Colombia, like the rest of the world, is sailing into the unknown waters of post-virus existence. Restaurants are open for delivery only, schools remain closed and we’re still only allowed into the shops on designated days.
The cycle of life is inexorable. My eldest son, David Santiago, celebrates his 12th journey around the sun tomorrow. It’s hard to believe he will be a teenager in a year – he’s still more interested in Lego and superheroes than girls.
My wife has left me in charge of collecting David’s birthday cake. Despite the seeming simplicity of the task, Marcela gives me detailed instructions. I feel like I’m detecting a sliver of doubt on her part as to my ability to make a simple journey to the pasteleria at the bottom of the mountain and pick up an already-ordered cake. My wife’s incertitude chaffs my ego, making me all the more determined to succeed. To prove ‘gringo loco’ can run an errand without it turning into a cultural clusterfuck.
The pasteleria is at the bottom of the mountain, a brisk one-hour walk or 20 minutes in one of the tiny buses that bumble up and down the steep road. Wallet, keys, phone, machete, check! I kiss my wife and leave. I decide to walk, eager for the outside world, still feeling the effects of lock-down.
White man’s graveyard
Fifty shades of grey cover the sun, cold enough to make you shiver while humid enough to make a gringo perspire every time he moves. The Andes are shawled in silvery, cloud-like, majestic old ladies. I start off down the path, despite the chill in the air the humidity means I’m soaked in sweat after a few minutes of marching. The merging of shivering and sweating feels like a fever coming on. As my wife points out, there’s a reason they used to call this part of the world the ‘white man’s graveyard’.
Brahman cows crowd the fence. The climate here is too harsh for most cattle breeds but the hardy brahman, with their camel-like humps, have a remarkable capacity for survival, even in the most inappropriate terrain. A big bull, his cows and a cluster of calves stick their heads through the fence. I stop to scratch their long soft ears.
As I ponder the cause of their bovine anticipation the answer comes pedalling slowly up the hill on a tricycle loaded with big white buckets. The farmer stops in front of the cows, hoisting the buckets off the back and tipping them to the waiting cows. The buckets are full of mangled oranges, crushed by the juicers at one of the many orange-juice stands that punctuate the road down the mountain. Every day the farmer rides his tricycle around the juice stands collecting crushed fruit for his cows.
The breeze carries the scent of warm orange, the fruit starting to ferment in the heat. He tips another bucket over the fence to the waiting herd. The cows think it a splendid feast. Nothing goes to waste here, recycling is survival.
After a brisk ten-minute march the mountain road goes through a series of blind bends, the path disappearing. A juggernaut hurtles past, making the road shudder through my soles. The only alternative to the road is to scramble down a 30 foot slope into the bamboo forest to a trail that leads into town. The short cut through the jungle is the reason for the machete slapping on my thigh with every step I take.
I slide down the slope on my arse, holding the machete between my teeth pirate-style to keep my hands free to slow my descent. My foot catches something, sending me into a forward roll, and I crash through the bamboo until I come to a halt on my back in the jungle. It’s like a giant emerald bucket has just dropped over my head. Gone is the grey vista and mountains, leaving only the great green crushing in. A moment of claustrophobia, walled in by an impenetrable forest of giant bamboo. With relief, I find the path and set off towards town.
My appearance in the jungle excites the local fauna and soon a halo of buzzing bloodsuckers gathers around my head. Giant mosquitos, horseflies and several species of sanguivorous insects I can’t identify.
“Oh fuck off!”
I feel the tickle of proboscis breaking skin but the insects don’t appear to understand Anglo-Saxon. A few feet ahead the narrow trail is blocked by fallen bamboo – since the quarantine the soldiers who hack the paths clear every month have been absent on other duties. Machete time. I pull the blade and slash my way through the bamboo before the insects can suck me dry, dripping with exudation, bites stinging through the sweat.
The obstacle cleared, I continue down the path, rejoining the road as it reaches the outskirts of town. The ants are busy stripping the plants, red and green columns dissecting the pavement. My walk becomes an involuntary game of hopscotch as I traverse the ant-covered pavement while trying to keep casualties to a minimum.
After insects attack
The tables and chairs are gone from the front of the pasteleria, sit-down dining a memory from a world before the virus. I stop for a moment to gaze at the cakes in the window, startled by my reflection. My face and head are polka-dotted with bites like cartoon measles, itching miserably through my sweat-soaked hide.
I pick up the cake and find my wife has already phoned ahead to make sure there are no mix-ups. I exchange pleasantries with the proprietor, who remembers my family from the days before the virus, when coffee and cake was a Sunday ritual. A few minutes later, my meagre supply of Spanish exhausted, I exit the bakers carrying the cake box containing David’s birthday cake, a rainbow gateau personalised with ‘Feliz Cumpleaños David’ iced in silver. It’s a beautiful cake.
The socially distanced line for the bus reaches back as far as I can see. A bus arrives but only half the seats can be filled under new virus guidelines. The line barely moves and I’m already tired of holding the cake. Patience has always been a virtue that eludes me and I decide to walk back up the mountain.
Forewarned with the knowledge a squadron of vampire insects awaits me in the tall bamboo and now encumbered by the cake, I decide to walk back up the road. Instant death from an out-of-control juggernaut would be better than having the life drained out of me by 100,000 miserable mosquito bites. I minimise the risk of a fatal encounter with a truck by sticking to the right-hand side of the road, where the ascending vehicles are slowed to a crawl by the gradient. The left side of the road is best avoided unless you have a death wish. Runaway behemoths hurtle down the inside lane, barely making the sharp bends above looming precipices.
As I trudge up the hill carrying David’s birthday cake in my outstretched arms the customary miscellany of vehicles pass me. Intrepid cyclists on expensive mountain bikes jostle with local kids hitching up the mountain on their BMXs by hooking a foot under the rear bumper of the bus. Cops and paramilitaries ride two-up on camouflage motorcycles. Bright red Willys Jeeps from the coffee plantations, home-built trikes straight from a Mad Max movie, chromed-out cowboy big-rigs, the vehicles are as colourful and varied as the omnipresent insects.
My legs burn from the gradient but I push on, eager to put the cake down and shower off the sweat stinging my bites. An old man in an ancient car pulls level with me, the engine of his wretched automobile over-revving as it barely moves. Slowly, so slowly, it passes me, my world momentarily obscured by the polluted nebula of black smoke belching from the exhaust.
I watch fascinated as the old man’s car crawls to the top of the hill, engine screaming in protest. My eyes sting from the fumes. The old man is just reaching the crest when a nun suddenly appears, crossing the road with the regal assumption the traffic will defer to her status. The old man stops to let our Sister in Christ traverse the mountain road.
The nun crosses the road and walks on without a backward glance, her mind on her holy mission and oblivious of the chaos that’s about to unfold in her wake. Robbed of its momentum, the old man’s car starts rolling back down the mountainside. Our eyes meet as he rolls past me. The driver has even more antiquity than his vehicle, gnarled and shrunken, a faded Hawaiian shirt and one of those white bucket hats that senior-citizen golfers wear. Together, we hear his handbrake cable snap and then he is back past me, rolling out of control down the hill.
It’s one of those moments that seem to swoop down from nowhere. His car rolls faster away from me. I put the cake down on a rock and run after the car, getting behind it and bracing myself, feet sliding on the loose surface as I slow it to a halt with brute force. I find a boulder and wedge it beneath the back wheel to stop it rolling further.
Luckily the cake is undamaged. The old man gets his car started after several attempts and pulls off in an attempt to resume his journey but, with no momentum, the same backward roll begins. The engine revs, the scent of burning plastic seasoning the air with an extra layer of toxicity.
I put the cake down again and re-anchor the runaway automobile using another boulder. The old man looks like he’s going to cry. I’m already plastered with sweat and on a mission to get the cake home, surely securing the car with a rock is enough? You can scoff but it was one of those moments when I could feel the gods watching.
“Odin, you are a motherfucker,” I say, not for the first time.
I balance the cake on the roof and brace myself to push. The old man hits the gas and so do I, heaving like a competitor in a strongman contest, pushing the old man’s junk-bucket up the mountain road. My lungs sting and my eyes water as I labour through the toxic fog from the exhaust pipe.
Choking, and at the edge of my endurance, we reach the top of the slope and I feel the car pick up speed as I push it over the crest. Relived to be free of my burden, I watch the old man speed away down the mountain before my heart sinks to my guts as I realise David’s birthday cake is still on the roof of the car, disappearing into the distance to some unknown destiny.
Cake – slice two
I imagine Marcela’s reaction when I return empty-handed. Stung by my wife’s scepticism and a dozen insect bites, I decide to walk back down the mountain to the bakers to buy another cake – no-one need ever know.
It takes almost an hour to walk back to the pasteleria and another hour to explain the situation to the baker and wait to get a replacement cake iced up. This time I’m taking no chances, I decide to get a taxi home. I realise too late I’ve lost my mask somewhere on my journey. With no mask I can’t get a taxi to pick me up, the drivers too worried about a fine from one of the numerous police roadblocks enforcing the quarantine.
With no mask, the bus isn’t an option either. Left with no choice, I head back up the mountain on foot, once again carrying the cake in my outstretched arms – and this time I’m not stopping for anybody or anything.
By now I’m bewildered by the humidity, my thoughts addled, anxious to shower the sweat from my stinging insect bites. At long last I see my building grow taller on the skyline and I quicken my pace. Almost home. I am vaguely aware of the clack of hooves on tarmac and moments later a horse and rider slowly pass me, their progress as tortured as the old man’s car.
If anything, this nag is even more decrepit than the ancient automobile – a pitiful, broken-down creature, more bones than flesh, plodding wearily up the hill. The horse’s rider isn’t so ancient, a young man in the prime of life, a heavily muscled ranchero at least the same size as me. It doesn’t take an equestrian expert to see the rider is much too heavy for the sway-backed nag he is whipping up the hill, his feet dangling on the ground as the poor beast struggles.
The ranchero keeps the horse moving by flogging it with a bamboo cane. I don’t have many rules in life but if I see someone beating a defenceless animal, I’m going to intervene. I decide not to waste time with verbiage and risk a linguistic misunderstanding. Instead, I grab the rider by his collar as he passes, yank him straight off the back of the horse and drop him on his arse in the road. The horse walks on a few paces then stops as the man sits in the dust and stares.
For a moment we all stare in shock, then the young man surges to his feet, charging me with murderous intent in his eyes. I’m forced to drop the cake to defend myself. I’m the angriest man alive but even I’m surprised to end my day locked in mortal combat with a total stranger on the side of a mountain. But there we are, so tangled up we can’t get at our machetes, cursing in English and Spanish in a most scandalous way.
The ranchero hits me with a right hand that makes me see Valkyries so I put my head down and butt him in the belly. He gives out a grunt you can hear across the mountains. In the field behind us the brahman cows watch us battle as they slowly sway, drunk on fermented oranges.
I throw my opponent through a roadside juice stand, demolishing the flimsy structure like a house of cards, but the cake is reduced to a Technicolor sugar-smear in the dust. I’m already winded, the humid air like being water-boarded with hot soup.
“Stay fucking down,” I say to the ranchero, lying buried in the remains of the juice stand. He gives a great bellow, shaking aside the fragments and heaving up out of the wreckage like a bear out of a deadfall.
We’re about to resume our conflict when we hear the sound of sirens and, by some instant unspoken agreement, stop fighting and go our separate ways. The ranchero walks, leading the horse, so I take it as a victory. The police go by slowly, glaring. Nothing to see here, officer.
Cake – slice three
Low in spirits, I walk back down the mountain to the baker’s shop for a third time. A third cake is purchased and iced. This time I bribe the baker to drive me home. I am battered, bruised, bloody, insect-bitten and miserable when the baker drops me in front of my building – but at least I have the cake.
At least I’m spared having to explain the whole shit-show to Marcela. When I walk into my apartment I’m surprised to see a Technicolor birthday cake already on the table. The old man in the car had found out where I lived and returned the cake. Marcela had a busy afternoon as she also had a visit from an irate juice-stand owner demanding compensation for his demolished premises.
“What happened?” she asks.
“Nothing, mi amor. Just the usual.”
I put the second cake next to the first and go to take a shower. Not every day comes out symmetrical.