Cartagena, Colombia, is the city where the recent Secret Service prostitution scandal took place.
This is highly unfortunate for the city, because Cartagena has a rich maritime history involving trade, piracy, and the development of the Spanish empire. These highlights add extra dimensions to its otherwise flat (but well-deserved) reputation for prostitution.
Well-deserved? Well, in every nightclub we visited, half the time that we would chat with women, it wasn't clear if they were there for fun or if they were on the clock. This made finding love on any given evening a bit of a crap shoot. But otherwise it is a normal, beautiful city.
One night we decide to do the chiva bus, which is a party bus where they play live music and take you to different clubs and hot spots and they give you rum and coke and they get you all riled up. We go up to a mirador (scenic point) that overlooks the city and the cops follow us and I realize they are giving us an escort, apparently. We get out of the bus to enjoy the view and I inspect the crowd for cuties and I see one really pretty girl but she seems to be with her parents and boyfriend, and that was about it. At the mirador, overlooking the city, a man walked up with a sloth and offers to let me hold it and something magical happened. I held it with one arm and it wrapped its arms around me. I closed my eyes and could feel its breathing and mine. I could smell the animal, not a strong scent but distinct and earthy. And for a few moments I felt a strong sense of closeness and connection, a sense of simplicity and pureness that clues me in to how many of my friends, who are now parents, must feel when they hold their children.
It turns out, the sloth is my spirit animal.
We ended up at a dance club and the chiva bus abandoned us and we would have to find our own way home, which was fine because we are adventurers, especially of of the urban sort. Upon arriving at the final club, which was scenically located on the shore of the harbor, music was playing but no one was dancing. Being the adventurey type, I get out on the dance floor and dance by myself, and within a minute a few others come out, and then a few more, and next thing I know the whole place is shaking its booty. One girl comes up and insists on dancing with me, and we dance, but I just do my thing and enjoy myself and I notice that the girl from the mirador is watching me, so I get a drink and we make eyes and she walks over and somehow we are now dancing. I wonder about her boyfriend but I guess it's not an issue, so we keep on. She's lithe and energetic and in some moves I can feel the muscles in her back and in other moves I can feel her body pressed against me and then I remember how long it felt to be on that sexless boat and I realize that I really like Colombia.
We are dancing salsa but I don't know salsa so I dance fake salsa (the "falsa") and this is good enough at first but then she says, "Follow me," so I do, and then I am learning salsa and we are sweating and after a half hour of spins and hand-holding and synchronized hip gyrations, I insist that we chat, because while I may be bait out on the dance floor, words always supply my coup de grace. So we sit away from everyone else and I learn she's in college and she's traveling with her mother and her brother (!). Then she looks at me and tells me she was really shy coming up to me, she really liked how I got everyone out onto the floor, and then she looks down and she pauses and she says, also, that she feels shy because I'm really beautiful.
I'll never forget that moment.
I shift gears, realizing that it is AWN, and I sit closer and after chatting for a bit we start to connect, but it's not long before her mom comes along and I'm reminded of Dot Matrix from Spaceballs and her Virgin Alarm. Then I realize I'm being c*ckblocked by a mom and I feel like I'm in middle school. The mom is friendly but insists they all have to leave, which is fair — after all, every time we roll into a new city, I call out over the intercom, "Yarrrrr, take us to yer nightclubs and daughters!", so I suppose it's obvious that I present a clear and present danger. The girl, I'll call her Chastity, absolutely insists on giving me her number and they leave.
The next day I wait all day to call her because her English isn't great and my Spanish is impossible and anxiety takes over and I make rationalizations about why I won't like her and finally at four I say, "F*ck it," and with laptop and wifi I call her and she sounds excited to hear from me. At the end of her sentences her voice has an uptick that stomps on my heart with its adorableness, and she insists on meeting in an hour, her ardor coming through clear over the line.
I have a Diet Coke and take a cab to where her family is staying, the Edificio Nuevo Conquistador. When I arrive I call her using one of the llamadas (calls) men who sit around with a grip of cell phones and let you use them for a reasonable fee. She says her family is running late, eating, and to meet her in another hour. So I go for a walk, wondering what's going to happen. I walk up the beach and it's full of Colombian tourists sunbathing and splashing around and drinking in the sun and riding on rafts towed by jet-skis. About a half-hour in, I start to walk back and I'm on a peninsula, probably, and I walk to the other side and I see dark clouds approaching and dust clouds being blown across the harbor and a cold, sharp wind suddenly cuts through the heat and I realize I'm not going to make it back before the tormenta (storm) and I take cover.
While I stand under an awning, I think about the time in Caye Caulker, Belize, when I was to meet Beta for dinner and a storm came over and lashed the island and only when it subsided did a breathless calm take over that allowed us to find each other for our dinner and for the night and for the next few days. I wondered what this storm would herald, and I watched the streets flood and I watched the trees get blown sideways and I watched trash barrels get blown down the street and I watched a dinghy get tossed about on the open water and I figured this violence had to mean something. When the storm stopped, I walked for a bit but, lost and late, I hailed a cab and we rode through the water leaving a wake behind us all the way to the Conquistador.
I use the llamadas man again to call her and this time she comes down, cute as ever with her long, dark hair and her playful, searching energy. We go to a restaurant a block away and have drinks, we chat and her English is worse than I remember and I end up speaking a lot of Spanish, forming sentences in my head and translating them and using a dictionary and pushing myself more than I ever have before. (Later I would realize that this brief date leveled-up my Spanish, that going on dates with Spanish-speakers is probably the best way to learn.)
Her mom calls every twenty minutes, and she explains: her family is very protective of her because her father died piloting a commercial airliner that crashed. We enjoy chatting and drinking but, after an hour and a half, her mother meets us and seems friendly, again, and likely divines my intentions. Dot Matrix. We all go back to the Conquistador and her mom goes up while we say "Goodbye" in the lobby, but first we kiss and she says, "If you can get a room here..."
Yes, I can do that.
So I go over to reception but this isn't actually a hotel, it's apartments, so I can't check-in but I tell Chastity that I'll see what I can do locally and she goes up and I run across the street and I ask a man at the bar across the street where is a good hotel and he suggests the one next door and I run over there but it's full so I run down the street looking for more hotels but there are no other hotels so I run back and ask the man, Juan Carlos, what else is available and he thinks for a second and says he has five apartments in the Conquistador and he offers me one, 409, and I pretend to haggle but really I'm getting it and I take a taxi back to the hostel and I pick up my things and when I get back an hour later the llamadas man is still there and I call Chastity to tell her my room number but I get no answer and I leave a message and I go to my room and I wait for her and I'm up for a few hours but never do I get a knock on my door and I fall asleep.
The next day I wake up realizing my plan has failed, or at least has not worked yet, and I need to poop and there is no toilet paper in the bathroom and I search but there is also none in the entire apartment, and there's nothing resembling toilet paper and I didn't bring any and in a MacGyver moment I instead use the only paper in the entire place: the yellow pages.
I go downstairs and use the llamadas man, we are kind of buds now, and on the cell she says she will meet me at my room in an hour (!), and her mom doesn't know that she can sneak away for half an hour and spend all that time in my room and suddenly I feel very good about my plan. Redemption! I go to leave the llamadas man and her mom is right there and she smiles and is glad to see me and she asks if I'm staying in the Conquistador and, never lying, I tell her I am, I see the gears turn in her head, and my little plan is now exposed. I go get lunch and think and chill. I come back five minutes before she's supposed to arrive, thinking I might just have some private time with her (finally!) and, with no staff to help me and Juan Carlos nowhere around, I realize that I've locked myself out of my room.
Internally, I scream.
After my little tantrum, I shift gears. I remember that I spent the last year engaging in breaking and entering as a hobby, that locks are suggestions and not barriers. I remember that I am an engineer and that every problem has a solution. I think around the door and I characterize the lock in my head and I remember its weaknesses and I realize I only need a stiff card to jimmy the spring-loaded catch. I withdraw a AAA card from my wallet and slide it into the jamb. I move it up and down until I find the catch. I push the card against the near side of the catch. I think about the fact that I'm doing something very suspicious. In Colombia. The card gives resistance but I press a little farther and, just then, the catch releases and the door swings open like God's open arms.
I wish I could relate the joy I felt in this moment.
I put on the soundtrack to Desperado and do a little victory dance. She arrives shortly afterward, but she says she has to go back down to he beach, immediately right now, and I should come, and her mom calls. And oh by the way, did I know that, out of this whole two-hundred room building, that she is in room 309, directly below? No, I did not know that.
We go downstairs and play on the beach with her mom and aunt and brother. We do the jet-ski rafting thing. We walk to a hamburger shop and eat. Her mom watches us like a mom trying to protect her daughter's honor, and it mostly works, but we have our surreptitious moments. We touch each other in the water, we hold hands walking down the street with everyone ahead of us, we touch feet under the table and the hamburger place. Soon enough, though, she has to pack for her flight, leaving in a few hours, and she says she wishes she had a few more days here with me. She says, "I will wait for you in Bogotá." She kisses me, and that's that.
An hour later I can still taste her lip gloss, thunder rolls, and suddenly it rains as I run out the clock in my rented room. I return to the hostel after dark and my friends greet me, smiles on their faces. They expect victory, they ask how it went. And I tell them:
"I have never worked so godd*mn hard for so little p*ssy in my entire godd*mn life."
Then I go to bed.
Epilogue: I called a few times but she never answered. I would never see her in Bogotá. Realizing that communication was my biggest mistake on the night that I rented the apartment, I would have a phone sent to Arcadia Hostel in Medellín to wait for me along with everything else there. When the next girl would come along, I would be ready.
Next time: It turns out that I'm not coming home.