In late 2015, I spent about six weeks in Colombia with a man I later married, and then divorced. We landed in Bogota, and after a week or so traveled northward through overgrown jungles and bumpy, unpaved roads to the Caribbean coast. A 22-hour bus ride stretched into nearly 36 when flood waters rushed over the road ahead, and we patiently waited for them to subside. Later, from behind the protection of the bus window, I saw a village beneath three feet of water. Some people waded through the still-swift current; others watched from their houses as mud swirled in their streets. The bus crawled slowly through it all. The man told me to take a photo, but I didn’t want to be that person: the white American woman collecting an exotic image of something that is supposed to be shocking and foreign. Instead, it is just life.
When we finally arrived on the coast, we were bored with the 24/7 party of Cartagena, and the forced history of Santa Marta. Santa Marta was full of Australians and Europeans, outfitted for the 28-mile trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to see La Cuidad Perdida. During the Lost City Trek, indigenous guides lead visitors through dense jungle trails to meet members of the Kogi village. Apparently, hikers get very dirty, because the floor of our bunk house was constantly covered in muddy (and expensive brands of) gear. We soon tired of this scene too, and longed for something real. With bigger dreams in our head than of cerveza, we boarded another bus to venture eastward along the coast.
This time, we were the only gringos aboard. Throughout 2014, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army, otherwise called FARC, had been very active. We listened as a member of the Policia Nacional de Colombia explained that suspected FARC activity had destroyed a market in Palomino (where we were going), so everyone needed to have their ID card ready for inspection. As respectful, law abiding citizens in a foreign land, the man and I had our passports ready for show. However, being the only gringos, the officer smiled and gave us the thumbs up sign, which translates approximately into, “you’re not who we are looking for… you’re white.”
One problem solved, we are not suspected of terrorism in Colombia, but what was that about the market? We knew Palomino was a remote and impoverished area, but we hadn’t thought about food. We exited the bus about 15 kilometers east of Tayrona National Park, and rented two hammocks that swung between railings of a thatched roof, open air hut. Comida? Nada. Between the two of us, we had half a loaf of a jam and creamy cheese filled sweet bread, and a few guava gelatin candies. We shared the bread, basked in the sun, and gathered star fruit fresh from the ground. After four days, we departed again, very tanned and very hungry.
A travel article from February, 2020, called Palomino “Colombia’s Hippest Beach Town.” A lot must have changed since I passed through the area six years ago. They call it, “a cool place to … enjoy some chilled out nightlife and eat some good grub.” Huh. I guess the writer scavenged more than star fruit. Oh wait. There’s more to the story. The writer continues, explaining that, “it is a small town where most of the residents are borderline impoverished, and many of the businesses that have come in are not owned by locals. Now their formerly quiet little beach town is overrun with foreigners.” Ah. The picture makes more sense now.
Why travel to a foreign country to drink at a seaside bar owned by another foreigner? Isn’t the point of travel to see what ELSE is out in the world? Maybe it was rough being hungry for four days, with nothing but star fruit and water that needed sterilized, but it was definitely a real experience. I saw villagers catching fish from the ocean, using techniques that were obviously traditional. I had wanted to take a picture, but again, too exploitative. Their technique was exotic to me, but for them, it was dinner or no dinner.
The current global pandemic will alter travel, but maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time for us to dream bigger; to want more from our experience with life than to consume the same tired drinks, to produce the same tired selfies with a hashtag like #24partyincolombiaforever, and to project the same tired expectations that travel is about eating and lavish sunshine. See bigger, dream bigger. Travel is an opportunity to learn about life, and for most of the people on the planet, life is navigating a flooded village road, and catching dinner before cooking it.