In the dream, we keep leaving but we never get anywhere. In the dream, Melissa and I load up the car and we pull out of the driveway. There’s a cutscene and we’re in the Port of Tacoma in the near dawn and she asks me to get out. There’s another cutscene and I’m running alone through the port, barefoot now. I’m sprinting for the water’s edge. Airborne, windmilling towardthat polluted water, stained a baby blue by the morning sky. I ploosh into it and I’m deep down beneath it and Melissa is calling to me from the surface and when I dig my way back to it, I’m in the living room and Melissa is telling me I need to load the car. That we need to go. In the dream, we do it all over again.
Dreams like that change the way you see the world when you really do come to the surface. Sitting in the car on the freeway bound for the airport, waiting for the cutscene that will leave you barefoot running for open water. There is no cutscene. Just you and your wife and the road and a plane and new cities and new beds. Just travel and all the ways it wears you down and polishes you up.
We’re going to Cartagena, Colombia. One of those trips that fights its way to fruition at the end of a Northwestern winter. The clouds like a Tupperware lid, sealing in the darkness, the moisture. Sealing out the sun. Just a rippled sheet of foamy grey and the maddening drizzle going tick-tick-tick in the gutter. Three months of it and you think, sunshine. I. Need. Sunshine. But then, once all the planning is done and the arrangements have been made, it’s almost spring. The flowers are blooming and the temperature is crawling towardtolerable and Colombia feels like a long way away. Trip Advisor posts about robberies. Just the word Colombia on your lips gets strangers’ eyebrows jumping. But the tickets are already bought. Confirmation emails received. It might be a hectic trip and could be a dangerous trip, but it would definitely NOT be a refundable trip, so we were definitely going.
We slog our way through cruise season security at the airport, punch a bunch of caffeine and airport food into our faces and Alaska Airlines flings us across the country to Fort Lauderdale.
There is food that night, found hastily, walked to confusedly and shoveled exhaustedly. There is a brief trip along the canal in the perfect night air with the boat lights shimmering on the placid water and the smell of seawater on the merciful breeze. And yet, even when it’s pleasant, even with a mouthful of salty pork, or beer bubbles tickling my nose, even in twinkling lights with a sea breeze at my back, there is that feeling of disconnection. That vague sense of unrealness. Of running barefoot on a loop. That night we drift off to a fitful sleep in the semi-darkness. Late into the night, the sounds of Saturday night mayhem and youth in all its indecipherable wildness.
The next morning finds me wandering the streets in search of coffee. It’s too early again, and again I didn’t sleep well. I live a life of cutscenes. Up and down the street, trying doors, shuffling down the way. Starbucks in my hand. Starbucks in my mouth. We call an Uber to get us to the airport for the second leg of our flight. A man named Jeff whips a red Lexus around the corner and for all the moments between him opening his mouth to greet us and him screaming out his window at the airport, he is an East Coast Angel with a solid cheese halo.
He asks us all about our evening, points out some of the local attractions as they slip past the windows, New Jersey thick in his voice. My boilerplate question about best places to eat in his city elicits an extremely non-boilerplate answer.
“My buddy Brent owns the best Italian place in the city,” he says. He’s reaching for something in the center console. “Mention my name at the register and receive an appetizer valued at $18.99 free of charge.”
And I start to laugh, as he hands me a business card for the Italian place with his name in Sharpie on the back.
He sounds like Joe Pesci when he says it and even though he’s hustling at me, shamelessly, it’s not off-putting. We talk about Colombia with him. Tell him it’s not as dangerous as it used to be. That there’s peace, more or less, there now. He nods his head, but he’s not assuaged. Tells me to keep an eye on my valuables.
Say, “I’m going to keep my phone in my front pocket. I figure if someone manages to sneak something out of my front pocket without me noticing, then they earned it.”
He likes that. At the airport, we thank him and tip him. We’re walking to the security line and his voice goes booming through the terminal, Joe Peschi on a bullhorn. “YOUR PHONE‘S IN YOUR BACK POCKET!” He’s screaming through his passenger window. “WATCHOUT!”
Another airport, more caffeine and calories on the end of a tamp. We board a small, old plane with creaky seats and scuffed overhead bins. There are TVs on the backs of the seats that might as well have glass tubes in them. They flicker in and out in turbulence. I am squished into yet another center seat beside yet another gargantuan man. Like many of the discomforts of adult life, it’s no one’s fault and there’s nothing to be done about it. After a brief and sobering delay involving a stewardess with a family emergency that was most likely far more pressing than middle seats or spotty television, the pilot guides us to the runway and flings us across an ocean to Colombia.
We skate over a sheet of clouds that mostly covers Cuba and Jamaica, start to spiral down to Cartagena, through the fluff to the country below. Holding onto our armrests listening to the old plane groan and rattle, the giant to which I am stuck turns to us and says, “First time in Colombia?” He says it in Spanish and Melissa gathers it up carefully and tells him it is.
“It‘s very nice,” he says. “Be smart. Take off your watch. Don’t walk around on your phone. Don’t keep your wallet on you. Keep bills loose in your pocket.” He mimes pulling a wallet stuffed with cash out of his pocket, pretends to sort through imaginary money, wags his finger at us.
“Don’t do that,” he says. He takes a pull from the plastic cup of whiskey that he filled from a bottle that he took out of a duty-free bag, says, “Don’t buy anything. It’s all fake.”
We nod like disciples and the plane makes a sound like OOF coming down on the ground in a whole new world. “Have a good time,” he says.
Stepping off the plane is like stepping into soup. There are clouds overhead, but neither of us is upset about it because they protect us from this foreign sun that made the earth so hot. The sounds of car horns and alien birds. The vague pangs of apprehension.
I am awake.
Customs gives us a cursory jostling and then releases us into the world. At the curb in front of the airport we hail a cab, agree to pay him 3 or 4 dollars for the 15 minute ride from the airport and then he lurches off the curb with us, tearing through the streets of Cartagena. The traffic is a tornado that has passed over a junkyard and we are in the grip of it. Our driver flicks at the gear shift, spins the wheel. He honks the horn for everything and for nothing. It is a greeting and a warning. Here, you hear horns that are so worn out they hardly make a noise anymore. A hoarse hooting beneath a battered hood. People step out into the streets on 8 lane roads, froggering past busses, between bumpers. On two separate occasions, I see people texting while driving a motorcycle helmetless. Our driver drifts between lanes, honking all the while. He veers around a man pushing a cart full of mangos in the street, forces a motorcycle between two busses. The cycle honks. The busses honk. The mango cart pusher whistles like a train horn, drowns them all out. We slip past squat houses with wrought iron gates. We hurtle by concrete tenement buildings with laundry drying on the balconies. Massive palms, dogs and cats all in a blur beyond those smudged cab windows. We pull up at the hotel, sweating from the heat and from the ride. He takes our money and lurches off into the fray, again.
The concierge at the hotel buzzes us through a gate into the lobby and we drop all of our needy luggage in the sparkling oasis of air conditioning and silence that is our room. The sheets are white and the tiles on the floor are sandy blocks with seashells pressed into them. There’s a TV on the wall and a pool on the roof and we’ve had a long day.
“So,” Melissa says, “What do you want to do?”
Outside, there is a man screaming sweet nothings about the mangos on his cart. A flock of alien birds rip past the window.
“Let’s go out there.”
May 13th, 2018. You fire “Restaurants” into the search bar of Yelp, “Cartagena, Colombia” into the location and the mighty Goliath of half-assed evaluations from underqualified users heaves a sigh and falls silent. No suggestions, No reviews. Google offers some help and TripAdvisor has some advice, but ‘comprehensive’ is not a word that I would use to describe them. Footpaths in a vast forest. Aerial imagery over deep woods. We do our best. The hotel burps us through its gates and we point ourselves in what we hope is the right direction and walk.
Wide-eyed through bustling streets with narrow sidewalks choked with people. Houses like a pastel crayon box with flags spread out between them. A man wants to sell us a hat. A lone dog barking at an iguana, who doesn’t seem very concerned about it. Out of our neighborhood beyond a park and a tangled mass of traffic We find the entrance to the walled city. It was built in the 1500’s by the Spanish to keep pirates out. 20 feet thick in some places, bristling with old cannons that point out to the ocean. Within those walls, streets like spaghetti on a plate, designed by military engineers to disorient any invaders who actually managed to make it ashore. Your sightlines are limited to the end of whatever block you’re on. Streets meander north and then wander their way back around to the east.
There are no spaces between the buildings, no vantage point to get your bearings. Fortunately for us, pirates have become far less of a bother, and so the security is a bit more relaxed. The government ordered that all the buildings be painted a variety of colors (which helps with the feeling of claustrophobia) and now there are landmarks abound. We zig and zag our way past businesses and restaurants full of colorful goods and memorable features. 10-foot tall doors with lion’s head knockers and courtyards bursting with tropical fauna. A bar named KGB with a Russian flight suit in the window and a massive pastel cathedral. All little pins on a winding map and by the end of the day, I can look at a spot on an aerial photo of the city and navigate us there without consulting it again. We arrive at a place on the north end of the walled city called Quero Arepo, grab up seats by the door.
The waitress brings us laminated menus and Melissa orders eloquently in Spanish that she has worked for years to perfect. The waitress nods at her, turns to me and I sputter,
“I… Need… This…. One…” in a collection of broken syllables like a man who should have a bandage around his head. An amused smile splashes across her face and then a burst of language from which I pluck the word for “drink”.
“I…Need… This … One.” I point at a beer on the menu and if she wanted to, she could insist I was already drunk and ask me to leave and anyone who heard our little back and forth would have a really hard time persuading her that I wasn’t. Instead, she takes our menus and heads into the back.
“Quesiera.” my wife says through the palm over her face.
“‘Quesiera’ is a more polite way of asking for things in Spanish.” She says.
Dually Noted. The waitress brings the beer that I ‘needed’ and I gulp at it because it is cold and nothing else is. A breeze oozes in through the door. A horsedrawn carriage clomps up the street with a man giving a tour from behind the reigns of it. A few minutes later, our food comes out. It’s spectacular. Fried dough wrapped around a mound of chicken, beef, cheese, and avocado.
I moosh it into my face with the same grace I used to order it. The salt and the fat and the tang of it. The crunch and the chew and the soft of it. I am present for every bite. For every step along the streets. For every word past my lips. For the wind on my skin at the top of that ancient wall. For the sunset over the Caribbean. I am awake. No cutscenes. No loops. Just a notebook in my back pocket and a whole new city to fill it with.