Heat mixes with sewer gases as I finish fighting over the fare with a taxi driver. I find it surprising that I still live in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena has all the trimmings of a great tourist spot; all wrapped up in a pretty travel website, filled with vibrant Latin-Afro-Caribbean culture. Drumbeats and rapid-fire Spanish penetrate the air. Seafood is caught right off a fortress wall the Spanish built 300 years ago. Fishermen in wooden canoes with tattered sheets for sails are straight out of a scene from Hemingway´s Old Man and the Sea. Sipping cocktails at sunset from a former Spanish guard’s perch inspires even the most seasoned traveler. The glare of the sun on the ocean can only conceal the crime, poverty, and corruption for so long. The city’s barnacles start to cut and scrape at any long-term visitor’s feet.
In 2010, I arrived to Cartagena as a Peace Corps volunteer and never left. After working in all sort of schools and marrying a Colombian, I am still stricken by the co-existence of Cartagena’s beauty and filthiness. I have become transfixed on the whale and the drag of its barnacles. Its geographical and architectural splendor endure despite human failure. There have been seven mayors in the past eight years. Two were indicted on corruption charges, two were assigned by the president of Colombia to replace the jailed leaders, two completed full-terms and one passed away. During their reigns, the sewers pour straight into the bay where high-priced call-girls board luxury yachts. Rich and poor sectors, including the historic downtown, flood within five minutes of a downpour. School lunch programs have been cut. Teachers have gone on strike for not receiving salary increases ensured by federal law. Roads crumble and potholes shred tires. The beaches are washed away by currents and covered in plastic. A humpback whale can withstand 1,000 pounds of barnacles, but Cartagena has reached its weight limit.
As a foreigner, unable to participate in the political process, I guard my opinions and only reveal them to sympathetic students. My true outrage might alert immigration. Cartagena was a haven for poor farmers and townspeople. Many ran from the violence caused by territory wars between the subversive FARC, ELN, and paramilitary groups. Refugees of the civil war arrived whether Cartagena was equipped or not. In 30 years, the city has doubled its population from roughly 500,000 to 1,000,000 residents. The government doesn’t need a gringa rousing the populous.
Foreigners are already scrutinized favorably by narcos and unfavorably by authorities. Ninety percent of “Locked Up Abroad” episodes on Nat Geo is about foreign drug mules getting caught by Latin American police. Even the shrewdest get lured by money and thrills. The good news is I´ve never been offered any kind of drug in Cartagena and I´ve only seen the outside of the women’s jail. It is hard to miss being that it is right next to Plaza San Diego, a great place to eat and buy local handicrafts. My male friends indicate that machismo is the reason for my drug naivety. They´ve all been offered drugs while perusing the Spanish colonial streets. Male dominance has its advantages. Men carry heavy bags, open doors, drive women home, and pay for dinner, so it makes sense that only men would buy drugs too. On this front, I am thankful that feminism is being ignored.
I would love to believe that drugs are only being sold to the party guy from Bogotá and backpackers who think doing Colombian cocaine would be as cool as smoking a Cuban cigar in Havana. However, the presence of the FBI, DEA, and US Border Patrol shows drugs are in great supply and they are exported from Cartagena. After meeting some of the agents and learning about security and inspection protocols at the main port, I was told that drug trafficking is in full swing and my Colombian and US taxes are paying for its enforcement. As a US citizen,
understand the importance of the job while being skeptical of the results. Colombia’s
cocaine production is at its highest in history meeting the American and
European demand of pure snow.
At the airport, drugs become real for me and I witness my tax dollars at work. Every time I fly to the US, the counter agent reminds me that dogs will be sniffing my bags. Then in security, a Policía Nacional detective assigned to detect mules, asks me why I was in the country. I fear someone secretly deposited narcotics into my luggage. Fortunately, the detective always lets me through, but I often see Colombians and foreigners being taken to a private room for questioning. Some I see at the gate; some I do not.
As I witness the mistakes only humans can make: corruption, drug trafficking, pollution, my silence can only be broken by only one thing: stupid Americans. Not so long ago, while eating in a little pizzeria near my house, five big, white, sunburned, and very drunk Americans stumbled in. They all wore Panama Jack hats, black concert t-shirts, long cargo shorts, and white sneakers. They slurred their speech and spoke as if they were joking around in high school Spanish class. The fattest guy groaned that his whore was too expensive, and he couldn’t believe he paid 250 bucks. He dragged out every little detail about his sexual encounter as I ground my pizza between my teeth. The biggest and loudest one looked down upon their Colombian sex-tour guide and pushed his finger into his chest asserting, “Next time, cheaper putas!” The guide nervously backpaddled into my table and spilled my soda. There was no apology by anyone. A young waitress ran over to wipe up the mess and the drunken leader spits out, “nice ass! How much?” At that moment, my silence broke.
I marched over to the ugly Americans’ table. I shouted with my pointer finger in the air, “you are an embarrassment to the United States of America! How in the hell could you talk about being with prostitutes in a family place? You all disgust me. You are the reason why so many people hate Americans.” My self-preservation kicked in: I paid the bill and ran. I wasn’t followed.
I would never recommend doing what I did. It was foolish and hotheaded, besides my words fell on deaf ears. However, there comes a time when we all crack; when silence ends, and rage emerges. I listen to Colombians tell me their frustrations about their city’s current state and future. I needed to tell my fellow countrymen mine. Societal, economic, and governmental barnacles create drag on Cartagena. The drag of tourism that will soon bring the great city of the sea to a halt. A beautiful whale pot marked by foreign greed, stupidity, and carelessness.