Getting off the farm – a chiva experience
24 December 2016
Lenin woke me up abruptly with an urgent request that we pack up everything and be ready to get on a bus in 30 minutes. The bus would drive by the road that was a 10 minute walk from the house, and we could get down to town that way instead of trying to ride our bikes down the horrible rocky road. Our bikes were another 10 minute walk or so down the mountain at someone else’s house, where we left them the night we arrived. All of our stuff was everywhere, including hidden away in the wardrobe by Luis’s wife, who had cleaned the house while we were away the day before. I didn’t want to argue, so I just started packing and got ready. I looked at my phone, and it was just past 7am.
The two kids helped us carry our bags to the road, where several other people were standing at an abandoned house, waiting for the bus. Luis had left earlier to get our bikes and load them on the bus before it reached us. We waited for about an hour before anything showed up. It wasn’t just a bus, but a chiva – a traditional mode of transportation that comes by only on Saturday and Sunday mornings to take the farmers into town. We piled our stuff and ourselves onto the top, along with the other people and their various belongings.
On top of the chiva was a bench in the front, already full of people. The rest of the roof was flat with rails along the edge so the variety of things on top wouldn’t slide off. These things included huge burlap sacks of maybe beans or coffee, crates of empty beer bottles, empty gas/propane cylinders, bunches of plantains, a ladder, a weed whacker, our two bicycles, and a few other people who were brave enough to sit on top of the whole thing. I took a seat near the front on a sack of beans or something, and lenin sat on one of the gas cylinders.
From where I sat on the left side, so high up, I felt like I could easily fall out and over the cliff into the steep valley below. The road was too narrow to see on the sides of the chiva below us, and I felt it sway from side to side as it struggled over the rocky terrain. We continued up and over the mountain to pick up more people before heading down into town. At one point the chiva couldn’t make it around a tight turn on the steep climb, and it had to back up several times to get it right. This was the most terrifying part, and I had to have a lot of faith in the driver and whoever was guiding him, as all I could see was my side of the chiva getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff each time it backed up to try again. I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally made it around the curve, but we still had a long way to go and had to stay alert to duck under the tree branches and cables. One benefit of being so high up and close to the trees, aside from the terrific view, was that we were able to pluck fruit from the branches as we passed underneath. Along the road were mandarin, orange, lemon, guava, avocado and guama trees. I had never tried guama before – a large pod containing black seeds surrounded by an edible, sweet white flesh. I also never realized that all guavas are full of parasitic worms, and people eat them like that without even thinking about it! Maybe that’s why they only sell the juice in the US.
The only thing this chiva was missing was the music. Lenin told me that chiva rides can be very long, and normally the passengers, mostly farmers, will take their instruments and play music, drink beer, and party during the ride. When Lenin was a boy in Uramita, people would sometimes take a chiva to Medellin, a 10-hour or more drive on unpaved roads. Sometimes there would be a landslide on the road, and they would be delayed for a few days, so everyone brought tons of food to cook along the way. Nowadays in Colombia’s more touristy cities, chivas are purely used for entertainment. They can be rented out for parties, and people just drink and dance inside while the bus slowly rolls through the city.
When we finally rolled into town, we still had to fix a flat tire before heading out of San Carlos. We only made it a few miles outside of San Carlos before Lenin got another flat tire! At least this road was mostly paved. The flat happened when the paved section turned into dirt for a few feet. My exhaustion was catching up with me, and after 30 miles or so of rolling hills, I wasn’t really feeling like pushing myself that hard. We stopped for a few coconut popsicles at a roadside shop, and when Lenin got another flat tire about a mile down from there, we decided to wait for a bus. While waiting, we saw some wild titi monkeys cross the road just a few meters ahead of us before climbing high into the trees. Instead of hopping on a bus, we were able to hitch a ride from a guy driving a small, empty truck. We loaded into the back and enjoyed the free ride into San Rafael. From there, we had about an hour to wait for a bus back to Medellin so we could come back for Christmas Eve.