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These are the two stories I tell the most frequently.  If you ever drank whiskey with me, you have probably heard them in some version or another.     I like to think of them as classics.

Almost Dead on the Back of a Camel

Wow.  Here I am in Jaiselmer, India and it is truly one of the world’s most amazing places.   Smack dab in the center of the Thuar desert, located at the only substantial water source for hundreds of miles around, it has been the center of trade for the region for thousands of years.   The ancient city was built out of red sandstone and it rises up out of the desert like some kind of a magical oz glowing a beautiful orange red against the blue desert sky.  I arrive in a crowded minibus after a grueling 13 hour journey from Pushkar .   I go immediately to the old city and find a cheap room.   The maze like streets surrounded by dry laid red sandstone walls are a wonder to wander through but I’m not here for the architecture.  I came here to go on a camel journey.    I’ve read about it in many sources and travel guides.  Jaiselmer, India is the place to go for camel adventures.  I’ve never been on a camel before (this is way back in  2001).   I think a camel ride will be fun.   I’ll try anything once.     Why not take a camel out into the desert for a few days?  No doubt it will be a valuable life experience…

I arrange it all through the guest house.    They call it the Lonely Desert Camel Tour.    I am going to ride out into the unknown desert and wander around for 5 days.   I’m not going to any national park or famous attraction.  I have no specific destination.  I simply want to experience the desert.   I will have one camel for myself plus a guide with his own camel.    The guide will provide the food and the water and all the provisions.  All I need to bring is a sleeping bag for the cold desert nights, proper desert attire, sunscreen and a sense of adventure.

The following morning, I have a bhang lassi for breakfast and I buy a few bhang cookies in the morning market.    I meet the guide and the camels at 8:00 am.   The guide’s name is Sahin and he is a Muslim.  But this is pre 9-11 so it doesn’t even occur to me that I should in any way be wary of Muslims.    The smaller camel is named Kaju and the bigger one is called Johny.    Because I am tall, I get the bigger camel.   After introductions, I climb into the saddle.  Off we go.  My first ever camel ride.  What fun!

The camel is surprisingly easy to handle.  He hardly even seems to realize I’m there.  He just saunters along, following the other camel, and is easily directed by a flick of the reins or a cluck of the tongue.    He’s not very comfortable to ride on though as he does this irregular bounce move and the saddled hump is not exactly soft and cushy.  Nevertheless, it is an incredible morning.  The scenery is endless desert wasteland; barren rock, sand dunes, tumbleweeds and a few shrubs.  We stop at one watering hole that is surrounded by a few mud huts but then we continue onward… deeper into the desert.   I munch down a bhang cookie and soak up the experience; intense dry heat from the blazing sun, a very slight warm breeze with occasional gusts that blow sand into swirls.   Sahin is singing quietly in Rajastani  up ahead of me as he rides along.  His soft voice carries on the desert wind.    The image of the guide on the camel against the backdrop of desert landscape is like a scene from a film.  I can hardly believe that I am living this life.

About 10:30 am, we come upon a small rock outcropping that provides some shade from the sun.    We stop there to wait out the midday heat.  That’s the way it works in the desert.   From late morning until mid-afternoon, you just can’t travel.   The heat is too intense.  The only option is to seek shade and relax.  That’s what we do.  Sahin cooks lunch of rice and spicy vegetables.   We eat.  Afterwards, we have a brief conversation but Sahin speaks little English and I speak no Rajastani so communication is limited.   He takes a siesta.  I smoke a joint and watch the sun move slowly across the sky.

Several hours later, we get back on the camels and start moving again.  It’s a glorious afternoon;  a wander through the desert, a good life experience, hard on the ass, maybe 5 whole days is more than I want but surely my ass will get used to it.   Tumbleweeds tumble, the sun glares and Sahin sings.  Just as the sun is setting we arrive at the ancient stone ruins of a small village.    There is not a lot to see because it’s mostly blown over with sand but there are a few rock walls and a few rock piles.  It’s very atmospheric though and I can’t help but wonder about the story of the people that once lived here…  We set up camp within the fallen down walls.    Then, as we are making tea before dinner, 8 more people show up with 8 more camels.  It’s 5 German tourists and their 3 Rajastani guides.  It’s a friendly bunch and they join us for dinner.  After dinner we have a small fire and exchange stories.  One of the other guides speaks good English and he tells the story of the ruins where we are camping

Once upon a time….some thousand or so years ago, this village was a holy and sacred place inhabited by a special group of spiritually pure Brahman people.   Unfortunately, these holy people did not own the village where they lived.  They were tenants of the great and powerful Raj in Jaiselmer.  Then one day, the Raj was out visiting his various properties when he stopped at the well in this village.  As he was watering his camel, he saw a beautiful young maiden from the village and he fell instantly in love with her.  So he went and found the girl’s father and demanded that he be given the girl as his bride.   But the father said no to the Raj.  The Raj was not a Brahman, he was not holy, he was not spiritual he was only wealthy and powerful.    The holy man refused to sell his daughter to a world of corruption and greed.    So the Raj threatened  the father.  He would only have three days to decide.  Give up his daughter for marriage or be evicted from his home.  As the Raj charged off with his entourage, he left a cloud of dust in his wake.  After he was gone the girl’s father called a meeting of the entire village and explained the demand of the Raj.   The choice was simple and clear cut.  Sell his daughter into corruption and greed or sacrifice everything for the sake of his spiritual beliefs.    Three days later, the Raj returned to the village to collect his bride or evict his tenant but he found that the girl and the father were no longer there.  Not only that; but all his other tenants were no longer there either.  The entire village had evacuated across the desert to escape his lustful greedy rule.

Not a bad story.  It certainly gives me something to think about as I lie on a blanket underneath the stars.    I try to imagine these falling down walls bustling with people.  The image will not connect as I drift off to sleep.

I awake in the early morning with a slight quaking in the bowels.    Must have been something I ate.  No big deal; I can handle a little diarrhea.  We say good bye to the Germans who are heading back to Jaiselmer today and we continue onward into the deep desert.   I don’t eat any bhang cookies this day because I’m worried about my stomach but the scene is still very unreal.    Blinding sun, infinite sand… two camels with passengers trudge forward into the nothingness.    But my stomach gets worse and worse as the morning progresses.   The camel’s awkward step becomes more and more annoying, the saddle seems to get harder and harder on my ass.  The sun is getting hotter and hotter.  I’m roasting, broiling, bouncing along, not feeling so well.  Oh shit, this is getting to be a fucking nightmare.    Finally, we come upon a single tree casting an oval shadow over a small area.  We stop to escape the midday heat.

Oh….the misery…the agony…the suffering and the pain.   The afternoon is dreadful; a total bummer, a serious crashing drag.   I am curled up in a ball underneath the tree.  My whole body aches, my stomach wretches and my bowels quake.  I crawl to the edge of the shade, spew projectile vomit out into the hot sand.  I turn around and spew projectile diarrhea into the hot sand.    How much agony can one man stand?  I crawl back to the center of the shade and collapse.  Oh the misery….the agony….the suffering and the pain.  What did I ever do to deserve this?  Please God, make this horror go away.    But it doesn’t go away.  It goes on and on.   Vomit and shit in the blazing sun.  The body aches and pains.  And then, Sahin speaks the dreadful words.    “Mr. Patrick, I sorry.  But we can’t stay here.  There is no water for the camels.  We must move on.    Will you be okay?  Can you ride on the camel?   Is it possible?”

And so, somehow, in my pathetic, sick, and weakened state, I manage to climb back into the saddle and head with the camel across the desert.   Can you say nightmare?  Can you say hell on earth?  It is the single worst afternoon of travel I have ever had in my life.   Here I am….slouched half delirious on the back of a camel; I vomit occasionally as we bounce along in the blazing hot sun, every cell in my body hurts, my bowels quake;  I have to slide half way off the camel and drop my pants in order to projectile shit out into the hot sand.    And then climb back up in the saddle to vomit off the other side of the camel.     Oh my god.  I can’t believe this is happening.  I’m somewhere in the middle of the desert in India and I am dying.  The scenery is sand and rock and nothingness.  Further and further we go into the nothingness.  It doesn’t even seem real anymore.  My whole body aches.  I have to vomit again. Aaaaugh!   The camel bounces along.  The sun beats down.  The scenery never seems to change; sand dunes and rock outcroppings and a few tumbleweeds.  No water or plants or shrubs or any signs of life.  I’m dying and surrounded by death.    Will this nightmare journey never end?

When we finally stop to camp I am at first relieved but then confused.  Why are we stopping here?  It’s just a sand dune like a million others.  It’s not a watering hole or a shade spot or a ruin.      It’s just a pile of sand in the middle of fucking nowhere.  Why are we stopping here?  I feel delirious, feverish, confused, disoriented.    I don’t know what’s going on.  I don’t know where I am.  I feel very ill.  I fall to my hands and knees and vomit.    I watch hazily from my knees as Sahin unpacks the camels and lays out the blankets in the sand.  He then comes over to me and helps me up.  He leads me over to the blankets and I lie down.   And then something very strange happens.

Sahin disappears….  I remember very clearly his words to me before he leaves.   “You wait here Mr. Patrick.  I go for something to help you.”    In retrospect, it’s all very funny.   Yeah right…. You wait here.   Where the fuck am I going to go?    But Sahin does not just leave.  He leaves and takes both of the camels with him.  He must have taken them to get water or something.  I don’t know.  I’m delirious with illness.  I can’t figure out what’s going on?  I half remember  Sahin saying something about going for help but I’m not really sure.    All I know, is that Sahin is now gone and so are the camels and I am very very sick and I have no idea where the hell I am….  How do you like that for a precarious situation?    Sometimes I really manage to get myself in a spot.  As a matter of fact, as my life has progressed forward from this day I have reflected  back upon it often.  Whenever I am having a bad day at work or with friends or with family, I think to myself…. Well, things could be worse, I could be sick and dying and all alone in the middle of the desert in India…

It’s a strange universe and the next several hours unfold like some kind of dream.  I’m feverish and sick and the sun is going down.  I’m all alone in the middle of the desert.  I’m going to die.  The sand will blow over my body.  No one will ever know what happened to me.  I will disappear.  It is the end.  I can’t believe it.  How did this happen?  My guide has left me.  I’m all alone.  Nothing but sand and rock for as far as the eye can see.   I have no camel or map or sense of direction.  What can I do?  Nothing.  My entire history is about to be erased.    Existence is so fragile.  Obscurity is so close.   The sun falls behind the horizon.  I see the legendary green flash.  Or maybe that’s a symptom of my delirium.  I don’t know. I don’t understand.  The blue of the sky grows darker.  A few stars peek out from the heavens.    My stomach wretches, my bones aches, fever and chills in the growing darkness.  How bad can things be?  How low can I go?  Where is the bottom….I don’t know…..down down down I go.  I am so small.  I am nothing….. insignificant.  I will disappear.  My worthless bones will be buried forever beneath the infinite sands of the desert.  I will be forgotten forever.

“Hey Mr. Patrick.  Are you okay?  I have something to help you.”

I open my eyes from the delirium and see a blurry image.    A dark skinned Muslim man in a pure white cloak standing above me against the backdrop of a full moon on a desert landscape.  In his outstretched hand is a small hunk of black sticky tar.    It is my guide, Sahin, and he is offering me some candied opium he purchased from a desert witch woman.

I sit up awkwardly and take the black sticky substance from him.   It’s about two fingers long and a 1/2 inch thick.  It has the shape and texture of an extra long very sticky tootsie roll.  But it is much blacker….oh so much blacker.  Indeed, the stick of opium in my hand, bathed in unreal moonlight almost seems a supernatural blackness.     “Only take little now,” says Sahin,” because that is all you need.  Save the rest for the long journey ahead.”

So I break off a small piece about the size of a fingernail and pop it in my mouth.  It tastes like sugar and sticks to my teeth like taffy.   I have to work it around with my tongue but I manage to swallow it all.   I lie back down on the blanket and stare up at the night time sky.  Where did the moon come from?  It’s full.  I don’t remember it from before.  I wonder what the time might be.   Was I sleeping for long?    Thank God, Sahin came back…or maybe I should thank Allah.  Perhaps I’ll survive this ordeal after all.  It sure will be a story to tell later.   The stars in the sky seem to blink and the moon pulsates with energy.  Is that an effect of the opium?   I feel a warm glow at the center of my being.    The darkness, misery and pain of the illness still envelops me but now there is a warm glow at the center to oppose it.  As the battle between light and dark begins, I drift off to sleep.

My dreams that night are crazy.  I wish I could remember them in detail, but I can’t.  That was over ten years ago and I no longer have any written down version of the event.   But I have visions of some kind of apocalypse.   Civilization collapses and anarchy breaks out.  I witness the battle for the soul of the world.   It is the end of times with massive explosions, raging fires, and overwhelming floods.    I remember that when I first awake I think the dreams are somehow relevant or true or symbolic.  Now, however, I realize they were just opium induced fantasies.   Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter.  Truth or delusion, it was one hell of an interesting night,

I awake in the early dawn and feel much better.  I am certainly not cured or healthy but I have significantly improved from the day before.  My morning trip to the toilet is not a pleasant affair but at least the diarrhea is no longer explosive.  And although my stomach still occasionally wretches there is no longer any substance to vomit out.  The fever and chills have passed but the incredible weakness and body aches are still with me.  No matter, I have plenty of opium to kill the pain.

On account of my illness, we decide to shorten the 5 day journey into the desert.  Nevertheless, from where we are camped on the sand dune, it is still two days travel by camel back to Jaiselmer.   We are going to have to spend one more night in the desert.   Oh well, I’ll survive.  I break off a chunk of opium, swallow it down, climb into the saddle and off we go.  The next two days, can only be described as surreal.  The vomiting and diarrhea have passed but the intense body aches stay with me.  I have to keep swallowing down the opium to keep the pain at bay.  So here I am, slumped over a camel, drifting….floating….glowing as I glide through the desert.  Opium is weird shit; powerful, a little scary.  But it really does work.  The pain fades to the periphery and the glowing energy of goodness pulsates at the center of my being.  I smile at the passing scenery.  I watch the tumbleweed and the blowing sand.   It’s a wonderful beautiful world.   We stop to camp on top of a sand dune.  It looks exactly like the sand dune of the night before.  My guide assures me that we have gone a great distance and are now much closer to Jaiselmer but it looks exactly the same to me.  Perhaps the opium is confusing my sense of reality.  The real world and the dream world crash into each other and mix together inside my head.  Is this happening?  Am I clung to the back of a camel as I float through the desert of India in an opium haze?   Maybe I’m sleeping on a sand dune and dreaming about riding on a camel in an opium haze.    Or maybe I’m back home in my room and the entire trip to India is a dream.  Or maybe, this whole crazy experience happened more than ten years ago and I am simply recalling it from memory.  Could my memory be this vivid?  I don’t know.  What is time?  What is truth?  What really happened?

I awake in the early dawn and see something remarkable.  A short distance away from me, one of the camels (Kaju) is leaned over and chewing on a small shrub that pokes up out of the desert sand.   Meanwhile, on the camel’s back are perched two very large very black crows.   They are pecking at the camel’s fur trying to get at insects.  It’s a strange sight.  And the thing that strikes me as remarkable is that both the camel and the crows seem to be smiling.   Is that possible?  Do animals smile?  Is there a metaphor or message in this image?  Probably not.   But with my opium addled brain, I am seeing metaphors everywhere.

We have to travel by camel for one more full day.  The city of Jaiselmer finally comes into view in the late afternoon;  and when I see those red sand stone buildings rising up out of the desert in the distance a deep sensation of relief and satisfaction washes over my soul.    I made it back.  I feel like Hercules after his trip to Hades or Ulysses after the Odyssey.    I have lived an epic and survived;  an epic so incredible and fantastic that someone should write a story about it.

The Colombian Robbery Story

First of all, I didn’t even plan on going to Columbia.    It was the fall of 1992 and I was a young man on my first ever traveling adventure.   I had worked a few years as a minion of the evil empire and managed to save enough money to take a year off to travel.  I drove around the U.S. in a pickup truck for several months and then left my vehicle at a friend’s house in Houston and headed south by bus into Mexico and Central America.  My goal was to travel all the way to the southern tip of South America.  I had some interest in going to Colombia and then the Andean countries on the way but I was afraid to go there because of state department warnings about the ongoing drug war in Colombia.   It was the time of Pablo Escobar and the battle between the cocaine cartels.    Images in the media portrayed Colombia as a bloody violent hell on earth.    I was young, inexperienced and not very lingual in Spanish.   So, after studying all the relevant info, I bought a direct plane ticket from Panama to the safe country of Venezuela.   From there, I intended to continue on to Brazil and Argentina thereby skipping Colombia all together.    Destiny, however, decided to change my plans.

I arrived in Venezuela in late November of 1992; just in time for the attempted revolution.   Fortunately for me, I arrived late at night and decided to go to the small beach town of Macuto on the outskirts of Caracas instead of directly into the city.    Chaos erupted the following morning and there were violent clashes between police, military and revolutionaries on the streets of Caracas.  It was Hugo Chavez’s first attempt to take over the government of Venezuela.  And I was stranded on a tiny beach for a ten day state of emergency while the whole crazy thing unfolded.  But alas, that’s another story… for another blog entry perhaps.  This entry is supposed to be about Colombia and the robbery not revolution in Venezuela.       For now, the important thing about the revolution is that it delayed me in Venezuela.     Then, while I was delayed, a diplomatic dispute broke out between the U.S. and Brazil.   They changed the rules.  U.S. citizens could no longer get Visas for Brazil in neighboring countries.   They had to get them at the embassy in their home country. In other words, since I didn’t have a Visa yet, Brazil would not let me in…   So here I am, stranded in Venezuela.  I have several months ahead of me left to travel.  I can’t go to Brazil.  Where else can I go?  I look at the map.  The answer is obvious.  I’m standing on the rooftop of a hotel on the border town of Santa Elena near Brazil thinking about this.   A very bright star is shining on the north western horizon….  And that’s why I ended up going to Colombia.

I must admit, I was terrified when I first crossed the border from Venezuela.  I was imagining gun fights in the street, cocaine crazed maniacs, narco-bombings, revolutionaries, paramilitaries and a vast assortment of dangers and perils.   I was a naïve, young, gringo, traveling alone who could only speak a few words of Spanish.    I had to be crazy to be going there.  I didn’t stand a chance.  I’d never make it out of Colombia alive…..  Yeah right.    And so I learned my first very valuable traveling lesson.    The image of far away places portrayed in the American Media is not very consistent with reality.   Don’t believe the lie…..go and see for yourself.    I loved Colombia.  It was a wonderful and fantastic place with super friendly people and a whole lot to see and do.    Yeah sure, there were news reports about skirmishes between the revolutionaries and the government.    And Pablo Escobar was on the run after escaping from prison so he was a media star.  But in my day to day travel through Colombia, it didn’t seem a dangerous place at all.    I traveled by local bus and stayed in local guest houses.   I met tons of Colombians who took me to parties and invited me into their homes.    I made friends, drank booze, smoked weed, hooked up with some chicas bonitas and partied like a rock star all night long in Bogota and Cali.   I hiked in the mountains, swam in the ocean and visited some ancient ruins.    I had such a great time in Colombia, I stayed for a whole month and not a single bad thing happened.   I didn’t get robbed or hustled, or shot at or caught in a crossfire or threatened or beat up or harassed or anything.    The entire journey across Colombia was incredibly smooth.     Absolutely nothing went wrong…..until my very last day in the country.

The funny thing is, I was on my way to Ecuador….the other safe country.     I spent New Year’s Eve in the beautiful colonial town of Popayan and headed towards the border town of Ipiales the following morning.   Unfortunately, it was a long bus ride with several break-downs and I arrived in Ipiales a half an hour too late to catch the onward bus to Ecuador.   I would have to spend one more night in Colombia.    No problem though.  I’ve been in Colombia for a month; I’m a pro, nothing to worry about.   So I find a cheap room, deposit my backpack and go wandering around town.   Like most Latin American towns, Ipiales has a big outdoor market where the locals sell pretty much everything you can imagine;   fruits, vegetables, small farm animals, arts, crafts, clothing and a vast assortment of useless plastic crap.    I stroll through the market, looking for a snack, taking in the sights and sounds and smells.     So much to look at, so much to think about, so much to experience……  I love this traveling life.    I stop at a food stall to buy myself something cold to drink.   I reach in my pocket and pull out a small wad of Colombian pesos.    The total value of the wad is only about 20 U.S. dollars but the substantial bills in my hand make it seem to be more.    I’m trying to decide what kind of drink I want when all of a sudden, someone comes through the crowd of people, pushes me hard up against the food stall, grabs the wad of money right out of my hand and starts to run away.  Holy Shit!  I just got robbed.

It’s a weird thing to be robbed like that….right out of the blue, in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by people, smash and grab.    How are you supposed to react?  What do you do?   In my memory, the whole thing is like a scene from a crazy action movie.    The story unfolds in slow motion.  Is it instinct that takes over?  Why do I respond the way that I do?   It almost seems as if the person taking part in the story is someone different than me.  But it is me.   I act out the story and live the story simultaneously.     The universe hands me the script and I have to play the part…  I recover my balance and steady the disrupted food stand.    I see the shaggy haired guy run away through the crowd pushing people out of his way.   For no reason that makes sense in retrospect, I decide to chase the guy.  It’s absurd, I risk life and limb for 20 bucks.  How ridiculous?  I charge through the market like Indiana Jones.    Chickens scatter and cluck, tables of fruits and vegetables crash to the ground, I leap over tables and chairs and produce and livestock.   The crowd in the market is all yelling “Robaro, robaro, robaro….. go gringo go….”.   More animals scatter, more fruits and vegetables fly, people get out of the way or get smashed into.   I charge through the market like a mad man chasing after the shaggy haired guy I see in front of me.    The evening market is our obstacle course.     I am obsessed.  I am not thinking.  I’m going to catch that guy no matter how much stuff I knock over or smash into in the process.

I chase him all through the market to the other side.  He crosses a road and heads up a hill towards the center of town.  I keep chasing.  He’s about 100 feet ahead of me when three other unsavory looking characters run up to meet him.   Now there are four of them and only me.  I should stop.  I can’t take on four criminals.    But they don’t want to attack me.  The four split up and run in different directions.  I can’t tell which one has my money.    Not really thinking, I keep chasing after the same shaggy haired guy.   We run through the streets of Ipiales.  I’m gaining on him.  I’m within 50 feet now.  What will I do if I catch him?  Beat him up and take him to the police?  But he no longer has the money?  Do I really want to beat him up?  This is crazy?  Why am I chasing a criminal through the streets of some border town in Colombia?  This is really stupid?  I should just stop, turn around and go back?  It’s only 20 bucks.   The criminal turns right down a long narrow alleyway that runs between several old decrepit buildings.    It looks like a dangerous place to go.  Do I really want to follow him down a blind alley?   I still have all my travelers’ checks, my visa card and my passport on my person.  This makes no sense whatsoever.      My reason returns, the animal instinct fades and I decide to give up the chase.   I stop running; catch my breath and turn to head back to the market…..

But then, the cops arrive.   And these are not simple bobbys with wooden clubs and the authority to write parking tickets.   These are Colombian cops, four of them, armed with automatic weapons and a whole lot of macho attitude.  To make matters worse, I don’t speak Spanish and they don’t Speak English.     They come speeding up to the scene and slam on the breaks of their souped up, high end, overland all-terrain police vehicle.    Honestly, you should have seen this thing.  It looked like a hummer on steroids… it was ready for battle.    A cage in the back, weapons and four armed thugs in the middle, and a commanding officer at the wheel in the front.    The vehicle slams to a stop in a cloud of dust with the sirens blaring, the side door slides open and four young guys leap out in some kind of military formation with their guns drawn.    Now this is the Colombia I’ve read about in the media.  This is the Colombia of legend.     Maybe this is going to get scary.   I could be in deep shit.   Am I the one under arrest?     But no….. these people are here to help me.    And what follows afterwards is so insane that I can hardly believe it happened.  But honest, it did.  It really did.

There’s some yelling back in forth in Spanish that I don’t quite understand.    There’s lots of pointing of weapons and stomping about.    Finally, I am herded through the side door of the police vehicle and I take a seat on a bench in the middle section.    Behind me is the cage and in front of me is the driver.    The four guys with big guns file in and sit around me in a circle.    I don’t understand what anyone is saying, I’m scared, confused and totally flabbergasted.    The side door slams shut, the driver revs the engine and the vehicle lurches forward.   Next thing I know, we are speeding through the streets of Ipiales on the hunt for a gang of dangerous criminals.

Actually, the truth is, I have no idea what the hell is going on.    Here I am in a motor vehicle surrounded by heavily armed men as we race through the streets of a small Colombian town.  I sort of assume we are looking for the criminals but I’m not really sure.  Maybe the cops are the criminals.  Maybe they are arresting me; or kidnapping me.  Perhaps there’s been some kind of misunderstanding.  All I know is that I’m surrounded by guys with guns and the driver is burning rubber and squealing tires as he almost loses control around several corners.    Finally, he slams on the breaks and skids to a stop in front of an old falling down three story warehouse type building.   The door of the vehicle whips open and the cops with guns jump out.  I decide to stay in my seat.  The cops talk to several people outside the building who point towards the door.  The cops go rushing inside with their guns drawn.  Sure enough, they emerge a few minutes later dragging two unscrupulous looking characters by the hair.   It’s not the guy who robbed me but it is two of the people who met him on the street and ran off with the money.   The cops open the back door and throw the suspects in the cage behind me.    Afterwards, they get back in the middle section with me, the door closes and we go racing through the streets of Ipiales once again……

Just picture that scene; me, the oblivious, confused and befuddled young gringo sitting amid four well armed Colombian cops in a vehicle while two criminals shout obscenities at me in Spanish through the cage that separates us.      Meanwhile we are making our way around town , siren blaring, looking for the other culprits.  Everybody in town seems to know what happened and who did it (it’s a small town) and the cops are provided info and pointed onward everywhere they stop and ask.   Sure enough, we end up at a building and the four well armed cops go charging inside.   I stay in the vehicle even though the guys behind me in the cage are harassing me through the bars.    The cops emerge a short while later with the long haired guy who robbed me and one other suspect.    They toss the culprits in the cage with the others and climb back into the middle section with me.   The door slams shut and our big happy group heads to the police station.   Talk about a great ride for the new travelers’ amusement park.  Oh yeah…. Cops and criminals yelling at each other through a cage, me in the middle….. what fun!     Everybody should try it once.

We make it back to the police station and the criminals are taken to a jail cell and I am taken to an office.  The cops give me a glass of water and a comfortable chair to sit in.  A short while later; a middle aged, balding, pudgy man comes into the room and gives me a firm and friendly handshake as he introduces himself.   He’s some sort of high ranking police officer and… thankfully… he speaks fluent English.   He explains to me that the criminals have been searched but they were not in possession of any stolen property.   He says that they probably hid the booty away before the police managed to capture them.    If, however, I would like to press charges, the criminals could be interrogated over night.     Quite possibly, they could get a confession out of one of them even before the morning….   I had no interest in pressing charges.  I did not even want to think about what sort of interrogation methods they might use.  I explained to the officer that it was only 20 dollars or so that was stolen and that the Ipiales police department had gone to more than enough trouble and expense on my behalf already.  Further interrogation of the suspects would not be necessary.  Please release the prisoners and accept my apologies for causing so much concern….

I walk out of the police station feeling a bit overwhelmed.    The experience has been intense.  It almost doesn’t seem real.   I was robbed.  I was in a police chase.  What the fuck?  I lost 20 bucks but I could have lost so much more.  I was lucky, very lucky.    I walk in a slight daze down hill through the town back towards the plaza and market.  I am attempting to process what happened to me.  Will this experience change everything?  Before I came to Colombia, I thought it was a super crazy dangerous place.  I was afraid to come here.  But I came anyway and proved the image to be an illusion.  In reality, it’s a super wonderful and beautiful place.  Nothing bad happened, only good things.  But now I’m leaving and this happens so maybe my safe month of travel was just beginners luck.   Maybe it really is a super crazy dangerous place.    What is the truth about traveling in Colombia?

I round the corner about two blocks from the plaza when the first good citizen approaches me.  He saw the robbery unfold in the market and he recognizes me and he wants to apologize to me for how I was treated by a few local ruffians.   He assures me that Ipiales is a nice place and that I am welcome there.    By the time we walk a block, we are joined by two other good citizens.  They too want to assure me that the troublemakers that robbed me are not representative of the people in the town.    The town is full of mostly good people and they will all treat me well.   And treat me well they do….  By the time we reached the plaza, the small group of good citizens has grown into a crowd.    They hail me and cheer me as if I am some sort of hero who has just returned from slaying a dragon.    A spontaneous festival breaks out in my honor.   Strangers are slapping me on the back and shaking my hand and congratulating me and welcoming me.  Two guys argue over who should have the honor of buying me a chicken dinner.    Someone opens a bottle of sugar cane liquor, the beer starts flowing, the music starts, and believe it or not, all the people start dancing…….  How good is my life?

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