Gunpowder on the rocks in Colombia

Our taxi pulls up in a narrow, dimly lit street next to a decrepit concrete building covered in graffiti our destination. We step out onto the urine-streaked road and take in our surroundings: a quiet alley, people lurking in the shadows of the flickering streetlight and us standing there waiting to be relieved of our cameras and wallets.

Stooping through a low doorway into the tejo hall and stepping carefully over an old vomit stain, we make our way to the bar, which consists of an old man standing behind a counter, on top of which sits cartons of Aguadiente, a clear liquor that tastes like sambuca mixed with vodka and nail varnish remover. The old guy gives me a big toothy grin as I fight off the excited advances of a drunk man behind me. It would seem tourists are not a usual sight here.

Do you have bottled water? I ask the bar man.

Si, he says, as he hands me a beer with a proud flourish. I shrug, give him a big smile and hand over the equivalent of 50p. He gives us a rock each and we make our way to our allocated lane.

Dodging concrete rocks flying through the air and causing inquisitive stares, we cross the room to reach our lane. We take in the curious scene that surrounds us. Were in a bright, noisy, concrete room, filled with beer-swigging, potbellied Colombian men in baggy jeans and stained polo shirts. The wives sit on garden chairs and watch the men with disinterest. Plastic sheets constitute walls, yellow-painted bamboo beams support the roof, a bottle-cap mosaic covers the floor and a tongue-in-cheek sign depicting a man peeing and having his testicles cut off with scissors is nailed to a wooden post.

The hall resembles a bowling alley, and the idea is to toss rocks down your lane, aiming for sandpits punctuated with packets of gunpowder. When you land a hit the gunpowder cracks as loud as a firework and a flame shoots up in the air, then disappears in a puff of smoke. A delicious bonfire night
smell fills the room.

I step up to the line. I roll the smooth, heavy rock in my hand, lining up my shot. My first throw hits the sand with a disappointing thump. A regular spots my pathetic attempt. He takes my hand and wraps my fingers around the rock. He mimes how to throw it and points at the sandpit in my lane, 20m away from me. I release the rock with full force. It flies into the neighbouring lane, landing with a crack on the concrete floor, having narrowly missed a kid retrieving rocks from his sandpit. The room goes quiet and all heads turn towards me. I hold my breath. Thankfully, as is the Colombian way, my almost deadly throw is taken with good humour and the men collectively take a swig of their beers and go back to their games.

A few more attempts and several beers later, my aim is getting unsurprisingly worse. Closing time is rapidly approaching and Id like to say I go out with a bang, but the only sound was that of our taxi backfiring as we sped away.

A Downing

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