I haven’t been in a writing mood for a while but want to post some sort of update. At this moment, I am seated in a communal kitchen open to a common garden area. There is a hundred-year-old upright piano to my left, an atrium to my right and a German woman sitting at a table in front of me. This place is the lotus-like* sanctuary I’ve been looking for since leaving the States.
We’re now in the town of Santa Marta on the Caribbean. Prior, we were in Cartagena (as referenced in “Romancing the Stone”) for nearly a week. Cartagena is a fascinating place. I am actually recovering from it because it is unbelievably loud. We were in a locals’ neighborhood where people celebrate (anything and everything) until the wee hours of the morning. And they do so by pointing their high-end amplifiers outward to the street to play music so loudly it distorts. We had a few nights of sleeping through it but with two major historical events—the signing of the peace deal with FARC and Fidel Castro’s death—we happened to land in the middle of major celebration. The last three nights there, I probably only managed 8 hours of sleep total.
Cartagena [photos here] was the place we began to get into our groove. Bogotá, where we were the first four days, is a city where people generally keep to themselves, at least where we were. And the spot we lived in had zero travelers. It was difficult to engage because we were so foreign to the locals and our Spanish was worse than it is today and today it is terrible. Regardless, people were as kind and patient with us in Bogotá as they were in Cartagena.
Cartagena has a ton of tourists and travelers. The tourists stay in the gringo parts of town—places built specifically to cater to their comfort—while travelers tend to use hostels and AirBnBs as a way to get into the more local, real-life parts of town. Both travelers and tourists weigh heavily on the locals way of life. Some locals, who have embraced the economic and cultural shift travelers bring, were highly engaging and befriending while other locals, not so happy about the changes tourists bring, were polite but standoffish. We did not blame them and, in fact, we probably tried to empathize so much that it impacted our ability to “vacation,” if you will.
Just up the street from our place was a small town square, called Plaza de la Trinidad where life existed in full color. Every night there was some sort of creative expression that brought out families, travelers and locals en masse. Amplifiers were set up each night with some sort of audience participation show taking place. Our last night was led by a group of dancers from every genre and people flooded into the square to follow in the salsa, samba, hip hop and other high-energy dances. It was so heartwarming to witness people—of every possible background, culture, ethnicity—joining in dance, delight and play. You didn’t need to know the language, you just needed to have fun.
There were dogs and cats everywhere many seeming to have families they are connected to, but none treated as pets are in the U.S. I was amazed and delighted to discover that all the cats, many would be considered feral in the U.S., are affectionate and friendly. The neighbor across the way from us had a mama cat and her kitten, both of whom I doted on during the week.
While I appreciate Cartagena, I was happy to leave simply because of the lack of peace and quiet. Had sleep not been an issue, John and I were considering a much longer stay.
We took the bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta on Monday, driving through remarkable natural beauty mixed with favelas and poverty unlike anything (I'm aware of) in the U.S. At one of the bathroom stops, I paid a 4-year-old girl, who behaved like an adult, to use the restroom (as did the other travelers). She pointed me to one of the stalls, then after, offered to wash my hands with the water used to wash bus loads of people that had come before me, and asked for a fee while holding out her tiny hand. As we drove off, I saw her pull out a mop and a bucket to clean after we left. That was the moment my travels through India came back in full, heartbreaking color.
From that stop for a number of miles, we drove through the middle of some of the poorest parts of Colombia. One-room houses made of tin, metal, rope and cardboard somewhat submerged by the bay they sat up against. The gap between wealth and poverty is considered among of the worst in the world here in Colombia. It is hard to comment on this as a passerby because all of my comprehension of it is filtered through my U.S. mentality which is lacking and limited in far too many ways.
When we arrived to Santa Marta, we both remarked on it being "cute." Our hotel is more like a hostel (here the two can be interchangeable when paying low rates). We have a community kitchen and a number of community spaces we share with other travelers and the group of young women who we think (we still need to engage more in conversation) work or volunteer with the school that is funded by the hotel. 100% of the proceeds of the hotel, after paying for hotel expenses, goes to a school for underprivileged kids in the area.
This place is Heavenly. Santa Marta has chaos like Cartagena, though, not the same late night music. But as soon as we walk into the hotel, the thick walls block out all the noise from the city and create a breathtaking and much needed place of respite. I could live here forever (if that tells you how wonderful this place is). The people who live here are gentle, kind and find our struggling through Spanish charming. Sometimes the young women break out in song while cooking. It is heartwarmingly endearing. If we stayed a while, these people would become family.
And to make matters even better, one of the women brought home and abandoned kitten a couple days ago who we are all, together, nursing back to health. This kitten is a unifier. John and I call her Esperanza, which means hope, but there is no doubt she has a few names. She inspires shared care and concern without us caretakers needing to share a language. I am not certain Esperanza will survive, sadly. She is very, very young. But as of today, she is doing well: pooping, peeing, eating (not drinking enough water even with my many tricks). But her love meter is well above average and that certainly counts for something.
Santa Marta has a lot of charm but it is a chaotic place. Far fewer tourists and travelers and many more cats and dogs, somewhat cared for but all disheveled and constantly seeking food. But, again, the cats are as sweet as any I’ve had as my own. It is a dance to refrain from imposing my U.S. mindset on care-taking for pets here. We've not seen maltreatment of animals, but for the most part it seems they just aren’t part of the family in the same way pets are in the U.S. I would love to be part of a solution of spaying and neutering, giving shots and such—but Santa Marta is not a place I want to live long enough to make that happen. In Bogotá, we saw no cats, but many little dogs who were all treated similarly to the U.S.
There is more to Colombia than cats and dogs, I promise! What we’ve seen of Colombia is breathtakingly beautiful. We haven’t touched the Caribbean, strangely, because the spots we’ve been haven’t been conducive to beach culture. But it is magical. If you Google images for Santa Marta, what you see is not actually Santa Marta, but a town west of Santa Marta. Not sure why that is.
Last night we stumbled into a place owned by a Canadian and his Colombian girlfriend. Once again, amazing food. And to our delight, they have live traditional music every night. It was the moment I began to feel like I was getting into a groove. Less like I am looking in from the outside and more like I am part of the music of the place. Little by little.
We were only planning a couple days in Santa Marta but the peace and quiet of the hostel and the loveliness of the people living here is so soothing we extended our stay a week. Our next spot will be a week in the hills which will be even quieter. An open bamboo house where we get to care for two dogs and two cats for the owner who is vacationing in Cartagena. (Clearly, I am obsessed with dogs and cats).
After that respite, we will have many long days of heavy travel as we take a bus from the North of Colombia, back down to Bogotá, then over to the coffee region for the holidays.
Thanks for keeping up with us. We hope you are all well.
*When I use the word "lotus" to describe something, it will always mean that the place is a source of beauty in an otherwise not-so-lovely place. We will have many of these over the course of the year.