(Pitalito, Colombia) Today I was a spectacle, a curious specimen, a foreigner.
Luckily, in Colombia that means I was treated with utmost respect. Technically, my foreignness began when I stepped into Port-of-Spain’s night—difficulty understanding the customs agent’s British-Caribbean English mash my first fish out of water moment—then intensified instantly in Cartagena the moment I began to ride instead of walk. My trailer’s flash of yellow instead of bike shadow never failed to pull children from play with a wide-eyed disbelief and make men turn-about to confirm my existence, much like the common Latin practice where beautiful-bottomed girls in the street are honored with a double-take.
But it was in Pitalito’s central plaza, while lying in the grass with a newspaper, somewhere between lost in thought and the Sports section, that I became aware like never before that my height, blond hair, Shimano shoes, and three-day scruff—not to mention the Surly-Bob choo-choo train of foreign-made metal—were not Colombian in the least.
I was surprised from behind with a tap on the shoulder. The upside down image when I threw my neck back over my reclined elbows was four middle-aged men, with perfectly pressed flannels tucked into their khakis. Their shoes were spotless and shiny. Looking down upon me and my island nation of scattered newspaper sections, they smiled. I thought they were Jehovah witnesses, and began to ready rebuttals to their soul-saving speeches. I just wanted to do Suduko in peace.
As it turned out, the gentlemen were three deaf Colombians on vacation, the fourth their interpreter.
Outside the big-sounding smalltown Gigante, a few hours north of Pitalito, these men witnessed Bob, Surly, and I in all our highway magnificence. They saw us from afar, pedaling uphill. The sighting caused a silent uproar, the interpreter commented, with the others sign guessing Bob’s weight, Surly’s price, my nationality. By the time their car was directly behind, we had successfully completed a moving overhand bumper grab—our most common semi hitching technique but impressive nonetheless—and were gracefully coasting up the mountain. This made quite an impression. A fury of finger acrobatics filled the car—which must have been a sight in itself—before all hands were in agreement: I was a true adventurer. They talked about me the rest of the ride. To find me in the park was a welcome surprise, which is why their approach seemed more liked a kidnapping than a meet-and-greet.
All this was enthusiastically signed from several directions, then verbally repeated to me in Spanish by the interpreter. I responded slowly for those who could read lips. More signs. More happy head nodding. Soon I was not just answering the deaf gentlemen’s questions but was the center of a small mob. Each question and answer, with its silent language follow-up, extended the circle’s radius, the curious randoms sticking to the outer layer like protons to a nucleus. For more than an hour I towered above the crowd, a preacher on a pulpit before his congregration, painting detailed responses to everyone’s questions. The typicals: What do you think about Colombia? Where did you start? How much did that cost? Why? The interesting: Where were you on September 11th? How many stories does your house have? How can I go to the United States? What does “coming undone” mean? (During this public interview I also translated punk lyrics for young skateboarders that darted in and out).
A construction worker named Nelson was in the crowd. When I finally excused myself from the circle it was Nelson who, in true Colombian fashion, invited me to stay the night with he and his family. We rode bikes through the city’s outlying unpaved roads to his humble home, arriving late for dinner, the lone corner lamplight aglow in the darkness as we sat down to eat.