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.