Anglo American Afro Iberian Caribbean

It’s been almost a week, but I want to mention the royal wedding. Yeah, that thing that happened last Saturday.  I got up early to watch it with my aunt and cousin.  I watched because I love weddings in general.  My brother is a wedding videographer, so if you love weddings, you can watch his video clips of weddings to your heart’s content.

Mostly I watched because Windsor (technically the adjacent town, Eton) was where I lived for a month last summer, so it was fun to catch glimpses of the places I had frequented.  My friend Sam, whose house I took care of, was on the Long Walk with his wife and kid with their picnic and blanket, waving flags as the carriage drove by.  He WhatsApp’d me a slew of photos.

This is one of the little thrills of traveling or living somewhere else—to be able to point to the TV and say, “I was there!”

Out on the street in Cartagena for our two-hour walking tour, our guide Nora talked loudly to be heard over the street noise as the three of us navigated the crowded sidewalks.  Lynn and I gave each other the side eye as we passed certain shops.

These were dress shops.

Nora caught our raised eyebrows and smiled conspiratorially.  “Yes, our ladies like very expressive dresses.” Unlike Nora—who had short cropped hair and was dressed like a tomboy.  “Let us go to the sea barrier,” she suggested.  “It’s less crowded there.”

We passed the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He’s dead now, and Nora wasn’t sure if the house was occupied by his widow or what, but it was still cool to see it.  I had read Chronicle of a Death Foretold before leaving for Colombia and its setting was a rural version of Cartagena, with a very mixed racial and Caribbean vibe.

Across the street was a concert and wedding venue that looking like a wedding cake itself.

Nora continuously read and sent texts as she walked and talked.  She had moved to Cartagena to live with her boyfriend, a musician.  He was 60—more than 20 years older than her.  Would we like to meet him?

That was a bit unexpected on a guided tour, but of course we said yes.

She talked about how the rents were so much higher in Cartagena than where she had moved from—because of tourists and Air BnB driving up prices.  “My brother has also moved here now,” she continued.  “He is in a bar right now with my boyfriend and I will take you to meet them.”

Um, okay?  I don’t mean to imply that I was suspicious or worried about this, but it was a little strange.  Did she just want to hang out with them?

We passed a lovely old wreck of a colonial house for sale.

She led us along the breakwater and explained how Cartagena had been founded by runaway women slaves.  It was a really interesting bit of history I’d never heard, but unfortunately half of the story was lost to the roar of the wind and waves.

We re-entered the city through the thick walls and stood in a plaza. “This was the black market. It’s where that term originated.  Here’s where slaves were auctioned off.”

I had never thought about this before.   A pall of sadness descended over me.

But Nora kept us moving as night fell.  She led us through a food hall selling every kind of pickled, dried, and candied nut, fruit, meat, and …

… ants—I bought a packet for my son the chef.

This place was twice as loud. We shouted “Hello!” to Nora’s boyfriend and brother.  I’m sure this was the place to see and be seen, but we declined the invitation to stay and join this couple on the dance floor.

Cartagena

“I’m not really interested in a four-hour walking tour,” I said as we approached Cartagena after a five-hour drive.

“Me neither,” Lynn replied.  “Maybe we can ask for the guide to cut it down to two.”

We drove along the Caribbean beachfront, lined with tower-block-like hotels. Then we turned into a tunnel in what appeared to be an ancient wall, and we were inside old Cartagena. It immediately felt like we were in another country.  There were a lot more black folks, and as we would learn in a few hours, this was due to Cartagena’s founding as a slave port.  The streets were wide enough for one car, barely.  Residents and tourists thronged in the street and narrow sidewalks, there were carts selling bananas and sweets half in, half out of the street.  Horse-drawn carriages vied with motor vehicles.  There was music in the air—kids with boom boxes, live music wafting out of restaurants.  It had a vibe that reminded me of Havana or New Orleans.

Since our hotel had changed, our driver drove in circles for a while, then stopped and pointed to a street half a block away. “Your hotel is there, but my truck can’t drive there.”  We alighted, thanked and tipped him, then pulled our bags in the direction he’d pointed.

It was 2:30, and very hot and humid.  This screen shot is from the next morning—it was 26C (80F) at 7:35am.  So much for “getting out early, before it’s too hot.”

Our hotel was the Don Pedro de Heredia, and it was very nice.  A “restored colonial boutique hotel,” is how it was billed.  Our room was enormous, with two queen-sized beds.  “Why is there only that one tiny window?” I wondered aloud.  The window was high up in the wall and smaller than a microwave oven.

“Because of the heat?” Lynn posited.  Yes, that must have been it.  The room had an air conditioning unit—the kind that hangs on the wall and removes humidity—the first we’d seen in Colombia (although we hadn’t been looking).

As usual, I snooped around to find anything interesting or different about this place.  The toilet paper roll was positioned two inches above the floor. That would make for some interesting gymnastics.

A sign on the back of the door warned against sexual exploitation of minors in tourism.

There was also a No Smoking sign but when I opened the door to go for a wander there were two old geezers sitting in the hall in lounge chairs smoking.  So the Smoking Section was right outside our room. Fortunately none of the smoke seeped inside.

These Mayan faces were set in the wall every five feet.

It was the pool I was really after—as I gazed down at it from the fourth floor balcony I knew I would spend as much time in and near it as possible in our 48 hours here.

We were down in the lobby at 3:15, where our guide had been waiting.

“You’re late!” she said.

“But we just arrived …” I felt a bit like a naughty school girl.

We hadn’t eaten since 7am, so we negotiated that our guide, Nora, would return in two hours and cut the tour down to two hours.  She seemed happy with this arrangement.  “It’s a bit less hot at 6 than at 4, but only a bit,” she wagged her finger at us.  “Be sure to wear sun screen and bring water.”  She was younger than us, maybe 40, and tiny as a teenager but had a school marm air about her. “The city comes alive after dark,” she added.

We stepped out into the blinding sun and heat and crowds and held our hands up to shade our eyes as we scanned for the closest restaurant.  The city certainly didn’t seem dead.

“Let’s walk around the block,” I suggested, “so we don’t get lost.”  We found an Italian place and enjoyed a good meal.  Back at the hotel, Lynn napped while I jumped into the pool.  The day had seemed like three days; I could have gone to bed then but as instructed we were in the lobby at 6 sharp.

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.