We woke up at 6:00 a.m., had breakfast and went down to the Caño Cristales River. It had rained all night, so the river was running high, brown with silt and driftwood. The boat dropped us off a little further along than it had the previous day. We were picked up in jeeps and taken slowly over rocky, bouncy roads. They dropped us off at a cabin that sold beer and confectionaries, and had an assault-rifle-wielding infantryman taking down our names.
From there it was thirty minute walk through the savannah to the river. I took the chance to ask our guide some questions. I started with the “Médicos del Mundo” truck we’d seen in town. He said there weren’t enough local doctors, that you have to fly to get to anything like a hospital, and that Médicos del Mundo were training up local health professionals.
I was warming up to asking him about the imminent referendum on peace with FARC, but wanted to get him to trust me a bit more first. I asked him how they were going to further develop the tourism industry. We were already on a full-capacity weekend, and with the strict limits on how many people could walk up the Caño Cristales river’s various paths; where could they go from here?
With fishing, he said, and by opening up a part of the river to tourists all year. This was unconvincing; people aren’t here to see water, they’re here to see red water, and these plants bloom for just a few months. Our guide also suggested that they would lead smaller groups, but rotate them more on the different paths, cramming more tourists in each day. I couldn’t work out how this would enable them to have more tourists, short of making each group walk faster.
Finally, I got onto the referendum. “Disculpe”, I said, trying a smile, “pero tengo una pregunta que es un poco…delicado” (I’m sorry, but I have a question that is a little delicate). “Tu piensas que la gente aqui van a votar ‘si’ o ‘no’?” (Do you think that people here are going to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’?)
He was hesitant to answer to a tourist, but his answer sounded honest. A friend of his, a farmer who lives nearby, said that FARC have stashed their best weapons. So, when they finally do disarm, they’ll bring only the bad ones, the ones they don’t need, and keep the good stuff. He said they couldn’t be trusted.
I asked our guide a second time whether he’d be voting Yes or No. He said he hadn’t yet made up his mind. On the one hand we are all humans and make mistakes and deserve the chance to demonstrate that we can change. On the other hand, if FARC are hiding their weapons, why take the risk of trusting them?
Day two of walking around the Caño Cristales River was much like day 1: stunning and wet. The difference was that the clouds had gone. This made the walk hotter, the dips in the water even more refreshing, and my skin – as I was to find out later – utterly burned, despite my long trousers, long shirt, wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
There were so many photogenic spots the day was a little ruined by the urge to capture them all. A waterfall, an overhang, pools full of flowers… every moment was a Kodak moment. Mum absolutely hates posing for photos, so it was fun trying to get her when she wasn’t looking, or getting her to pose without posing.
On the way, a guide stopped us at a small clearing. There was a jet black stain in the middle of it. She poked it with a stick. This was tar. Black tar was oozing out of the sand, next to one of the most idyllic and protected rivers in the world.
This was horrifying; an oil rush would be far more deadly to this ecosystem than any war. I touched a bit of the tar with my finger and took a whiff. It smelled exactly like asphalt. That black stain would stay on my finger for the next few days.
Maybe a peace would do more damage than good for Colombia’s precious environment. On the one hand, an end to war will bring new hope to Colombia. But it will also bring new interest from foreign investors. And once the wealthy outsiders feel secure enough that their machinery won’t be destroyed by guerrillas, and expand operations in the country, will the conservationists continue to hold at bay the fossil fuel industry from plundering the oil-rich sand here? What if oil prices go back up? From a Guardian article on oil here:
“Some local people want the money it will bring. They want to see roads fixed, and more jobs,” said Maria Johanna, a local guide. “They say to me, ‘Oh, sure you just want to keep them out because you have a job in tourism’, but no – this river is a gift from God. We have to look it after it.”
Anyway, on the way back in the jeep again, we asked how it came to be that everyone in town used almost exactly the same language with all the tourists. He said that the locals used to damage the resources, to eat the eggs of the turtles, to take the plants home. “Normal people mess with the environment if they don’t know anything about it.”
Then conservationists came and taught them the importance of taking care of the land – and how profitable that can be. They showed the locals how they could keep one part conserved and the other part constructive. How famous the Caño Cristales River could become. The town assimilated the info well. After all, tourists are more profitable than cows.
That night, we went to dinner at a resturant, ate, left, then realised Lily no longer had her phone.
We searched around awhile, then stood outside the restaurant wondering what to do. Lily had definitely had the phone when we left the hotel, because when we’d gotten into the moto-taxi she’d shown Mum a photo of the next day’s flight schedule. But now it was gone. While stressing about losing our photos, I noticed a couple on a motorbike, waving at me.
I looked around. I looked back. They waved again. I pointed at myself and they smiled and nodded. I looked over my shoulder to find out if anyone was standing behind me, but there wasn’t. And the couple were still patiently waving and smiling.
We walked over to them. They said a friend of theirs had found Lily’s phone, and asked me to come with them on the back of the motorcycle to go get it. I was happy to go, but Lily was suspicious. She didn’t want me driving off with a stranger in the middle of the night. That was the stuff of horror movies. Also, how the hell did they know it was our phone? How did they recognise me? Was this some sort of elaborate trap?
Lily asked them to pick it up and bring it back to us. They puttered off on the motorbike, and, watching them go, I wondered if we’d just lost our only chance to get the phone. But, 5 minutes later they returned, told us it was already back at our hotel, and refused a cash reward from me.
As we drove back to our hotel, we realised something else – how did they know it was our hotel?
Our host gave us the full story. Lily had shown Mum the following day’s plane tickets on her phone when we first got into the moto-taxi. She’d put it back into the small pocket of her shiny gold shorts, and, as we turned the first corner, the phone dropped back out of her pocket and landed in the street.
Another driver saw the phone on the corner, stopped and picked it up. Now, Lily’s phone has a lock time of about a minute. To be able to open it and look at the photos (which is why his friends could recognise me), the driver must have found it almost immediately.
Even more lucky – the phone was still within range of our hotel’s wifi, the name of which was a combination of numbers and the name of the family who ran the place. So, by looking at the wifi connection, he could see that it belonged to guests of the “Tovar family”. And that’s it – he knew what we looked like and that we were staying with people he knew.
So, he told the couple on the motorbike that he’d found a phone, showed them photos of us, and they set out to find us while he returned the phone to our hotel, then continued on to mass.