COLOMBIA, 3rd-8th July 2019
“Are you okay?!” Dea asked from inside the tent, obviously concerned by my sudden pained expletive.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I lied, as I pushed my right thumb hard into the palm of my left hand to try and stop the bleeding. “I just cut myself. Quite badly actually. Would you mind coming outside and fixing the tent please, I can’t use my hands right now.”
Dea did just that. With the metal tube now over the bend it was a simple job to slide it up over the cracked part of the pole to complete the repair job, although Dea did so with enormous care, as if the metal tube might attack her next. Thankfully she managed to get the tube over the crack and the tent fixed without maiming herself, which was good because I next needed her to open the tent for me. In fact I needed her to do just about everything for me now that my hands were out of action.
Back in the tent I tried taking my thumb off my other hand to inspect the damage, but the amount of blood that suddenly appeared discouraged me from continuing down that path. It was obviously a deep cut and it hurt a lot, and I knew I had to keep applying pressure to prevent serious blood loss. I cursed my own stupidity. As if it wasn’t enough that I’d rammed a sharp piece of metal into my hand, I’d done it knowing it was going to happen. How stupid is that? And now I was in a real bad situation. It was ten o’clock at night, we were in the middle of nowhere, on a road being used by no one, with no phone service, and my thumb was cut really bad.
In truth I was feeling a little bit afraid, but I remained calm, for I knew that keeping a clear head was important, and I didn’t want to panic Dea, who looked after me tremendously. She discovered that there was a hospital in the next town of Guatape, which was only fifteen kilometres away, and we started to think about how to get there. I was pretty sure I was going to need stitches and it briefly occurred to me to start walking straight away, but so long as I kept the pressure on my thumb I wasn’t losing blood, and waiting until morning was obviously a more sensible idea.
We listened to a podcast to pass the time, and then I read my book when Dea fell asleep, turning the pages with my toes. Every so often I would take my thumb off my hand to see if the bleeding had stopped. For hours it never did, but I was able to look at it long enough to see that there were actually two cuts, one on the side of the thumb and a more serious one down the middle of it. I kept the pressure on it and did my best to stay awake. I knew if I fell asleep my thumb would come loose and I could potentially lose a lot of blood, so I did everything I could to stay awake. Eventually I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, so I got Dea to strap my hands together, and I got a little bit of half-sleep in the couple of hours before dawn.
When I woke up from semi-conscious slumber my thumb had come free from my hand, but thankfully the bleeding had stopped. I could now see that the two cuts, though deep, were already beginning to clot and heal, and perhaps I wasn’t going to need stitches after all. But I certainly wasn’t going to be able to use my thumb for anything at all, lest the cuts open up again, which meant riding my bike was out of the question. So it was time for us to put our escape plan into action. It was the fourth of July, a day that Dea had christened ‘Dependence Day’ thanks to my relience on her. She went into full-on awesome mode, packing up all of our stuff, taking down the tent, and doing everything while I just sat there with my thumb in the air. Then she locked my bike to a tree and camouflaged it, in a way that I think you’ll agree, was spectacularly brilliant:
We began walking, Dea pushing her bike, me with my bloodied thumb in the air. It wasn’t long before we were passed by a motorcyclist who, perhaps because of the aforementioned protruding thumb, stopped to ask if I wanted a lift. I did not want a lift, of course. I was still capable of travelling under my own power, and I was thoroughly enjoying walking with Dea, so I politely declined the offer. For the next few hours we walked on together, until six kilometres from Guatape we hit a paved road, and I insisted that Dea should ride on ahead. She’d been reluctant to leave me, but me and my thumb were doing okay, and I insisted she go on and find us a hotel so that I could move in straight away when I arrived.
An hour or so later I completed my walk, arriving in Guatape. It was a strange place, completely different from the towns we’d been in up to now. Its position on the banks of a large man-made reservoir seemed to have made it a bit of a tourist town, a playground for people from Medellin. It was a more developed town, with all the houses painted in bright colours. It seemed a little fake, and in my condition also rather unfamiliar and confusing, but I made my way to the church steps where I’d agreed to meet Dea. There was no sign of her. For ten or fifteen minutes I waited, until eventually she arrived. She explained that there was a sporting event taking place this weekend and that almost all of the hotels were fully booked. She’d been to about ten before finding one that could host us for three nights, the minimum we thought I’d need to rest my thumb for. But she had finally found one, and led me to it, before carrying all of her bags and her bike up two flights of stairs and into our room (not all at the same time).
As if all of that wasn’t enough, my superhero girlfriend then went out again to retrieve my bike, returning a few hours later with a great story of travelling up into the hills and back again, holding onto my bike in the back of a tuk-tuk. She then carried all of my bags and my bike up two flights of stairs and into our room. Wow, she had been amazing, absolutely brilliant in getting us and our stuff here. It was quite a contrast to the girl that had been throwing her bike down and saying she couldn’t do it just 24 hours earlier. But she had proved herself wrong, she most certainly could do it, there could be no doubt about that.
I decided against going to the hospital, for the cuts seemed like they would heal okay without stitches, the idea of which I didn’t like anyway. I just got some antibiotics from the chemist in case of infection. For the next few days I rested a lot and tried to avoid doing anything involving my thumb, and as a result I got much better at using my left hand. And being stuck in a tourist town wasn’t too bad, for we got to enjoy food from a surprising number of vegetarian restaurants that meant a welcome bit of variety in our diet.
But the real highlight of being stuck in Guatape, a town we would otherwise have just passed straight through, was in getting to watch the sporting event, which turned out to be a triathlon. Actually it was many triathlons. On the Saturday there was a sprint triathlon and lots of kids’ events, which were probably the most fun to watch. Because they went a relatively short distance their races were always very close, and it was fun to watch them get out of the water and try to pick who was going to be the eventual winner, then see if they could triumph after the cycling and running.
The following day were the two big adult triathlons, one Olympic distance and the other a half-Ironman. In total there were 800 people competing. We watched the swimmers first, then walked over to the bike transition area to watch as first the top athletes raced through, then everybody else, then the final plodding slow competitors. Then it wasn’t long before the leaders were coming back in on their bikes and heading off for the final running leg. This consisted of a few loops of the town before they came back and crossed the finish line. The winner of the Olympic distance was a good guy who had enough energy to high-five a policeman and kiss his wife in the crowd before crossing the line in triumph. All of this made both Dea and myself keen to try a triathlon or similar event, for there was a tremendous sense of camaraderie throughout the day amongst the hundreds of athletes in town, and a great atmosphere. It also made us glad to have had to stop to see this, for it was a different side to Colombia, quite apart from the cowboys and country-folk we’d mostly been associating with thus far, but every bit as much a part of the real country, and something that had definitely been worth seeing.
My thumb had not recovered after three nights and we stayed a couple more, settling in to a nice routine that included watching the Tour de France each morning over breakfast and going out around the town at some point in the afternoon. On our last day in Guatape we were sitting having a drink at one of the cafes on the edge of the town plaza when we were approached by an unusual-looking young Canadian guy. He had long grey hair under a hat, and sunglasses with lenses the shape of hearts, and he asked if he could possibly recite to us some of his poetry. He was clearly a bit of a character and we said he was welcome to go ahead. He then, with the aid of the diagrams on his T-shirt, recited to us a poem about how bees are dying and how important it is to turn off the engine of your car when you wait at stop lights instead of letting it idle, which in a roundabout way might just help save the bees.
After his poem was done we talked a little bit more with the friendly young guy, whose heart was clearly in the right place. His message was a good one, though it was slightly wasted on us, given how little we sit idling in cars. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to a tuk-tuk that had parked up nearby, “But if I go and ask him to switch off his engine, I’m the one who gets the police come and tell me to stop harassing people.”
I asked him his name. “Neo,” he said. “Like in The Matrix. I chose it as my name when I got out of the mental hospital. When I got out I was walking around feeling like I was watching all this, the system, like I was in the matrix.”
He went on to explain that he’d been protesting about a new oil pipeline in Canada when they’d put him in the mental institution. Neo actually seemed to have his head screwed on pretty good to me, and it made me wonder about how it’s often the case that the people considered to be crazy who are actually seeing the problems in the world more clearly than anyone. I read the other day that London is going to have the climate of Barcelona by 2050 because of climate change. Seriously? All of the heat we were experiencing in the Colombian lowlands, it’s not even normal. The historical average for that time and place is 27 C, while we were sweating in 32-34 C weather every single day. It’s real, it’s happening, it’s already here and it’s only going to get worse. And the guy protesting about new oil pipelines is the crazy one? Surely it’s the people in the system, the people who go on idling in their big cars, who go on installing new pipelines, who in full knowledge of the consequences still go on doing the very things that are going to make our planet uninhabitable! Is that not the very definition of insanity?!
But wait, wait, perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just one of the crazy ones too.
I mean, Barcelona does have a pretty nice climate, after all.