We spent two days in and around the town of Salento just on the outskirts of the zona de café. The draw to Salento, aside from its charm, is the Valle de Cocora. The cocora are the world’s tallest wax palms and can crest over 200 feet. The valley is home to groves of these spindly trees that stand tall and proud compared to the short vegetation that surrounds them. After exploring some of the valley on foot we hopped back in the van and headed into the heart of coffee country. The plan was to find a coffee finca to park for the night, maybe on a hill with a view of the surrounding area, maybe with access to bathrooms, and maybe just maybe a place where we could buy a couple of pounds of fresh Colombian Arabica. It’s possible we were asking for a tall order, but if we didn’t set the bar high we would always end up settling in a gas station for the night and we have learned to love the fight. We have not only developed high expectations of where we camp but we have discovered that the act of finding that perfect place is itself a large part of our adventure.
As is sometimes the case, our first few attempts at finding a place to camp were unsuccessful. The first try ended with a simple shake of the head given from over 50 yards away while I was standing at the edge of the property. On our second attempt, we received plenty of smiles but could only garner a “maybe if you come back later when the owner has returned”. The third attempt was looking good after some friendly exchanges with the family living on the property but a phone call to the owner cancelled the deal. We were quickly losing daylight and starting to entertain the possibility of stopping at the next gas station when we drove past the Quimbaya Club, the community’s modest equivalent of the YMCA. It had a big empty parking lot with plenty of space to spread out and a giant soccer field to watch the sunset. It looked perfect.
The converstation I have whenever trying to finagle a parking spot for the night at this stage of our trip has become pretty rehearsed. I introduce myself and explain that my spouse and I are travelers and have driven from the US. We sleep in our van and are just looking for a place to park for the night. I pour on the smiles and maybe even a joke whenever I can, which for everyone who knows me is the least natural part of the exchange. The goal is to dissipate any feelings of caution in either of us. Throughout my spiel I try to get a read on their reaction to figure out how successful I am being. The more hesitant they are the shorter the speech to ensure I don’t exert too much pressure and make them feel uncomfortable. If I catch a glimpse of curiosity I add more details telling them about how long we’ve been travelling, where we’ve been or what’s inside the van. If things go really well I might try to push our luck and ask for a bathroom or even a trash can (for our trash, not as an alternative to the previous request).
The husband and wife running the tienda at the Quimbya Club returned every smile I threw at them and gave us the green light to park for the night. On top of everything going in our favor, the tienda sold ice cold beer. We enjoyed our cocktail hour watching the sun set behind the soccer field and the surrounding coffee farms. After dinner we crawled into our bed and hung up our curtains for a bit of privacy. After about an hour we heard some noise outside the van and peaked out to see what was going on. Without our realizing, the parking lot had filled with cars and a soccer match was taking place no more than 10 feet away. We slid open the side door, trying not to draw too much attention and enjoyed the game right from the comfort of our bed. Not the kind of evening entertainment we could expect had we settled for a gas station parking lot.
As we’ve mentioned before, the generosity we have received during our travels has been an extremely humbling experience. At times, however, being on the receiving end of such generosity can be a battle. Pangs of guilt often creep in at the thought that perhaps we are taking advantage of the hospitality or of people’s good nature. And this might be true if every exchange we had was a one way transaction, but we have learned that this is rarely the case. What is happening is a non-monetary exchange that benefits both parties. What we bring to the table is our story, our adventure, and our experiences. Sometimes it’s been a long day and all we want is some privacy to crawl into bed, but instead we know and accept that we have to be on. We offer to give a tour of our van, we talk about the US and the countries we’ve visited, and on more than a few occasions have posed for photographs. When we’re off the beaten path, which we often are, the people we meet have lived in these small villages their entire lives. They do not have the luxury of travel. Our experiences of different cultures and parts of the world can be a valuable contribution. I really have a hard time explaining just how lasting of an experience it is to give so much to a person and be given so much in return without one dollar exchanging hands. Right now, we are so frickin’ lucky that this is a daily occurrence for us and not something that will soon be forgotten.