One of the oddest things I notice in Colombia is the ubiquity of people. It’s not that there are so many people (Cartagena is the second largest city on Colombia’s North Coast, after all), but that they seem to pop up in some of the least expected places.
There are three guys spaced sporadically in a dusty drainage culvert along the highway toward Barranquilla, casting shadowless silhouettes in the midday sun, one looking down at his tiny blue Nokia as our bus whizzes by. Then there are a couple of guys leaning back on a makeshift bench hobbled together by a couple of logs and a board across the top. They’re sitting under a canopy of stretched-out garbage bags and other tarp-like materials I can’t quite make out, tied to no fewer than eight well-sharpened sticks serving as pillars. Nearby two women, nicely dressed, walk up to a street vendor — basically a buy with a cooler wheeled in on a homemade cart — and buy a bag of what looks like milk. One of the girls bites off a corner and starts slurping the icy beverage. Maybe it’s horchata or masato de arroz. I can’t be sure.
Back in Cartagena, tucked in the tight alleys and angled streets of the historic city center turned tourist trap, thick barricaded doors open on occasion to reveal behind crumbling facades an oasis of pools, concierge service and bellhops, landscaped planters, and gringos in lounge chairs. The typical Colombian watering hole up the street — a bit of a rarity in this tourist-saturated part of town — always seems to have four or five people lounging around, though not patrons, as do most corner stores and markets. Families hang from tree limbs in Barranquilla to catch a sight of the Carnaval parade, presumably unable to afford or unwilling to pay the 150,000-peso price per ticket for a seat in the bleachers. I’m not paying, either.
As our plane taxis onto the runway ready to escort us back to the United States, another odd scenes comes into view. Just off the runway a cluster of mostly ramshackle houses back up to the barbed wire fencing and a narrow canal separating the airport from the neighborhood beyond. There, in the space in between, there are at least a dozen people doing what people here do, I guess. Some bare fishing poles and cast with force toward the rippling waters, winds topping 15 mph, amid scattered trash and scraggly bushes. A group of four or five teens sit along the canal soaking up the sun, watching planes take flight, bound for somewhere. For a second I see a piece of myself in thess kids, this group of youngsters looking up and out for something, perhaps anything, besides the life they’re stuck to. It’s not pity, or a take on how good or bad they may be living, but empathy. I can see into the specks of their young, wide eyes and imagine the thoughts meandering through their heads. For me, I never set alongside the asphalt of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson as a kid and did the same time, but I spent plenty of idle summer days (and a few more school days than I should have as well) much like these kids, sitting next to my own imaginary airport, taking in the sights and sounds and thoughts of elsewhere.
“Don’t worry kids. If you put your mind to it you can go anywhere in this world you want, and you have the rest of your life to figure out how to make it happen,” I think to myself, the plane taxis on. It’s introverted, but now, a few days after turning the big 3-0, I don’t feel as if I have as much time left to figure it all out for myself. Where to from here? Our plane takes flight and I leave behind the country that has offered so much for so little. But I tell myself I will be back. This much I know. I just have to figure out how to make it happen.
* * * * *
I spend my 30th birthday wandering the streets of Barranquilla during the height of Carnaval. A team of pickpockets makes quick work of me, snatching my iPhone amid a spray of soapy water to my eyes. The long metal spray canisters were one of the many festive doohickeys on sale at every street corner. We traveled here with a group of 10 or so other travelers we met in Cartagena. Mostly all of them are European. They are fellow travelers, though most all are in it for the long haul, spending many months on the road around Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and wherever else their hearts and pocketbooks might take them. Today there’s strength in numbers and fun with friends, though that didn’t save my phone. Sic vita. Such is life. There’s the German girl and the Dutch girl, two young Norwegians who are making a name for themselves with a hip clothing brand, us two Americanos (my wife and I), two Frenchman, then there are two other girls from, for the life of me, I can’t remember where. Of course each has a name and a story.
Our home for the week in Cartagena is a small hostel in the Getsemani neighborhood called Mama Waldy. It’s named after Walter’s grandmother, so says Lucy the Frenchgirl, who is Walter’s girlfriend and a one-time traveler who made it as far as Cartagena before deciding to stay. It’s quite a charming place. Walter grew up in this house, now turned to a hostel, situated in a bend in Calle de Sierpe just on the other side of Parque de Centenario from the Torre del Reloj and tourist trappings of El Centro, Cartagena’s walled city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You can pass a full day just sitting in one of the plastic chairs sat out on the sidewalk by the hostel, and for one full day that’s exactly what I did as I tried to recover from a particularly rambunctious night out with my wife, Melissa, the hippie from Israel and his traveling Argentinean friend, and two Australians gals intent on globe trotting together just as the had dreamed when they were kids (perhaps sitting on some runway in Sydney or something, waiting for their plane to take off). It was a good day.
“In Colombia anything is possible,” my Israeli friend is fond of saying. I believe it to be true.
El Centro is an old Spanish colonial fortification, from what I understand. You can still walk the walls around the old city and visit the castle just beyond where a famous guy, one-eyed and peg-legged, mounted an unimaginable defensive against a horde of English pirateers sometime in history’s past. So says a nice couple from Washington state that took the tour. But on top of the walls, you can ride the canons of history and watch the sunset over the Caribbean free of charge. Please do stop and watch the sunset.
One day just before sundown we made it to La Poppa, a church with a commanding view from atop a hill smack in the middle of this sprawling city. As common here, police abound, groups of three and four spread out around the courtyard as the Sunday night church services spill out of the doorway and into the courtyard. Peeking over the heads in the crowd I can just make out the ornate fixtures inside. A gold-plated stand at from and what looks to be a patron saint, perhaps Saint Catherine, one of the patron saints for Cartagena de Indies. But I can’t be sure.
Our cabbie is nervous when we arrive, but promises to wait for us as long as we leave with the sun. He says it’s gets sketchy in these parts after dark, and judging by the police presence I don’t doubt his concern. There has to be at least 15 cops milling around, with groups of another two or three posted at each bend in the winding road up and down the mountain. It’s a bit misty tonight, a first for this trip, but the hazy views are breathtaking none the less. El Centro and the Caribbean Sea stretch out in the distance, a forground of sprawling buildings below.
The beaches and high-rises of Boca Grande wrap around a peninsula just west of El Centro, on the other side of a harbor from where we now stand. We call it Miami Beach because of all the tourist towers, overpriced eateries, and marked-for-consumption consumerism. There the beach sand is black. The famed Playa Blanca is but an hour away, yet here in town it’s Playa Negra or nada.
A few days before we are actually on Playa Blanca and post up in some plastic lounge chairs. We spend hours kicking back under the tent watching the waves crash and fighting off beach vendors (PINA COLADA?!) Get a living however you can I guess but, no, for the thirteenth time I don’t want a pina colada, or a plastic shrimp with a suction cup, or a fucking massage. This is not exactly relaxing. (To get away from the tourists crowds head further down the beach. Just keep on walking. Or plan to stay the night in one of the beach hostels and hit the beach later in the day. Why not? But we don’t.) By 4 p.m. we’re on the bus back to town.
Staying a week in a single hostel is kind of a long time I guess. We meet all sorts of people and are even in the house longer than the newest employee, who just started today. Well, she’s technically a volunteer, a backpacker from Argentina in town with her boyfriend. We hobble together a conversation using the few words we each know in the other language. From what I gather she plans to stay in Cartagena for at least a month and wait for a friend from back home, then maybe it’s on further north to Panama the month after that. Two months seems like a long time away, so she can’t be sure. Her name is Maria.
Betty and Gary are a retired couple from Seattle biking across Colombia. So far they’ve made it from Bogota to Medellin to Cartagena and will soon leave along the coast route bound for Barranquilla. They’ve stopped at a lot of smaller towns and done a lot of cool shit, most of which I can’t specifically remember. Eran of Israel and Thomas of Argentina seem like an unlikely pair but have decided to travel together. They met in Bogota, I think they said, and will soon return there for a few days before moving along. They have the same vision: to make out with some land and open an ecotourism hostel on the Caribbean two hours past Santa Marta. They’ve already been scoping out land and show pictures. Lynn is fresh off the boat from Scotland, Cartagena being the first stop on a months-long trek. Mariska is from Holland. Vera from Germany. Pierre from Paris. Rich is a Jersey boy. There’s a couple from Canada and a few other Canadian travels who also have names, but I no longer remember.
The day before we leave these two young American lads show back up at the hostel. They’re back from somewhere, but I don’t have the opportunity to ask. Their names escape me, but each has a name and a story, and collectively they’re working on a next chapter right now.