I’ll spare you the sad details of arriving back in Quito with a bag full of dirty laundry, no place to stay and no way out of town – the happy memory of a week in the Galápagos crumbling under the weight of reality. All of the travel guides advise against crossing the Ecuador-Colombia border at night. All of them. None of the buses to Colombia go anytime but at night. None of them. We asked the chain smoking manager of one of the two bus lines that made the trek if it was safe. He said in 40 years his company had never had a problem. I wondered if his and our definitions of ‘problems’ were the same.
Sure enough, the crossing went smoothly. At 2 o’clock a.m., the late night clerk on the Colombian side of the border gave us a warm, sincere welcome to his country. Afterwards we tried to settle into our semi-reclined seats to sleep, but between a twisting road and a group of French tourists who talked all night long – literally all night, they shut up at around sunrise – it was difficult.
The busmen led us to believe we would get to Popayan at four in the afternoon, so we tried to steal a few more hours of sleep after sunrise. At two o’clock in the afternoon, halfway through a excruciating movie starring Kirk Cameron in the role of an internet porn addict (played with surprising conviction), the bus pulled over and they announced our stop. It was two hours early and we scrambled to get our fried wits together, gather our things, and then fall off of the bus onto the side of the highway. The busman pointed towards where Popoyan was, then left us behind in a cloud of exhaust. With not a peso of Colombian money to ours names, we staggered around looking for a cabbie that might take us to a cash machine and not ask us to withdraw the rest of our savings too.
It turns out that Popayan is also on several guidebook’s no-go lists, but we hadn’t read those guidebooks and instantly were charmed by the city’s white-washed old town, bustling with musicians and vendors. The hostel we found was adorable, an old colonial courtyard set-up, and had a cafe in the front that looked like a satellite gone astray from Williamsburg. Another cafe across the street sold delicious fried plantains with cheese. The owner had spent 30 years in Chicago and greeted us like old friends. We decided Popayan was awesome.
At three in the morning two girls, an American and a German, staying in the room next door, got back from somewhere and started talking and laughing loudly in the kitchen. After 20 minutes, Magda went out to ask them to be quiet. Their response was: “It’s a hostel”.
She came back and asked me to talk to them. This is sometimes advisable, as Magda is not likely to remain friendly when dealing with idiots. I asked, as nicely as I could, if they could either keep it down or move to the front of the building. They stared at me like I’d just beaten a child.
“It’s a hostel.” They glowered.
Confused by their logic, I tried again.
“Yes but it’s not very well built, so we can hear every word you’re saying.”
Since their argument so solid they employed it again:
“It’s a hostel.”
I’ve always been under the impression hostels were primarily places to sleep. They seemed to think the opposite, given their eloquent rebuttal. I told them I supposed we weren’t on the same page but I couldn’t figure out why. They said they couldn’t figure it out either. The young night clerk intervened and tepidly asked them to keep it down. As I left there were barely stifled giggles, from the two girls and their friend, the night clerk.
Afterwards it was another restless night, this time trying to untangle the twisted logic that would make wanting to sleep while at a hostel a motive worthy of scorn. How many hostels have we stayed at all around the planet? Hundreds? In all of them, sleep has been pretty high on the list of the things to do. I drifted off, fantasizing about peeing on their door. If confronted, naturally I’d just say,
“It’s a hostel.” And glare menacingly.
The next night we moved to another, quieter place. This time to an actual hotel as to avoid confusion. At three in the morning, which seemed to be the time bars closed in Popayan, a loud couple walked through the corridor arguing in Spanish. It crossed my mind that killing myself might finally bring the sleep I so desperately craved.