FOREWARD: The following is a description of my first experience asking complete strangers for a place to pitch my tent.
(Puente Canoa, Colombia) I interrupted his afternoon pee, which doomed my mission from the get-go. As I rolled down the long dirt drive from the highway to the hacienda, I encountered a shirtless gentlemen—presumably the man of the house—tucked between a telephone pole and the barn, as if trying to light a match on a windy day. My buenas tardes was answered by an unembarrassed, uninspired over the shoulder look in my direction, followed by silence, then a tippy-toe shake and the sound of zipper teeth biting. This ceremony lasted a long minute. Finally he faced me, his booted feet heavy on the earth, his natural upright position a wrestler’s stance with arms dangling down. To break the encounter’s awkwardness, I explained my presence on his property with an emphasized ‘United States’ and several hand gestures toward said bike on which I was traveling—which I practically showcased like a test model at a car show—all the while inching toward the final make-or-break question: could I put my tent on this land?, hastily adding food was not expected as part of the deal. I’d be gone by sun up.
So absorbed was I in my first attempt to camp on someone’s property that I didn’t notice the gentleman’s five adolescent sons gather behind him—all equally bare-chested and brutish, with blank stares, forming shoulder-to-shoulder a perfect wall, like North Korea’s 38th parallel that bars all communication. At this point, I didn’t want to stay anymore. Obviously, something strange was in the water. No sooner did I thank them, begin Bob, Surly, and I’s now trademark wide turn, when I heard a voice, the first that was not my own since this parody began. It was Gentleman Pee: “There is a small village near the river.” This meant nothing to me; I had crossed numerous rivers that day. I hurried off with a wave, on the hunt again, pushing into my southerly rhythm as the sun glowed gold through the branches hanging over the highway.
I saw the sign before I saw the bridge, Puente Canoa—Canoe Bridge. Below there was a river, with canoes carved from tree trunks lining its shores and muddy water that looked invitingly refreshing. Ducks pulled small fish from the rapids. A few fisherman in canoes, magically motionless despite fast currents, sat idle in observation. Upon closer inspection, there also seemed to be a village that hugged the north bank, complete with music blaring from an open-air billiards hall and a general store with 60 cent glass bottle Cokes. All the other structures were thatched huts of varying sizes. After two semi-trucks barreled by I turned down the cement ramp into town. Within seconds the store owner agreed to my proposal, then quickly refocused his entire being back into the television’s black-and-white soccer replays.
I had a place to throw my tent.
It was around 5:oo pm, no need to set up camp just yet. After three chapters in my book, one ice-cold Coke sucked through a straw, and a few statistical notes about the day’s mileage and expenses, I remembered one important detail: it was Friday, soon to be Friday night. If I were to sleep a wink, the concrete slab near the billiards hall, where loud and sad Vallenato lyrics were undoubtedly going to make men drink themselves stupid, was not my best bet. Farther down shore, where the music was slightly muted, a group of women sat on two upturned canoes, which in turn were planked upon large wood block supports, conversing wildly with hand gestures, arm gestures and sudden standing in moments of passion, before falling back into evening tranquility. Three spotted pigs wandered about their feet, and I wondered which woman was their owner.
I approached them. With but a simple smiling introduction, they invited me to sit. Again, within seconds I had a more suitable place to throw my tent—in one of the señoras’ backyards. Soon my map of Colombia spread across the canoe’s flat side, questions shot forth about my route, and loud laughs melted into the river scenery. The rust and crimson and burn-orange sunset illuminated everyone’s Western half. Farther down the bank men hung fishing nets from trees, searching for damaged knots among the folds, like harp players seated before cartoonish stringed instruments made of sunbeams. Children ran barefoot, playful on the dirt path that connected the thatch homes, occasionally throwing themselves into their mothers’ laps, heads buried in motherly reassurance until they tired of caresses and hair brushing. Our group multiplied in size, once, twice, bubbling into a small riot, as each woman yelled to passing neighbors, “He’s riding a bike through South America!” Husbands arrived, each with inside tips about the best places to visit. More laughs.
British adventurer Eric Newby, in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, the book I was reading only moments before while seated on a lonely upright cinder block, described the end of my day perfectly:
“This evening was like some golden age of human happiness, attained sometimes by children, more rarely by grown-ups, and it communicated its magic to some degree to all of us.”