This cab I’m in sounds like it’s about three putt-putts away from breaking down in the outskirts of Cartagena. It’s dark, I’m by myself, and I have all my luggage with me. I’m freaking out.
The driver assures me we’ll make it to my destination as even the slowest buses zoom by us, leaving us in a cloud of smog. While he urges me not to worry, I can tell from the expression on his face that he’s as panicked as I am.
What did I get myself into? Why am I here? Am I some kind of idiot? Has everything I’ve said about brazenly going out into the world on your own been a lie?
These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself in precarious situations like this. Some questions can be answered definitively with a yes, as in, “Yes, I am an idiot.” But some of the other questions take a little more time and effort to answer.
I inhale deeply and breathe out a little bit of my fear. The cab is barely chugging along, but something tells me this will be okay. I’m relieved when the cab putt-putts into the bus station. I have made it. The cab driver is relieved, but not as much as I am because it’s late and he has to get his cab home or to a place where it can be fixed.
I find the gate I’ll be departing from, and my relief dissipates as it sets in that I am moments away from a 13 hour night bus ride to Medellin. Out of all the wild bus rides you can take in Colombia, the one that everyone warns you about is the one I’m about to take — the trip between Cartagena and Medellin.
Supposedly, if you search at the right time, you can book cheap flights between these two cities. But since I’m planning my trip as I go along, I must have missed the good deals. So the night bus it is.
I can tell this is an unpopular option because my bus is nearly empty. There is room to spread out, but nobody wants to sit in the back of the bus where it’ll be bumpy and nauseating, so everyone is crammed in the front.
After we board, the driver’s attendant walks down the aisle passing out barf bags. This doesn’t bode well. I rarely have issues with motion sickness, but with a couple of Colombian bus rides under my belt, I feel that it is wise to accept the barf bag offer.
“How many?” he asks me in Spanish.
“One,” I reply.
“Here’s two.” He gives me an extra one just in case. I laugh and sigh as I collect my bags.
Hours later, I’m shivering under several layers and in that trying place halfway between awake and asleep. A young British backpacker in the row in front of me has reclined his seat so far back that he is literally in my lap. This is not the minor reclining of airplane kerfuffles, his seat is actually in a horizontal state, right on top of my legs.
I’m just alert enough to continue wondering why I am doing this. How did I end up on this bus that’s clinging to a mountain, thousands of miles away from anyone or anything familiar? How did I end up in this seat on this bus with my legs gone numb because some gap year kid’s seat is smashing them and because the air conditioning has nonsensically been turned up to maximum strength? Who does this? Should I attempt to use the bathroom on this bus?
Again, I only have the answer to one question, “No, I shouldn’t bother using the bathroom because nothing good will come out of it on this potholed, winding road.”
I stop trying to sleep and open my eyes. And I see that we have transcended mere Earth.
This corner of heaven on Earth has just begun to wake up. I am surrounded by lush sharp-peaked mountains that are the most astonishingly brilliant shade of green. I can tell we are high up, but I can’t tell how high because below the road, everything is consumed by an ethereal cloak of clouds. Aside from the mountain tops, the one thing that emerges from the fog is the sun which quietly, gradually shares its luminosity with everything I see, presiding over this scene of splendor.
I try to take a couple pictures but there’s no way that this can be captured accurately. It’s too grand and I can’t ask the bus driver to stop. So I just sit in awe of this scene, absorbing every moment of it before it passes, while the sun is still rising, before we leave this enchanted landscape.
I’ve been in this moment before. Not here, but on uncomfortable drives in other parts of the world where 10 hours of “whys” are followed by 10 minutes of understanding. I know why I’m here, why I still love this.
You do these kinds of things because just when you think there is not much to discover, that everything’s been overexposed or done and said by others, the world shows you that if you’re attune to it, there’s no end to the personal enlightenment it can offer. You do it because there are still so many stories to be told — pretty ones, ugly ones, sad ones, humorous ones — and you have your own point of view to share them through. You do it for fleeting moments that result in enduring profundity, long after the trip is over. You do it because wild roads can lead to unfathomable, exhilarating beauty.