I arrive in Villa Maria sodden, freezing, filthy.
I am exiting a hotel that is so dire even I won’t consider staying there. The rooms are raw brick windowless stalls that fit a bed and nothing more. No room to unpack. Everything is wet. There is no place to hang clothes, tent, sleeping bag, to dry. I struggle to wrestle the bike and panniers out the front door and back onto the street. The staff assisted my entrance to view the room but since I have declined to become a customer they do nothing to facilitate my exit.
A man approaches.
“Where do you come from?”
My patience is short. I’m cold, tired, hungry, wet. It’s getting dark.
“I can’t talk now!” ”
“Do you need somewhere to stay?”
I look up at him.
“I have travelled, too. With backpacks, to Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil – with my wife and children. My wife speaks English. Would you like to stay with us for the night?”
He gestures across the street. A woman is standing in the door of a shop. She smiles, waves. I nod. Together we push the bike across the road and into the shop, a brightly lit space, starkly empty but for a few tall vases of flowers and a bubbling tank of gold fish. A pool of muddy water gathers on the floor around me and my bike.
On my second evening with Maurico and Natalie we are invited to visit some of their friends – two brothers – at a finca about half an hour from Villa Maria. We set off, three up, on Mauricio’s motor bike. There are only two helmets and the passenger sandwiched in the middle goes without. As a guest, I am given the choice of whether I would prefer to sit precariously at the rear with a helmet or sit wedged in by supposedly protective human flesh, with my skull exposed. I take the helmet, which doesn’t fasten, and balance it on my head.
The bike strains under our combined weight up dizzying gradients to the top of Villa Maria’s hill and then we bounce down the other side on a muddy rutted track into rural darkness. I cling onto the bike with one hand. I use the other hand to hold the helmet on my head.
At the finca, we start the evening outside by a bonfire but later go inside to eat a dessert made from pumpkin boiled up with raw cane sugar and served with milk and bread.
On the way home I ride pillion with another of Mauricio’s friends. This motor cycle doesn’t boast headlights so Maurico rides close behind us to illuminate the potholed track. Light reflects blindingly off the mirrors while the perilous drops to the side of the road remain veiled in darkness. I can’t see a thing so I close my eyes and enjoy the ride.
* Wikipedia and the internet at large has clear limits in this kind of research. Perhaps a more accurate rendition of the story is that Pablo Escobar’s family came from Manizales and had a furniture business. But I don’t know.