Monday, October 17, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 1: Getting Iced on Isla Barú

Last week was a national holiday week in Colombia and I took the opportunity to explore part of Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. My travels brought me from the white beaches of Isla Barú to the colonial city of Cartagena to the jungle beaches near Santa Marta. I will be writing a three-part series chronicling my coastal travels.

Here is part one…  

On the canoe with Adam.
The taxi dropped me off in the main square of Pasacaballos, an Afro-Colombian pueblo forty minutes outside of the sprawling Colombian touristropolis of Cartagena. The humidity wrapped itself around me like an oppressive alpaca blanket and I scanned the plaza in hopes of finding sanctuary in shade. Unfortunately, the pueblo’s denizens had already claimed every last precious patch, forcing me to face the relentless Caribbean sun on a vacant bench in the plaza’s center.

As I awaited my friends’ arrival, I studied the town I now found myself in. The sheer demographics of those milling about told me that I was a long way from Bogotá—whereas Bogotá is largely white and mestizo, this town appeared to be 100% Afro-Colombian. Although in Bogotá I can sort of blend in if I dress humbly and keep my mouth shut, here I stood out like a sore gringo thumb.

A trio of school children walked by, shyly smiling at me as they passed.

“Hola,” I said, giving them a friendly gringo wave.

At that, they snickered and scurried away.

Crossing over to Baru, the moto taxis waiting.
After a few more minutes of taking in the town, I spotted my friends, Adam and TL, approaching and stood to great them. Adam and TL lived on the nearby island of Barú and taught in the poor pueblo of Santa Ana—they had crossed the channel to help me make the passage over to the island for a visit.

We passed several street venders on our way to the canal selling chilled fruit juice and empanadas while local children stood amused by the tall gringo and company passing through their neighborhood. All the while, the Caribbean sun continued to rain fire upon our backs.

When we arrived at the canal, I spotted a gang of grungy men waiting by a jumble of canoes. My friends told me that normally, people took the ferry to cross the channel, but that it was faster and cheaper to cross over by canoe.

Looking down at the canoes lying moored by the shore, I was fairly certain that nobody’s mother would approve of them setting foot on one. But after ten months of living in Colombia, I had already done plenty of things my mother would not approve of (the first being deciding to live in Colombia in the first place), so I said to hell with it and came aboard.

The canoe ride across the channel turned out to be more pleasant and less eventful than I expected. Whether Latin American Poseidon took mercy on our gringo souls or we just got lucky, I don’t know, but we made it to the other side without incident.

WorldTeach classroom in Santa Ana.
After safely arriving on Isla Barú, we commenced the second and final leg of the journey to Santa Ana: moto taxis. On Colombia’s Caribbean coast and especially on Isla Barú, moto taxes are the primary means of getting around. We talked to three moto taxi drivers and after negotiating the fare, jumped on the back of weathered dirt bikes and took off towards Santa Ana.

Now, I am no stranger to dirt bikes—back home, my family owns several and frequently takes them out on the dirt trails in the Lake Tahoe National Forrest—but riding on the back of a moto taxi along the unkempt roads of Barú was one of the most adrenaline-filled and comical experiences of my life. Without a helmet and lugging my heavy travel pack, I did my best to anticipate the driver’s turns and the unexpected bumps to prevent falling to my untimely gringo death. Since I stood more than a foot taller than the driver and could see clearly over his head, it seemed like the motorcycle was driving itself.

By the way he was driving, it might as well have been.

With the wind rushing into my face, I absorbed the beautiful landscape around me—so much green—and the pristine Caribbean waters glistening in the distance. It all made me smile, until I swallowed a bug and learned to keep my mouth shut.

TL with some of her students.
After twenty or so minutes on the moto taxi, we arrived in Santa Ana at the gates of Instituto Ecologico Barbacoas where the WorldTeach volunteers live and some work on Barú. We passed through the walled compound and I marveled at the open-air classrooms—those would never fly in freezing Bogotá. Although school had ended for the day, we encountered a few students milling about and TL introduced me to a few of hers.

We entered the teacher quarters and I reunited with several other WorldTeachers I had not seen since the midservice conference back in July. Many of them were on their way out to nearby Playa Blanca, where that night we planned to have a beach party and spend the night on beachside hammocks.

Before heading to Playa Blanca, I wanted to check out Santa Ana and meet some of the locals the other volunteers had befriended. While the others took off for Playa Blanca, Adam, TL, and Bryanna stayed to give me the grand tour of Santa Ana. Half-joking, I asked my friend Alyssa to have a beer waiting for me on the beach, and she said she would.

In Santa Ana, next to the puddle-pond.
Exiting Barbacoas, we backtracked a bit down the dirt path and arrived at a tienda next to a pond-sized puddle that had formed on the road. There, we began the tour.

Walking through the impoverished pueblo, I felt like I had passed through a portal into a distant African village. The dirt road was dotted with muddy cesspools of greenish goo that was reminiscent of the primordial soup and was such a muddy mess that not even the most well-endowed 4-wheel vehicle could hope to navigate it—hence the abundance of moto taxis, which were nimble enough to pass over the few dry paths.

We passed several young children running around and playing in their underwear—clothing made little sense in the oppressive heat. Some of the children had bloated bellies resulting from malnutrition—a tough sight to take in.

The green goo of Baru.
One of the things that struck me most about Santa Ana was how everyone seemed to know everyone and that they all knew the volunteers. They waved and said hola to us as we passed and stopped to chat here and there. Living in Bogotá, I have not been able to become part of any real community. Granted, when I am at my school or walking through the neighborhood from the bus stop, students always and parents occasionally say hello; however, as I do not live in Juan Rey and it is not exactly safe to hang around the neighborhood after school, I haven’t been able to experience the same community feel as the volunteers on Barú. I was also amazed by how safe Santa Ana was despite its poverty—my friends told me they could walk around town well after dark without fear of being robbed, or worse. Since Santa Ana was so small and everyone knew everyone, no one could possibly hope to get away with criminal activity.

I found that fact refreshing.

On Playa Blanca.
After Santa Ana, we hopped back on moto taxis to head to Playa Blanca. If I thought the road was bad before, I was in for a surprise—the previous night’s rain had turned much of the road into an impassable nightmare. Luckily, we made it through unscathed, albeit muddied, and arrived at Playa Blanca.

Playa Blanca is more and more becoming a major tourist destination—most people take daily ferries from Cartagena to spend the day and return at night. Much to my delight, we arrived just before sunset and most of the tourists had already left.  
We walked down the sandy beach to find the rest of the group, who had gotten there a few hours earlier. As we passed small thatched huts, people approached us to offer hammocks to spend the night in. Besides that, the beach was all but deserted.

We met up with our friends, grabbed some drinks, and waded into the warm Caribbean water just as the sun began to set.

Watching the sunset by Playa Blanca.
Alyssa told me she had bought me a beer and that it was in her backpack near the hammocks. Like a naïve child, I left the water to retrieve my beer from her pack. When I unzipped it and reached inside, what I pulled out was not a beer… but a Smirnoff Ice.

You guessed it—I had just gotten iced in Colombia—it wasn’t the first time and, much to my chagrin, would not be the last. For those unfamiliar with the cultural phenomena of icing, click here.

After taking a knee and polishing off the disgusting sugary beverage, I returned to the water and witnessed one of the most breathtaking sunsets I had ever seen.

That night, we ate dinner at a small, family-run “restaurant” on the beach and sat around playing games and having a good time. The best part about it was that we had the entire beach to ourselves—giving the illusion of being on an isolated tropical island. Later, we fell asleep in hammocks on the beach to the sound of the surf gently lapping against the shore.

Double-fisting coconut rums!
The next morning, most of our group headed back to Santa Ana while the rest of us remained on Playa Blanca to enjoy the sun. Local peddlers patrolled the beach selling everything from beaded necklaces to oysters. After hanging out in the water for a bit, we stopped by one of the thatched bars and drank some coconut rums. No joke, the guy actually opened up a coconut, mixed in some rum, and stuck a straw in it. Best invention ever.

Sitting on the beach, drinking a coconut rum, and looking out at the crystalline waters, Bogotá and its freezing mountain rain was the last thing on my mind. I was on vacation for the next week, and I was determined to enjoy every second of it.

Next stop, Cartagena.

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