Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A Tale of Two Cities.

For those in the know: Barranquilla ( fourth city of the nation) ~ Ruta 90A ~ Cartagena (first city of gringo central). Northern Colombia.

Today was the best of times, the worst of times.

Barranquilla is a working city, one that has little time for a tourist industry, its infrastructure has little time for pedestrians. Or so it would seem, which is odd, as a lot of that populace walk. A place, then, of contradictions.

The main drag into the city from the now totally subsumed neighbouring town, Soledad, is a six lane highway, whose central reservation has been civilised with paths, soccer-5s and guerilla gardening. Has some magnificent buttress-rooted trees and a refuge for the fareless rickshaws. Yet for that entire sixty-four grid-blocks, it has just one set of traffic lights with a pedestrian phase. To cross, I take my cue from the locals, who tentatively step into the highway, time their advance to a lull in the tempest and venture forth, hand-waving gestures at the attacking taxis in the vain hope that they might be mistaken for a potential fare.

All conurbations come with a certain level of traffic angst. When we reach the outskirts of each new city, with each succeeding encounter, there's a feeling of trepidation. Where on the intimidation scale will this place fit? Sometimes it's a gradual immersion, an incremental increase in volume, such that you barely notice the changes; by the time you do, you're relegated into a gutter of stagnant fumes. At other times you've been city-bound on an insignificant byway that suddenly emerges onto a roundabout, or worse, a flyover, one that gives an uninterrupted grandstand view of roaring mayhem below. Instant immersion. You join in, you've no choice. It's never as bad as the anticipation. There's no intended malice, because there are no intended rules and if you can accept that, city cycling becomes manically comical. However there is one mantra to learn: "he who hesitates is lost".

At rush hour two traffic police attempt to take control. The fact that it takes two to manage one half of those six lanes is an indication of the urban aggressive nature of the driving. As a pedestrian I feel infinitely more vulnerable than I do on my bike. Maybe it's because I have more time to watch the antics on this road, my imagination to more time to create catastrophic senarios. Yet it's a road that comes with pedal rickshaws and donkey carts who seem able to coexist with the port-bound articulates, hive-swarming taxis and the unpredictable motos.

A city turned inside out, a hot city who carries on its mercantile interests out on the open street. Caf├ęs spread unhindered over pavements, ironmongers disgorge with impunity, street traders close off junctions. An alfresco nursery class sit at desks, picture book colouring, under a rare portico. At times you're obliged to negotiate the gauntlet of haberdashery mannequins whose pneumatically-endowed cleavages try to poke your eye out. The male versions leave even less to the imagination. Move further along to another block, to find that it's been taken over by youths wielding crow-bars, breaking down cargo pallets to their constituent parts. The corner cubes to firewood, the slats stacked for re-sale. Some moving to the next neighbouring block, to be reconstituted by the craftsman joiners into bed frames and rocking horses, woven chairs and dinner tables. The dead nails are strewn liberally. It runs through my mind to wonder on the preponderance of punctured soles, tetanus jabs and lock-jaw. It's probably pure coincidence that the next block has three tyre repair shacks.

We walked that thoroughfare into town, there to wander. To do what all Latinos do: sit in the shade of a quiet plaza, find an ice cream and crowd-watch. We found the plazas, vast expanses of concrete and glare. No shade, no people, no living. One such outside San Roque church has been refurbished with a slat roofed gazebo, a sweeping modernist structure in burnished steel, whose only occupants are some sun-sheltering desolate concrete slabs. Yet the provided seating is located out under the full force of an Equatorial sun. It's a conundrum that I find interesting, this convoluted debate Colombians have with their sun. A dozen trader stands, arranged like impeding wickets, stagger my passage, all selling a colourful array of identical baseball caps, the standard counterfeit selection: Puma, Nike et al, Yet nobody is wearing any headgear, preferring to shade under an A4 envelope.

What rules? ... The car rules!

There's this board that lectures all to observe the rules of the road, there as we leave the city along its peripheral by-pass. Which to European sensitivities conjures up an image of an open free flowing highway, that easily carries the traffic that doesn't wish to enter the centre of town. This six lane road may once have had that ambition, only now the city has expanded out to smother and envelop those good intentions. Glum-faced commuters are spread along its length, more intent on trying to flag down the already overcrowded buses, than watching for passing cyclists. At each intersection, progress is ground to a halt as slip road traffic nudges its way into the now stagnant flow. I'm inching my way up the inside, undertaking a bus, conscious that at any moment a passenger might suddenly descend, when I feel the horns of at least two motos behind. They pass on either side, one in the storm drain the other in a space I know cannot exist. Had I the skill to spread both arms at once I could so easily have collected treble bonus points by decapitating both. And then, as can happen so often, the snarl of angered traffic disappears. A few more kilometres and we have the road all to ourselves. No grumbling trucks, no lawless taxis, no irritating motos, no disregard for the nonexistent rules of the road. Just the infallible guarantee of the nor'easter Trade Winds that will propel us all the way to our second city of the day.

Cartagena, fifth city of the nation, first city of tourism. Outside, motos swarm and dance, taxis fare crawl, traffic lights stop, nothing can move. Only the crashing waves on the rocks and the dunes of sand creeping over the road, wind propelled, emery coating my sweated skin. We take to the pavement and push past; now we're the fastest transports on the city by-pass. Turn under the arched walls of this ancient town. Inside, under a 'no moto' sign, into a warren and a blessed relief. For one final shock. There's more Anglo-Saxons in one street than the whole of this journey, more acres of scalded skin than on a flesher's slab. We've landed on the gringo trail.

Two cities: One day. To fight our way out the one, only to battle our way into the other, with the surreality of a near deserted interlude makes for a singularly unusual day. The way to go, it's Journey's End.