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ColumnistsPeter Nelson's TravelsPeter Nelson's travels - Tunja, Columbia

Peter Nelson’s travels – Tunja, Columbia

 Leaving Bogota, I’m on my own again.  Everyone else is either going back to North America or down to Cali, where magic mushrooms sprout in abundance.  Another sister of my ex-brother-in-law lives in Caracas, Venezuela, so that’s my next destination.

The first day I don’t get far out of Bogota.  Very few cars on the road, mostly trucks, and the trucks never stop, at least not for male hitchhikers.  But the road’s pretty interesting.  High and lonely, treeless.  Like the Scottish highlands.  Bushes, trees, a few scattered small houses — everything’s grey and dripping.

Tunja is a university town.  As good a place to stop as any.  It’s on the highest hill in this broad range of hills.  If the weather ever cleared up, there might be a nice view.  But it never does.  Clouds roll in from every direction like an irresistible horde of battle wagons, and rain hits the small buildings like fists instead of drops.

I duck into the first hotel I come to, find another dark and cavernous room for 8 pesos a night, and then set off to explore the town in the dripping fading light.  Suddenly there’s a cloudburst.  A real drencher.  Rain, hail, thunder — in seconds, the steep little cobbled streets become uncrossable torrents.  I leap for the nearest shelter in sight, a small porch roof protecting someone’s front door.  While I’m standing there waiting out the deluge, the door opens, and this kindly, professorial face inquires “Por qué no golpeas?” just as if he’d been expecting me.  He invites me inside, and I’m introduced all around as if I were a long-lost friend of the family.  Here are his twin 10-year-old daughters, and he leaves them to entertain me while he goes off to tell his wife to set an extra place for dinner.

Amazing, isn’t it? — the luck of the solitary traveler.

A very nice house, quite well-furnished.  This family is solid middle-class by our standards, probably upper-class by theirs.  They give me some dry clothes to put on and then feed me.  The girls want help with their English, so I speak English to them for a while, but they hardly understand a word.  In school, they learn to read and write it, but not to speak or understand when spoken to.  Later that evening, older daughter Clara comes home.

Clara Inez Rodriguez, 20-year-old university student, rates a paragraph all her own.  She occupies center stage in my time in Tunja from that moment on.  Two friends of hers stop by the house — Carlos, a fellow student, and Graciella, a bank worker, and the next night, the four of us meet to take in a movie — “Z”, a hard-line political diatribe directed by Costa-Gravas.  Not your average romantic flick, you might think, but a few minutes after we sit down, Clara’s hand steals out from under her pancho to find mine.

I’m perplexed, astonished, but hardly unresponsive.  After all, it’s been months since any affectionate female contact.  On the walk home after the movie, the others drift away, and Clara and I walk on alone.  The night streets are dark, the sidewalks empty, though it isn’t very late.  I’d been thinking to leave Tunja in the morning, but Clara turns me to face her and says “Quedas” with a meaningful look and an even more meaningful kiss.

Well, hey, not as if I had a schedule or anything!

So I stay on for a couple of weeks, and we become amigos.  In public, even in the sympathetic company of Carlos or Graciella, Clara never touches me.  But leave us alone, even for a minute, even in her family’s living room, and passion flares with a suddenness that takes me by surprise and often off-balance to boot.  We might be in an uncomfortable position, but what-the-hay, passion flares anyway.  Most of our encounters happen on the sofa in her living room with the rest of the family right upstairs, but no one ever interferes or complains.  It would be unthinkable, of course, for Clara to come to my room, so comfort seems to be out of the question.

But all good things must come to an end.  Time to mosey on.  Through Graciella, I meet two older chaps who are going up to Cucutá, close to the Venezuelan border, so I join them on a night bus over some pretty unbelievable roads.  One of the guys says that this night bus is the best way to travel, because then you can’t see the sharp curves with steep drop-offs being negotiated by this ancient vehicle with brakes of dubious vintage.

From Cucutá, I got to Merida, in Venezulela, another university town.  Thinking, perhaps another Tunja, another Clara, but no such luck.  Merida is just another big city.  It’s up in the mountains, nice and cool, grey like all the highlands this time of year, but much too big to find the heart of in a couple of nights.  So, on to Caracas …


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