My Ultimate Travel Inspiration: Abuela

A note from the author: This is a tribute to my abuela who recently passed away on Friday the 13th, September, 2019. This article was made possible thanks to my family who shared their oral history, where I was able to match up parts of her story with photos and documents. She often would explain, “yo crucé montañas, rios, y oceanos para poder pasar tiempo contigo” to the grandkids in order to help us understand what kind of effort, distance, and sacrifice was invested in order for her to spend time with us. Clarita was a soul full of colors, love and forgiveness. She was magic with her unconditional love, like a poesía de alegría. She could lite up any room she walked into, filling a house with her energy resembling vibrant colors. To better understand why Clarita was the way she was, our greatest inspiration to keep going despite life’s obstacles, the following is her story.

Clara Beatriz Rey was born on July 29th, 1934 in Bogotá, Colombia, although the date is debatable. This stereotypical vivacious Leo personality argued that her real birth date is unknown since she has no birth certificate to prove it. Her family’s life took a turn when she was 4-years-old because her dad Guillermo Rey Chacón passed away due to Tuberculosis, leaving behind Clarita, her older sister of 7 years-old Maria Helena “Nena”, and their Mami Maria Helena Vazquez.

They moved in with her mom’s 14 siblings, 5 tios and 9 tias who helped raise the young girls. Her mom was the oldest of the 14, therefore she was known as el gran poder, or the mighty power, also due to her affability and kindness leading to a certain don, or gift, she had liaising with people. Clarita would later acquire this same don and impressive ability of connecting with people in a way that even a stranger on the street would love talking to her.  Furthermore, Maria Helena had a distinct ability to play the piano that her parents ordered from Germany.

Clarita finished up to 7th grade (2do de bachillerato), then went to work at a Kodak 100_4407shop that some of her aunts worked at, as well as a laboratory where she packaged medicines. Cue meeting her future husband Carlos Jaime Chavarriaga (pronounced Hi-meh) on a bus towards downtown, both of them on their way to work in 1954 when Clara was 19-years-old. Jaime worked at the Manhattan store, a clothing line for men. By the end of 1954, Jaime and Clara wed at the Iglesia Santa Teresita, and then by 1955 their first daughter Martha was born.

 

First Trip Abroad, 4 Kids, and Career

Clarita y Martha - Culver City, California

Clarita & Martha in Culver City, California

By the end of 1955, a tia of Jaime offered the family of three their first trip to the United States. They took a short stop in Cuba for a couple of days, and they stayed in the USA for about 5 months. Since they stayed in Culver City, California outside of LA, Jaime tried out for various roles as an extra for several movies searching for “Hispanic” actors. He wasn’t able to find a job, so they returned back to Colombia. However, this trip must have made on impact on her first born (and possibly the second born too since she could have been conceived in the USA), which later on it will make sense why.

Shortly after, the brood grew to a total of 4 kids with Maria Clara (1956), Carlos Jaime (1958), and Claudia Rosa “Rosita” (1960). In order to not confuse Carlos Jaime Jr with his dad, we will refer to Jaime Sr as “Don Jaime.” Most family trips consisted of long weekend “Puente” holiday trips to warmer climate and lower altitude pueblos outside of cold mountainous Bogotá a couple of times a year. Girardot, Melgar, and Utica were the most frequented spots. Don Jaime’s brother, Guillermo, was a pilot, therefore the couple or the whole family sometimes got to travel thanks to his benefit. By airplane in Colombia, they visited coastal locations like Barranquilla and Tumaco both on the Caribbean and the Pacific coast respectively. 

 

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Clara on her way to Tumaco, Colombia on the pacific coast in 1971. Her brother-in-law Guillermo was a pilot, so he let her take a quick photo opp.

Family Trips in Colombia:

Entrepreneurship ran through Clarita’s veins, as did her nurturing and healing essence. In 1962-66 she started a fashion design business out of their own house where she had a couple of seamstresses on her team. In 1964-69 she created a cake and dessert business overlapping with the other business. Fast forward a bit of time in 1983, she supported Carlos Jaime’s travel agency business which later turned into a catering and events business, Banquetes Pablo VI, which still continues to this day 36 years later. However, her love for working in the healthcare industry prevailed.

Clarita found an internship working as an instrument nurse at the Hospital San José in 1968. To the dismay of her husband Jaime, who like many men at the time felt she should stay at home to child rear and tend to housework, she went against his wishes as she discovered her passion for working in healthcare and continued with it. At the time, Don Jaime had been working at Abbott as a pharmaceutical drug salesman who visited different Doctor’s offices, a job he held until retirement when he created his own related company Disfarma LTDA. Throughout the years, Clara worked seasonally or part-time at several different hospitals: Clinica Palermo, Clinica de Marly, Hospital Militar, and Clinica del Country. She specialized in supporting heart surgeries from about 1968 until about 1988 usually on part-time or short-term based assignments. She took two separate breaks between those 20 years, once in 1977 and once in 1981.

Clara was always savvy to find or create opportunities anywhere. She landed a job as a live-in nanny for two Cuban girls in the Miami, Florida area (Coral Gables) in 1977. She was there for about 5 months, where she would send her earnings as remittances back home to the family. At the time, the eldest daughter Martha was 22, therefore she helped run the household in Colombia. She later had to go home for unexpected reasons the family does not like to talk about, however the experience served as preparation for exciting opportunities to come in the USA and abroad.

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Clarita’s Beauty Battle Scar

She took almost a year-long break in 1981 after she severely broke her right arm in a freak mini elevator accident at the hospital, when a small container (aka dumbwaiter or lift), that transported medical supplies and other materials between floors in the building, fell on her arm and broke skin and bone. Around the same time, Don Jaime and Clara separated since they spent most of their time fighting. It was a very tough year for Clara due to her arm, her failed marriage, and her eldest daughter had left to live in the USA for good. Once her arm was fully mobile again thanks to healing and physical therapy, she persisted with her seasonal work at the hospital. This is only one of the many examples of Clarita’s strength and resilience. It wasn’t until the birth of her first grandchild in 1988 that she decided to drop everything and leave Colombia for a while.

A New Chapter – Grand-parenting All Around The World

At the wedding from left to right: Clara, Richard, Martha, and Don Jaime.

Her eldest daughter Martha met a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Richard Tracy, in 1978. They wed by 1980, and moved to the U.S. by 1981 after Richard completed his volunteer service. By 1988, they were living in Richard’s hometown Toledo, Ohio when Alexandra was born. Clarita decided by the time that Ale was 3 months that she was ready to be a full-time grandmother in the USA to help while both parents worked full time. A year later, and still the only birth of her grand kids she ever witnessed, Michele was born in 1989. Just two months after that, her 3rd granddaughter Diana Carolina or “Caro” was born in Bogotá to Carlos Jaime and his wife Diana Patricia. Because of this, Clara spent most of her time traveling between Colombia and the USA for the rest of her grand kids’ youth until the U.S. grand kids turned 18. For 19 years, her visits to the USA would usually span about 3-6 months each, about once a year, all depending on her Visa and who was able to cover her flights.

 

The most exciting birth of a grandchild occurred in the outskirts of Milano, Italy. Clara’s second daughter Maria Clara received a scholarship to study Opera in Italy, and she was there with her partner Carlos Yañez who was also studying his PhD from 1987 to 1994 for 11 years. In 1992, Clarita’s only grandson Andrés was born, providing her another way to explore outside of Colombia and help rear her 4th and last grandchild for a full year. In addition, she landed a job as a nanny for twin Italian girls. With her youngest daughter Rosita, who at the time worked for the Colombian airline Avianca, she was able to travel very easily due to perks and benefits from the job that were extended towards family. The two traveled throughout Europe together while they spent most of the time in Milano. They traveled to London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and all around Italy. Maria Clara and her family lived in Italy until 1996, when they moved back to Colombia.

 

Rosita and Clarita always traveled together when Rosita worked for Avianca

Again thanks to Rosita and Avianca, Clarita got to travel all over Latin America for the rest of the 90’s and early 2000s. They traveled to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Quito. Maria Clara and Rosita spent a lot of time going to visit the USA to accompany Andrés and Caro throughout their youth, but not as much as Clara traveled there with the them. Thanks to Clara’s dedication and guardianship, as well as Rosita, Maria Clara, Martha, and Jaime’s funding and hard work, the four cousins grew up like siblings and all became fully bilingual Spanish-English.

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The 4 primos/siblings: Alexandra, Caro, Michele, and little Andres all together for the first time ever at the Bogota Airport.

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Clarita and Rosita visiting Maria Clara and Carlos when they lived in Santiago, Chile

In 1991-1997, Martha’s family was living in Texas for 7 years, therefore Clarita had visited enough times to establish relationships in San Antonio, TX. She was able to acquire jobs with her Visa at the time working as a maid at a hotel, as well as babysat from time to time. When Martha’s family left for Mexico in 1997, she decided she was going to try to acquire U.S. citizenship. She continued work at the hotel, found a job at McDonalds, and helped care for disabled people. Whenever she had some extra time, she traveled to Mexico and was able to see some of the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon with Martha’s family. Perhaps due to viewing the USA as a ‘superior country’, Clara worked hard to acquire U.S. citizenship. She studied for years for the citizenship test to prepare for once she qualified to actually take the test, especially this visibly worn list of 100 questions in English. Although Clarita had the help of Martha and family to bid for citizenship, benefited from white privilege, and she worked very hard at several jobs, sadly her dream did not come true. It could have been the political and cultural nature of Texas, it could have been her broken English, but unfortunately U.S. citizenship was not granted to her after her test in 1999.

 

 

An Adventurous Life

Clarita Passport Photos

Clarita’s Passport photos through the years

Nonetheless, Clarita lived the last 20 years of her life traveling everywhere with her family. It was always her family connections who made it possible for her to travel so much, and on occasion she was able to save her own hard earned money from different jobs in order to be able to travel. Martha’s family moved to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1999, Maria Clara and her family moved to Chile for a year in the early 2000s, and then her sister Nena’s family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2006, so there was still a lot of traveling. By 2012, all of the female grand-kids graduated from college, and so the family started traveling more together to new places. Alexandra moved to California, where it was the first time Carlos Jaime and Diana Patricia traveled to the USA in 2014 with the rest of the family. After that, different family members traveled with Clarita everywhere including an epically captured trip to Cuba.

Cartagena, Colombia:

Las Vegas, Nevada and the Grand Canyon:

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Clarita was very modern for an abuela, savvy with her cellphone, especially Whatsapp. Here is a picture she sent Alexandra about her piece of luggage she kept just because of the memorable trips Alexandra took with it.

Clarita was a resilient, independent, adventurous, and a vivacious soul. Her love for exploring new places almost matched her greater love for her family. For about 3 years, she begged Diana Carolina for a trip to Aruba. That trip did not occur because her 3 granddaughters thought they had way more time to plan and save up for the trip. Clara passed away unexpectedly in September of 2019 due to catching bacterial meningitis which sparked sudden rapidly deteriorating health. Thankfully, she did not suffer as she was in a coma for 11 days straight, 3 of which she was half-awake to what the family deems a miracle chance for her to say her goodbyes before she passed. The whole family was convinced she would live past 100+ years just based on her positive, magnetic, and vivacious attitude. Nevertheless, the family holds Clarita’s spirit in their hearts, and are currently grappling with how to move forward with this new void in their lives.

 

Stay tuned for our trip to Aruba which will pay tribute to Clara Chavarriaga Rey! Who knows when it will be planned, but it will happen!

Montañas, Rios y Oceanos

Possible tattoo inspiration found by Michele. Clarita, a Leo with the Sun as it’s ‘planet’ (star), would often say “yo cruce montañas, rios y oceanos para pasar tiempo contigo.”

Scarlet Macaw Trips by Sahara Borja

“A social purpose travel effort that emphasizes a rich cultural experience while empowering local communities.”

Born in Toronto, where her father from Cali, Colombia had met her mother from the Bronx, New York, Sahara Borja is now connecting with her roots once again through the creation of her brand new social purpose travel effort: Scarlet Macaw Trips. The trips – headed back to Cartagena this summer and in early 2018 – are curated with both the beauty and reality of the region in mind. The trips will continue to find mutually beneficial ways for travellers, local artisans, NGOs and local organizations, schools, and women’s groups in the region to work together within the broader, more well-known travel experience of day trips and nights out dancing to champeta.

Baby Sahara in Cali, Colombia with family from both sides

Despite a few visits to Cali to visit family, she was really able to dig her heels in and reconnect with with her roots while on a Fulbright research grant in Cartagena, where she worked with women and youth in the situation of internal displacement via photography and interviews at the University of Cartagena. While there, she connected with a professional tour guide, a native of Cartagena, and a couple of years later the idea for all-inclusive trips to Cartagena was born. This August, they’re offering a unique opportunity to learn and experience aspects of the culture in a number of immersive and participatory ways, while also having one hell of a time.

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Sahara with Fulbright colleagues and friends in Cartagena, Colombia

Ms. Borja states: “Part of our itinerary takes us to La Boquilla, a primarily Afro-Colombian fishing village where we offer a lunch-and-learn with a local organization and eat on the beach in a makeshift restaurant with food cooked by Abuelita (aka Everybody’s GRAMMA!). Another day we’ll head to San Basilio de Palenque, the first free town of The Americas, founded by escaped slaves.

She explains that this trip is especially relevant for those interested in the African Diaspora as it is seen in this region of the Caribbean, in South America and Colombian culture, music, food, and in the class and race perspectives of the southern hemisphere.

“Being bicultural in the US is a trip; I’ve forever had the pull of Colombia within me. It’s a complicated untangling if you can’t afford to travel that much!” Though this trip costs $2,199 sans airfare, it’s an all-inclusive 8 days and 7 nights, and includes a professional photographer, artisan goodies to take home, breakfast, most lunches, and transportation throughout the week. The trip can be paid for in instalments with 40% deposit due at first.

Be sure to check out this inaugural amazing trip you won’t want to miss!

5 Couchsurfing Tips Solo Women Travelers Need

Featured image credit to Pixabay

Are you a solo woman traveler who is thinking about Couchsurfing? First, let’s break down what Couchsurfing is.

According to Urban Dictionary, Couchsurfing is:

“What someone who can’t afford rent on their own and/or can’t find roommates quick enough does when they are “between” places.”

While yes, not having to pay is a great perk, Couchsurfing is so much more than finding a place to crash for free. It’s a site for meeting and staying with locals all over the world. This was a great way for me to meet people while traveling on a budget in Colombia. I’d only met up with one person through Couchsurfing before, in 2009. I’d I met up with a family of Chicano descent in Bakersfield, California. The father, Jesus, had found me and invited me for dinner with his family because his oldest daughter was thinking of going to Wellesley College, my alma mater. She didn’t end up going, but her younger sister did (and won the hoop rolling tradition).

Couchsurfing was one of the best choices I made while traveling in Colombia, and I was very intentional about how I used the site. Here are my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers (or anyone else who finds them useful) and here’s how I applied them to make wonderful friends in Cartagena, Colombia. I even stayed an extra day with them and missed out on the biggest lesbian-themed night of the Pride Festival in Bogotá (I’d queer it up in Bogotá eventually, anyway!). Follow my advice for the best experience.

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1. Post on a Facebook Couchsurfing group.

Since people are more likely to be checking Facebook than Couchsurfing, most large cities have active Facebook groups. I introduced myself, said I was traveling alone, and was looking for people to meet and a place to stay for three days. Shortly enough, the group’s leader invited me to a language exchange meetup. One woman my age named Angie, who lives in Medellin and was visiting a friend in Cartagena also replied to my post. She invited me to join her and her friends at Playa Barú (La Playa Blanca), which is famous for its white, sandy beaches.

2. Post a public trip.

The Couchsurfing application lets you post the details of your trip. Do this as far in advance as possible. I did this before coming to Cartagena so that people either in or from the city would know about my trip. I even had someone from Seattle message me who was traveling to Cartagena at the same time. He wanted to get drinks, but I was more interested in meeting locals and learning Colombian slang. I was only in the country for two weeks, and wanted to immerse myself as much as possible, no matter how vulnerable I’d feel.

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3. Reserve a place to stay in advance.

My biggest concern as a solo woman traveler while Couchsurfing in Colombia is definitely safety. I had reserved an Airbnb apartment for three days, but since I hadn’t yet bought my flight out from Cartagena to Bogota, I was open to staying longer. I also felt safer having a place to stay and being able to feel someone’s energy out before crashing with them.

As a solo woman traveler, it’s better to have a backup plan, even if it’s an $8 dorm room in a hostel when you can’t Couchsurf. If you’re not feeling someone, you have the right to discontinue seeing them and to put your safety first. Or, it’s nice to have a backup plan if your host cancels on you at the last minute.

4. Use your phone.

When you don’t know anyone in the area, it’s not as easy as it would be to let your friends know your whereabouts. I should have given my Airbnb host, Libi, a heads up that I was going outside of the city and with whom. I didn’t even have a working phone in Colombia, since I didn’t even bother buying a chip to put in my phone, but in retrospect, I should have. I merely relied on phone booths in the street.

After my taxi-related sexual assault later in Bogotá, I would buy a smartphone in Panama so that I could use Uber and other apps to hold my drivers more accountable. Check out this video I made with my trusted taxi driver, Hugo, in Managua, where he helps me explain why it’s important to have a taxi’s number on speed dial!

5. Travel safely yet vulnerably.

If I had been nervous about not being liked, then I wouldn’t have met up with anyone. I knew that if I didn’t hit it off with someone, that I could choose to no longer meet up with them. It’s that simple. After having lived in Nicaragua for two years, I’ve become a much more open and patient person. I’m also an introvert who judges a situation, a conversation, and people carefully before jumping in. To some, I may come across as quiet. Around others, I’m a non-stop giggler.

I’ve also become used to being an outsider so that I’m used to being uncomfortable. Growing from discomfort makes me excited about travel. The discomfort teaches me that I have preconceived notions about a place, just as I did about Medellin and Cartagena. These notions are both positive and negative, but traveling helps me break down where this notions come from in the first place, deconstruct them, and rebuild them for myself.

Above all, share your culture and ask questions about your hosts’. Ask them about their slang, their music, their customs, their passions, their food, and anything else you’d like to know as long as you’re respectful. Treating your hosts to thank them is always a good idea, whether you’re buying drinks or writing them thoughtful thank you note (or blog post dedicated to them!).

I hope my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers inspired you to use this option on your next trip. Do you have any other tips? Share in the comments!

A Day in Cartagena, Colombia

Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!

Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).

Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.

When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:

“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”

“It’s more expensive than Miami.”

“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”

On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.

Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.

The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.

I packed up my bags, triple-checked that I had my passport with me, and took a bus for the Medellin airport. While waiting for my flight, I went inside my new favorite store, Velez Leather. Since I couldn’t afford their gorgeous $200 backpacks, I settled for two $9 bracelets. I’m not much of a bracelet or a leather person, but I just had to have some of that high quality leather, even in miniscule form.

As I sat in the terminal, I hopped onto my Couchsurfing application and put in a public trip. I explained that I was a queer woman traveling to Cartagena for certain dates, and that if anyone wanted to host me or just go to the beach with me, that I’d appreciate it. Again, I didn’t know anyone, but with this feature, I was confident that I’d eventually meet someone.

For each city I’d go to, I would post a public trip. I also posted the same thing on the Cartagena Couchsurfing facebook group. Then within a few hours or days, I’d get someone from that city message me. Even though I was openly gay on my profile, it was interesting that 95% of the people who offered to host me were men. To be clear that I wasn’t looking to hook up, I’d ask if they had queer friends or if they knew about LGBT spots. I’d also see if they had hosted other solo women before. There’s only so much verifying you can do online, but these strategies brought me more peace of mind. Since I was traveling alone, I would only stay with a man if they were living with a partner or if they were gay.

Around 7:20 p.m., I walked down my airplane’s staircase and a wall of humidity hit me. As I waited for me suitcase, I was nervous because of what I’d heard about Cartagena as a drug capital. I felt tense like Chimamanda N. Adichie felt in her Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk,  before she traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, which she thought was going to be a drug cartel warzone. When she realized it was just like any other city, with people going about their daily lives, she checked herself.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the suitcases spilling onto the belt have been filled with drugs over the years. I couldn’t believe how tense I felt in this tiny airport. I’m sure that JFK has had way more drugs slide through. I needed to stop thinking like I was a drug mule for Johhny Depp in Blow. I needed to experience Cartagena for myself. I wasn’t here for a drug trip—traveling alone in a new country is exhilarating enough.  

Libi and her friend from Bogota met me outside. Libi is a small, friendly woman who made me feel like I was her host daughter. We walked for about ten minutes into the Crespo neighborhood and she showed me the apartment. It had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and deliciously cool air conditioning. Cartagena averages about 80 degrees (F) a day, but it has a humidity index of 90%. So at night, things don’t cool down too much.

A few minutes later, Libi’s mom walked in. She was timeless. Maybe it was her naturally jet black hair, or the fact that she still goes out dancing in her 70s. Maybe it was her intriguing, sparkling eyes that were even darker than her hair.

When I looked into them, I thought of what Nobel Prize winner and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had said about magical realism in the Caribbean: 

It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination. 

“Do you want to know why keeps me looking and feeling young? Berro (watercress). It’s really good for your health. I haven’t had to dye my hair because of it.” Libi’s mom told me, as she tapped her long fingernails on the couch and nodded her head, matter-of-factly.

I was still pretty nervous about being alone in what people made me think would be a cocaine expo, and beauty tips weren’t first on my list. “What places should I avoid?” I asked Libi. She named off a few neighborhoods, then interrupted herself.

“Why don’t we talk about the places you should see, instead?” she asked, in a firm yet reassuring tone. Guests probably ask her this all the time. She recommended that I visit la ciudad amurallada (Cartagena’s walled city and fortress), a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for having the most extensive fortifications in South America. Libi’s mom mentioned a restaurant, La Mulatta, where I would find regional dishes.

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This was the view from my $20 Airbnb apartment rental. I recommend staying at Libi’s in the Crespo neighborhood!

Libi and her mom invited me to grab a drink the following night, and I asked if her mother enjoyed dancing. “My mom can go dancing longer than I can. She loves to go out!” The older woman laughed and nodded in agreement. Her eyes glowed like diamonds lost in the depths of a coal mine.

Also, the women in my family age well, but still- I should look into berro

The next morning, I woke up and went to the corner store for breakfast. The family who owned it was attended to hungry customers sitting at plastic tables in plastic chairs just like the ones in my house. I asked for an agg arepa, and the cook carefully slid a raw egg into the empanada-like arepa. Then, he deep fried it with the other arepas floating in their oil jacuzzi. I mistakenly ordered two. Oops! After eating the first one with the deliciously spicy home made salsa they stored in used plastic jars, I was full. I took the other back home in its oil-stained brown paper bag and left it on top of the fridge as a snack.

After take two of leaving my apartment, I grabbed a taxi headed for the walled city. A black woman sat in the front seat, and she and the driver asked me where I was from. I gave my long story about how I was born in Mexico, grew up in the states, and have been volunteering in Nicaragua for two years, and that I’m traveling alone in Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. I mentioned how friendly Colombians were (honestly, I’ve never been in a Latin American country with an more rude locals than friendly ones).

“Somos mas saludables que el Alka Seltzer,” the driver added, his hand making a dropping motion into an imaginary glass. In English, this literally translates to “we’re healthier than Alka Seltzer” but instead of “healthy” it’s meant to be taken as “wholesome/friendly.”

“With lime!” I added, and we all laughed. I thought of the way my Nicaraguan host grandmother would pinch her nose as she showed me how to take a shot of Alka Seltzer with lime whenever my stomach hurt. She calls herself La Curandera (the healer) for a reason. The driver took me all the way to the center of the walled city, and I saved his number because I felt safe around him. It was only around 9 a.m., but humidity was brutal.

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In the Walled City’s Plaza de Santa Domingo, I met Gertrudis, a sculpture by Colombian Artist Fernando Botero. This voluptuous, powerful woman rests there for all to see and to interact with.

One could easily spend the day wandering around the walled city and its many shops. I found respite from the heat by entering stores and by eating kiwi-flavored popsicles. These popsicle stores seem to be all the rage now. After going into too many stores selling $300 purses, I decided to hit up the more affordable stores in the perimeter. One of my favorites was Seven Seven. Almost everything was 75% off, so that has something to do with it.

 

I hopped around to different department stores that had DJs set up with their own booths blasting vallenato, bachata, and merengue music nonstop. The staff at these stores were super helpful. As soon as I walked in, they attended to me and even waited for me to try on clothes in case I needed a different size. Then they’d go look for the sizes I’d ask for. One woman did such an excellent job that I tipped her, and I’ve never tipped someone in a clothing store before. She seemed as surprised as I was by her service when I handed her the money. Tipping isn’t nearly as expected in the Latin American countries I’ve been to as it is in the states. 

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In hot cities like this one, I like to pretend that I’m in a video game where I will stay alive in shady areas. For every patch of sun I hit, I lose life. I didn’t understand how people could come up with such sexy, sweat-free glamour shots in the streets of Cartagena. Maybe it’s magical realism that blesses everyone except me. I was dying and constantly going inside of stores I didn’t want to go inside of. Well, I did enjoy the Cuban menswear boutique more than I thought I would…

Once the sun’s rays relented a tiny bit, I walked to the non-air-conditioned modern art museum. Outside in the plaza, locals were selling hats, mangos-in-a-bag, and the nicest-looking counterfeit Ray Bans I’ve ever seen. A woman wearing a colorful dress sat on a bench talking to an old white guy. His wife was smiling as she took a photo of the two. I felt strange seeing this type of staged interaction-I hope they paid the woman.

The couple looked so happy, but I can only imagine how this counted as their deepest interaction with the locals. I have to remember that not everyone speaks fluent Spanish, though, so it’s hard to have cross-cultural interactions with people when you can’t even converse with them in the first place.

As I thought about the implications of this scene, I paid my entrance fee at the Modern Art Museum’s front desk. The museum was a tiny, two story building-it sure wasn’t the Museum of Antioquia by any means. I’m not much of a modern art fan, but I did enjoy the pieces. Each room had huge fans blowing the hot air around to make the rooms a tad less stuffy, but I forget about the heat as I finally sat down.

I love museums because you can rest your mind and your feet at the same time. I love it when museums are as empty as the benches placed in front of paintings. It’s like an invitation to contemplate exactly what’s in front of you. My tired, hot feet appreciated the break.  My mind appreciated the opportunity to construct Cartagena from my experience and not from the preconceived notions I’d built up of this city.

 

The next morning, I’d meet two women who, like the city had done, show me the meaning of La Fantastica. They’d profoundly shape my love for Cartagena and Colombia. 

The featured image above is an ink pen and colored pencil drawing I did. Shout out to my girl Gertrudis for being an excellent model!

Ella lo que quiere es Salsa!

Let’s talk Salsa in Colombia. Salsa is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Colombia. A mi me encanta la salsa but unfortunately is it my weakest area when it comes to dance. Only because I am not great at it does not stop me from trying to dance it anywhere and everywhere I go. I always learn a thing or two from a new dance partner. Well here I am in Cartagena thinking, “oh! I know the basics…I’ll be okay. Right?” Wrong! Salsa en Colombia is on another level. We got most of our Salsa dancing on at “Cafe Havana,” located in Getsamani. We loved that place so much that we moved hostels to be closer to it. There was a live band every night that we went on the weekend. The cover to get in was 15,000 COP (~$5 USD) which is actually considered expensive to someone that lives in Cartagena. After learning about the expensive part it explained why the club was made up of an older bougie crowd. At Havana I got my first glimpse of Cali style Salsa. It had me so dumbfounded that I sat down at the bar and observed how people danced it for almost an hour. After a few daiquiris I asked one of the girls to teach me. She was a great instructor but I was a horrible student. I could not get the double- front- back step down. She taught me other dance moves  and commented that I was really good but I think she was just being nice. Nonetheless the nights spent at “Cafe Havana” were very memorable. The club is dimly lit, decorated with pictures of Cuban Salsa legends, a big bar, and a small stage up front where the Salsa bands play. Not once was I disappointed by the live music!

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Other Salsa clubs we visited were “Quiebra Canto” and “Donde Fidel.” Both locations were also very unique. Quiebra Canto had a mixed crowd. It was a very colorful location, with cool decorative art, and some tasty mojitos. The club was made up of two dance floors and the best part were the balconies. My friends and I danced all night on the small balconies with the clock tower view in front of us.

Source: El Universal

Source: El Universal

“Donde Fidel” is located within the walled city. Right by the clock tower entrance. This salsa club was recommended to us by all the locals and I could see why. Salsa clasica clasica clasica! Como dicen en Colombia, un lugar bacano! The crowd at this place was a lot older but everyone there had clean dancing skills. The place is so far from a being a hip bar that the lights are all on. Not that there is anything wrong with a place not being new and hip. You could really tell that “Donde Fidel” is highly appreciated and loved by the locals. There are dozens and dozens of photos of the famous salseros that have visited the bar.

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I don’t have video of myself dancing Cali style Salsa (thankfully) but here is a good clip of an awesome couple on YouTube. Maybe one day I will get it down.

Cafe Havana – Esquina, Cra. 10, Cartagena, Getsemaní, Colombia – Open till’ 4 a.m.

Quiebra Canto – Carrera 5, No.17- 76, Cartagena, Colombia – Open till’ 4 a.m.

Donde Fidel – Cra. 4, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia – In between De los Coches Square and Aduana Square – Open 24 hrs? haha!