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Geography Lessons

It was a pitch black night, back in 69, when I first flew into Medellin airport from Panama City.

Due to my own ignorance and my lack of Spanish, I knew nothing of Columbia’s reputation as the most dangerous country in Latin America. They say that ignorance is bliss and at that time it certainly was for me. I have since heard of passengers being mugged as they stepped out of the airport's main door. I jumped into the first available taxi, happily discovering that the driver had a smattering of English and trusted in him to take me to an inexpensive down-town hotel, which he obligingly did.

It must have been something about my appearance in those days because whenever I asked for cheap accommodation I would be directed to a bordello and this time was no exception. Being after midnight and Medellin being unknown to me, I accepted, knowing I would not be getting too much sleep

The following morning, I set off on foot to find quieter and more wholesome quarters. Not wishing to seen as a backpacker, I always dressed neatly and my worldly possessions were crammed into a smart, large and heavy suitcase; wheels for which having yet to be invented. I allowed one of the pestering street kids to carry my case, choosing one just big enough to lift the thing but too small to run off with it.

Medellin was a pleasant place for a sojourn in those days, cocaine was still a cottage industry, but there was nothing special to keep me there. Mooching around the main bus station one day, wondering where to go next, I met a pretty Columbian girl who spoke English and was on her way to Popayan, where she was to take up a teaching post. Her enticing description of that colonial city was just too tempting. I had my bag hauled and stacked on top of the bus and joined her along with the other passengers and a dozen or so  live chickens and we drove out of town and onto the Pan-American Highway.

It was in Panama that I had received my first local geography lesson. I had learned that the Pan-American Highway stops at the swamplands of the Darian Gap and restarts again in Medellin, Columbia. This had caused me an enjoyable but rather foolhardy extra seven days in Panama City, while awaiting a flight south.

More Latin-American geography and culture I was to learn from my charming  teacher, during the subsequent bus journey and over a short period in Popayan. I should explain that I was aimlessly traveling without a guide book or maps which, on retropspect, was rather mindless of me. But as I was running away - from what or whom I no longer recall - names and places were of little consequence.

Now my prior knowledge of the Americas was limited to say the least. This ignorance, for which I still blame the poor quality of England’s post war teachers, some of whom were so dense as to teach that there was a pier at Wigan. At the back of my mind Chile was to be my final destination, my sort of Shangri-La. Before arriving in Panama I had been slowly meandering my way through  Mexico and Central America in a vaguely southerly direction.

My delightful new companion took time to inform me of a few of the Columbian facts of life, which still apply to this day. Columbians are renowned as the best  pickpockets and the finest forgers in the world. When travelling between destinations by road, only take buses that move in convoy. (A week prior to our arrival in Popayan, bandits had stopped a lone bus and decapitated half the passengers. A regular occurrence, I was told) Never travel at night. Don’t wear watches or jewelry. If someone demands you wallet with a gun or a knife, give it to them or they really will kill you. Kidnapping is a flourishing and profitable business. I have to admit, on learning these facts, I was beginning to like the place.

Regretfully leaving friendly Popayan and my teacher freind behind me, I continued my aimless journey southward, where, almost by accident,  I came across another quaint place to rest up. This was Pasto, where I was to receive further lessons in basic geography.

It was here that I met an exceptional character called Charles Bracht. As an English ex-pat, living fifty years in that part of the world, Don Carlos, as he was locally known. had the most incredible experiences  to tell about his early adventures in Columbia. Before a road was built, which was only five years before I arrived there, it would take him sixteen days on horseback, to visit his parents in Cali; a distance of around 200 miles. He owned the major hardware store and a candle manufacturing factory. Through his generous introductions I met many of the right people in Pasto and then I was given a tempting offer which would have allowed me to stay there permanently.

Pasto in those days was a laid back sort of place, mainly populated by indians. By Columbian standards it was relatively peaceful, albeit on the first two successive nights when there were shoot-outs, under my hotel window. Don Carlos had the honour of being the only Englishman, probably the only foreigner in town. He was elderly, wealthy and bored. His idea was to acquire a nearby hacienda, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts and convert it into a country club. As he did not trust the Columbians and being the only other Englishman around would be his partner and the club manager.

Before making the final decision to buy the property - and concerned that, after a period of time, I would also get tired of that boring little backwater, he suggested that , before I settled down, I should first take a look at Quito, where an oil boom was in progress. On enquiring where or what Quito was, I was politely informed that it was the capitol of  Ecuador. My reply – which to this day I remain acutely embarrassed about – was to tell him that I had no interest in going to Africa.

With the aid of a large wall map Don Carlos pointed out to me exactly where neighbouring Ecuador and its capitol, Quito, were located; the border being a mere 60 miles south of Pasto. At that time I had no notion that to get to Peru, then ultimately Chile, I would have had to pass through a country I did not know existed..

Should the reader scoff at or disbelieve this story, I assure you I was by no means alone in my ignorance. Shortly afterwards in Ecuador, where I was eventually to settle, I met a fellow traveller who, having signed a contract in a Liverpool pub to work on the Galapagos Islands, was more than a little put out when his boat turned right  instead of left at Gibraltar. He was convinced he was to have spent his summer on a Greek island.

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