The tales of a well-versed bum.
“So, is there anywhere that you would prefer not to revisit?”
No one had ever asked me this directly. How does one reply without invoking more curiosity when all you want is to skip the billing and hope that another party guest will open dialogue about a “simply wonderful timeshare for couples in Tuscany”. Along comes the standard answer. A vague hat tip to acknowledge moments of doubt that occur during periods of disastrous self-contemplation. In theory, this offers no obstacle to the practiced storyteller who moves swiftly to a cerebral inbox of attempted humour and directs the conversation to another dinner party anecdote. The legitimate bum, a wayward soul who believes he is a beat poet on a higher plain will have an arsenal of tales to regale the crowd. He is in short, a well-versed bum.
But Fernanda had me stumped, and with this question I set about retracing my steps over the past few years and thinking over less than agreeable places or experiences, or often both as they so frequently are combined. Events started piling up. A case of mistaken identity in Colombia, or taking refuge in a rent-by-the-hour motel in Tegucigalpa so vile, that in order to lie down and not touch the grime on the linen you don more clothes and upon checking the “en suite” find more delights such as an evil Trainspotting style toilet with faeces smeared everywhere but the interior of the seat-less bowl and some used rubbers congealing on the lino tiled floor. Let’s not overlook my dive of choice in Chihuahua, Mexico. I have been dying to fit this into a story somewhere, where carved into the headboard of the bed were the immortal words inset within a crudely shaped heart…”Here Arturo and Lupe lost their virginity.” Their virginity, which in the throes of passion and presumably youth, they lost together.
“Georgetown, the city, as a whole,” I reply. “That’s not to say it was all bad, but in answer to your question, I would think twice about returning. It is a city in which I felt I could never relax. What Georgetown lacked in Caribbean charm, it overcompensated for in lawlessness.
My answer seemed to satisfy her, but it awoke within me a curious set of memories that stemmed back almost five years, starting with recent events in Guyana and terminating in the always story-generating regions of Colombia.
Picture this if you will. On arrival in Georgetown, in a tin can Volkswagen kombi by way of Surinam, 16 hours with unsettled children over bad roads left our bodies pranged and our nerves shorn. Out of time and short of patience, the driver had offered me a good kicking after questioning his driving skills. What began as an innocent query as to why we had not made the ferry crossing in time, resulting in a two-hour wait on one side of a riverbank, was the source of some friction.
After my telling off I retreated to my safe and relatively comfortable yet somewhat overpriced guesthouse situated between a gun shop, an open sewer and opposite a Chinese gentlemen’s brothel. On the corner two ladies were hissing, spitting and chasing one another with sticks while a couple of addicts strayed aimlessly through traffic pleading a few coins.
But all of these events were neither enough to upset me nor make me dislike the place. These facets of Guyana-life make the place what it is and give it its identity. My mood came about with the visit to the Botanical Gardens, an established destination on the maps and in the guidebooks. Treeless. In fact, it resembled a high school playing field, patchy grass with worn down areas in the centre circle and the goalmouth. What kind of place was this? Georgetown, where even the verdant confines of the Botanical Gardens offer neither shade nor tranquillity.
The mood that took hold of me was worse than my reaction to being suspected of drug smuggling on the Panama – Costa Rica border when the famished sniffer dog had a fit of the munchies after smelling meat pies in my backpack. This was less comical than at the Peru – Ecuador border when the Ecuadorian official sent me tracking back through no man’s land to Peru to have a shave since, in my dishevelled state; to him I did not appear to be the same person as my passport photo.
I guess one could say that it is these ridiculous events and experiences that kept me on the road. They had become part of every day life. Such observations, experiences and trials are the cement that makes a journey a voyage and not a package holiday. I hasten to steer clear of the term “self discovery”, “global citizen” or that of “traveller”. All three conjure up images of the hippie Olympics (juggling at traffic lights, making bead jewelry), ethnic clothing, dreadlocks and grime-encrusted toenails. I think it was Paul Theroux who first identified such people as those who travelled for purely economic reasons, boasting of how little they part with on their financial exile of sorts. Travels that include periods of defined “self-discovery” often lead to blinkered statements about the sociopolitical ills of a region and redefining everything through rose-tinted glasses and funded by the sale of globally universal and easily recognisable traveller tat.
Cue some Manu Chao backing music.
And then, as the norms of the hippie Olympics dictate, there must be juggling and hackysack punctuated with the ubiquitous sale of a druid style hash pipe and some beads.
It has all been done before, regardless of how much a mud-disguised middle class bead vendor will protest otherwise. In the 1950s John Steinbeck foresaw the advent of guidebooks, career breaks and the romance of the hobo lifestyle and hammers home this fact in “Travels with Charley”: “I set it down only that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.”
So, on my return to Colombia, in buying a flight from Bogotá to Santa Marta I broke the cardinal rule of “traveller” style backpacking, by showing a public display of wealth and a disregard for the code of obligatory land travel. By doing this, I separated myself from the masses of the great unwashed, the starry-eyed and the evils of dorm porn. For those who have never shared a dormitory on the backpacker circuit, dorm porn, is the term for the activities of a member of your room with another individual while the rest of you try desperately to block out the sounds with iPods, mp3s or varying degrees of inebriation. Seriously, if there is a bottom bunk going when you check in, go straight for it, if only to avoid the motion sickness of the top bunk during an episode of dorm porn.
It was 2005.
But had it not been for flying, I would never have met Alejandra. An architect from Bogotá, she offered me her window seat, spoke of a competition to design a new public space in Santa Marta she was entering and had me chauffeur driven to my flop house at the end of town.
“Be careful here,” she warned. “These places are just for drugs and prostitution.”
This was nothing new. The more time you spend in less than salubrious digs, the more you come to realise that while these pastimes take place, they can be avoided. I am no Charles Nicholl, drinking and consuming at “the Fruit Palace”, just another bum with a vague direction, a half-baked plan and a dozen money-making ideas. Thanking Alejandra for her kindness and arranging to meet later for a drink, I headed inside. Already dusk but still swelteringly hot, I checked into my room, threw my shirt into the corner, slapped the fan to max and collapsed on my bed.
Hammering on my door. “Police check. Open the door.”
In that half state of consciousness due to the merciless Caribbean humidity –the kind that has you moving like a chameleon in a vain hope that your flesh does not make contact with material as it will lead to uncontrollable sweating – I sleepwalked, reached over, flicked back the bolt and before I could put my shirt on two heavily armed soldiers in fatigues entered and behind them the Chief. One soldier stood guard as if he expected me to scarper while the other tossed my mattress, pulled the stuffing out of the pillow, tipped the contents of my backpack onto the floor and then headed for the bathroom. All the while the Chief eyed me with unbridled suspicion.
Making the perhaps foolhardy decision not to play the dumb gringo I started answering his questions in Spanish. Routine. “Where are you from, what are you doing?” His whole manner was one of unveiled disapproval. Possibly not guilty of what he hoped, but certainly guilty of apathetic wanderings. All of it unspoken, but quite clearly behind his eyes was a neon sign imprinted on his brain flashing: “Get a job, have a shave, go to mass and get the hell out of my country.”
He picked up my guidebook, open at the page describing the trek to the Lost City, and fixing a probing glare directly at me said:
“I see that in your passport you have visited Colombia on several occasions, and that you speak Spanish almost fluently. What exactly is it that you do here Señor McColl?”
“Yes, I have visited Choco, Nariño, Valle and the Pianguera communities in the pacific.”
Idiotic. The only word that can possibly describe the lunacy of telling him that I had visited regions distributed violently between right-wing paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, the Government and opportunistic cartels. His eyebrows arched in surprise; perhaps he noted the foolishness of my statement. I was the Prize…he thought he had me. He thumbed the pages in my passport more deliberately, multiple entry and exit stamps from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and across Central America.
Nodding an affirmation to the other guard, the two of them set about checking above the external lintels of the windows, behind the plumbing of the shower, places that I had not even thought of checking upon entering the room. I had heard about set ups and the like, but I realised at this moment, if there was anything planted in here, these men would find it.
Picking up my discarded shirt, the Chief held it close to his nose and sniffed. “So you smoke.”
“This smells of smoke, you are a marijuanero.”
To him, I must have seemed in an altered state. Such was the change of climate from the spring-like Bogotá to the concrete sauna of this Santa Marta hotel room, I was suffering. To add to this I had barely slept the night before having spent most of the evening in Escobar y Rosas, a bar in the capital. Bags under my eyes, sweating and in an unimaginable lethargy, I cut the perfect image of a stoner. But, I could hardly believe that he was smelling my rum, sweat and smoke scented T-shirt from last night. Oh yes, I was the Prize.
In my quest for transparency, I sought to ease my way out of an increasingly fraught situation. The questions were coming thick and fast and I began to fear that should the soldiers not find any loot that, having spent so much time on this case, they would make it worth their while with a bribe or an addition to my belongings that would leave me hopelessly stranded and floundering in a tropical cell.“I was in Guapi, Buenaventura, and Tumaco while researching for an NGO.”
He remained unimpressed.
“I was looking into sustainable practices and reforestation efforts as well as having the opportunity to view the nesting habits of the incredible sea turtles that make their home at Sanquianga National Park.” I thought that by throwing out some specifics, he might start to take me seriously. Was I mistaken, or did his eyes lose a shade of their degree of inquisition and disapproval and register some interest?
“And you saw the Green turtle?”
“Yes I saw a mother drag herself onto the beach and lay her eggs, it was breathtaking.”
The Chief smiled, “I too have been there, and it is a thing of beauty.” He stood up from the chair in the corner. Puffing out his chest, “in Colombia, we have so much more than cocaine to offer.” This statement came more as a reprimand than an observation. “We have the most amazing jungle and those turtles get to be this big, “he moved his arms, linked them in a hoop demonstrating the size of a fully-grown Green Turtle.
“I am glad you have come to see this side of things, what else do you know? The women?” he leered. “The rolas, the paisas and the costeñas?”
Running with the bit, I could see my exit…
“My heart is broken every day by a Colombiana,” he seemed pleased with this statement, but I was eager to move off the subject in case he started recommending local bordellos. “I am planning on hiking to the Lost City in the next few days.”
“This is one of the most unforgettable experiences in Colombia; you will see remarkable bird life, beautiful jungles, the indigenous people and the ruins of a great empire. My Colombia is very special in that she has everything.”
The Chief continued for a further 5 or 6 minutes, becoming more and more enthusiastic as he spoke of the wonders of his country. He picked up my guidebook and flicking through the section on “his” Colombia dog-eared many of the pages detailing places where he felt I should spend time and if I had already been there, where I should spend more time. Incredibly, he stopped just short of writing down his family’s address should I need any further assistance.
He smiled, we shook hands and the Requisa Policial was over.
Almost unbelievable, but it did happen. A learning experience.
As James A Michener put it in “The Drifters”…”a young person’s years of indecision were not wasted if they provided thinking space fortified by relevant data, even though some of the latter might not be understood at the moment, so that when the lucky moment of inspiration struck, it found tinder to ignite…”
So, despite possibly being a set up for a drugs bust in Santa Marta I would return to that steaming city. The Chief was presumably acting on a tip-off.
Passing by the front desk on my way to meet Alejandra for that drink, I asked as to the frequency of these room searches.
“Oh yes, the last one happened ten years ago.”
“And they found..?”
“Cocaine, hand grenades, guns,” he shrugged.
Perhaps this sequence of events, brought about by frivolous hindsight from a direct question could be my tinder to ignite? Certainly I am a drifter but not “on a hippie trail, head full of zombie” (yes, it’s from Men at Work). I am a well-versed bum, arrogantly proficient in convincing myself of my duty to be on the road. A sense of belonging, a feeble justification, but a justification all the same.
Back to my audience. Their eyes remained on me while mine flicked around the table…” I later learnt, from a key member of a bird protection NGO on a trip to Kaieteur, that the trees had been removed from the Georgetown gardens due to the alarming number of venomous snakes that had taken to nesting there. There was a fear that this would discourage tourists from going there during the Cricket World Cup in 2007. By felling the trees and cutting back the shrubbery, the deadly creatures were either killed or sought refuge elsewhere, presumably in the crawl spaces and yards of neighbouring domiciles.”
Polite laughs and the conversation moves on.
The tales of a well-versed bum.