"South America on $320" story # 27

Playa Taganga, Colombia           July 31, 2002

Before my very eyes, "S. America on $320" was unraveling.
     For two days more, I tried to call and locate the port vendor who´d stripped me of the last of my money. Monica loaned me some pesos. We took a trip to the beach one day towards the end.
     On Playa Taganga, fading-white, stencil-lettered hotels and restaurants grew from the edge of the sand. A long, green arm reached into the sea, dropping in at smooth rock banks, far-off to the right. To the left of the beach, tall, round rocks heaped up in junkyards on the water´s edge, beneath one of Santa Marta´s comforting hills and the high, scenic road that led to the city. The tranquil inlet widened so slowly out to sea it seemed to want to stay put. Everything had a slight orange hue.
     I popped in for a snorkel. On coral rocks near the beach, gorgeous anemones blew like flowers. From a central body, a dozen or more pedals sprayed out like a fountain, each half-red and white on the end.
     I chased out the round rock junkyard. Leaving the beach far behind, the water became deep and more clear, beneath the late orange sky. Boulders lay on the sea-floor, and fifteen feet below a white, black-spotted sea-serpent of nearly three feet snaked along. I followed him for awhile, watching as he peeked his head bullyingly beneath a rock, made a violent, dust-unsettling stab, and came out chomping on something. Later, some more-friendly animals waved at me from their homes. Beautiful white-faced shrimp, little but with very large pinchers, they zebra´d between maroon and white on their bodies. Hiding beneath stinging fire-coral alongside lobsters´ antennae, they seemed to have nice homes.
     That night at Monica´s, I realized it was time to go to my home. Monica´s home was nice, but not if I was going to be poor and hungry and thirsty and hot and miserable and missing my mommy. Whups, did I say "missing my mommy?" I´d wanted to have "el espíritu latino," but in the end I just barely couldn´t cut it.
     It was a kind of happy decision, kind of sad. Sad because - as you will soon find out in another exciting edition of MODERN ODDYSEUS´ TOP 5!!! - I found Colombia to be very nice.

First, the Top 5 Best Things About Colombia!

1. PEACEFUL, CREATIVE, AND INTELLECTUAL PEOPLE - Nobody hassles you or unwelcomingly tries to sell you things. People in Santa Marta rarely have ulterior motives, and if they speak to you it´s as a pure friend. It´s rare to hear complaining or pouting. The people don´t drink too much.
     Lacking luxury, the Colombians crafted necklaces and bracelets for work, played football, stringed guitar, went snorkelling as families, danced, and created some of the deepest soap operas in Latin America.
     Most Colombians question what they´re told, and they like to share opinions. The teenage boys in Monica´s neighborhood used to love to come by and converse. Colombian Indians told of their indigenous peoples. One Indian claimed the U.S. was directly bombing them; another told me that his people eat very naturally and can live to be a hundred and eighty.

2. STRONG PEOPLE - There weren´t nearly enough jobs in Santa Marta, so the people come out to the streets to sell food or fruit or kids´ toys or alarm crocks or crafts or just about anything. "A la orden," they say. (At your service.) Which doesn´t mean they´re kissing your butt, but that they´ve come to work, and they´ll do what they can to earn a buck. I hardly saw a beggar in poor Santa Marta. The people have persevered through a lot.

3. THINGS TO SEE - In southern Colombia, there was discovered an amazing place where indians had left tons of wonderful sculpted statues. There are square-shaped people and faces with big ears and eyes carved all over the place, and it looks spectacular.
     There´s the Gold Museum in Bogota, Cali is said to have more beautiful people per square foot than anywhere and the best salsa clubs, and the fortressed city of Cartagena is beautiful as is Medellin in the valley. Tayrona National Park has beaches, the Islands of Cartagena have snorkelling, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta has coastal, snowy mountains, and the southeastern quarter of the country is nothing but rainforest rivers, rapids, waterfalls, and nature.

4. CARLOS VIVES - This famous Colombian singer of kumbia captures the romance and life of his nation. His peaceful-sounding, positive songs include "Quiero Verte Sonreir" (I Want to See You Smile) and "Carito," which is about a Westerner girl who visits Colombia and who he falls in love with through her eyes, though he can´t understand a thing she says.

5. STREET FOOD - For fairly cheap, street vendors offered yummy arepas (fried flour-balls with cheese and butter inside), taste-packed ice cream cones (caramel, orange, cherry, or rum ´n raisin flavors), pizza slices, shiskebobs, and freshly-blended juices of all choices (including the "nispero" fruit, a small brown bulb, and as you sucked in its approx. 80 % sugar content, it seemed like the good energy the straw was giving you might just shoot your head into space).

HONORABLE MENTION: the SWEET, LOVELY GIRLS (up there wiht Brazil as my favorites) and THE HEAT, which is gonna make you sweat no matter how good you´ve got it, so your other problems seem like little ones.
     OK, buddy, you´d better be paying attention! Because, if not, you´re gonna get lost! Switching things up on you, it´s now time for:
     The Top 5 Worst Things About Colombia!

1. THE FARC/NOT BEING ABLE TO TRAVEL - According to several sources, Colombia´s FARC rebels pose as communists, but are really selfish killers who just want their money and power without obeying government laws or humanitarian ethics. They attack rural villages and kidnap who will bring them money. They occasionally bomb big cities; but, most Colombians aren´t too affected by the FARC, unless you include the tax pesos that go to the war.
     If nothing else, the FARC´s scary rural presence hinders overland travels and puts large chunks of the country out-of-reach.

2. BAD LUCK - In football (soccer), in the decades-old civil war with the FARC, in the country´s drug dominance, in the bad reputation the country gets, in the rainforest landscape impassable in parts, and even in the economy, the country has it tough.

3. PEOPLE DON´T DO WHAT THEY SAY - I made a few extra bucks by giving private english lessons, but on more than one occasion, people said they would come and just never showed up. Also, the port vendor who I was supposed to work with was legitimate, and a good business opportunity. (He finally called after I´d already decided to leave Colombia.) But, he was infamous for meeting his times.

4. DRUG/PROSTITUTE USERS - The drug users never actually bothered me any. But, many of the Western travellers I met took advantage of the cheap thrills Colombia can offer. Some came only for that; which makes me feel bad for them.
     Two young girls in my hotel were prositutes; I felt bad for them as well.

5. WASHING LAUNDRY BY HAND - Washing machines are possibly the greatest luxury the world knows. If you´ve never had to do wash by hand, hope that you never will.

Gaining worst HONORABLE MENTION points are, again THE PUNISHING HEAT, and the music, KUMBIA. Carlos Vives I like, but kumbia, in general, is characterized by an accordian beat that goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and the people dance by jumping back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Pretty boring, I think, especially to hear in a disotech.
     But, the good out-weighed the bad. Colombia was very nice, and the city of Santa Marta was perhaps my favorite place I´ve ever "lived." I´ll take fond memories with me, but I´ll leave a piece of my heart with Colombia ...

The following morning, for the first time all trip, my $320 wasn´t enough. I used my credit card to take out extra money. "S.America on $320" would go incomplete.
     I didn´t make it eleven months on $320. But, I did make it almost four, through three countries. Those $320 served me well. But not well enough! those lousy, green-faced, good-for-nothing ...
     There was blame to be cast, squarely in the face of one gremlinous culprit!: my writing. I was behind on my stories before I even began, and tons of hours were fruitlessly toiled away trying to catch up. Hours that could´ve gone to the trip or one of the following: I never played football with the young neighbor boys; Taganga was my first Colombian snorkel despite many beautiful places around; I didn´t even call cute girls who gave me their numbers - especially, I didn´t pursue a beautious little, frilly-purple-shirt-wearing, dungeon-dark-haired Liliana I worked with, who had a little rat face and roller her worrrds together in a light-giving ball of ear-enlivening, crocodile-gurgling rr´s. Why did I have to be a writer?
     I took Monica out to eat, squared things away with her, and kissed her good-bye the next day. Obviously, I needed to come to travel more prepared next time. I was headed home to pay my new credit card bill.
     But, why have a small credit card bill when you can have a big one!? I went to visit friends in Venezuela first.

- Modern Oddyseus

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