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Great Escape

The Trouble With Disappearing

When your backpacking trip meets revolution, it’s a good time for a Plan B

Art: Noah Baker (Images via author)

ItIt was the fall of 2013, and I was stuck in the town of Popayán in southwestern Colombia. Protests had erupted throughout the country—farmers were revolting against low pay and high fuel prices; truckers and students joined in, both to show their support and air their own grievances. Soon, the entire country seemed to be on strike, with rumors that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, was secretly stoking the flames. Solemn men with shotguns patrolled block-long lines at banks. Food prices fluctuated wildly. Every route to Ecuador was blocked.

I had been drifting around for a long while by then and had become accustomed to the thrill of moving on. I’d wandered around East Africa, spent months crisscrossing the traveler meccas of Southeast Asia, and was a few weeks into what would become a year in South America.

Most of the time, escape was wonderfully uncomplicated: You settle one all-cash hostel bill, pack your bag, book a ticket, and disappear. Almost as powerful as the curiosity about that next place is the rush of leaving one behind. Suddenly, you’re magically anonymous all over again. No one you meet knows anything about you. No one you know has any idea where you are. You are free in a way that feels harder and harder to achieve in an increasingly connected world. Every new place is a chance to become a whole different person — the fundamental luxury of solo travel is that you get to leave your self behind. I’d become addicted to disappearing. And now, suddenly, I couldn’t.

I soon found I wasn’t the only helplessly immobile backpacker in Popayán. As it became clear that every road out of town was either blocked or destroyed, the travelers began to unite. A few Israelis just out of the army, a young French couple, an older Norwegian man, a few Dutch, and two fellow Americans, commiserating over large bottles of beer in hostel bars. Objectively, our self-pity was absurd. The protesters were millions of citizens furious about important issues. We were a few bored backpackers ready for a change of scenery. But we felt terribly persecuted nonetheless.

Protests begin in Colombia.

Information seemed entirely rooted in rumor. To say nothing of the language barrier, this was a long-simmering nationwide revolt, the subtleties of which we couldn’t begin to understand. The papers said one thing, the people on the street said the opposite, and everyone was constantly accusing each other of lying. The only fact the locals agreed on was that protesters had blown up part of a key bridge about two hours away, at a place called Mojarres. That was the nature of the issue: small pockets of protesters in key areas. If we could only pass through a select few problematic towns, we’d be on open roads all the way to Ecuador.

A few days in, we began to settle into an uncomfortable routine. Each morning, some member of our traveling crew would propose a plan:

“Maybe a trucker could take us to Mojarres, and then we could find our own way across the river.”

“We’ll bribe a bus driver to take us 16 hours through San Augustin!”

“Let’s backtrack to Cali and book a flight to Quito.”

Each afternoon, this new idea would prove untenable.

“Five thousand protestors have surrounded the bridge in Mojarres and taken two police officers hostage.”

“The San Augustin detour is a scheme run by the bus drivers.”

“All roads back to Cali are now completely blocked.”

And each night, we had the same pathetically optimistic conversations.

“I’ll bet it’s gonna end tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll be good to go.”

Protests against the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

Most critically, the subtext of every planning discussion was our deep aversion to spending money. We hardly knew each other but were united by the common goal of trying to find a way out of this as cheaply as possible. The less we spent, the longer we could keep living this nomadic dream.

Some of the travelers I’d met had definitive end dates planned for their adventures: school beginning again, a looming start date of a new job, a significant other anxiously awaiting their return. But many, like me, were almost entirely untethered. The only variable that mattered was money. As long as those dusty ATMs kept releasing their colorful stacks of foreign currency, real life could still be avoided. Only when my bank account was thoroughly depleted would I have to fly home and figure out what I was going to do with my life, whatever that meant.

The situation in Popayán was becoming an increasingly worrisome threat to the lifestyle I so heavily depended on to shield me from the reality of my mid-twenties. The flights from Cali, for instance, had skyrocketed to the point where the expense would take months off my trip, an outcome I could hardly contemplate.

As the days passed, I recognized the same symptoms of anxious wanderlust in the others. Normally, every few days brought a strange new landscape to explore. Now we circled these same few rainy blocks of a town that had largely ceased functioning, all the while feeling guilty for complaining when such weighty issues were at stake. Arguments sparked over minor disagreements, with all these fiercely independent travelers forced into collaboration with equally stubborn international counterparts.

For so long, I had been proud to follow a freewheeling philosophy, where even the slightest commitment or set plan was an affront to the idea of being open to everything. Suddenly I was forced to take stock of things and to admit that with even the smallest amount of foresight I could have probably avoided this quagmire entirely. But I’d been too busy “living in the moment, man,” just like all these other wannabes. And now we’d all been sentenced to watch the money we’d worked so hard to save slowly dwindle to nothingness in Popayán.

Paintballs were a favored tactic of the student protestors.

Another day, another one of our short-tempered, multilingual planning sessions. English was the common language of discussion, but the various national factions would often switch back to their native tongues to confer with each other and, I suspect, disparage everyone else.

“But does anyone know how many meters the river is? Could we swim across it?”

Swim? Are you fucking nuts?”

“No, I am not! I am trying to help! You are never helping.”

And then, just as every potential solution seemed to have been analyzed and proved unacceptable, the quiet French woman spoke up.

“Why not find our own plane?”

Laughter from the group, but then silence. Why not find our own plane? There were a lot of us in the same position. We really just needed to get over one bridge, and then we’d be on clear roads to Ecuador. Someone mentioned they thought they’d seen a small airfield on their bus ride into town a few weeks ago. What other option did we have? We split up and started asking people if they knew anyone who could get us an aircraft.

I’ve always been impressed by the speed at which things can be arranged in some of the less industrialized countries I’ve visited. Sometimes it’s the distinct absence of bureaucracy; more often it’s the way bureaucracy can be manipulated through bribery and corruption. Whatever the case, there’s no arguing with the results. Assuming your asking price is sufficiently high relative to the local economy, calls are made, kickbacks are promised, and there’s a refreshing lack of bullshit about the whole thing. Much of the time, it only takes a single local person hearing that a group of foreign travelers are in search of something and the request naturally ripples through the community. Everyone knows someone who can get you a motorbike without a permit, or find you an unlicensed guide to take you into the jungle, or help your friend with a visa issue, or all manner of other things.

This was the same idea, just on a larger scale. The request went out through the grapevine, and the message was simple enough that even the language barrier was hardly an issue: We have cash, and we’re looking for an aircraft to take us west. Within a few hours, we’d found a local man with a tiny plane who’d fly us to Pasto, the first large town after the critical bridge, for a fraction of a commercial flight from Cali. We packed our backpacks as quickly as we could, all the while cursing ourselves for not thinking of this sooner.

Rushing to the airfield, the idea of our own plane still felt preposterous. But suddenly, we were walking across the tarmac. It felt fantastic to be moving, because movement made everything simple again. No more planning and worrying and considerations outside of where to eat tonight and where to explore tomorrow.

We realized that our entire “ordeal” was ridiculous — “overprivileged vagabonds forced to stay in rustic Colombian town longer than planned”—but that hardly mattered as we raced down the runway. We smiled at each other as we lifted into the air, proud of our creative escape. We’d figured our own way out of a bad situation, and this plane was going to land in a place none of us had ever been.

Onward, to Ecuador.

Writer from Baltimore. Author of The Wayfarer's Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler - now available in Korean.

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