Waterworld, What a World

I’m not sure why we were driven five hours from Tayrona to Cartagena, but Lynn and I agreed it was important that we did because it showed us sides of Colombia we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

We drove south along the coast past more beautiful beaches.  If we had flown from Santa Marta to Cartagena we might have been left with the impression that all of Colombia was unspoiled.

But soon we were driving over a very long causeway with what I can only describe as water-logged slums on either side. I found some photos of the place, Tasajeras, online.

This area stretched along a couple of miles.  Our driver said something about the residents being dependent on tankers for clean water.  Ironic, given that they were surrounded by water, but it made sense.  There were no signs that the houses had indoor plumbing.

And here we were, sitting in air-conditioned comfort behind tinted glass, our suitcase contents probably more valuable than the entire contents of one of these homes.  In dollar terms, anyway.

Everywhere I go, I am very conscious of being a one percenter.  I’m not a one percenter in the US, but I imagine that, compared with the population of the planet, my net worth is higher than 99% of the rest of my fellow humans.  At home, I am probably solidly in the middle, which is fine with me.

As I’ve written before, I started my adult life at 17 by getting pregnant, going on welfare, and moving into subsidized housing.  I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I know firsthand that the vast majority of people in the world can never get ahead no matter how hard they work because they have no social safety net to support them until they get traction.  And the US is heading backward in that direction.

So I have donations to certain causes automatically deducted from my bank account (HIAS is one of my favorites).  I volunteer to do some small part in fighting mass incarceration in the US, and I work for a nonprofit that supports people who have been affected by war trauma.

Lately I have been trying to buy less plastic.  It’s so hard. Everything is packaged in plastic.  I got an Amazon order last week where the item came inside a small plastic tub, wrapped in a plastic bag, mailed in a giant bubble-wrap plastic envelope.  It made me feel sick.  I set the envelope aside and meant to write to Amazon to complain, but I never did.  Now, recalling all the plastic and other waste choking this watery community in Colombia, I wish I had made the effort.

When I travel I tell myself I am supporting the local economy.  Is this true? Would it be better if I stayed home, reduced my carbon footprint, and send a check for the amount of the tour to some Colombian charity?  I don’t know.

We drove through Barranquilla, a city of over a million. I’m sure there are many very nice areas of Barranquilla, but this was pretty much what we saw for 20 minutes as we passed the outskirts.

“Shakira,” said the driver out of the blue, pointing to the city.  Apparently the hip-shaking pop singer is from here.

We drove through a nice residential area down a wide boulevard with signs that announced “Free Wireless,” and just for kicks I tried to connect but we moved on too quickly.  That’s great that they’re making internet available in public parks, I guess.

We stopped at a light and two young men started washing the windshield.

“Venezuelans,” said our driver, as he rolled down his window and gave them some money.  “I don’t need my windshield cleaned but they have no other way to earn money,” he explained.

So a few of my tourist dollars did trickle down.

Two more hours.  The driver’s phone rang and he handed it to me.  It was someone from Responsible Travel.

“We have changed your hotel to a much nicer hotel,” she informed me.

Um, okay?  Who knows what happened and it doesn’t matter.  I was just ready to get to a hotel, any hotel.

Saguinus Oedipi

From the moment we fell off our horses on arrival at Tayrona, Lynn’s mantra had been, “I will not get back on a horse.  I will not ride a horse back to the parking lot.”

She was also sure that, if we walked, we would never find our way—a reasonable assumption given our track record.  We had been told there was an “easy” walking path back to the parking lot.  Hmm. Easy enough to pull roller bags for an hour?

After breakfast, Lynn approached the young man at reception and informed him that we wanted to send our bags back by horse, and that we would like a guide to walk with us to the parking lot.  He smiled as one would smile at a small child who has said something cute but dumb.

“There is no need for a guide.  The path is so easy,” he said slowly, as if English was our second language.

Lynn protested and began to insist, and I wandered off.  I can’t bear conflict if it seems low stakes to me.  I was willing to try the path.  It couldn’t possibly be like the one to the Cabo the day before.  Right?

And it wasn’t.  In the end, the young man wore Lynn down and we walked by ourselves.  I’m so glad we did, otherwise I would have felt bad making a guide stop every two minutes while I took photos of the magnificent sea views.

I saw some strange tracks in the sand. Snakes? Crabs?  No, turtles!

We didn’t see any turtles but it would be fun to be here when the hatchlings emerge.

The path really was flat and easy at the beginning.  “Capybara!” I shouted as one ran through this tunnel of hedge.  I was so glad Lynn got a glimpse of one.

This spectacular beach had, literally, a red flag.

And here is why—it’s a killer beach where more than 100 people have drowned.

Signs often tell you where a destination’s visitors are from.  This one is in Spanish, Italian, English, German, French, and Hebrew.  The English isn’t a great indicator because most travelers will speak some travel English.  I know Israelis get around, but Colombia?  It’s such a long way for them. Maybe that’s the point.  I wondered why there was no Portuguese translation.

We passed one untamed, unpopulated beach after another.  “In five years,” I commented, “I bet you will see throngs of people here, at least at the safer ones.”

The path began to climb, but there were stairs and handrails. Why hadn’t we been directed to this option coming in?  Maybe we had.  Who knows?  It would have made for such a more pleasant first impression.

I was smitten with these huts in the distance.  It turned out that a former colleague would stay here in two weeks’ time and they were more “luxury huts.”

There were plenty of signs on this path.  I found it amusing they were addressed to “Mr. Visitor.”

Farther on, someone had carved in a correction to make it “Dear Visitor.”

There was some fairly steep climbing up and down stairs and roller bags would have been out of the question, so sending them via horseback had been a good compromise.

After an hour we descended onto a flat board walk which led to the parking lot.  We stopped to read the signs about the animals we had never seen.

“Crax Alberti.  Hmmm.  I wonder who that was named for?”  I commented.  “I wonder how many birds and animals and plants were named for Prince Albert during Victoria’s reign.”

“Oh, hundreds, I should think,” replied Lynn, reading the next sign.

Saguinus Oedipus.  Smart mother fucker,” Lynn pronounced.  Lynn is rarely crude so this caught me off guard and I laughed as we walked on.

At 9am sharp, we emerged to meet our driver from three days before, waiting with our bags loaded into his truck.

“How was it?  Did you enjoy Tayrona?” he asked in Spanish, and I told him we had loved it.  I didn’t mention the horseback ride or the fire ants or cockroaches or the heat stroke.

We settled into silence for the five-hour drive to Cartagena.

Melt Downs

It’s when you’re really tired—completely drained—that accidents happen.  I somehow mustered the effort to focus on every step for the two-hour hike back from the beach.

It occurred to me, too late, that I could have hired a horse to carry my back.  But I made it, and there was Lynn sitting under an umbrella outside the dining area, having a cool drink and reading.

I waved weakly at her and kept walking, to the hut—all I could think of was a shower. Cool, cool water … I felt like a loaf of bread just out of the oven.  Was heat radiating off me?

After, I put on one of the white fluffy robes provided to us as luxury hut dwellers and sank into the hammock on the porch but couldn’t sleep.  Lynn came along and asked if I wanted to get some dinner.  “I should,” I said.  “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

As I was getting dressed there was a knock at the door.  It was the German guy I had passed on the trail.

“Is this the shower building?” he asked disingenuously as he snoopily glanced around through the open door.

“No, it’s our lodgings,” I responded.  I was still wearing the fluffy white robe, a universal symbol of luxury.

“Ah so, you have your own shower!” he stated accusingly.

“Yes, it’s very nice.”

“Very vell zen—enjoy your privilege!” he tossed off as he whirled and stomped away.

Vee vill, Verner!” I yelled after him. “Enjoy your hammock and your slave girl, you pompous jerk!”

I didn’t say that but I thought it.

I stared at my meal, a pastry packet filled with catch-of-the-day fish and vegetables.  A side of plantains and a salad.  A beer.  Anyone who has shared a meal with me knows I am not a delicate nibbler at the table.  Lynn’s husband Richard once remarked, as I was serving myself a third helping of moussaka or some such, “You certainly have a healthy appetite.” For which Lynn admonished him for being rude.

I could hardly bear to look at my meal, much less eat it.  Lynn had tucked into hers and was talking about her book.

“I have to go,” I announced abruptly as I pushed back from the table and stood up.

“What?!”

“I have heat stroke.  I should have known. I’ve had it before and you’re prone to it once you’ve had it once.  I have to go.”

I felt like I’d been hit between the eyes with a very large meat tenderizer.

“But what about your meal?”

I walked over to the line of backpackers at the buffet and picked out a girl at random.

“Would you like a free meal?” I asked.

She looked at me incredulously.  She was also exhausted, but hungry.

She walked over to our table and I handed her the plate.  She stared down at it and I thought she would cry.  I made a beeline for the hut, fell onto the mattress, and slept for 10 hours.

I awoke to a scream.  I ran downstairs and there was Lynn, pointing to a giant bug on her bed.

“It crawled out of my bag!”

“Eeew, it’s a cockroach.  Better dump out your bag to make sure there aren’t any more in there.”

“No!  It’s never a cockroach!” Lynn countered.  “It’s some kind of beetle.”

I didn’t argue.  I lived in public housing for 10 years, so I know what cockroaches look like.  This one happened to be five inches long.

My appetite had returned with a vengeance. As we walked to the dining area, we saw the young woman I’d given the meal to, sitting on a picnic bench.  She was sobbing while her friend patted her on the back, trying to comfort her.

“Ah, backpacker drama,” Lynn observed.

“I hope the meal didn’t give her food poisoning.”

We had the same waitress as at every other meal, so I asked where she lived.

“In a nearby village, some miles from this place,” she replied in English.

“How do you get here?” Lynn asked, taken aback.

“I walk.  It’s a nice walk.”

Humbled and grateful we were leaving today, I wolfed down my eggs.

Because It Was There, That’s Why

I needed more exercise, so I told Lynn I would hike to Cabo San Juan, a beach we had heard was “the most beautiful.”

I would start from the same easy sand path we’d taken to Canaveral.  I put my flip flops back on, grabbed a water bottle out of the mini bar, slung my purse over my shoulder, and headed out.

“I’m happy to just sit here and read,” Lynn said, “So don’t be in any hurry.”

I was gone for five hours.

Why do I do these things to myself?  Why, when I am supposedly on vacation, do I undertake grueling five-hour hikes in sub-tropical heat and humidity—in flip flops?

I brought the map from the lodgings but it wasn’t helpful.  There were no signs. I followed the sand path until a branch led in the direction I thought seemed right.  People on horses passed me by.  I scoffed.  Who was so lazy that they would do this by horse?

A half hour passed and I didn’t see anyone else.  The sand made my footfalls silent.  There was a rustling in the jungle and there—there was a capybara! At least that’s what I thought it was.  It looked like a furry black pig as it scuttled away.

This was what I had come for—to be alone in nature, to hear the sounds and see the flora and fauna.  There were the usual leaf cutter ants and spiny tree trunks and twisting vines.

A boulder blocked the path.  I scampered over it.  There was another boulder on the other side.  And another, and another.  Oh, I see.  The boulders were the path now.

“This is a good workout!” I told myself as I jumped up and down.  Then the path took a steep incline, so I was jumping from boulder to boulder going uphill.  Then downhill.  Then up, up, up, then down, down, down … you get the idea. The “path” was wide enough that it didn’t afford any shade.  It was like hiking in a dry sauna.  My sunscreen was washed away by sweat.  I hadn’t bothered to wear a hat.

After an hour and a half of this, I hadn’t seen any other hikers or signs.  Was this really a path? I heard the sound of horses and pressed myself against a rock face to let them pass.  So it was a path, and if horses could do it, I could too.

Finally, a sign.

“The Cabo. 80% of the way.”  I took this to mean I was 80% of the way there, not that I had 80% left, because that would have made me cry.  My water was long gone and I would have sold Lynn into slavery for a granola bar.

A young couple came from the other direction.  They had enormous back packs and she was carrying a five-liter water bottle. “You’re almost there, only 10 minutes,” he said in a Swiss or German accent.  “Does this lead to Canaveral?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but it’s a very long, difficult hike.”

“Vee vill haff no troubles!” he scoffed.  I exchanged looks with her and wondered if he would make it to Canaveral alive.

I descended back onto a sandy path and walked through a cool grove of palms toward an unmissable sign that said something about an entrance fee.  Normally I am a rule-abiding person, but I was too tired to stand in the line of backpackers waiting to pay.  I have learned that if you stride confidently along—and you’re a white middle aged woman—usually no one asks any questions.

Ahh, a breeze!  The beach was beautiful, but I was too exhausted to enjoy it.

There were more camp sites.

I had been gone for a long time, and wished I could send Lynn a What’sApp message so she wouldn’t worry.  But the only way to get wifi was to buy a meal in one of the thatched-roof restaurants and I had no appetite.  An ominous sign.

Why had I done this?  I couldn’t think.  I would think later.

I paid a peso—33 cents—to use the bathroom, bought two bottles of water, and started back.

Canaveral and Capes

We were joined by a young Spanish woman who was also on her way to the beach.  Even though there was only one path, we didn’t trust ourselves not to get lost.  Our companion—maybe 21 years old—was traveling around Latin America by herself.

“Don’t your parents worry about you?” I asked.

“Of course they do, but they would worry about me if I was in Valencia.  I just don’t tell them where I am, exactly.”

The path split into four or five trails, some leading into the jungle, some splitting around gigantic banyan trees and reconnecting on the other side, others heading in what we presumed was the direction of the ocean.  I tried taking photos of the banyan trees but it was impossible to capture their scale.  This is a section of path that wound through a coconut grove.

“The first beach is Canaveral,” said our fellow traveler.

“We lived near Cape Canaveral, Florida, in Coconut Beach, when my dad worked for NASA,” I told Lynn.  “In fact when I was three I dug into a hill of fire ants.  My mom heard me screaming.  She had a cleaning lady back then, who was a native and knew what to do, so they filled the bathtub with water, stripped my clothes off, and shoved me in.  They even had to hold my head under water to get the ants out of my ears and nostrils.”

“That sounds terrifying!” Lynn exclaimed.  “I’d take the ants over having my head shoved under water any day!”

We passed a panaderia, or bakery, in the middle of the jungle.  It was really just a cinder-block building with some of those ubiquitous white plastic chairs set outside.  I wondered if the owners were Tayrona Indians.  They were shorter than me, which is short.  Their long black hair was plaited, and they wore what looked like white night gowns.

“Here is where I leave you,” said our friend, “I will buy some sweet bread here for the beach.”

We walked on, passed a hut selling cold beer and snacks, and in five minutes were at the beach.  I had heard that Tayrona’s beaches are the most beautiful on earth.  I haven’t been to enough beaches to judge that, but from our first glimpse Canaveral was wildly beautiful.

I’m not normally a beach goer; I do things.  I go, go, go when I’m away.  Vacation, for me, is not a break from physical activity but from routine.

Today I would try to do nothing.  I knew Lynn was just going along because it was the thing to do.  She wasn’t a sit-on-the-beach person either.

We were both dripping with sweat, and as soon as we cleared the forest there was a breeze and we both let out an “Aaaahhhh.”  Then, “Oooohhhh,” when we caught sight of the actual beach.

Lynn was wearing her usual long black pants, a black tee-shirt, and black sandals.  Sometimes if she’s in a wild mood she wears a red tee-shirt.

We found a patch of sand and laid down a large towel from our hut.

Lynn sat down gingerly. “We used to go to the beach as a family,” she said.  “Mum made these portable changing frocks, like a round table cloth with an elasticized hole in the middle that fit over our heads.  So there we’d be, in full public view, changing out of our clothes into our bathing suits under this contraption.”

“How did you pull your tee-shirt over your head?”

Lynn thought a moment.  “I don’t know!  Maybe mum always dressed us strategically, with button-up shirts.”

“There weren’t any ‘public conveniences’ in those days?”

“No, just sand and more sand, and wind.  Sand in our sandwiches.  Sand in our shoes, sand in our hair ….”  She was wiping sand off the towel as she spoke.  She clearly did not like sand.

I walked up and down the beach, barefoot in the surf, it was heavenly.

The towel was empty when I came back.  I sat for a few minutes, feeling the sunscreen dripping off with my sweat, then went to join Lynn where I knew she would be—in the shade of the snack hut having a beer.

Ant in My Pant

“I’m surprised I’m not in agony,” Lynn remarked the next morning as we walked to the dining hut for breakfast.

“I know,” I replied, “I thought I’d be … be… aggghhh!” I screamed as a hot burning pain pierced my right thigh and I turned to run back to our hut.

“Whatever is the matter?” Lynn called after me.

Ants!  Ants in my pants!”  I had left my suitcase on the floor, and fire ants must have crawled in during the night.  I tore of my pants, hopping up and down on one leg then the other.  Turns out it was only one ant, but a very big one.  Everything here was supersized.  I shook my pants out the window to send it flying back to where it belonged.  The burning lasted a few more minutes as I hobbled to the dining hall.

“It was an ant in my pant, to be technically accurate,” I reported to Lynn.

“Sounds like some of the fish stories Richard tells,” Lynn needled m.  “By the time you get back to St. Paul the ant will be the size of a cat.”

Today was beach day.  That’s why people come to Tayrona—for the beaches.  The jungle itself was rather dry and dusty.  The trees, which from what I observed were mainly coconuts and mangoes, were spaced widely. It wasn’t lush and thick like jungles in Guatemala, Costa Rica, or Belize.  Maybe it was the time of year.  Maybe it lushes out during the rainy season.

As soon as we approached the dining hut, our waitress from the night before escorted us to a table.

“Seems like we’re destined to always order off the menu,” Lynn said.

“I know.  They’ve got us pegged as white-linen-table-clothe people.”

“That’s fine with me,” Lynn replied.  We’d been given the bill for our free meal the night before, just for our records.  They had given us two entrees each, then main courses, dessert, a bottle of wine, two bottles of sparkling water, and coffee.  It had amounted to about $40 per person including tip, the most expensive meal we would have in Colombia.

A 30-something couple sat at a picnic bench outside the dining hut with their three young daughters.  They were all eating granola bars.  We had seen them emerging from a tent on our way in.

“I give them a lot of credit for doing this,” I said.  “I hope the kids appreciate it.  They look to be about nine, six, three … I wonder if the younger ones will even remember it.”

“Are they doing this for themselves or for the children?” Lynn wondered.

“For the whole family, maybe.  But they look miserable.”

“More like serious, I’d say,” Lynn said.

“Yeah, you’re right.  They look German or Scandinavian.  They always look so serious.”

We made our way in the general direction someone had pointed when we asked about beaches.  Soon we arrived at a stream, over which someone had thrown some wobbly tree branches.

“Oh really!” Lynn exclaimed.  “This is just not on!  How can they expect to attract tourists to this place if they expect us to cross a river every 10 minutes!”

I would have crossed that thing in five seconds had I been on my own.  It was the kind of stream I’ve crossed a hundred times in Minnesota.

“I am not doing this.  I will not!” stated the London girl who had never been on a bicycle, didn’t know how to swim, and had just experienced her first (and last) horseback ride.

Other hikers passed us, looked at Lynn curiously, and crossed the stream with no drama.

“Here,” I offered as I stepped into the stream.  “You walk over the logs and hold onto my hand to keep steady.”

“But you’ll get wet!” Lynn protested.

“We’re going to a beach.  It’s no deeper than my ankles.”  I hoped there weren’t any schistosomiasis larvae in the water.

“You’re a good friend,” Lynn said as we walked together over the raging river (not).

And there, on the other side, was a giant blue butterfly (not my photo, below).

“This makes it all worth it,” Lynn murmured as we watched it flutter.

Yes, There is Such a Thing as a Free Meal

“That’s awfully nice of them,” Lynn remarked as we were seated in the thatch-roof dining area for our free dinner, courtesy of Responsible Travel.

“The missing driver pales in comparison to that horseback ride.  I will have a word with them about that.  If they are promoting this trip to people like us they should warn that Tayrona is really still a backpacker destination.”

“Yeah, I’ll give them feedback on that too.  There’s no mention of it being an intense physical experience.”  I didn’t fess up that I thought it had been fun—the highlight of the trip so far.

“If you had a bad back you’d be screwed.  You’d have to go back into town and hope you could find a motel room.  I wonder if anyone from Responsible Travel has ever actually been here?”

The waitress brought menus and a bottle of wine.

“It’s a lovely place and I’m glad we’re here,” continued Lynn.  “They didn’t need to give us a free meal and I hope they don’t do it again when I give them feedback on the horses.”

“I know.  I always hope when I give feedback that they use it to tweak the tour for people who do it next.  But I suppose some people are hoping for freebies, in the age of Trip Advisor.”

There are always unexpected turns of event on any trip.  With time, and from the comfort of home, sometimes they become the best memories.

“I’ll just have to have ceviche again,” I said to the waitress.

“And I’ll have the catch of the day,” Lynn ordered.

Nearby, backpackers shuffled through a buffet line where food was slopped onto their plates—it looked like beans and rice—while others sat hunched over picnic benches outside eating granola bars.

“I like having money,” I observed as I smoothed my hands over the white linen tablecloth.  “I’m not rich by American standards, but I pinch myself when I think of where I came from and that I am sitting here in Colombia eating such a good meal and staying in the nicest accommodation.”

“And we’d be eating in here even if it wasn’t free,” Lynn commented.  “I don’t do buffets.”

“Granola bars are nice once in a while when there’s no other choice, but to eat them for a gap year?  Yuck.”

“I did it when I was 17,” Lynn said.  “We traveled all around Italy by train and hitchhiking and slept in stations … and on hillsides.”

“With horrid little men!” I laughed.

“Yep, I’ve paid my dues too.  I once stayed in a friend of a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. It didn’t have hot water, and when my friend’s friend—I never saw her—complained, the landlord disconnected the toilet and put it in the middle of the kitchen.  I don’t know how long it had been there.  I had to run down four flights of stairs and use the bathroom in the bar at the street level.

“But it was free!  I lived off saltine crackers the whole week and had a blast.”

Our luxury hut had a bedroom and bath on the first level, plus a porch with chairs and a hammock.

The beds were hard as concrete so, like Goldilocks, I checked out the ones upstairs.  I suppose firm mattresses are easier to move—especially on horseback.

There was a single mattress off to the side that was probably meant for a spare kid.  It was the softest bed in the place, so I set up there.

The bathroom had some amusing features.  Well, we Americans are always amused and slightly horrified by bidets.  It doesn’t make sense, if I’m being logical.  But this one was set up so it would drip water on the TP roll.

Then there were these bad translations.

Yes—Plugs of the World, Unite!

How hard is it, really, to find a competent translator?  This was a national park, not a mom and pop outfit.  But maybe I’m being too critical.

It seemed like a shame, but we closed the shutters at dusk as we had been instructed, “to keep insects out.”  We would learn that this was an illusion.