I was on a quest, and like any good quest there must be a number of different characters who make up your rag-tag band of fellow travelers.
So in this particular moment, I found myself flying down a terribly bumpy highway with my two baby-sitters/minders. The driver was a very large and very beautiful black man who told me that his name was Solvic and he had been a pitcher for MLB. I have not yet googled him to see if this was true, and Because I Very Much Want It to be true, I don’t think I ever will. In the front passenger seat was my second minder: an incredibly kind, skinny, weak-jawed man who had been a Catholic monk for 16 years in Italy before breaking his vows to get married and have a daughter. We made quite the trio as we flew past cattle grazing in the Colombian countryside.
They had been sent with me because my friends in Bogota, the big city, the capital, freaked out when they heard my original plan was to wander around the Colombian country-side on my own looking for a specific set of woven bracelet makers. This is not Ecuador they told me, those small villages are not safe, and worse….you’re a gringa! The unspoken implication being that I would be far too appealing of a target. So I decided to follow their advice and travel with these friend-of-a-friend-minders, so there we are: reggaeton blasting on the radio and one eager-eyed gringa trying to navigate the insane coastal accent asking nerdy social development questions about Colombia’s health care systems and social dynamics.
Arriving in the weaving town of Tuchin we meet up with my contact- well really a contact of a contact, because that’s how these things always work- who took us to his shop and I started to try to make sense of the complicated economy in making artesanias de cana flecha.
The town is composed of an etnia, people of indigenous origins, and while they have lost the language, you can still see it in their faces. Traditionally for years they have woven wide-brim straw hats from cana flecha, a large sort of grass like sugar cane, and recently have expanded into other products like bracelets- as such was the reason I was found myself in the backyard of a small home with a beautiful old woman explaining to me the intricacies of her art.
The town was tiny, charming and clearly not the sort of place that gringas disappear too often, so I convinced my minders to leave me there for the night *gasp* alone. Which meant I had the opportunity to go to church with Wader, my artisan contact, and his family. The region is hot, sub topical or something, and so the church was actually a delightful series of open air thatched pavilions. There is something incredibly beautiful about the universal nature of the Church, and knowing that we all share the same love.
They had a special speaker, a fiery preacher, that night for their 8th anniversary, and he shared his testimony. He started out saying that he had once been one of the top 3 accordion players in Colombia, which seemed such a strange brag it almost seemed to have to be true. It was hard not to be mesmerized as I he told his story – falling into cocaine and drug addiction and ending up sleeping on the streets, contemplating suicide because his life was in such despair. He reproached the people in the congregation that no Christian helped him during that time and that we should never write-off a person like that, because you never know what plan God may have for their lives. But the day that he was going to end it all, Jesus himself came to him in a vision and it changed everything. He went to a church, got his life back on track – but then he had the honesty to admit he fell back into it all again a year later. He said he was trying to bargain with God, asking for another year to live his life touring with his band, but God told him I have a better plan for you. And now he works with people who are depressed, suicidal, addicted to drugs giving them hope. One of the most powerful moments was that he said his son was shot 4 times, and the whole church came and was praying for a miracle that he would be healed. But the son died anyway, but the miracle was that he prayed for God to be glorified even in that. And later when the shooters came to his house, he was able give them his forgiveness. And he also really did play the accordion tan bonito that I think he could have been the 3rd best in the country.
The next morning, I was able to see how the whole town came alive when individuals came down from the far outskirts selling all their woven hats, multiple hats piled on top of their heads. Traditional handicrafts are so special, and although I love them, it’s clear that it’s art that will have to die out one day, soon, giving into modernization.
That night I headed back to Cartagena, found myself a bit lonely, wanting to make friends, but just wandered around on my own taking in the sites of the city at night. Cartagena old city is enchanting. It’s what I wish the old town of Quito could be. All the old buildings well kept up, brightly painted, so charming.
The next am I meandered around a bit more, and spent some time chatting with a coffee seller and then finally joined a city walking tour – purposely the Spanish language group, so I could feel superior to the other gringos. There I found the friends I was looking for in my lonely night wanderings the day before, and hung out a Mexican girl who was traveling solo, and we joined up with a group of 4 spanish guys from the Canary islands. They were a hilarious group, and we had a great time spending the day together, appreciating all the details of the city’s history which we immediately forgot.
Oh Cartagena, you have charmed with your colors, your winding streets full of musicians and cafes to discover. Your nights are warm and invite one to sit in a plaza and watch all people go by, in a rainbow of colors. Everyone doing the subtle/non subtle, but always sensual dance of a bird of paradise – are you looking at me? Am I beautiful enough? Am I worthy of desire?
 I have a magnet puzzle on my fridge, left behind by some previous tenant of my apartment, that has the one-time Colombian tourism logo: The only risk is wanting to stay. (I would have to agree)