetarian, this can take a bit of imagination and persuasion, but she agreed to fix us up a plate of veggie food: eggs, rice, plantain, salad. She left to cook.

The boy asked us for a tip. His aunt had asked him to get the money we owed for the room, and he brought us back less change than we needed, as he had, after all, helped us to find the hotel, he said, and didn’t have the right notes anyway. I pointed out that we had actually walked in ourselves and that his involvement in the following conversation with his aunt wasn’t strictly necessary, but he remained standing in the doorway of our room. Sam was sorting through small change trying to find the right coins so that the boy would be able to give us our correct change, but I didn’t realise what was going on and feeling harassed eventually shooed him from the room, though not before he asked for another tip for a friend who had just joined his side. Afterwards, I felt annoyed at myself that I had let the awkwardness of the situation get the better of me. The tip was small, but the way in which he got it was unpleasant, a calculated move designed to work with the language barrier and awkwardness.

That evening we sat upstairs, watching the gentle flow of village and discussing our feelings about the place. It was a perfect example of an issue that travellers come across time and again. The fame of the moto-trolley transport drew visitors to the place. It was, indeed, a fun ride. But once in the village, I couldn’t work out if our presence did more harm than good. We were bringing in money, it was true, and tourism really was their greatest income. I never saw, and cannot imagine, the poverty that existed before and would exist otherwise. But on the other hand, a certain approach to tourists had developed, probably because it produced the most fruitful (mercenary) results. Some people are not assertive enough to refuse offers of tours or hotels. Some, like me, were put in awkward positions and once a tip was handed out, even if it wasn’t earned, figured what did fifty cents matter in the scheme of things. Some people must have found the hassle method frustrating and become brusque, even rude, in response. All of these responses enforced the idea that tourists were good only for money (and didn’t I feel it, being there) and it was an idea learnt right from the off, from when locals were kids playing football in the street.

We left the next morning, via the moto-trolley on the train tracks. When we reached the other end, our driver informed us that we owed more money, as he wasn’t the same guy who had driven us in, though we had been told that we had paid for a round trip. Frustrated, but unable to do anything about it, we had to pay.

I never did work out my feelings about the place. The journey there was unusual, exhilarating, and as is often the case with travelling, as Cavafy points out in ‘Ithaca’, it is as much about the journey as the destination. And despite the unpleasant experience once there, I couldn’t, in all good faith, say that I wouldn’t recommend the place. It felt like an experience to be decided upon individually. But Cavafy’s poem isn’t accidentally entitled ‘Ithaca’. Though the journey may be rich, the destination is the cause of that journey, and Colombia, indeed South America, has been strewn with fantastic Ithacas, which keep drawing me onwards, enriching my long journey. But San Cipriano was not one of them.

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