I usually have vivid dreams, but there are two or three dreams that have stuck with me, dreams that I can remember as clearly as if I just woke up. These are memories where sound, smell and movement collide with emotional sensations imprinted deep within my psyche. Recently, I had one of these dreams.
I slept fitfully most of the night, tossing and turning in the 98 degree humidity of our hostel, which our guidebook described as “damp.” The whirring of the fan was like a helicopter hovering over our rock hard pillows, causing my hair to blow into my face, a feeling I dislike all too much. In the early morning, long after even the most zealous of partying backpackers had downed their last cervezas and shouted one more unlikely promise of meeting again someplace, I fell into a deep sleep.
I entered the forest at my Grandparent’s house, following a child who does not exist. I trailed behind him into the most strange of wooded canopies. Gigantic pods covered in dark gnarled bark hung all around me. The stench of stagnant water was heavy in the air and the trees groaned as if they were to crack at their cores. The sounds of hammering and familiar voices brought my attention to my entire family hard at work, running pulley cables and carting materials. Moving forward cautiously, I asked my sister what this place was. She quickly explained that our property contained a forest canopy unique to our world.
My father continued to hammer a two by four into the base of one of the trees with a desperate excitement. “Your Grandfather didn’t want this place to get out,” he said. The creaking of the trees was making my body tense with fear. “This is going to be huge! The news crews should be here any minute.”
It was then I could see that what he was building was a bridge, a fortress of paths through a dendrologists’ paradise. The sudden realization that this bizarre forest that my Grandfather had purposely protected was going to be swarming with tourists snapping pictures and buying cheap souvenir t-shirts caused me to burst into tears. I stepped forward to beg my father to consider the wisdom his own father had carried and slipped. I fell face first into the putrid muck, just as the first camera pushed through the extraordinary flora. It was too late, the world had seen our secret.
I was startled awake by the beeping of the “super shake proof” knock-off watch that I had haggled for the previous evening. It was 6:45 AM in Cartagena, Colombia. I kicked off the sheet entangling my feet and sidestepped around our disemboweled backpacks to my clothes strewn about in the corner. Fishing around for a fresh pair of underwear, I bemusedly responded to Tori’s persistent inquiry that I had nothing to do with the horrible stench that our helicopter fan was whisking from the bathroom into our nostrils. Squeezing in between our beds and the wall, I threw back the shower curtain acting as a bathroom door and turned on the sink. In the meager stream of water, I tried, without success, to wash away my dream.
Later that day, as we tried to rest peacefully on the beach we were bombarded with women carrying buckets of soapy water, claiming that they had a special promotion for me. Only 30,000 Colombian pesos ($15 US dollars) and I could have a full body massage. These extra pushy women were flanked by men lurking with racks of trinkets waiting for their chance to make a sale. I laughed out loud at being brought full circle. Here, as a result of a natural zone of tourist possibilities, my dream came to life. Except this time, I wasn’t the keeper of the secret. I was only a curious wanderer who had come to see what this place had to offer.
Knowing that I was going to study Spanish along side of my studies at Goddard College, I chose to do an intensive immersion program for at least a week while I was traveling. Conveniently located on the coast in a picturesque colonial city, a week of Spanish classes in Cartagena sounded like a fantasy. My invitation for Tori to join me on my travels could not be turned down. Most likely, the thought of being stuck in Vermont during the coldest and snowiest part of the winter made her decision making process run smoothly. Without hesitation, she said that she would join me on our second international adventure.
This trip was a long time coming for me. It was the mecca in my personal search for I what I already sensed was the truth. I have spent years writing about how people are… well…just people wherever you go. In my own experiences traveling around the world, humanity is not constantly in a state of chaos. Even in the places that I have seen that have been ravaged by war and poverty, I’ve found men, women and children going about their daily business with little or no violent interactions. Somehow, the reality that families are still families where ever you are in the world has been lost within the fear of our differences. The truth is, we all need to eat food, sleep safely, listen to music and find love. The only differences are how we go about our basic daily lives. With a facade of danger and looming violent outbreaks, I had imprinted in my mind that Colombia was the ultimate place to prove my theory.
I was not surprised by the reaction I got when I declared that Colombia was my next travel destination. My parents, in their usual supportive manner, were all about it. They have become accustomed to my habitual pattern of leaving every few months only to return to our home in Vermont with a bag full of dirty clothes. Conversely my surrounding community responded with cautious smiles and a resounding and unanimous ¨Don’t get kidnapped!¨ At first, I laughed at how common the response was, but then I started to realize just how powerful our preconceptions can be.
As a lucrative industry, our American media relies on our sustained fears. We continue to build barriers between ourselves and the source of our perpetual fear continues to expand its grip. I believe our cultural divisions and established fears are ultimately bound to our knowledge and understanding of the world that surrounds us. Therefore, it makes sense that if all we know of another person, country or group of people is violence, we will only understanding them as such. My guess is that it is natural to follow fight or flight instinct and either strike out in protection, or take the more common route and avoid the interaction altogether, further securing our cultural boundaries.
In the U.S., Colombia is the subject of a particularly well-established stereotype of extreme danger. This response is constantly fueled by of our media, which implies, through a limited world view, that the country is running rampant with rebels and paramilitaries. Our exposure is limited to a negative view for reasons that can be debated according to your faith in the American Government. My opinion on this particular subject could go on for pages, but I doubt that any good would come out of it. Instead, I believe my experiences in-country speak for my opinions on ¨dangerous¨ travel destinations.
That said, to deny that Colombia has a history of extreme violence and oppression would detract from the importance of it´s position today. In short, it appears that this country has made it through the wildest of hurricanes to calmer waters. In a breath of clean fresh air, the people of this country are returning to the streets, dusting themselves off and spreading the world that are still very much alive and well. Although some parts of this country are still wrapped in oppressive and violent systems, most of this country just wants to be seen as they always have been: welcoming, considerate and very proud of their spirited Colombian identity. Upon arrival, I was informed by our taxi driver that I would love this country so much that I may find my future husband while I am here. Unfortunately for me, I am not looking for love.
We arrived in Bogota too tired to do anything but crash into our pre-booked hostal room. I woke up the next morning staring at a photograph of a sea green lake at the top of a mountain. I read the caption and rolled over to inform Tori that this picture had been taken in Colombia and that we were going to be there soon. She laughed at my groggy confusion and reminded me that we had been here for six or so hours already and that I should go back to sleep. My cultural daze continued to hover over me, keeping my reflections to only what was physically surrounding me.
We spent the next few days distracting ourselves from the splitting high-altitude headaches by walking through the streets, visiting churches and museums and eating the unknown fruits left for our tasting pleasure at our hostal. Although, it was only through visual assurance at this point, I sensed that Colombia has reached astounding levels of modernity. The stories of Colombia´s colonial and indigenous past meet the technological advances of today in computer cafes tucked into Spanish architecture. Hooked up with cameras and fast internet, it would be difficult to stay disconnected from my home in this country. Everywhere you turn, people are locked into a global community on their IPhones. These days backpackers have even begun to travel with their laptops, as commonly as carrying a guidebook,
In our desire to explore what is culturally different from our own communities, Tori and I are alike in our willingness to try whatever the locals are into doing. In Bogota, this meant sitting in one of the many cafes and dunking a very unpleasant chunk of white cheese into mugs of watery hot coco. In this particular instance, my willingness was limited to one dunk before I quickly tucked my cheese onto Tori’s plate. A trouper and a well-rounded foodie, Tori made it through several chunks before she threw in the towel. Walking off the strange mixture, we huffed and puffed our way back up through the streets to our hostel and climbed into hammocks to plan the rest of our three week trip.
Knowing Tori´s tendency towards loosing her lunch on winding roads, we decided to skip the 24 hour bus ride and hop on regional flight to Cartagena. We left the pleasantly warm climate of Bogota and stepped off the plane into air so humid that my hair instantly frizzed beyond control. The sun was low in the sky, leaving a warm glow on the faces of families and lovers strolling along the fortress wall surrounding the old city. The narrow cobblestone streets were bustling with vacationers, foreign and Colombian alike, dressed head to toe in the classic, white linen R and R garb. Topped off with straw fedoras, the whole city seemed posed for a film set.
Coming from the United States, the bygone times of yesteryear are limited to only a few hundred years. In Cartagena, the brightly painted buildings complete with Juliette porches serve as a constant reminder of how much history these streets have seen. As we explored the streets, I found myself lost in a magnificent daydream of pirate attacks, affluent Spanish colonizers and of terrified slaves, chained to the New World. Joking that there must be NSC agents photographing us, Tori and I clinked mojitos in celebration at a Cuban restaurant. The walls were plastered in enormous photographs of Fidel Castro and revolutionary armies marching towards their communist future.
Stepping into our dormitory, I was jerked from my historical fantasies into my backpacker reality. We were crammed in a tiny, dark room with triple stacking bunk beds, a feat I only dreamed possible in prisons. With adjacent middle bunks, Tori and I attempted to fall asleep in the heat and constant rumblings of the upset stomach belonging to my lower bunk neighbor. After being woken up in the middle of the night by the drunken inhabitant of the top tier climbing past my feet, I was reminded of the price I pay for traveling on a shoestring budget. The adventure would not be complete without extreme discomforts to remind you of your foreign location.
With a few days to spare before Spanish classes began, we rose early and attempted to make it to the inconveniently distant bus station on local transportation. After twenty minutes in the rising heat of the morning, we shelled out the 10,000 COP to a taxi in exchange for a more direct route. Once in the outlaying bus station, I had my first of many delightful encounters with helpful Colombianos. Having traveled throughout Latin America, I have developed a necessary protective guard against people profiting off of my unfamiliarity with the location. Right off the bat, a man approached me and asked me where I was going. Thinking he was going to try to sell me to his bus company and hustle us along to a bus that would not leave for hours, I hesitantly replied ¨Taganga.¨ The man then pointed me in the direction that I should head and sincerely wished me a pleasant time and a safe return to Cartagena.
We were granted a fortuitous break and made it on a bus leaving for Taganga five minutes later. I settled into the air conditioned bus and spoke with a thoughtful, native Cartagenian woman about the miraculous circumstances of the birth of her children. She hopped off the bus a few hours later, calling out her thanks for having chatted with me. After a few more hours on a bus, we were pointed in the direction of the taxi stand by an elderly man pushing cart who advised us that we were not to pay over 10,000 COP to reach Taganga. This accommodating and helpful attitude was to abide in almost all of the Colombians that I encountered along our travels; a nature I accredit to the aforementioned history of violence and the desire to be recognized as not only humane, but welcoming.
Four days into our journey, I found myself sipping a glass of freshly blended pineapple and orange juice (my second in 15 minutes) and holding onto the over-sized straw hat that was trying to escape from my head. We were on the boardwalk in the village of Taganga, a tiny fishing village which looked out into a beautiful horseshoe shaped lagoon. The surrounding mountains allowed for only one winding road into town. I was helping Tori decipher the coastal slang so that she could purchase sunglasses from a man carrying a giant piece of foam board covered in beach necessities, when the daze of my culture shock finally lifted. Suddenly, I could feel with every ounce of my sweaty self that I was on the road again and the words flowing out of my mouth (no matter how grammatically incorrect) were of another language. From deep within my core, I gave a whoop of appreciation for the life that I lead.
Now fully aware of my precise physical and emotional location, I spent the next few days musing over the essence of culture. I pondered the radical wanderings of the nomadic jewelry craftsmen who set up their wares along the path to the beach, wondering how it felt to be intentionally homeless. I sat on the beach gratefully sipping on beers that had been sold to me by passing, unassertive vendors, admiring the lack of self consciousness in the thong-bearing, tanned butts of Latinas. Diving into the surprisingly cold Caribbean ocean, Tori and I discussed the absence of peddled goods in the United States. As people who thrive off of comfort and convenience, why don’t we start selling strawberries and other comforts on-the-go? Later at dinner, I couldn't help but smile while Tori unconsciously kicked her feet in pleasure as she enjoyed her fresh fried fish. Coming from a land-locked state, being able to experience another culture gastronomically can be the most enjoyable part of traveling. I finished off my caramel flan, feeling utterly stuffed with the nourishment of adventure.
Somehow managing to not get sunburned in three days on the beach, we headed back to Cartagena, excitedly awaiting the commencement of our only pre-planned leg of the trip: Spanish class. I was pleasantly reminded of home, when I recognized a Vermont comedian (in probably the only big-budget film he has ever had a role in) on the crackling bus television. Shacking up in Hotel Marlin, where I would eventually experience my disturbing nightmare, we settled in for our most extended stay yet.
After some initial confusion on my Spanish capabilities, I was finally placed in the elementary class that I wanted and needed to be in. The course, which we decided was outlandishly expensive, consisted of three hours of Spanish class in the morning and then an hour of Salsa dancing instruction in the afternoon. Following suit with U.S culture, we evaluated our experience in a time/money/result ratio, meaning that the forty minute break seemed a bit excessive. Latin American time however, is all about the quality of the experience rather then the time or money spent. Meaning, if we enjoyed sipping our tiny plastic cups of instant coffee and left class with a new friend, it was worth it. If I look back at our week in the course and take it in Latin American time, then of course my hard earned money went to a good cause!
Once, during the extreme heat of the afternoon, we made our way to the enormous fortress built outside of the old city of Cartagena. Although the city itself is a fort, this one was built to ward off the pirates that had sacked the city one to many times. There are tunnels built deep into the massive stone structure purposely designed to carry sound from one end to the other. Open for exploring, most of the tunnels lead across to connect the different sections of the fort. Having explored the entire fort, we eventually came to a tunnel that was narrower and plunged steeply. The fort, streaming with tourists, was quiet and deserted in this section.
I am a complete wimp when it comes to rounding dark, unknown corners, but I reluctantly followed Tori deeper and deeper into the abyss. The further we descended, the darker and danker it got until the tunnel walls were covered in green slime. The sound of dripping water was magnified like a horror film and my heart pounded with unreasonable fear each time we rounded another bend. Just ahead of me, Tori called out that she had reached water. Soon enough, my sandals had been flooded and water was up to my ankles. Staring ahead at the murky tunnel, I had had enough. Shrieking, we slipped and scrambled back up the ancient stones, until we reached upper tunnels. Blending back into the crowds perusing the fortress, Tori poked me in the ribs, teasing me for being such a pansy. I don’t know if she will ever forgive me for not going around that next bend. I on the other hand, gulped in the humid afternoon smog, thankful that I made it out alive.
Eventually, after finally giving in to the relentless offerings for beach massages and having almost attacked the thousandth man who clucked and leaned into my chest to whisper his approval, we decided to move on from Cartagena. After a full week in the city, I was ready to escape the sweltering climate and experience something new. We hailed a taxi and wove our way though the outer neighborhoods, filled with the rumpus of a Saturday night in coastal Colombia. Barely avoiding children, stray dogs and motorcycles, our taxi driver distracted us from our nearly homicidal venture by shouting out our names and making his fingers into the corresponding letter. He dumped us at the bus station, flashing a V and shouting a final ¨Victttooooorrriiiaaaaa.¨ We shook our heads in bewilderment as we struggled to carry our backpacks towards the night bus to Medellin.
Preparing myself for a thirteen hour ride, I opened my book to pass the time. Within seconds, the lights on the bus went black and there was nothing to be done except attempt to sleep. Tori and I curled into the position that allowed us the most support on a cramped bus seat, but it was no use. The hours ticked past, until the rocking of the bus was too much and I was allowed to stretch out at the cost of Tori’s car sickness. Passing through a rain storm and winding our way up into the mountains we made our way towards the city once crowned with the highest murder rate in the world.
Shaking it’s reputation as a crime ridden, cartel run disaster, Medellin has risen to top and proudly rests among the safest of Latin American cities. It is undeniably hip and bursting with art and music. We found a quiet hostal to spend our last week in and have made our way around the city enjoying the coffee shops, botanical gardens and inappropriately touching famous Botero sculptures. Thrilled by the offer of the free soda, I broke even with a whopping 6,000 COP at my first gambling experience in a seedy casino. With only a few more days left in this country before we return to the comforts of home, we are patiently avoiding our dorm mate that we have dubbed ¨Manpire,¨for his creepy advances and nocturnal nature.
With so few tourists coming from the United States, we have been mistaken for the first time in our lives as residents of Latin America. We are more frequently assumed to be from Argentina then the gringas we are. After spending a few late nights with Chilean and Argentinian chicas, it doesn’t seem as far fetched as previously thought. We’ve bonded with our Latina counterparts in our determination to bring cross-cultural understanding to the world we share. As comrades in positive connections and grassroots thinking, we now have homes all over the Americas.
Sleeping in after a night of dancing to a rockin’ live Salsa band, I have settled into to computer cafe to reflect on my journey. I have circled my mecca and the experience, thankfully, brought me to the exact emotional location I was when I started this trip. My years of writing about our common humanity was uneventfully strengthened by our travels around Colombia. Just as I suspected, I found people going about their normal bi-pedal business, eating pizza, crying over lost lovers and resting when the sun is hot. I have been given the privilege of witnessing this all over the world and I feel the responsibility to share the truth resting on my shoulders. Eventually I’ll find a way to effectively show the world the results of my ethnologic endeavours into our global society. Until then, I think I’ll have another beer and just be a tourist.
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