Chapter 25: Santa Marta and Taganga, Colombia
Saturday, August 7
After breakfast and settling up at the hostel I took a taxi to Cartagena’s bus terminal. The busy Saturday morning traffic threw up clogs of dust as we journeyed along. A Transportes La Cestena bus was about to leave but I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The bubbly bus attendant promised to wait and I was on board minutes later. It was a lively bus but I fell to sleep not long into the journey. I then suddenly woke up to hear many of the passengers singing the Colombian National Anthem. It was being played on a television screening live coverage of the new president being sworn in at a ceremony in Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar. With it also being Colombia’s Bicentenary since independence, the country and its citizens were at last engaged in a reappraisal of the last few decades. But the political situation seemed as static as ever. There were big floods in the small villages we passed beyond Barranquilla. Little children were happily jumping and splashing about in pools of brown water. We arrived in Santa Marta at about 5 in the afternoon. A cheap taxi got me to the even cheaper Hotel Miramar with single rooms for just 10,000 pesos a night. I signed in and then received a sales pitch about excursions into Parque Nacional Tayrona and Ciudad Perdida, Tayrona’s great pre-Hispanic city, lost in the hills till its rediscovery in the 1970s. I took a deep breath and thanked the pleasant lady, then climbed up to my room, a basic affair with an extremely loud fan. Santa Marta was a smelly old place. Lots of recent developments added ugliness to the town and the heavy rains constantly flooded the streets. The stench of raw sewage made me heave. It was really dirty. One expected a bit of grime in a busy sea port but the shit on the streets was a bit too much. Greedy, short-sighted developers and planning officials were swamping the town with more hotels and providing little in the way of supporting infrastructure. It was short term gain leaving a long term stain, and seemed to be happening all over the world. There were many container ships docked in the small port, including one emblazoned with the Fyffes bananas logo. I found a quiet restaurant to enjoy a fish supper and televised live football between Cali and Medellin. Another storm was brewing up in the mountains behind Santa Marta. Increasingly loud thunder exploded in the skies. People scattered from the streets as lightning strikes closed in on the town. I ran back to Hotel Miramar and slowed down to a lethargic pace and then crawled into bed for an early night. I still had my Marlboro Lights from Thursday night but surprisingly never felt the urge for a cigarette all day.
Sunday, August 8
The stinking streets of Santa Marta put me off staying in the town. Sub-standard drainage just couldn’t cope with the over-development. The raised sidewalks just about stayed above the rising filth from the submerged streets. When the rains did ease a dirty slime caked the town centre. I wondered if any drainage system could cope with such a regular deluge though. It was just the way it poured into the ordinary people’s space in Santa Marta that really concerned me. I walked further down the shore. Near to a sewage outflow there were boys and girls jumping into the dirty sea with their parents. There were crowds of people on the dirty beach. There were new developments going up further down the beach and I attempted to walk through one section but a guy in a hard hat appeared. I asked about the extent of infrastructure to cope with such development and mentioned the sewage on the streets. He wasn’t interested and said his only focus was on building the luxury apartments towering behind his thick head. Then he politely asked me to turn back which I did. Anyway, it became a hot and sunny day, so I took a 1C bus along the headland road and down into El Rodadero, a fashionable beach resort five kilometres south of Santa Marta. The beach was nice and clean and I gladly paid for a deckchair and gazebo. I then retreated into a little restaurant and enjoyed a seafood lunch. Three nuns arrived soon after and sat beside me. One of them tapped me on the shoulder to ask what I was eating. They each agreed it looked good, and it certainly tasted fine. I returned to the beach for a couple of hours of sunbathing and continued reading Niall Ferguson’s book about money. The rain returned and began leaking through the gazebo so I headed up the streets to find a bus back to Santa Marta. One soon arrived and it splashed through the afternoon monsoon. I got off at the southern side of the centre where the streets weren’t so flooded but the same old stench and splashes greeted me on the surrounding streets around Calle 10 and the Hotel Miramar. Throughout the day the massive wealth disparities in Santa Marta also came into sharper focus. The people in this town were really friendly though. Whenever I asked for any assistance or advice, I always received an eager response, like when I stopped off at a pharmacy on my little mission to find the bus stop for Taganga. The elderly shopkeeper just stopped what he was doing, left his premises wide open and came out with me out onto the street. With his arm around my shoulders we walked along. He then smiled and nodded towards the exact spot.
Monday, August 9
Regular minibuses were taking people five kilometres north to a more relaxed location. I boarded one and the driver and his buddy immediately demanded a double fair as my baggage took the space of another passenger. Their eagerness and the driver’s hasty acceleration caused a couple of elderly ladies to stumble as they struggled to their seats. We crossed over the north eastern hills and down into tiny Taganga. I wasn’t sure where to stop and shouted over to the driver because we appeared to be travelling back towards Santa Marta. “En Espanol, por favor,” (in Spanish please) came his reply. He smiled and added “no necessitar preoccupado,” (no need to worry) as we reached a small roundabout near the playa (beach) and a tourist information office where a group of backpackers were waiting to return to Santa Marta. I was in Taganga, a relaxed little fishing town, nestled in a bay flanked by huge peaks on both sides and behind. It looked and seemed to be an idyllic kind of place. I’d already checked out the accommodation listings on the internet and called the Hostel Pelikan to book a stay. It was ideal, a very clean and tidy dormitory costing 15,000 pesos for the night. I also wanted to check out the highly recommended Casa Blanca, a beach side hostel at the end of the little bay. There were still places becoming available so I pre-booked a single room with its own balcony overlooking the beach. Taganga was a popular scuba-diving centre with lots of backpackers cottoning on to the scenic and serene location. Boats for excursions and fishing trips were lined along the northern part of the shore. The attractive beach backed onto a tiny promenade and some alfresco restaurants. There were just a few shops as well. While enjoying a late afternoon strawberries and ice cream, I noticed lots of Europeans walking about with enormous smiles on their faces. Taganga seemed a happy place to stumble across. As the night crept in I took a shower then relaxed out on the hostel veranda. There was a power shortage and the whole street suddenly blacked out. I returned to my dormitory. An amiable bunch of young English and Australian women had just arrived. Lizianna and Julie-Anne from Sydney were extremely chatty and friendly. Dormitories weren’t to everyone’s taste but there was always a great chance of meeting really nice people. The other guests, from England, had already gone out. A massive storm brewed up just before midnight. It was so intense. Big thunder booms shook the window frames and the tropical rains raised the dust from the earth but it soon eased up and left a fresher air.
Tuesday, August 10
I slept well after the big storm. The young ladies were safely back in the dormitory. They were out till the early hours. I should have stayed perhaps another night or two at the Hostel Pelikan. Its pretty young people vibe was really warm and friendly and the Sydney girls were hanging around Taganga for an extra day. I left for the short walk along the beach to Casa Blanca, checked in and spent an hour on a computer. I then went to Playa Grande, a beautiful bay around the fertile headland north west of Taganga. It was a leisurely walk in the high humidity and strong sunshine. There was a real Caribbean flavour to this coastline. I stopped at various points on the narrow path to admire the views and watch the lizards darting across into the surrounding bushes. Playa Grande’s beach was lovely and there were lots of palm thatched restaurants serving fried fish. A lovely looking lady came over to me when I stopped at one restaurant. She was Diana from Brazil who worked at her stern-looking auntie’s kitchen. Diana invited me to choose from the morning’s catch. I pointed to one of the fattest fish in the straw basket. It was later served with rice, banana fritas (fried), sliced lemon and salad, with a big glass of lemonade. Diana sat with me and we practiced our basic Spanish with lots of laughter. She had lovely dark, pearly eyes. Distant thunder rolled ever closer and I returned to Taganga shortly after finishing my meal. The everyday climate of rising humidity, followed by sudden releases and a cooler, fresher atmosphere, was very seductive according to the gorgeous looking receptionist at the Casa. I settled into my room and then read for a while out on the balcony. The sun sank in the western horizon and scattered a mellow, yellow light over the gentle sea. The waves lapped gently onto the shore beneath my raised, ground floor room. I noticed a small spider hurrying underneath my bed and then a tiny lizard scuttled around on the far wall by the window. Mosquitoes were my main concern and I sprayed the room with Off! insect repellent before taking a shower. I could survive on a lower budget in Taganga.
Wednesday, August 11
I kept the fan on all through the very warm night and experienced a rather restless, achy kind of sleep. I awoke to hear a young family happily splashing about and swimming in the high tide beneath my balcony. The sun rose, adding a soothing warmth to the atmosphere. Afternoon and evening heat resulted in having to take a couple of refreshingly cold showers each day. I felt so far away from it all in balmy Taganga. There was a disconnection after being away from home for six months. The cats seemed to be the link I kept holding on to. I knew my newsroom days were behind me but the discipline and training counted for a lot. There were journalism crafts and skills I’d worked so hard for and now honed further while learning more about what’s out there in the world. It was all worth it because it was what I always wanted to do. I was so determined to get my foot in the door that I worked in a factory on minimum wages for nearly two years to be able to pay for the National Council for the Training of Journalists course after I’d passed its entrance exam in Liverpool. I was a bit rusty with my shorthand after being in South America since February though! My group editor Eric Langton of the Chester Chronicle said he still practised his shorthand for up to half an hour each evening when he settled down to listen to the news broadcasts. I always appreciated it when senior journalists shared a few snippets about themselves and their approach to the profession. Any generosity in such a competitive field had to be appreciated, especially for someone like myself. I came from a less privileged background with no family links to the profession but I had the opportunity to offer a fresh perspective. Back in Taganga, I found the little Bonsai Cafe where delicious breakfasts were being served. I enjoyed yogurt with muesli and fruit flakes, some sweet, tangy tomate de arbol (tree tomato juice), and as much fresh coffee as I wanted. The two cups of espresso and the breakfast were to be savoured and not rushed. I thanked the hosts very much and hoped to return. Life was pretty much amplified and simplified in Taganga. Its beautiful surroundings made it easier for me unravel and take stock. I walked some of the way up the Santa Marta road to find a way down to the south side beach, trudged around some rocks, spotted a strange looking spiky fish and reckoned I’d need a boat to reach the little cove, so I turned back for Taganga and continued on over to Playa Grande. A small snake crossed the headland path and then a large lizard appeared on the brow of the little hill with its eyes pinned on me before scuttling off into thick undergrowth. Taganga wasn’t a bad place to take in some sun and Playa Grande was an especially nice place to take a dip in the warm ocean and rest back in a cheap to hire deckchair. They charged just 2,000 pesos for the day, compared to 14,000 back in El Rodadero. Black clouds and thunder prompted a quick return to Taganga where I enjoyed another fried fish lunch and lemonade. Back in the hostel an Israeli guy was heating up and preparing to put his fist through one of the computers. He had difficulties with flight bookings for Bogota to Leticia. The airline’s website kept knocking back his straightforward request. I tried to help but the guy was a bit abrupt. Flyers were posted around Taganga, promoting The Hostel Oso’s free film nights. I went along and soon warmed to the rooftop balcony atmosphere. Before the film started, the hosts introduced themselves to a gathering of about two dozen travellers. The hosts seemed like good people. They were east coast Americans with academic backgrounds. We enjoyed Goodbye Lenin and its jovial take on the fall of the Berlin Wall. I’d found a cosy corner seat near the front and enjoyed the free popcorn being passed around. Beers were also served on an exceedingly engaging evening.
Thursday, August 12
There were news reports that a car bomb had exploded in Bogota, injuring at least nine people. The new president Juan Manuel Santos had his work cut out if he wanted to bring all parties together and stop the violence. Colombia, especially its people, had enormous resources and backbone. If the different parties could be brought together to push through political reform and wider representation then, instead of all the destructive bombs, it would be the country’s international reputation going through the roof. It never was easy. Some people will never get on with others, but no one’s asking for a massive love-in, just a bit more mutual respect and recognition of common interests and values. Perhaps we can’t change the world but humanity can transform the world we live in. I returned to Hostel Oso for a sound breakfast and enjoyable company to start the day. Afterwards, on the Santa Marta road, I found the track leading down to Playaca beach. The tiny bay was deserted. For nearly three hours I enjoyed a sun soaked rest on the white sand and occasionally took a dip into the crystal clear sea. There wasn’t a soul to be seen but a couple of boats bobbed about in the water and Tropicana Radio blared away from a nearby empty cafe bar. I got up and prepared to leave as a raved-up version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence seared the airwaves. A man stirred in a nearby hut as I walked back through the grassy front onto the track with some plastic clutter I’d collected from the beach. I waved, he waved back and was probably going to open up the bar but I was on my way up the track. Plastic bags were a particular litter on the streets and in the sea. It seemed to be the only blemish on Taganga’s haven. Its main beach was very busy and I returned there after lunch. I was developing a good tan at long last, but I’d never been one for too much sunbathing. I finished The Ascent of Money – A Financial History of the World. As the author suggested, had traditional British dinner party discussions descended to share portfolios? Yuck. I enjoyed the book. I didn’t necessarily agree with the author but his prose and perspective were really engaging. Drops of rain increased as the distant thunder closed in. Back at the hostel I typed in some more of my diary onto my email drafts. I continued drinking lots of bottled water but I went without dinner as I fed my head a little after stumbling onto a new song based on an E-diminished chord. It quickly came to fruition and the words flowed out about trust and money. The woman behind the reception desk was gorgeous but there was an oafish guy who kept popping in and talking rather too loudly and too often about business matters. Who was he and why was he so bullish?
Friday, August 13
What an idyllic location I’d found myself in. I had the single room, balcony, the space and the beach. The ornamental iron bars kept out any unwanted guests from climbing onto the balcony, as they had done in the past according to the receptionist. The sound of the waves during the night was so soothing but I woke up feeling really tired and bleary eyed. I wasn’t eating enough so I tucked into a large breakfast in the restaurant next to Casa Blanca. I returned to Playa Grande and settled into my usual deckchair spot. I’d picked up The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek. It immediately grabbed my attention. With its strong satire and Schweik’s extraordinary character I was laughing aloud and repeating some of the phrases from his amazingly funny anecdotes. I could see how Blackadder Goes Forth went on to claim comic classic status after being inspired by Hasek’s fine writing. I stayed at Playa Grande till 3pm, ate some French fries, and walked back to Taganga. My feet were sore as the old sandals looked to be nearing the end of their days. I bought them for just six euros way back in 2004 when I was in Bologna, Italy with my ex-girlfriend Lara. They’d lasted well but the soles were coming apart. As the late afternoon rain returned, the sea became choppier. The bullish guy was back in the hostel with lots of paperwork and he pointed his pen at various figures in a one-sided discussion with the receptionist. It seemed a strange set-up at Casa Blanca. However, I was happy there and decided on a weekend stay. I spent more in Colombia, as prices were much higher than in Peru. I wanted to slow it down and staying put in one place helped me to figure out what I was spending so much on. The buses were the largest expense by a long way but the roads were in a far better condition than even Argentina’s. I stayed in to develop my new song as the loud voice of a Skype user broke the calming sound of the waves. There were lots of polite and friendly couples staying in the hostel though. I continued typing out my diary but perhaps a three-hour evening slot was rather too long and left me rubbing my eyes. My university friend Stephen Martin emailed me to ask about the religious side of South America. He was contemplating applying for work as a guide at the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The tiny lizard remained in my room but there was no sign of the spider nor the rather annoying large fly.
Saturday, August 14
There was £2,000 left in my kitty for the final 50 days. Spending £20 a day would leave a grand for when I returned home. I returned to the friendly Hostel Oso and had a nice chat with the owners. The husband Peter seemed a really warm and compassionate guy with a social conscience. He showed me the hostel’s book collection. I spotted Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Peter noticed my Hasek book and exclaimed what a hoot it was. He recommended I read some of Greene’s lighter stuff, like Travels with My Aunt, saying it revealed more of the writer’s character. He also suggested PG Wodehouse. I exchanged Niall Ferguson’s book and our conversation meandered onto the 2008 banking crisis. Peter took a dim view of governmental dabbling in business. I explained how the Ascent of Money highlighted the selfishness at the core of capitalism. Peter admitted there had to be a certain selfishness in business. I returned to Playa Grande. Along the way a little lad advised me to be careful with my camera. He and his mate passed me as I was taking photographs of Taganga. They gave a knowing look to warn me to watch out for thieves. It was easy to forget the dangers of travelling in such tranquil places. I spent the day on Playa Grande’s packed out beach where friends and families were having a rollicking good time. At regular intervals a poor unfortunate would have sand poured down their pants followed by a leg-and-a-wing into the deep waves. It all looked quite entertaining and the hilarity of The Good Soldier Schweik continued! It was a cloudy day as the overhead sun only occasionally peeked through. I still burnt a little despite putting on generous amounts of factor 50. The only real concern of the day cropped up when a young woman passed out nearby. She was with a group of friends and a young man, who appeared to be her boyfriend. He immediately took control of the situation as crowds gathered around them. She needed air and slowly came around. However, she looked exhausted and completely out of it. A boat arrived and she was ferried back to Taganga. Hopefully, everything was going to be alright. She looked really distressed though. I remembered she’d been in the water quite a lot. When I returned to Casa Blanca the receptionist informed me that she had been into my room to spray it with repellent. I thanked her and asked whether I needed to take anti-malarial tablets. She doubted it but suggested I visit the village pharmacy. They asked me where I would be travelling to next, and reckoned I wouldn’t need pills in Parque Nacional Tayrona nor for the Venezuelan route I intended to take to the Brazilian border. However, I would have to start taking the tablets a couple of days before my arrival in Manaus, deep in the Amazon jungle. I decided I would buy my medication in Merida, Venezuela, but it was knowing which ones I needed. I checked the football scores from back home. Wrexham beat Cambridge United 1-0 in their first match of the season. I was delighted.
Sunday, August 15
I woke out of a dream where I’d been sat on the stage in Telford’s Warehouse, Chester. I plugged the lead into my guitar, nothing happened and I remained there, rooted to the spot, just staring ahead and wondering about the future. Actually, in real life I’d taken part in some open-mic acoustic nights at Telford’s. It was always enjoyable. BBC Radio presenter Mark Radcliffe appeared on one occasion with Rusty Mahone’s band The Family Mahone belting out some fine Irish tunes. On this particular night I was slotted in after an alternative act featuring a guy dressed as a Viking with an industrial looking guitar crossed with a chainsaw. ‘How could I follow that?’ I thought. My performances were always tinged with nervousness but I sang four of my own songs to generous applause and a plea from Mark, sitting there at the front looking through his pint glass, for his companions to lessen their chatter and listen. The memory remained lodged somewhere, but I broke out of a stupor as I walked out onto the balcony on a hot and sunny day. My Nivea Light Feeling 50 came in very handy, as did my camera to snap the stunning scenery. The hostel didn’t have an adaptor for my recharger so I bought some new batteries. At least they were fairly cheap in Colombia, at about £2 for four AAs. Blue and yellow lizards darted across the footpath to Playa Grande. The crowds returned to the beach. I continued having fun reading The Good Soldier Schweik as the clouds increasingly blotted out the blazing sun. One of the boats ferrying passengers from Taganga docked nearby. The blue boat had Ronnie written in white painted letters along its side. I’d seen Ronnie the Boat moored up in Taganga a few days before. It was good to see the old floater still bobbing about! I walked back to Taganga later in the afternoon. The tops of my legs were stinging with sunburn. I sat on my balcony for a couple of hours cooling down with a Coca Cola, reading, playing guitar and watching the sunset. Happy couples stayed in the water long after sundown. A couple of mean looking dealers spotted me as they ambled past on the beach below. They approached the wall, shouting up to ask if I wanted anything. I was on my way to Parque Nacional Tayrona, so travelling with any stash would be chancing it. My new song Trust/Money began taking a life of its own. I almost missed the last servings at a tasty little fish restaurant on the front. Places were at a premium as the clock ticked on past 8 but the kindly, smiling proprietor in a replica England football shirt guided me to a small table by a wall and raced into the kitchen to check how the ground lay. He immediately rushed back into the dining area with a menu and I opted for a lovely fish dinner. Missing out on meals was all very well, but I remained drastically thin after my illness in Peru. I topped off the meal with a fresa copa (ice cream and strawberries) at a little cafe further down the sea front. A plethora of beach balls on Taganga’s beach prompted me to check out the Liverpool versus Arsenal final score. It ended at 1-1. The evening artisans were out on the street displaying their crafts and pictures. A lady in dreadlocks had loads of badges and wrist bands. I spotted a cracking looking badge featuring John Lennon holding a big flower to his left eye. I bought that and a Rasta wrist band. I ended a lovely Sunday by planning Monday’s travels.