We awoke at the uncomfortable hour of dawn to pack up our gear and get out of the Arjona Civic Center before the morning crowd showed up. The night prior, we’d faced many challenges finding a place to stay and got lucky when the night watchman let us in, but not before being denied by the church and the police station. Colombia was proving to be a bit more difficult for our usual bike touring tricks than expected.
Making the best of our early start to the day, we rattled along rough roads and into the Colombian countryside, covering good ground in the relatively cool morning air. Eventually the heat of the day was upon us, and the lack of sleep started to catch up. Feeling a bit lethargic and building an appetite for second lunch, we pulled into the town of San Onofre to assess the next decision.
We made our way to the center of town and soon realized that something significant was occurring in the early afternoon on a Wednesday. The bars and cafes were full, live music was being played by multiple groups on different ends of the plaza, people were dancing in front of the church, kids that were supposed to be in school were running wild and free. We soon learned that our arrival in San Onofre couldn’t have been timed any better. It was El Dia de San Onofre, the day celebrating a mountain-hermit saint for whom this small Colombian town, as well as a nude beach in California, are named.
We decided that we need not bike any further, that we had found the right place at the right time to enjoy a unique cultural experience. So we went about our usual task, trying to figure out where we would sleep, and proceeded to get denied by the church, the police and the (nonexistent) fire department. Once again, our standard tricks weren’t working in Colombia.
As important as it was to find a home for the night to ensure that we would get to help celebrate San Onofre Day, I was drawn to the music spilling into the streets from the corner patio of a house on the main thoroughfare. Intrigued by the catchy rhythm of bongo drums and the unique zest of an accordion, I wandered over to investigate and found that the house had been converted into a “bar”, if you could call it a bar. It was more like a small room with a counter that separated a couple boxes of beer from a circle of chairs. Behind the counter sat the family who owned the place, while the music played on the other side.
When I peeked in I saw a circle of about eight men in their 50s, half of them with instruments. There were two drums, one accordion, one guacharaca (a washboard-style tube with a scraping fork) and a singer. I could instantly tell that the jam session was flowing and that everyone in the room was enjoying themselves thoroughly. The singer was howling folk lyrics and dancing in the middle of the circle with intense concentration. Really feeling the song, eyes closed, head of short curls tilted back, arms dangling with the weight of the bass at his sides and feet stomping and hopping with the ratchet of the guacharaca.
As usual and as expected, all eyes turned to me as I appeared in the doorway, so I tapped my feet and bobbed my head to show that I was here for the good tunes and nothing else. This satisfied the group. They let their guard down and accepted my enjoyment of their celebration. I was in. I relaxed for a few songs, feeling it out and allowing my body to tune in to the rhythm. The sound was spectacular, it was clear that these gents had spent some time jamming together before. I shook some hands, took a sip of the Aguardiente being passed around, answered the primary questions a few times with the usual answers, “Alaska”, “uno año”, “Argentina” and then I got down to business.
I grabbed our digital audio recorder and my mini drum and took a floor seat in the circle. I had been carrying the drum on my bicycle for a couple months looking for opportunities such as this. The entire trip I had been talking about getting a travel drum, but it wasn’t until Costa Rica that I finally got my act together and found the right instrument that would strap onto my handlebars correctly. I remember my friend Jen really pushing me to make the purchase way back in California, saying it would open new doors for me in South America. This was exactly the situation she was talking about.
My choice to participate was met with overwhelming enthusiasm, high-fives all around, cheers and laughs at my silly little “tamborito”, and a round trip with the Aguardiente bottle. The accordion player led the songs, directing the band to baseline whenever he was about to sing some lyrics and then smiling big and exchanging eye contact with each of us for long periods as he sang. The drummers with real drums whacked away with quick calculated hands, focused eyes and sly smiles. The room rolled with a tight tempo and wholesome laughter.
Interested locals followed their ears to the cramped little room of music, crowding around outside to listen with friends. A fellow selling baskets with ball-cap bills woven into them came over for a few songs or perhaps a few beers, whichever came first, I suppose. As I was tapping away with the band, focused on keeping the right cadence, he set one of the baskets on my head and let me play a few songs while modeling the latest fashion. All heads were nodding with the beat and laughs were being tossed around like grass seeds on a freshly tilled lawn.
A man in a tight purple polo entered with his afro-mohawk looking fresh and ready to get in on the action. He and the accordion player proceeded to have what must be the equivalent of a middle-aged, Colombian folk rap battle. They would shoot sonnets at each other as the band kept the beat, making sure to give thorough emphasis to the punch line and pause for comedic effect. It was a good clean fight, and clearly a display of genuine skill. Each contender was so quick to the next attack that they could barely let the other finish before dropping their own comeback. I couldn’t understand a word of it but everyone in the room was laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but let out my own cackles just from being surrounded by it.
Hilarity can be contagious.
The accordion player was a bottomless pit of lyrics, and eventually got the last word in against the new-comer, who still hadn’t taken off his backpack, giving off the appearance that he had other places to be but might as well slam some insult poetry on his way through.
The sense of community was thriving in that room. Each person got their chance to give a hoot or a screech, keeping the high energy going. Every now and then a piece of steamed corn would enter the circle, and rather than being devoured by the one who received it, would get broken into pieces and passed around. The listeners continued to give and receive knuckles and high-fives, passing sips of drinks and laughing whole-heartedly. Meanwhile I just banged away on my little drum, past the point of swollen red hands but completely ok with it.
Eventually, I realized that it was time to find a place to stay for the night, before it got too dark. I asked my new friends if they knew of any good places to camp in town and received dramatic confirmation and an enthusiastic offer to be guided to the spot. My neighbor in the jam circle took us to his friend’s empty lot, where we graciously accepted the one thing we had been looking for: a place to lock the bikes and sleep for the night.
After sharing the music together, we had made some new friendships. The people of the town were taking care of us, happy to help the new guests on their special day of celebration. I felt honored and proud to have been able to connect with such fun local characters.
The remainder of the night turned out to be a downward spiral of disappointment, but it took quite a lot to bring me down from my satisfaction high. Despite the unfortunate incident of my compadre losing 50,000 pesos to a sleight-of-hand street trickster, the discotheque blaring unbearably loud dance music into our tents all night and waking up with a new case of diarrhea, I was content with my holiday in San Onofre.
• Kanaan Bausler was born and raised in Juneau and is a member of A Trip South. Follow the group’s progress at http://atripsouth.com.