Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Suzanne Siegel, Intro By Teresa Rodriguez Williamson

What is that ingredient that gives some women the courage to shed the shackles of fear and dive headfirst into life? If you ask Suzanne Siegel from Atlanta, Georgia you’ll get a pretty dramatic answer: murder, mayhem, and Metallica. With a career in police work and passion for travel, this thirty-four year old decided that her life was no longer about dealing with death. It was time for her to leave the security of a good job, home, friends, and family and find out what the world has in store for her. We caught up with Suzanne as she was packing her bags.

Suzanne’s Story

Raised in the Bronx, my formative years there in the 1980s were infused with such diverse influences as graffiti, break dancing, and Metallica. I was the only one in my pack of friends who traveled as a teenager. This was largely due to the fact that my mother, herself a Bronx girl who had never been further than Virginia Beach, wanted me to have everything she never did. She held out the collection cup to every member of my extended family until she generated enough cash for one of those “teen tours” to Europe. That was the beginning of a life full of non-stop travel.

I left the Bronx at seventeen to attend Boston University, where I studied journalism, and went on to spend seven years as a crime reporter in Boston, New York, and Detroit. I wrote about murder and mayhem until I couldn’t take it anymore and handed in my reporter’s notebook to go back to graduate school. Two years of study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and I was prepared to go to work directly for the police to help them scale back the murder and mayhem.

After grad school, I spent five years at the Philadelphia Police Department, analyzing shootings and trying to devise ways to reduce them. That brings us to today. Almost. A few months back, sweating and panicky, I slinked up to the office of my boss, the Deputy Commissioner of Operations. I told this smart-as-a-whip, five-foot-nothing Italian lady from South Philly who had worked her way up the ranks that I was quitting, selling everything, and traveling around the world alone for a year. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “You’re a goofball.”

The 2005 Goofball Tour began in February 2005 and will cover Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Israel, Sicily, South Africa, and Kenya. I have spent as long as two months alone, traveling to places such as Venezuela, Peru and Sri Lanka. This will be six times as long and probably six times as intense…

Photos (right)

These are my three fave pics of myself—all taken while traveling, of course. I don’t look good when I am in the U.S. for some reason, but as soon as I cross international boundaries—boom—instant makeover!

P.S.

Oh, I’m thirty-four, single, and giving up a good job, my home and loved ones to travel around the
world solo for a year…so I guess I’ll catch up with all you Tango Divas when I return!

Suzanne

* * * *

Suzi’s Online Travel Journal

Day 30: March 2, 2005, Bogota, Colombia

Much of today was spent trying to prevent getting incarcerated and fined heavily for overstaying my
Colombian visa. The reason that I am not out of Colombia on March 1, the day my visa expired, is
because Aerorepublica airlines mistakenly issued me a plane ticket for May 1. They explained to me that the
mistake was quite simple: The letter Z and Y look quite the same in script. Hence the MarZo (March)
MaYo (May) confusion on my ticket. By the time I realized the mistake, the next flight available to the
Amazon jungle was not until March 4, precisely seventy-two hours after the expiration of my visa. Hence, today I learned much about the inner workings of Aerorepublica, located on the nineteenth floor of an indistinct white office building called the Ugi tower.

My mission: Get Aerorepublica to write a letter explaining to the Colombian border officials that I
would not be late leaving the country if the letters Z and Y did not look so peskily alike. After I explained
my demand to the girl at the Aerorepublica front desk in Spanish, she got on the phone with someone and told
them in Spanish that there was a girl with a problem at the front desk who spoke [sic] “casi nunca Espanol”, or almost no Spanish. Ouch. After four phone calls and many refusals, a man named
Diego appeared who spoke English and I explained the whole situation to him in English and he told me they
could write a letter, no problem. Perhaps my Spanish is not as good as I thought it was. Ouch.

Day 29: March 1, 2005, Raquira, Colombia

Today I ventured into a town an hour away from Villa de Leyva called Raquira. It was very colorful and very cheesy, full of tourist shops with crappy ceramic wind chimes, leather wrist bracelets, and ugly hammocks.
Raquira is famous for its pottery and thus the town square is dotted with sculpture gardens and fountains
made from terracotta clay. It was interesting therefore, upon closer inspection, to note the central
statue, a water fountain, was sculpted into the likeness of a young, cherubic boy wearing large baggy
50-Cent worthy pants hanging low, a backwards baseball cap, holding his boyliness in his hand and peeing
water out of his quite detailed, anatomically correct, um, thingy. Confused, I decided to conduct an informal survey of Raquiran citizen passerbys to gather some background as to the metaphorical significance of such a compelling work of art in the town square, which, by the way, is surrounded by both a church, Raquira police headquarters, and the office of both the chief presiding judge and the mayor. A few womenfolk in the town I interviewed simply shrugged disinterestedly and told me they didn’t know, but that it had been there for ten years and that there was a replica of the same sculpture down the road, but this one was of a man, not a boy, relieving himself, and as such, all said parts of larger fountain were larger. Interesting.

Day 28: February 28, 2005, Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Today Ann-Sophie and I rented horses to explore the countryside around this gorgeous town. Problem is, I did not bring proper riding attire since I left most of my clothes back in Bogota, and must make due with what I have. I have no sports bra. This, when trotting, is a tremendous problem. I only have one bra with me: my Victoria’s Secret “Very Sexy Push-Up Bra” in hot pink. I will check with Gisele and Tyra, but I do not believe it was meant for horseback rides across the rocky Colombian desert mountainside. On top of this inappropriate bra, I put on the tightest spandex shirt I have, an olive green halter back. This means the hot pink brastraps are sticking it from under it: a whole new look in horsewear. I also want to bring my camera bag that hooks on to a belt, but I have no belt. So I perform surgery on one of the curtains in my hotel, and steal the maroon curtain cord, using it as a belt and tie my camera onto it. Gone with the Wind this is not. My Diesel khakis are very stylish but they have two large airholes on the inside pant legs by the calf for no reason whatsoever, except to look cool—and, of course, to provide your legs with a severe, chafing burn when galloping. Ann-Sophie lends me a pair of black socks that go up to my knees to protect my skin. Now I am ready to ride.

An old caballero named Raoul in chaps and a white cowboy hat and leathery skin puts me on a horse named Pimienta and provides me with the final accessory for my outfit—a cowboy hat—and we ride out into the scrabbly amazing desert. There was apparently ocean here 1.5 million years ago, and so the desert is littered with old fossils. I spot an old man with a machete hacking rocks apart to see if there are fossils inside to sell. We pass a bright green lake and then ride to a museum with a fossil of the largest complete bizarre sea creature in the world. Its head is as long as I am and it has huge teeth and stumpy rounded fins. Ann-Sophie and I take many foolish pictures with a painting of it, pretending to get eaten by it.

My butt hurts already from the ride and my Very Sexy Push Bra is very sweaty, but it was very worth it.

Day 27: February 27, 2005, Villa de Leyva, Colombia

So we’re shopping last night and a wacky Colombian kid wearing knee-high motor-cross boots, who smells like he just smoked five joints, approaches Ann-Sophie and me and tells us he knows of a great party going on tonight. So, of course, we follow him there. It is literally in a huge castle of a hacienda, sprawling open air inside, hundreds of years old. Everyone is doing shots of aguardiente, the crazy-strong grain alcohol that people drink here. There is a sheep wandering around. He is tied to a stake in the ground and I chase him in a circle trying to get a photo of him. There is a very skinny half-Lebanese, half-Colombian girl with really long, blonde hair telling me she is about to go to Miami to be a model. She is funny looking, but I don’t tell her that. Instead wish her good luck in South Beach. Ann-Sophie doesn’t feel well and goes home. I stay.

After hours of drinking, we jump into a bad-ass 1970 Jeep and head to a discoteca and I dance salsa all night and am so happy I could pop. At two a.m. I make tracks to leave, but the bouncer at the door blocks my way. Apparently the owner of the club, who I met at the sheep party and have been dancing with all night, has told his employee that I am not permitted to leave the club. The bouncer is just following orders. He apologizes. I literally cannot leave. So I stay. An hour later the place shuts down and I walk home.

The next day Ann-Sophie and I get our shop on, wandering the cobblestone streets of this beautiful town. I buy a hot-pink shawl with black beads hanging off it and a belt made of red seeds. As it turns evening, I stop into one of those phone places to call Nestor, my man in Bogota, to check in and see how his grandma is doing. He tells me that the airline I have a flight with in two days to go to the Amazon has called him about my ticket because I left them his contact number. There is something up, but he doesn’t know what it is.

I call Aerorepublica to confirm I am the March 1, flight to Leticia. There is no record of me on it and in fact they tell me they don’t have flights to Leticia on March first. The airline guy tells me I need to read him the number on my paper airline ticket, but the paper ticket is in a lockbox in a hotel in Bogota, five hours away where I left it. Now I have to call the hotel and have them open Ann-Sophie’s combination lock that is on the safe. I give them the wrong number, which the girl tries on every single lock on every single lockbox. I hang up, miserable. Ann-Sophie tells me I gave them the wrong combination. I call back. The girl at the hotel gets into the box and reads me the ticket number. I call back Aerorepublica. They tell me it is the wrong number. I call the girl back and get the right number. I call Aerorepublica back and give it to them. Now they unravel the mystery: I am confirmed on a flight to Leticia but the date is MAY 1, not March 1. How that happened I have no idea. The words “Marzo”—March—and “Mayo”—May—do not sound alike.

The next flight to Leticia is not until March fourth. Great, more time in Colombia and with Nestor—except my visa expires on March first. I book the flight and figure I will worry about this problem when I am trying to get out of the country via the Amazon River. Worst case scenario is I get locked up in a gulag of a Colombian prison with Pablo Escobar and never get out. More likely I will have to pay a fine. After an hour on the phone which costs me $13,000 pesos, I am fully disgusted. I step outside to walk back to the hotel and the sky opens up and lets loose. I try to buy an umbrella, but there are none. So I buy a large, neon green plastic bag and tear a hole out for my nose and eyes and walk home, defeated.

Day 26b, February 26, 2005, Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Today the Swedish girl and I, frustrated failures in amor, left our Bogota boyfriends and took three buses to end up a little colonial town nestled in the mountains called Villa de Leyva, described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as “one of the finest architectural gems in the country.” This town was founded in 1572 and the hotel we are staying is the oldest building here. After weeks of six-dollars-a-night, broken-mattress, roommate-sharing, bathroom-down-the-hall hostel-slumming, we have both decided to kick it in the best hotel I have EVER seen EVER in my life. The backpackers have decided to splurge.

The moment I walked into the Hosteria del Molino La Mesopotamia, I decided that if I ever do get married, the wedding will be here in this hotel. I am filling the rooms with all my friends and family and I will show them the best wedding they have ever been to. They will be scared to come to Colombia, but will attend anyway out of obligation. At my wedding, there will be no catering hall, no artificial lights, no chandeliers, no table settings, no conga lines, no chicken dance, no first dance, no bridesmaids, none of it. They will feel embarrassed about their own weddings.

Let me explain this 435-year-old wonder of a place for you, although I know I will do it absolutely no justice. It is situated in an old flour mill. The floors are made of bricks of terracotta mud in varying muted brown and orange and rust. The walls are shades of tangerine and deep blue. The hallways are decorated with old, wooden chests and antique turquoise couches and old, woven rugs striped in magenta, deep maroon and chartreuse green. The maids wear those uniforms with a bow in the back you see in old movies. There are sprawling gardens and open-air hallways. Tiny waterfalls run through the entire property. There is a pool made of pure stone with natural water running through it from the mountains. To get to the natural pool, you must walk through a path which cuts through a cow pasture, where one orange colored cow is lazily chewing on a mouthful of grass.

Our room is decorated with two beds with dark wooden headboards and footboards and high-backed leather chairs, and the slanted white ceiling is crisscrossed with brown logs. Out of our window we see two baby calves with orange and white spots. The bar looks medieval; it has a fireplace set in the wall, a stained glass window and is decorated with a bear’s head wearing a top-hat, an armadillo, and a huge stuffed crocodile with a light bulb in its mouth. It is because there is no place like it in the world. This is the flyest, sweetest, dopest, tightest, most perfect, most romantic hotel I have ever been to. I hope I get married just so I can show it to my friends. Friends, you should pray I meet Mr. Right so you can witness us get married in this place.
Oh, any by the way, it’s $35 a night. I love Colombia.

Day 26: February 26, 2005, Bogota, Colombia

So my dad, who is currently living on the Indonesian island of Bali with his German girlfriend Helgard
(please don’t ask), is reading my journal online and he emails me to tell me it’s great, it’s awesome, it’s
compelling, he’s proud of me, but…there’s something missing, some element to make it complete. Alan tells
me my journal is lacking in the department of lust and love. MY DAD is telling me this but the sad part is he
is right. Well tonight I decided to rectify this situation…Dad, if you’re reading, are you proud of me?

Here’s how it went down: Today I arrived back in Bogota, where, if you have been following, I met a
very cute boy named Nestor the first day I got here about a month ago. He is the best friend of the son
of the lady I was staying with in Bogota when I first arrived in Colombia. And we hung out every day. And we
smooched. And we smooched. And that’s all we ever did.

The thing was, he lives with his moms and I was staying with that lady and so, it was all fairly, albeit frustratingly, innocent. Well, today Nestor came to pick me up at the hostel where I am staying with my Swedish roommate (Read: no action possible at hostel) and, alas, he has not moved out of his mom’s
house in the past three weeks that I have been gone. I feel like we have waited twenty-six days to do this, and this justifies my very brazen request to him that we “go someplace.” He seems very amenable to this idea.

We have a great dinner and the mood is set. Now he has to find an ATM. Three in a row reject his card. I
suck it up and tell him I have cash and can pay. I then am forced to tell have to tell him, “I don’t have
anything on me,” which seems to be a universal code because he knows exactly what I am talking about. He
assures me he has planned ahead and has something on him. Oy.

Now that that horror is out of the way, we have to go on the unsavory expedition of finding a love hotel in a seedy part of downtown Bogota where my hostel is located. He is not familiar with the neighborhood and so we wind up in a barrio full of cheap hotels—which we soon realize cater to the thriving business generated by the throngs of high-heeled prostitutes trawling the streets. I see a very pregnant girl in a half-shirt trying to engage a potential customer by grabbing his family jewels. Nestor is embarrassed and the mood is decaying and we decide to hop on a bus to go to a hotel on a nicer side of town. On the bus, we are smooching and
hugging and he is telling me how much he missed me and how pretty my shirt is and how good I smell and now
things are on an upswing again. Until his cell phone rings.

He is speaking quickly but I hear him say the words “abuelita,” “se cayo,” and “escaleras.” For the non-bilingual among you these are three words you never want to hear in a sentence together when you are on your way to a hotel with a hot Colombian guy you have been waiting twenty-six days to sleep with: they are “little grandma,” “fell,” and “flight of stairs.”

Turns out his grandmother’s ninety-three-year-old stepsister apparently took a header down a flight of stairs and the entire family is now congregating at the hospital. I realize that I am essentially a bad and evil person because my first thought is one of complete and total selfishness: I might not get lucky tonight, depending on the severity of grandma’s injuries. An ancillary thought I have of which I am no less proud is: Does “grandmother’s stepsister” actually qualify as a legitimate family member?

We hop on a bus in the opposite direction and walk briskly to the hospital. I throw out a cliché because
that is what one does in a situation like this: “Everything happens for a reason.” He tells me there
is a similar expression in Spanish: “Todo tiene un porque.” Everything has a “because.” Together we try and think of why this could possibly be happening to us and we come up empty so I throw out another cliché, a feeble stab in the direction of the hackneyed “it could be worse” variety. We could have been about to be doing
something, I offer, or, he adds, we could be in the middle of doing something when we received the unfortunate news of Grandma’s tumble. For some reason, neither of us suggests the obvious choice for this category: “It could be worse. Abuelita could be dead.”

We get to the hospital and now I am in an emergency room waiting room with Nestor’s sister. Nestor’s
mother is in the ER with abuelita. He has a nurse call her over the loudspeaker so she can come out to
the waiting room to see him. I am standing a few feet away, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot with my
hands in my pockets pretending to look at the TV. She doesn’t know I am there and she is crying and he is
trying to console her. He is awkward because I am right there and she doesn’t know who I am or that I am
there. He has to interrupt her mid-sob to introduce her to this gringa from New York.

I am embarrassed and she is embarrassed and it’s AWFUL. She apologizes for crying and I apologize for seeing her crying and I quickly make my exit and say good-bye to Nestor and hop in a cab to my hostel where I sit here writing this. I won’t see him for the next three days because I am headed out to a town about five hours away for the weekend with the Swedish girl. I will then return to Bogota for one night before flying out to the Amazon the next day. I basically have one more night with Nestor before I leave Colombia for good.

Sorry Dad. I will try harder next time…

Endnote: If you think that’s the end of the story, it’s not. It’s 1:36 a.m. and my Swedish roommate just
walked into the room with Rodrigo, a guy she has been dating who also lives in Bogota. They both look less
than enthused to find me sitting on my bed with my laptop. They slump out to go have a beer somewhere…Nestor’s grandmother’s stepsister has also put an abrupt end to their night of amor as well. Oh well, everything happens for a reason. I guess.

Day 25: February 25, 2005, Bogota, Colombia

Today I woke up sleeping at a forty-five-degree angle and next to a random Nordic dude in very tight underwear. It was time to leave Taganga and so it was. My bed broke somewhere in the middle of the night and since I weigh in at an absurd 103 pounds and was sleeping alone, I will not take on any culpability in aforesaid bed-breaking incident.

I also opened my eyes to see the mosquito bitten legs of a guy from Norway, who was my
eighteenth random roommate in about as many days. I packed my bags, had one last fruit drink from the ladies on the street who blend up any combination of exotic tropical fruits with names like lula, mora, guanabana and maracuyo and I took a flight out of Taganga. The closest airport is in Santa Marta and I have never seen anything like it. It is open-air, right on the ocean with palm trees in the restaurant. It was the right way to leave Taganga…Onwards to Bogota where I will explore a little more for a few days, hopefully see my old flame here, Nestor, and then hop on a flight to the Amazon jungle.

Days 19–20: February 22, 2005, Parque Tayrona, Colombia

I can say without lying I spent the last four days without looking in the mirror or applying make-up or deodorant or even a bra for that matter. I went camping in a place where mountainous rainforest meets the sea, and both are littered with huge, outer-worldly boulders that seemed to have been dropped into the forest and onto the beach by a volcano or some other freaky act of nature millions of years ago.

Me, my Swedish roommate Ann-Sophie, a girl from Holland, and a guy from Switzerland hopped on a bus from Taganga to another town to another bus which let us off at the mouth of Parque Tayrona. From there, we jumped into the back of a military-style jeep which brought us as far into the park as the road goes. From there, more than an hour of sloppy, muddy, slippery trekking to the campsite—ten hammocks in a hut with a hole in the roof nestled right on the beach.

The first night the wind is howling and the palm leaves that make up the roof come flailing down into our hammocks. The people who run this campsite have decided to tie a plastic tarp over the tremendous hole in the roof and it flaps obscenely loudly all night, waking me up at least fourteen times. The next morning, everyone has red welts on their faces from mosquito bites except for me, who bought a mosquito net, which I somehow rigged over my hammock at about two a.m. using my headlamp when the mosquitoes woke me up to warn me the attack was impending.

The next morning, we trek through the jungle to a beach called Playa Densuda, or Nude Beach. It is long and perfect and dotted with these unexplainable two-story tall boulders and palm trees. The backdrop is lush mountains. There are three naked people on the beach, two Argentineans, and us. It is gorgeous beyond words. The muddy trek and sleepless night and bug bites are worth it.

The next morning, we wake up to rain pattering on the plastic tarp and wait it out. Our plan is to trek to “Pueblito,” an indigenous village two hours away up in the mountains. We take one trail and it leads straight into a river. We backtrack and try another. All of a sudden, I hear Ann-Sophie screaming “Get it off! Get it off!” I take two steps backwards and see the hairiest, leggiest, spindliest, most horrifying spider sitting in the middle of her red t-shirt. I am paralyzed and I hear myself yelling “Flick it! Flick it!” and wonder when I became an expert in spider evasion tactics. Somehow, she musters the courage to flick it off her. We take photos of the beast, laugh our heads off, and move on. I put a stick in the Swiss guy’s hand and tell him he is on spider duty and call him “Stick Boy.” He ran away when he heard Ann-Sophie screaming and now must be relentlessly tormented the rest of the day.

For the next part of the hike, we sweat and grunt and don’t say much to each other. We are all wondering if we are going the right way. All we have is a map someone drew on a napkin to guide us. Discouragement begins to set in and then, in the distance on the muddy path, we see two tiny, indigenous old ladies wearing white toga-like robes tied closed with a cord. Their faces are weathered and they look as though they could have been wearing the same outfits walking along this same path one thousand years ago or more. I wave at them as they pass and I stare unblinkingly and without manners but I cannot believe I have just seen this sight.

We continue on until we hit two massive boulders and then these wide harmonious-looking stone slab steps that lead down into a sunny clearing with a river running through it. Simple huts are surrounded by perfect, tiny stone walls covered with electric-green moss. I spot Maria, a girl of about ten, leaning in the doorway of a hut. Her face looks ancient and almost Asian, exactly the face of her people countless generations back. There has never been any mixing with the Spanish conquistadors who discovered this village in the 1500s.

We have brought coffee and beans and rice to give to the people. I find Maria’s father and give it to him. Now he will let us take pictures of his family. I peel off a necklace I am wearing, a bracelet, and a rubber band for my hair, and give them to her. She is shy but accepts. I split a granola bar with her. I wander the village some more. There are elegant stone staircases that lead up a hill where more massive boulders lay. A woman is washing her clothes in the river. I have never experienced or seen or even heard of any place like this place. It is perfectly harmonious with its surroundings.

On the way out of the village I approach the last hut and offer a bag of rice to a mother inside. No one here speaks Spanish so she bows a little to show thanks and we leave. She calls us back and she has a handful of four tiny sweet bananas for me and the three others I am with. We are all astounded.

For the whole next day, I can’t believe where I was and what I saw: An ancient place with ancient peoples.

Day 17: February 17, 2005, Taganga, Colombia

Today the big news in the tiny hamlet of Taganga was that there was no water. Apparently that happens here on a regular basis. Todo el mundo was carrying water in jugs, in crates, on top their heads, attached to the middle of a sagging stick with two guys lugging it on each end.

The other big news is that one my roommates, the German girl, left and she was replaced by a German guy. I am showering, gelling my hair, curling my eyelashes etc. in front of Magnus from Munich. Strange. I am becoming much more laid-back the deeper I get into this trip. I like myself better this way.

My only remaining hang-up is that it is so hot in the room at night I had been sleeping just in my undies with no sheet, but now I must cover up lest Magnus see my boobies. I think girls in Germany go topless on the beach so I wonder why I am struggling to be demure. Can’t help it. Maybe two months from now I will be a total hippie but not yet. The Bronx has emerged victorious over Bohemia. For now.

There was also a wee bit of Real World drama in the roommate situation: I developed a slight crush on a Mexican guy from Los Angeles. I thought we vibed a little but then he got a little cold. Meanwhile, my Swedish roommate tells me she is feeling a Canadian guy I have been diving with. I work my matchmaker magic and tell the Toronto dude: Pssst. I heard one certain hot blonde from Sweden has expressed interest in one certain scuba diver from Canada.

This is very high school, I know.

He looks surprised. He replies: That’s difficult because one certain Mexican from LA is interested in one certain blonde from Sweden.

Oh no. Can you hear my stomach descending six inches in one second? That’s what it feels like. I think it landed in my colon: my crush likes my roommate. Unwanted drama. What to do? I decide to play it straight. I tell the Swede the Mexican is into her and she is welcome to him, no hard feelings, for real, for true. She confesses she had been sweating it because she knew that I was feeling him and that he was feeling her. This would generally be a sickening situation back in my old life (my real life?) in the U.S., but here I am almost totally cool about it. He thinks I am ugly and she is pretty and that’s okay.

In my real life, I am a jealous girl and female loyalty is paramount—but here, I don’t know, everything is the inverse of how it usually is. I don’t own anybody and I want people to eat, drink, hook-up and be merry. I seem to be letting go of one of my fiercest hang-ups, the one that has tormented me for years—that my girlfriend would be with my guy, or my crush, or my husband would be with my best friend, or any variation on that theme. It has happened more than once in my life and I feel like I fear it so much, I bring it on myself, somehow in some karmic kind of way. If I can lose this choking fear I will be a much more tranquil, confident girl. This is a great trial run: a girl I barely know with a guy I just met and am only lukewarm about. The stakes are low and I feel I have passed this trial by handling it with honesty and grace. I am proud of myself.

I was feeling a bit down about it and then had one of those ambling, perfect travel moments that lifted me up out of it: I was searching for an internet café and passed by a crew of Colombians sitting on the floor in the doorway of a little bodega store. One old guy is playing a guitar and singing. He summons me over. I sit on the floor with him. His name is Rolando and he sings about a woman named Teresa, a dog named Rosalinda, and his little pueblo, Taganga. His voice is scratchy and perfect like on of those old Cuban guys. A little boy named Dyson knows all the words and sings along with him.

The guys buy me beer and I buy them cigarettes. The guitarist inserts the name of anyone who happens to be walking by into his songs as he sees them. He knows everyone. Then he tells me must get up to go to play for the tourists in the restaurants to make a living. I follow him. Rosalinda, his scrappy little dog, follows the both of us. He has only one CD of his music to sell because he gets five dollars each for them and yet they cost him three dollars to burn. That means he can never afford to burn and sell more than one disc at a time. I tell him I can burn as many CDs for him and he can afford to buy since I have a laptop. He is beyond grateful. I just feel grateful he is letting me hang around him and Rosalinda that I get to hear him play. He told me he feels he will be famous one day. His name is Rolando Sanchez. I hope he is right.

Day 16: February 16, 2005, Santa Marta, Colombia

Ahhh. Today I got my first taste of the delicious sabor of Colombian bureaucracy. It came in the form of the Colombian version of INS—here it’s called DAS. That I was forced to have dealings with them in a sweaty, concrete slab of a government building in downtown Santa Marta in the middle of a perfect beach day is my own dumb fault. Here’s what happened:

Upon entering this country at Bogota airport, an intimidating customs official dude stamped my passport. Fast forward fifteen days. I am sitting with a bunch of backpackers from all over Israel and Europe. They are bellyaching about how annoying it is to extend your visa here. The number of days you are allowed to stay here is apparently on the stamp they put in your passport. I pretend I know exactly what they are talking about. What stamp?? I never even thought to look. Feeling a little ill with my face hot, I bee-line it back to my room. Sho’ enuf the little estampilla says “15 DIAS.” I clear my head in order to do the complicated math. I got here on the first and today is the 15th. Um. I am in violation of Colombian visa laws. What is the punishment for that?

I check with my roommates. They have never heard of anyone being allowed to stay for fewer than thirty days. Many folks get sixty days. The customs dude didn’t like me, apparently.

The next morning early I leave the beach town to head to the nearest small city, Santa Marta. By 10 a.m. I am being directed to a depressing office labeled in Spanish “Foreigners.” I explain my plight to Official Security Customs INS DAS guy.

He explains what I must do: He needs two copies of the first page of my passport, two copies of the page with the Colombia stamp on it, two passport sized photos of myself, AND I must buy a ticket out of this country to somewhere else, photocopy that twice and bring it back. But I am not flying out of this country…I am planning on taking the slow boat down the Amazon from Colombia into Brazil. Tough, he says. I need to prove that I am leaving. Only way to do that is with a ticket out of the country.

I cab it to the bus station and buy a one-way ticket to Maracaibo, a town just across the border in Venezuela. Costs me 53,000 pesos which is about twenty-five dollars. I cab it back to INS people. They hand me an official-looking form with some scribble on the backside of it. They tell me to Xerox it five times and fill out two of them. Why five if they only need two from me, I think. Where do I make copies? The bakery, the lady tells me, just down the street.

I run to the place to pay for five photocopies. I don’t even wonder why a bakery has a xerox machine. I bring back the copies. The INS DAS lady gives me two forms and puts the rest in a folder and files it away. I just paid for them to have blank copies of their official form on file! An old French dude in a loud shirt and 1980s looking glasses comes in soon after and they pull out two of the blank forms I JUST PAID FOR and he gets to fill then out for free! This place is wack but I am not saying jack. I just want my visa extension.

Next comes a blizzard of paperwork. They want to know if I have any distinguishing scars, what my college major was, and how many kids I have. I am not kidding. They fingerprint me. I wait on line. I sign things. I wait on line again. I pick a fight with the old French guy because I resent that he is filling out my forms that I paid for.

Why didn’t he have to go to the bakery to make xeroxes too? He has been living in Colombia for three years and can barely speak Spanish. I tell him he should learn it. He sucks his teeth like French people do and growls something at me that sounds like “Oooh la la foo zhoi c’est pan ni pas.” I don’t know any French but I think it means “If I had a croissant on me right now I’d tie it around your neck and choke you like a chicken.”

At that moment, official guy breaks up the fight. He comes with official stamp which he administers into my official American passport…Fifteen more days. Victory!

Now I just have to try and return this bus ticket to Venezuela that I am not going to use. I cab it back to bus station and concoct a story along the way. I always pimp out my mother when I am concocting a justified lie. The lie goes like this: My mother cried when she heard I was taking a bus from Colombia to Venezuela because it is considered dangerous due to guerilla incursions and skirmishes on the border. I promised my pobrecita mami that I would fly instead. Thus, it follows you must give me my money back for this bus ticket.

My secondary back-up argument is that I have read the fine print on the back of the bus ticket. It says people who return tickets get back ninety percent of their 53,000 pesos back.

The woman at the bus window looks weary. There are five Colombians listening to the exchange. None of them is feelin’ mi mami or my lie. I plead and beg. The window lady says she will call her boss to ask him. But first, she asks to me my passport. I am busted! She sees that my visa got renewed today and every gringo in the world whose visa runs out tries to buy a cheap ticket to Venezuela and then get their money back. She shakes her head as if she feels sorry for how lame I am and she gives me half my money back. I thank her meekly and slink out.

I can stay in the country until March first, and it only cost me a day at the beach, six cab rides, humiliation, half of 53,000 pesos, and a further deterioration of Franco-American relations.

Day 15: February 15, 2005, Taganga, Colombia

Finished my open water today which means I am certified. Crazy. I can’t believe I am one of those scuba people. I have always been in awe of them, and now I have joined their ranks, but perhaps, in a less rigorous program, than say, anything offered back in the states. A few words about the Taganga scuba instruction and facilities: Very Laid Back.

After three days of diving here, I feel informed enough to speak on it…Here is a typical day of dive instruction in Taganga:

The school tells the students to be at the school at 8:30 a.m. The first day I rush to arrive at 8:33 a.m. Only one girl is there and she works there. They are running behind. After some drama with the motor, we head out two hours later, only to turn around because we didn’t have enough gas. The next day they tell us 8:30 a.m. again and I arrive on time. No one is there. I grab breakfast. I take my time, saunter back an hour later and the boat is ready to go. We must turn around because they forgot to pack someone’s gear.

The third day life preservers mystically appear on the boat. I had not seen them before. We get word the Caribbean Sea’s version of the Highway Patrol is out and looking to bang someone with a ticket. These military guys in a boat are actually hiding behind a small island trying to trap us just like cops back home hide on those grassy highway medians after a sharp turn so you can’t see them. Tricky. But our boat driver is onto them and we all don our life vests like the law-abiding boat passengers that we are.

As for the instruction side of things, today they team me up with a Canadian kid to supervise me as I perform some exercises under the water such as removing the thing I breathe through and putting it back in my mouth and taking off the vest with the oxygen tank connected to it and putting it back on. No big whoop. The Canadian is my teacher and he just completed the course a few days ago. He forgets things and gets stuff wrong but I just go with the flow. Certification here costs 40,000 pesos or about 200 bucks. Corners are obviously going to be cut somewhere. Why pay for instructors and divemasters when you can have beginners teach beginners?

Then there’s the motor. Every day drama. Three guys tinkering with it, pulling on it, praying over it, changing it with another one. Indefinitely repairing the motor instead of buying another one is certainly another cost-saving measure.

My wet suit, which is supposed to be aerodynamically designed to fit like a glove in order to only let in the thinnest layer of water against your skin not only has holes in the knees and the butt, but the zipper up the back is totally disconnected from the material. A shark could swim upside this hole.

I am supposed to have passed a written test before being allowed in the open water. Um. Never happened. But they did give me a photocopy of the PADI instruction manual to study from. Why buy manuals when you can just photocopy them?

These guys are just plain thrifty. But I don’t complain. I am getting certified in a life-risking activity in the cheapest site on the planet and having a blast at it. I even decided to go for my advanced certification and can look forward to a night dive and a shipwreck dive, too. So cool.

Day 14: Valentine´s Day, 2005

Taganga, Colombia. If it was Valentine´s Day today, I hardly noticed. They don´t celebrate it here. When it occurred to me it was this dreaded, evil day, I realized this has been the fifth year in a row I was out of the country on V-Day. Not a coincidence. Even if I have a boyfriend, I always plan a trip to get the hell outta dodge on this filthy Hallmark invention of a manufactured pseudo-holiday when the prices of roses double, everything turns a nasty shade of pink and red, and couples sweat what they are gonna buy one another. Not me.

This V-Day, I was in the bay of Taganga, merrily heading out for my second day of a scuba certification course, watching schools of tiny silver fish reflect the Carribbean sun as they dove above the water. This, my friends, is true romance. I am in love with those fish, with this water, with the captain of the boat who had to dive into the ocean to retrieve the anchor when it got stuck in the silt, with the old man who lives in a tiny hut on a bare mountaintop where our boat stopped for lunch.

The man in the hut lives alone with his goats and chickens and a hammock and an outdoor kitchen and a green parrot and a red cat. His little house is a two-mile walk from the tiny town where I am staying. There is only a path from his house through the mountains above the sea that leads to town, you cannot drive. His house has an open air bathroom overlooking the sea that I took a picture of me sitting in…His house has a set of green stone stairs that leads down to the sea but he has no boat. When the fishermen pass by he whistles to them if he needs a ride into town. They always stop for him.

I told the old man in Spanish: “Tiene todo que usted necesita aqui.” You have everything you need here. He smiled and replied: “Solo me falta una mujer.” The only thing I am missing is a woman…

That was my Valentine´s Day in Taganga, Colombia. Take that, Hallmark.

Day 13: February 13, 2005, Hotel Casa Blanca, Taganga, Colombia

Should I have been worried when I put my life into the hands of a Colombian scuba diving company today and ten minutes into the boat ride out to the diving site they had to head back to shore because they realized they forgot to put enough gas in the engine? Perhaps. If one forgets to put gas in the engine can’t one forget to put oxygen in the tanks?

This was the beginning of my first scuba diving experience ever in my life. I decided to finally get certified because that is one of those things in your life you always say you want to do but you don’t because it’s a) too expensive b) too time-consuming c) too scary d) all of the above above.

Well, just so happens that a) Taganga, Colombia, is the cheapest place in the world to get certified b) I have approximately 365 minus 13 days left in my trip, and so time is not really a factor and c) this trip is about facing all different kinds of fear every day so suck it up and do it.

After emerging from my first dive and experiencing creatures and colors that you only see in National Geographic, the only thing I could think was, Why did I wait so long to do this? I was swimming with the fishes, breathing air underwater and was loving life. The boat took us out to Tayrona National Park. The scenery is dry, rocky soil spotted with tree-tall cactus growing on craggy white cliffs that plunge into teal blue water.

We go for a dive and then head for lunch in a hut on top of one of these cliffs. There are goats running around. There is an outdoor bathroom overlooking the sea and I make Marlene, my roommate, take of picture of me sitting on the toilet reading a magazine because I think it’s funny. I don’t know how funny she thinks it is but she complies because by now she knows all about The Bert Show and I feel I must share this scene with Bert’s listeners. After our second dive we head back to the hotel and find the third bed is occupied with another piece of luggage. The hotel guy tells us that a Swedish girl has arrived. Marlene and I go out to dinner and she asks every blonde girl walking by if she is our third roommate. We head to an Internet café and there is a blonde head peeking out from a cubicle. It is her, Ann-Sofie, our third roommate. I ask her if she has stolen anything and she laughs.

Three girls from different countries all traveling alone and we wind up in the same hotel room. Funny. AnnSofie, who says a guy in Peru thought her name was Anchovy, is traveling in Latin America for 7 1?2 months. She also speaks about 6 languages. I am starting to feel a little sorry for myself. I have so far managed to only master English. Oh well.

Day 12: February 12, 2005, Taganga, Colombia

Remember when I wrote on Day Eleven how absurd it was that some hotel in Santa Marta wanted me to share a room with a stranger? Well, one night later guess who is in the next bed over from me in the Hotel Casa Blanca as I type this? Marlene. My new roommate.

I took a bus this morning from Santa Marta to this tiny beach town Taganga and landed at a hotel that was almost completely full. The front desk guy brings me up to a room with three single beds in a row—it looks something like a camp bunkhouse—and points to a piece of luggage on the middle bed and tells me I would have to share the room with the owner of this piece of luggage. I tell him no. I even offer to pay for a double if he doesn’t have a single left. No dice. I imagine dragging my backpack back across the sand to go to the only other hotel on the beach. I can’t picture it. I study the khaki duffle bag of my new roommate. Does it look like the duffle bag of a thief? Will she rifle through my stuff when I am gone and steal my passport? My $2,000 laptop? My identity? Where is she from, I ask the guy. He shrugs. “Europea.” Does that make her more trustworthy? I shrug. I just want to go the beach. I change into my bathing suit and leave all my precious valuables behind along with $700 in cash…This is so unnatural for me I cannot begin to tell you. I am from the Bronx. I worked for the police department. I was raised to trust no one. In fact, my stepfather’s one piece of advice to me whenever I left to go on a trip was just that. “Trust no one,” he would say. Enough worrying, I tell myself. Stop. I just want to go to the beach. I leave and hope for the best.

At the beach I try not to think about this girl burglarizing my loot and wearing my clothes and taking pictures with my camera and calling herself Suzi. Maybe she will start calling into The Bert Show, too. Then I decide to let go of all this and trust the world and the universe and my new roommate. Whoever she is. What will be will be. I can’t do anything about it now anyway. I feel relieved and mellow and almost smiley and warm with this new thought. It replaces the distrust and the panic. It feels better. It is a better way to live.

After a day at the beach I am unlocking the door to my room and behind me walks up Marlene. I ask her if she is my roommate. She smiles. She is half-German, half-Greek, working in Colombia. She has huge blue eyes. She has a book in her hand by an author I love. I laugh that I was ever panicked. I would trust this stranger with my child. She confesses she was worried about leaving her stuff with a stranger, too. We laugh. The next five hours we spend talking about traveling alone as women, marriage, freedom, kids, Colombia, love, my ex, her current, my father, her father, my brother, her brother. Everything. She is a year younger than me. She speaks five languages. If I had gotten what I wanted and taken my own room, I would never have met this girl. I already feel like I will always know her. Life is funny…

Day 11: February 11, 2005, Santa Marta, Colombia

Today was one of those crap-ass travel days where you wonder how it could get any worse and yet somehow it does. Today, my goal to travel from Cartagena to the beach in a fishing village called Taganga. I am writing this from a place called Santa Marta. That means I didn’t get to Taganga. Here’s why: I boarded the bus. It was cold. They blast the A/C in these hot countries on the long-distance buses. I was wearing only shorts and a tank. My backpack was underneath the bus. Couldn’t get to my clothes. I was so miserable I jammed my blow-up neck pillow into the A/C vents to block the Arctic wind. That only reduced the torture a trifle so I tried to stick my arms inside my spandex tank. Not effective. Then I thought about peeling off the skanky looking seat cover and crawling inside it like a cocoon. Skeeve factor was too high. The Spanish soap operas are blaring on the TV overhead. I only have a Twix bar with me because I didn’t realize the trip was four hours. I am hungry. I eat one stick for breakfast and tuck the other away for lunch. I try to listen to my ipod and realize I accidentally erased all the 998 songs on it and will not have music for the next year because of it. Then old dude sits down next to me and starts yelling into his cell phone. I move seats to the only empty one left. This is because it is across from the bathroom, which stinks. A sign on the door implores people only to urinate for the sake of hygiene. I think about pulling the seat cover over my face to mask the smell. Skeeve factor too high.

Then I find out I have to change buses in a place called Baranquilla. In the hustle to collect my stuff, I leave my Lonely Planet South America on a Shoestring guidebook on the first bus. I panic. I call that book my Bible. The only thing worse than losing this book would be losing my passport. I run to the bus driver and ask him to radio the other bus. He asks me what number the bus was. I don’t know. He radios his base and tells them a gringa left her guidebook on a bus. The dispatcher asks him to please not say such things over the air…It’s risky. What does that mean, I wonder. Does the presence of a guideless gringa make the bus vulnerable to guerilla high-jackings because a foreigner can command a higher ransom? I never find out the answer. I don’t care. I just want my book back. I get off at the last stop where I was supposed to change buses to go to the beach. Instead I am stuck in the terminal. They tell me the bus I left my book on will be arriving in fifteen minutes. I can look for it then. An hour and a half later I am still in the terminal. I eat a bag of lime-flavored potato chips, which causes acid reflux. I board every bus that pulls into the station and ask about the book. No luck. Then I see the driver from the first bus. They not only found my book but they also dislodged my neck pillow from the A/C vents. But both items have already been locked up in a holding cell somewhere. I must return to the bus terminal the following day to pick them up.

Now I must find a hotel in a town I never heard of without a guidebook. I get into a taxi and ask him to bring me to the hotel where all the gringos are. He looks puzzled. His car, which looks to be a 1983 Toyota Corolla, only goes fourteen mph. His seatbelt looks disturbingly like an Osh-Kosh-B’gosh overall suspender nailed to the side of his door. His oil light is on. I think he might have night blindness. He drops me at a hotel. They tell me they only have “compartidos”—shared rooms. Who shares a hotel room with a complete stranger? I heave my backpack on and head out into the night looking for a hotel. I find one. I am happy. I go the bathroom in my room. I flush. This causes a flood. The guy at the front desk tells me there’s no plumber around. I am too weak and defeated to change rooms. OK, I say. I won’t flush. It is 10:27 p.m. and I will be happy when this day is over. I am not leaving my hotel because if I do something bad will happen…

Day 10: February 10, 2005, Cartagena

Well, the plans changed a little. I am still in Cartagena because something GREAT happened. The executive summary is that I did a photo shoot for Marie Claire magazine on the streets of Colombia this morning…It might have been one of the coolest dream come true moments in my entire life…Here’s how it went down: Rewind three months. When I decided I was taking this trip, I got motivated to try and write about it. I used to be a crime reporter so I have a background in writing. For YEARS my mom and everyone told me I should write for magazines but life got in the way. No excuses. I was lazy and busy and intimidated by it. So, when was thinking about what I was gonna pack on this trip, I thought it would be a cool fashion story…What does a girl who likes glamour and high heels bring with her in her backpack? I sent the pitch to a bunch of women’s magazines and Marie Claire liked it. I wrote the story with such ease it was like breathing and sent them photos of me packing. They told me they wanted more shots of me abroad, wearing some of my fashion concoctions and so this brings us up to yesterday. I struck up a conversation with a guy who turned out to be a cinematographer and photographer of all things. Dude is from Ecuador and down to take some pictures…So this morning I put on some of my finest wash-in-the-sink duds and we did a wacky fashion shoot all over the city. As I am very short and have a pronounced shnoz, modeling was never a field that was open to me but I think every girl dreams of such a thing…Ecuador dude, who is named Pablo, did an awesome job…I sent the pics to Marie Claire today and I should hear from them when the article will be published…The whole thing was awesome…

Since I remained in Cartagena today, I have some more color from this place…First, I have been thinking deep thoughts about catcalls of all things. There is an endless barrage of men hissing at you on the street and giving you compliments here. It is pretty common in some places in Latin America. And unlike in America, it is not considered rude or disrespectful to women. I usually hear “flaca” when I walk by, which means skinny girl. In fact, Bert’s nickname for me is “Flacita” because when we met in the Dominican Republic, I told him that so many people were yelling that at me on the streets I had to look it up in my Spanish-English dictionary. Then he started calling Stacey “Skankita” because ‘Honey” and “Dear” just don’t express his love for her adequately…Anyways, it all came to head today when I passed by a filthy, grimy, shoeless homeless guy lying in a doorway. I thought he might be a corpse, in fact. But dude managed to lift his head one fourth of an inch off the pavement as I walked by and uttered: “Ay, Linda.” Roughly, “Whatsup hottie.” Did he think that I would be wooed by this?

Another crazy thing happened today. The President of Colombia is in town and so the military closed off the entire old part of the city to cars. Helicopters are fluttering overhead and they banned all sales of alcohol because they expected protestors and didn’t want them getting drunk. Apparently there was once an assassination attempt on the President via a ROCKET. This whole missile assassination thing has made security a wee but tight when the Prez is in town. Hence, no booze.

This brings me to the speakeasy. I was out trying to have a beer with the photographer, Pablo, and the waiter told us the whole town was “seco” or dry. So we went to the local park, found a guy and told him we wanted a drink and he brought us to some underground place where they sold us a bottle of rum and warned us to hide it because the police would cuff us if they saw us. It was a total bootlegging scene. I should have been in a flapper dress.

Other strange things are happening. I have taken to carrying my money around in my bra because it feels more secure. Don’t you have to be on Social Security to do that? My grandma did that and she also always had a tissue tucked under her sleeve. Maybe that’s next for me.

Lastly, remaining in one place for so long has finally given me a feeling for the first time that of I am a traveler, not a tourist who is not just passing through. It is crazy not to be in a rush. Today, I had a problem with my watch and went to a watch repair guy who has a little booth outside. I literally sat there with him for one and a half hours while he worked on other people’s watches in between jiggering with mine before finally confessing to me he didn’t know how to fix it. The whole experience didn’t make me want to go postal as it would have back in America. But what’s the rush really. All I have is time to burn. I think I might be going native…

Day 9: February 9, 2005

Well, today I had my first cry of the trip. It was for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. I hopped on a boat tour to head to a National Park Marine Reserve on a distant island and when the boat pulled up to the Park —two and a half hours later—I realized I didn’t have enough pesos to get into the park. I was about fifty cents short. So dumb. I begged the old lady at the ticket booth to let me buy a child’s ticket, which I had enough money for, but she told me if she sold me a child’s ticket I’d have to accompanied by an adult since that’s the rule that goes along with child tickets??!!? I’m thirty-four but I need an adult to take me into a marine park. I almost blew a gasket, so I did what any third grade girl would do—I cried. Bizarre, I know, but it’s always the little stupid things that make me cry. The big stuff I’m cool with.

Anyway, they must have thought I was psychotic, which might just be based on that erratic behavior, and they let me in. Thank the Lord, I was able to see some sad dolphins jump in the air in one of those Seaworld-type shows. I also saw two flamingos fight over a piece of food. Definitely worth a good cry.

There are very few Americans here and the ones who are here, seem a bit, well, odd. The other night I was having a beer alone and a fifty-something-yeear-old gringo dude asked if he could sit down. I said I was waiting for someone and an hour later, I was still alone and he came back so I let him sit down. Literally, the second topic of conversation he brought up was that he had shingles, which for the uninformed, is a type of skin herpes. He was complaining about how painful it was and then started arguing with me when I told him it was a communicable disease. Is it? Maybe someone can email me and let me know. Anyway, that’s some rap dude had. He invited me on his sailboat but I declined.

Tomorrow I plan to ho on a bus to beach town called Taganga. Anyplace called Taganga has got to be cool. I met a German guy on the boat who had just come from there and he said it was beautiful but there was no shower in the hotel there. He said a HELMET was floating in a vat of water and you use that to put water in to dump on yourself to wash off. I’m all over that helmet. I don’t think there’s email there, since you have to shower with a helmet, so it might be a while before my next journal entry…

Day 8: Feburary 8, 2005, Cartagena de Las Indias, Colombia

Well, I can say this is one of the most magical, amazing places I have ever been. This city was established in 1533. The sun-faded stone wall that surrounds the city makes the whole place feel like a castle. It’s dotted with rusting canons. Old, Spanish style homes with grillwork and porches and courtyards and flowery vines climbing up on them line the streets in colors like hot pink and earth orange. It’s achingly beautiful…

And then there’s the other side of Cartagena—this bustling insane high-volume high-velocity kind of place. Buses with darkened windows and velvet curtains and pink neon lights around the license plates scream by. A guy hangs out the door yelling out the destination trying to squeeze on as many passengers as the laws of physics will allow. There are rows and rows of street vendors that make it futile to stay on the sidewalk. They sell blenders, they fix watches, they hawk sets of encyclopedias from 1984, they squeeze juice from fruits with names like mangostino and maracuyo, they fry empanadas, they carve rubber stamps, they repair the soles of your shoes, they burn bootleg copies of CDs, they rent their cell phones to you for 300 pesos a minute. They chase you down the street trying to get you to buy emeralds and phone cards and T-shirts. It’s total overload but I don’t feel overloaded by it. I just make my way through the maze amazed by it. That’s Cartagena…

Day 7: February 7, 2005

This morning I flew to Cartagena. I woke up not knowing who won the Superbowl although I can tell you Colombia beat Venezuela in futbol (soccer) yesterday. I bet Nestor $25,000 pasetas or about $10 on the game. I’m for Philly, him for NewEngland…It’s a little odd to be American and not know who won the Superbowl…

The first hotel I went to in Cartegana told me they currently didn’t have water but that I could scoop it out of a vat and bathe with it. Um, no thanks. I found a joint across the street that costs 12,000 pesos a night, or about five dollars. It is a room with one of those locks on the outside door you used on your gym locker in high school, a bed, a fan and a bathroom with no door or shower stall. You basically brush your teeth, go the bathroom, and shower all in the same space. This is the kind of hole-in-the-wall that Bert’s wife Stacey cannot believe I stay in. She has much higher standards than me. She taught me what it means to have your sheets turned down in a hotel room. Before I met her I had never heard of it. Trust me, no one’s turning anything down in Room 16 of the “Hotel Holyday” in Cartagena. The best thing about this place is the sign on the bathroom wall that says “Please Don’t To Throw Papers or Hygiene Towels to the Water Closet.” Heading out to explore this town…

Day 6: February 6, 2005

It was sad to leave Nestor and Bogota, both, but I am so pale and tired and not feeling confident and so I need a little sun. Nestor told me that he felt sad that I was leaving. I went a little weak seeing my Colombian Ironman competitor all squishy. I will see him again because I have to stop in Bogota on the way back from Cartegena to catch a flight to the south of Colombia, where I will cross the border into Brazil. In a completely bold and admittedly tacky move, I asked him if I could stay at his house on my two- or three-day stopover in Bogota. He lives with his mom. Did I mention that? In my real life, in the real world of the United States of America, I would NEVER DO SUCH A PUSHY thing. I would worry that he would think I was trying to get all up in his space and I would worry his mom would think I was floozie. But see the beauty of traveling is that everything gets stripped down to a more truthful place. I don’t have to worry what his mom thinks because the odds are very slim she will wind up my mother-in-law and I don’t have to worry he is going to think I am too clingy because I am outta this country very soon. Can I tell you that this dynamic is one of my single most favorite things about traveling? I basically can do whatever I want to do. Why can’t I act this way in my real life, I am wondering. Something for me to ponder.

Day 5: February 5, 2005

Well, last night Nestor and I had a little smoochy-smoochy at the apartment door of Pilar, the lady I am staying with. We were like teenagers, trying not to get busted. Very fun.

Today he took me to see the worst slums of Bogota. I got a glimpse through the bus window of people living among mounds of garbage amidst shells of buildings and plastic tents in this post-apocalyptic scene. Lots of drugs being used and sold. I have traveled wide and far, or so I thought, but I have never seen people living like this. The poverty is supposed to be even more profound in India and other places I will hit on my trip. The Rough Guide book for First-Time-Around-the-World travelers, that I leaned on heavily to plan this trip, recommends that globe-trotters start off in a region that they are more comfortable in and then work their way to the more intense places like India and Africa. I guess that Bogota is paving the path for the slums in Rio and New Delhi and other places that I will soon see. The scene made me think about Alanis Morrisette’s song, “Thank You,” which she wrote about her trip to India. I have it on my ipod and listened to about eight times today.

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