Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
The year was 1969 and I was in Columbia and travelling through South America. At some point, I had purchased an expensive flick knife with an attractive mother of pearl handle; not as a weapon but to slice bread, cheese and fruit. By the time I reached what was then the then backward, southern Columbian city of Pasto, I was tired and the delicate blade was blunt. While meandering along the main street, I saw what could be described as an ironmongers shop, with a hand operated, grinding wheel fixed by the open door. I spoke no Spanish but had generally been able to make myself understood with hands and feet, or as they say in German, “mit Händen und Füßen reden.’
I entered the shop, took out my knife and flicked it open, hoping someone would understand that it was not my intention to rob the place. I had not heard genuine English spoken for some time, so I was taken aback to hear a strong male voice behind me asking, “And who are you intending to kill with that?” That is how I met, and befriended Carlos, and learned where Ecuador is.
Carlos was very English, detested unpunctuality and to emphasize this wore two wristwatches, one on each arm. The watch on his left arm showed him Pasto time, and the other, six or seven hours in front, depending on the time of the year, gave him BBC time. It was his practice to demonstrate both watches to those who dared be late. Being as the majority of his clients were Indigenous, this was a regular occurrence. Nobody took offence at this little idiosyncrasy of his. On the contrary, it was expected of him as the only ex-patriate Englishman in Pasto. He was known by the majority of its Indigenous population as, Don Carlos or El Caballero Ingles, and it was taken for granted that he should behave eccentrically.
Carlos, original name Karl, was third generation English, and when I met him he had already been in self-appointed exile forty years. He was born in London. During the wave of Anti-German hysteria prior to the WW1, his parent’s German named business had been vandalized and understandably, the family fled England for Columbia and later settled in Cali. Karl or Carl became Carlos and he married into a local family, in the candle manufacturing business; a profitable venture in any Catholic country. This shrewd move opened for him the shuttered doors of the local prominence and secured him a place in the Pastuso society. At the time I met him he also owned a gold-mining operation and the only hardware store in town.
With the 1960s population of under 80,000, Pasto had remained isolated from the rest of Columbia for many years. It was a mere four years before I passed through that the road between Cali and Pasto was completed. Before this route opened it would take a person six days on horseback to travel the 260 Km to Cali. I had just gotten of a bus after a long, most uncomfortable journey but it must have been paradise in comparison to the arduous and perilous trips Carlos made. Rarely alone, Carlos and a fellow ex-pat, a German, would travel on horseback with one pack horse for their supplies. If the journey was of some urgency, they would travel light and hoped to find provisions. They were armed and rarely travelled alone, the danger from thieves and bandits was real. They woke before dawn each day and breakfasted on a raw egg in a mug of aguadiente, the local sugarcane spirit. They would not eat until they stopped in the late afternoon, hopefully with luck in some small village or settlement where they could sleep under cover.
One of the many tales he told me of these journeys was how, as they were nearing a destination, they managed to get hold of more of this aguadiente and drank their way into Cali. On arrival, they discovered that the Columbian President was making his first visit to Cali and the streets were full of spectators. As his open car passed they, being taller and whiter than most of those in the crowd, caught the President’s eye. Assuming the pair to be people he should know, he acknowledged them, stopped the car and informed them that they should attend a formal dinner being held that same evening.
The dinner was a white tie and tails affair, the first ever in Cali, but neither of them had the required outfits. In the hotel and before the reception they accosted and managed to outdrink two local invitees of similar build whose outfits they stole when they fell into a drunken sleep. The service during the dinner was appallingly slow and chaotic Carlos’s German friend got into an argument with one of the servants, an Indigenous fellow of some size, who challenged him to fight. It took place in the Plaza de Caicedo, at dawn the following morning. The whole of Cali had learned of the fight and turned out in full to watch- It was a long drawn-out, bare-knuckle fight, which the German eventually won.
Another amusing story he told me was of how he advised the Columbian military on how to defend themselves, during one of the brief outbreaks of hostility along the Rio Putumayo, between them and Peru. At that time, the Colombians had only one armed vessel on this river. Carlos enlarged the length of its two guns by extended the barrels with bamboo, painted to look metallic. Fortunately, the guns were never required to be discharged, just to look frightening to the enemy.
Life has been tough but kind to Carlos with money and respectability helped maintain his refined image. At fifty-five he dressed well. His linen suits, unlike my one rumpled, made-in-England outfit, were always immaculately pressed. Regardless of inclement weather or highs and lows in the temperature, I never saw out of doors in anything but a suit, a crisp fresh shirt with appropriate tie and sporting highly burnished black boots, their lustre maintained by any one of the scores of shoeshine boys that thronged Pasto’s dusty streets and plazas. With his excessive attention to detail and decorum, Carlos had earned the respect of the local gentry. I quickly came to identify who was who in the town’s hierarchy by observing how and to whom he raised his Panama hat.
During my travels, I was frequently asked what I would do when I arrived at the ultimate destination? As I had no ultimate destination in mind seemed a silly response, I decided Chile would be my journey’s end. As to what I planned to do when I eventually arrived there, I told the curious I was intending to buy, build or rent a small hotel. It must have been a convincing lie because when, after I had known Carlos for only a few days, he said he had heard that country clubs were becoming popular venues for Columbia’s nouveau riche and if I wished to stay in Pasto, he and I could do something together. He came up with the proposal to acquire a large house on some hacienda near to Pasto and convert it to a Members Only club for the local wealthy, and there were plenty of them. I would be his partner and club manager. We both got excited about this venture and even found a couple of suitable residences with swimming pools which we thought ideal.
However, for good or bad it was not to be. Carlos, concerned I would not be content to remain for the rest of my life in the backwaters of Columbia suggested that prior to making a final decision I should take a look at Quito, where an oil boom was apparently in progress. On my query as to where and what Quito was, he informed me it was the capital of a country called Ecuador. I thought it a strange suggestion and my reply, which to this day I remain embarrassed – was to tell him that I had no desire to leave Columbia and take off and visit Equatorial Africa.
When he stopped laughing, he asked in which country I planned to end up in. I explained that I would travel to Peru and then on down to Chile. It is difficult to believe now but I did not possess a map. Taking and unfolding a large map of South America from his desk drawer, he opened it and pointed out that between Columbia and Peru, there was this other little country by the name of Ecuador. Astounded as I was at this news, I was by no means alone in my ignorance. Not long afterwards I met a fellow traveller who, having signed a contract in a London pub to work on the Galapagos Islands, became somewhat put-out when the boat he was on turned right instead of left at Gibraltar. He was convinced he was to going spend his time as a chef, cruising around Greece’s, Ionian Islands. My excuse for this ignorance is still to blame the geography lessons I received during my school years in early post WW11. In the 1940/50s, I recall no school education on countries, outside of Europe, which were not of the British Empire.
Ultimately, and because Carlos believed Ecuador would be a safer place set up a country club, it was decided I should nip south across the border which was only some sixty miles away and check out this Quito place. My decision to go was not easy. I had given Carlos no reason to realize just how desperately short of funds I was, neither was not my intention to throw away a business opportunity such as the one he was offering me. I left, determined to get back to Pasto as quickly as possible but as fate has it I did not return for a long time afterwards.
Perhaps it was for the best as over the following years the Nariño province with Pasto its capital became one of the main centres of Columbian cocaine cultivation and home to the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, However, at the time, I was not to know that, twenty years on, I would be involved in George Bush’s ‘War on Drugs”, spending time with the Ecuadorian and Columbian police, in their efforts to eradicate the cocaine business in that very same area. (to be continued)
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