No Sand to Beach: Wild Times in Cartagena, Colombia

Just a simple weekend trip to Cartagena

Two hours sleep, at the outside. After the bar, cab rides, me in one cab and the Captain in another, three, four, five girls in each one, clubs, after hours, back to the Captain’s apartment with more girls, passing out on the floor at stupid o’clock, coming to at ridiculous-thirty and whoop, here we are soldiering onto an airplane bound for the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It’s all a smear. Who was I talking to? Some girl, Laura, spoke English. Did I… no, I don’t think I cared. I’m not even sober enough to be hungover yet. No reasonable person would make it to an airport on time in this condition. What the hell?

It’s a “puente” – Spanish word for “bridge,” but in Colombia it means a three-day weekend. Captain’s got Monday off, so why not go to Cartagena? Colombia’s third-largest city and the only place tourists would still go even during the darkest times, it features a Spanish fortress wall around the old part of the city and a vibrant afro-caribe culture that… jesus fuckstick, it’s a goddamn sauna.

Down the stairs, off the airplane, and across the tarmac with the herd and before you even reach the terminal you look like you’ve stepped out of a sweat shower. Coming from the high thin autumn cool of Bogota down into this tropical inferno is like getting slapped in the face with a post-game jock.

The taxi out front is Frankensteined together with random pieces of other cars and the driver struggles to open the trunk for our bags. I sniff my shirt. It smells like a developing situation.

“Alcohol’s coming out the pores, Cap’n. This heat’s a menace to sobriety.”

“Just don’t go to sleep, and don’t go towards the light. All we gotta do is make it to the hotel.”

We drive by the fortress walls of the old city on our way to the beachfront tourist hotel towers. Everything’s in slow motion. Can’t tell if it’s the sleep deprivation or if Cartagena just rolls around like an old dog in the sun, waiting for someone to rub its belly. The fortress walls look impressively old, but the newer parts of Cartagena are Latin America generic. A little sand, some palm trees, bland modernist shopfronts and trying-too-hard behemoth hotels. No matter. There’s a complimentary glass of tropical-whatever juice at our hotel check-in, but it’s non-alcoholic and no help to us. It’s straight to the hotel balcony for a sensible noon beer.

The Captain takes the first sip of his Club Colombia. “Ah. Sorry. This is about as good as we can do down here. Least it’s cold.”

“Had worse. Remember that case of generic beer we scored back in high school, was covered in dust? You couldn’t pay a hobo to drink that swill, but…”

“Michigan.”

“Michigan. So what’s the story, you ending up in Colombia, anyway?”

The Captain sighs. “You know I was working in missile silos, right?”

“Right, South Dakota or some bumfuck place.”

“Wyoming. Then I got transferred to Los Angeles. I got this Saab convertible, and one night I had two beers with dinner and on the way home I squealed my tires at a stop light. Cop pulls me over, I blow a point oh six. Exactly the limit for impaired driving. And in the Air Force, for an officer, that’s a big deal, like I could get kicked out big deal. But my CO likes me, so he suggested I take a duty assignment at the embassy here, let the driving thing cool off for six months.”

“What the hell. Seems random. Why here?”

“Just what was open. Well, here or maybe Iraq, but I speak Spanish. Still, I was thinking, oh shit, I’m fucked.”

“I imagine.”

“I called up the guy I was replacing, tried to ask him all these questions, what’s it like, do I need to carry a gun, how do I stay safe… and all the guy says is, ‘listen, are you married?’ No. He says, ‘Good, you’ll have a great time here.’ And that was that.”

“What, that was his only advice?”

The Captain shrugs and grins. He’s in his early thirties but still looks like the same boyish, skinny nerd I knew back in high school. “Well, turned out he was right.”

“So that girl you were with last night?”

“May.”

“Right, May. How long you been with her?”

“Month or two.”

“So why didn’t you bring her along? Seems like a pretty romantic kinda place here.”

The Captain frowns at me. “Hell no,” he says, surveying the street below. There’s girls in bikinis, girls in shorts, girls in hiphugging, lowriding jeans and belly shirts and geometrically improbable bodies, they’re everywhere. “You don’t bring sand to the beach. You hook up with that Laura girl?”

“Nah. Seemed too easy. Suspicious. Besides, I’m all about the hippos. Ain’t got time for getting caught up in some sorta nonsense.”

“Hippos. Right. Well, there’ll be hippos next weekend. This weekend, relax, take in the scenery.”

The combination of heat and watery beer keeps us at a pleasant alcohol equilibrium for the afternoon. When the sun is thoroughly down and the city starts shedding its heat, we get a taxi to go look for scenery. I don’t speak Spanish and know next to nothing about Colombia, so the Captain does the talking.

“Buenas. Quieramos ir por una discoteqa donde hay muchisimas mujeres.”

“Ahh, si,” the driver grins. He seems to be in a great mood. I would be, too, if I had a glorious revolutionary mustache like his.
We stop in front of what might be a nightclub. There’s no sign, but there’s an open door and some people hanging around. “Wait here,” the Captain says, “I’ll go take a look.” He walks in and straight back out to the taxi shaking his head.

“Aqui no, señor. Una discoteqa normal, me entiendes?”

“No quieres fucky-fucky?”

“Con suerte, mas tarde.”

The driver laughs and we drive off. I give the Captain a “what the hell” look.

“Brothel,” he says.

“Ah-ha. I thought he said ‘fucky-fucky’. Goddammit, this taxi driver is a fine gentleman.”

We end up in the old city, in a small dark club just inside the fortress walls. A bunch of Marines roll in, guys who know the Captain from the embassy. We flirt and dance and chat with some pretty girls, but by 3AM we’re wrecked and no one has picked anyone up. We pile into two taxis and take off deep into the city, twisting down dusty residential streets until we find a place that’s meant to be a brothel. The taxis don’t even come to a complete stop before men start pouring out of the building. Apparently they weren’t expecting two carloads of gringo Marines to show up suddenly in the middle of the night, and they don’t seem happy to see us. Blinding power of American sunshine, my ass. We turn tail back to the old city, grab some hot dogs from a cart where all the taxis hang out late at night, and call it good.

Next day, Sunday, we power through the heat and hangovers for a guided walking tour around the old city. The colonial architecture is spectacular. The old fortress was once the strongest military fortification in the western hemisphere, built by the Spanish as a waypoint for transferring all the gold they looted from the natives they slaughtered. Now, its upper crenelations are dotted with young lovers making out. Inside the walls, colorful buildings in every state of repair erupt with balconies and flowers. It’s all absurdly romantic, which, considering our lack of luck so far, is just a bit irksome. We stop for beers on a hotel patio and our taxi driver from last night, Señor Fucky-fucky, walks by.

“Ay, que mas? Como le fue anoche?”

The Captain groans. “Perdimos. Esperando para mas suerte este noche.”

“Pues, cualquier hora quieres fucky-fucky, me llamo. Yo conozco todo ciudad. Todo.”

“Gracias, señor, muy amable.”

The taxi driver wanders off smiling under his tremendous mustache. “I don’t understand what he says, Cap’n, but I like the cut of his jib.”
“Well, if you want fucky-fucky, he’s the man who knows where it is.”

“See? Man’s a goddamn saint, what he is.”

By the evening, it’s clear that another bout of drinking would be intolerable and reckless, so we decide to stick to beer. We fly back to Bogota tomorrow, so there’s no sense wasting the night outside of a bar. We sit in Mr. Babilla’s nightclub and nurse our bottles and pounding sunburnt foreheads while the joint slowly fills up with Colombian sailors and gorgeous women in light tropical clothing. We’ve got a table with four seats, but even as the bar gets packed, we don’t suffer any attention. Could be our impending physical and mental collapse is too obvious. Still, the women are impressive to look at.

“You know, it’d almost be more of a challenge to hook up with an ugly girl here,” I venture.

“Even if you did, I bet if you went back to her place, her mom would be hot. Whole family’d be hot.”

“Yeah… be like, oh, your mom’s got a boyfriend? Well, this is your grandma? Is she seeing anyone?”

The bar fills to beyond capacity and a guy and a girl ask to join us at our table.

Federico wears a smart black suit and his girlfriend, with long black hair and tight pants and a white cotton shirt tied off beneath her chest, stands out even in a crowd of beautiful women. He speaks broken English very politely and seems cultured and easy-going. He buys a bottle of aguardiente, the local licorice-flavored booze, and insists we drink shots, too. Well, he might be a guest at our table, but we’re guests in his country, and one hates to disappoint such a gracious host. His girlfriend wants to dance, so we take turns dancing with her while the other sits and drinks and talks and drinks some more.

Doesn’t take long for the aguardiente to wash away our pain. Federico tells me about his life, his sister who’s a software developer in the US, his dreams and goals, politics, women, all the things guys talk about when they’re good and soused and putting their arms around each other’s shoulders and saying things like, “I don’t care what anyone says about you, amigo, you’re a stand-up kinda guy.” Eventually, Federico pulls us aside to talk confidentially.

“Listen,” he says, “I’m going to take my girlfriend home, and then I’ll come back and we’ll go find some girls. Sound good to you guys?”
Does it sound good? Federico sounds like a goddamn genius.

But, shit, I’m drunk. No – really drunk. Next thing I know, I’m staggering up some stairs into a tiny, overcrowded second-floor disco with Federico and the Captain, where a table full of girls seems to be waiting for us – which, let’s face it, can only mean that the universe is functioning properly. A tall dark girl with long, curly hair pulls me in close on the crammed bench and starts kissing me. I’m sure she tells me her name at some point, but since we’re already making out, it doesn’t seem important to remember it.

They warn you, everyone does, not to accept a drink in Colombia that you don’t see being poured. Fun’s fun until someone spikes your cocktail and you wake up naked and broke. I consider this as I accept a rum and Coke from some unknown source, but at the same time a girl whose name I do not know is sticking her tongue in my mouth. Now what could possibly go wrong in a country with such friendly natives?

I actually think that. I think: golly, but these girls are friendly.

The girl takes her mouth off mine for a moment and I notice we’re now in a taxi. The Captain and I in the back seat, Federico in the front, and the remaining volume of the cab is filled with lovely young women, maybe 5 or 6 piled in like plush toys. It occurs to me to ask the Captain where we’re going, but there are too many scantily-clad bodies jammed in between us, too much boisterous reggaeton music, too much of that new, soft tongue in my mouth.

Wait, somewhere I’ve heard a fresh ransomable gringo can fetch up to $5,000 on the open market here. What’s going on? I manage to get the Captain’s attention and try to slur something like “we go where safe?” He flicks an annoyed wave at me. Okey-doke.

Federico turns around in his seat and cautiously asks the Captain if we want anything special, maybe a little smoke, perhaps even a little blow. The Captain responds with a disgusted look and Federico actually apologizes even for the offer. That Federico, he’s one civilized and polite motherfucker.

I look up again and notice that the other girls in the cab have disappeared, all but two, one on the Captain’s lap and one on mine. I wonder where Federico’s girl has gone, but only briefly. The taxi stops in front of an ornate iron gate that opens onto a round driveway with an elaborate fountain in the middle. The surrounding two-story buildings are featureless walls with garage doors all around. Our cab pulls into an empty concrete garage with two sets of stairs up the back. We file up the left set of stairs as the taxi backs away and the garage door closes behind it.

At the top of the stairs is a single windowless room with a small bathroom, a large bed, a small desk with three chairs, and a TV mounted from the ceiling. The Captain sits on the bed and chats with his girl while Federico and my girl sit in the chairs and argue.

Wait, what, are they arguing? I don’t know what they’re saying. They’re not yelling, but my girl seems very upset with Federico, while Federico appears unmoved. I sit and look about the room. My girl has suddenly lost any interest in me whatsoever. Well, I suppose that does happen.

What a strange, spartan apartment Federico lives in, I think. This guy really lives like a fuckin’ monk. You gotta respect that.

I get up to use the bathroom, and as I pass the Captain I try to let him know where I’m going and make my finger point in that direction. Seems important he know I’m not ditching out on him. I’ll be back. But when I come out of the bathroom the Captain and his girl have vanished. Suddenly, I feel very alone in a strange, dangerous place where I don’t speak the language.

“Um… donde es… mi amigo?” I slur.

Federico waves me off. Relax, he says, no problem, my friend. He continues his argument with my girl. I make an effort to focus my eyes and look around. There’s an artfully arranged assortment of condoms, lube and water bottles on the nightstand. Aside from the TV and desk, there’s nothing more in the room.

Wait a minute, I think, you can’t put anything over on me. This isn’t Federico’s apartment. This is some kinda crazy love hotel. And this girl… and Federico… awww, I know what’s up here. Ain’t no dummy.

I sit down again and Federico pauses his argument to lean over and look my way. “Hey, ah, you want… sex?” he asks.

I’m not sure how weird this is getting, but I definitely want to make sure there’s no misunderstandings with this question. “What, with you?”

Federico shoots me an annoyed “duh” look and gestures to my girl. I give him a “whew” and consider it. I’m too drunk to sit up straight, and at this point my girl looks damn far from amorous. And if my suspicions are correct, this is one of those kinda deals where money gets exchanged. All in all, this looks worse than prom night. I wave Federico off.

“Nah, I’m good over here. But really – thanks. Very cool of you, man. … Thanks.”

They return to arguing for a few minutes until Federico holds up his hand and looks over at me. “My friend, ah, can you go to wait downstairs?”
Downstairs, I pace the featureless concrete garage and figure shit out. It stands to reason that the other set of stairs leads to an identical room, where one supposes the Captain is doing what military guys have been doing in distant ports since time began. But… is he? This is Colombia, man. It’s dangerous, and we’re just two goofy white rubes from Michigan. Maybe we’ve been drunk and stupid for the last time. Maybe they’ve already killed the Captain, rifled his wallet, and are stuffing his corpse down the garbage disposal. Of course they have to make me wait in the garage – they have to finish grinding his bones first. Since there’s nothing else to do, I decide to work out an escape plan, just in case.

I am drunk MacGyver. I study the garage door intensely. Since there are no other doors or windows in the entire building, this is it, the only option if these people pull out the hacksaws. Surely, I think, this doesn’t meet fire code. But I have no tools, not even improvised. There are no objects of any kind in the garage. The garage door is securely closed with no apparent means of operation from the inside.

Yes. In fact, I am locked inside a Colombian brothel.

Federico comes downstairs and tells me to go wait up in the room. Maybe he’s going to clean the machetes. I mean, probably not, but why would we be locked inside? I sit on the bed, next to my girl, who quietly cries to herself and doesn’t acknowledge my presence. I’m unfamiliar with the etiquette here, if I should attempt to comfort this woman or mind my business, so I just watch TV. Colombian soap operas seem to be about lusty nurses and undead people shooting green lasers from their eyes. Between that and the mysterious, sobbing prostitute, by the time Federico returns and tells me to go wait in the garage again, I’m almost sure there’ll be a David Lynch character waiting for me down there, hitting off an oxygen tank and shouting Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!

On the stairs down to my strange impending doom, I consider Federico’s position and the condition of the crying girl upstairs. I reason that Federico’s the pimp, he’s in charge, and this girl has a real problem… but Federico seems to be patronizing and blowing her off. A drunken indignation seizes me. I don’t even know her name, but I figure any girl who voluntarily puts her tongue in my mouth is worth defending.
“Hey, Federico, listen, what’s the deal with this crying girl?”

He pats me on the shoulder. “Ah, it’s nothing, my friend. Don’t worry. She’s crazy.”

“No, man, look. She’s got a problem… you’ve got the power here. She’s a human being, I want to know she’s OK.”

He rolls his eyes at me. “No, no problem…”

“Aw, c’mon. Hey, what if that was your sister or your mother up there?”

As I say it, I can almost see the words coming out of my mouth. Somewhere deep, there’s a sensible, sober part of my brain that is trying to stop those words, to reel them back in, because it knows this may not be the smartest thing I’ve ever said to a Colombian pimp. Sadly, that part of my brain is disconnected from my mouth.

His eyes get big. “Oh, my family! You want to talk about my family! OK. C’mere…”

Oh. Well, it was a good life while it lasted. At least I didn’t go out by drowning. That one always kinda freaked me out. Federico leads me down the stairs to the garage and gestures to the middle of the floor. I’m surprised there aren’t sheets of plastic laid down already – seems a bit amateurish, really. “Have a seat,” he says, “let me explain to you about my family.”

I sit on the bare concrete floor and Federico sits across from me in his elegant suit. He rolls up his left sleeve and holds out his arm. “Look. Like this is my family.”

Thick, raised, random scars crosshatch the inside of his forearm from wrist to elbow. The part where they overlay the tendons and veins of the inside of his wrist makes me wince. That can’t have been pleasant.

Federico isn’t angry. He wants me to understand. His family is an organization, and the scars are his initiation. It is everything to him. They are warriors. Paramilitaries. Like this, these scars are his world. And this one crying whore, who cries for nothing, what are her tears worth in a country such as this?

He wants to tell me more about his life, but then the Captain appears on the stairs with his girl. The garage door opens and an older woman with a walkie-talkie stands outside the door. How did she know we were done? Who summoned her? The Captain makes a hasty goodbye and Federico and the Captain’s girl stand and wave like game show hosts as we get in the cab. Outside, the sun is rising over the Caribbean.
We arrive at our hotel and the Captain asks the cabbie how much we owe.

“Quarenta mil,” replies the cabbie.

I sort of know my numbers in Spanish, but I’m not sure I heard right. The driver seems to be asking for forty thousand pesos when it should cost seven, maybe eight thousand. Maybe the cabbie said “fourteen” thousand? The driver repeats himself and adds what sounds like a threat. I ask the Captain what he’s saying.

“He’s saying, ‘forty thousand, or I’ll tell everyone you were in a whorehouse.’”

“Oh, is that where we were?” I say.

The Captain throws the cabbie twenty thousand and motions for me to get out while he tells the cabbie to go fuck himself. “Like what, you got my mom’s phone number?”

The cabbie shoots us a disgruntled look and leaves.

“What a dick,” I say. “Next time, I vote we go with the fucky-fucky guy.”

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