Let me start you off here with a crash course on the Colombian political situation.
The country (rrrgh!) is capitalistic. Arrrgh, capitalism! For the past fifty years, guerrillas located in the countryside and jungle have waged a civil war on the government and people. They call themselves the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces). They're supposed to be communists. Their ranks number about 40,000, and in a peace experiment the country's last president, Carlos Pastrani, granted them control of a southern chunk of Colombia the size of Texas. The fierce new president, Alvaro Uribe, would prefer a decisive war to peace negotiations, however.
One small fantasy the back of my brain clung to as I prepared my cross-country bus travel was that armed guerrillas would stop us and kidnap me. But, upon learning that I was an American pinko, they would begin to discuss strategy with me, give me an important position with their group (maybe the head mother-FARCer), and together we'd steer Colombia to the new revolution. Helping to ensure the place would maintain its undesirous happiness. A fantasy that starts with being kidnapped. Am I different or what?
In addition to those guerrillas, the jungle hides ultra-right paramilitaries who'd probably just kill you. And then there are the narco-traffickers and drug lords. Not to be outdone, they might torture you or just make you eat chicken 'til you explode. I don't really know what they do.
So, the Colombian jungle has some ruthless figures. But, my bus had no problems. After one full night of travel, I passed through hills of cranberry-coffee dirt, little cacti, and dry green Don King's hair-shaped plants. We rolled down to the coastal town below. On July 1, 2002, I arrived in Santa Marta.
The first thing I noticed about the city was that it seemed very peaceful. A calm, fresh Caribbean Sea harboured itself beneath the tranquil, always-sunny sky. Many Colombians played on the short, dark-gray beach or gathered on the pink, old-architecture plaza that ran along the beach for a mile. A dark statue of the Latin-American liberator, Simon Bolivar, stood tall on the plaza; far behind him, a big rock rose up from the harbor with a tiny lighthouse perched atop.
Well, I couldn't just sit around watching the scenery. Firstly, I found myself a fairly decent hotel a half-block from the sea that cost only $2.25 a night. Not long after that I was hitting the dusty Santa Marta pavement on a spirited "trabajo"-hunt.
The city led me to all its corners in search of work. On the sea-front, the downtown was made up of old, white or gray banks and restaurants and such. Narrow streets squeezed for miles inland through centuries-old blocks of colored, connected houses. On three sides, those dry, reddish-brown mounds sprouted up in the clear sky's near distance.
Fine dirt seemed to coat the town. Santa Marta had the personality of an at-peace, old man. And it was serious hot. Desert-heat gripped the town and - as I walked about - seemed to reach down my throat and pull all the moisture out, then slap me across my forehead with a blood-aching headache.
The 250,000 Samarios (city natives) had been breeded for toughness. Lacking employment due to the care-free Caribbean's underdevelopment, many swarmed each day to the downtown's plazas, streets, and sidewalks. Dusty-skinned, they vended what they had in the heat. Some grilled cheese-filled arepas, some scooped ice cream cones, some blended fresh juices, some baked pizza, some sold crafted bracelets and necklaces, and some offered batteries or alarm clocks or cd's or almost anything. Virtually no one begged, and rarely did anyone interrupt another's business, even though you might obviously be an American.
These street-vendors didn't exactly wear the biggest smiles. Why, their country suffered bad luck in economy, bad luck with the guerrillas, bad luck even in football. But, they were always friendly, treated with respect, and didn't know how to complain. And - mmm! - they made some addictive cheese-filled arepas.
I was proud to be fighting for my Colombian survival alongside them. By day, I brought my "hoja de vida" (literally: "page of life") around town to elementary schools, english-language schools, modelling agencies, restaurants, and bars. I almost got hired as a chef at "Pizza: Rapido y Rico," earning about US$7 a day, which would've made me the most idiotic migrant worker ever. By evening, I soothed myself from the day's heat by dipping in the sea.
Boy, maintaining a spanish discussion with some of my would-be employers was tough. For all I know, someone could've hired me on the day, and I didn't even know it.
After one week hunting in the main city, I took local bus over the western hills to a separate coastal strip of Santa Marta known as touristy El Rodadero. Here, the nicer beach was full of interesting people: vacationing families from Bogota, hippies selling necklaces, musicians playing guitars.
I learned the hotels weren't hiring; I taped up some more of my private-english-lessons fliers. My efforts at survival weren't short of comical. Then, I went to a local discotech and was told to wait for Nano.
Nano came. He was a long, dark-haired, round-faced Colombian-Indian version of Fabio. My spanish skills stood on end. I explained my Trinidadian bar-tending experience; he said the place was hopping on reggae Thursdays. Gloriously, he told me to be there the next day at seven. Woohoo, I would excitedly be the new bar-tender at "Club Nautico: Mi Ranchito." Perhaps you've heard of it? Ha, ha.
The next day at five, though, I had another interview - at a pizzeria/bar. Once again, I focussed on the interviewer's fast-paced lips and understood much of what was said. Or, I just nodded my head and pretended. Once again, I got the job! Mary, the owner's wife, told me to come in the following night.
I went to my first night at "Club Nautico: Mi Ranchito," where Nano said, "Trabajas manana." (You work tomorrow.) I'm not sure if he was asking or telling, but he was big and my boss so I was scared and said, "Si." (Yes.) Whoops. In two days, I'd gone from not having enough jobs to having too many. All of this in a country where many people can't find a job, even though they might actually speak the language!
My first night was something else. I was behind a long bar, on the ground floor of a giant, basketball court-sized log cabin-type barn. There was a roof, but no walls allowed cool breeze from the ocean we overlooked to wash through. The decorations were kind of tribal, kind of indian.
Young people came in and asked for things. Just what I'd feared ...
Of course, I had to ask people to repeat themselves because they asked in spanish. I had to ask them to repeat a second time, because very loud kumbia music was playing. Then, I usually had them repeat their requests a third time, because they'd be using Colombian slang.
"Tu me puedes regalar una gaseosa?" I would hear. Which meant: Can you (something) me a (something)? Oh, boy. At this point, I would stare with a lost look at all the things in the bar. Until I realized that this wasn't the action they were requesting me to do. I had to think.
Since "regalo" was a noun meaning "gift," I figured the verb "regalar" indicated they wanted me to give them a gift. Gee, that's pretty nice of me, huh? Then, I held up everything around me I didn't know the name for until they nodded approval. "Gaseosa" was Colombian slang for "soda." Cool.
"Tu me puedes regalar una servilleta?" another person would say, four times. Que es "servilleta?" I thought. This time, I only stared around with a lost look for a few seconds and then started holding up everything around me. See, Nano, I'd told you I was a quick learner! Did this person want an ash-tray? Matches? The cutting board? An orange? A sponge? A ... napkin? Ah, yes, that's it.
At this point, I realized that - despite my first-grade incompetence - two places wanted me to work the next night. I fantasized about getting Nano and Mary to engage in a bitter bidding war for my services. A bidding war for the gringo que no habla.
Of course, good ol' deep-pockets Nano was already paying THOUSANDS of currency to me daily. 12,000 pesos a shift. That translates roughly to US$5. A shift! Not an hour. A shift! I hope Mary could top that.
Before my first "Club Nautico: Mi Ranchito" shift ended, I'd learned the words for ash-tray and matches. I was doing much better; most people would ask for one of only a few things: una "gaseosa," the local Club Colombia or Alguila beer, or one of the local rums. Nano showed confidence and believed in me despite all the times I'd misunderstood him - including, most notoriously, when I'd thought the young girl he'd introduced as his girlfriend was his daughter instead. Lo siento, Nano!
I repaid Nano by skipping out on my next night's work to wait tables/bar-tend for Mary. Quite a worker that Nano's got in me, huh!?
At Mary's colorful, european-style pizzeria/bar, I was also a bit nervous at first to talk to the tables. But, with time, it became easier than the discotech. I put in another Colombian night of work, pocketed a whopping fifteen THOUSAND pesos plus another cool 'G' in tips, and met a cute girl and her friends to have a cerveza with on the beach plaza afterwards.
The following night, I would return for Nano's bopping reggae night. That is, after he has a little talk ... with my agent.
Who, by the way, doesn't speak spanish either. Because, he's me. I can't afford an agent on $5 a day.
"Mi Ranchito" Regards!