C for Colombia – Color, Cooking and Cocaine

If countries were used to illustrate letters, “C for Colombia” until recently would have been associated with cocaine. Or cartel.  Now I would nominate color and cooking. And caution. Thanks to Plan Colombia (the United States military and diplomatic aid initiative) there has been a drastic reduction in violence and a fairly aggressive marketing of Bogota and Cartagena as holiday destinations.  This is great for a country teeming with friendly creative people. It’s less ideal for my reputation as I have historically beat the New York Times travel pages by several years. But have no fear – I didn’t feel completely safe and there were a number of instances where it was hard to differentiate the good guys from the more nefarious. If New Orleans with an extra dollop of exposed guns is your style then for sure Cartagena is for you. If there just isn’t enough graffiti for you in Bushwick, Brooklyn hop on the 5.5 hour flight from NYC to Bogota and let the color commentary begin.
 
Seriously. Artists have taken to the streets to express outrage with dishonest governments, lack of trust in America’s infusion of dollars, the treatment of women, the plight of farm workers and even the seeds they sow. Relatively lenient laws regarding graffiti, the artists argue, have led to higher quality murals as people can work longer and in the daylight. Many are establishing themselves in these impromptu galleries leading to commissioned work or acquisitions of their signature appliqués such as the masks attached to painted walls by the artist Crisp. Before leaving Bogota I visited the Visaje Gallery where I:  1) came to understand that most deals are in cash and yet you are encouraged not to carry many bills; 2) it’s fun to search for cash points in the company of locals I just met; and 3) decide to purchase five of Crisp’s painted plaster faces figuring they look great and, … ya never know.
 
What I couldn’t buy was a Botero, but boy are his paintings and sculptures voluptuously sensuous, witty and wonderfully reminiscent of the full figured women I grew up with. Set in a classic colonial structure, interiors transitioned to exteriors with no notice. The Botero museum was an immediate highlight. Toss in the surprise works of many modern masters and by my first morning I was settling into happy vacation mode.
 
In addition to art’s power to propel me to contemplate covering my home with personal creations — it makes me hungry. Off to the La Macarena section for lunch for my initial foray into what will turn out to be many imaginative meals interpreting South American cuisine. Following a yummy feast surrounded by salsa sounds, I set off to explore this hilly neighborhood referred to as the bohemian part of town. Not so fast. Is that an arepa pan on my chest? Scampering up the hill shifts to heaving my heavy body. Did I really eat that much?  I am having a flashback to my family’s climb outside Quito. Wait.  I am at 85,000 feet above sea level. I planned this trip three weeks before I left and somehow managed to never read a travel guide or take note about the altitude. At least I’m not top out of shape though my pride was pricked that I felt the oxygen change.
 
I suffered a different narcissistic injury when I realized that my lovely taxi driver on the way to lunch pulled back-to-back fast ones. First he claimed I gave him a different denomination bill than I did. And then he made change with what I later learned was counterfeit pesos. The big steal amounted to 13 dollars. The risk/ reward implied mighty hard economic times. Colombia may be recovering, but the journey will take a while. After Syria, Colombia has the highest number of displaced persons (5,840,590 according to several accounts). I met several young professionals trained abroad who are contemplating and experimenting with life back at home. They are some of the few who had the privilege to leave and return.
 
Feeling and hearing about the social and political tensions, I now decide to read my Amex guide which in fact had a litany of safety suggestions: don’t hail cabs on the street they often work in gangs to rob you, always hide your phone and lock your car door. Stick a tire behind the driver’s seat so no one can jump in the back and force you to a cash machine. If you are robbed don’t expect the police to help.  If fined, pay the bribe. I almost opted to continue reading the guide rather than returning to the streets. Who knew Amex guides could be so racy.  And incomplete!  They omitted the critical recommendation: Use Uber. As soon as I found my app happily displaying cars nearby, life changed.  Don’t roll your eyes with political judgment. I could track and email others my route. And the price was one tenth the cost of a cab or hotel car.
 
With newfound freedom I used eating dinner at Mini Mal as an excuse to explore yet another area. Although the name translates to “little bad,” it was actually super creative and delicious with all the greenness and meaningfulness that would make a Brooklyn restaurant proud. Another Uber and I reward my clean eating with a visit (just for drinks) to the infamous Andres Carne de Res. Yup. The king of meat– and giant cocktails and four dance floors. Look it up. It’s too insane to capture in words. And I learned there’s an outpost in Queens! 
 
Sunday mornings are market days and I can’t resist. Countless vendors with colored bags and floppy hats hawk their wares and the side streets are filled with sweet treats in the exciting Usaquen part of town. Getting there was easy. Less so returning as Bogotá Ciclovías results in the main streets being closed off from 7 AM-2 PM each Sunday for bicycle riding. Next time I pack my running shoes. Or folding cycle. Actual I only have the former.
 
Old town Cartagena is surrounded by walls you can walk on and my hotel is constructed to include an ancient aqueduct. The mood is Caribbean. The air is hot.  And just an hour flight from the country’s capital you feel world’s away. More touristy. And safer. It’s also close to Christmas and what the town lacks in snow they make up with spectacular lights, street music, horse drawn carriages and human sculptures. Including a man who was seemingly sitting on air. I walked and ate and drank and walked and ate some more.   It’s a wonderful challenge to figure out the best ceviche. I discovered that sleep is not so overrated and enjoyed actually going to bed early. Wandering into the N H Gallery I find out they have a NYC showroom as well. Of course I already knew it’s a small world and it was proven yet again when I eat at another hidden five-table restaurant outside of the walled city in Cartagena only to re-meet three patrons the next day when we all wash up at an offbeat eco bed and breakfast with only three rooms (each with open air sleeping and washing).
 
Olga, a former photographer who did a stint in East Hampton at Dan’s Papers back in the 90’s is married to a cinematographer and together they bought a little spit of land on an idyllic beach on Isla Baru. Until last year you could only arrive by boat but now there’s a bridge and a slightly hair raising car ride that delivers you to Olga’s door.  As a good student of my Amex guide, I decide to take a photo of the taxi license plate and to send it to my son with a note saying “only worry if you don’t hear from me in an hour.” Once in the cab, the driver instructs me on how to lie if stopped by the cops. Fortunately the men in uniform don’t show interest as we pass their makeshift check points marked by heavy rope in the road that slows you down. The Juan Valdez coffee shop near my hotel in town had guys with big guns drawn as well. Not sure how fast you can move with a bayonet but I don’t want to find out. And I also don’t believe that the Juan Valdez chain has such good coffee. I am not however sharing that opinion at their shops given the equipment their staff seems to carry.
 
As luck would have it I lose phone reception as I pull into Olga’s. Good for my escape from reality, though. I perfect the hammock position as blissfully there is nothing else to do at this venue which delivers what they want to feed you when they want to serve it. I start reading and dreaming and reading and … explaining that yes I do I have a Long Island accent. Turns out that Scott and his two sons who I noticed but didn’t talk to the night before are “following” me. They were the trio also eating in La Cocina de Pepina.  Lovely guys with multiple funny overlaps with my life including Scott growing up near me and also meeting his spouse at UPenn. His older son worked in Rio at an NGO I had done a fair bit of work with.
 
Being social in doses, I decide on a private dinner served on a picnic table with my toes in the sand under a full orange moon. Devine. The crowd of 8 other guests joins me for a bonfire on the beach. I like it here.
 
The next day I manage to speak to no one as I am the only one on the grounds! I read a whole book in one swinging. I never left my hammock. Ironically the book is called Ambivalent Zen, I found it on the Inn’s bookshelf.  It’s Christmas Eve and I am invited to celebrate with Olga’s family. Around my table are Colombians, Argentineans, Swiss and Russians. Of course the family from Moscow now lives four blocks from me in the city and the husband and I have shared similar experiences with armed guards in Nigeria.   Hint: The security team traveled behind us with their weapons drawn. Christmas Eve is festive and fun and very warm in all meanings of the word.
 
My last day begins early. Olga insists that I join her family at the aviary her neighbor created to house diverse wounded and endangered birds. It’s extraordinary.  Close encounters of the pheasant kind!  Every hue imaginable insuring that my last day in Colombia concludes with the burst of colors that marked my entry a week prior. In addition to pinks and purples and lime green there are white peacocks.   Who knew? Sort of like an albino rainbow.
 
After a breakfast of French toast stuffed with cheese with a side of eggs, my boat for the day pulls up to shore. It’s a tin can with no safety elements in sight but rest assured it’s the contraption used by the doctors when making house calls. I settle in, or shall I say hold on as I bounce over the clear blue waves under a turquoise sky. Tour companies back home quoted a thousand dollars to snorkel and visit the Rosario islands. I pay a hundred. Same water. Same fish. We dock at an abandoned villa where Pablo pulls up a lobster trap. I pick my langoustines and drive off only to return after excess nautical frolicking to a feast. Over a few coals on a plancha, my lobster was grilled and corn pancakes seared to perfection.  I dined on a dirty plastic table with limited cutlery and no napkins. The view could not be beat and I dipped my digits in the ocean in lieu of finger bowls. Content. Giddy. I leave my paradise to take an hour boat ride to the car that will drive 75 minutes on dark streets crowded with merrymakers to get to the first of three flights as I work my way back home.