Suburban Macondo

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.


  • I'm glad you guys are back safely and a little more educated than when you left. I'd have to say that you were dealing with a pretty nice group of locals, all in all. It COULD have been much worse! Nice post. Love, Paul

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:13 PM  

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