Monday, February 1, 2010

Out of the desert

I spent 4 days in Cartagena last week, and really loved the city. It´s a great place to just wander around and people-watch, enjoy the narrow streets lined with balconies and flowers, sip some fresh lemonade, and just soak it all in. I was also lucky enough to meet up with German, a local cartagenero I know through an old roommate in Argentina, and he showed me around the city a lot and introduced me to some of his friends. I suppose you could take taxis, but I found the city totally walkable (except the excessive heat, which lowers motivation quite a bit) and ended up walking the entire city from the historic center all the way through Boca Grande and then to the very tip at Laguito. There´s so much to see outside that I skipped all of the museums and opted to walk along the historic murallas, big stone walls that surround the city, built originally in the 16th century to protect the city from pirate attacks (since the Spanish stored the gold and jewels they were pilaging from the indigenous people there before shipping it all to Spain, it was a popular target). The one touristy thing I did was wander up to the Castillo San Felipe to see the views of the city and wander through its labryth-esque tunnels... truly an impressive sight to see.

The best part of my experience in Cartagena was staying with my two little old lady hosts, Ena and Tarcila. In general during my time on the Colombian coast, I have been so lucky to have family hosts in every city, all thanks to my friend Rafa, an ex student of mine. I stayed with his aunt and uncle in Santa Marta (where I am now... they have been so amazing, letting me leave my backpack here as I travel and use their house as a home base), his parents in Barranquilla, and then these aunts of his mom´s in Cartagena. I originally was planning to stay in a hostel there, but after calling 9 different places and finding them all fully booked, I asked Rafa if he had any suggestions. Next thing I knew, his mom was on the phone arranging for me to stay with her family. And what a family!! Ena and Tarcila are 80 and 84 years old, two wonderful sisters living in an apartment just outside the city center of Cartagena. They were kind enough to not only take me in, but also give me a set of house keys and tell me to come and go as I pleased. I adored them and listening to their stories and looking at their family pictures, and hope I can someday repay them somehow. After all this, I feel like a member of Rafa´s family (afterall, I know almost everyone now), and can´t wait to come back and visit them all ASAP.

Friday arrived, German left for the weekend, and I felt like I had essentially seen what the city had to offer. I also bought myself several presents, and Cartagena was turning into a dangerous blackhole for my money, so I planned my escape. It also suddenly ocurred to me that I had less than a week left in Colombia, and several more things I wanted to do, namely make it up to the northernmost part of the country, La Guajira, and visit a remote desert beach town called Cabo de la Vela. It´s not in my guidebook, but has been recommended to me by many of my Colombian friends, and I had to give it a try. So I took a night bus to Santa Marta Friday night, slept for just a couple hours, grabbed my sleeping bag, and headed to La Guajira.

I´d been told that Cabo de la Vela is difficult to get to, and also that it´s a bad idea to go alone as a woman. As usual, I disregarded this sound advice, and for one of the first times in a long time, I am willing to admit that yes, this was something I should not have done alone and without plans.

Okay, so all I knew is that I needed to first go to Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira, and that somehow I could then find transport to Cabo de la Vela. So with no guidebook or clue, I went to Riohacha, confident as usual that I would figure it out. I arrived fine, and when I got off the bus, the usual entourage of people swarmed me offering bus tickets and information. I was told by a couple people that what I needed to do was go to another town called Cuatro Villas, where I would then be able to get a colectivo, a shared car, to Cabo. It went against my instinct, but I did it anyway. 30 minutes later, a bus dumped me on the side of the road, where there was literally nothing but a phone call stand, one guy selling arepas, and a group of men offering rides. And of course, they all said, oh no, you can´t go directly to Cabo from here, you first need to go to Uribia. So... I started hopping into a car to Uribia, wherever that is, when I suddenly recalled that Rafa had given me the phone number of a friend of a friend of a cousin, something like that, who he said may be able to give me advice on arriving to Cabo. Since Rafa´s connections until that point had been so hospitable and helpful, I figured I´d give it a shot.

I headed to the phone call stand and called Yelis, and after a confusing conversation of trying to figure out who each other were, she said, ¨oh, I am on my way to cabo right now, I can pick you up! I´ll meet you in Uribia in 20 minutes!¨ What luck! What a coincidence! I hopped into the colectivo and arrived in Uribia, and was dumped on an even sketchier and more remote corner, where I was absolutely clear that if I didn´t keep myself looking occupied and confident, something terrible would happen. I busied myself with a bag of chips and a book, and waited. I was now in the middle of the desert, sand blowing in my face, and nothing to see for miles and miles...

Finally a car horn honked and I heard someone call my name. Yelis! I hopped into her car, and to my surprise there were 2 other men in the car and 2 kids, plus a loaded car of passengers following us. I thought not much of it at the time, just thankful for the ride. As we drove along, Yelis offered me her business card... a tour guide... and then explained that I was going to have to pay 100,000 pesos ($50 USD) for her services to Cabo and back... wait, what??? I had just recently turned down a ride in a truck for only 12,000 ($6). So I explained that I hadn´t had in mind a whole package deal, and really just needed a ride, and thought she was just on the way, but nope, BIG misunderstanding, she was a professional tour guide bringing a group of tourists and thought I wanted to buy a whole travel package. She then exclaimed, ¨So you just basically want a free ride?!¨ eeeeeek yes, the whole thing went to hell in a handbasket in that moment. I tried explaining that no, it wasn´t like that, there was just a big misunderstanding, but the damage was done. She told me to work it out with the other driver, pulled over, and sent me to the other car.

The other driver, Alex, turned out to be a doll, and told me not to worry about it, he´d charge me only 30,000 ($15) round trip if I promised not to tell the others. At that point, we were far into the desert on a sandy road with nothing but sand and cacti as far as the eye could see, so I apreciated any sort of offer, and made myself comfortable. The other travelers turned out to be a nice couple and their mothers, 4 in total, from Bogotá, having a nice family trip, and they didn´t seem to mind me tagging along.

In the end it all worked out, although it was quite confusing. We finally made it to Cabo in the late afternoon, in time for a swim and to enjoy the sunset. I rented a hammock at the same place the group was staying, and was thankful I´d made it there at all, even if it wasn´t what I´d expected.

Cabo de la Vela is TINY. There is nothing there but palm shacks along a sandy road, beaches, and indigenous women selling mochilas, gorgeous handwoven bags for which the area is famous. I enjoyed wandering lazily down the sand road, confirming that there was in fact NOTHING to do except enjoy the desert, bought a couple mochilas, and soaked up the sun. It´s an incredibly relaxing place. I finished an entire book and started another, to give you an idea of just how relaxing it is. You can also only get Pony beer there, which is Venezuelan, to give you an idea of its remote location in NE Colombia. The beaches and sunset views are spectacular, and the drive there was one of the most stunning I´ve ever seen. It´s just desert desert desert, with patches of nothing but flat sand as far as the eye can see, and other patches densely packed with cacti so big it feels like a cactus forest. I´ve never been anywhere so, well, deserty, before. I half expected to see camels, although in the end all I saw were a about a million goats and a couple of donkeys.

Thanks to the strange tour group fiasco, I made it back to Riohacha in one piece the following day. As it turns out, you have to book transport back in a Jeep in advance, and they only leave at 5am. Basically I´m an idiot, and probably would have been straned there for another 24 hours at least if I hadn´t met that group, so it was all for the best. It´s so remote, there is nothing... I don´t know how the Jeeps even navigate, as there is no road, just track marks in the sand that go in all different directions. However, when I arrived back in Riohacha, all buses back to Santa Marta were sold out, and I was shoved, literally, on a very sketchy looking discount bus that had only one seat left, the one in the very last row in the corner, where my head was touching the ceiling and my knees were against my chest. I was surrounded by 6 men drinking from a bottle of vodka. Within an hour they were trashed and started talking at me and trying to touch me and hit on me. They wouldn´t stop, and the only reason I didn´t go insane is due to my ipod. The bus was pulled over by the police at one point, and everyone had to get off the bus while the entire thing was inspected floor to ceiling for godknowswhat, and while outside the bus I was constantly harassed by the 6 drunks. It was pretty awful. When I finally, after a million years, made it back to Santa Marta, I felt more thankful than ever to just be there, alive and well, un-robbed, in one piece, and out of the desert. Amen.

So yes, Cabo de la Vela was gorgeous but a rather bittersweet adventure. If you ever decide to go, I advise planning your trip in advance and going as part of a group. I also advise ignoring the morons at the Riohacha bus station and finding a direct bus to Cabo. Don´t get left on various desert street corners like I was. Despite my obvious trauma though, it was cool to be out there, get a sense of the indigenous culture out there in the desert, eat some fresh fish, sleep in yet another hammock (hopefully my last for a while...that was day 10 of hammock sleeping), buy some beautiful artisan work, and have an adventure.

My time on the Colombian coast has now officially come to an end. Tonight, after taking Tio Andres and Tia Nelda (my adopted aunt and uncle here in Santa Marta) out for a shrimp dinner, I am heading to the bus station to go to Bucaramanga for one night, and then to Bogota. My flight to Brasil flies out of Bogotá on Thursday night, and Friday morning I will be in Sao Paulo!!! How amazing! It is such a strange sensation, because I am so looking forward to this next chapter, and yet so sad to go. Colombia has in many ways stolen my heart. It´s a special place, full of warm, hospitable people, great coffee, great beaches, and some of the best dancing in the world. I could see myself here, and I´m sad to go. But I´m so thankful for this experience, and I know it is here for me when I am ready to come back.


The Belly Dancer said...

I've had a few colombian friends. Some really good dancers.