Estelle, a Memory from Washington Heights


, , , , ,


The last person I needed to bump into at Penn Station. What was she doing this far south in midtown Manhattan? Due to the nature of things it rang true of the fucking inevitable. Only in New York, where a person could remain anonymous for a lifetime could this happen. The Republican Convention had thrown the city into a spin and the cops had assumed something of a higher order. Everyone and everything was beneath them and they were there to keep reprobates like myself far from Madison Square Garden. Except, Estelle and I had slipped through the net.


Jesse’s Place, Washington Heights, c2004

For that reason I ran into Estelle at midnight on the platform for the A train. On any given day not affected by the Convention, rather the 360 other days of 2004 that weren’t affected, we would never have seen one another. We would have entered at different ends of the platform having not been led on a merry dance through the ramps and underpasses of the station so that we could all be observed and herded together for security reasons.

New York City is a place I know and I place I can escape in and hide. Here among the millions of people coming and going, filling their days, not missing a minute. Gym, dinner, drinks, seeing friends, relatives, exhibitions, coffee, the park, rollerblading, jogging. This incessant need to complete a quota of activities every day. What happened to the good old-fashioned way of things, work, hang out, catch a flick or have a drink and crash in front of some shitty new reality TV show?  It was a busy place even before 9/11 and now it seemed that it had only gotten busier. People were striving to live more in a frenzy of desire, concern and fatalism. And it was written on 9/11. Thou shall live every day as if it is your last.

As for me. I could go days here without properly speaking to anyone. Or doing anything. A real conversation I mean or real activities. Short of discussing the price of milk with the clerk in my local deli, ordering a slice of pizza to go and helping a tourist out with their bearings north, south, east or west, or having an email conversation with someone in a different time zone, I could evade all real human contact. And this was precisely what I wanted. Things were going swimmingly, and then I saw Estelle.

Had I been blessed with far sighted eyes, I would have ducked behind one of the crude metal pillars on the platform, pushing myself into the rivet of a pillar to hide, but they had recently been painted and tarted up for the Grand Old Party delegates. As it is, my eyesight is poor and I walked straight into her line of sight. Tired, lightheaded from beer and the profound need to hit the hay, I was defeated. There was to be no escaping her tonight.

“David, David. Over here. You afraid? I’m not going to rape your ass. Sit down.”

This was pure Estelle. David is not my name. Never has been never will be. Some figment of an alcoholic’s altered mind. Some implanted memory chip that is sparked with the ingredients of half a dozen Long Island ice teas. I took the bench seat next to her. This was going to be a long trip on the local train home. 34 Street Penn Station all the way up to 175th street. 17 stops. And I knew she was going further, up to the next stop, 181st so that she could catch a few more rounds of petrol flavored happiness in Jesse’s Place. Incidentally, also may preferred watering hole.

“You’re not going to believe what happened to me today?” No respite, she launched into her story with little encouragement. I was already sure that it was going to involve a misunderstanding of some sort at a bar. By the proof on her breath, I could tell what was coming.

“There was this dumb ass Puerto Rican at the bar, you know the one? Here in Penn Station. You’re not interested, no matter, you afraid of me?”

Indicating I was interested, I leant back. The train had yet to arrive; I started reading billboards and counting tiles. It was like that. It had come to this. I was counting tiles. She continued: “He was being a jerk. I told the bartender over and over. They know me there. I go there a bit. You are innocent aren’t you? I’m going to adopt you whether you like it or not. Anyway, I told the bartender to call the cops; this guy was a jerk. He thought he knew everything; Of course the bartender wasn’t going to call the cops. So I went.”

I was catching these snippets of information. What the hell was she chattering on about? I had heard of her famed blackouts and memory loss. If she remembered this event, perhaps it would help her to be more demure in the future. No, this one is a repeat offender. Alone and at 58 years the only way she is getting out of this rut is to find God or the casket and one may lead to the other – sort of two way street.

“So I dialed 311 not 911. This was important but not an emergency. Anyway, just like that there were 20 cops all around. Of course they didn’t arrest the guy, that dumb ass Puerto Rican, they just had a conversation. Man, I told them I was sorry for bothering them, I know they got to check out all calls, but he was a know-it-all and he was wrong.”

Estelle had managed to telephone the police a few days shy of the Republican Convention, literally from the seat of the Convention, over an argument in the bar. No wonder the cops swept down on the place. We are in an amber alert period and those guys have trigger fingers that are twitching. How else are they going to apprehend anyone, half of them look as if they could wrestle a whale and come out victorious?

“Just cuz we’ve talked here doesn’t mean we got to hang out now. Anyhow, I talked but you wasn’t interested.”

Absolute relief must have been clearly visible on my face. Thank god. Pray for a busy train. Pray for a busy train, and then I can escape down the carriage to an Estelle free standing space. What was her deal anyway? This was the second time I had heard or seen her beating on a Puerto Rican. She verbally abused a Puertoriqueno in Jesse’s Place a few days ago for no reason, other than to start a confrontation. Somehow I was in the middle of that one too, although, fortunately there were no cops involved. Hacking him down showing very little respect and then carefully placing some derogatory throwaway comments about the Cubans into the mix. This is not the era or the place to do such a thing. We are in Washington Heights, bordering with Inwood; everyone up here is Latino, Jewish, jobbing actors or struggling writers. You throw an insult out there about the Cubans and you will be frowned upon. Put one out there about the Dominicans and you will get a beating, and any wrong word uttered of the Salvadorians and you may as well kiss this world goodbye. Be thankful we are west of Broadway.

Here came the train. Mercifully busy. Nice. We had hit the window of opportunity. Like the space shuttle that can only take off and land coming through the Earth’s atmosphere at specific times there are unwritten rules for New York subway travel. This subway window of opportunity was one purely of security. For this is the train which all the busboys, waiters and kitchen staff take home. This is a safe train – people just going about their business and trying to get back to families and loved ones. There is a familiarity on this train, a camaraderie between citizens and aspiring citizens. Residents all. Pretty much completely filled with Central Americans, Dominicans and Mexicans, there is no threat. No undercurrent of menace that can overwhelmingly consume a later train. Any earlier and you get the express train and none of these situations. But it also means that you are going home too early. This is the city that never sleeps. At this time and later it is the 8th Avenue local, stopping all the way through Harlem. Take the later train and you will be with another crowd altogether. A Harlem crowd of ne’er do wells and trouble.

A friend in the City once told me: “Yes the train runs all night, but that doesn’t mean you should take it all night.” Learned words indeed.

I took my place. Standing far enough away from Estelle to not be rude, but to maintain the image that it was amply crowded and I was making my own space. And one stop later to my dismay, 42nd Street Port Authority, and the multitudes disembarked. Possibly they were transferring to the 7 train to Queens to the Mundo Latino that thrives up over there. Should you want anything from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala or Puerto Rico you would be hard pushed not to find it over there.

“David, come and sit down here.” Estelle was waving and motioning to the seat beside her. I noticed an empty space opposite. How could I pull it that I wanted to sit there? As I negotiated the undulations of the train on the track I reluctantly moved over. 16 more stops and no respite. She was just being kindly. I don’t know if I can take it though. I made for the gap opposite but was too slow. A couple slid in before me. I took my place beside Estelle. Perhaps this was better after all. I could look out and not have to make eye contact or real conversation. Just make the appropriate sounds of acknowledgement when I hear her pause for effect.

“Donde eres? Eres Dominicano? De que parte? Santiago. Soy de aqui pero mis padres fueron de la capital, Santo Domingo.”

She had made another friend. This was going to okay after all. Another person to keep the spotlight away from me. Another soul from the Dominican Republic, Ariel. Good natured and well-meaning he listened attentively to her tale of woe with the police in the bar at Penn Station. I could tell that he hadn’t missed her 100 per cent proof breath either. But, he struck a kindly face and returned conversation. Unlike me, Ariel chatted back to her. This was heartwarming. He had seen her straight off for what she is. A lonely soul. Her daughter has moved away. Her husband gone. “I divorced his black ass.” Ariel spoke of his young family and how his children were born here and so in effect he had already succeeded and subsequently his children had won. They were gringos, but the “good kind, gringos Latinos.”

“You afraid of something?” my silence and period of quiet had not gone unnoticed. I had been listening to Ariel’s story in part thankful that we had moved off Estelle’s tale of bar room disagreements and in part because it was a heartwarming reflection of the state of things. Here is the Promised Land. “A job if you are prepared to work. You can send money to your family back home. They can live well. You feel in your heart you are doing the right thing. You save the money to go and visit back home every other year, and your kids are getting the attention and education that you can only wish for.”

“If anyone tries to get in your way, I’ll fight them for you.” This was all I needed, Estelle watching my back, but really, spoiling for a fight. “I’ve adopted your ass; you have no say in it. Going to protect you and then sexually abuse you.” This provoked the reaction in me that she was looking for. Smart cookie this one. “Aha, not going to abuse you, just wanted to see your face. You are scared, who you want me to get?” She looked over at some suspects. I was spent; the last thing I need was this. Please don’t let her start on anyone here.

All this time I kept my eyes on the advertising banners up above the windows. Aprenda ingles and a legal notices, Todos los Accidentes, no cobramos si no ganamos. Colleges, law firms, medical associations, every organization had a banner up in Spanish somewhere on the subway lines. Looking at the advertisements would not keep her at bay.

“How much did those sneakers cost?” No pause for my response. “A hundred dollars? They are really clean; they look like a hundred bucks. Who would spend that much on a pair of sneakers?” There was no chance for me to reply, she had finished with me and was lecturing Ariel on something. Her back was to me. This was fine. Let her believe it.

Central Park and Morningside Heights, Harlem and then up to Washington Heights. Finally, I was home. At least, I was close to home. How to make my farewell without insulting her. The last thing I needed was to be another individual on her hit list. How did Kissinger put it? Surrender with dignity. This was an escape at all costs, but delicately done. I had seen her treatment of others in Jesse’s Place. I didn’t need that. Another place where I would have to peer through the windows before entering to make sure that it was free of people whose feathers I had ruffled. It was my local. I needed that place. Often it became a place for me to reestablish human contact after days in the concrete desert or seated at the laptop.

“Okay, goodnight. Nice to meet you Ariel, you take care. Estelle, farewell.” Polite, sure. Etiquette, certainly. Free, never.

“You not coming to Jesse’s Place?”

And that was the problem. I wanted more than anything to have a last drink there. A nightcap or whatever you call it. One last drink to wash away the train journey. The grime, grit and unforgiving air conditioning of New York’s subway system. This scared me; I needed more than anything that next and last drink. I had been thinking about it on the train. It would clear my head and help me sleep. It would reconnect me to my people there, friends and night people. Every night in there turned out as an adventure of sorts. Accosted by neurotic single women with too much Sex in the City on their minds. Corrupted in thought and action by a TV show. Lectured by barflies as soon as they learn your profession. There is no person wiser than the barfly. Leaning in to you to whisper and then announce to the whole bar their view on your chosen path in life. Experts on everything, reticent on nothing. They have the knowledge. Young or old they claim to have seen and experienced it all.

But tonight, I was not going to go. Let Estelle go alone. Let her take her place at the bar. The one in the near corner underneath that television. That was Estelle’s place. Woe to all who sat there and did not give it up to her on her arrival. The unforgiving wrath of Estelle. Let her go to the bar and make some such story about the train ride.

“Not tonight Estelle. I am tired; it is time for me to turn in. See you around.”

And that, I thought would be the end of it all. For certain I would see he in the bar again in the bar. Although, I would be the one in better shape. She could drivel her way into another patron’s ear.

But, inevitably I saw her again, this time a few days later in the safe house of Jesse’s Place. Wedged by the wall, oblivious to the light beaming out from the television set above her head, I guess it gave her the impression that people noticed her and were acknowledging her as they stared open mouthed up at whatever moving picture monopolized the screen. It could be the Yankees, another interminable Olympic swimming heat or just the ordinary blather of reality shows. People grasping at their chance for fleeting fame and cash, spurred on by a public that sees themselves in the characters – the plight of the everyday joe. In fact, Estelle was being ignored, this night and every night. She had for so long terrorized the bar and the clientele that people remained courteous so as not to incur the ire, and then kept their conversations out of earshot, lest she hear and decide to opine on something or other.

Tonight she had been drinking for some time. It was a Saturday night; there had been no stops on her abilities or her credit limit. No job to keep her sober for at least until lunchtime. Long island ice teas were flowing through her veins and her anger was directed towards a guy in his mid-twenties accompanied by three women. Estelle saw her chance.

“Why you with him? Whatever he tells you its all lies. Why you all with that sorry guy?”

To their credit, the group remained quiet and continued to seemingly enjoy one another’s company. Estelle could be heard above the din at the bar. The bartender looked on, the owner looked on, nothing really they could do. Estelle is a regular and a regular spender.

Finally one of the girls comes over: “What’s the deal, what’s the problem with my friend?”

“Three girls and one guy, whatever he says, I don’t know him, but all men lie, and he’s no different. Why you with him?”

Estelle had been ranting and bitching for some while. Maybe due to the fact that she felt ignored, she needed to up the ante and raise her voice. She would not be felled or sidelined. The girl had had enough too and played her card.

“He has an enormous cock,” she said emphasizing the fact with her hands and leaving a space of air between both palms that could have been a couple of feet. Estelle was undeterred and unimpressed and hardly was there time for a breath from the moment the girl had finished her revelation to when she uttered immortal words.

“Well he doesn’t use it on girls.”

It came as no surprise when the bar staff at Jesse’s Place confided in me why they permitted her back time and time again. Her husband had long since divorced her, her daughter gown up and moved away. Estelle was a lonely elderly alcoholic waiting to pass on. She blacked out after drinking sessions and it is within such periods that her outbursts sprung forth. I wanted to feel sorry, I wanted to try and be a friend.

But the best thing I felt a friend could do was to leave her to her devices.


Digg thisShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Protests in Bogota and more to come


, ,

January 13 and I have only been back in Bogotá for under a week before seeing my first protest march of the year. There will of course be countless demonstrations throughout 2016 and potentially more so due to the considerable and weighty decisions that the government of President Santos will need to make.

Colombians protesting the sale of Isagen in Bogota

Colombians protesting the sale of Isagen in Bogotá

  1. Isagen

I confess to not knowing a great deal about this issue but, it seems fitting to write this as the first demonstration of 2016 for me was that of today’s protest against the sale of Isagen. As of today 13/1/16, Colombia’s cash-strapped government has sold its sold its 57.6% stake in the energy company to Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management for $1.99 billion.

Isagen No Se Vende

Isagen No Se Vende

2. Paro Nacional de…

On January 24 – and this is nationwide – people will take to the streets to protest various economic factors affecting Colombia. These include, corruption, increases in taxes and the pitiful increase in the minimum wage. You can see the invitation here on Facebook. I suspect that these protests will roll on and on throughout 2016.

Protests today in Bogota

Protests in Bogotá

3. Peace?

Is this agreement that President Santos is pushing for on March 23rd with the FARC guerrillas a peace at any cost? I personally don’t think so but there are the naysayers and those in opposition – not to peace I hasten to add, but to the concessions being granted to the FARC.

Any more that I should be made aware of?

For more information about protests in Bogotá and how to survive them please see: A Guide to Demonstrations in Bogotá. And for the fallout and images of demonstrations taking place, Images of the Paro Nacional Agrario.

Digg thisShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Rain Alone Cannot Solve our Water Crisis


, , , , , , , , , ,

We need rain say the people in Bogotá.

We need rain say the people in Santander.

We need rain say the people in Bolivar.

We need water say the people in Mompos.

Filling up plastic tanks to transport water to homes in Mompos

Filling up plastic tanks to transport water to homes in Mompos

El Nino is to blame. The outgoing Mayor is to blame. Everyone is responsible. But Mompos has no water save for the few with their own wells tapping into the groundwater.

The Brazo de Mompos River, ordinarily a fast flowing tributary to the Magdalena River is running dry. Playones or mud banks are fast appearing in the centre of the river and travel by any means now seems precarious.

The water situation in Mompos has been delicate for months. Rationing has not been put in place but is now a naturally established phenomenon. Those of us with wells have been pumping up water to gift to other families and homes not as fortunate. My Casa Amarilla runs a hose out into the street to fill up tanks from our well for others.

Filling up a tank of water for families in Mompos from the well at the Casa Amarilla

Filling up a tank of water for families in Mompos from the well at the Casa Amarilla

Motorbikes, the ubiquitous form of transport in town, can now be seen free of passengers, instead now balancing plastic containers and buckets as the drivers today make their living taking water to outlying and dry barrios.

Each container filled with untreated river water costs 5000 pesos. And the cost of the transport is another 1000 pesos.

How and why did this happen?

motorcycles are now transporting water tanks more frequently than passengers

motorcycles are now transporting water tanks more frequently than passengers

Mompos was born of the river and as the river gave so shall she take away. Mompos’ decline was brought about by the change in direction of the Magdalena River and indeed by exhaustive cattle farming further to the north. Now, we are asking the same questions.

How could this have been avoided?

Five years ago the banks of the Brazo de Mompos burst, causing more widespread damage (although not as economically disastrous for obvious reasons) than the disaster in New Orleans. Today, we can walk across the river with the muddy swell only reaching as high as your waistline at the deepest parts.

El Nino was always going to affect us. But, there could still be water in our treatment plant and flowing from our taps if we had prepared in time. There are countless engineers, labourers and landowners in Mompos who could have all risen above the politics of this environmental and natural disaster to come to the aid of the people.

One family uses the tricycle transport to ship water to their neighborhood in Mompos

One family uses the tricycle transport to ship water to their neighborhood in Mompos

But, politics won out.

And the people suffer.

It’s thanks to a chain of events that we find ourselves here.

Administration after administration has done nothing to improve the situation. It’s far too easy to blame the most recent and inept mayor but this dates back to when mayors were unelected officials in Mompos.

You are all to blame.

So, in a combination of events stemming from over farming, over grazing, El Nino, exaggerated increases in the cost of electricity (you are thieves Electrocaribe), the failure of the town’s water company to pay their electricity bills resulting in them having the power shut off at the treatment plant in mid-December, and a lack of political will to plan in advance, Mompos has run dry.

Rain alone in the interior of Colombia cannot solve the water problems.

What will we do when the wells run dry? Who then will be to blame?

Digg thisShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

the Accidental Journalist


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Accidental Journalist

Richard McColl is a formally trained Anglo-Canadian journalist born and raised in London, England. His parents saw the importance in travel as education and his early years were punctuated with lengthy stints abroad for both vacation purposes and for employment. He has worked as an expedition guide through all of South America. His writing appears in many media outlets across the world and he is the author of the Michelin Green Guide to Colombia, contributor and editor of Was Gabo an Irishman? When he is not writing from his base in Bogota, Colombia he can be found running his small hotel la Casa Amarilla in Mompós, Bolivar.

This is an advice piece penned in February 2014 for a Travel Writing Guidebook that never made it to the printers!

accidental journalist

accidental journalist

Travel Writing as a Genre and Legitimate Form of Journalism

As perhaps a naïve and hopeful writer, I genuinely believe that SEO and to a lesser extent keywords are going to fade away in the same manner as Technicolor T shirts, and everything will revert to norm as in the literary fashion of yesteryear. Once the dust has settled and the furor of how to pitch your website, your blog, your article and garner the most hits and generate an ad-sense income has ebbed, we will once again be looking at a future present of constant, great, engaging and informed content. This will be provided once again by writers, journalists and less so bloggers, experts in their fields and whose text is followed enthusiastically by a strong cadre of equally well informed devotees. Over the years it has become evident that the quality of writing on and for the web has improved in many quarters, as let’s say, the less technologically sound minds (but literary geniuses) have come to terms with the industry to be able to keep abreast of the game. And by the same rationale, there is a great deal of utter nonsensical gibberish being published onto word press and BlogSpot sites by people with every right to an audience, but, only to their audience in a direct and focused manner. High quality content and content which is relevant needs to be pushed higher up the pecking order. That there is nonsense out there is nothing new, but what would you rather read? A document which inspires and informs you or something that is a footnote to an advertorial section better served as lining the floor as you paint your front room?

As a news journalist who has more than dabbled in travel and guidebook writing I find myself confronting daily realities of how, what and where best to publish my texts and articles. What are the stories that need to be told, who is my audience and how is what I have to say relevant to them? I cannot abide by the “who, why, where, what, which and with what result” teachings of my University course unless it is told in the correct fashion. A news piece needs to be up to date and short on description, a feature can be more exploratory and lengthier, but a travel piece is neither of the aforementioned and in order to grip my attention at least and hold it, I need a human element, possibly some humor and the absolute absence of something that a colleague of mine over at Matador ( Miller talks at length about Travel “porn”. As Miller says: “I feel compelled to state that I don’t really look at writing as a spectrum of value judgments. My intention in these “lessons” isn’t to judge one kind of writing as “good” and another “bad,” but to identify common patterns I see as an editor receiving submissions.”

And now, everyone is a travel writer, a blogger a chronicler, a Samuel Pepys in their own time. Accessibility to media has created a forum and a platform for everyone and this has made the internet a richer yet more perilous place. Everything can be “beautiful”, “wonderful”, “scenic”, “sun-dappled” and my personal pet hate “a hidden gem”. But, then, the discerning reader will be lost as soon as this language is employed in the article. Look to one of the all-time greats of travel writing, Paul Theroux and you will notice a curmudgeonly but infectiously readable author. Rightly so of course since his texts are neither diatribes nor pithy observations of a hackneyed event but carefully investigated, established and executed articles that are relevant to the reader and a wholly international context. Of course Theroux is the master of putting a situation that may not be the most earthshattering into a readable, amusing and once again relevant piece of writing and this is what I feel is the line in the sand between the average blogger and the writer. The writer will know how to take a seemingly irrelevant piece of information and turn it, without embellishing, without exaggerating, employing the use of italics in order to emphasize, into a core element of an article, chapter and so on.

So, take an experience, one that you can tell to some mates over a beer, replace the jargon without losing the sense of the story and render it available to another audience base and you know that you are getting somewhere. Remember that we are not all experts in your field, you may need to explain it to us but at the same time, don’t treat your reader as a complete dunce, there is a fine line on both sides between being condescending and creating a vocabulary version of Kindergarten.

This last element of writing dovetails nicely into another pet peeve of mine and that is the issue of being obliged to write virtually advertorial public relations spiel as a hack on a press trip. The word of warning is the following, you will expected to write fluff, possibly gloss over the most pertinent and interesting tenets of the article, you will have to name your host/ provider in a viable and visible part of the article and you will most likely be treading where another has gone before since the sort of places and organizations that pitch out their camp around press trips have the means to do so and will have done so previously.

Now, if this is the sort of reporting career that you wish to embark upon then there’s no issue to be taken with this whatsoever. However, err on the side of caution in every situation when a fine hotel stay is bandied your way, when you have to use rudimentary superlatives to describe a meal and are forced into a complimentary massage. And never please cede your rights to permit the inviting agency/ organization/ entity into copy approval. Your words are your own and there is a reason for the subjective manner in which they are written. You need to care, you need to know what it is you are trying to say and you need to find a way to communicate this. Don’t worry about the press officer breathing down your neck, they live for good press and positive feedback that ends up being churned back into a power point presentation held during an investors’ meeting somewhere down the line. I would like to be able to say the following in my own way but someone already said it better. As a famous US war photographer, John Hoagland (15 June 1947 – 16 March 1984) killed in El Salvador said: “Do something right and I’m going to take your picture. Do something wrong and I’m going to take your picture also.”

Which brings me finally to my tale:

Interestingly enough, two of the most read articles I have published with the Matador Network have been two strikingly different pieces which goes a long way to showing how there is such an extreme variation in readerships but via the same page and media. The first is “How to Trek the Inca Trail”. ( ) Why should I be writing this one? Well, I trekked this historical pathway once as a tourist and 4 times as a guide, this makes me an expert of sorts. My idle observations as a tourist have been tempered by my knowledge of the act. The second is “Swapping cocaine for tourism in Guaviare, Colombia”. ( Of course, this last piece is different and possesses all the keywords to make it a hit, there’s the inevitable cocaine and Colombia link, the daredevil style adventurous element. But, note how it is put into context, through a small, albeit 15 minute, chance meeting with a local campesino. He was the person who brought a human element to the page and was able to frame my piece. Alone and without Saul the campesino, the story falls flat.

accidental journalist

accidental journalist

My First Experience in Santa Marta

I am introducing this unpublished article hopefully as a template for further aspiring writers and journalists in the expectation that they will exceed their chosen aims. I wrote this article, and my desire was for it to be published in the mainstream media as a possible first person narrative. This was a few years ago and I was still fresh as a freelancer and to my eyes everything and every angle presented a possible avenue to write and potentially sell an article. I can share with you the fact that I still believe this but am more thick-skinned and more aware of what can be published, what is advertorial and what sells.


Sweat clinging to my top lip, I lay, shirt strewn to one side, back pressed into my bed, looking up through bloodshot eyes at the ceiling fan. This device was offering no respite from the evening heat here in Santa Marta, Colombia and did little more to cool me than to slice through the hot Caribbean air and push it back at me.

It felt like every pore on my body was in overdrive giving the impression that the sheet upon which I lay was second hand and that the staff here had not seen fit to change it prior to my arrival. Too tired and with my patience shorn due to the lingering effects of that morning’s hangover I tossed my guidebook to one end of the room.

Barely had I managed to slip into a much needed sleep when my door seemed to lift from its hinges and the police thundered down on the paneling with their fists.

“Policia, requiso, Policía, abre la puerta”

Bleary-eyed I snapped back the bolt on the door without moving from the bed, swung my legs over the side and before I could don a shirt and look somewhat respectable three officers were in my room, squeezing through the small space available and tossing my belongings.

I cringed as the commanding officer picked up my sodden, cigarette smelling t-shirt infused with all of the odorous delicacies from the previous night on the town. He sniffed deep and glared accusingly before he said:

“Gringo mochilero, huele a humo, a ti te gusta la marihuana?”

Almost too bored to reply I managed some sort of negative response.

“Vienes a nuestro país, vienes a putear, vienes a consumir drogas.” Continued the commanding officer.

All the while I could make out police officer 1 in my bathroom lifting up the lid on the cistern and checking the water in the toilet. Police officer 2 had his hand out of the window and was arching his arm to feel the ledge above the external window frame.

It became clear. This was a set up. As the commanding officer kept on with his baseless but albeit threatening barrage of accusations, it was all too evident that someone had tipped off the police alerting them to this hotel and in turn to my room as a source of an easy drugs bust.

Only that, unless something had been planted in my room, I was not in the possession of any illicit material. My work and travels had brought me to Colombia to study the environment, write of up and coming destinations and basically soak up the atmosphere. Not of this meant for me to be involved in a scene not dissimilar to Charles Nichol’s the Fruit Palace, most of which incidentally had taken place only meters from where I now found myself.

My mattress was flipped, the sweat drenched sheet torn from it and I genuinely believed that this was it.

Until finally the commanding officer seemed sincerely interested in what I had to say and where I had been in Colombia, in particular the Pacific coast.

“Have you seen the turtles?” He asked with almost childlike wonder.

“Yes, I worked for an NGO protecting them and in placing the newborns in a hatchery.”

My guidebook was near to hand and the commanding officer brought it close under the dim and bare solo light bulb hanging in the room. He started thumbing through pages, asking my opinions of various destinations along the Pacific coast and then testing my knowledge of the rest of Colombia.

“You must go here, and he folded and dog-eared a page, and then another one. I forget where he was sending me, and it was irrelevant as I was set to leave the country shortly, but my mind was racing trying to take in what had actually taken place. What had started as a set up that seem to lead directly to paying a bribe or hurried to calls to the British Consul, was now becoming a familiar chat with a public official with a gun.

And yet he was not finished here. Satisfied with me and with his discourse on the must see sights of Colombia, and brimming with pride, he looked me over once again and said:

“Aquí están mis datos, mi celular y mi dirección si tienes algún problema más.”

It felt like he was suggesting that I would have further problems, hard to imagine that this was the same man who had held my stinking t-shirt to his nose and accused me of being a hippie on a trail head full of zombie. And with that he finished his annotations in the back of my guidebook and bade me farewell.


If you enjoyed this you may enjoy further ruminations on writing as a career:

A Year of Transition

The End of Journalism

Who is Really a travel writer?

When a trip to Santa Marta becomes a Journalist’s ethical nightmare

Digg thisShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrEmail this to someone