We were sweltering in Cartagena. The hottest I've felt on this trip. We had to get out of that city. I looked a the map in the Couchsurfing app on my phone and sent a couple of couch requests to towns that looked a reasonable day's ride South. Alex in Monteria responded and invited us to come stay at his apartment.
We love Couchsurfing, the opportunity it provides to meet local people and explore their area from a local point of view. However, it also means that sometimes, indebted to our hosts, we are held hostage by our manners, and find ourselves in a situation we cannot politely extract ourselves from. To make this situation worse, often our host doesn't even realize that this is happening. This is the story of one such experience.
The Friday afternoon we made it into Monteria, Alex met us on his motorbike and led us to his apartment, which is on a main street across from a couple of bars. He told us he had made some juice! Unfortunately, his last couchsurfers had drunk it all. Nevertheless, as promised in his emails, he was still going to cook us his speciality for dinner. This was great because we were hungry!
Alex welcomed us into his home, apologising for the lack of furniture. His girlfriend took it all in their recent break-up. We made good use of the plastic table and chairs he did have. Alex promised he would take us to his family's finca (farm) outside of the city and he told us about his love of cycling, and a bit about Colombia and Colombian customs. He said that in Monteria the people were warmer and touched each other more than in other areas, which was big reason why he lived there and not in Bogota, Cali or Medellin. (This assertion turned out to be false, in our experience Colombians all over Colombia were great, and none of them particularly touchy feely.)
When Kelly and I expressed an interest in learning to salsa he declared himself a great dancer and said he would teach us. He then proceeded to show me how to salsa with his body glued against mine, "here in Monteria this is how we dance". He explained that women in other Colombian cities don't dance body to body and he feels insulted.
Phil suggested that Alex could show him how to dance and they could have a "sword fight". When Alex didn't understand the joke, Kelly and I demonstrated:
- A re-enactment of Kelly and I swordfighting
Alex laughed but was slightly horrified.
Alex had already expressed admiration for the fact that I was riding my own motorbike. When he told us that the plant he was nurturing on the window sill was called "Nymeria" I recognised it as the name of Arya's direwolf in "Game of Thrones". It happens that I have been reading the series by George R. R. Martin
. Alex was seriously impressed. It seemed as if he was now starting to analyse everything I said as to whether I would make a good girlfriend for him. This was the start of what I like to call "the girlfriend interview".
Alex went out for a little while, but before he left he reminded us that he would be cooking us his specialty for dinner. When he came back he was accompanied by his friend Carlos, who is also a teacher. In preparation for his specialty, Alex pulled five packages of 2 minute noodles of various flavours out of his bag. Kelly and I exchanged looks, but smiled politely as he told us that we still needed to go out and buy the "secret ingredient" - ketchup! Phil tells us that we did not mask the look of horror on our faces.
We were starving by this point and it seemed doubtful that Alex's specialty he had been promising for days was going to live up to expectations.
Dinner that night was five flavours of 2 minute noodles, mixed together and boiled for a very long time. To this was added tinned tuna, and lots of ketchup.
When, at 10pm, Alex finally decided to start "cooking" he asked me to keep him company in the kitchen. His first question? "What do you find attractive in a man?" The interview continued throughout. He told me he liked independent, light skinned girls, who weren't after his money and who would also still cook and clean for him, because that's what women do when they love a man. In an effort to make him stop I told him I told him I was a terrible girlfriend, very selfish and terrible in every way. I then tried to change the subject. It didn't work.
When I offered to help Alex said I could make some juice - I was looking around for the lemon squeezer when he handed me a packet of juice crystals, saying they were his favourite. I made the juice by adding the powder to a bottle of water and shaking...
- Alex's special dinner
I could only hope that this was not a sign of typical Colombian cuisine. It reminded me of being in Cambodia, where they loved to add meat and veg to 2 minute noodles.
Phil got talking to Alex's friend Carlos, who expressed an interest in ultimate frisbee, and suggested that Phil go to his school on Monday and teach the kids about it. Despite it being fairly late Friday evening, Carlos was soon on the phone to the academic coordinator to arrange it.
They then decided that it would be safer to move our motorbikes to a parking lot across the road, where there was a security guard over night, only one catch, we had to move them by 8am the next morning. So much for sleeping in... Sigh.
That night we discovered the joys of sleeping on air mattresses, with the local bars competing at who could blast their music the loudest. I declined Alex's offer to put my air mattress in his bedroom, and was soon regretting it as at least his room had a fan and a door that might have muffled the chaos outside.
The next day Alex went off on a long bicycle ride, so we set about seeing what Monteria had to offer. Monteria is a small city in Northern Colombia. Other than a nice park beside the river, it doesn't have anything in the way of attractions. Many people suggested we visit the shopping center when asked what we should do there.
Phil and Kelly set off for the supermarket, while I took full advantage of Alex's washing machine. We had a lot of dirty clothing after our time in Shelter Bay and the ocean crossing. The machine was a godsend, despite being "semi-automatic". You had to take a hose from the tap to fill the washing side, then turn the knob to drain it after it was finished washing. Then transfer the wet clothes to the spin side, spin, return them to the other side, and repeat to rinse.
- We did so much laundry that it was hanging on every available surface
I also took Cricket across the road to the "Pit Stop" car wash, where all the salt and such from the boat was thoroughly scrubbed off (along with a couple of stickers unfortunately). She was positively shining, and all for just $5. When I picked her up, all of the men working in the place stopped working and came outside to see the gringa with the giant motorcycle. I felt like I was famous!
That afternoon we decided to cook Alex something that we like to eat in Canada. I assisted chef Kelly with a delicious, veggie packed stirfry. We saved some for Alex, but when he came home he explained that he didn't eat rice, and he didn't seem thrilled with the veggies either. He seemed to power through our meal the same way we powered through his, washing down the vegetables with gulps of juice. While he was eating he continued on the theme of relationships and told us what a great lover he was, and how he has a very high sperm count, which is part of the reason he got tricked into fathering a daughter.
Afterwards he took us to a place for ice cream by the river. He said we could go to the expensive ice cream place or to his favourite which was cheaper.
As we wandered through the streets, he told us how this ice cream place was the first place he took girls on a date, to make sure they were his kind of girl. My heart dropped, another girlfriend test!
When walking through town Phil and Kelly would usually walk together, leaving me alone talking with Alex. He alternated telling me what a great guy he was with asking about my religious beliefs, previous relationships (and why they failed) and my desires. By this time I was no longer answering his questions good naturedly, when he tired of my obviously curt and disinterested replies, he'd find a way to try make me feel guilty for not liking something he liked, even if I'd not tried it before. For example he had taken some other couchsurfers to eat some chicken that he liked, and was upset when they didn't like it. He was going to take us and of course we would like it...
It turned out that the ice cream place was a snow cone stall with about 30 flavours of very sweet syrups to choose from. We tasted almost all of them before making our selection for our snow cones.
- The place to take a girl on your first date.
As we were walking home I asked if we would be spending the next day visiting Alex's family farm that he had told us about. He told me no, because he was going to sleep in, then play xbox 360 for the rest of the day. He then showed us the hot dog stall that he takes girls to if they pass the first date.
Later that night he took off and came back with his ex-girlfriend. Seemed odd that he would still be hanging out with her after she took all his furniture, but there she was.
That evening, Kelly and I basically begged Phil to reneg on his promise to go to the school on Monday so we could leave Monteria the next morning. We had seen all the town had to offer, and were not sleeping at all well. Every conversation I had with Alex was designed to either make me feel sorry for him (how he didn't get along with his brother, or how a woman tricked him into getting her pregnant etc), or to analyse my worthiness.
I had had enough and I didn't want to be there any longer.
Unfortunately for us, Phil is a man of his word. He would not be swayed. He wanted to stay another two nights so he could go to the school.
That evening Alex told me he would be in his room with his ex-girlfriend, but when I was ready to go to bed I should just turn the light off and he would open the door so I could come in and sleep there too. Needless to say, I did not.
The only bathroom in the apartment was in Alex's bedroom, and given the noises emerging from it, Kelly and Phil didn't want to interrupt. The kitchen sink served as a replacement. (Don't worry, it was well cleaned afterwards.)
Phil played tetris with the air mattresses in the other small room and managed to make space for me, Kelly and himself. At least that room had a fan. We had to debate between the noise of the fan and being too hot however.
The next morning Phil went to an internet cafe. I was pretty grumpy about still being in Monteria, but determined to make the best of being somewhere we did not want to be, Kelly and I explored the riverside park some more. We ate real ice cream, and saw lots of wildlife as we watched the people stroll by. The two of us gringas were quite an attraction, with me being so tall, and Kelly's curly red hair. People stared.
- A friend in the trees in the park beside the river
- Iguana feast
- There were a lot of these guys in the park
Some time later Phil came to meet us and we went to a small restaurant for lunch. It was our first encounter with the typical "bandeja" or set lunch. Soup, rice, beans, plantain and some kind of meat all for one low price.
- When we first met our new friends Erick and Jose
We got to talking with two guys at the table beside us, Erick and Jose. Kelly told them of our desire to learn to dance salsa, and before we knew it Erick had bought us a round of beers and taken off down the street to see if the local salsa bar was open. It was, so we went to "Mojitos" where Erick and Jose did their best to teach us the basics. They also taught us that the cheapest way to drink in a bar is to buy a bottle or half bottle of rum, and a bottle of mix.
- Our corner table. We were the only people there on a Sunday afternoon!
- Dancing at Mojitos
- Meeting Colombian Rum
- Phil adds to the music with his own special flair
- Phil and Kelly have a go
- That's not salsa.
After Mojitos the guys took us to another bar that had a few more people at it. Kelly and I noted that NO ONE was dancing glued together, not even the experienced couples from Monteria. Alex would have felt very insulted had he been dancing there.
- With our new friends Erick and Jose
- Dancing in bar #2
- Walking home from the Salsa bar
Spending those few hours with Erick and Jose was by far the highlight of our three day stay in Monteria. Alex seemed put out when he found out we'd made other friends. But then, as with so many things, he'd promised to take us dancing and instead decided to play Xbox.
- Phil with some of the Monteria school kids
The next day Phil went to the school early in the morning, and then we packed up and rode to the school where Alex teaches because he wanted Phil to do a talk there too. But when we got there at 9:30am he thought it was too late, so we said goodbye and headed off towards Medellin.
I'm fairly certain that Alex didn't realise how uncomfortable he had made me feel, or that his behaviour was inappropriate. Perhaps I should have been more explicit, but then he was very kind in agreeing to host us, and I didn't want to make him feel awkward.
Monteria was a lesson on making the best of a bad situation. I have never been so relieved to be leaving a place. I was grumpy and tired and my relationship with Phil was showing the strain.
We had a heated disagreement over the intercom as we were riding away from Monteria. Phil told me I should have just left if I didn't like it there. I reminded him I couldn't because I had his stuff on my bike while Kelly is travelling with us. He told me in the future if I wasn't happy I should just leave, we'd make it work. I agreed that that's what I should have done, and what I would do in the future.
Special Thanks to Kelly for all her help with this post!!!