June 18th – 21st
Far far away from Chicago, IL is a city painted in color.
Bright pink, yellow, orange, and green drench the walls of ancient colonial buildings. Bold is beautiful and better yet, it is charming. Cobblestone streets line the ground as horses trot upon the stone while small taxi cars zoom past. The air is sweltering and sultry and the Caribbean Sea is balmy yet refreshing. It is a place where relaxation, indulging in fresh fruit, sitting on park benches, and watching soccer matches is a way of life. Hustle bustle is non-existent. Slow and steady is air itself.
Old Town Cartagena is the city where I found bravery and strength in mind.
I first arrived in Cartagena, Colombia with a 30 liter backpack, a heart full of adventure, and 40 USD to my name. My Spanish was horrible at best but my mind was hungry to learn a new language and culture. Yes, I could have taken a class or could have learned before but what better way than to do what scares you most? Plus, I had only bought the ticket a couple of weeks in advance and had started planning the trip 3-4 days before take off…. Does that get your heart going? Because that was the ultimate plan. Scare myself to learn how much I could depend, trust, and believe in who I was and who I would become in the face of adversity.
As I landed in Colombia I chose one of the cheapest hostels I could find ($8 a night) with the best ratings. Fast forward two hours later as I made my way through customs I was shocked to discover not a single local resident spoke english. Boy was this going to be quite the journey. As such, my debit and credit card were rejected as I frantically tried every ATM in the airport radius. The ATM’s were in Spanish and thankfully my basic understanding of Italian came in handy (Spanish and Italian are similar in some regards). Still, no dough. Thankfully I met a wonderful Swedish man by the name of Gustav who spoke fluent English. Gustav had traveled to Colombia to take classes and learn Spanish. We hopped in a cab together and navigated the city. With zero pesos to my name, Gustav was kind enough to pay for my taxi with no expectation of reimbursement. Gustav gave me hope. He showed me the kindness of a stranger with a heart of a lion. Experiencing his kindness in a world I did not know made me brave. If a stranger could be kind than other strangers could be too.
No money. No Spanish. No friends. Just me…..and I was brave.
Brave enough to make another friend, who, oddly enough was from Chicago and an avid traveler with plenty of advice. Brave enough to explore a city without a map. Brave enough to interact with locals to learn their culture and language. And brave enough to let things be.
I was in a weird and wonderful world where – unlike the United States – everything was not sanitized. Everything was raw. When I say raw I mean dangerous, thrilling, somewhat dirty, and safe all at the same time.
The next day, bank issues were resolved and I could breathe again. Everything was going to be ok. Then again, how could it not in a country like Colombia?
Bravery was lettered but what about strength in mind? Well, that’s another story…
For time’s sake let’s keep it short. After all, this blog is about travel highlights and personal growth.
A new friend of mine I had met at the hostel (Las Tortugas) spoke fluent Spanish, French, and English. Thank God someone new English AND Spanish. We traveled to a small fishing village outside of Cartagena called La Baquilla. There we swam and played with the local children who were fascinated with my so-called “blonde” hair. They couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish but somehow we made it work. We understood each other. We spoke with our bodies, our facial expressions, and our laughter. After swimming and playing with the children we walked through a village built up of huts. Restaurants lined the village under straw roofs that offered fresh fish and coca-cola (coca-cola is sold in every store and restaurant and is very popular in Colombia). Children played in the streets kicking tattered balls with their dirty bare feet as parents watched closely from the distance of their small homes.
At the bus stop, my mate and I smiled and chatted with each other about the limitless of beauty as we waited for our ride back to the city. We stood there, happy and aware of our surroundings. My friend had two backpacks on her since she was debating staying in the village and decided against it after seeing the conditions. A gentleman stood at the bus stop with us. He was dressed nicely and was a local of the village. He wore dark washed jeans and an aqua light blue collard shirt. As the bus approached we started walking closer to the dirt road when suddenly, everything hit slow motion. I felt a tug on the bag I was wearing as the woven strap across my chest was torn off. I looked back at him as I turned around and snatched the bag out of shock. His hand on top of mine, he squeezed as we played tug-a-war with the bag. I noticed he was unarmed and decided to fight for what was mine. I screamed for help as a bus full of people stopped while people watched from all around. We tugged for the bag as it went back and forth between us until his strength overpowered mine. He ran off. He ran off with my only source of communication (iPhone 5) and pesos equivalent to 30 USD. Luckily, I had heard of situations like this before and was well aware to leave my passport, ATM cards, and money back in a lockbox at the hostel. My friend on the other hand did not since she was mobile. We flagged a police officer down as my friend recounted the situation to him in Spanish. His response translated to: “What do you want me to do about it?” Local people surrounded us as I stood there in disbelief. How could this happen? I mean I had read about robberies in Colombia but never thought it could be me. Why me? Why now? The people started debating loudly. One side wanted justice and knew the young man. He was a common thief and was driving down tourism and business in the small village. The other side thought God would take care of it and to leave his punishment up to the almighty.
Shock turned to disbelief. Disbelief turned to acceptance. Acceptance turned to gratitude.
I had never been mugged before. The man was not armed. I fought back and trusted my reflexes.
Is this bravery? Maybe. But to me it was much more. This was strength in mind. For others this would have ruined their trip and made them feel extremely unsafe. For me, it MADE my trip and made me more empathetic and understanding of a culture I did not quite know. Why was this man robbing innocent tourists in the first place? Was he malicious? I doubt it since he had no intention to hurt me. I believe it is because of his socio-economic status. Living in a poor fishing village with little hope for advancement in career is something I do not know. Supporting a family and living in poverty is something else I do not know. What if this man was a good guy? A man I would call my friend who felt pressured and desperate to earn more to feed himself and his family? I am not saying his method is correct. I simply do not know his story.
But I do know mine.
Just like the walls of Cartagena, I wanted to paint my mind bold and bright. No negativity. No preconceived judgements. No fuss over lost material possessions.
I was healthy.
I was happy.
I was grateful to be alive.
So paint my life. Paint your life. Paint it anything but black.