Tuesday 4.30 a.m. William is outside the hotel with the pick-up truck for the return journey to Cartagena. This time I get to sit in the front. I must have earned the privilege somehow, or else he is feeling guilty about the Sunday lunch invitation. Rumblings of approaching thunder.
We are barely out of Mompox when the storm hits us with apocalyptic intensity, the rain crashing down like stair rods. We edge forward along the mud road, which has become a slow-moving river. Visibility is down to a few metres. At one point, an hour out of Mompox, the rain has not diminished. It is still dark, and I glimpse a cyclist, dressed only in a vest and pants, utterly stuck in the mud, drenched, balanced immobile on his bike.
When we hit the ferry at Santa Ana de la Magdalena, we are escorted down the slippery approach by a man clad in a bin liner. Around 6.30 daylight filters through and the rain begins to ease. We hit a covered road and begin to make progress. Casualties of the storm begin to appear along the roadside: mainly dogs that have been hit by cars driving blind through the storm. I count six dead dogs on the return trip. A (live) dog is tearing at one of the canine corpses, pulling at a leg, as if dismembering a chicken. A disturbing image. Dog eat dog. Further on, vultures are feasting on another. The body of a donkey on the verge comes as a vision from Chagall: how did they hit that? Where is the owner? There is plenty of other random roadkill, unidentified, and whenever our truck approaches the vultures scatter. The weather has cleared up and we look set for another warm day. At our breakfast stop, a parakeet hops onto the railing by my table, stares at me intently and then wolf-whistles loudly. It continues to stare at me while I finish my coffee, and when I get up to leave, it flies off.
Just after eleven we descend into Cartagena, as another rainstorm hits from the Caribbean. William drops me off at my hotel, the aptly named Casa Relax. It rains for two hours and the streets are flooded. When I emerge to try and find some lunch, the sun is finally attempting a breakthrough.
As I set off down the street toward the Plaza, someone calls out ‘Oyé, Blanco’. I wonder how they can possibly know my name, and then I register this a regular form of address for a white man. A street vendor is beckoning me over: ‘Hey, Whitey!’ In similar fashion, black men are addressed as ‘Negro’ in a friendly, inoffensive way that would be unthinkable at home – although not, I guess, in the U.S. portrayed in The Wire and elsewhere – but then strictly black on black, whereas in Colombia white and black call each other ‘negro’ and ‘blanco’ indiscriminately. I recall that the footballer Luis Suárez referred to this familiar usage of ‘Negro’ as a defence when accused of using racist language against Patrice Evra in October 2011. His claim that this was a normal and friendly form of address was rejected by the FA enquiry, because it was not delivered in a friendly or familiar manner.