Puerto Serviez to Barracabermeja

Trip Start May 2006
Trip End Aug 17, 2006

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, July 23, 2006

The night in Puerto Serviez was one of intermittent sleep as the bar outside our window blasted reggaeton, salsa, all kinds of Latin music imaginable. It was some religious festival and at dawn i heard drums and firecrackers and saw a procession of canoes. Finally willed myself out of bed at 9 and at 930, the music stopped.
At the port we looked for our friend who said he could help us find a canoe, but only found fish and a small mass service one of the bars blasting music earlier. We decided to take the regular boat (lancha) to Puerto Berrio. The lancha left from the other side, La Sierra, and as we left Serviez, our friend appeared, waving his hand. We yelled promising we would return, but in La Sierra we had no problems catching the 1030 lancha, so this was enough of a sign to met that we were doing what were supposed to be, still a tinge of what could have happened, had we turned around remained. Truth be told, we probably would have spent the entire day unsuccessfully trying to find a canoe for ourselves.
In our brief time in la Sierra, some kids begged me to take a photo of them and they loved seeing it in the screen and then an angry woman peeled my papaya for me after seeing my ineptitude. I offered her some, but she said she was sick. Still i ate the papaya her hands had caressed.
A lancha is a motorboat with a large engine that fits about 20 people on benches 4 people wide. There is a roof where lugged is tied to and like the buses, it is maintained just enough so that it functions. The girl I was sitting next to did not have the Money to pay for her younger sister, and I considered offering, but they let her stay assuming she could get the Money in Berrio. Lanchaīs are fast and loud enough that it is difficult to talk, especially if you are in the back. The boat weaved its way around, the driver knowing precisely which areas were navigable, as obstacles including sand bars, floating trees, whirlpools, etc. We passed by tugboats pushing barges, other lanchas, floating trash, and fishermen and their motor canoes. Herons stood on the banks, motionless, like sentinels, waiting for lunch in the form of a fish to pass by. Occasionally we would drop someone off in the middle of nowhere at their little farm. This area had once been jungle, but it was clear now human impact had been immense. An tour later we arrived in Berrio.
Berrio was bustling with many parked boats, restaurants, and other stores. In the background loomed a few enormous fuel tanks. We asked about finding a canoe and told to find fisherman. We walked further up the bank and found a fisherman and told us to go further up. We walked through more streets, passing street side stalls selling the days catch, lying plainly on slabs of wood. Giant pots on top of garbage pails also on the street were cooking those catches. We walked into a store and a woman said there were no boats available to rent or buy. Since this was good fishing season, everything was being used. Not to mention, her and her friends thought we were crazy for wanting to travel in a motorless canoe to Barrancabermeja.
After lunch, where I tried Bagre, a fish that didnīt come with bones,
Fernando left to make some calls and I sat watching the day pass by. Families of 4 on one motorcycle, sometimes lone 5 year olds with dirty dresses, and another woman hobbling because her feet pointed at 90 degrees to what is normal. We bought typical sombreros or the region, and I was surprised some sold for over 100 dollars if they were of fine enough stitching to be rolled up like a tortilla. Before catching the next Lancha, we had to pee and the restaurant in which we ate had a urinal, but in the same room where everyone ate.
The next trip the river became a giant maze, filled with islands and channels and inlets, much more like a lake than a river. In one inlet, some people got out, and we crossed to the other side. Three men were waiting with several barrels of what looked like gas. I began taking photos and was told not to do so. They siphoned the gas into the boats tanks, which were two large barrels and loaded the rest onto the back, all of this in a sloppy, hurried manner, spilling gas into the river. Like in the Amazon, the river is treated like a garbage, locals tossing their refuse into the river, no seeing the relationship their life has to it. At first I am sympathetic with their manners, as it is difficult to develop fuel infrastructure, especially in the middle of nowhere and the boat canīt carry all the fuel it needs. However, I realize that one of the biggest industries of the guerilla and paramilitary is tapping gas from the refineries. These men didnīt look dangerous, but perhaps they had bought the gas from somebody else. When they boarded the boat, I became a little nervous, but they got off on the other side of the inlet.
About half an hour later, the refinery skyline of Barrencabermeja appears like a giant terminator, mechanical, alien, with its infinitely intricate system of pipes, vents, chambers, ladders, and stacks where eternal flames of industry combust into the atmosphere. We turn into an inlet littered with boats and trash and pull up to port, a muddy enclave filled with people, some of whom are drinking and listening to absurdly loud music, others loading wheelbarrows full of river sand from canoes. I am reminded of Mos Eisley and the cantina in Star Wars, except this time it is only humans. We walk from the port through ragged streets. This is Barrancabermeja, the oil industrial capital of Colombia, a city whose entire existence has nothing to do with the river, but with oil, which began about 80 years ago, when Tropical Oil Company, an American enterprise arrived. Since then, there has been a funny odor in the air. On the main drag we found a basic hotel that was clean enough, though one of the beds initially had a few dozen shoe boxes on it. From the hallway is a perfect view of the refinery, which at night is beautiful skyline, lit up more than any city skyline. In between downtown and the refinery is a lake, that depending on your perspective looks like pristine jungle. We ask the waitress at a restaurant, what there is to do here. She shakes her head, not understanding. We explain we are not from here and her facial expression reveals she is confused anyone would come here. Luckily, we have people to meet, unfortunately it means we have to spend the next several days.
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dougmarcus47 on

Bowels of the third world
I was grossed out to hear that the urinal is in the same room as the restaurant. Is it cut off from the public view!!! How is Fernando's health holding up in general. How do you manage to nnever get sick? You are lucky. Hi Love, It's Mom, You certainly see so many details of what is happening around you and write them in a way that makes me feel I am with you. I am also amazed at how flexible you are and have to be to negociate such a confusing,unpredictable country. Your photos are amazing. I miss you. Come home safely and soon. Love always, Mom and Dad

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