Friday, November 27, 2015

Mangrove Marshes, Mosquitoes and a Motorcycle

The next-to-last day of my Barranquilla sojourn.  I’ve arranged to meet early this morning with Omar, a guide at the Isla de Salamanca National Park to go bird watching.
“How do I get there?” I ask him on the phone in Spanish.
“Take the bus from the terminal to Santa Marta, but ask the driver to let you off at Los Cocos, or the Park, just four kilometers past the toll booth.”
Milling passengers swarm through the bus terminal. I find a ticket office for buses to Santa Marta. Bus 3039 is about to leave. A friendly young man helps me locate it in the line of buses outside.
I sit in a seat right behind the driver to make sure he understands where I want to get off. As if I knew.
Forty minutes later, the bus slows and the driver’s assistant nods to me. I step out onto the edge of the two-lane highway, shimmering with heat waves and bordered with a mass of green vegetation, palm trees poking up their spiky, disheveled fronds in the distance. I look about seeing nothing but a Park sign.
“Susana!” A voice calls and off of a side road steps a dark-haired young man, skin the shade of café con leche, a camera hung around his neck. I presume this is Omar. We shake hands, and I follow him into the park. Ahead on the terrace of a small building a group of young people sit around tables.
“English classes,” Omar says. “They are tourism students.” He introduces me to the teacher who announces to the class that they have before them a native English speaker. They twitter and stare.
“Would you please talk to them about the importance of learning English?” asks the teacher.
I’ve come to bird watch and now must say something inspiring to these eager students. I manage to say how English facilitates travel in almost every country as well as increases employment opportunities. The teacher seems satisfied. They all clap.
Omar hands me binoculars, and I follow him into the park. He has an acute ear for bird calls and excitedly points out among the branches our first feathered sighting. He announces that it’s a parkesia noveboracensis..
“Omar, por favor, what’s the common name for it?”
I expected he’d provide me with the local name. Instead, he opens his English language field guide to Colombian birds, points to the image of the northern water thrush and attempts pronouncing it in English. I correct his pronunciation, but his tongue stumbles over the thr of thrush.
“You must put your tongue between your teeth, like this.” I demonstrate, exaggerating the sound. “TTHHHRRRR.” He tells me he’s very anxious to learn English and continues struggling to pronounce the birds’ names in English. 
The park is unexpectedly dry below the tree canopy. It hasn’t rained much, Omar tells me. All the trees in the park are mangroves. Omar points out three different types. I snap photos of their grabbing snake-like roots. It becomes clear that this is also mosquito land. At least, I remembered to bring insect repellant. We both swat our way through the groves and past the ciénagas, wide marshes, ringed by green vegetation. He points to a path formed at night by the caimánes, the crocodiles. The deeper into the park we go and as my eyes grow accustomed to the light and the colors, the more birds we spot. The sighting of an unbelievably-camouflaged nighthawk is a highpoint.
When we finish the circuit of trails, I ask Omar to help me make a list of what we have seen, seventeen species in all, including sandpipers, parakeets, woodcreepers, flycatchers, woodpeckers and the spectacular russet-throated puffbird.
I thank Omar, pay him and ask: “How do I get back to Barranquilla now?”
“We sit by the highway and flag down the bus.”
We sit on the curb in a spot of shade and wait. Trucks, cars and fancy buses speed by, but not the local bus that would stop here, in the middle of nowhere, to take on a passenger. The blazing midday sun is well overhead when Omar says maybe I’ll have to catch the bus at the town of Palomar.
“And how do I get there?” I ask, tired and sweaty, trying not to scratch the growing red welts on my legs.
“I’ll flag down my friend who has a moto-taxi. He’s very trustworthy.”
At this point, I’d accept a ride on a burro.
Soon his friend putts up. Omar explains the situation and the driver agrees. He hands me a grimy helmet and holds out his hand to help me onto the back of his motorcycle.
“Where do I put my hands?”
“Around my waist,” the young man answers, and off we roar.
The rush of air is soothing and I try to relax and enjoy the view. Oh, if my husband could see me now. Omar’s friend is careful with his white-haired, pale-faced passenger, sticking to the edge of the road. I wonder how fast we’re going and look down at the speedometer. Zero kilometers per hour? The gas gauge needle points at E. Empty. What if we run out of gas? Then it dawns on me that this moto-taxi is a patchwork hybrid, likely put together ‘one piece at a time’ like Johnny Cash’s Cadillac. After fifteen or twenty minutes, I wonder how far this town of Palomar is. Maybe Omar’s friend isn’t as trustworthy as he claimed. Is he planning to take me hostage? When we pass the toll booth, I know we’re nearing the wide Magdalena River. This is much further than I thought. What a relief when my driver slows and stops by a clutch of roadside stands. In less than a minute a bus sporting tropical colors emerges from a side road.
“There it is. Once in town you must get off at Calle 17 and take a taxi from there,” he announces and waves to the driver to stop.
I climb aboard. A woman with a child gestures me to sit next to her in the front row. I’m tickled. This is the kind of bus I used to ride here fifty years ago. A green fringe edges the windshield and stuffed toy animals – a bear, a dog, a rabbit, an elephant – dangle and sway from the roof over the driver’s area. His seat is upholstered in a plastic blue, fringed material. We sway in our seats to the rhythm of coastal music – meringue, cumbia - blaring from loud speakers behind the driver. Warm air blows through the open door.
 This is what I’d come for.

                                                                          October, 2015, Barranquilla

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