"South America on $320" story # 23

Santa Marta, Colombia           July 22, 2002

After work at Mary's pizzeria/bar, I returned home to the hotel I was staying in. I would later find out from a co-worker at my discotech that this hotel was on the main drug street of Santa Marta, but that wouldn't really come as a surprise.
     Each night, guests would smoke pot or hang out high on cocaine on the hotel roof. The closest I came to making good friends there were a guy and girl from Bogota who were frequent cocaine users and who often went to the beach with me. Two young prostitutes from nearby Barranquilla always said hi to me and even treated me to lunch. And then there were the Westerners - Israelis, Italians, British. Some of them, like some of the Colombians, lost track of time and stayed in the hotel for weeks and months, certainly sampling the local "goods."
     I couldn't complain about them, though. Never did any of the guests infringe upon or bother me nor cause any problems. Just like the rest of Santa Marta, outside of the hotel. And some of the guests, of course (I think), were there for strictly travel purposes.
     On this night, I strutted into the hotel's central open-aired dining room, pulled out a cool sixteen THOUSAND pesos (the US$7 I'd made on the night), and ordered a water. A new, thin couple from Bogota sat near. The girl started talking to me. And, get this, she said she and the guy had arrived in Santa Marta by hitchhiking!!!
     Now, that's impressive. Hitchhiking in Colombia. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. These people were commandingly confident. These people were heroes to me, cool.
     The girl said she'd also hitchhiked around Europe. The hotel bar where we sat closed, because it was late, and so the three of us headed to the roof.
     Under the Colombia night sky, we talked. As the couple - right before my eyes - smoked pot and inhaled the white powder, cocaine.
     The girl had dirty-blond hair past her shoulders, and she wore a loose, light-material dress and tanktop. Her eye-sockets were sunken, and her face looked pale and hollow, like she'd been awake for days. She had a hoarse voice.
     The guy, Fabian, was dark. His hair was like oil. Like the girl, his skin was light and freckled; his head was fetchingly small. His dark eyes were the most intense I've ever seen, and not just because of the drugs. Within those eyes he harnessed a raging land-fire.
     They were a few years older than me. They and their tattoos had come to Santa Marta to sell crafted bracelets and necklaces on the street.
     I asked of their hitchhiking. The girl told of one time when they'd been on the side of the road and an armed guy - possibly one of the country's FARC guerrillas - had tried to make off with her. Fabian had pulled a knife of his own and fought with the guy, until a truck passed by and saved them.
     Fabian turned toward me. He spoke with little emotion and quietly, like a wise man too wise to be impressed by the great things he tells, or to care if stupid people choose to listen to him or not. I listened.
     He'd apparently gotten on a plane once with the narco-traffickers and flown to the jungle, where he got to see the grand process of how they make cocaine. "Muy impresionante," he said, shaking his head. (Very impressive.)
     First, he said, workers go to plantations to collect tiny pieces from the coca plants. These pieces are then taken to giant, giant rooms that are filled to the top with these coca bits.
     Then, people put on boots to their thighs and walk around these rooms stomping down the coke bits. Fabian laughed a bit, thinking of how it is the whole job of some people just to stomp around a big room in big boots all day. When the coke is thin and small and a powder, they put it in barrels with ethyl and petroleum and some other things. They save it for a while.
     With time, the barrel divides into a liquid on top and hard substance on bottom. The hard substance is put into a microwave, and out comes the cocaine rocks. The whole job is very dangerous, and people work with gloves and gas-masks because the large amounts of cocaine are very lethal. "Muy impresionante," Fabina repeated several times throughout the story.
     The smuggling of the drug was very impressive too. Fabian told of several ways the drug travels the world. Boats going to the U.S. cargo-ing, for example, pineapple, might have small rocks on the floor of the ship. The narco-traffickers have engineered a way to open up these rocks, hollow them out, and place cocaine inside to be opened later. "Muy impresionante."
     Fabian's girl interjected that one of the head narco-traffickers, Pablo Escobar, had grown to be the world's second-richest man. Colombian television ultimately had shown the authorities finding him, and it said that he was dead. But, my friends didn't believe it.
     The girl also thought that the U.S. helps the drug traffickers. She cited that the U.S. has "millions" of drug addicts, and if the Colombian drug shipment ceases to the United States, then our country will be forced to spend millions on getting these withdrawal-sufferors off the streets and treated for.
     The couple paused to snort more cocaine. Fabian resumed our talk by telling me of "ungos." Ungos were one of his favorite drugs. They're found naturally in the mountains, and "te hacen pensando en el mundo en otras maneras." (They make you think about the world in different ways.)
     One time, Fabian had been sleeping in his tent when a man came by to rob him. However, Fabian's pit-bull had attacked the man and caused him to flee, possibly saving Fabian's life, but the dog was stabbed and sadly killed in the process.
     They asked if I believed in the existence of Atlantis and said they did. The said NASA had discovered a large planet that would pass close enough to the Earth in 2012 to dry it of all the water. The Maya Indians, apparently, had long ago predicted the world would end in 2012. Hmmm, impresionante.
     I asked the truth about Colombia's countryside "communist" FARC rebels. They sighed a bit. The FARC had fought a civil war against the government for half a century, this I knew. My coked-up friends said that the FARC had been communist and good. Now, though, they were bad and only wanted their "plata" (Colombian slang for "piece of money").
     This unfortunate information was something I would hear a lot from Colombians. Of course, one needs only to look in the newspaper - to hear about the guerrillas kidnapping mayors' two-year old daughters or launching hellish attacks on small, poor, defenseless country villages - to know the FARC weren't a real top group of guys.
     Another tale the Colombians told was of a determined guy who'd climbed a mountain near Bogota ten or fifteen years ago. There, the guy waited three days until a commercial airplane passed. He raised to his shoulder the anti-aircraft gun he'd brought with him. He shot down the plane, killing the 100+ passengers aboard. People still don't exactly know for what reason. Fabian said Colombia had real "terroristas," because they killed their own people.
     Boy. I learned a lot on the night. It was the most interesting conversation I'd had in over a year. But, the sun had been up for a while now, and so I went to bed.
     A few days later, I would run into Fabian's girl returning to our hotel one early morning. She was bruised up and had been crying. Fabian was in jail, she said. They'd been selling their craft on the streets of El Rodadero, when a guy had come by and either kicked her or yelled at her. And Fabian had retaliated before the police came.
     Probably, I would guess, the flaming cauldron inside Fabian had erupted. I wouldn't have wanted to have been the guy to mess with someone as strong as him.
     I was concerned, yes, but I never did actually hear if he got freed. I wish them the best.
     If you haven't before, you ought to be able to see now how travelling can open your eyes, and - without having to use drugs yourself - you can still be led to think about the world in different ways. Working in Colombia, you don't have to sell more than a few necklaces or make more than $7 a day to become immeasurably wealthy - in different ways.

Later. Modern Oddyseus.

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