I told a close friend I was planning to travel to Cartagena, Colombia with Alex, my seventeen year-old daughter during her February school break and his crystal blue eyes widened.
"What?? They kidnap people down there."
Others replied in similar incredulous tones.
My daughter's French teacher even had the gall to scold her for our chosen destination.
"Why are you going there?" she demanded to know. "If you want a sunny beach vacation you should go to the Caribbean," apparently not understanding that Cartagena was on the Caribbean.
Safety is an illusion had become my post-9/11 mantra. I dismissed the nay-sayers as ignorant Americans (Or French. Who knew?) too preoccupied with clinging to the illusion of safety to seek out the wonders the world promised. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town of Cartagena was a lovely and perfectly safe place, I reasoned, recommended by a good friend from Bogotá. She assured me we'd be safe, as did her mother, a cosmopolitan woman who traveled often to London and Miami for her import-export business and another friend who had lived in Bogotá for 14 years with her Colombian husband.
Besides, I wasn't a neophyte to "dangerous" travel. Yeah, okay, I wasn't Robert Young Pelton but I often camped alone in the wilds and had traveled to Nairobi and Mexico City, two cities not particularly known for ensuring safe passage to tourists. The pinnacle of my intrepid (or unwise?) adventures was the month I spent in southern Sudan, a war-ravaged expanse of earth where poisonous snakes, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, battled-harden soldiers with wayward AK47s, and not so wayward government bombs were a valid concern.
Three days before departing for South America, I finally got around to checking the travel advisories on the U.S. State Department website.
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the dangers of travel to Colombia. Violence by narcoterrorist groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country, urban and rural." Standard governmental cautionary language. Yet further digging revealed that U.S. citizens were more likely to be kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country, apart from Iraq.
In the smog of my late-night web browsing, I wondered if I had overplayed the cultural justification for this holiday. It wasn't just my safety I had to consider but my daughter's, as well. Referring to my Sudan trip, a college friend had admonished me for my adventurousness, or what he considered outright foolishness, "No need for you getting stupid and pulling a stunt like that again," he wrote in an email message. "You have a daughter to think about."
Indeed, I did. So I laid down the rules. She was to stay by my side at all times. She must remain alert while we walked through town and, without question, she needed to do exactly as I told her. She rolled her eyes. Lastly, she was strongly advised to leave her bangles, baubles and bad attitude at home.
Pulling up to JFK for our cold-ass 6 a.m. departure, she collected her bags from the cab's trunk.
"I'm going inside," she announced and hustled her lithe frame toward the automatic doors.
"I want to get away from you while I have the chance."
I prefer small, locally operated inns to chain hotels but I had decided to splurge on a well-known resort so we would be safe, or could feel safe. When the elderly taxi driver deposited us at the entrance of the Hotel Santa Clara, a former nun's convent, my decision was validated.
An armed security guard and a smartly dressed bellhop greeted us warmly at the doorway. The large wooden doors were thrust open to reveal a lobby paved in well-worn terra cotta tiles, and beyond, a magnificent courtyard with palm trees and colonial archways.
Each morning after a poolside breakfast we weaved through the narrow brick streets and shaded plazas of the old town. Except for a group of U.S. consulate officers dining at our hotel, we didn't see other Norte Americanos, as I heard one group of men call us, and that was both a source of relief and disquiet. Initially, I was wary of what we'd encounter as a mother and daughter traveling alone and how we might be perceived given the "ugly American" stigma that weighs on most American travelers so I adopted a serious countenance and kept Alex close. But within a day of roaming the ancient city I felt completely safe.
The Colombians we met exuded a reserved friendliness. While I found a readiness to help if we asked, there was a certain comfort in their languid attitude. Not regarded as intruders or targets, we were simply left alone to uncover the city's culinary and historic treasures. The colonial plazas reminded me of Madrid yet Cartagena possessed a foreignness of people and cityscape I found mesmerizing.
Seems the city wasn't the only thing radiating. At every turn, young men shot Alex-- my blue-eyed, fair-skinned beauty-- admiring glances. Such benign attention was a healthy contrast to the perplexing indifference she encountered from her male peers back home.
Three nights after our arrival, we dined outside at an Argentinian restaurant in the park near our hotel. Though small in scale, the Plaza San Diego emitted a carnival atmosphere. Afro-Caribbean dancers teased the dining crowds. A trio of elderly caballeros strummed their guitars. Peddlers walked from table to table politely hawking their goods.
One of them, a striking young man, with short, light brown hair and wide-set blue eyes waited for my nod before he approached.
"Come se llamo?" I asked.
"Christian," he replied, his mouth breaking into a broad, disarming smile. He was built like a soccer player, short and sinewy. Two dozen woven belts hung across his torso. Strapped around a cardboard tube he displayed necklaces and bracelets hand-crafted from stones.
"Your daughter?" he asked, looking at Alex.
"Si," I nodded proudly.
"Muy bonita," he replied, rolling his eyes skyward in delight.
We purchased a couple bracelets and he moved on to the next table. After dinner, we walked toward the hotel and waved goodnight to Christian.
"Come with me," he commanded in accented English, motioning us down the quiet street toward the sea. Massive stone walls, called Las Murallas, surrounded the old town, separating land and water. People walked on the wall during the day but driving past the hulking stone on our arrival the taxi driver had warned us to stay away at night. "No lights. Dangerous."
Now the beguiling Christian was beckoning us toward the very spot the driver cautioned about.
"Bailer," Christian said, snapping his fingers and moving his hips. His English and my Spanish were limited but I understood pantomime and the voices and drums emanating from the wall certainly suggested people might be dancing. He was smiling and walking backward like a personal tour guide and I found that we were smiling and following him like the obliging tourists we evidently were.
"Is this okay?" Alex, always the sensible one, whispered. Her firm grip suggested some trepidation. I wasn't altogether certain but I felt fairly confident we might find something more magical than menacing at the end of the walk. So hands tightly clasped, we followed Christian down the darkening road.
As the street lights faded, the festive sounds intensified. Still holding hands, Alex and I walked up the ramparts next to a white-haired British couple. How bad could this be? The scene resembled a cross between a frat party and family day at the circus. About eighty people--bedazzled, bedraggled, toned, chubby, and in various stages of jolly, mingled and danced atop the stone wall. A young entrepreneur offered to take a photo of us holding his placid monkey.
"No gracias," I said, waving him away. But Christian raised his eyebrow in surprise and gave an encouraging nod. Cynically, I wondered whether he got a cut. No matter. Alex and I took turns playing tourist with the monkey and I gave the budding pimp ten pesos, the equivalent of $5. Normally, I'd sooner clean out my refrigerator than participate in such manufactured entertainment but the mélange of revelers, zoo animals and South American carnies was irresistible.
"Pic-ture?" Christian asked, gesturing for Alex and me to stand in front of the guard station. Oh, what the hell, I thought and I gave Christian my camera. So what if he takes off with it. I'd always have the image of my daughter and me laughing in the tropical night, as long as we didn't tumble off the two-story wall.
We landed at JFK at 10:30 p.m. and waited an hour for our luggage to arrive. It was midnight by the time we proceeded through customs and outside for a cab. A gust of cold snapped at my bare legs. I gave my jean jacket to Alex who was dressed in capris and a three-quarter length t-shirt. We piled into a yellow city cab, shriving and spent.
The driver was a slight Arab-looking man, probably late 50s. I gave him the precise address in Glen Head where we were staying with friends and asked how much the fare would be.
"Do you have directions?" he asked.
This kind of question infuriated me. It was like me asking my editor how an opening paragraph should read. And given the hour, my impatience was irrepressible.
"No. I don't." I barked. "That's your job."
He was still for a moment, and then he began to paw around the front seat whereupon he produced a small yellow book opened to a page and handed it back to me.
"$70." I read him the stated fare from JFK to Glen Head as well as the very brief directions: Long Island Expressway. East. I settled into a Zen-state of mutual dependence that shifted to irritation after we circled the whole of Long Island, entering and exiting expressways and speeding down deserted streets, and ultimately culminated into a near apocalyptic state two hours and a half-gas tank later when we made the last of three pit stops for directions.
"Okay. We're done," I said. "Let us out here."
I threw him $50 and grabbed our half-dozen bags from the back which Alex and I dragged to the storefront. I pulled on the door but it was locked. I walked over to the plexi-glass window.
"You guys closed?" I asked the clerk. "This cab driver has no idea where he's going." At this point, I saw no reason to conceal my exasperation.
"Hold on," he said.
When he unlocked the door to let us in, I caught a whiff of alcohol. He went back behind the counter and opened the cash register. I assumed he was closing out the cash drawer but when a customer came up to the window and asked for a pack of Camels, it dawned on me that this was the kind of neighborhood where, after a certain hour, convenience store clerks handed over cigs from behind bullet-proof glass.
"Can you call us a cab?" I asked the clerk. I took a firm and polite tone to obscure my creeping apprehension from both him and Alex. When he nodded, I noticed his eyes were blood shot. Shit. Was he high, too?
He picked up the phone and made a call. I could see his lips moving but I couldn't hear him over the pounding hip-hop music. He handed me the phone.
"Where you need to go?" the raspy male voice on the other end inquired. Glen Head I said. What if the clerk hadn't called a cab company but a homeboy instead? Already sleep-deprived and anxious, suspicion wasn't a stretch.
"Is this a taxi company?" I asked the raspy male voice.
"Yeah, we'll be there in twenty."
Limited options made me a believer.
"What's this street?" I asked the clerk, motioning to the boulevard in front of the store.
Maybe it was the Jamaican accent or his slurred speech but I didn't understand what he said. I asked again. His faced hardened and he repeated it with more volume and impatience. I still didn't understand but I moved away from the counter toward the doors. Subconsciously, I must have wanted an escape.
"Come over here," I waved for Alex to stand behind me. I stood facing the plate glass doors, the one jacked-up criminals sprayed with bullets on NYPD episodes. Looking out at the desolate street, it occurred to me that aside from being at a Hess gas station somewhere east of John F. Kennedy International Airport, I had absolutely no idea where we were. I switched my focus to the pale and shaky reflection which registered my disturbing thought: I am completely vulnerable here.
"Do you like coffee?" I suddenly asked the clerk. It felt like a desperate ploy to make nice with my captor.
"Why, you want some?" he asked, his voice now hospitable. Perhaps he caught a glimpse of the frightened woman, too.
"No. I have some from Colombia I was going to give you for letting us in."
"Nah, that's okay," he chuckled. "I can make you some if you want."
I declined and the room slipped into the comforting white noise of background radio and freezer hum.
Ten minutes later, a cab pulled up. The clerk came around to open the door.
"Here, let me help you," he insisted, carrying a duffel to the back of the cab.
"Thank you," I said. I looked him in the eyes and smiled in relief. "You're an angel."
It seems danger can be an illusion, too, on foreign soil or in our backyards. I was warned of Colombia's inherent risks, perhaps justifiably, yet the only time during the trip I felt in jeopardy was inside a Long Island gas station on our return.
Wendy Knight is an award-winning travel journalist who contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, and the Globe and Mail, among other publications. She is also a correspondent for ABC News Now and teaches for mediabistro.com.
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