It seems like when you travel, you often fall into the honeypot of associating every place you go with one you’ve already been. “Oh my this city is so beautiful, it reminds me of a European Denver!” “Wow honey, its like an Asian Albuquerque isn’t it?” “My god Steven, this is almost like the Brainerd of Kazakhstan!” Maybe its just our way of analyzing new places so we aren’t completely overwhelmed by the newness of it. For example, when I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal earlier this year, I had no point of reference to compare it to, because I’d never seen a city like that in my life. It was like I’d set foot into a fantasy world; I half expected Indiana Jones to appear around a corner and sweep me of into an adventure fighting Nazi’s at the foot of Everest or something. Maybe turning Cartagena into a South American Thailand or a South American New Orleans makes everything easier to process.
But after five days, I can finally accept Cartagena for what it is, the Cartagena of Colombia. It’s its own special mix of Africa, South America, Europe, and a whole mess of other bits and pieces that combined make a pretty extraordinary whole. I began to realize this my last few days, as I became more familiar with the city and didn’t need to keep my nose in Google Maps while walking down the street to figure out where the hell I was. It’s a lovely feeling being able to walk around your neighborhood and know when to turn left or right; you almost begin to feel like a local. And then you’re called gringo grande again, and its back to being just a large, sunburned yet still pasty Midwestern tourist.
The morning after my second night out, I awoke feeling relatively chipper considering what I’d put my body through at this point, two nights in a row of all night shenanigans. I pulled up the Facebooks and got ahold of Renae, who beckoned me over to their swanky apartment complex just north of the city they were staying at. I hopped in a cab and off I went.
Renae, her mother Mary, brother Max and friend Willa were all staying with Nora and Guillermo, two Colombians that live full time in the country. Nora studied abroad with Mary back in their high school days and lived with their family in Montana. They drifted apart as the years went on, but with the advent of social media they reconnected and planned a little family reunion. From what I understood, Nora often worked with the Prime Minister’s wife in some capacity, and Guillermo worked mainly in large scale agriculture. Needless to say they were quite well off and preferred the high life to slumming it in the hostels like yours truly. I arrived at their complex and met them out on the beach, everyone slurping down rum smoothies out of coconut husks. They offered me one of the Coco Locos and I cautiously accepted.
“Thank you guys, but this will probably be the only thing I drink today.”
Renae chuckled from the corner.
We spent the afternoon swimming around the ocean, getting stung by minuscule jellyfish, and eyeing the incoming storm clouds moving aggressively in from the south, dark masses appearing behind the high rise structures. A massive amount of development went into Cartagena following the deescalation of violence in the first ten yeas of the 21st century, and now Cartagena is dotted with sky scraping apartment complexes and hotels, catering to the more affluent of the Colombian population and foreign tourists. They looked brand new, and the dark clouds behind them made them seem like beacons of white stone sticking out of the earth.
Luckily for us the rain passed by to the east and spared us a downpour. I agreed to meet everyone later for drinks and dancing and returned to the hostel to take a well deserved and much needed nap. For some reason, two nights in a row of three hours of sleep and heavy drinking led me to be a bit exhausted. Luckily, tonight would be an early night I kept telling myself. I fell asleep that afternoon planning on returning to the bed before eleven. What a fool I was.
I woke up and got ready to meet everyone. I said hello to Margie and said goodbye to Antonio, who was on his way back to Bogotá. He had lost his credit card the night before and was in full frantic mode, his brain working overtime on plans and preparations to be able to afford his return. I wished him luck; thats always a shitty situation to be in. I’ve lost my card a few times, ATMS in China and Thailand stealing my card away and complicating my life to no end. But it was Antonio, the man that, we when we asked how many times he’s had to bribe cops in this country, he had to pause and think before repling “3.” He could handle anything. He told us he had it covered and wished us well.
While waiting for Renae and Co. to get ready, I went to La Cevicheria with my new friend Cooper, a fellow American from South Carolina but living in Chicago. La Cevicheria served, surprisingly, ceviche, raw fish cured in lime and lemon juice where the acidity from the fruit cooks the meat. I had a bowl of red snapper, squid, and conch, with a side of shrimp, and my god was it good. Anthony Bourdain had actually visited the place years before and declared it to be “ggmremghem,” a compliment I believe since he was stuffing fish into his mouth so fast he couldn’t even be understood. I concurred, it was excellent, and even though it was a bit pricey ($20 for dinner and drinks), I couldn’t resist a little fresh fish on the Caribbean.
I left the restaurant, returned to the hostel for a moment to drop off Cooper, and met the gang at Demente, a great little pizza and craft beer place in La Plaza de la Trinidad, a square next to the Trinidad Church. The square is surrounded by food stalls, restaurants, beer vendors, and live music and dance; it’s more of a local Colombian tradition it seemed, everyone sitting on the ancient stones and drinking cold Club Colombias. It was like a whole bunch of stoop kids who weren’t afraid to the leave the stoop and decide to start breakdancing instead. We watched the show for a bit and then headed onwards.
Our first stop as a seven person ensemble was Bazurto Social Club, located right around the corner from Hostel Mamallena and a three minute walk from the plaza. I was falling in love with Getsemani, the neighborhood right outside the walled city where most of this day occurs. It contained so much within a quarter mile radius of my hostel that I almost never felt the need to stray outside it. The inside of Bazurto, while incredible, did look like someone with sever ADD was given thirty buckets of paint and simply told to have some fun. The walls are brightly colored with most of the colors that exist in the spectrum, lined with random objects and pictures. Its an explosion for the senses, and as we sipped our mixed drinks (and my Michalada, a beer mixed with lime juice and salt rimmed), we pondered where our night would go.
And then, as so often happens in life, a man pulled the youth up from the table and beckoned us to the front of a stage, where, apparently, we had dance lessons. Suddenly, two Colombian dancers, a man and a woman, got onto the stage. The speakers began blasting reggaeton, electronic, and whole cavalcade of other hits that are designed to make us swing our hips and pretend, for a moment, that we weren’t a bunch of shit dancers from the center of the U.S. The woman would do an extravagant move, flinging her legs and body around the stage like she was made of wind, and yell for us to repeat. We tried our best, and if anyone was able to record it on film, would easily reach third or fourth place on Americans Funniest Home Videos. I decided to throw caution to the wind and just go for it, flailing my limbs around haphazardly and letting the beat take me away, meaning I ended up running into numerous other dancers with my ass and wound up holding hands with a pretty girl next to me while attempting to do my own version of jazz hands. We laughed and kept on dancing, tossing comments towards each other complimenting our inadequate dancing.
The lessons ended, the trainers left, and the crowd dissipated. The pretty girl went back with her friends who all ended up leaving shortly after. I wondered if I should have tried flirting a bit more, but alas, when traveling, moments like that come and go like leaves in the breeze, and I didn’t think much about. Besides, at that time, a live rock band, almost ska, came onstage, and began blasting some amazing tunes, enough to make me forget about pretty girl entirely and dance like a maniac to the wailing guitars, scorching saxophone, and blistering bass lines. Renae, Max, Willa and I grooved our way into midnight, not even noticing the time. And when the band took a break, our whole crew left for the next event, this once suggested by Nora and Guillermo.
Havana Club, located literally across the street from my hostel, is an old Cuban style bar and salsa club, decorated like an old Havana hangout from the 1950’s complete with leather chairs and the waft of cigar smoke in the air. Combined with the heat from outside and one could easily believe we were transported to the Cuban capital. Guillermo began to teach us a bit of salsa, with “my god slow down” being his first pointer for me. I began to see salsa as more about small movements, little flicks of the feet and hips that almost seem unnoticeable but after a while become perceptible and much more suggestive. In retrospect, my idea of salsa looked more like a rag doll in a laundromat dryer.
We danced for a while when, who walked in but, my god, it was the pretty girl! It was destiny. I walked over and said hello, introduced myself, and we were off to the races. Her name was Jen, from Toronto, and after telling her about my plan to get my helicopter license, told me she was getting hers too! Her family was full of cartographers and helicopter pilots, and they wanted her to get her own just in case she needed it. What an amazing coincidence. After a bit of talking her two friends decided to head out to another rooftop party down the street at Hostel Media Luna, and Jen invited me as they left. I said I’d meet them there. I slunk back to Renae and Gang, who had been watching me from afar.
“Hey Renae! Pretty cool place huh, anyway, so I guess those guys are heading to another party, and, well,…”
“Do you want to go with the pretty girl to a party?”
The whole crew grinned like maniacs. I felt like a ten year old asking his parents if it was O.K to go to Chuck’s Birthday Party even though it was a school day. Renae gave me a bit of a kindly smirk and wished me luck. We all agreed to meet up tomorrow before they left Cartagena in the evening, and we parted ways.
Long story short, Jen the Helicopter Pilot Cartographer turned out to be kind of boring, and her friend, who was coked out to an almost impressive degree, along with her other friend who only seemed to hang around to grab pulls of my beers, made me feel like this match just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I talked to a Brit and a Belgian about the Universe, and how majestic it feels looking into the Milky Way and imaging ourselves as tiny little part of it. The Belgian had seen an amazing nights sky panorama during his time in the Bolivian Salt Flats, and we agreed that the three of us, drinking beers on a rooftop in the warm nights breeze, were quite lucky to be alive and well in this world. Eventually, around three in the morning, I leave my new friends and head to bed, nearly three hours earlier than the night before. That’s what I call progress.
The next night, the Montana Crew and I met at Cafe del Mar, an amazing restaurant and bar built into the ancient fortress wall overlooking the ocean. We met for sunset and reminisced on our time in Colombia, toasting glasses and watching the sun dip into the Caribbean, painting the clouds with reds and pinks. A huge Colombian flag rippled in the breeze, matching the colors in the sky. Renae and her mom were returning to America, Guillermo and Nora to their home, Willa to Peru for her Peace Corps work, and Max to his work in whichever small town he works in, for the life of me I can’t remember which. We toasted beers and wished each other well. After they left I somehow wound up at a table full of American bachelor party goers, who wanted to send their boy into marriage with a bang, potentially literally, in Cartagena. They pressed me on what they should do, how they should buy drugs, if they were safe here, and a massive number of other questions. They seemed like nice kids, but damn they were paranoid. Even walking back to their hotel seemed like a potentially life threatening situation to them. I encouraged them to take a few metaphorical chill pills and wished them a wild night. Returning to the hostel, I did some writing and managed to be in bed by ten. It was a miracle.
I can’t thank Renae and Co. enough for inviting me into their time in Colombia, even if it was only for a few days in Cartagena and a few in Bogotá. What started as a funny conversation in Alaska turned into an incredible adventure, and as the Montanans disbanded and dispersed, I began the next leg of my journey, traveling north to Taganga and Minca. Cartagena and Bogota, while filled with culture, history, live music, and a healthy dose of insanity inducing fun, were quite a lot to take in. The smaller towns were beckoning, and for a few days I would be trading in the big city for the fishing village and the mountainside retreat, and a chance to recharge my body and become healthy again.
Sneak Peak For Next Weeks Episode: Food Poisoning!