By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.
Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.
Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.
It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.
My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!
If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.
Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).
Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.
Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).
Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.
Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”
Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.
Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.
Get out and wait on road again.
Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.
Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.
Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.
Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.
Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.
Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.
Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.
Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.
Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.
Get out at Riohacha.
Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.
Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.
Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.
Share car-taxi with them.
Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.
Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??
Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.
In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.
We smelled a dank odour.
“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.
“Si,” they confirmed.
It smelled like fox to me.
“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)
There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.
I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.
I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.
I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.
One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.
We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.
Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.
The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.
“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.
“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)
Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.
Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.
It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.
I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.
I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.
I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.
We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.
We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.
A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.
The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.
Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.
Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?
That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!
We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.
That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.
Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.
I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.
“You’re not from this land,” he said.
“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.
After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes you just have to walk away.
It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.
I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.
We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.
Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.
Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.
Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.
The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.
And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.
You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
New York, New York!
IF you have ever seen a dog riding in the back of a ute – wild eyes rolling, drool flying in gleaming, wet strands – you will understand how it feels to be a human in New York.
For a dog smells are everything. So imagine the ecstasy of hundreds hurtling towards that snoz. The delight as they hit those moist receptors. The information, the gossip they contain. It must be like ecstacy for the canine senses.
As I walked through the streets of the world’s biggest city, wearing the hippest gear I owned and feeling decidedly under-hip, my eyes could not work fast enough.
A guy wielding an elephant-trunk pipe sucked greese from the pit of a takeaway shop, disappearing down the hatch in his perfect NYC street worker costume.
A dog pulled its owner past on rollerblades. The dog just wore feet.
Under the New York Police Department people in costume posed for photos with tourists to make a buck. Spiderman peeled back his head and took a breather, flicking a skittle into his mouth, cool as shit.
A cluster of army/navy ? troops waited at the lights. They were in town for the wknd, and their stiff hats poked ahead like beaks through the human surge of traffic.
There were just people everywhere. Everywhere there was something to watch.
If you visit the Big Apple, get the open bus tour. Bargain it down a little, there’s so many on offer this isn’t hard. Pay $30 or less.
As you glide through the streets on the top deck, traffic lights close to taking you out if you stand to snap a picture, you realise how old and remarkable the city is.
In the good old days people just got stuff done.
The Empire State Building went up in just one year, with four storeys done in one week. Bet Campbell Newman can’t get that kind of progress in Queensland in 2014.
Not many people know it, but a plane crashed into the side of the famous building after WWII.
We glided down 5th Ave, with Rupert Murdoch’s three-storey penthouse throwing a careless shadow across our bus.
I thought of the greedy man sitting up there sipping a gin and planning the biased front pages that marked his Australian papers’ federal election coverage. GRRRR.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” our tour guide asked the group.
My guess of three million was met with laughter and the answer “$57 million actually.”
Whatever you wanted this city had it. We saw Cooper University, a free-tuition institution started by Peter Cooper, which accepted students with the best grades into courses such as architecture, arts and others.
The world needs more opportunities for brains rather than wallets to get you into uni.
Abraham Lincoln spoke there, lucky buggers.
We gazed upon the might of New York University. These guys were so loaded that when building of the premises was halted due to a supplies problem with the quarry, they simply purchased the quarry and finished the job.
Times Square was predictably amazing. Video footage advertising spanning two storeys lit up the sky, hundreds of people gathered for discounted Broadway show tickets, and every few metres someone tried to sell you something.
It was electric.
We stayed in Brooklyn, about 20mins out on the subway line, at the hipster hang of Williamsburg (Billsburg if you’re a real hipster).
It was a different taste of the city. At night empty looking warehouse buildings would slide open a corrugated tin panel and a funky bar or pizza joint would come to life. There was great street art, great coffee and the general hum of daily life that you only find in the suburbs. Families would sit in big groups around someone’s house front sharing drinks and cooking on a heat-bead bbq.
We only had four days in NYC and didn’t care too much about ticking off the tourist list. That doesn’t tell you anything about a city. We didn’t bother with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building…etc.
Instead we explored the Lower East Side, poked through galleries and museums and generally checked out the scene.
New Yorkers are a funny lot. Street smart and geared faster than the rest. Nice if they have the time, short if they don’t.
I didn’t achieve my dream of banging on a taxi’s yellow hood and yelling “Hey! I’m walkin’ here.”
I highly recommend the New Museum in Brooklyn. One exhibit featured a group of around 12 guys singing and playing guitar constantly for eight hours. The effect was to walk into an almost meditative state of song; harmonies, altos and steadily building intensity to culminate in a beautiful, strange experience.
Some of the guys would stop to have a drink and lie on a mattress in the large room while their comrades carried on the music. It had something to do with the Sigur Ross singer, which I can’t remember.
There was a huge lineup at Footlocker one day for cool kicks, which are like gold teeth in New York. One entrepreneur was even renting camping chairs along the queue.
As we hoofed it past Bryant Park, one of NYC’s best pockets of green, I overhead a kid on a school group outing.
“I should do a thing on it, like a whole science project, about how people respond better to low fives, like right in the middle of the chest region……not high.”
Filled my laugh quota for the day.
After getting my first pimple in years I decided I needed some time out of the smog (which by the way is nowhere near as bad as Bangkok, as most New Yorkers catch public transport and don’t clog the roads), so we set up camp at Central Park.
It is magic. Visit it.
There are whole Instagram and online communities dedicated to exploring new pockets of this amazing green sprawl.
I shut my eyes and dug my fingernails deep into the grass. It was still so loud! A muffled loudness, but that NYC buzz was still there.
Big groups of friends shared food and swapped babies; a steady stream of horses pulling carriages, plumes bouncing, held up pedestrians; kids practised cartwheels; people took photos; kids asked for donations to their basketball team for jerseys; joggers and roller bladers glided by; bold squirrels approached for treats; lovers lay tangled in the sun.
The place was uplifting.
We explored a tiny corner of its immensity. I found forums on people’s favourite parts, and realised you could spend a year in the park and see new things every day.
We left refreshed, and stumbled upon a true highlight.
The street crew who breakdance, flip and spin under the golden horse statue on one edge of Central Park.
A solid crowd had gathered, and they knew how to work it.
I watched as they moved forward in turns and did their thing. Whoa.
Muscles bunched under their dark skin, the kind that came from actually using them, not just pumping them at the gym. The main guy went from a one armed handstand into a dizzying head-spin, then flipped effortlessly onto his feet and into a spinning breakdance move.
And they were funny too.
“Obama wants change, but we want twenties,” the guy yelled to the crowd.
“I want you to keep in mind that the moves we do do risk our bodies, and we could get seriously hurt doing them. But we consider this our job.”
They plucked four people from the crowd, lined them up, and got everyone involved as one crew member (who looked around 10-12 years old) took a running jump and flipped over the top of all four. He landed on the rock-hard cobblestones. Amazing.
“Remember, if we are here performing for you it’s good for two reasons; one – we’re not on the streets, and two, we’re not at your house.”
Two members toured the crowd with their collection hat. Yelling out when there was a good donation.
“We just got ten dollars from New Zealand!”
“Twenty dollars from Mexico!”
An African American lady handed them a tenner and the guy held it up to the sun. She laughed, embarrassed. He was very good looking, shirtless, and flirting with her.
“A black lady just gave us ten dollars, and it’s real!” he yelled to a laughing crowd.
Her and her friend laughed hardest.
We walked the Brooklyn Bridge, being softly shoulder charged by the throng of people going the other way. It was like salmon going upstream.
The structure itself was stunning, curving into a striking assembly of lines the closer you got to the city.
We watched a World Cup qualifier in a crowded pub, drank some of our old friend, Blue Moon – with hunks of orange of course, and fell exhausted into bed at night.
New York, New York. Ha-mazing!