Tuesday, June 22, 2010

lifejackets in paradise

When we tore ourselves from rest at 6 am-still dark by the way-we had no way of knowing that it was not to be a barely sea worthy handmade wooden fishing boat that we would be boarding at dawn as we had surmised. No, sadly, our trusted local friends whom we’d met two nights prior at Club Havana and professed to have such a hookup, led us right down to the main marina where we waited in line with all the other backpacker chumps to board various sturdy fiberglass vessels and don mandatory life jackets whilst motoring along at a tame 12 knots or so. I could deal with the tourists, the fact that the boat seemed more than up to the task didn’t bother me too much, it was those damn lifejackets that put me over the edge-Nick too. And so, there we were, still shrouded in a heavy fog of exhaustion from the late night-early morning combo sitting idly in our comfortable seats with life preserves two sizes too big that stretched from the groin region up to the chin where the foam blanketed the neck like an unusually stiff scarf or ascot. But hey, we were guests in a foreign land and if this is how they travel to remote coastal areas, so be it.

I did battle with my eyelids as our watercraft lazily drifted along, out the backwaters that led into Cartagena’s port-which could have been easily mistaken for Southwest Florida. I watched the wake work its way over to the mangrove lined shore, and there found small shacks sparely punctuating the continuous line of dense foliage. Not ten minutes into the voyage, a fishing village emerged from the folds of the wild landscape. Dozens of ramshackle dwellings each with a precarious dock and a boat of sorts crowded the waterfront. Fishing villages like this are all but extinct back in the States-such a population center would now have quaint storefronts hawking chic nautical décor and gourmet sea fare.

This, of course, was Colombia though; and down there they still have fishing villages where every last resident lives and dies by the sea and its bounty, or lack thereof.

Our vessel had paused before a headland at the harbor mouth just past the village where a Spanish fort kept watch over the open ocean as it had presumably done for hundreds of years. My attention wandered as I couldn’t understand the tour guide anyway, and I noticed a small wooden rowing craft off the starboard side, maybe two hundred yards out. I rubbed my eyes and strained to make out the rogue canoe and its captains. The most striking feature of the spectacle was the urgency with which the men were rowing-now close enough to discern that their number was two. It was clear after observing them for a few

minutes that this was not their first time commanding such a ship. These guys were hauling ass! I glanced around at the other passengers to see if anyone was watching-aside from Nick and myself everyone was fixed on the tour guide and her droning monologue. Meanwhile, the

local seafarers had gained significantly upon our position and were paddling along as furiously as when I first noticed. There was no doubting their destination-they were headed right at us, and as they neared the boat, I noticed that the two guys were roughly the same age as Nick and myself. This of course set my mind to wandering and wondering (as it’s generally doing anyway but especially now) about what a far cry apart our lives are. We had spent hundreds of dollars to travel several thousand miles from home, only to cross paths with these two lads who I speculate have travelled only as far as their vessel would carry them (quite an assumption I know), and who were now grasping the rail of our boat hands stretched out for spare pesos. Their canoe was battered and the oars looked as though they’d spent many seasons at sea-as did the two men.

They retrieved what they could before our captain sent us into motion once again. Looking on at us with piercing stares as we drifted off, they stood for a few moments longer before settling back down into the bowels of the rowboat; their backs slumped over, arms thick from paddling at rest, eyes now just staring

blankly a thousand yards out. We motored on to the beach-which resembled one of those private beaches that Carnival Cruise Lines probably takes their legion of pasty passengers to in the Bahamas. We had a fine time of course anyway-Nick and I are good for that if nothing else. In hindsight though, absolutely nothing stands out about that day. Nothing out of the ordinary or raw did we experience as we’d hoped at 6 am-as I sit here in front of Nick’s computer typing now, only the fate of our Colombian counterparts sticks out in my poor memory. And I can’t help but think-next time, I’ll be damned if we end up on one of those tour boats-no, next time we’ll find a couple fishermen to row us around in a wooden boat held together by some exotic tree sap and luck and dig on the wild coast without even wearing lifejackets.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the night swim cometh

Near the equator, nighttime climate is very similar to that of the sweltering day-the main difference being that it’s much darker. Nick and I assumed the first night that once the menacing tropical sun fell below the horizon, the air would cool down and the humidity drop-a reasonable, albeit false, conclusion. The oppressive heat carried right along just fine and it was up to us to adapt. And so we did the only logical thing-began trekking to the ocean nightly for post sundown swim sessions. This naturally conjures up images of a white sandy beach giving way to warm-but not too warm-bluer than blue Caribbean waters wherein Nick and myself would rinse ourselves of the days accumulated perspiration. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The beaches nearest Cartagena’s city walls are not so much actual beaches as small breaks in the boulders lining the water 20’ from the busy thoroughfare that anyone coming to or from the metropolis had to take. Our chosen spot was part swimming

cove (though we never actually witnessed any swimming there night or day outside of ourselves), and part fishing boat birth. By day, the location was in no way inviting; what with all the plastic wrappers and other various refuse strewn about. Once night fell, however, you couldn’t see most of this stuff and it was hard for the eye to discern that the water was not clear blue but in fact a very

opaque grey-so we were stoked. Not that the water was very refreshing-this was one aspect of our night beach that the dark could not disguise. The sea temperature

was damn near that of the air making it feel like going for a dip in a vast, very salty lukewarm bathtub. But hey, as one surfer once remarked back in Florida when I queried him on the conditions-which turned out to be atrocious-“ah well, at least it’s wet out there.”

You’re probably asking yourself at this point why the hell we even bothered with the whole night swim expedition-but it wasn’t just about the swim. The trek to and from was among the daily high points. Our first trip over, we glanced at a map and decided simply to take the most direct route through the heavily residential portion of the old city known as San Diego. To walk through this corner of the world at night is to blur the lines of time and place. The dimly lit 17th century architecture flanking the narrow paved path on which we tread was disorienting in a beautiful way. The streets on that route were mostly absent of automobiles and flood lights do not exist in Cartagena, Colombia. Our route was mostly silent aside from the passing chatter of residents in their doorsteps. We’d be damn near convinced that a porthole in time had unwittingly been stumbled upon, when something would jolt us back to reality. For instance, when we were walking along silently deep in San Diego one and night Nick struck my arm-

“Holy shit, dude,” he frantically whispered, “that house we just passed-“


“There was a dude seated at a table pointing a pistol at another dude sitting across from him, and a lady behind him on the phone…”

“What!” I whisper-shouted. “Hey, where the hell you going?” I demanded as Nick started off back in the direction of the aforementioned gun pointer-gun pointee-phone lady scenario.

“Goin to check it out man.”

“The hell you are-this is the stuff you read about it the papers dude. It’s exactly the kind of situation you hear about some white dude getting shot down here-he sees something fishy going on and decides to ‘check it out.’”

Nick hesitated, let out a long sigh of reluctance, “yeah, guess you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” I said with a rare bit of confidence that I actually had made a sound decision. “C’mon man, let’s go to our shitty beach.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

club havanna and the hot hot heat

The first proper night we spent in Colombia was a Friday-unfortunate for us as again the little sleep we did get the previous night had been in airplane bucket

seats-not just any airplane bucket seats though, these were of the Spirit Air variety making them roughly the size of an unusually large high chair with a back. Turning in early was no option though, prone as we are to severe bouts of FOMO (fear of missing out).

And so, continuing in our rich tradition of poor decisions making, Nick and myself set out to canvass the old colonial city 500 years in age to see what its modern population had on offer. First priority was to search the labyrinth of narrow winding streets for a source of food; as is generally the case with Nick who may or may not have a tapeworm. Just inside the city walls we were approached by a friendly, if forcefully so, fellow who greeted us with a warm welcome and the kind offer of “anything we needed, anything man.” In the coming days we’d become accustomed to making such friends so easily in El Centro, but on the first night we were all too naïve and honest and so confided that all we really needed was food.

“Oh, I know the place man, real nice-come follow.”

We said what the hell and followed the unnervingly

cheery local to an establishment simply called “Bistro.” Housed in a 300 year old Mission style building, the space was of Spartan décor, bare brick walls, and enough candlelight to illuminate a midnight mass at Notre Dame. The joint was spewing Old World charm-perfect for an impossibly romantic date; I immediately felt nauseous-Nick the same. It was too late to run though without making a scene-the German proprietor had already locked us in conversation and begun to recite the entire daily menu even though it was written on a chalkboard mere feet from us. Moments later we found ourselves seated at a table-with a candle-attempting to act like the whole situation was in no way awkward.

Salvation appeared in the form of two women roughly our age who were standing before the bar receiving the German’s disrutation.

“Hey man, those girls are staying at our hostel.”

“They are, should we invite them over?.

“We have no choice-want to sit here just the two us and this damn candle?.

And so we did. Mieke from Utrecht, Holland and some other dame from Rio who’s name escapes me probably because from the moment she opened her mouth to tell us to when we finally escaped two hours later she closed it only to take a bite of her prawns-of which there were only four.

Wisteria loomed overhead dripping from the cantilevered balconies that lined our path back to Getsemani; the slightly rougher neighborhood that housed our hostel. We walked along silently; dazed from sleep deprivation and the verbal onslaught by the Brazilian monologue aficionado. Though we easily could have conceded defeat and turned in at that moment; restless spirits relented. A quick stop at Casa Vienna added Mieke to our ranks-the Brazilian talker was turning in presumably exhausted from all the poor storytelling (a bullet dodged).

The path of least resistance being our guide, we vaguely recalled a brief

mention of a small salsa bar a mere block from our lodging by a young British couple: “yeah, it’s pretty cool mate-good little live band.” Leave it to a Brit to make a monumental understatement.

We traipsed down Calle San Juan flanked by brightly colored stucco walls with faded, chipped paint to the subtly inviting entrance of Club Havana.

A line had formed, or rather a Latin line: a loose band of loiterers milling around where in the States would normally be a linear formation of revelers. 6,000 pesos gained entry into the establishment, which we handed over reluctantly. The place was straight out of a mid career Hemingway novel: 20’ white stucco walls lined with

black and white photos of what we presumed to be notable salsa musicians. White Christmas lights served as the only illumination lending a hazily romantic atmosphere to the bar-romantic in the nostalgic “I feel like I’m in pre revolution Cuba” sense. Several minutes more of rare silence passed while Nick and I took in the spectacle.

“This place is amazing.”

“Yeah, what the hell was that British guy talking about? This place is epic.”

Club Havana was packed-all locals save for the three of us who stood out like Princeton lacrosse players at a Bright Eyes concert. We shuffled toward a small gap at the bar and I made use of my height advantage (relative to the predominant Colombian stature) to summon three Club Colombia beers. The clock had just wound past 11 and the band had yet to start, but I had a good feeling about them judging by the throngs of Cartagenos who

seemed eager. Roughly half a beer passed before five confident cool cats took to the stage-a 5 by 10’ space elevated maybe 6” off the ground-just enough room for them and their noise makers. No words of introduction, no applause, the front man just glanced back at his backup and elicited an uptempo beat from the two percussionists that was quite

foreign to my ear-very Afro-beat, couldn’t place the time signature. The guitarist fell in, then accordian, trumpet section and finally the singer added his sultry voice to the cascade of sound-eyes closed. The number was intoxicating; the whole crowd immediately heeded the call and translated the beat into motion. It was damn near impossible to stand within 50’ of Club Havana while that band was going and now at least sway or tap the feet. The bar had all the energy of any great rock show I’d been to-much the same in many ways actually except these people knew how to dance. I wanted to join

them but if ever there was a place to learn salsa, this was not it. It was something akin to taking up surfing at Pipeline. As if the beautiful Colombian women weren’t intimidating enough, their sharply executed maneuvers in perfect time with dudes that all looked like Antonio Banderaslesser known brother finished off any novice aspirations.

Club Havana has no AC and Cartagena weather has no concept of the word cool. You swill the light beers there if only to stay hydrated and give yourself over to the tropical night’s tempo. Nobody worries about sweating too much, girls don’t fret

over eye shadow ru

nning (they’re generally not wearing makeup anyway-nor do they need to), the people of Cartagena just pour themselves into the infections salsa music and it’s beautiful. Nick got himself pulled into the commotion by some Ingles speaking Latina and tried his damndest to solve the mysterious dancing form. I grabbed the Dutch traveler and made a go of it-apparently salsa is huge in Holland and Mieke made me look quite the fool for a few minutes before I found the rhythm.

Nick and I stumbled upon a third wind and moved with the Colombian nocturnes until sometime after 3 am when the lights came up and the whole scene returned to the narrow streets. The 50 yards back to Casa Vienna were about as far as we could travel and our summit of the staircase felt like the final steps of Mt. Everest. We took to our beds tired and stoked and ready for a fitful rest for the following day.

There is no AC at Casa Vienna either and I didn’t sleep a damn wink.

"Commit first, figure out the details later."

I write this post-second of the trip- now on day seven, incidentally aboard one of Spirit Air’s fine craft on our last leg of the journey. This of course, is not what Nick and I set out to do when the whole trip blog idea was conceived-it was of noble intent yet fell victim to our ever present inability to sit still long enough to do anything more than drink a beer-especially when overseas. The ill fate of the blog actually serves as a good metaphor for the bulk of our endeavors. Generally they enjoy a brilliant beginning; enthusiastic planning and discussion followed by extensive publicity via word of mouth (telling everyone willing to entertain us for a moment). However, when the execution phase is finally thrust upon us, a host of distractions inevitably come rushing in derailing the project. But, as my old foreman used to say, “better late than even later.” We now press on for the sake of the few unfortunate souls with entirely too much time on their hands who may chance upon this tardy publication.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Day Uno

Day First, or technichally second though we've yet to go to sleep and really have no idea what time zone we're in, so I apologize for the lack of clarity on which portion of the trip is currently underway-keep you updated on that. By the way, if anyone can deduce what time zone Cartagena, Colombia falls under please let us know.

Anyway, sorry for the timeline tangent, on to the substantive, pressing issues that lay before us-cheif amoung them what the hell to name this blog-a subject that has been weighing on us since the inception of the voyage and largely responsible for last nights lack of sleep. Nick and myself arrived in Cartagena with our minds shrouded in fog and wholly unprepared for the level of humidity which I didn't think was possible outside of a controlled enviroment such as a sauna. Committing ourselves to thoughts concerning this ill read publication seemed illusive at best during those introductory moments. Caught a cab with my rudimentary spanish, somehow ended up at something resembling lodging on a street not much wider than my armspan, and entered the premises. We were led by the concierge, for lack of a better word, to our accomidations-a spare room that, at first glance, seemed only to contain a single double bed-much to our horror of course. Nick shrieked with panic while I remained calm, poised, waiting to verify such was indeed our plight before panicking myself.
"Oh sweet, there's a loft with another bed, whew," Nick
stated flatly breaking his unnerving cry. My attention however, was on the balcony that stood before us, cantilevered out over the street and dripping with colorful foliage. Were it not for the redeeming trash strewn street with men shoving wares in the relenting faces of passersby,
the room would have been unacceptably romantic.

Again sorry for the tangent-don't actually remeber what I set out to accomplish with this entry-in fact the blog as a whole will consist mostly of tangents so hopefully you enjoy them. We made haste out of the room eager to traverse the narrow winding streets of El Centro built roughly 400 years ago by Spanish visitors. We picked our way out of the yet-to-be-gentrified district Getsemani after several missteps, and from a winning combination of keen instinct and pure dumb luck, found ourselves at the old
clocktower that serves as the prominent point of entry to the famed El Centro. We rushed inside eager like high school dudes who've stumbled upon a stash of liquor in the pantry, and were greeted by the most strikingly beautiful collection of Spanish Mission style buildings I've encountered in all
my travels. A cohesive
aesthetic ties them together but bright tropical colors adorning the facades gives them individuality. We were really after food and a first beer so panned hawishly for a dining establishment.
"Hey Nick, look at this one," I said pointing and laughing. The sign read "American Broasted Chicken."
"That's it," Nick said reverently,
"that's what we're going to call the blog-it's a sign."
"Yes, that's true."
And so I sit here now, sweat pouring forth and delerious typing on this nascent blog on the resident hostel laptop which is approximately the size of a small stack of bills like the one I left back in Los Angeles. It has just been brought to my attention that I managed to butcher the na
me of the blog in case you haven't noticed, but it is a mute point seeing as how I am not tech savy enough to right it.
Sorry for the rambling intro-I'm on no sleep and three beers-hopefully posts will improve going forward, most likely not though.