It felt like a rodeo. The car bounced and my head met the top of the car. Another pothole—rather, a small crater, came into view as I cursed at my too-tall-for-foreign-cars frame.
Leading into the interior of Colombia, the road was battered from years of neglect and heavy rainfall. I left the coastal city of Cartagena hours earlier in a shared taxi heading to Santa Cruz de Mompox, or simply Mompos, a lazy river town best known as the staging ground for Simon Bolivar’s revolution in 1812.
Victor, a quiet local visiting family in Mompos, occupied the passenger seat and knew our driver, a veteran of the road named Freddy. Narrow and unmarked, the road’s uneven surface tossed my body like a ragdoll in a rusted Isuzu SUV in dire need of new shocks.
We soon stopped for a motionless car anchored to the terrain, its driver fruitlessly stomping on the accelerator as mud shot up onto the clothes of children gathered by the edge of the road. Freddy quickly took charge of the situation and instructed the driver out of her car. The middle-aged woman obliged without hesitation as he motioned the youngsters to take up positions behind the car. The children began rocking the car back and forth and Freddy worked his magic from the driver’s seat, soon freeing the vehicle from the abyss. He folded his large body back into the Isuzu and gave me a smirk as we sped off.
The other recurring theme on the trip, after the mud and humidity, consisted of a heavy military presence along the roadside. The checkpoints were far less frequent once pavement gave way to dirt and gravel, but simple army checkpoints, as common as rest stops in the United States, remained prevalent as we bounced along towards the halfway point. Given the violence in Colombia throughout the previous two decades, troops along the roadside provided an oddly reassuring sensation.
Midway into the journey we pulled alongside an open-air restaurant and stopped for lunch. The establishment consisted of rickety wooden tables and chairs under a rusty metal awning, with dozens of patrons crammed together, attempting to enjoy a few moments of shade with their meal. I noticed the stares, not hostile but curious, from many of the restaurant’s patrons. Cartagena is a tourist hot spot by Colombian standards, but this dusty eatery was far off the beaten path and I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious.
Freddy and Victor shouted out their orders in the direction of a waitress as I rummaged around for my packed lunch. The next half hour was lost in small talk amidst the sticky mid-afternoon heat.