You both wake up again in Cartagena and have planned to leave this historical city early in this morning. Backpacks are on and it is only a short walk to reach the street for the city bus which will take you to the terminal. Lines of yellow taxis offer to take you there but you decide that though the bus will take longer, it will take you to see the side of the city where tourists don’t usually go. A ‘fare collector guy’ who helps the driver shouts “Terminal !” and with “muchas gracias” you hop aboard the nearly empty bus and settle yourselves and your packs into the rear bench seat. From there you’ll have a perfect view of everyone and everything. This bus, red and green and yellow on the outside, is trimmed with violet, fringed valances all around the inside. It has been well-used. Local radio blasts from the speakers and its just a moment before someone else hails the bus… a wirey older fellow, skin like chocolate leather, with a sack of watermelons bigger than he is, and a sack of potatoes too. Then a little darling in pink ribbons and back pack holding tightly to her dad and clearly on their way to school (another story to tell one day). They smile broadly and choose the seat in front of you. The bus lurches along, all doors open, rickety and loud through the narrow streets, almost clipping those on the sidelines, picking up others, through the market with its stalls of fish, stalls with heaps of raw meat and vegetables, stalls with running shoes, rope, tin pots and pans, CDs and colored scarves. Your partner has a small video camera and is filming the passing scene through the open bus door, including the police officers in florescent green vests who are scanning for any monkey business in the market.They see the video camera and hammer on the side of the bus. One of them shoves his head and shoulders into the rear door of the bus, right where you are sitting and orders the camera away. He demands to know why you are not in a taxi. You try to explain as best you can that you are only going to the terminal for a bus out of town. He stalls a minute and you think he is going to order you off the bus right there! Everyone on the bus is now paying attention to you, as if they weren’t already, and is wondering what he will do. He shakes his head, narrows his eyes, bangs his fist on the back of a seat and hollers to the driver up front “Just get them to the terminal !!” The bus lurches forward and you can tell your partner has already decided that he will not video the police officers here again. (Which may be difficult, as they seem to be present every five-hundred feet)
The bus moves on past an endless string of houses each with a small patch of beaten dirt at the front, tell-tale patches of paint on their concrete walls. Gnawed foundations and frayed, wavy-fiberglass roofs. Here and there someone has set up a crate at the roadway to sell some passerby a bit of chewing gum, soap, a slice of mango or an orange. At the terminal many others want to guide you toward your new bus, just to earn a few cents.
You’re now on your new bus, an air-conditioned one with cushiony seats that recline, on your way to the seaside town of Tolu on the Caribbean. The highway runs along the coast. Lots of work is being done to the roads, so despite the fancy bus, the ride is not smooth. You think to yourself that that maybe the work should be done on those houses instead. You pass through plantations of bananas, rice and other things. Every once in a while there is another string of houses many of which are made of mud and sticks. Some are of concrete blocks and painted in fruit colors … melon, lime, strawberry and that. All are near the roadway, presumably to access the electricity poles there. The day’s laundry is strung out on the barbed wire fences, flapping in the noise and dust as we go by. You wonder if these families all work for the big Chiquita company. Probably. You have noticed big, red brick haciendas surrounded by palm trees on the hillside every so often. You hope that the families in the mud huts have enough food and schools for the kids. Their homes are gathered together, so they’ll have a community. You slide past in the bus on your way to the seaside. ABBA’s ‘Fernando’ is playing on the sound system. You promise you will do more. For now, you will be kind and generous. Remember last night when you googled ‘human rights in Colombia’ and the computer made a funny kind of beep and the connection mysteriously disappeared? Now you are spooked.
You reach the seaside village and thankfully it is not a rich place or you might not be able to handle it. It is the off-season and lots of shops and restaurants are closed and everyone is moving slowly. It is a place of normal people trying to make a living … including the strapping young fellow who picks you up at the bus station and takes you to your hostel on his bicycle taxi. He uses all of his muscles to carry both of you and the gear. The narrow streets are dusty sand. Sweaty and smiling he pulls up to the gate of the hostel where a sweet young woman waits to open it. She shows you to your upstairs room, windows are wide open, curtains dancing in the sea breeze. There is a promenade along the water, fishing boats have been pulled up on shore, palm trees are swaying and the sun is setting over the Caribbean. You feel so very fortunate.