by Peter Nelson
Every building in Cartagena seems to be made of stone walls, two feet thick and faded pink. Since everything continues to be cheaper by the dozen, all 12 of us San Andreas beachniks bunk together in one huge hotel room. Rumors drift up from the kitchen staff about the “nightly orgies” among the “shameless gringos”. During the day, everyone drifts apart and around. Because the group’s so big, we splinter into smaller ones, and then regroup at night for a communal evening meal.
Our first experience in changing money on the black market leads to a tidy loss. A young street gentleman, probably all of 10 years old, offers us 20 pesos to the dollar, compared with the official bank rate of 17. Who could say no? We surround him like a circle of musk ox, six hulking North American males, each of us twice his height, twice his weight, twice his age, but with a tenth of his street smarts. He counts out the money. Okay, we check it. It’s 10 pesos short. He’s incredulous. “Surely not, señor.” So he takes it back to recount. “By gollies, you are right.” With apologies, he pulls out another note and adds it to the stack, and we go off triumphantly to our room to split the loot. Only now, of course, it’s 200 pesos short. When he finished the recount, as he was putting his hand into his pocket for the extra 10, he palmed bills off the bottom of the stack. It was worth the money we lost to realize how smoothly he’d done this under our collective suspicious glares.
Hitching is obviously not practical for a group this size. But since we’re all getting along so well, we decide to stay together all the way to Bogota. Except for the Brooklyn Ladies in Black, who are on their way to Chile to teach English. So we say a fond farewell to them, and board the bus for Santa Marta.
A couple of days here, lazing on a not particularly attractive beach, while we wait for the next train to Bogota. Third class of course, so the seats are small and wooden and shared with a herd of very scrawny but exceedingly active chickens. Recommended for supple spines only, as the Bogota-Santa Marta railroad is narrow gauge, and the route is quite mountainous. Every bump is indelibly etched on both my memory and my backbone.
Bogota, and the group splinters further, leaving Sal and Moon and a blonde doctor named Calvin and me. Our hotel room is enormous and very damp. The feeble glow from the dirty 10-watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling 15 feet overhead is about as bright as a birthday candle. Doesn’t matter, we’re never in there except to sleep anyway.
We employ the old gringo trick of bringing your own padlock to lock your door. Since there’s no maid service anyway, it makes for better room security during the day. Another trick is to carry a 100-watt light bulb to replace the 10-watt bulb, so you can actually see when you’re in the room. But that won’t work in this room since the light bulb is totally out of reach.
First thing we notice is how great the coffee is. Everywhere. Rich and mild, nice with lots of milk in it. Bogota’s high up in the mountains, so the weather’s cool enough that nobody ever wants a cold drink anyway. In four weeks in Bogota, I don’t think we ever saw the sun. Just enough rain to keep the streets shiny and free of tourists, but not enough to dampen the ever-present music. To give you an idea of the humidity here, I washed some clothes and hung them up in our room, and they took 4½ days to dry!
Constant cries of “Grass?” follow our foreign faces whenever we hit the streets. Sal and Moon score some in a small shopping mall, far too public a spot for my taste, but the deal is conducted right on the sidewalk, just as if they were buying a pair of sandals. A price is agreed upon, Sal has a sniff and a taste to test for quality.
We find a good (= cheap) restaurant across the street from our hotel, and immediately acquire a resident group of food-beggars — young boys 6 to 10 years old who ask for our leftovers. Not that we ever have any. The beggars are always boys, never see a single girl. You never see girls begging or sleeping in the streets like the boys do. And supposedly, there are schools for thieves here. Certainly the attitude towards thievery could be described as “cavalier”. It’s not unusual to see a guy running at top speed right down the middle of the road carrying a big television.
One night Sal and Moon come in all excited with some cocaine. They sniff it in the usual manner, but that doesn’t appeal to me. Seems more like a snuff ritual than a drug ritual. I put some on my tongue. My tongue gets numb, and there’s a colorful rush, but I’m not going to hurry out to buy my own. For all the apparent freedom to buy drugs down here, in some ways it’s even more risky than in the States. Often the seller is in cahoots with the police. He sells you some dope or coke, and then turns you in. The police come and bust you. The price of your freedom (if you’re lucky) just happens to be every cent you have, or can get someone to send to you. Then the dope goes back to the seller, and he’s open for business again.