Having never traveled outside of the U.S. before this experience, I had this idea in my mind that Colombia was a country of beaches. Much to my chagrin, I soon discovered that Bogotá is a very rainy city. Far from the sweltering summers that I´m used to experiencing in my DMV home, I was reserved to the reality of Bogotano weather. When I got here however, I was pleasantly surprised. I actually quite like the rain and stepping out of my apartment every morning to alternating sun and clouds made every day a new adventure (considering that you might find yourself walking about the city freezing to death one minute and sweating bullets the next).
Still, I wanted to at least try to experience some DMV-like summer weather while abroad. I couldn´t see the point in spending three months of summer “vacation” (quotes are needed here since I can´t really call our class at the Universidad de los Andes a vacation) without experiencing the joys of scalding sand underneath your feet, salty ocean water in your nose, and a good sunburn.
What can I say? I´m easily pleased.
And so I booked a trip to Cartagena, Colombia a coastal town that I mistakenly thought was known for its beaches. Not quite, it turns out, since after I booked the trip every Colombian I knew told me that the beaches there are feas. Yet, I arrived at the place I was staying at to a view of what looked like home. I guess my Colombian friends didn´t know that I have low beach standards. The ocean in Maryland is gray and freezing and the sand is brown and littered with garbage. So, when I exited the water of Bocagrande and my white swim suit had turned yellow, I shared a contented smile with myself. Cartagena could be Ocean City´s sister city.
Despite clearly not knowing much about the geography of Cartagena, I had learned a bit about it from my work here at IOM. Cartagena is a city with a majority afro population and an economy that depends heavily on tourism. IPA had a few projects in the works for different populations that had been greatly affected by the armed conflict in Cartagena. One project that is particularly interesting to me focuses on domestic workers. Colombia has extremely progressive domestic worker legislation, yet many domestic workers are still taken advantage of simply because they don´t know their own rights. IPA is attempting to rectify that in Cartagena by partnering with various local domestic worker organizations to bring educational programming and women´s empowerment talleres to the city. They´re also working on promoting and documenting the fishing culture and various other afro tangible and intangible cultural heritage practices.
Other than that the only other thing I knew about Cartagena was that apparently Colombian costeños have a very particular accent that my Bogotano friends assured me I would have no luck whatsoever understanding. They weren´t wrong. On my first full day in the city I decided to explore the local beach for a little while and got practically overrun by a group of ten or so young boys. They wanted to know all about America and had a quite a few laughs over my American accent. Apparently they were learning English in school but their teacher spoke it like a latino. “Diga rroon-ning!” they said, heavily rolling the r. “Qué?” I responded. “Rroon-ning,” they repeated. “Quieres decir ´running´?” I said. They laughed so hard I thought they might drown. “Asi lo dice el maestro,” one of the boys said. “Él dice rroon-ning.” The laughter started again. We communicated in a weird area between Spanish and English that wasn´t quite Spanglish. Leave it to 14 year olds to make you feel like the 8 years you´ve spent learning a language were completely useless.
The next day, on the recommendation of a coworker at IOM, I hopped on a bus to the playa de Barú. Barú promised nicer beaches than the one outside my Airbnb–the ones with the kind of water and sand I´d only ever seen during commercials for the Bahamas on T.V. The beach itself was nice, if a little overcrowded. But the most interesting part was the anthropological overload I got from just walking around the place. My inner ethnographer screamed in delight. The beach was chockfull of stands housing a variety of different vendors. People were selling fruit, cocadas, massages, cornrows, and umbrellas. Almost all of the “nativos” (as our guide referred to them) were afrocolombian while the majority of the beachgoers were mestizos. The prices of everything were jacked up as high as possible. I grudgingly bought a mango for 4,000 COP, more than double of what I could have bought it for in Bogotá. A Colombian would have said que me dieron papaya.
Perhaps the most interesting experience I had in Cartagena was meeting a hodge-podge group of travelers on the way to Barú. We were composed of me, the gringa who spoke Spanish, a Filipino-American who only spoke English, a Thai-American who spoke English and Thai but no Spanish, a Brazilian who was just beginning to learn English and Spanish, and two Barranquilla natives who were trying to learn English. Our conversations were an amazing combination of Portuguese, English, and Spanish with heavy translation between the three languages mixed in. The linguist in me was having a field day. When our conversation turned to Venezuelan migration to Colombia the ethnographer followed suit.
I had been explaining to our group my passion for all things migration. They thought that all Americans were like Donald Trump and that we hated migrants. I quickly corrected them and described the amazing immigrant culture that we have in the U.S. The Barranquilla natives had told me that they wanted to go America one day; that they would love to work there because they felt that it was a place with more job opportunities than Colombia. Especially since, they said, so many Venezuelans were taking what jobs there were. I took this opportunity to spout some cultural relativism. I told them that I completely understood their point of view and related their situation back to what´s going on in America today. Isn´t it interesting, I said, that if you moved to the U.S. looking for work you would be to the American what the Venezuelan migrant is to the Colombian?
I don´t think that they had ever thought of migration this way and it certainly gave them something to think about. It sparked a conversation that left everyone, including me, enlightened with different perspectives and opinions and no hard feelings. It felt amazing to be a part of a productive discussion where people listened and mulled over topics instead of just lashing out rashly and hatefully.
Granted, these reflections are perhaps more of a travel diary than an academic blog. But, I insist that the observations I made during my trip to Cartagena are important. They tell a story that can´t be understood by simply reading textbooks and academic articles and say something about the importance of human contact. I could have easily spent my whole vacation sleeping on the beach. Yet, by engaging with Colombians (and gringos) of all ages I managed to both learn something new myself and teach others a little something, too.