I’d already been around most of Colombia in the previous holidays, so instead of beating the same track I headed east and over the border to Venezuela. A student in Pamplona had put me on to his cousin who he said would be sure to receive me in her house despite only becoming aware of my existence the day before I was due to meet her. But less about Sarai and more about a peculiar incident…
Merida, a city up in the mountains with a reasonable amount of steep roads had been pleasant and on this particular day Sarai was working all day and thus left me to dawdle around in the centre of the city for a few hours.
I was not five minutes into this lonesome adventure when I heard some voices behind me. Can’t be for me, nobody knows me here I said to myself, but the noise continued and I looked over my shoulder to see what the fuss was about. I spotted two women and a young girl beckoning me over rather vociferously as if in trouble, so I went over to investigate.
As I neared, their hand gestures suggested to me that they wanted me to help the young girl cross the road. I observed that it was a touch busy and perhaps dangerous for her to go it alone. Anyway, no sooner had I gone over, the young girl and one of the women took off like lightning and left me with the other. I wondered why…
In my state of confusion I hadn’t realised that the lady I was left with was in fact in a wheelchair, probably around mid-forties and bespectacled. She introduced herself with a firm handshake (sadly I don’t remember her name) and immediately instructed me to push her up to the central square, apparently just a few blocks away.
Just like that.
Still in something of a surreal haze, I acquiesced and proceeded to push her. I angled her throne towards the pavement as if to mount her on there but she commanded me to push her in the centre of the road. It’ll be fine she said. Noticing a decent stream of vehicles at not such a slow speed, I hoped she was a veteran at negotiating mid-morning traffic. To my surprise a route just opened up like magic in the middle of the road, and even those cars behind us were content to crawl patiently, without being so rude as to beep their horns at me. I felt that the episode had vague connotations of Moses parting the waves and simultaneously wondered what a spectacle me and my new friend must have seemed to passers-by.
We eventually made it up to the square where I was ordered to park her on the pavement in the shade next to a woman selling mangoes. Given my lack of wheelchair-pushing experience, I didn’t realise the chair would tilt back so violently upon lifting it, and I almost dumped her on the kerb. She kindly instructed me how to get on to the pavement and we made it safely.
I began to say my goodbyes and wish her well, but she gripped my sleeve and told me to wait with her until a mysterious man called Ivan came with his pick-up truck. I again figured I had nothing better to do and thought that what I was doing would count as a good deed, so remained with her. On numerous occasions she attempted to call Ivan, who wouldn’t pick up the phone, and we fell into conversation, or should I say, she told me her life story.
I learned that she’d had a Colombian boyfriend from just over the border, apparently a fair few years younger than her, and whom she suspected of being gay. I politely let her continue and she told me that he had stolen her money and disappeared one day. Just a week later she was involved in a motorbike crash which left her in the wheelchair. Bad memories of Colombia she emphasised, but informed she wouldn’t get angry at me for coming from there because I’d helped her.
When I finally got a chance to talk, we hit on the subject of what tourism there was to do in the area and she recommended that I go to a local monastery where coffee was produced. Not something that had cropped up in the tourist books, and she said the best part of it was that nobody was allowed to talk once within the walls. I nodded courteously once again and she took that as me being interested in going, so she pulled out her phone and said she’d reserve a night for me there. They didn’t answer her, but she insisted that I note down the number of one of the monks. I secretly laughed inside wondering how a monk bound to silence would orientate me.
She tried again to call Ivan, who continued not to pick up, and then had another idea. Go in that building and ask for Juan Diego she said. He might be able to help me. I asked her if she knew his surname, what he looked like or in which department he worked, but she insisted that I just ask for him and cite her name. I agreed and entered the office feeling like something of an idiot.
I got to reception and plucked up the courage to ask for Juan Diego, and surprisingly they sent me up to the sixth floor. Once there I asked for him and was sent through some security doors and told he was in there somewhere. I awkwardly asked office workers at their desks if they knew where he was and eventually found out that he wasn’t there. Mission failed, but I was amazed at how I’d been allowed to wander around looking for him.
My friend in the wheelchair was a little disappointed.
And things would suddenly take a turn for the worst.
She needed a pee and instructed me to wheel her to a hotel just around the corner where they would let her use the bathroom. I realised that she must be notorious in the area, as she was ushered into the foyer by a doorman. I pushed in her and kind of left her at the feet of said doorman, assuming that he’d take her off down to the toilet.
No sir, that was my responsibility.
I wondered how far the escapade was going to go on for. Hopefully just to the bathroom door, where I’d let her in to get on with her ablutions. Wrong again. She told me to come in with her. I don’t know what persuaded me to obey her, perhaps it was because I’d read The Alchemist just days earlier and believed it was my destiny.
I clearly over-estimated the capacity of a wheelchair-bound person to waltz carefree around a bathroom doing what had to be done, and it dawned on me that I’d be going all the way with her. I prayed that I wouldn’t see anything that a 23-year old wouldn’t expect for decades still, but God didn’t answer me as she told me to unbutton her jeans.
I was more scared than ever at this point because she certainly had the use of her hands and arms, but mercifully that was as grim as it would get. While she held on to her jeans at the waist, she instructed me to hoist her up by her shoulders and seat her on the toilet. Let me go, close your eyes and turn around she said and I obeyed without hesitation, thinking that what she had just said probably existed as song lyrics somewhere.
The brief silence was penetrated by the sound of the lowering of trousers and subsequent trickling of liquid.
My next command was to hold out my hands to lift her off the toilet and then plant her back in her chair. I managed this without any issues and wondering what had just happened I found myself back outside with her next to the mango lady. This was one heck of a good deed.
She thanked me, unsuccessfully tried to call Ivan again and then made another tourism suggestion. To the Paramo, she said, a hilly climb a few kilometres away. She said we could go together as she knew the place well. Obviously, we had such intimacy now that it was a given that I’d push her up there. Once at the top there was a nice walk I could do while she relaxed in her chair. Clearly.
I started to wonder if Ivan existed and if I’d be stuck all day on the corner of the square with this woman when out of nowhere a red truck appeared and honked. That’s Ivan she informed me. Help me get in the front seat.
Now there was quite a distance between the road and the step to get in the car and I believed it was beyond me to get her in there on my own. Thankfully Ivan helped me place her in the vehicle. I then asked what was to be done with the wheelchair. What an idiotic question. I was clearly meant to put on the 6-foot high roof.
Now I can make my exit I said to myself, but we weren’t finished. My friend was handing me a fistful of notes out of the window as if in payment. No I laughed, I can’t accept that. Idiot again. It wasn’t for me, it was for some chocolates that I was to bring her from two blocks away. Bring me five she said.
I returned with the five requested chocolates and change and handed them over, wondering if I was to get one as reward for my afternoon efforts. Clearly not, as no sooner had I handed over the goodies Ivan put his foot down and away they went in a cloud of black smoke.
For a few minutes I contemplated what had happened for the last few hours but couldn’t really come up with anything. A strange afternoon.
Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist protagonist would envy me.