Going to Cartagena?

Recently I came across a story I wrote last year about my trip to Colombia. I had not published it before because it’s not really a guide or a recommendation about anything. It is just a story about one day in Playa Blanca. So here it goes.


“No more cars today”, the man at the taxi stand said before leaving. We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

And it’s hard to worry in Playa Blanca. The sea is of the clearest blue even when it rains, the palm trees incline over the sea and almost touch the water. We swam and walked and ate fried fish and coconut rice. And we swam again. And now, sitting and shivering in the parking lot, we almost regretted it. Perhaps we knew we’d fight if we talked, so we didn’t. Instead, we approached three backpackers who were still at the beach and asked if they were going to Cartagena. Yes, a friend would pick them up. Could we join them? We wouldn’t fit in the car, but they could send a cab for us once they arrived in the city. We’d be fine.


But the cab never came. It was dark already when we saw a van approaching. The paint was peeling and the windshield broken. It stopped before us and a man got out. “Going to Cartagena?” he asked in English. “Did they send you to pick us up?” one of my friends asked. He looked at each one of us before saying, “Sure”. “We expected a cab.” “This is a cab. I’m Herminio.” He opened the door. We looked at each other. My friends shrugged as if saying it was better than staying there. They climbed up before I could argue, so I got in too, my heart beating fast.

Herminio didn’t talk much and only part of his forehead was visible on the rearview mirror from which hung a rosary made of yellow, blue and red beads. “I don’t think this is the way we came from, we’re going to Cartagena”, I said in Spanish, panicking. “Faster this way”, he said, and then, “Ha! Bogotá? Thought you all were foreign”. “I’m from Mexico”, I said. “Mexico! We’re hermanos, then.” He laughed. Suddenly he pulled over at a gas station and got off, saying nothing.

Should we get off, hitchhike, ask for directions somewhere? We were not yet on the highway and by the time everybody started to get nervous I was already panicking. Before we decided on anything, Herminio came back. He got in, turned back and offered me something wrapped in paper. My heartbeat was a buzz in my ears. And then he said, “pan de coco, traditional”. He was smiling. “And another gift”, he said after getting in the van again. He started playing mariachi music. I could see his smiling eyes in the rearview mirror when he said, “We are so similar, Mexico and Colombia. I know you’re scared. We’re used to being scared here too. But if we don’t trust our hermanos, where’s peace to be found?”.

Only then I realized how tense I was. More than anyone could know except for Herminio, for it was us who had grown up reading stories of violence and learning not to trust strangers. Colombia was indeed similar to Mexico, safety curfews, cities divided into safe and dangerous areas.
Herminio talked long about his town and asked of mine, we laughed at how we pronounced certain words and I forgot to worry. We arrived safe and sound in Cartagena, and wherever we went we found people that, like Herminio, thought that to trust each other is the basic act of resistance; not to deny what was wrong, but to face it. All we found were open doors and kind words in what had been once one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America.

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