Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Where There Be Dragons.

I might be six thousand miles from home, six thousand miles away from a nation's history. Yet tonight I'm within one day's cycle from one of the pivotal crossroads to that history.

The Colombia paper map is spread out on the floor, we're considering our options for the finish to this tour. It's definitely the city of Cartagena, but by which way will we arrive there? Only my eye keeps getting drawn to the top left hand corner. To that appendix of land that both connects and divides the Western Hemisphere.

The late seventeenth century was a sorry time to be a Scot in their own homeland. The hungry decade had witnessed seven years of famine, some parishes would loose a quarter of their parishioners, continuing religious strife had already spawned one rebellion, the reality for the majority of the population was a bowl of bere and a cashless subsistence economy. The estimated total national coinage, in today's figures, was a meagre £180m and yet that collected population decided to gamble one quarter of that on a 'venture'. And it wasn't just the aristocracy who invested, the list of speculators included the 'good' city burghs as well as the lesser town councils, the craft guilds and ministers of the cloth, mercantiles and sea captains.

The Darien Venture: an attempt to establish a trading colony in the malarial swamps of modern Panama, right in the heart of the historic Spanish empire, just a few leagues from their looted precious metals export depot at Cartagena.

The Darien Debacle: it fails miserably, many lose their lives, a country is virtually bankrupted. A great deal of political machinations are involved, a great deal of blame is cast around. Many modern historians will argue that it leads directly to the union of the parliaments and a direct time-line to today's political independence debate.

'New Caledonia'; that's all that remains, a name on a map, that's all that exists of a collective financial madness. Before the age of mass communications, at a time when that master craftsman was asked to speculate a minimum of two years worth of earnings, the fact that such a diversity of the lowland Scots populace was so easily convinced of this get-rich-quick scheme, is remarkable. It's probably one of the first recorded 'bubbles'. A great many will follow. History has a habit of repeating itself.

Today, that neck of land, is termed The Darien Gap. 'Gap', suggesting that some things are missing, items for which humans consider necessary imperatives - like a highway. For no road connects north to south. Into this narrow isthmus, no modern infrastructure has encroached, a place abandoned by political authority, left to the competing forces of embattled rebels and drug gangs. For those few adventurers who do venture in, some will find it to be the true ultimate adventure.

All those historical investors couldn't have chosen a more inauspicious locale into which to sink a nation's wealth. Lost causes; that great Scottish speciality.

My map-eye travels along our proposed road, postulates on the possible terrain, speculates on possible bed-nights and food stops. Yet that same wandering eye is drifting off, plotting along other potential routes, already pondering a return visit. Still, it's heartening to realise that there are places that cycling traveller can't attain, places where the dragons roost, places like the Darien, Everest's summit and Edinburgh's botanical gardens.