Sunday, September 20, 2009

Vale la Pena - Taganga

Vale la Pena – Taganaga

Last week was a real drag at both school and home. What’s the antidote? A beach weekend getaway! I had looked in the guidebook the week before and found Taganga: a sleepy fisherman’s village of 5000 inhabitants that had been discovered by travelers, located only 5 kilometers away from Santa Marta. Buses leave from Barranquilla to Santa Marta every 15 minutes and the ride is 2 hours. That was all I needed to know.

Kären and Dave also were fans of the idea. The plan was to leave school, go home, get our stuff, and arrive in Santa Marta before dark. Well, that didn’t exactly happen, but we left before it was dark. On the bus leaving Barranquilla, I saw parts of the city that I had never seen before – shops selling all kinds of cheap goods, lots of street food vendors, for some reason rotisserie chicken bar/restaurants, and loads of people on bicycles. This was the unsanitized version of Barranquilla, the side seldom seen in my cleaner and safer area of the city. It reminded me a lot of Mexico. It made me realize that I have been dealing with the substantially upper class of Colombia. Things were about to change.

Aside: Why do buses in foreign countries feel compelled to show violent movies at extremely loud volume?

Out the window from what I could see we passed a lot of poverty and a lot of garbage. It made me feel a little depressed. It really put the frustrations of my week in perspective. This was the clase baja and most of Colombia I’d seen up until now was almost exclusively the clase alta.

Arriving in Santa Marta, we used cleanest bus station bathroom ever and jumped in a taxi to Taganga. The taxi took us up over a hill and upon the descent we overlooked a little bay that was Taganga. I knew I would not be disappointed. Kären and I decided the best place to stay was Hostel Divanga. I ate really good fish for dinner and then basically passed out from exhaustion in the hammock next to the pool listening to the che che accent of the Argentinian travelers staying there.


I awoke the next day feeling much more refreshed. From the rooftop I saw the view of the bay and a little bit of town. It was a cute little fishing village in a more rural setting of Colombia. There was plenty of third-world poverty to be seen: small houses in poor conditions, plastic wrap garbage that functioned as a toy for a 2 year-old boy and some dogs, and people sitting outside next to food vendors on the ubiquitous plastic chairs.

The roof view

After breakfast at our hostel, Kären and I went on a little exploratory walk through town and to the beach. It was overcast but hot. Here’s some of the town.

Little houses, local people, flowers, and fruit trees

Here is the beach, more of a fishing bay than somewhere to swim, although you could.
View of Taganga


more cool plants

In Barranquilla I never see people who aren’t Colombian. There must be some, but there aren’t many for a city of 1.1 million. On this morning walk in little Tanganga I saw several people with hair blonder than mine and heard other languages being spoken. It was kind of a refreshing change.

On our walk I noticed a man with a bright green parrot perched on his shoulder. I went over to him and he gave (not flipped) me the bird. Her name was Goya and we got along pretty well.

Goya with my finger

With Goya on my arm, I sipped on a fruit smoothie of nispero. I do not know how to describe what it tastes like, but it is delicious. It’s a thicker liquid, more like banana or coconut, than say apple, and it’s a little bit sweet, but not overly. I love it.

Goya and me

While hanging out at the juice place and talking to the jugo man and Goya, who being a parrot, did talk, a man walked by and looked at me admiringly. He later came over and gave me an apple and said, "Muy bonita," and was on his way. Very sweet.

The jugo stand

Kären and I continued exploring and happened upon what appeared to be the main entertainment for the locals that day: B-I-N-G-O. It was packed! We walked in and got looks of, “You’re foreigners, do you really want to be here?” I most definitely did, because this was the real deal. This was small town Colombia. This was connecting with the locals seeing and doing what they do. This is the kind of thing that makes me continue traveling around the world.

The entrance to Bingo, you can't see how many people there really were.

Some woman, noticing that we obviously didn’t know exactly how the whole process worked, asked us if we wanted to play. She told us that it was a fundraiser for the school. We were in. With bingo boards in hand, we started listening for the numbers.

I saw food for sale and bought a little portion of rice with fish that tasted like paella and a little salad that cost all of fifty cents. Yum!

Kids were running around everywhere. Some children were playing bingo, others were just playing as kids do. This was their school, although it wasn’t much of a school. There were almost no books or anything else but a few desks. I really wanted to win at Bingo and donate my prize to the school, but sadly I didn’t win. It made me realize again, that I am really dealing with la crema de la crema of Colombian wealth at my school in Barranquilla.

Here in Taganga, it’d be more like a Peace Corps experience. This is where you’d expect disorganization and lack of supplies. Barranquilla feels like a big modern city with all the modern conveniences, and not to mention the modern demands from work. I was thinking about my frustrations with my school, of which there are many, and then looking around at where I was. It felt as different as day and night. Many of my students have gone on vacations in the US and Europe. Most of these children have probably never even been more than 5 miles from their houses. Having taught in Title 1 (meaning higher poverty) schools in the US for the past 5 years, I’m used to students not having a lot of money, but Colombian small town poverty is certainly much different than American urban/suburban poverty. Although my students in Barranquilla might have a lot of material wealth, they are often taken care of by a nanny and don’t spend very much time with their parents. Kids in Tanganga have almost nothing, but here they are spending the day with their family. I will not be the judge of who is happier.

I wanted to take pictures of the Bingo scene, but felt it would not be the right thing to do. I spotted two cute girls sitting at a desk together and asked if I could take a picture of them. We ended up playing bingo together for about an hour. My new eight year-old friend Kati sat next to me and we played our own version, which was good number and letter practice for her. A very smart nine year-old girl joined us. She had a whole strategy for playing Bingo. Another eight year-old joined for a while and she didn’t know all her numbers or letters. This made me sad. It also made me sad to see children following the adults’ lead by just throwing their garbage on the ground.

The Bingo girls

Suddenly, I was starting not to feel very well. I think I was overheated. We said goodbye to the girls and headed to Mojitonet. Kären imbibed in a mojito, while I had a bottle of carbonated water, a bottle of non-carbonated water, and then a beer with lime and salt. I started to feel better being in the air-conditioning, rehydrating, and getting a little bit of salt. The bartender, Eric, was from the ‘interior’ of Colombia and had lived a while in Spain. Because of this, he talked significantly slower than the people in Barranquilla – the Costeños. I can honestly say I think that was the most fluent Spanish conversation I have had since I’ve been here. I love when that happens.

I was feeling much better so Kären and I took a boat ride to the other beach, which was only about 5 minutes away. I knew we’d see Dave there, and we saw him upon arrival. He had walked over a hill and wrestled with a few cacti getting here. Yes, I mean cactus. The landscape here is significantly different than the tropical coast of Barranquilla and Cartagena, it’s more arid and so there are cacti.

The other beach from the boat

After a while of swimming and being in the sun, we met up with Dave’s American friends he’d met on the bus and headed back to the other beach. The walk back was a beautiful and easy to follow trail…once you found it.
View from the walk back

We stopped by Dave and his friends’ hostel. It reminded me of hostels you might see anywhere in the world – people in their early 20s drinking beer and playing pool. It made me feel old. There was also the nasty smell of burning plastic that was wafting into the hostel. All of the above made me glad that I was staying where I was.

After passing some goats, Kären and arrived back at our hostel to find more people staying there than had been the night before. We cooled off for a while in the pool and had a conversation in English, the lingua franca, with the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Israeli travelers. We had the standard traveler conversation of, “Where are you from? Where have you been? How was it? How long are you staying?” People were very intrigued by our teaching here and had lots of questions. This gave me realization that what I’m doing is actually kind of cool despite its frustrations. Perhaps it’s vale la pena – this is a phrase I learned in Spain that means ‘worth the pain’.

We met up with Dave and his American friends at a place called Cactus on the beach for dinner. The menu had some pretty hilarious translations that I wish I’d written down. One was something like fish served to the wind in the sailor’s blouse. We all had pescado corriente, which means ‘current fish’ as you’d want it to be. It was and served with a salad, coconut rice, and the best patacones (fried plantains) I’ve had in Colombia. All this for $5 was certainly a scrumptiously good deal.

I felt like the complete sucker tourist when were approached by an enthusiastic art vendor and I bought two drawings. One was of the exact scene in front me: boats in the bay of Taganga. I didn’t care if I was a sucker, I liked the art.

Next we were serenaded by guitarist Rolando and his rapping son, Pipe. They were awesome. Rolando’s songs were about Taganga and its surrounding area of Santa Marta. He said it was a matriarchy here and had written songs so children could learn about their local history. He had a following of local kids who obviously loved him. The appreciation seemed mutual. When some adorable little girls came by in the middle of singing he yelled out, “Baila!” The girls, being shy, would run away a little bit, but in the distance you could see that they were in fact dancing. After he finished singing, the girls came over and he let them play with his guitar while others were singing. Words cannot describe how precious this scene was. Rolando was not pushy at all with asking for money. We were the ones who asked him if he had CDs. Kären and I both bought one and are very glad we did.

It was night now and time to go dance at El Garaje. This is the kind of place I wish Barranquilla had. It was basically an open-air bar with a few trees growing up through the ground. There was a dance floor and the music was perfect: salsa, merengue, reggaton, vallenato, rock en español, and I loved it all. Thankfully a man named José, who I’d met earlier that day, showed up and was my dance partner.

The next day I wanted to go to Parque Tayrona. José had mentioned taking me there if I wanted to go. After waking up late and waiting a long time for breakfast we were off to a late start. I said goodbye to Kären at the booksotre Literarté, and headed off with José to Parque Tayrona. Upon approaching the entrance of this national park, one of the guards threw his beer can over a fence into the park. I am shaking my head thinking about it. We went to a close in beach called Playa Concha because it would take too long to get to other places in the park, which apparently is huge. I went snorkeling, swimming, and relaxed on the fairly unpopulated beach. I was completely content and stayed a bit too long because when we left it was starting to get dark.
Playa Concha

On the way out we passed a pile of burning plastic. This is a growing problem – the garbage everywhere. Children’s grandparents, and even parents, had biodegradable packaging. The amount of plastic everywhere that will not break down is disheartening. I’m sure there probably is no garbage pick up. Where would it go? Who would pay for it? So the solution is burning plastic. This is a practice I have seen in many third world countries. It smells horrible and puts toxins in the air. Seriously though, can you blame them? Which would you rather have, a big pile of plastic or a bad smell for a little while and then magically no garbage? I feel like what I’d rather do than teach the over-privileged students in Barranquilla, is somehow do some teaching of garbage disposal techniques. How to do this? I don’t know. It’s such an enormous global problem I don’t even know where to start. I do what I can for now. I talk to kids about garbage, recycling if available, and sometimes just about buying less. In Taganga I would talk to kids about telling their parents not to burn the plastic. Children are the future and there are a lot more of them in the world everyday.

José picked up a family that was walking down the dirt road out of the park towards Santa Marta. They wouldn’t have gotten home until very late if they’d walked the whole way. I was glad he helped them.

We stopped for dinner at Judi’s house in Santa Marta. This is a woman who cooks food out of her house, which is a ‘restaurant’. It gave me a good look at how I imagine many urban Colombians live. There was a front room with a TV, a kitchen with a big stove (this was a restaurant), a bedroom, and bathroom, which all was built with just basic concrete cinder blocks. The bathroom had a toilet with no seat and to flush you used a plastic bowl to scoop water out of a larger receptacle. The shower was a pipe that came out of the wall on to concrete. Outside on the concrete back ‘porch’ was where we had dinner. It was dimly lit with a single exposed low watt lightbulb, a partial roof of corrugated steel, and a washbasin for doing laundry. The powdered laundry soap and the water basin functioned as the sink to wash our hands. Judi cooked, served dinner, and was back to her TV of Hollywood stars with Spanish subtitles. The contrast of her life and the one she was watching was striking.

By the time we left it was completely dark and I was not looking forward to the bus ride home. A friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps in Guayaquil, Ecuador gave me an odd piece of advice: sit on the aisle seat on the bus. I asked why and he said that it is safer because you can get away if someone is bothering you. I remembered this advice and did that. For a while no one sat next to me. Then one of several drunk fútbol fans got on the bus. Of course one of them sat next to me. He did nothing, but it’s never pleasant to sit next to a drunk stranger on public transport. As soon as I could I moved to sit next to a woman. This was certainly better, though I did get sneezed on from one of the drunkards across the aisle and felt the snot land on my arm. Yuck!

The police stopped the bus and I was glad to have the cedula (Colombian ID) rather than my US passport as ID. It helped me feel a bit less like a foreigner, though I’ll admit, the whole ride made me a little nervous. I was quite thankful to get back to Barranquilla, and my clean apartment. Right now as I write this I hear la canta de las ranas or singing frogs outside my urban apartment after a rainstorm. The whole weekend gave me a chance to reflect on things and get a bit of perspective. I look forward to traveling more in Colombia, but for now, it’s back to work.

“Children they don’t need a lot of stuff. Children sure do need a lot of love. They need love to give ‘em pride, make ‘em feel real good inside, if they don’t get it at home they’re gonna go lookin’” – Greg Brown from the song ‘If You Don’t Get It At Home’


  1. Elizabeth, just want to tell you that you have an avid follower here in the form of D's mom. I'm really enjoying your stories, observations, ruminations and photos. I do hope that the teaching ends up producing more rewards than frustrations, and that you continue to have great adventures livin' la vida Col.!

  2. E -
    Great blog, I found the entire thing both fascinating, informative as well as insightful.
    I will be visiting Barranquilla soon to meet an art teacher there, grades 1-6. Retiring after 20yrs. With what I now know, I have a different appreciation for the job and culture. Salud y gracias por que los escriben. -m

  3. Susan and Michael, thank you so much! I just read this post for the first time in over a year. Michael, good luck in Barranquilla.