Our day started at 5:30am. We crawled out of bed, put on clothing we’d been wearing for more than a few days, strapped on our packs and quietly left our hostel in Popayán, a small town in southern Colombia. We walked in the middle of the road and our footsteps echoed down the empty street, across cobblestones and whitewashed colonial houses. The sun was just starting to wash the sky.
Today was the border. Our next country was Ecuador.
But we were about 200 miles away from the border. How to get there you may wonder? Buses - night buses, day buses, small buses, big buses. Some comfortable...most are not. Buses have been our main source of transportation for our trip so far. They are abundant, inexpensive, and go far and wide. A seven or eight hour bus ride can be as little as $8 or $9. These journeys have not been my most favorite part of the trip, but they are a necessary aspect of it. I have been working on ways to utilize the time on some of the longer bus rides. I try and sleep but, due to the nature of the roads, this often results in getting jostled to and fro and thus I never stay asleep for long (On this particular trip, some of our fellow passengers were an infant and a box of chickens...you can only imagine what noise this combination created). No matter, the views from window make up for it. Mountain ranges, canyons with roaring rivers at their base, small towns, and farmland of all types - from the vast sugarcane plains to the smaller plots which grow crops almost vertically on the mountainsides - fill my line of sight. I occupy my mind with watching all of this pass by and think. I think about how the mountains look in different seasons or how the farmers grow their crops for example. I wish I knew the answers to some of the questions that would pop into my head.
We got onto a bus around 6:20am. It’s destination: Ipiales, Colombia.
We had to travel by day to get to Ipiales because the road at night is dangerous. While Colombia had made great strides in the past few decades in becoming a safer country, there are still guerrilla threats in the south. I had read that the if travelling at night, part of the journey is made with armed convoy. I could see why the road would be dangerous. It was only one road, most of the time weaving in out of mountain passes, and it was utterly isolated. The mountains shouldering us were covered in huge aloe plants, cactus, and grasses. The ground was dusty and one could see where the mountain had taken stabs at the road for there were multiple spots where the earth had spilled over the asphalt. I remember thinking to myself how one could simply disappear in this place.
The bus ride was almost eight hours through the mountainous Colombian south.
Mountain passes require respect. They are beautiful, proud, and strong. One can admire from afar, maybe even trusting, but this must be done with a sense of reluctance. The white crosses that would dot the side of the road - sometimes one, sometimes two - showed what happened when one does not respect or trusted too much. Their mark, a memory of a loved one, stood as a reminder that the mountains rule all here. The clouds work with them too for they guard the peaks of these mountains with savage force - preventing a clear view. Only once and awhile can one find a weakness, when the clouds let down their guard, and thus stealing a clear view of the exposed rock scraping the sky. I feel as if I have been told a secret I wasn’t supposed to know when this happens. I would think about the peaks at night, indulging in the memory and the fact that I took advantage of the clouds laziness.
Around 2pm we made it to Ipiales.
There was one thing we wanted to see in Ipiales: Santuario de Las Lajas. Arguably the most beautiful church I have ever seen, it was built in 1916, and I was shocked to see that the basilica was constructed into the cliffside. One with the rock. When walking inside, one would see the whole back wall as just stone. A stone bridge and arches connects the foundation of the church to the canyon walls below and across the gorge. Las lajas are a type of stone - similar to shale or slate. I thought it was an incredibly fitting name.
** Read this if you’re interested in learning more about Las Lajas Sanctuary:
Roughly 5pm we arrive at the border.
The Ipiales-Tulcán border crossing was the only border crossing station that was recommended - both by word of mouth and by guide sources. I honestly didn’t know exactly what I was expecting at the border. Lots of people, sure, and border guards and cars but I was unprepared to see the true reality. We made our way over the Rumichaca Bridge (hooray, we’re now in Ecuador) and went into the border control station. The first thing I noticed were suitcases. Tens of hundreds of suitcases. Piles in corners, piles in the the middle of the floor, piles outside. Some were covered with blankets, others with the people that owned them. The noises of hundreds of people conversing filled my ears. The smell of hundreds of people contained in a small area filled my nose. People looked at us. We did not look like any of them and one could immediately tell that we were in a better position than most of them. In the corner of the building was a doorway that led to the border control agents. Two lines spilled out in opposite directions from the door. One line was for people traveling into Ecuador from different countries, like us, and the other was for Venezuelans.
We went to the back of our line. Avoiding stepping on people’s belongings and small children. One could easily see the entrance to the passport station from our line. I looked out to the other line. I mentioned that I would be back to my traveling companions and set out. I followed the Venezuelan line and was utterly shocked to see that the line was not only composed of hundreds of people but literally went around the whole border control building. I found myself almost back at the point where I started by the time I found the end of the line. It was not warm outside. People were wrapped in blankets and heavy coats. Many, many people were hunkered down on the ground. Their whole lives underneath them in their bags. Merchants were selling hats, gloves, and clothing out of the backs of their cars. Food vendors were kept busy providing the only food (in a few mile radius) to everyone at the complex. Ecuadorian border police wandered in pairs of twos and threes and gave out free gloves to migrants. I witnessed mothers wrapping their children in blankets and putting them on their laps to stay warm in preparation of the rapidly approaching night. I heard laughter and saw smiles but there was a grave uneasiness over the whole complex. I could feel it but more than anything I could see it in the eyes of the people that stared into mine as I passed them. I walked back to our place in line in a sort of a daze. I continued to observe as we moved centimeters forward.
Given our looks, one could easily tell that we were foreigners. It has drawn curious glances wherever we go. At times someone is brave enough (or curious enough) to approach us and start a conversation. I was lost in my own thoughts when I noticed I had caught the attention of one of these souls. I looked down. A child in a navy jacket that was much too big for him was talking to me. ¿De donde eres? He repeated. Where are you from?
I smiled lightly. Nueva York, I replied. His eyes suddenly lit up. Thus ensued a conversation that I will never forget. My Spanish is not perfect but we were able to communicate well enough. Enough that our conversation, to my surprise, drew a small crowd. At a point when I looked up, the people in line around us were watching and listening. Around ten or twelve people, all witnessing the unraveling of a story. I reddened slightly but I quickly forgot about the other eyes and ears because the only eyes and ears I cared about belonged to the boy in front of me.
His name was Daniel and he was 10 years old. Daniel was a Real Madrid fan and to his amusement, he became exasperated when I told him I was a Barcelona fan. He loved to practice soccer after school but he hadn’t been able to for a long time. He was Venezuelan.
Daniel was traveling with his mother and older cousin. Their goal was make it to Peru where his two older brothers were already settled. They had been traveling for two weeks already. His father has died of stomach cancer and when I expressed remorse to this part of his life - he simply shrugged.
¿Por qué te fuiste de Venezuela? Why did you leave Venezuela?
I knew the answer. I had read about it in the news. Venezuela was in a chaotic state of economic disaster. People were dying. There was no food. The United States, amongst other countries, had placed sanctions on high ranking officials and their assets. The President, Nicolás Maduro, refuses to step down from power. However, as much as I expected this answer it was utterly different to hear it from personal experience. Especially when that experience happens to come from the memory of a child. El presidente es muy malo. The president is very bad. Ha matado a gente. He has killed people. Daniel made a gesture of dragging his finger across his neck. Cuando llegue a Perú, jugaré fútbol otra vez. When I arrive in Peru, I will play soccer again.
*If you would like to read more about the Venezuela conflict I suggest some of these sources:
It didn’t matter what I knew because I realized I really didn’t know anything about the whole matter. I had read articles, I had seen pictures, sure, but Daniel and the border made me truly recognize the crisis I had been so removed from. On a clarifying note, I cannot say that I fully understand the conflict but I do have a better understanding of it due to witnessing the effects. I was not physically in Venezuela and I did not see firsthand the police crackdowns on protesters or stand in line for hours to receive food but after hearing Daniel’s story it certainly made those remote events much closer. Much more real. I did not witness the violence but I did witness the side effects of such violence. It was the migration to hope. Risking everything one knows on the chance that one could start over. The families. The suitcases. Passports.The line of hundreds of people. Daniel. All of them had different stories but the one thing that united them all was their determination. I felt very small standing in that line.
I believe this experience has massive learning implications. One of the biggest is that true understanding never occurs without experience. It is hard for one to relate to an issue, especially one that may be taking place thousands of miles from where you are, without experience and as a result, it is difficult to care. We must change this. Now, this is easier said than done but I believe this task can be alleviated by practicing compassion and empathy. If we all tried to connect to the stories we read and hear on the news - if we tried to understand more than simply reading an article - there would be a lot less suffering. Ignorance breeds hatred. Hatred breeds suffering. As I stood talking to Daniel I couldn’t help but think about the migrant crisis in the United States. Families separated at the border. The psychological trauma that ensues from such an action. The Wall. What were their stories? Why were they risking it all to live in the United States? The political landscape on this issue is no small feat. It makes me dizzy to read all the headlines on the matter but after the border I silently vowed to myself that I will from now on pay more attention. Attempt to understand and break through the webs. And not just with the United States or with migrant issues but with all conflicting issues. I vow to try and understand. For Daniel. For everyone I have met and will meet on this journey. I vow to make a wholehearted effort to understand your story.
Daniel and I talked for a long time. It took almost 5 hours for us to cross into Ecuador and I’m happy to say that most of that time was conversing with Daniel and other travelers. I didn’t exactly know what to say to him after he told me about his home. Not in English nor Spanish. Almost embarrassingly I said, Hay una frase en inglés. There is a phrase in English. Mantén la cabeza arriba. Keep your head up. Daniel smiled a toothy grin. I don’t remember the exact execution of these words but I knew Daniel understood. Daniel gave me a big hug before he left. His family had gotten clearance to continue through Ecuador. I doubt I will ever see him again.
Midnight. We arrive in Otavalo, Ecuador.
My last thoughts of this night were devoted to Daniel. I still think about him. I hope more than anything that he, as well as all the other migrants, make it to their destination. I support you.