Joe O’Connor is a feature writer at the National Post. Twenty years ago, he was a backpacker, trekking around Central and South America with his then girlfriend, Karen Nasmith. Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama — everything was perfect — until Colombia.
We needed a bank. But everything in Barranquilla, a dusty, heat-blasted Colombian port city, was closed. The banks. The restaurants. And the eyes of the locals, it seemed, who, after three days of Carnival and partying like those three days were their last on Earth, were sleeping off walloping hangovers. We were down to our last US$20, or so, with money belts full of travellers cheques to spare, but nowhere to change them. We needed a bank. But first we needed a bus out of Barranquilla.
Our plan was to head to Popayan, a colonial mountain town — an overnight bus trip away. Our guidebook warned us that this was a bad idea. Bandits occasionally targeted overnight buses. But what were the odds they would target our bus? We had climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, hitchhiked around Costa Rica, crossed the Panamanian border in a motorized dugout canoe. We were invincible. We even hitchhiked to the bus station in Barranquilla, catching a ride with a garbage man, the only Colombian in town that appeared to be working.
The bus was a deluxe model, with video screens, air conditioning, a uniformed driver and luggage handler. And off we went, rolling away from the coast, into the mountains and into the night. Taking our cue from the other passengers — we were the only Gringos onboard — we each occupied two seats. Room enough to lie down. At some point, the bus stopped. Hard. We sat up. Blinking.
I immediately reached for the sky. This was a stick up. But no one else reached for the sky
The interior lights came on. Bandits. There were two of them. They had handkerchiefs pulled up to their eyes. One carried a very large, shiny silver pistol. He aimed it this way, and that. His accomplice had a much smaller pistol, one I imagined a saloonkeeper named Diamond L’il, from the Wild West, tucking into her garter belt. I immediately reached for the sky. This was a stick up. But no one else reached for the sky. The Colombians had apparently seen this metaphorical movie before.
A man across from me had a chunky gold ring on his pinky-finger, a bauble he surreptitiously removed and tucked into his cowboy boot, never breaking eye contact with the bandits. The bandit with the smaller pistol walked to the rear of the vehicle, then worked his way forward. He had a pink pillowcase for us victims to deposit our money into, like some kind of highway tax. When he reached Karen — a row behind me — she told him in Spanish that her husband had the money. (Latinos frowned on unmarried couples travelling together, in general, while men considered unmarried women fair game for their advances. Being fake-married made for fewer hassles).
Meanwhile, the money collector’s pistol dangled from his finger, just waiting for some would-be hero to snatch it away. Judging from his eyes he was just a kid. Judging from his performance he wasn’t much of a robber. He seemed more nervous than I was. I gave him our last five bucks.
The atmosphere was incredibly tense. This was Colombia, mid-drug war. Colombian police were known to shoot first, and second, before asking questions. But there was no gunfire that night. The robbers got their loot. The bus got rolling, stopping at the next town. The other passengers told us the bandits had erected a roadblock, forcing us to stop. Eventually we got to Popayan, where the banks were open and the streets safe, at least until the earthquake.
But that’s another story.
Article originally appeared at Todaycolombia.com