Category Archives: Travels

art is a war 12

A woman from the Netherlands was looking for someone to go to Guatape with.  The main attraction there is a giant stone with steps to the top.  Not only was it a Sunday, the next day was a holiday, Dia de Raza, which combines Columbus Day with a celebration of the indigenous population of Colombia.  Someone suggested that the traffic might be badly impacted, but the woman was set on heading out anyway.  I decided to wait a few days and go when I bought my ticket to Cartagena, since buses to both places leave from the same station.  That gave me the day to mop up what I hadn’t seen of Medellin already.

There was a park close to the museum that I’d strolled through a few times.  It was full of graffiti and murals, and a dirty river ran through it where young people squatted on the banks, drinking beer and smoking weed.  A little further along was a museum called the Memory House.  It dealt, largely in conceptual terms, with the country’s long history of armed conflict, as well as the thousands of people who simply disappeared during that time, and have continued to do so, even after the signing of the peace accord.  There were glass boxes of small possessions that had been left behind, as well as a spinning wheel with the manifold consequences of having someone you love just walk out one day, never to return.  In one dark room, pictures of individuals and families appeared on television screens that then went blank.

Exiting the museum on the ground floor brought me back to a trail that ran around the park.  In one dark corner of it, beneath a freeway underpass, was a small homeless village, where beyond just importing easy chairs and couches, someone had scraped together the means of running an auto-repair shop.  This was all done beneath a mural of a grimacing skull, decked out in a bandana and baseball hat.

Walking in the direction of Parque Berrio, which by now had become a daily routine, I happened across a standoff between a homeless man and a few attendants of a parking lot.  They had evicted him from the premises, but he came back with a piece of scrap wood, threatening, perhaps, to teach them some respect.  He advanced with his stick and they all stepped back, but then they surged forward as one to force him back into the street.  Later I was to see the same man with some fresh scrapes, confronting another homeless man and following him down the street, recycling the same insults and challenges that hadn’t worked on the attendants.

Up until now I hadn’t gone beyond the outdoor market beneath the Berrio Transit stop as the intensity of it acted as a sort of natural border.  Breaking through on this day, however, made me glad I had because it brought me to Plaza Botero, where dozens of the fat sculptures that are the artist Fernando Botero’s signature design clutter the square and create a festive environment for visitors looking for photo ops.  A fat woman on the back of a fat bull, a fat angel, a fat hand, a fat cat, a fat couple facing each other, a fat dog, a fat horse, a fat mother with a fat child on her knee, any creature conceivable, made fat and thereby recognizable as a Botero.

Also on display, outside of the Museo de Antioquia, interspersed with the sculptures, were hookers of all ages and stripes, creating their own outdoor gallery.  A few of them, curled up inside one of the sculptures, called to me.  Others in doorways made kissing faces from a distance.  One, as voluminous as a Botero, a priestess in high heels, stood in my way, determined not to let me pass.  If they could’ve seen my bank account, they all would’ve scattered like flies.

On my return, the folk musicians with the amplifier were at work in front of the Metro, getting people to dance.  In a corner, three guitarists stood facing each other, still working on their act.  One old man with a Bible and microphone was delivering a sermon to those seated on the steps leading to the station.  Another woman, perhaps a healer, had those in a circle around her with their hands raised over their heads.

That night at the hostel, I talked to the girl who’d been determined to visit Guatape.  She said because of the traffic it had taken her six hours just to travel one way, and that by the time she arrived she’d needed to immediately hop on one of the last return buses, so she hadn’t even been able to make it to the top of the famous stone.  That had been a bullet dodged.  There are reasons to travel alone.

art is a war 13

It was not my first time in Colombia.  I’d been there in 2008, right before quitting my teaching job in Los Angles and dropping out of society for the next fourteen years and counting.  Back then I’d flown into Ecuador and traveled overland all the way to Cartagena and back.  The government had only recently signed a peace treaty with FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the atmosphere had still been tense.  Traveling though the high mountain roads there’d been numerous military checkpoints, and you were never really sure whose soldiers you were talking to. 

Now the plan was to return to Cartagena once again.  The final thing I wanted to do in Medellin was to go see Guatape, but after hearing how bad the traffic had been that weekend, and fearing more of the same over the holiday, decided to go on the same day I checked out of the hostel, and then take the night bus to Cartagena.  By then I’d passed the Terminal Transporte de Norte a few times on the Metro, so knew how to get there on the blue line.  Buses to Guatape left every twenty minutes.  Before hopping on one, I tracked down a company that serviced Cartagena and bought a ticket for a bus leaving at ten that night.

It is common in Latin America for traveling salespeople to hop from bus to bus.  Usually, they are selling food, which they carry in baskets or coolers.  If it is a product, like toothpaste, they usually have a speech attached to it that they will launch into once the bus starts moving and they’ve had a chance to hand a sample to everyone, whether you’re interested or not.  After wrapping up the pitch, they come back around, either taking back the samples or collecting money from those they’ve convinced to make a purchase. 

On the bus to Guatape, a boy rapper got on with a beatbox and personalized rap for everyone onboard. The ones who couldn’t bother to give him a few pesos got the biggest laughs when he managed to rhyme cheap with whatever physical characteristic most defined them.  I was too easy a target.  I almost threw money at him to avoid getting called out, and in return just got a fist bump, as opposed to becoming the unwilling star of a clown show.

It only took two hours to get to Guatape, and I was doubly glad I hadn’t gone two days earlier, only to sit in traffic for six hours.  You could see the famous rock from a long way off.  It’s six hundred and fifty feet tall and surrounded by a man-make lake, the result of a dam that made peninsulas and islands of the countryside thirty years earlier.

The bus dropped us off at a stairway, surrounded by a few vendors and food stands.  These were the stairs just to get to the rock, not to climb it.  It wasn’t far to the entrance, but was all uphill.  Just walking a little way, however, you could already see the lay of the lakes and the land below, both different shades of green, the water almost emerald.   It was a cloudy day, but not a rainy one.  It could’ve been a tropical planet in a science-fiction movie.

Reaching the parking lot and entrance, the rock was now right in front of me, at the end of a strip of restaurants and gift shops.  A metal staircase ran like a zipper all the way to the top.  The fee to climb it was twenty thousand pesos, about four dollars.  All in all, there were over seven hundred steps.  Right away I got busy.  There were a few viewpoints along the way to stop and take a picture or catch your breath. 

At the top there was a platform where you could look down on the land from four directions.  One man was having his girlfriend take pictures of him from every angle.  I’d already waited for him once.  Now he was at it again, not smiling, just looking cool for the camera.  I brushed past him for one quick shot and he turned very serious, saying would I mind, they were trying to take a picture.  I told him I didn’t mind.  He’d taken many pictures already.  At that point he just stared, but I shrugged it off.  There’s a difference between taking a picture and staging a photo shoot.  I wasn’t going to try to explain to him what that is.

The bus back to Medellin was full, with some people standing in the aisle.  At one point I tried to meditate, but must have dozed off because the next thing I knew the man next to me was stuffing his jacket into the space between us.  About ten miles outside of the city, the traffic began to back up.  I still needed to take the Metro all the way back to the hostel, grab my bags and then return to the terminal to catch the night bus to Cartagena.  My legs and lower back were aching from the climb.  It almost seemed like too much to process.

art is a war 14

These days it’s not really worth taking a night bus if it can be avoided.  True, you don’t need to pay for a room for that night, but you also miss out on all the scenery, and unless you are a local or suffer from narcolepsy, probably won’t sleep more than a few hours, and will arrive at your destination a wretched wreck.  That was certainly the case when I traveled from Bogota to Cartagena.

It was pouring rain when I arrived at the station and I got wet just dashing from the terminal to the bus.  Then a woman in front of me leaned both seats all the way back to make a bed for her children, and another mother sat down beside me with a new infant on her lap.  I was boxed in.  We’d just left the station when I felt something hitting me in the side and saw that the baby, with a full head of black hair, was kicking me.  This went on for a while and seemed very purposeful.  Every time the mother looked down the baby would stop.  When she looked away, it would start kicking again.

After a few hours we stopped at a restaurant and at that point the mother took her baby and moved to a seat in the back.  Only a few minutes later, however, a teenager approached me and took the open seat.  I’d heard him and his buddies horsing around since we left Medellin, and couldn’t understand why he was coming to me now.  As soon as the bus started moving, he went limp and collapsed into me, his bristly hair poking through my shirt.  I tried to use my shoulder to jar him awake, but it was like he’d been drugged. 

Sometime around dawn, I collapsed as well, and now couldn’t stay awake, even though I was missing everything that passed outside the window; the green grasslands, the brahman cows, the blue mountains in the distance.  At one point I went to rearrange myself and noticed that the teenager was gone.  It was too late to get comfortable.  My tailbone, which had recently been diagnosed as fractured, was on fire.

I’d just slipped into a coma once again when the bus stopped and some policemen got on, searching for drugs – marijuana and heroin – as they announced.  There was nothing in my backpack but broken dreams, but I was still anxious.  After we got back on the road, I was overwhelmed by dread, with no idea where my next paycheck would come from.  I’d gotten some unemployment during the pandemic, but hadn’t worked going on four years now.  In the past I’d always been able to find the right job, right in the nick of time.  Now I’d only gotten a few interview requests, for jobs I was unsure I was capable of faking the enthusiasm for.

The bus station in Cartagena turned out to be miles away from the city center.  Stepping off the bus, the heat and humidity were overpowering.  I needed to find an ATM machine before I could do anything, as I didn’t have enough pesos to even pay for a taxi.  A driver tried to intercept me before I was ready to speak to him.  When I’d found a machine and gotten some money he reappeared, his smile winning me over even though his ride looked less than official.  He knew the area where I was staying.  The traffic was terrible.  He tried every shortcut he could think of, probably putting on more miles going sideways than he did going forward. 

When we got to the hostel, I thought he must’ve decided to drop by his house.  We were in the middle of a ghetto, with nothing resembling a hostel anywhere on the block.  No, the driver insisted.  This was it.  He pointed to a blue and white chapel with a gate around it.  It used to be a monastery.  Now it was a hostel.  He shouted though the gate and a few men came out to observe me.  They didn’t look like travelers.  It appeared I’d booked a room at a mission.  All the other guests were rootless locals, charity cases.

They finally tracked down the manager, who came out tattooed and surly.  I was praying he’d misplaced my reservation.  No.  He tracked it down.  I’d made it for a week. 

Is that right?  A week?  I think it was just two nights.  I don’t remember. 

No, my friend.  Right here.  It says seven nights.

What could I do then but step up and pay the man?

art is a war 15

Of all the anti-social hostels I’ve stayed at, the Monastery Hostel might be at the top of the list.  When I saw my room at least had air-conditioning, I resigned myself to sticking it out, since I’d already paid for it.  The window had been painted over, but even if it hadn’t been there was nothing to look at outside of a courtyard in disarray.  For the first two days I was desperately sick.  I didn’t even leave the room, surviving on two pieces of cake and a quarter bottle of water that were in my backpack.

Mixed into the sickness, which was mainly a crushing headache, was one of the deepest depressions I’d ever descended to.  All I could think about were my shortcomings and failures, and the deep, deep financial trouble I was in.  I tossed from side to side, holding my head in my hands, sometimes so frightened I shouted aloud.  St. John of the Cross wrote about a dark night of the soul.  Had he been to Cartagena?  Could he hear the salsa music right outside his door twenty-four hours a day?  It started sounding like the drums from hell.  I prayed for the relief that nightmares would bring, but sleep wouldn’t come.

When I finally emerged, I was weakened and grim, but still managed to make the manager, Carlos, laugh when I commented on how many monks must be living in the monastery.  It seemed like I was the only tourist they’d ever had at the hostel.  The rest of the men, the residents, sat around the courtyard all day and took turns opening the door when the doorbell rang. 

The last time I’d been in Cartagena I hadn’t been staying in a ghetto.  I’d been closer to the historic core.  When I looked it up on Google maps, I found it was about two and a half miles to get to the walled city.  Even though I was dizzy, and feverish with depression, I decided to try and walk there.  All I had were some directions that I’d scribbled down on a scrap of paper.  It didn’t seem like a good neighborhood to get lost in.

Every time I came to a dead-end, I tried to follow my intuition.  At last, I reached a street that seemed to be a thoroughfare.  It ran along a wetland that had become a dump.  Mountains of garbage sat soaking in a bog, and a small army of homeless men were out rifling through it with sacks.  When I reached the end of the street, a taxi driver sitting at a stop light admonished me not to go into the area I’d just come out of, saying it was very dangerous.  That was good to know.  My headache, compounded now by the heat and humidity, was reaching hallucinatory proportions.

On the other side of the street, I could see a fort.  It was the Castille San Felipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish in 1536.  It rose like an anthill and seemed like a good place to size up the city from.  Out front, vendors with souvenirs and drinks competed for attention.  One man had at least thirty straw hats stacked on his head.

Right when I walked in, a man in a colonial costume, complete with tri corner hat, appeared on one of the top walls and began blowing a trumpet.  It seemed like it would make a good picture, but by the time I got up to him, he’d set the trumpet aside and was playing with his phone.  It must have been one of his ancestors on watch when the fort was lost to the French pirate, Baron de Pointis, during the Nine Years War.

From the top of the fort, I could see the layout of the city, and now knew what road to take to get to the walled city.  There were a few tour groups following their guides around, posing for pictures in front of a giant flag that was flapping in the hot breeze.  I took a few pictures of the cannons and watchtowers, but didn’t care for a history lesson.  Whatever I needed to know, I could look up later. 

The walk to the historic district may well have been saved for another day, but I plundered on.  As soon as I hit the gritty streets, the sense of direction I’d achieved at the top of the fort vanished.  Crossing a bridge, I came to the neighborhood of Getsemani, which was just a maze.  It was full of exotic murals, balconied houses, and colorful characters, but I got lost a dozen times, and kept ending up back at Trinity Square instead of ever reaching the gateway and clock tower that I remembered from my last visit.  A rapper and his sidekick targeted me and followed me for two blocks, before I caved in and gave them a few pesos just to leave me alone.

By the time I finally did reach the Monumento Torre del Reloj, I was spent.  In a courtyard on the other side of the gateway a group of Palenqueras, the iconic women in African dresses with the fruit bowls on their heads, were posing for pictures.  I took a picture of three of them walking in the opposite direction from about thirty yards away, and they must have had eyes in the back of their heads, because they all turned and started chiding me, like the witches in Macbeth.  I ended up giving them five thousand pesos to pose for a picture that didn’t turn out because I was too flustered to focus. 

When I got back to the monastery, the manager, Carlos, came to open the gate.  He asked how things were going.  I told him I had nothing to live for.  He threw his arm around me and laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

art is a war 16

These days anyone with even a budget phone can take decent pictures.  The phone does most of the work.  Before phones were a thing, all I had were the cheapest cameras, one of them so bad it made pictures from a trip to Borneo look like they’d been shot with a pinhole camera.  When phones did come along, I finally got one, just for the camera and video function.  Since that time, I’ve taken thousands of pictures, way too many pictures.  My only strategy is to get in front of the action and press the button.

Now I was in Colombia, trying to find pictures to accompany five hundred song lyrics and poems that I’d designated to be my life’s work.  There were probably more in the tank, but by this point the flow had become a trickle and the price it had taken to live the life I had was soaring out of control. 

Just like a child needs to run and show their mother every drawing they do, most artists have a secret hope that there is some source of approval out there once they’ve completed their work.  By now, most of my creations had just gone into folders and storage units, and I was used to it, but it didn’t feel good, especially when other artists were out there being lionized for doing the same thing.  What was worse was to share them on Facebook and then not get any likes, the living definition of insult to injury.

After picking up some medicine at a pharmacy, my headache began to lessen and I was able to eat.  The street that ran parallel to the hostel had a number of outdoor restaurants.  At one I ordered a chuleta, or pork chop, that came with rice, beans, and platanos, the large, starchy bananas they sometimes use as a substitute for potatoes in Latin America.  It was the first time I’d eaten in a long time, and a great deal for a dollar and a half.  In America, I’m not sure that even would’ve paid for a big bite at 7-Eleven.

The sickness seemed to return in the morning.  I dreamed about my father, who’d passed away seven years earlier, expressing his grave disappointment in me.  There was also music that sounded like it was coming from a video game being played in the next room.  It kept playing over and over, like monkeys in a circus hopping over each other, and was absolutely maddening.  A few days later, I discovered it was coming from a Catholic school across the street.  They’d play it to announce the arrival of every child.  Fortunately, I hadn’t kicked in my neighbor’s door yet, but it had come close.

In the evening, I stepped out of the hostel once more, just to get some air.  It was a poor neighborhood, but a social one.  Salsa music played continuously, like it or not.  People broke out into spontaneous dance and sang along to their favorite songs.  In a park across the street, parents were out with their children, making use of every piece of equipment. 

My childhood had been a lonely one, moving from place to place, never having a community or stable group of friends.  By now it was ten times worse if I was back in the States.  People stayed indoors all day long, only emerging to run errands or pick up food.  There was no music or celebration on the streets.  If there was, it had to be sanctioned.  It was no wonder I’d longed to escape.  Outside of the few family members that remained, there was nothing to return to, only failure, isolation, and financial ruin.

At the hostel, Carlos was waiting for me at the door.  What had I been up to, he wondered.  Drinking?  Dancing?  Making love to a beautiful woman?   No.  No.  I needed to remind him once again that I had no life.  No money, no honey.  Tears of laughter poured from his eyes, and he clasped my hand, refusing to let it go.

art is a war 17

Santa Marta was going to be my next stop and though I’d been there fourteen years earlier, could remember nothing about the place.  I wasn’t even sure why I wanted to go there, but had to go somewhere.  I saw on Google that there was a small bus station that serviced Santa Marta, not far from the hostel, so decided to walk over and check on prices and times.

It had rained hard the night before.  The big thunderstorms only added to the excitement of being in Colombia.  Almost every afternoon dark clouds would roll in and the thunder would begin to rumble.  Lightning would sometimes flash, and when that happened the thunder would just explode, shaking the earth to its core and almost causing my heart to stop.  That’s what I needed, electro-shock therapy with none of the cost or complications.  As long as it was storming, I was fine.  When it stopped, however, the thoughts would begin to creep back into my head, and that was never good.

Some of the streets were flooded, with trash floating on the brown water, as I made my way to Calle 47, and crossed a bridge to get to the station.  The boy working security guard told me that there were buses leaving to Santa Marta every twenty minutes, and that it would be no problem to show up and buy a ticket.  Continuing north from there, it was just a few blocks to the Caribbean Sea.  There was a barrier of rocks between the street and the beach, and the ocean was flat, with waves not more than a few inches high.  On one section there were some red and yellow umbrellas and tables set up.

It was possible to follow the coastline back to the historic center.  I reached the walls, which surround and define the old city, and entered at the rear.  The walls, commissioned in the 17th century, and designed to keep pirates out, seemed to be an extension of the fort, with the same tunnels and sentry boxes.  A group of teenage girls practiced a dance routine on one of the walls, as a man, perhaps their coach, shouted out directions.

I visited the Santuario de San Pedro Claver, the patron saint of slaves, and then made my way back to the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandra, where I’d left off my exploring two days earlier.  I made it a point to avoid the women in the African dresses, now knowing how sensitive they were to cameras being aimed in their direction.  An old one got my attention with her good-natured persistence, however, so I agreed to pay for a picture of her, in her red, green, and yellow dress, a silver bowl with bananas, mangos, and pineapples, balanced on her head. 

When I went to review the picture, I found the camera had added a time stamp, not only on that picture, but on all the pictures I’d taken that morning.  What was the reason for that?  I certainly hadn’t asked it to.  I managed to find the time stamp option in the settings and turn it off, but it was clear now that the phone was wigging out.  It was trying to complete an update, but with no internet service, could only spin and spin.  A page for the weather channel kept popping up with the current forecast for Manila.  All the pictures I’d taken up to that point were ruined.

When I got back to the hostel, it was like the bug had now jumped to my laptop.  The thumbnails for every picture in the pictures folder had crashed, leaving only row after row of the windows photo icon.  That meant I now had to go through every picture individually in the photo viewer to see what they were.  It was beyond a hassle, considering the whole purpose of the trip was to match pictures to words.  Welcome to the life of an independent artist.

As an independent artist, you never have the resources or support to compete with what the top commercial artists are putting out there.  All the money you manage to raise for a project is what they might spend for an hour in the studio, just tuning up their instruments.  If something breaks down, there is no one to turn to.  You bear all of the burden.  Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  Then, when it finally comes time to share your finished work with others, you arrive at another level of letdown.  The CD doesn’t play.  The link to your website doesn’t go through.  Or maybe they do work, but now the recording sounds nothing like it did when it was cranking out of the studio monitors.  There are a million ways to fail.

There was never a time in my life that I dreamed about selling out arenas or winning awards for what I do, but when things are always breaking down and no one cares about what you do, it’s easy to feel cursed.  I spent the rest of the day researching ways to restore the thumbnails to the picture folder, and never found a solution, so started going through them, one by one, and realized that most of them were terrible. 

At that point, it was time to turn off the light.  Maybe things would be better in the morning, but to keep pushing now, would only make them worse.

art is a war 18

There is a church on top of the highest hill in Cartagena that you can see from all over the city.  The Convento de la Papa was built in 1607 by Augustine monks.  Since I hadn’t been there and had a day to kill, I thought I’d try to make my way there on foot, although I’d read something about thieves who lie in wait beside the road.  When I told Carlos my plan, he had no response.

The convent looked like it might only be a mile and a half from where I was staying, and I just started walking in the general direction of it.  Streets turned into dead ends and dirt paths, however, and I began to sense that maybe I would’ve been better off taking a taxi. I was dripping with sweat and the screen of my phone was steamed over and smudged with grease.   I backtracked to the hostel, and then made my way to the fort, from where I’d seen signs pointing to the convent earlier.  The neighborhood I passed through was full of auto repair shops and men working on motorcycles.  Finally, I came to a sign that pointed uphill, and began to climb the road.

A man started shouting to me from the front of a store, but I just ignored him.  Then another approached me, but it was just to warn me.  I couldn’t walk to the convent.  It was too dangerous.  I should take a moto if I wanted to visit it.  Just then the man from the storefront came zooming up on a motorcycle.  He wanted to charge me for a ride to the top and back.  Now I didn’t know who to trust.  What if he was a thief?  I asked him if he was and he just shook his head and laughed, so I climbed on the back of his bike with some grave misgivings, unable to just overlook the jagged scar that ran down his cheek.

As we began to climb the hill on the small motorbike, I realized that it was a lot longer to the top than it had appeared.  I was glad to be getting the ride if only to avoid suffering a heat-stroke.  We went around a number of curves.  It didn’t seem to be a dangerous neighborhood, but I couldn’t see through the bushes.

At the top, I paid the small entrance fee, and went up a flight of stairs past a crowned King Jesus, extending his blessing to all who passed.  The first door to the convent was locked, so I went over to the overlook where a Colombian flag was flying.  You could see every quarter of the city.  Once again, it made sense from on high, but when you were on the ground trying to navigate your way through the streets, the city was nothing but a labyrinth. 

Finding an open door, I entered into the convent.  There was sacred artwork on the walls and artifacts in glass cases, but an urgent stomach cramp made it difficult to concentrate.  Although the worst of my sickness had passed, it still felt like I was walking through a lucid nightmare.  When I finally found a toilet, back by the stairs, I sat drenched in sweat.

The driver was waiting for me when I came out, and with his helmet off I could see he was a large teen, not as imposing as when he’d been shouting to me from the storefront.  He offered to take my picture in front of a large cross in the parking lot.  The ride back down only took a few minutes and I paid him twenty thousand pesos, or four dollars for the trip.

I had a joke ready for Carlos when I got back to the monastery.  He asked me about the thieves and I told him there’d been one for sure, meaning the boy who’d talked me into paying him for the ride.  I looked it up later on the internet, however, and read about a guy who’d been recently robbed at gunpoint walking down from the convent, while cars, taxis, and even a tour bus passed him by.  He claimed the thieves had held a gun to his head and waved a knife in his face. 

The loss of the wallet and the phone he could live with, but it was the camera with 32 gigabytes full of pictures and memories from his trip that was really causing him anguish.  He was wondering if someone from the tour bus had happened to witness the robbery and taken any pictures that might help him get his things back.  It was a shot in the dark, but I could understand his desperation.  Someone in the comments section had tried to console him, saying forget about the things.  At least now he had the best party story ever.  Perhaps, but if it had happened to me, it would’ve taken a long time to look at it that way.