As the first two reports had been rather depressing, this was intended to be a light hearted interlude making a bit of a meal about local traffic but also, hopefully, giving something of the flavour of the country.
Sincelejo is in the Sucre region of Colombia, about 150km south of Cartagena. The region is known to have a significant paramilitary presence and this was the first time the Caravana had arranged to visit as previously it was regarded as too risky.
My slight trepidation about going there was heightened by the news that less than 2 weeks before our visit a lawyer was murdered there.
As it turned out though, however alarming that news may have been, travelling by road proved to be significantly more terrifying.
As a starting point, Colombian driving can be summarised by a simple 1, 2, 3. There are one driving rule, two speeds and, with some artistic licence, three types of vehicle.
It is true there are white lines, a variety of road signs some of which probably mean Give Way and even some traffic lights but only the latter seem to carry any weight (and can apparently be ignored in Bogotá at night). However, in practice, there is only one cardinal rule on the road and that is “Avoid whatever is in front of you (and ignore everything else)”.
Pulling out in front of other traffic is totally acceptable and anything to your side is fair game; it is their job to avoid you because you are, however marginally, in front. On the other hand, a sub rule is that it is mandatory to use your horn to let everyone else know where you are. In Cartagena, taxis don’t have lights to show availability but when empty will honk at every pedestrian to offer their services. It is not a quiet city.
There may be speed limits but it is impossible to know because all vehicles are either at full speed or stationary. Any other speed is merely a fleeting moment of transition between those extremes and it the sworn duty of every driver to ensure that those moments are as short as possible.
There is a striking absence of ‘normal’ cars. The vast majority of vehicles clogging roads in town are tiny yellow taxis, garishly painted smoke belching buses and hordes of motorcycles weaving around everything that moves like a swarm of Wizard of Oz monkeys. Out of town, taxis and motorcycles are rarer but the roads are full of lorries instead (including hulking beasts bent on flattening anything rash enough to get in the way) with the highly awkward intervention of donkey-driven carts.
Being a passenger in town is to be in a permanent state of readiness for an imminent collision. The only difference on the main road to Sincelejo was that the collision would have more disastrous results. Colombians labour under the illusion that the road is not a road at all but a race track with the winner the driver passing the most vehicles as quickly and narrowly as possible. Manoeuvring past lorry, donkey or brave pedestrian leaving a gap of more than 3 inches is a sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs.
The road proved to be in fairly good condition, no doubt in part owing to the fact that funds are collected via toll charges. As far as I could establish the toll charge between Cartagena and Sincelejo was about £6 for a 9 seater minibus. The same amount will buy you two ‘Menu of the Day’ lunches of soup followed by a full meat or fish dish.
There were no towns en route though several patches of houses which might be considered villages. These evidenced the poverty which afflicts the vast majority of the population. It was rare to see a house which appeared to comprise more than two or three rooms. Most gave the appearance of being incomplete; walls of breeze block, window spaces unfilled, roofs of misshapen pieces of wood or corrugated iron. All appeared to have a motley collection of adults and children milling around without obvious purpose.
Attempts to impose speed limits through these villages had obviously failed. To force vehicles to slow down, at each end, the road is traversed by large speed humps so high as to require vehicles to come to a complete stop (an emergency stop remember) before they can be negotiated. As each vehicle then immediately accelerates to full speed again, the system does not appear effective.
All the same, these humps have been effective economically by creating a thriving if absurdly dangerous trade for the locals. At each, there is a gaggle of soon-to-be-injured people offering food, water and the Colombian national coffee, tinto, for sale. Tinto is sweetened, surprisingly weak, coffee served in small plastic cups practically everywhere for about 20p a cup. As a pick me up during a 5 hour journey in 30 degree heat (day and night) it is hard to beat.
Between villages, the overwhelming memory is of a vast beautiful, rolling vista of trees and fields framed by jagged mountains on the distant horizon. Every now and again elaborate gates mark the entrances to ranches whose impressive homes are occasionally glimpsed in the distance. One begins to understand why it is that people kill and die for this land.
It was with some bewilderment that eventually we arrived in Sincelejo unscathed save for extensive bruising from the constant bumping and shaking. Our relief however was tempered by the nagging thought that the whole thing would be repeated on the return trip in about 20 hours’ time …