Near Misses, Mountains, Minibuses and Mistranslations

When Robert Louis Stevenson said “It is a better thing to travel hopefully than to arrive”, he had clearly never travelled on the road I was on. Had he done so, the “arriving” part might suddenly have seemed infinitely more attractive to him and a famous quotation would never have been born.
We-a group of six British teachers and our local hosts-were travelling by minibus from Medellin, a city in Colombia, through the mountains of south-east Antioquia to the village of Jerico. We had been promised a unique and unforgettable experience, passing through the cloud forest and climbing to a height of two thousand metres. We set off at six am as the sun rose over the city with light hearts, walking shoes and a minibus full of cervezas.
It wasn’t as if i hadn’t been warned that Colombia might be dangerous. My parents had promised kidnapping by jungle drug-lords (despite the fact I was staying in a chain hotel in the city), my friends had promised a variety of colourful illnesses and my American cousin had confused the spelling of “Colombia” and “Columbia” and cautioned that South Carolina was extremely hot at that time of year. On reflection, the dead sheep washed onto the road at the bottom of the mountain might also have been a warning but the ability to read signs has never been my strong point and, without my glasses on, I mistook it for a rock anyway.
The minibus, which had seemed a comfortable and suitable vehicle to travel in when we set out, gradually began to seem clumsy and unwieldy on the narrow, twisting mountain roads. We teetered on the edge of sheer mountain side, defying both gravity and common sense. The cheerful voices of the travellers diminished in direct correlation to the increasing danger, until only a suspenseful silence hung in the air. It was only when they began to ache that I realised how tightly my hands were clenched.
Eventually, I asked the leader of our tour whether it was safe to continue. There followed a long exchange between the driver of the minibus and the tour leader, punctuated by grunts, exclamations and what sounded suspiciously like Spanish swearwords. The tour leader then turned to us and said simply “Yes”. Even with my non-existent knowledge of the native language, I was fairly certain this had not been the sum total of the conversation: I was later to learn that the driver had told him at this point that we were almost out of petrol and that, being well over half way to Jerico, we had no choice but to continue.
But the worst was yet to come. From the safety of my hotel room, I had barely registered the recent news reports about landslides in the area, caused by torrential rainfall. However, as the mountain side began to tremble above us, the boundaries between media and reality fell alongside the first loose rocks. There are occasions in life that are impossible to describe to someone who has not experienced them. Monumental moments tend to be subject to cliché. I would like to think it is my originality rather than my materialism that made me think in this moment “Who will post the shoes I listed on Ebay if I die?”
The driver reacted swiftly and with an appropriate level of urgency, speeding up just enough to take us out of immediate danger as earth followed the rocks and began to pile up on the road. Looking back, watching the mountain crashing down behind us and a landscape being permanently altered, I felt small and insignificant. We were later to learn that more than 60 people lost their lives in landslides in the area.
We did, of course, make it to Jerico and it was beautiful, with clouds rolling down the streets, waterfalls gushing down the mountain side and a charmingly unexpected botanic garden. For me, the beauty was magnified by the fragility of my own existence...and a few swiftly consumed cervezas.
Am I glad I made the journey? Perhaps-I was, after all, graced with a vision of Mother Nature at her most powerful and awe-inspiring that few people get to observe in their lifetime. Would I make it again? Not for all the coffee in Colombia.

F Conley

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