kpetunia.com -> road stories -> south america = Burned Out in Paradise

¨I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superhuman abundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.¨ -Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

In February 2004 I flew to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and travelled overland by bus, foot and boat to Cartagena, Columbia. The trip lasted 8 months.

These are the newsletters I wrote along the way.

Starting from The End of the World...
I overdosed on orcas...
...travelled up the Rio Paraguay
only to land in a hammock with a cowboy in Brasil...
then tripped out on Bolivia...
and marvelled at market savvy Peru...
until I got to gorgeous Columbia, and left too soon.

__________________________

Hello! I am back in the United States.  

It happened suddenly. One day, I was on the triple border of Brasil, Colombia and Peru, waiting for the next boat to Manaus to come. I wanted to go to Manaus because it is an old rubber capital with an extinct opera house that has turned into something new and dead cities fascinate me. But I had been on the boat already for a week and the prospect of getting on the boat again was exhausting. So I thought maybe I would take the plane. My Brasil visa had expired so I needed a new one, which meant waiting for the Brasilian consulate to open again, which wasn't about to happen any time soon since it was Brasil day or Colombia day or triple border day or something so everyone was out drinking and dancing and not much interested in helping Americans with their visas for at least the next several days. I thought I would ride the Amazon River all the way to the sea, then double back up to French Guiana to get my visa for Suriname, then go to Suriname then fly back to the states to make some money for round two. But it all started to seem like a hard checklist that I needed to doggedly break down and accomplish instead of a  big fun adventure to live as it presented itself to me. Also, my money was almost completely gone. So I changed my plan.

I went to Cartagena, Colombia with the intention of making my way to some beautiful quiet tropical caribbean island to go diving for a week or two, turn brown, get strong, and then sail to Panama and then fly back to the states from there.  Cartagena was gorgeous. There were about 5 tourists there and about 500,000 tour guides ready and eager to offer their services to us.   

I went to the yacht club and drank beer and lemonade all day and met the local sailors and negotiated a passage to Panama in 3 days' time.  

This is something that happens all the time where ever you go travelling: Let's say that you want to go to Place A. You ask So and So if they will take you there. So and So says yes, absolutely, of course. You get in the boat or car or plane or on the horse and follow them. They take you to Place B instead. You say that you thought they were going to take you to Place A. Eventually, when it becomes clear that you are not going to see Place A, you express your confusion. They feign or express incomprehension of your original request and you blame it on your bad Spanish or think maybe Mercury is in retrograde or something like that. You make do and enjoy the visit to Place B, which usually turns out to be pretty spectacular. They thought you'd like it once you were there, so there are no apologies ever. It usually makes for a good story no matter what.  

This time, Place A was an island about 45 miles off the coast of Cartagena with a theoretical hostel where I could hang my hammock for a few bucks a night, go diving in the clear blue sea for $15 a dive, and eat lobster until it came out of my ears.   

Getting there was a challenge.  There were zillions of ginormous shiny boats with really loud stereo systems and oodles of liquor on tap heading out towards Place A but they  creep along banging out cumbia music at top volume and visit about a dozen little tropical souvenir shops on islands and a dolphin show on the way. I hate dolphin shows and I hate tropical souvenir shops even more. I tried to bypass the stops by finding a water taxi in the market on the other side of the city away from all the fancy party boats but they only leave every now and then at 5 am and 5 am always manages to foil me. So then I went to the rundown part of the party boat section and talked to the drivers about taking me directly to my spot. One of them said they would take me there, no dolphin show required, no souvenir stops along the way.   

A few hours later, I found myself standing at the edge of the dock at the island that hosts the dolphin show, not even swimming distance to my desired destination.   

I burst into tears.  

I stood there with my back to the entrance of the dolpin show glaring out at the gorgeous aqua sea dotted with tiny islands here and there, tears pouring down my face absolutely miserable and embarrassed to be so miserable. Beautiful tropical island guys came up to me from behind with black pearl necklaces piled up and down their arms, plates of lobster for sale, giant conch shells, and I would turn around and crucify them with my best medusa stare until they backed off. I had had enough of Plan B.  

Eventually we made it to the island I wanted to be on but the boat guy did not know about any hammock place. He dropped me at an old resort that cost $35 a night. The owner of the resort told me diving cost $170 for two dives. I flopped down on a beach chair and stared out at the sea. It was cloudy. I was the only tourist there, so all the local guys came around with their hand carved coconut chachkas and pearl necklaces, octopus ceviche and bead bracelets and lingered around me waiting for my eyes to fall on their goods. I figured out how many meters my eyes could fall from their goods before they approached me. About two. It reminded me of being chased around by Quechua women wielding genuine alpaca goods and woven things inside a fenced in enclosure that housed a few 3000 years old pieces of rubble on the island of the moon on lake titicaca. That was where I figured out how to say, "I am as tight as a duck's ass," in Spanish to explain my relationship with chachka consumption.  

The next day, I decided to go for a walk before leaving on the next big tourist boat that was going to come by. Every five minutes or so, a different cute island guy would come out of the forest and offer to be my guide and take me to this or that really cool place. I was all used up and out of sorts so I either ignored them or said no real surly-like. One especially beautiful man approached me and offered to be my guide. I said, "NO. I don't want your services. And even if I did, I would be able to afford them because everything is so goddamn expensive here and I already spent all of my money staying in that stupid moldy old room and eating 3 day old fish." He said, "It doesn't have to be expensive here. There is a place on the other side of the island where you can live in a hammock for $4 a night. There is plenty of fish and lobster and rice cooked in coconut milk to eat and that is very cheap, too. I will take you there in my canoe right now if you like. I know everyone is always after money but I don't care about money; I just wanted to go for a walk with you because you are beautiful." He was a beautiful beautiful man. I just glared at him and said I didn't believe him and that's what they all said and stalked back to my beach chair to sulk at the sea some more. He stood at the fence and smiled at me all day long.  We road away from the island and all of those boys just stood there on the docks watching us go and I knew it was time for me to change channels because obviously this one was coming in real staticky for me.  Any fool knows that when the beautiful man comes up to you and offers to take you to the hammock place in his canoe you get in the goddamn boat with him. Or you might as well just stay home and watch TV.  

The sailboat going to Panama had engine trouble. Who knew when the next one would come. I went to the internet cafe and looked up plane ticket prices and tried to figure out what to do. I turned around to buy a coffee and the coffeeshop girl was wearing a shirt that had the Golden Gate Bridge silkscreened on it. It was good to see that bridge. So I bought a plane ticket to California and spent the next 24 hours walking around Cartagena. Gorgeous sexy couples samba danced in nightclubs in Cartagena, street vendors squeezed mandarin juice and lemonade for those of us sweating on the streets. I walked around numb, wondering what it would be like to be back in the states.   

On the way out, I visited a witch in Bogota and told her I had mal de gente. She gave me a rattlesnake rattle, a bottle of mercury and a cross in a little green bag. I tucked it in my bra and flew away.  

Landing has been difficult. I thought it would be easier this time. America is fast and complicated and clean and friendly and fearful and fattening. I am living on an earthquake fault, feeling a bit jumpy, clutching my map of the world reciting, "Peninsula Valdez, Suriname, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, New Zealand, India," like a mantra. Eating lots of salmon and peaches and almonds, basking in the love and warmth of friends and family, trolling in the mission for some latino lovin' to keep my mojo nice and fluffy and blasting forro out of my new truck loud enough for a boatload of Colombians to dance to from across the freeway.  

I'll be here until November 3. I have a new cell phone number and a new to me Toyota truck but no home. Drop me a line or give me a call! I would love to hear from you! 1-415-847-7295.  Love Kat

Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?

Hmm, let's see...I want to...

Play with orcas...
Float up the Rio Paraguay...
Dance the Forro...
Learn 10 reasons why Bolivians are the weirdest people in the world...
Float through the jungle...
Find a tropical island paradise...

None of the above. I am too busy for that crap. And I think it is time for you to get a real job, Katherina.

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