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Bus rides, Buddhism, and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

We awoke early in our hotel room in Villa de Leyva not knowing when or how we were getting to El Cocuy that day. Jennifer had made reservations but we didn’t know how to get there. We decided to pack early and walk to the bus station. We were told that busses left every fifteen minutes for the city of Tunja. We figured that if we left early enough that we could catch an early bus from Tunja to El Cocuy, although no one could tell us when that bus might be leaving. We were to arrive at the station by 7:30 am.

One of the quirks of the Colombian bus system is that only tourists purchase tickets at the bus station. Tourists at the station, with ticket in hand, will board a relatively empty bus for departure at a scheduled time. The bus leaves the station on time and all is well. That is, until about two blocks away from the station, the bus driver stops by the side of the road where a large group of locals are standing and waiting for the bus. People begin to board the bus, each apparently negotiating a price and destination with the bus driver. The bus quickly fills with local people going to the other side of town or to the next town for work. It is not unusual for vendors to board the bus at these stops and attempt to sell their products to the occupants of the bus.

As we were walking to the station, a large man noticed us with our bags and asked where we were going.

“To the bus station to catch a bus for Tunja” Jennifer said.

“Come” the man said as he grabbed the largest bag from my hands.

Thinking that he was a taxi driver, I said “No thank you. We want to ride the bus. We are going to the station to purchase a ticket.”

The man pulled back his jacket and showed the logo of a bus company. “Bus” the man said. “Pay me, ride bus.”

We rounded the corner and the man pointed at the bus that had just left the station.

“Tunja” he said.

We reluctantly agreed and boarded the bus for the thirty minute ride. I suddenly felt a bit like a local. We were on our way to Tunja and did not have to purchase a ticket at the station or pay the station prices!!

The ride was uneventful, with the occasional local flagging down and boarding the bus along the way. We watched as elementary school children would wave for the driver who would pick them up and drop them off a few miles later near a school. The children would offer a few pesos to the driver who seemed to decline the offer and simply smile at the children and wave them off to school.

We arrived in Tunja around 8:15 and looked around the station for an office to purchase a ticket to El Cocuy. Jennifer spotted a sign that said that the bus for El Cocuy left each day at 8:00 am and 9:30 am. We had apparently just missed the 8:00 am bus. No big deal, we could wait about an hour for the next bus. We attempted to enter the office to purchase a ticket on the next bus, but the office was closed! A sign on the door said to call a phone number for an agent. I attempted to call but my cell phone would not work.

A young woman walking by must have noticed our confusion and stopped to help. She offered to call the number on her phone for us. She dialed and began speaking to someone. She hung up and said that an agent would be at the office in five minutes. Wonderful! The kindness of strangers seems to always work in favor of clueless travelers.

Five minutes later an agent rushes to the door. “We would like to purchase two tickets to El Cocuy” Jennifer said.

“That will be 70,000 pesos (about $25) but you must hurry” he said.

“Are we on the 9:30 bus?” I asked.

“No. 8:00 bus. It was running late. But you must go now!” He said.

I grabbed our bags and began to run out the door when a tall young man with a scraggly beard and tattoos looked at me and said in broken English “I am also on the bus to El Cocuy, can I help you with your bags?”

“Thanks” I said. “But I can manage.”

“I am going hiking in El Cocuy, maybe we can share costs?” He said. “My name is Ivan and I’m from Mexico City.”

“Sure” I said. “Maybe so.” Not really knowing if this was something that Jennifer and I wanted to do.

We boarded the bus for the long eight hour ride. Ivan sat behind us and we began to talk. His English was much better than our Spanish and we knew that we would enjoy his company. We could tell that he was a very kind and caring person. He was also in excellent shape and obviously did a lot of hiking.

Shortly after pulling out of the station, the usual routine occurred. A group of locals were standing a few blocks from the station and the driver pulled over to let them on the bus. Each had a different destination and each seemed to negotiate a price with the driver. A young man boarded the bus and began hawking what looked like a powdered energy drink to the captive audience. He rode for about ten minutes making his sales pitch the entire time before getting off the bus. He made one sale.

A young woman boarded the bus and sat in the seat across the aisle from me. After about five minutes she began to look ill and reached for a plastic bag. She began to vomit in the bag as everyone on the crowded bus recoiled and tried to avoid getting sick themselves.

A few stops later the bag of vomit was full and the woman sat in her seat with her eyes closed, unable to get off the bus. Ivan tapped her on the shoulder and asked if he could take the bag and dispose of it for her. He exited the bus and returned with a coca-cola for the ill woman. He was truly a good person.

Later, we stopped for lunch and Ivan joined us at our table. \We talked more and discovered that Ivan was studying Buddhism, motorcycle maintenance, and is a transitioning vegetarian. We bought his lunch.

A few hours later we arrived in El Cocuy. It was around 4:30 and everything in town was about to close. As I grabbed our bags from the rear of the bus, Ivan began talking to a man on the sidewalk. Ivan explained to the man that he and his new friends wanted to go hiking in the mountains. The man told Ivan that if we wanted to hike we would have to fill out paperwork and hire a guide. If we wanted to go tomorrow we only had a few minutes.

The man grabbed our bags and began rushing down the street to the park office. Not entirely sure what was happening, Jennifer and I hurried off behind the strangers who had grabbed our bags and was rushing down the street with them.

We arrived at the office and hurriedly filled out paperwork and provided proof of insurance and medical vaccinations. We paid a fee to an official who looked and acted like a police officer or park ranger. Apparently, we had arrived just in time to make the deadline for hiking the next day.

The man then took us to another office where he introduced us to a young man who said that he would be our mountain guide. There are strict regulations in El Cocuy that every hiking party must be accompanied by a local guide. It also provided employment for the local population. We did not mind and gladly agreed to hire our guide.

If not for Ivan, it would have been impossible for Jennifer and I to negotiate the short timespan and the maze of regulations in order to hike the next day. Again, we learned that kindness to strangers and fellow travelers pays huge dividends.

That night, after settling into our hotel, we sat on the balcony with our new friend, telling stories and looking over the historical old town of El Cocuy. Jennifer and I drank wine as Ivan, our Buddhist friend, drank juice and offered to share cheese he had brought along.

As we retired to our modest rooms, we did not know what the next day would bring, but we knew that we would soon share a new adventure. That is how new friends are made and new adventures begin.

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