Category Archives: class divide

Back to the US of A

In Getsemani, we took photos of the brightly-painted houses.

And fantastic murals.

“It’s almost too perfect,” I remarked to Lynn.  Everywhere I turned was a beautifully-composed photo.  If you can’t take great photos in Cartagena, you can’t take them anywhere.

Even a corner store offered a photo opp of “Still Life with Egg Cartons.”

It was Saturday night and the streets were thronged with people out for a good time.  Who knew who was a tourist and who lived here?

“Air BnB is ruining Cartagena,” Nora had said.  “Rich people are buying places to rent to tourists and Cartagenans cannot afford to live in the center anymore.”  I’ve heard similar laments from Amsterdam to Venice.

We passed through a bustling square with restaurants and bars.  “Want to eat here?” Lynn asked.

It was almost completely dark and there were few streetlights, but naturally I said, “Nah … let’s walk around a bit before it’s pitch dark.  Maybe we can find more photo opps.”

Lynn agreed so we stepped off into a side street.  “Let’s use the trick we used yesterday,” Lynn suggested.  “Where we just keep taking right turns so we can’t get lost.”

“Good thinking.”

But of course the streets in Getsemani weren’t straight, or thoroughfares, and within 10 minutes we were lost.  There were streetlights, but half of them were broken.  People were hanging out drinking and playing cards on the sidewalks.  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.  There was trash, broken and boarded up windows, and mangy dogs wandered past menacingly.  The smell of pot was everywhere.  There was no doubt that this was not a tourist area.

“If we were in Africa,” Lynn said under her breath, “This is when we would hear the drums getting nearer and nearer.”

I laughed.  We smiled at the people we passed, who were staring at us as if to say, “You’ve taken over the rest of our city.  This is our patch.  Just let us enjoy our Saturday night socializing in peace.”

We spent 15 minutes walking through a completely dark, deserted warehouse district.  “If we were in Mississippi,” I said, “This is when we would hear the hound dogs baying, closer and closer.”

After much drama in our heads, we emerged onto the square where we’d started.

“See?!” proclaimed Lynn, “Going in a circle worked, eventually.”

We ate at a nondescript Italian restaurant that had a nice outdoor patio.  I needed to use the bathroom but judging from the exterior it appeared to be a latrine.  Finally I plucked up my courage and entered.  It was a regular indoor bathroom, which I actually found a bit disappointing, but it did have this mysterious sign:

Do Not Point to the Toilet?  Do Not Shoot a Gun Down the Toilet? Do Not Throw a Brick in the Toilet?

And as always, too soon, it was time to go home.  A driver picked me up at 10:30 the next morning; Lynn would begin her arduous return via Amsterdam later in the day.  The airport was only five minutes from the center.

This sign left no room for interpretation.

“Drug trafficking is punishable by pain of death or life imprisonment in China, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, and 28 other countries.”

In Miami, I went through immigration and customs and then walk-ran to get from the last gate on D concourse to Gate E16, as indicated on the American website.

I followed the signs for E 2-33.  When I reached E11, the next gate was E20.

“E16?” I asked two American Airlines agents.

“There is no Gate E16,” they replied dismissively.  I showed them the screen shot and they doubled down, acting as though I had made it up somehow. American—the airline that dragged that poor man off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat for no reason.

The video system went down midflight so, since the same had happened on my arrival flight, I never saw the end of The Color of Water.   They offered free drinks, so I had a beer and chatted with my seatmate.

“Isn’t Colombia a third world country?!” she asked.  “I’m not a racist—I have mi-norities in my family.”

Edens and Getsemani

Our tour of San Pedro Claver over, we tipped Charles generously—at least I hope he thought it was generous.  He had clearly poured years of his life into learning everything about St. Peter and his namesake church.

Before we left, he scribbled on some scraps of paper and handed them to us along with some business cards.  The business cards were for his cousin’s store, which sells Handy Crafts.

“My cousin, Fabiola, you can tell her I sent you to get a discount.”  The scrap of paper had his contact details on it.  If you ever go to Cartagena and want a personal tour of St. Peter Claver Church, ask for Charles, aka Carlos Arturo Pelaez Martinez, and tell him Anne sent you and you want your discount.

We wandered out into the blinding, blistering hot sun.  In the square, this woman was posing for tourists with a bowl of fruit on her head.  I really hate things like this, but I took a photo and gave her 10,000 pesos.  It felt a bit like I was photographing a zoo animal.  The irony of us being in the former Black Market wasn’t lost on me.  Did her costume have any cultural significance?  She wasn’t interested in talking.  She needed to sell as many photos as she could, literally—Snap Snap!—to make a living.  I guess it was better than working in a factory.

Lynn and I always try to hit a grocery store when we travel. In Colombia, we were fixated on buying some of the crunchy corn kernels—sold in the US as Corn Nuts—which we’d had on salads and in ceviche and soups here.

I don’t know which is more disturbing.  The thought of wiping myself with a white rabbit or that “Exito” means “success.”  An interesting name for toilet paper.

This ranks up with the “Colonial” brand cigarettes I saw in Belize.  I mean really—what was the thinking on the marketing team when they came up with the brand name Dictator for a Latin American rum?  “I’m telling you Jorge, dictators are hot.”  Note that in one photo the man is dressed in a suit with a George Michael beard and in the other he is shirtless and clean shaven.

We found our corn nuts and went to find lunch.

It seems like it’s hard to go wrong in the search for good food in Colombia, especially if you enjoy seafood.  We found a ceviche restaurant and settled in.  There was no point in rushing around the city in this heat.

Being a plant lover, I appreciated that plants, vines, and flower arrangements were incorporated into the décor everywhere in Colombia.

The ceviche didn’t disappoint, although I thought half a pita and Saltine crackers were interesting choices for accompaniments.  I associate Saltines with being broke or nauseous.

The sign on the ladies’ room door.  Again with the fruit hat.  If a restaurant in Minneapolis used this sign, there would be protests that it was racist or at the very least, a case of cultural appropriation.  But this restaurant was owned and operated by Black Caribbeans, so there.

After lunch we returned to the hotel and I headed straight for the pool.  If you’re not a water person, you don’t understand the pure bliss of being in water in the sunshine, surrounded by plants and two very noisy parakeets in a big cage.  I don’t really even know how to swim but I can splash around in a pool for hours.  I ordered a print of this photo and keep it on my desk at work.  I escape here when I need to.

Our last evening in Colombia.  Nora had suggested only one thing—Getsemani—a bohemian neighborhood.

“It looks like all we have to do is cross a street,” I said to Lynn as I consulted the map.

Riiiiiight,” she drawled sarcastically.

But we got clever and left a trail of bread crumbs in the form of photos.

From one side of the clock tower to the other, dusk fell that fast.  With any luck it would be lit up after dark, right?

 

Beautiful City in a Sad World

Colombia has been in the news lately in the US.  Last night there was this story on the PBS News Hour about the election, which is taking place the day this posts.  Near the end, it talks about all the activists who have been threatened—and more than 50 who have been killed—in the ongoing conflict for power.

So I wasn’t overreacting when I worried about our tour guide in Bogota being at risk.  I wrote that Lynn and I would follow him on Facebook and maybe raise a stink if anything happened to him but in reality, what could we really do?  If he suddenly stopped posting, what would we do—call the police in Colombia?  I’m sure they would get a good laugh out of that.  We could contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.  I don’t know.  It’s another thing to worry about, along with all the plastic in the ocean and the violence in Gaza and Russian interference in the US elections.

Just for fun, I made a list of the first three titles of emails I saw in a typical morning at work:

And here is a sampling of my daily dose of funding opportunities from the US government:

  • Bureau of International Narcotics-Law Enforcement, Combating Wildlife Trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Health Services and Economic Research on the Treatment of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Use
  • National Technical Assistance Resource Center for the Prevention of Sexual Violence
  • Investigation of the Transmission of Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus
  • NIH Collaborative Cross Mouse Model Generation and Discovery of Immunoregulatory Mechanisms

That last one is kind of amusing, until you really think about what will happen to the poor mouse.

In one of my daily international news digests this week, there was an article (behind a paywall so I can’t provide a link) about the Colombian government conducting a census of Venezuelan refugees. A few excerpts:

“Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

“The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to [Felipe] Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

“The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

‘They have the right to be Colombian,’ Muñoz said.”

This almost makes me weep.  What a contrast between how Colombia, where the average monthly salary is $692, treats refugees vs. my country—where the average monthly salary is $3,428.

We are a country living with an epidemic of fear and hatred.

Lynn and I slept the sleep of the dead after our five-hour drive and two-hour walking tour.

Breakfast was on the rooftop restaurant, which had great views.  That’s the Cathedral in the distance.

We noted that the hotel had witch points on some of the rooflines.  Nora had told us this was a Colonial-era building requirement by the Catholic Church—to keep witches out of buildings.  I guess it works, because we never saw a witch, inside or out.

Soon we were out on the street.  Here’s the Cathedral again, in the distance.  Such a beautiful city.

The interior was cool and quiet.

Lynn led us on to Iglesia San Pedro Claver.  St. Peter Claver, as we know him in the US, was a priest from Barcelona, the first saint of the new world, and—so the legend goes—a champion of slaves.

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.

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.

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.