‘Trampoline of Death’ a Misnomer: The long road from Macoa to Pasto

Would you risk the ‘Trampoline of Death’ with your children?

Questioning my fitness as a parent that evening, I had to ask Francois one more time about the route we were considering for the next morning. My overwhelming need to ask again cracked my hard-earned, yet fragile, gypsy-mom persona. My anxious, hypervigilant maternal I-can’t-sleep-the-night-before-a-travel-day nature was decidedly visible through my cracked veneer.

But I couldn’t help it. I was a mother. Words like ‘FARC’ and ‘acts of terrorism’ mingled in my travel-weary head, jostling for attention with tales of mountain buses careening off cliffs or head-on collisions with fuel tanker rigs.  My children swung on the hammocks nearby. Nodding in their direction, this French ex-pat glanced back at me nonchalantly. He paired a single lazy eyebrow raise with that Parisian lip ‘pfew.’ He summarily dismissed all my anxieties. It was as if I questioned the structural soundness of the Eiffel Tower.

Francois, of Casa de Francois in San Agustin, affirmed that both the bus and the road were safe. He dismissively promised that the driver would proceed cautiously. As the three of us sat around the rough-hewn patio table, my husband voiced his support of our plans by adding his own well-worn travel adage, picked up in the back of a truck in Africa, “The bus driver doesn’t want to die.”

Francois had raised his children in this remote town in the southwestern corner of Colombia, choosing nearly 20 years ago to put down roots in San Agustin. He had no concerns about the route that would wind us from Pitalito through Macoa to Pasto, positioning us to safely make a daytime border crossing into Ecuador. His only injunction was to travel during the day.

Known as the Trampolin del Meurte, this itinerary had a few upsides, aside from the obvious (and irreversible) downside. The greatest benefit was that the Trampoline of Death would save us hours of travel time, preventing us from backtracking to Popayan. We hated backtracking.

As with all decisions, there was a self-serving side to choosing the road less traveled. This route propped up our ‘intrepid traveler’ identity. It wasn’t just the name that was risky. Casually dropping the words ‘Trampolin del Meurte’ into conversation immediately identified us as roadworthy adventure travelers, separating us from those breezing through with a week or two on a fixed itinerary, and a hired driver. Hardened travelers were not just a little ambivalent about this road. In the last two years, there were postings  unequivocally warning against this route on respectable web discussion forums including the Lonely Planet.

That evening as I went through my night regimen, the darkness felt menacing. I checked the door to our handsome cob cottage, tripping over our packs as they waited in a silent tidy pile. I wished that their zipped-up, cinched-closed confidence could convince me we were doing the right thing. I double checked that all cell phones were charging. Finding that only the top outlet worked, I switched out devices to ensure all would be fully charged by morning. As we had learned, the presence of an outlet did not indicate electricity.

I tried to quiet my racing thoughts. I knew that the clock had begun its fresh progression through single digits. I thought over the conversations, blog postings, and maps. We had consciously discarded warnings older than six months. All reports indicated that in the last twelve months, the FARC had been respecting the ceasefire. Nonetheless, the road was still heavily guarded as the memory of incidents was lingering.

Weighing this information, I prioritized my worries. I released the mind drama pertaining to hold-ups and rogue roadblocks and kidnappings. My anxieties shifted to bus accidents.  In the silent terror of my imagination, I mentally rehearsed the words I would murmur into my children’s ears as our bus miscalculated a corner and flew off a steep cliff.

I focused on the familiar night rustlings of my family and the rural murmurings beyond our thin walls felt. I matched my breathing to the peaceful exhales of the children, their curled bodies now a tangle of limbs and blankets and sheets. I held myself back from nudging into one for their twin beds. It was a futile hope that their peaceful slumber would overtake my body simply through osmosis.  And at 10 and 12, I would most certainly hear complaints the following morning if I accidentally woke a child as I nestled in.

I wavered on the edge of sleep, reminding myself again how we had thoroughly plumbed the knowledge of both the local population and of other travelers. Taking this road positioned us to make it to Pasto where we could easily get to the border town of Ipiales.  It was a clear shot from Ipiales to the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. If all connections went without a hitch, this travel scenario played out during daylight hours.

And travel in Colombia was decidedly a daytime activity. It was well-established that even though FARC had been laying low as of recent, there were still rogues and ruffians out there ready to stir up trouble–generally mid to late afternoon trouble. Apparently such aforementioned would-be troublemakers had strong inclinations towards dawn torpidity.  An earlier commencement of travel translated into less risk.

The morning’s activity were brief.  We stashed our wet toothbrushes and laced our sneakers. Hoisting my daughter’s pack on to her shoulders, I tightened the hip harness to my own. The four of us made a lumpy trail of gore-tex and canvas as we snaked our way through the damp gray dawn.

It was at that moment that the lingering uneasiness clarified in my mind: Francois had a slightly skewed definition of speed. ‘Slow’ and ‘safe’ are both relative concepts when related to Colombian bus drivers and mountain roads. And Francois was no-doubt desensitized after living in Colombia for many years. No wonder his rejection of my concerns didn’t assuage my anxiety. The Macoa-Pasto road had not earned its infamous title from tourists. It was named by the Colombians themselves.

It felt too early to verbalize my epiphany. We made our way silently into town.

By 7:30 AM, we tossed our luggage on the roof and packed ourselves into the back of a local collectivo.

I’m often asked how we secure these rides.  In this case, we simply showed up. Finding the right corner, we loitered around. In most instances though, we found it was best to ask about departing buses upon arrival, even before we left the bus station. We also depended heavily on the recent information from other travelers, both from face-to-face conversations and info posted online.

But San Agustin was a speck of a town a bit off the Gringo trail. There were only a handful of paved streets. There was no bus station. So we started our transport inquiries at the guest house, asking a pair of French women where they were headed…and how they got here. We made small talk at the market to confirm transport details with locals. We also checked in with the clerk at the tienda where we bought water and asked the street vendor selling meat sticks: “How do we get to Pitalito?  What’s the price?” We got a rough idea about the price–both the Gringo price and the local price. Of course “we” is a loose term. The kids navigated these conversations with their fluent and convincingly Central American Spanish.

In large towns more familiar with tourists, such transport research proved more difficult to collect. Locals, especially those in the tourism industry, often insisted that there existed only one type of transport–the expensive tourist option. This  was common in large cities such as Cusco, Peru, where a savvy tourism industry funneled money into their community. The other factor was likely predictable assumptions related to the soft composition of tourists pulling rolling suitcases.  They’d have us convinced that we would be robbed by half the cab drivers in their city…and that public buses would add hours to our travel time. Of course, we were not so foolish as to discount the validity of such claims. Even though we thought of ourselves as travelers, not tourists, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a rolling suitcase, enough tourists had come through larger towns for locals to use fear, comfort, and fiscal flexibility to their benefit.

In this corner of Colombia, the locals did not present such a united commercial front. Tourism had been hindered as the US State Department had not lifted the decades-long travel ban. We were not at risk of being steered towards an expensive tourist van in San Agustin or an overpriced bus. There were no buses or tourist vans.

That morning, we’d done our homework. We showed up at the designated corner within an hour of departure. We stood around waiting. And we stood out. We were used to both.

Jorge and Dylan inquired about routes and destinations with the men. I made friends with the mothers through smiles, and then used Abigail as my voice to get a handle on rates and which trucks were good options. We reliably won over locals with the kids’ fluency. People were more than happy to help. In remote places like San Agustin, it was not unusual for someone to say that they had never spoken to an American child, much less one who spoke such perfect Spanish.  Sometimes we were asked to pose for a selfie with them.

We soon found ourselves bleary-eyed and perching gingerly on a bench seat, the kids dutifully watching the road behind us to be sure that no luggage ricocheted from the roof. We were a few station transfers away from the ‘Trampoline’ but the road was still rough. I wondered about the absence of bungee cords to secure our luggage to the roof.

Smiling, but tired, we were again finding ourselves in the back of a collectivo truck, this time bound for Pitalito. Though not sunny in the truck, the sunglasses were merely on to dim the general brightness in an attempt to make my head hurt less.

Smiling, but tired, we were on the way to Pitalito.

After an uneventful ride, we arrived into the bus station in Pitalito. We paused for a quick luggage (and head) count.

That’s when the usual bus station rigaramole started. As we clambered out of the back, we found ourselves poised directly in front of another collectivo truck. Our bags never hit the ground. Instead, the driver and his assistant presumptuously hoisted our backpacks from one roof to the next. “Direct ride! Leaving in five minutes!” echoed in our weary heads.

For a moment we stood there, stunned, staring helplessly at the road-beaten truck as it was claimed by our packs. I imagined the bumpy, shivering doom of the next five hours in the misery of an open-backed Toyota pickup. It epitomized all the scenarios I had rehearsed in the wee hours that morning.

The words, the hustlers, and the rush of the station coalesced. It felt familiar. Too familiar. I had heard it before, in every busy station, on every continent. Everyone’s ride was the most direct and the cheapest.  Vehicles were always ‘five minutes’ from leaving.

“Claim a seat on the last ride of the day!” the touts desperately warned. I always understood the immediacy even when the direct word translation escaped me.

Just before we agreed on a price, resigning ourselves to the next five hours of cold wet misery in the back of a pick-up, I woke from my complicity. I got on my toughest game face, tinged with a bit of cranky fatigue. All 5’1″ of me seemingly towered over the man standing on the truck rack, lashing down our luggage. I’d had enough. It had been a long night, an early morning, and a rough ride.  In fact, it had been a rough month.

I didn’t speak much Spanish, but no was understood in both languages.

If my refusal was in any way unclear, my defiant face spoke volumes. The bustle of men stopped and looked in my direction.

Honestly, I wanted to say more, a lot more. I would have tried to politely negotiate with the men, requesting a few more minutes in the station. I’d gently offer a smiling excuse about ducking into the station for bathrooms and food. We were traveling with children after all. Them we would explore other options.

But my Spanish was limited. I knew from experience that reacting verbally in such frustrating situations humiliated my kids and won me the title Loca americana mama. Escalating in volume and pitch, I’d create an unforgettable scene by going off in English to a bunch of Spanish speakers.

We had a sensitive family history in the area of such incidents. I promised the kids that I would try to spare them any future humiliation.  They were both privy to the Spanish murmurings of gawking on-lookers, behind us in line or in the seats across from us on the bus.

At that moment, I was gambling on the kids’ loyalty. I needed their help to find a new ride. If I kept my cool, holding up my end of the bargain, would the kids would back me up?  This was a time-sensitive travel day. I knew Jorge was generally pretty easy-going about discomfort. He would have been content to climb in the back of the truck and get on the road. We couldn’t wait for two hours in this station. We couldn’t risk being stranded. We had been sternly warned about traveling into the evening. What if this really was the only transport option for the day?

I turned my back on the rickety truck. I was swallowed up in the frenzy of the station. This Gyspy mom was done with bench seats and pick up trucks and rough suspension. I didn’t necessarily need an expensive tourist bus, but a dry place to stow luggage did not seem unreasonable.

Thankfully, the kids did follow. I called on that Latin energy we’d been soaking in for the last month. Jorge, never one to cause a scene, made awkward small talk with the hustling pick-up drivers. As much as I had abstained from verbal drama, it was still a tense moment. They had all just witnessed his mutinous wife and children defiantly march off.

Inside the station, the kids charmingly translated for me as we negotiated among the dozens of vehicles which were all heading in the right direction and leaving in the next hour or so.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn't imagine another of it.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn’t imagine another day.

Thirty minutes later, I reclined in an over-sized seat, in the ‘bulkhead’ 2-seat row of a new, spacious van. Our luggage was safely stowed inside the van and the kids were conveniently sitting in the row behind us. It actually felt a bit like those expensive tourist transports that I pretended not to like. I also pretended not to hear my husband, Jorge, the first time he admitted that I had done the right thing. He confessed to being annoyed at me for turning my back on him in the bus station. There was no question that it was unpleasant to be so directly defied by his wife in front of a bunch of Latin men. especially as he had been fine with the jalopy.

It was a win-win for us. Turns out, the same $5 that we were going to pay per ‘seat’ in the collectivo pick-up truck was buying us a comparatively luxurious ride in a van.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options--we just had to ask around a bit.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options–we just had to ask around a bit.

And just as my  husband repeated his appreciation for the second time, the skies opened up, commencing a three hour deluge. Again, I relished my rather non-effusive husband practically bubbling over with appreciation, envisioning what a disaster the day would have been huddled in the back of the open truck. We’d have been cranky, sore, and nauseous, in addition to cold and soggy, knowing we’d have nothing dry in our luggage when we arrived. We’d been there before, too.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Content and relieved, the road from Macoa to Pasto was uneventful. Needless to say, the carefully rehearsed words of comfort I planned to say as we plummeted to our death went unspoken. Strung together the previous night in a panic, I could barely remember what they were as I nodded off in the van listening to the rain pound the van’s roof.

Though our day was without incident, we did find that the ‘Trampoline of Death’ was somewhat of a misnomer. A more appropriate nickname would have been ‘The Slip ‘n Slide of Death.’ The road was riddled with mud slides and rock slides, rocky water crossings and guardrails askew after being dragged down the sheer cliff by collapsing road sections.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature's power along the remote mountain road.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature’s power along the remote mountain road.

Scenes of washed out roads and rock slides dotted the road more often than mile markers. There were dozens and dozens of rock piles and mangled guardrails.  Damage from rocks and mud piles spilled on to the road, so overwhelming and recent in many places that only a narrow single lane path had been dug through the heavy mud. Here and there, we passed a few dump trucks and bulldozers feebly working on their Sisyphean task.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Reflecting back on the experience, it was not the numerous curves and rough sections of unpaved mountain road or the fear of miscreants that should have occupied my nervous energy the night before our departure. We’d survived much worse on local day trips in Colombia. My real concern should have been getting buried in a mudslide or slipping to our death from a collapsed road.  Even as I write this, it still gives me flutters of anxiety when I think about our choice to take that route. Losing a day of travel by backtracking to Popayan no longer felt like an untenable option.

Sometimes a picture says it all.  The road was unbelievable some places.

Sometimes a picture says it all. The road was unbelievable some places.

We ended up arriving after dark into Pasto. We made a bee-line to the hotel. We were a bit wired from the adrenaline of the day.  I was still riding on the laurels of my successful staging of a ‘One Woman/Two Child Collectivo Rebellion’ in the station that morning. I could almost feel my blonde highlights darkening as my gringo exterior morphed into a Gabriel-Garcia Marquez-esque heroine.  Fermina Daza perhaps? I felt I had earned my place in a long line of freedom fighting Latin American dissidents from my coup d’etat, overthrowing the reigning nepostical lords of the collectivo station that would usher naive travelers into substandard means of transport.

But, if life has a way of cutting the prideful to their knees, then travel even more efficiently lays one flat.

We walked into our hotel and my traveling savvy deflated. The hotel had been my selection. The choice had been a stab in the dark as there was a paucity of online reviews.  I relied on Lonely Planet’s printed book advice, reserving Hotel del Parque because it was close to the bus terminal, without seeming to be that close. I heeded the warnings that hotels within a close proximity to the bus station tended to attract hourly business. We wanted our brief stay to be convenient and were hoping to stay under $100 for the four of us.

Upon check-in, we quickly realized I had booked that kind of hotel. Though I can blame my immature response to this realization on the fatigue and stress of a long day of travel, I confess that I suppressed immature guffaws and nudged Jorge in the leg as a young man and his painted, perky, pushed-up companion were quickly ushered away from the desk after handing the clerk some cash in exchange for a room key. As we climbed the steps to our room, my adolescent behavior continued as I asked Jorge if that paltry amount got them one hour or two.

Trying not to let our check-in experience sully our view of the hotel, we gave up any pretensions of positivity when we walked in our room. It was tiny. After we were settled in and hooked-up the lifelines to our digital devices, luggage barely unpacked, we found that our ‘sleeps 4’ room barely even sat four. It was decidedly not a family-friendly hotel.

In search of an outlet, and a bit of space, Dylan was fully underneath one of the beds and Abigail was crouched awkwardly in the gully between. I squatted at the foot of one bed, but would have been crushed had someone tried to open the door to either the bathroom or hallway. Thankfully the white tiled floors were clean, although predictably cold.

Jorge perched on the only remaining space. He was good-natured about being the fodder for the evening’s jokes. Finding no other place to sit, he closed the lid and sat on the toilet, laptop resting on his knees and feet coming well into the room as the narrow bathroom would only permit an angled perch.

Ignoring the threadbare sheets and similarly thin walls in the diminutive room, we slept heavily, glad to have made it through the day.

Many have asked if we would we take the Macoa-Pasto route again.  It’s hard to say. Travel, like many things in life, is based on serendipitous moments strung together by events which initially appear unrelated and insignificant. This random reinforcement of highs and lows is addictive. The day delivered discomfort and uncertainty, the kind of energy which would be unlikely at a beach side resort. It’s only with hindsight that I gain the clairvoyance to understand how such unexpected and unsolicited experiences are essential to the fabric of our communal family memories.

The color and twist of the day’s events inextricably intertwined us to each other.  These tough experiences tightened our weave. It gave us each a more central position in each other’s life tapestries. It provided another story-turned-legend to look back on and exaggerate with every telling. It offered us all compelling reasons to fight against the inertia so prevalent in the world today, pulling families apart. And it gave us a glimmer of faith in bigger things. Even my jaded pessimism wanted to believe that just maybe we were ordained to travel along that road, and all of the others in life, together.

The experience on ‘The Trampoline of Death’ also hit me at an individual level. The nature of the day’s events assuaged a rising tide of anxiety. We were all feeling the lingering shadow of Jorge’s departure in Quito, leaving the three of us to travel through Ecuador and Peru for the next seven weeks.

I worried about logistics, safety, and of singularly bearing the fatiguing weight of travel. The excitement over the great transport that morning had faded with the disappointing hotel choice. And the road we had taken to get there was decidedly unsafe. Handling the decisions, pitfalls, and frustrations of travel was tough, especially without a partner.  As I often warned the kids, “This is not America.  There are no guardrails…or people to sue. You just die and that’s it.”

But the day’s events also jostled my focus, oddly settling my fears. I was reminded again that travel is not about me. It’s not about proving myself a good mom or a road-worthy adventurer. And it’s not about comfort and predictability and making all the right choices. Instead, travel is a way to strip away life’s desensitizing insulation and rise above the dusty fallout from mistakes.

It’s easy to stumble through life, willing to take whatever truck offers the next ride.

But it’s different when I’m on the road. I’m stripped of anything but the most basic concerns for food, shelter, and safety. I have no other material burdens than what I can carry. I focus less on expectations for the “right road” and more on the exploring the experience on whatever road I find myself.

I take my children on roads like the Trampolin del Meurte because I know they won’t always be traveling by my side. Our paths will diverge. They must. When they find themselves cruising down a well-paved super highway or careening along a narrow, washed out road, I hope they’ll remember that a fulfilled life is not about selecting the perfect road. A good life is found by making the decision to travel authentically on whatever road you chose.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still smiling.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still alive and smiling.