Suburban Macondo

Monday, April 25, 2005

Proudly, sadly half-bright

Dear Fulbright Commission members:

It is with great regret that I write this letter to you. After five months of investigating Venezuelan baseball, exploring the country up and down and intensely immersing myself in a cultural and personal search, I write to you to resign from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program effective immediately, March 15, 2005.

It has been six weeks since the Fulbright program suspended my funding halfway through my grant period. I’ve gone through the spectrum, red to violet, livid to sullen, indignant to resigned, searching for an adequate emotional and intellectual response. The second I think I’ve grasped it all and can clearly see where I am and where I’m going, everything changes and I spin back away into indecision and doubt. The trip to Cartagena, then, was the ultimate way to let all of these emotions crash into one another over and over again. The trip had been originally booked to attend the Andean Fulbright conference, but when we couldn’t refund our tickets after receiving the committee’s decision, we were stuck going the same weekend as the conference. We were stuck going to a place where there would be other real-life, still-funded Fulbrighters walking about, the government paying for their transportation, their five-star hotel and their bottles of Águila beer.

The experience afforded to me by the State Department and IIE was truly an amazing one. My experiences here in Mérida thoroughly have changed me as an investigator and as an individual, and I am grateful for the funding that I have received during the past five months.

I alternately dreaded and anticipated interaction with other Fulbrighters. They’d be there from all over the Andes, from Bolivia to Venezuela, and I knew we’d run into some of them at one point or another. Maybe on the group tour. Maybe at dinner. Maybe after the conference, at the beach. It was bound to happen.

However, the same changes that so excited me and pushed me to think outside of the sports journalism box are the same changes that ultimately led to the suspension of my grant.

I didn’t know what I’d tell them. I was sure the other Fulbrighter here in Venezuela, who is in grad school studying frogs, would explain to them what had happened. I was sure they’d come into any conversation with a fixed set of ideas about me and about my project(s). I was sure they’d judge me as I explained myself, checking to see if I’d really merited funding in the first place.

But I tried not to worry about it. Who knew if we’d actually run into anyone, particularly with the grantees holed up in their posh hotel for lectures during most of the week. Besides, we’d be seeing Cartagena our way, in backpacker hostels and small, crowded restaurants, not in a resort in the most expensive part of the city. We’d be mixing it up in the middle of it all while they stayed out on the edges, safe. I told myself this, but after spending half a night killing cockroaches at Hostal Doral, I wondered what I had been thinking when I decided to go to Fulbright with a new project proposal.

After living in Mérida for a while, I began to realize that sports journalism was not for me. I began to think of other career options and interests, and men’s studies, which I had plunged into at the end of my collegiate career, came to the fore. Although the project I proposed to you seems to be a far cry from a journalistic project on baseball, it was not that big of a jump for someone who spent much of his time reading men’s studies theory and working at a national sports magazine.

During the first week of our trip, when we were exploring Cartagena’s balconies and forts and horse-drawn carriages and shooing away flies and vendors at Playa Blanca, we didn’t see one Fulbrighter. Not one. And so no explanations were needed. It was kind of nice.

Soon enough, though, we met a couple of them. The first one came in Taganga, a small fishing village four hours east of Cartagena. She was a journalist studying internal displacement in Colombia. She was very academic. And she knew all about me.

“You’re famous, you know,” she told me. I didn’t, but I had a hunch.

The experience was a good one. I imagine that most people with grants like to talk about themselves and their projects, if only because they get so used to doing it in their home countries (Why am I here? Well, I got this grant from the government to …). So she talked a lot about her project. She told me about the amazing Fulbright commission in Colombia, which works out of the embassy in Bogotá but which provides support to grantees whenever they need it. People to help when you’re unsure of yourself! That would’ve been nice. When I got to Venezuela, I didn’t understand that the people at the embassy were my only contacts. When I re-proposed my project on Andean masculinity, I didn’t even forward them the e-mail.

And while I did not and do not agree with the evaluations made by the committee regarding my re-proposal—particularly with regard to the way those evaluations were expressed to me by the Embassy’s Bill Ancker—I now understand that the grant has much more to do with the project proposed, not with the scholar proposing it.

I guess it was the faceless nature of the program that bothered me. There were two Fulbrighters here, but it seemed like they didn’t want to deal with us at all. You’d think that in a country that carries constant travel warnings the embassy would want to keep tabs on the government-funded scholars in the country. Then again, maybe not. That would mean getting to know them, contacting them often, actually working at something.

Soon we moved on from Taganga to Parque Nacional Tayrona, a beautiful coastal area filled with rocky, tumultuous beaches, ruins and all sorts of jungle animals. There we met one more Fulbrighter, a fiction writer working in Cusco, Peru, home of the Inca empire. She was working on a historical novel about Inca women sacrificed by their own people. Intense stuff. Anyway, she and her husband had both heard a lot about me at the conference, and my suspension had started a bunch of conversations about the actual goal of the program—was it cultural exchange, as Fulbright advertises, or was it project funding?

More interesting, though, was the discussion they had about the increased politicization of the program. Apparently, the Fulbright was not administered by the State Department until several years ago. Now that it is, who’s to say that they don’t want to keep a small number of Fulbrighters in Venezuela, a country whose president once called Bush a “prick” on national television? And who’s to say that changing your project from one the embassy and state department really liked wouldn’t affect how they judged your new proposal? (As I was told by the immortal Bill Ancker, the embassy was working hard to accentuate the positive interactions between Venezuela and the United States, and baseball was the one thing the countries had in common. "We really liked the baseball project.")

As Bill told me on the phone Monday, “Unfortunately, we have to evaluate you on paper.” On paper, my project apparently did not stand up to the rigorous standards of the Fulbright program.

In some ways, I was probably better off not knowing what other Fulbrighters felt. This writer, Rebecca, spent a lot of time with us in Tayrona, and it was refreshing to mull over our frustrations with the program, conversations that made me realize that I hadn’t had much of a connection to anybody during my grant period in Venezuela. I had been a freelance grantee, far from the embassy and lacking guidance throughout one period in my life in which it would have been really helpful. Having an academic community, or at least a support system, around me certainly would have helped. Knowing the people in the embassy trusted me and were interested in my personal growth would have been nice, too.

But in the future I urge you as a committee to stand behind the hundreds of researchers, reporters, artists and writers who earn Fulbright grants every year. We are driven, successful and thoughtful people who want to work and study and understand the cultures in which we are living. At times, we even change our minds about what it is we want to be researching, reporting or creating. Remember that you chose us scholars and thinkers not only for our projects, which are often fascinating and eye-opening, but also for our personalities, our past experiences, and our dreams. Trust that we, as dedicated grantees, will make the right decisions with regard to our career goals and interests.

By the time we left Tayrona, the Fulbright experience had taken on a whole new meaning for me. In some ways, I came to understand that when I applied for the grant, back in Fall 2003, I was the perfect candidate. I had been successful in my field, I had in-country contacts, and I had an interesting, multi-faceted project that would inform one culture about the other. (And it was a project about baseball.) But by the time I received the grant, in the late spring of 2004, I was not nearly as good a candidate. I was starting to think about a fiction-writing career, or an academic one, and sports journalism didn’t interest me nearly as much as it once had. Of course, Fulbright never knew this.

And most importantly, get to know us. Don’t wait until regional conferences—get out and meet the people you are funding. If you do that, I’m sure this program won’t be solely about proposals and check-signing, but rather about people and the amazing visions they aspire to understand.

I hope to leave it all behind now, to move forward with my writing and my individual studies. I hope to forget about the frustrations of these past six months, about the indecision I’ve suffered through since last summer. I hope to do what I want to do, what I need to do. And I hope that at some point, Fulbright understands that they could have handled my situation differently, and better.

Because, in the end, not every decision should be made on paper.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Manuel from Santana

Brooke was sitting off to my right, getting a massage under a thatched hut on Playa Blanca. The exchange went kind of like this.

“Beautiful here, no?” The dark-skinned man was standing in front of me, a fanny pack around his waist.

“Sure is.” I didn’t want to encourage him too much. I just wanted quiet.

“Where are you from? You look like you have Latino roots.”

“I don’t.”

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.” I was looking past him as I spoke.

“Good people, Americans. Them and Italians actually buy stuff here. Germans, they don’t buy anything. Nothing. A bottle of water and that’s it. No jewelry, no nothing. And they get mad at us for selling.” He shook his head at the thought and settled onto his haunches, squatting.

We were staying at Campamento Wittenberg, a makeshift group of shacks with hammocks run by a Frenchman named Gilbert. His Colombian wife, Ana, told us that there were 280 vendors working Playa Blanca at any given time.

“Oh, yeah?” This guy wanted to talk. I had nowhere to go. I might as well let him.

“My name is Manuel.”


“What do you think, Ian?” He pulled out a thick tangle of necklaces from his pouch.
“I’ve got tiger’s eye, Asian star, pearl …”

He faded out. The necklaces came one at a time, slowly. He ignored my disinterest and went through half of his pack. Finally, I’d had enough.

“Sorry, buddy. I don’t wear necklaces. I don’t have any money to buy one, either.”
“Okay.” He sat there, thumbing through his necklaces. A pause.

“You two married?” He looked at Brooke.


“You have kids?”


“I’ve got two. One’s three, the other’s turning two this week. Two boys.” He smiled.

Ana told us that many of the vendors’ children stop going to school in 1st or 2nd grade. She said they don’t want to go, and the parents don’t make them.

“What are there names?”

“Jacobo and Jacondo. They’re different names.”

“Where did those names come from?”

“From a book. One time, I met an Italian guy whose name was Jacobo, and he bought from me because my son had his same name.”

“I have nine siblings, too. They live all over the place, now that Mom died. Two live in Panamá, even. Families fall apart when mothers die.”

“ ”

More thumbing through the necklaces.

“Where do you live?” I needed to ask him something. He wasn’t going to leave.

“In Santana, a village on the other side of the island. It’s a two-hour walk to the beach. Four hours each day.”

Ana told us that basically the entire village of Santana works on Playa Blanca. Although some walk, there is a special bus just for villagers that costs 1,000 pesos each way.

“That’s a lot of walking. Is the business here that good?”


“Do you sell enough?”

“Not really. Sometimes my wife and I don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes we sit down for dinner to nothing.”

Ana, a brown-skinned woman, told us the morenos, as black people are known in Colombia, don’t like to work or learn to improve themselves. She said the vendors spend all their money gambling dominoes and drinking rum.

“It’s hard here, huh?”


He has all of the necklaces on his wrist.

“You don’t want a necklace? Five thousand pesitos.”

“No, sorry.”

“ ”

“Why is that all you guys sell the same things?”

“That’s all there is to sell. We get them in Santana.”

“Is there competition?”

“Sure, but it’s friendly. I don’t want to kill anyone over 5,000 pesos.”

“It must be hard. Most tourists don’t come here hoping to shop. They just want to come to a quiet beach, and then there are 50 guys trying to sell them stuff.”

“I know the tourists want to relax. We have to make a living.”

“But maybe if you changed your tactics—have a table on the beach instead of harassing the people who come …”

“ ”

“It’s just that not everyone wants to buy.”

“But they have money, and we don’t.”

I couldn’t keep this up much longer.

“Do you leave the island much?”

“I don’t have the chance to, hardly ever. You sure you don’t want this one? It’s real pearl, from the river.”

It was plastic, I think.

“No, thanks. Sorry.”

“You don’t want even one? Not as a keepsake of Playa Blanca?”

“No, thanks. Sorry.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

He got up, looked down the beach, and spied a boat entering the bay. He starting walking toward it down the shore, and I lay back, tired.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The shell game

A day later we watched from the beach as the boat pulled up to Playa Blanca and several fair-haired, pink-skinned girls steadied themselves as they prepared to hop out to the beach in their sarongs and bikini tops. They were here for the white sand, the blue-green water, the coral, the hammocks, the rustic adventure of it all. They hadn’t yet noticed the crowd waiting for them on the shore, some with beaded necklaces, some with string bracelets, others with small tubes of massage oil, still others with white buckets. It was the three bucket men that these girls needed to avoid. That much we had already learned.


We had gone by taxi down to Cartagena’s Mercado Bacurto to find a bus or a boat to Playa Blanca, supposedly one of the loveliest beaches near the city. As our cab stopped a young man approached and asked where we were going. Playa Blanca? 20,000 pesos per person on the boat. We’re leaving soon. Let’s go.

We didn’t want to spend that much money ($8 a person), especially just to get there. The beach was on the Isla de Barú, an island 20 km from the city, and we didn’t even know how good it would be. So we hemmed and we hawed and we haggled. Finally they dropped the price to 15,000 each, and that was good enough for us.

We were on an informal dock area on Cartagena’s back bay, a filthy, bug-infested and stench-infused area across from the city’s main market. If we had known that we would spend the next 90 minutes sitting in a docked little motorboat, breathing in the occasional exhaust of other moving boats and shooing away flies and soda vendors alike, we probably would have jumped on the next bus to Santa Marta and forgotten entirely about Playa Blanca. If only.

At one point we actually left, only to come back because the pilot forgot that he needed to buy something at the market. Apparently, the previous 90 minutes were just to jog the captain’s memory of what it was that he needed. When he returned 15 minutes later with a bag of mangos, we were ready to mutiny.

We got set to leave, and of course the engine wouldn’t start, and of course it took 10 more minutes to actually hear anything more than the muttered swears of our trusty pilot. Brooke and I couldn’t believe it when we did leave, and we were in shock when, 30 minutes later, we pulled up on a pretty beach. Playa Blanca, finally.

We hopped out on the beach and within seconds were surrounded by a group of men and women selling things. We tried to dismiss them all, but they were persistent. So we sat down on the beach and went with a different approach. “Listen, we just got here,” we started. “Give us a few minutes to get oriented and then we’ll talk.” Apparently, “a few minutes” in Spanish translates to “as soon as we’re done talking” on Isla de Barú. One guy had hammocks just up the beach—para un buen precio. Another guy had snorkeling gear. We, by the way, still had on our clothes and backpacks. Snorkeling hadn’t even crossed our minds.

Then this short guy squats in front of us and shoves this rock-like thing into my hand. “Here,” he told me, “a present for you.” I looked at it with the knowledge that there are no presents for tourists in Latin America, said no, thanks, and handed it to Brooke. Then I see the word ostra—oyster—written on the bucket. The guy then introduced himself as Pepe and told me that his oysters were really good.

“But I don’t like oysters,” I said.

“But they’re really good,” he said.

“But I just told you, I don’t eat them,” I said, again.

“But it’s a present,” he said, obviously. “This one is a present for you.”

He then snatched the oyster from Brooke’s hand, cracked it with a knife that had been sitting in the bucket, and handed her part of a shell with a small raw oyster in it. Brooke looked at me, then at the oyster, and then shrugged her shoulders and sighed. She was about to put it to her lips when Pepe reached out and grabbed her hand. He quickly reached back with his free hand, jammed it into the bucket and suddenly brandished … a lime. He squeezed the lime over the oyster and handed it back to her. She ate it.

“Good, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said.

And then he cracked another part of the oyster and fed her another piece. And another. And another. Brooke wasn’t that interested, but obliging. It was free, you know? Soon enough, she didn’t want more, but there was only a little left, so she gulped down the last two. Pepe held out a pile of shells in his hand and started counting them. “Twelve, 13, 14,” he counted. “Fourteen. You owe me for 14. That’s 1,500 pesos each.” With that, he walked triumphantly to the water, cleaned off his knife, and smiled.


Because I’d stopped paying attention when Brooke was eating the oysters, it took me a second to realize what was happening. It’s one thing to get ripped off down here; it’s quite another to have some guy tell you he’s giving you one oyster and then expect you to pay him for his stupid, infantile trick. I mean, this was one of the dumbest scams I’d ever seen. We were not paying this guy for 14, that was for sure. I thought it was kind of funny.

Brooke, on the other hand, was livid. She was ready to take the oyster shells and jam them into Pepe’s eyes. “That was a trick!” she nearly yelled. “We’re not paying!”
The other vendors were still standing in a circle, laughing to themselves. They said things like, “But you ate them all!” and “You gotta pay!” Pepe walked back and told us we owed him 21,000 pesos.

I looked at them all and laughed. This would take a while.

“We’re not paying you that much,” I started. “We might be gringos, but we’re students. We don’t have a lot of money—I mean, we live in Venezuela!”

To this the peanut gallery nodded. Good people, Venezuelans. Brown-skinned, too.

I looked at the circle. “Do you think this is right? Should we pay? I want to know how Colombians think.”

Yeah, you should pay. She ate them. He said she got one free, not 14.

This wasn’t going anywhere. “Do you know what people think about Colombia?” I said, getting louder. “That it’s a country full of thieves, drug addicts and people who want to screw gringos? I didn’t believe it, but since we’ve gotten here I’ve seen a lot of that. And now you guys. So that’s what we’ll tell people when we go back. ‘Don’t go to Colombia.’ And what is this place without tourism? What will you do without people to buy your food and sleep in your hammocks?”

The rest of them were quiet while I spoke. Brooke was really upset, shaking her head and happy that she was wearing sunglasses. When I finished they told me to lower my voice and asked me what I wanted to pay. Things were turning my way. I went up to Pepe and told him that I wanted to talk just with him. We walked away from the group and I asked him what he wanted. “Five thousand pesos.” I offered 4,000.

“But listen,” I said, looking at his face while he looked at my feet. “Don’t do this to people. It’s stupid, and they won’t buy anything from you or anyone else. And they won’t stay long.

“And do me a favor. Go to my wife and apologize. She deserves it.”

He did. I paid him his $1.50, but I felt like we had won some sort of battle. Finally.


Pepe was in the group waiting for the pink-skinned girls. The guy with the hammocks was there, and so was the older man with the snorkeling gear. The round woman who gave massages was in the group, toward the back. The girls tried to wave them off, but the pack persisted. As the girls—I think they were German—walked down the beach, the group followed. I was disgusted. Pepe hung back a bit, then turned. He saw me looking at them all, shaking my head, and he just walked slowly behind the group. Another guy with a white bucket was next to one of the girls.

“Here, I’ll give you one as a present.”

I got up and walked back to my hammock.

Poor in Cartagena

At first you don’t notice the difference. They lie there, under a doorway or on a flattened cardboard box or, on one occasion, in a garden near Cartagena’s pirate-proof outer wall, and they look like bums. They wear tattered clothes. They roll over in waking sleep. They cover their faces with their arms and stir occasionally, doing what they can to avoid the afternoon heat. You think that’s maybe the best way to avoid the ugliness of it all, the difficulty of pleading for money, the pain and embarrassment of struggling to fill a shrinking stomach.

Then you realize these bums are kids, 10, 12, 14 years old. You realize the child who approached you the other night, asking for a few pesos for a potato or two, is curled up against a church door, sleeping at noon. Later that night you’ll see him again near the clock tower, fishing through garbage cans and eating someone else’s trash out of aluminum foil, while you sip your Colombian lager. And you start to realize that poverty here has no more devastating face that that of a child, tired, indifferent, hopeless, alone.


In Mérida there isn’t a lot of visible abject poverty. There are beggars, sure; most of them congregate on the Avenida 4 side of Plaza Bolívar, asking for money in the shadow of the cathedral. Many have physical deformities or are in some way infirm. They sit among the mimes and the popcorn vendors, quietly, sometimes silently, requesting your help.

The working poor, however, are in full force in Mérida, and indeed in all of Venezuela. Buhoneros, or street vendors, fill certain alleys and sidewalks downtown, all selling the same pairs of knockoff Nike socks or Colombian underwear. They are a relatively new part of urban Venezuela, and they are often mentioned by the opposition as examples of the country’s decline under Chávez’s presidency. But they merely make congested, dirty streets slightly more congested and dirty.

There aren’t a lot of kids begging in the city. There are little kids—8-year-olds, 10-year-olds—trying to sell incense, but they know the score and aren’t too persistent. After all, no one wants incense. Why they’re out selling, not what they’re selling, is the important question; where are their parents, and what are they doing?

In Venezuela, it’s the ranchos, or huge slums on the outskirts of most cities, that are the most eye-catching and appalling examples of poverty. In Caracas, the ranchos work their way up the surrounding hills, giving the appearance, from the posh districts in the distance, of a giant red-brick tidal wave, poised to spill over the city at any minute. From up close the ranchos are far more particulate, chaotic: They build up and off of each other in all directions, connected by a twisting, hanging array of staircases and pathways, the traces of which end abruptly at the most unlikely of intervals. At least a million people live there, but you don’t know them. You don’t see them. They might pass before you during the day outside of their hillside maze but you don’t ever go there, even near there. They’ll take everything, down to your socks, your life. That’s what our friends tell us.

Here in Venezuela, the poor have a new status, one thrust upon them by Chávez when he took office in 1998. He relies on their votes, they on his social programs. Never before had the poor been so empowered by a politician in this country. There are literacy campaigns in the ranchos, Cuban doctors in the ranchos, a bit of organization and hope in the ranchos. There is fear outside of these barrios of what would happen if they were to assert themselves, if Chávez gave them the OK to take over the cities, the countryside. And there is a fear that if Chávez is killed, or less likely, voted from office, the ranchos will explode and a country with oil in its lifeblood instantaneously will burn from the inside of its fears out.


In Colombia there is no Chávez, and there is no oil money to support broad-reaching social programs. There is an American-backed government. There is international aid. There are also the FARC’s guerillas, the apparently brutal paramilitaries, and the gringo planes spraying coca fields and campesinos with pesticides to end, once and for all, a foreign country’s War on Drugs. All of this has led to an incredible amount of internal refugees, or rural Colombians fleeing to the country’s cities; in fact, Colombia is behind only Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in overall numbers of internal refugees.

I don’t know but suppose that many of the displaced end up in Bogotá. I have no idea how many end up along the coast, in a city like Cartagena. But the fact that there is that much civil unrest—including a never-ending war—elsewhere seems to imply that no one place could be immune to the problem, and that general poverty could be heightened by the other problems festering in the general Colombian consciousness.

In Cartagena, though, the main draw for beggars and the working poor are obviously the tourists. They are everywhere, and from everywhere—Asia, Europe, the United States, Latin America, other places in Colombia. There are pitches for them all. Some are in Colombia for the coke and pot, and around all of the backpacker hostels in Getsemaní (a dingy, uneasy place where no one, including J.C., would go to pray in the face of impending death) lurk shoeless, battered men sitting on stoops whispering, “Coca. Ganja.” Some are in Colombia for the handicrafts, and for them there are artisans on every corner, in every plaza, many selling the same string of beads as the guy next to him. Others are there to spend their money on international cuisine and thousand-dollar purses, and the homeless go straight for the direct appeal with these people, providing a contrast often too stark to overlook. Still others are there for the local culture, for the feel of Colombia, much like we were. These are the people on whom the kids rely, first talking to us or making a joke to feel us out, then asking us for a little bit of change for some food. That it’s a cat-and-mouse game is sad; that these kids have to pretend to be interested in us and our lives and essentially play the role of the benevolent poor kid—instead of just telling us they’re hungry and homeless—was one of the most difficult aspects for me to grasp.

It’s hard, too, to think about these kids’ collective future. Where will they be in five years? What can be done to help them? I understand fully that Brooke and I can’t fix the problems of a poor Colombian child by giving him or her a 500-peso coin. I also know that not giving the child those 500 pesos isn’t going to deter him or her from begging, and that a couple of thin days won’t make him or her see the light of hard work and try to will follow in Ragged Dick’s footsteps on the strength of his or her pluckiness. After all, there is no American Dream in Colombia.

Might those 500 pesos help the child eat that night, though? Of course. Of course. And that’s why I have this hollow feeling looking back at the remaining piles of pesos from our vacation, 500s and 200s and 100s and 50s all hurriedly thrown in a backpack at some point along the way. Why did we hoard them so in Cartagena? Here in Venezuela, they are worthless keepsakes. You might even get one along the way, a memento from our trip. Remember: 500 pesos for a potato, 100 a mango.

The living museum

Early morning is the golden time in walled-in Old Cartagena. The sun is low, the vendors have yet to make their way into the center, and the beggar children are curled up in doorways, sleeping away restless nights. The plazas hardly stir; the streets shuffle around and squint in the creeping light. The Living Museum will not open for several hours.

If you are like us, then, early morning is the time to see Cartagena.

There are not many colonial South American cities with the European beauty and grace of Cartagena. It is certainly singular when compared to its run-down, unkempt colleagues along the Caribbean coast in both Colombia and Venezuela. In the whole of Latin America, probably only San Juan, Santo Domingo and Havana can stand with Cartagena in terms of past and present grandeur. And like its three sisters to the north, the city is a tourist hub, a package-tour dream, an all-inclusive cruise’s signature docking point. Cartagena is the kind of city highlighted in the monthly airline trade magazine found in your seat-back pocket, and it comes highly recommended by travel agents and distant family members alike.

All of this attention brings tourists, and plenty of them, to the island-city situated halfway between Panama and Venezuela on Colombia’s northern coast. They bring their money and their expectations of a European oasis set in darkest South America—civilization in the midst of the most notorious of uncivilized Latin American countries. They yearn to see streets trodden since the city’s founding in 1533. They plan out tours of the city’s forts and military outposts, which protected Cartagena from the sieges of European pirates like Sir Francis Drake throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, by which time the city had become the main Spanish port on the coastline and the gateway to the rest of South America. They come for the nearby beaches, the resorts, the shopping, the comfort. They come in droves.

The city, in need of the revenue and filled with the pride of having real historic treasures, spends and spends to restore and maintain the historic district. As a result, the center of Cartagena is perhaps more beautiful now than it was back during Spanish control, especially when compared to the rest of sprawling, gray, depressing modern Cartagena. Its churches are robust and proud, its plazas airy and inviting, its balconies lovingly rendered and omnipresent. It is an ideal at 8 in the morning.

But soon enough The Living Museum clears the sand from its eyes and starts its day. The paying customers, with their digital cameras and their “I’ve been to Cartagena” t-shirts and their goofy shorts with sandals and socks, flock to the dungeons-turned-gift shops, the trendy boutiques and the plaza-filling cafés. The workers hawk their goods, be they necklaces or hats or tapestries or Botero knockoffs or hammocks or emeralds or tours of a nearby archipelago or lunch specials or massages or hair-braiding services. It’s numbing and tiring and inescapable. The Living Museum is open every day, and every day it is full.

It’s hard to be a part of it all. Everyone plays his or her part, and there is something for everyone to consume: history, fine cuisine, cheap trinkets, not-so-cheap trinkets, designer bags, local flavor. It's the reason why Cartagena is so enticing, but it’s also why it’s so nauseating.

That’s why we found ourselves most happy in the morning. Brooke could paint, unmolested. I could think, unharassed. We could move in and out of the colonial pathways without the trappings of modern culture, and more importantly, without the modern frustrations of tourism. In a sense, it was like sneaking into a museum before it opened: No one was there to bother us, and so we had more time to linger on each precious inset doorway, each flower-shaded patio, each brick in the city’s impregnable outer wall. It was our way to enjoy the space.

But, as always, we developed museum glaze. Do you know the feeling, when you think you’ve spent too much time viewing pre-Colombian pottery or walked through too many rooms filled with Impressionist paintings and you can’t see but for outlines, dark against light, pigment blottings, and your eyelids deaden and your feet drag beneath you? A place even as outstanding as Cartagena can do that to you, too. And that’s why, after a while, we had to get out of The Living Museum. You can only look at and experience its permanent collection for so long.

Borderline crazy

There are ways to start vacations. There are ways to not start vacations. And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it … well, once: Having communication problems at the Colombian border is not a way to start your vacation.

Initially, back when Fulbright was paying for the trip to Cartagena, we had thought about flying (in)direct from Mérida to Caracas to Bogotá to Cartagena before realizing that flying east to go west was not only stupid but also expensive. Since we were to pay for Brooke’s ticket, we decided to see more of the Venezuelan Andes by taking a bus to the Venezuelan-Colombian border, cross into the Colombian city of Cúcuta, and fly to Cartagena via Bogotá from there. It seemed easy enough.

We really haven’t learned anything here, have we?

The bus ride from Mérida to San Cristóbal, a small city an hour and a half from the border, turned out to be an indictment of Venezuelan infrastructure and disaster relief. Four months removed from intense flooding that wiped out several villages and left thousands homeless throughout the country’s Western Andes, the mountains’ major thoroughfare—the so-called Trans-Andean Highway—was a jolting mess of potholes and washed-out roads. The end of the dry season meant that the parched river beds were once again filling with water, which meant crossing 50-yard-wide streams while looking off in the distance at the twisted remains of steel bridges mangled during the flooding. It was a long ride.

We stayed in San Cristóbal with the intention of taking a bus to Cúcuta, or at least the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio de Táchira, the following day. When we arrived at the terminal early the next morning, we saw a group taxi service that brought you to Cúcuta for just around $2 a person. As we were putting our stuff into the trunk, two national guardsmen/cops rolled up and asked us where we were going. Um, Colombia? They asked us to bring our stuff to the office so they could check our bags. Standard procedure.

I could exaggerate the experience and go on and on about civil liberties, but the check was pretty routine, and I’ve heard enough horror stories from our Venezuelan friends to know that this was not treatment reserved for gringos. The guardsmen weren’t so sure about the daily vitamins I brought with me (“They’re not drugs,” I assured them), and they said they couldn’t search Brooke because there wasn’t a guardswoman there to do it. The whole situation was annoying, and a bit jarring if only because we haven’t had that experience here, but it basically went without a hitch. After a search and some questions about what we were doing in Venezuela, we went back through the terminal and jumped in the car. When asked if we were going directly to Cúcuta, I gave an immediate, smiling “¡Sí!” I liked the sound of direct.

The car was filled with three other people, but the ride through the green mountains was quiet. Soon enough we got to San Antonio, and we approached the big customs gate in front of the Simon Bolívar International Bridge, which connects the two countries. There was traffic, and Brooke and I started thinking about our flight at 11, but soon we were through the post and on the bridge. We crossed over and smiled at our accomplishment. We’d read so much about guerillas and paramilitaries and Pablo Escobar and American spraying of coca plants (and farmers) that we were excited at finally going to this strange, and at one time extremely violent, place. Brooke gripped our passports and readied them for the border officials. But we passed by the Colombian border control and kept right on going toward Cúcuta, 4 km away. Maybe, we thought, we take care of our documents at the bus terminal.

That, obviously, was not the case. When we finally mentioned stamping our passports to our driver in downtown Cúcuta, he looked at me funny. “But you said you were going direct to Cúcuta,” he said, plainly. I did, didn’t I …

The next hour was a blur. We were now really worried about the time, since it was 9:45 and we still didn’t have stamped passports. But we soon realized that we lost an hour in a border time-change, so we were a bit less stressed when we jumped in another cab and headed back to the border. It was, like the U.S.-Canadian border, an open one. That’s why we didn’t stop the first time—none of the other passengers needed to stamp anything or pay any tributes. We zipped through the streets of San Antonio until we reached the hidden offices of the DIEX, or border officials, and got our passports stamped and exit fees paid. We cut through traffic and hopped out in front of the DIAN on the Colombian side to take care of the border formalities there. And then we sped off to the airport, paid way more for transportation than we’d wanted to in the first place, and sat down, trying to forget what had just happened.

So far, our Colombian experience had mirrored our time in Venezuela: disorienting, frustrating, and at some level, highly comical. And we still hadn’t even gotten on our plane yet.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Off to Colombia

If you want to make your mother shake, your father chide you to be safe and your in-laws scratch their heads in disbelief, tell them you're going to Colombia. It'll work, without fail.

Brooke and I are heading there tomorrow. We're crossing the border in Cúcuta and then flying to Cartagena, the colonial jewel by the sea, and we'll be there for several days. After that, we're off to Tayrona National Park and Santa Marta for a little R&R at the beach. Tough life, I tell you. Tough life.

Anyway, I look forward to regaling you with stories of kind Colombians fighting back the stereotypical images of a lawless, guerilla-war-torn country. I have no idea if that will be our reality, but regardless, we'll heed the advice of our trusty Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring:

"Don't wear any khaki-colored clothing or army surplus uniforms, as the military may take you for a guerilla, or the guerilla for a military—it's not clear which is worse. Be sure to try as many exotic fruits as you can—Colombia is famous for them. For both safety and scenery, do your overland travel during daytime only."

So let me get that straight ... no camo, eat fruit and travel during the day to not get killed. Gotcha. One thing I wonder, though: Did they put their tips in order of importance? If so, they must have some damn good fruit there in Colombia.

I'll be sure to keep you informed.

Monday, April 04, 2005


I am having a quiet day today.

After several days with strep throat, after just one day of antibiotic treatment, and after a terrible night of sleep that included a dream in which the insides of my throat—tonsils, uvula, vocal chords, the whole shebang—were gutted in surgery, I decided it was best to not speak for a day.

I don’t pretend to have any mystical knowledge about the power of being mute. It’s funny, though. Brooke has a book that our friend Jessie gave her that deals with activism and spirituality, and while many of the lessons come in Chicken Soup for the Soul-type parables, others are quite engaging and without the New Agey feel-your-energy-circles vibe. (I mean, the book is called The Spritual Activist: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work, and Your World. Wouldn’t “your life” or “your world” have covered it?) Several weeks ago she told me about the idea of the silent retreat, or a several-day journey into the soundlessness. No talking, no noise. Just silence at your beck and call.

When we talked about it, I thought it was a good idea. People need to let go of certain stresses—why shouldn’t verbal communication, stressful for many people, be one of them? But then Brooke read me a story about a Western man who was going whole hog on the silent treatment: He wasn’t going to speak for a whole year. Not to his coworkers. Not to his clients. Not to his family. No one. Just a lot of nods and smiles and gestures and scribbles. No three-foot library voice. No theater whisper. Nada.

It struck me as odd, and difficult. I imagined a guy in some cubicle at Ernst & Young preparing for a group brainstorming session or staying up late with his management team, shrugging his shoulders every time someone asked, “Bill, whattya think?” There’s no way it could last, at least not without a pink slip or two to stuff into hushed pockets along the way.

Today I finally read the story. In silence, no less. Not surprisingly, the one-year mute does not work in an office. Also not surprising is that he is yoga instructor—actually, he teaches something called Danskinetics, or a combo of dance, yoga, group interaction and aerobic workout, a mixture that defies even my most imaginative attempts at understanding—and that he sometimes goes by his Sanskrit name, Nateshvar. (His Christian name is Ken Scott. I’ve got nothing.)

But I’m not going to get down on our resident yoga instructor, er, Danskinesiologist. I think he’s onto something. Non-verbal communication enhances your other senses and certainly draws on your creativity. Today I also have been more productive, more interested in reading and writing and more thoughtful than I normally am in my day-to-day life here in Mérida. The problem with it all, of course, is that it’s a lonely game, non-verbal communication. There are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, a figure that doesn’t even include dialects. There are 200 languages with a million or more speakers. Twenty-seven of those have at least 50 million speakers. If you can speak English, you can communicate with 400 million people; if you can speak Spanish, too, you can talk with 371 million more.

If you don’t speak, and you don’t sign, and you don’t feel like writing much, then that leaves you a pretty small group of people with whom to communicate.

But ultimately, why am I writing all of this, aside from the fact that I’ve been quiet all day? Isn’t there something ironic about a silent person needing to tell a bunch of people that he’s not talking? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of being quiet? Maybe, although my initial reasoning was to avoid imaginary scalpels and sign-language classes.

While silence obviously hasn’t put off my rambling, or cleared up my thought process, a little bit of it might do wonders for you. So, shut up for once. Fake laryngitis. Use duct tape. Be quiet during lunch. Do it after dinner. Get all noiseless at the park. Go solo, or grab yourself a silent accomplice.

And while you’re at it, help me figure out how to teach group interaction while not talking. That’s been bothering me all day, Nateshvar.