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Bus2Antarctica: Colombian Cow Coroner

Andrew Evans recounts his run-in–literally–with an unfortunate cow while traveling from Cartagena to Bogotá in Colombia. Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica and bookmark all of his blog posts here.

I did not wish for casualties on this trip, but when it happened, I was ready.

My first bus in South America (my 19th bus since leaving Washington, D.C.) was an Expreso Brasilia inter-city transport from Cartagena to Bogotá. The expected travel time was 18 hours but, as I’ve come to expect, our trip took a little longer.

We departed sunny Cartagena at around two in the afternoon and traveled across an extraordinary landscape that included some intense tropical swamps filled with beautiful birds. Crossing the Brazo River was a definite highlight. Below our bridge I saw an immense sand bar–at least a half-mile across and on it, children playing a rowdy game of dusty soccer. The width of the sandy bank and the width of the river itself were astounding so I can only imagine how big and muddy it gets when it really starts to rain.

Our bus soon began climbing slowly up into the hills–an area that marks the beginning of the great chain of mountains that is the Andes. Night fell and I followed soon after by falling into a bumpy yet somewhat regular sleep (I am learning how to sleep on a bus).

KABLAM! That’s the sound I awoke to as our bus jolted hard and then rumbled off the road. The engine stalled and all the lights went out, then the front of the bus collapsed to one side–I was sure that we had broken an axle at least. I was less sure about what caused it.

Now this is Colombia and maybe you’ve heard a story or two about Colombian buses. It used to be that bad things happened to buses at night. Bandits or guerrillas would throw roadblocks in front of the bus to stop it, then rob (or do worse) the people on board. I wish I could say that my mind treated the whole situation in a rational way, but instead, my first thought was that we were all about to be robbed or kidnapped or worse.

It was pitch black both outside and in the bus. Nobody moved, not even the driver. We were in the middle of the Boyacá region of northeastern Colombia and it was 4:14 AM. I know because the first thing I did was look down at my carabiner clip watch (with its LED microlight)

and check the time. The second thing I did was get up and get off the bus. I had no idea what or who was out there, but I guess I was more scared about staying on a bus that just went BOOM! And so, I grabbed my trusty National Geographic Swiss Army LED Flashlight

and encouraged the terrified driver to step outside with terrified me.

Everyone else stayed on the bus.

We saw nothing other than the fact that the front of the bus was wrecked. The fender was broken, the lights were all shattered and there was significant damage to the body of the bus. There was also a bit of telltale blood–we had hit something live.

I figured it was an animal and hoped that’s all that it was. Flashlight in hand we walked back along the shoulder of the road some 300 yards until we came upon a huge heap of still warm animal–it was a cow and that cow was very dead.

I suddenly felt really sad. One minute this innocent brown cow had been munching away on some nice sweet grass on the side of the road and the next, she was knocked off at about 60 miles per hour. At least she went quickly.

The driver walked back to the bus and woke up the reserve driver. The other passengers began to get off the bus–some went off into the woods to follow the call of nature, feeling their way with their hands.

Others stretched their legs and yawned in the darkness. I went and grabbed my camera–not that I’m morbid but I figured I would get some close-ups of the freshly-wrecked bus.

The driver found me with my camera and immediately asked that I come take pictures of the cow. He didn’t have a camera and explained that he would need pictures–for the police, for the insurance company, and for the animal’s owner. I agreed and together–along with about a dozen passengers–we walked back through the dark, following my flashlight circle to the very dead cow.

Now for all of you real photographers out there–and especially to all of the esteemed and true National Geographic photographers out there–please understand that I am not a photographer. Still, I can offer this one tidbit of photographic advice though–should you ever find yourself needing to photograph a dead Colombian cow on the roadside in total and utter darkness, just crank your ISO up to 6400, spot meter off the cow’s branding and then snap away.

Spending four hours with a dead cow was not on my agenda but that’s how long it took to take care of the situation. First, two military police arrived–to guard the bus it turns out. After the sun came up, two highway patrolmen buzzed in on motorcycles and did a full report which involved a lot of walking back and forth from cow to bus and back to cow. Colombians take their cows seriously and this cow did not die unnoticed. Eventually, the rancher arrived with his wife and together with about 20 passengers, we tried to lift the huge dead animal into the back of their truck (yet another reason I always travel with hand sanitizer). We failed miserably and so the rancher began to butcher the cow then and there on the roadside. I didn’t take any pictures of that.

Understandably, the bus driver was both distraught and agitated. We eventually got back on the road but stopped soon after to clean the blood off the bus and for passengers to call ahead to friends and family and tell that that we would be late. How late, nobody knew at the time but in the end, it took us 27 hours to make the 18-hour journey to Bogotá.

I still feel really bad for that poor cow.

Andrew’s bus journey has just taken him to Peru. Follow his Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans. 

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