Kidnapped. You’ll be kidnapped. Cartels will kidnap you. Coca and kidnapping, the druglord breakfast cereal. The prize inside the box is you, bound and gagged, wishing you’d gone to South Beach instead.
This is how Colombia perched in my mind—a clawing bird ready to imprison me in its bleak and powdery nest. Cocaine cocaine cocaine. My life worth less than a gram. I would never go to Colombia, would never want to go to Colombia. I want to see a hundred countries in my lifetime but not Colombia and her cohorts like Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Those kinds of places.
I wouldn’t even go near Colombia. In Panama, where I was vacationing, even the rainforests that bordered Colombia were off limits because of the guerrillas and kidnappers lying in wait there like harpy eagles ready to snatch people away. I was not going in or even near Colombia.
But sitting there in the small, air conditioned travel agency, I was getting frustrated. Panama’s famous Caribbean side beaches like Bocas del Toro were totally booked. So were the little islands off Nicaragua. Uruguay, which sounded exotic, was seven hours away by plane, and those flights were booked. My restless spirit bucked and whinnied—let’s go somewhere exciting! Oh Panama, you had a man with a plan—you are a beautiful bridled horse and I can drink your tap water with abandon!
I wasn’t away enough; does that make any sense? I was treading on treaded pathways, looking where eyes had long looked. There had to be some place else.
“Well,” Alba Ducreux, Ejecutiva de Ventas, said with the patience of the local saints. “There are a few seats left on the plane to Cartagena.”
Cartagena … it’s one of those words. Like a new spice or fruit. I was having an Eve moment; here was something tempting. What should I do? Yes! I booked my flight to Cartagena.
My fruit’s full name is actually Cartagena de Indies, to distinguish it from the other Cartagena. I found this out when I went back to my Panama hotel, Googled my fabled destination, and fell in love with the photos, photos from Spain. No, this Cartagena, my Cartagena, was of the Indies, so named because of that man who went looking for India and refused to ask for directions.
There was only one hotel room left, too, a suite for hundreds of dollars a night. Talk about a busy continent for the holidays—South and Central Americans were certainly on the move! At least I’d be going out in style. Isn’t that Tango Diva Rule Numero Uno?
The quick Copa Airlines flight was barely an hour, but I felt, as the plane edged its way along the coast, that I was moving far, far away. My poor family had gotten the email by now: “Slight change in plans … don’t be mad but I’m going to Cartagena, Colombia for a couple days. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to call or write. Happy Holidays, Love, Stephanie.”
My friends had gotten emails, too. I pictured them cheering me on from our favorite bars in San Francisco—“Heh, heh, what do you think Stephanie’s doing right now in Colombia? Heh, heh. She must be partying her aaasssssss off!”
And here I was on a plane to Colombia not knowing whether my ass would be partying or languishing in some dusty militant’s basement.
But here was a clue. I kid you not: there was a guy in the customs line in front of me, amid the stern narcotico soldiers and drug sniffing dogs, wearing a Scarface t-shirt. A Scarface t-shirt. His companion had a bright, big American flag beach umbrella slung over her shoulder. And here I had been practicing my Canadian accent, eh!
I watched to see whether they would get kidnapped on the spot. What I didn’t realize was that our customs officer was a teenager in flip-flops. Colombia didn’t make any sense.
I still had that lingering feeling that kidnappers were everywhere, so on my first night, I didn’t venture very far. Right outside my hotel, the street had turned into a bright plaza full of café tables, artists, street vendors, and young men selling Cuban cigars. Under the watchful eye of an armed and canined guard, I sat and had a fine meal. Okay, so the sushi place was the only restaurant with a free table, but of course I only ordered cooked things. And bottled water. After all, this wasn’t Panama anymore.
I even bought what was probably a fake Cohiba and let my smoke rings mingle with the festive crowds and handsome jewelry merchants. The streets were full of people, and of course that meant gorgeous people dressed to kill. If kidnappers were indeed lurking in the shadows beneath all the Christmas lights, they wouldn’t know whom to nab first. Everyone—mothers, grandmothers, children—was making a spectacle of themselves; everyone was dressed sexily, brightly, drawing attention to their tanned, taut bodies and Hollywood fashions. In fact, there was only one quiet, inconspicuous, carefully dressed woman around, and she was me.
Could the State Department and CIA be wrong?
The next day, I dared to venture further away from my hotel. You won’t believe what I found. Shops full of emeralds. Plaza after plaza! Old churches and art museums and galleries. I started calling it Artagena. Balconies bursting with flowers. And around this whole quarter like a ribbon on a cake box was an old stone wall that had protected it for hundreds of years. And on top of that wall, because no one had been around to invade lately, a hot nightspot had sprung up called Café del Mar, yes, like Ibiza. And here the fashionable gathered. From the top of the wall I could see the many horse-drawn carriages circling the city below and the sea beyond.
The nearly equatorial sun bore down. In the afternoon, I asked my hotel to find me a guide. After all, it was my last day and I had only seen the Old City. Going outside the walls?? Dios mio, I was getting bold! The hotel fixed me up with Marelvy, a fluent English speaker who used to be a dancer in Paris and now lived with her artist husband here in Cartagena.
In four hours, she showed me everything from San Felipe Fort built in tandem with the stone wall to La Popa Monastery at the top of a hill from which Cartagena dazzled below in all her old and new splendor: the sea, high rises, and Old City’s pastel churches and plazas. We glimpsed the statue of La India Catalina standing proudly in a traffic circle, a lone feather adorning her head. And finally back to the old city for the best emerald and filigree jewelry shops near the Palace of the Spanish Inquisition where tortures had been meted out with glee.
Walking back to my hotel, we passed a group of dancers in a plaza showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Cartagena. They started with a traditional Latin dance and suddenly threw off their Flamenco-like skirts to reveal long legs and not much else beneath. Then the African drumming started and their hips trembled to its beat.
“This is how I used to dance,” Marelvy said, watching the young dancers and their bionic backsides, thinking perhaps of Paris.
My plane back to Panama City left early the next morning. The morning after that, I would be heading back to California. On the plane to Panama, the first of many in the next twenty-four hours, I knew that I had changed. So many times I had left my nest to travel. But this was the first time that I had strayed so far from the travel warnings of my country. I had gone to a “bad” place, a dangerous place. A place where my government clearly did not want me to go. And it had been beautiful and I had loved every minute of it and every old stone within it.
And now I was free. The veil of propaganda lifted, the entire world opened up to me. I had overcome fear, the opiate of my masses. Fear fear fear. Don’t go to Colombia. You won’t come back. Which was true. The old me was not on that plane, so in a sense a part of me had been held against its will. I had played no game of Narco Polo. Hadn’t fed the guerillas in the zoo of counterinsurgency. Cartagena was built for love, built to protect and embrace within its firm ancient walls, sheltering and nurturing its vibrant, cultured, beautiful, creative spirits.
And it certainly had its hold on me. So as I stood there in front of my own country’s customs agents many hours later, and watched for a reaction to that stamp in my passport like a scarlet letter on my chest, I had this thought: I love Colombia! Stick that in your top secret memo and shove it! Sweet teenaged rebellion as delicious as grim guava juice filled me as I took my first independent strides away from my parent country. Intoxicated. Alive and awake and in love with Cartagena. This must be the drug that my country didn’t want me to traffic. Well here I am fulfilling my intent to distribute.
Photo courtesy of Blog Talk Radio