Searching For Stories (And Vacation) In Cartagena, Colombia

David Farley

I had come to Colombia to write – or at least I had hoped. But on my third day, I was sitting in the bar of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel sipping mojitos spiked with lulo juice, one of the many exotic fruits found here, and all I could write about in my notebook was that I had nothing to write about. A friend of a friend who works at this hotel found me a guy here who takes care of a toucan. But that wasn’t the story I was hoping to write.

It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there’s no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.I thought I’d be an old-school journalist (or just a journalist) and come here and sniff out a story, come upon something unique and interesting that would lead me to smoky clubs, inside the cars of strangers going god knows where, or to parts of town I would have never stumbled upon. So I strolled the streets of this handsome seaside colonial town. I was unprepared for the bold sun and, as a result, my face turned a severe red by the second day, prompting locals to call out “Rojo!” as I walked by. I was a different kind of gringo here – the dumb kind – opting to wear jeans instead of shorts and a black button-down shirt instead a light T-shirt, because where I come from only the tourists wear shorts.

I went to the Convent Santa Cruz de la Popa, to the fortress, and I walked the walls around the old town. I talked to restaurant owners and chefs, all of whom reminded me how much safer it is here now, which was great but reminded me that I needed to find a fresher angle, one that didn’t involve the travel publication clichés in the headline, “The New Cartagena” or, my favorite, “Cartagena Reborn,” as if somehow an entire city was reborn and we barely knew about it.

One day I took a boat out to one of the Rosario Islands. As I was traipsing off the boat, I was immediately accosted by options: scuba diving, mountain biking, a trip to an aquarium – all potential stories. But as I scanned the tourists relaxing on the beach next to the teal-colored sea, I had a realization: maybe I just need a vacation. Travel writers need a vacation, too, and, when I thought about it, I’d pretty much been doing tourist stuff all along. I haven’t traveled anywhere without an assignment in maybe a decade and perhaps the subconscious voices in my head were telling me to relax a bit.

Instead of the options that were presented to me on the island, I put my notebook away and I planted myself under a palapa. I ordered a mojito and pulled out the Joan Didion book in my bag and began reading.

Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

Student Travel Writing Contest Offers $500 For Best Essay Of Student Life Abroad

Travel Writing ContestAre you a student who is aspiring to be a travel writer? Now’s your chance to strut your stuff and perhaps win $500.

Transitions Abroad has announced their 2013 Travel Writing Contest. It’s billed as “the only student travel writing contest to cover studying, working, interning, volunteering and living abroad.”

The contest is open to all “currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, students who have graduated within the past year, and students currently on leave from school.” The judges want to see essays of 1,000-2,000 words that offer solid advice for adjusting to student life overseas. Check out their guidelines carefully before putting pen to paper.

First prize is $500; second prize is $150; third prize is $100; and runners-up get $50. All get published in “Transitions Abroad” print and webzine. Deadline is April 15.

It’s always a good idea to check out what won in the past. Last year’s winner was “A Foreigner in the Middle Kingdom: Living, Working, and Studying in China.” My personal favorite was the practical and insightful “A High School Summer in Egypt Studying Arabic: Practical Advice and Tips.”

Thanks to the excellent online writing newsletter Writing World for bringing this to my attention. Check out their site for tons of free advice of value to aspiring and experienced writers.

[Photo courtesy Sarah Rose]

The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]