In a music-filled square in Cartagena, Colombia, travelers and refugees drink beer, swap stories, and attempt to bridge a cultural chasm.
The air was heavy with water, sweat, and music. I sat in a small square in Cartagena, Colombia, looking at the trinkets that were made by the street artists and drinking a beer with Sarah and Louis. Sarah was from France, an older sister to me. Our little brother, Louis, was also from France, though none of us were related. Sweat poured from my armpits, and from Sarah’s, even though it was already night.
“You want to buy this?” a seller asked me in Spanish.
“No, thanks,” I replied in Spanish as well.
“It would look beautiful on your woman,” he said, smiling a gap-toothed smile at her.
“I’m sure it would,” I replied. “Do you want a beer instead? I’m going to go get us two more.”
“Sure. Thank you, my friend.”
I nodded and walked over to the store to buy us more beer, weaving in and out of the sweaty people all milling about the square. The church stood tall above us, the crucifix atop it looking down at all the revelers below, singing and dancing so far away from Rome.
When I came back to the square, Sarah and the seller were sitting next to each other, deeply engaged in conversation.
“Thanks, brother,” he said, nodding.
“So, as I was saying, I arrived in Ecuador two years ago. I fled Venezuela because I lost my job and needed some way to make money. I have a cousin who lives in Ecuador, and there I started to make these bracelets and art for cute girls like you, and now that is how I survive.”
I sat down next to the two and nodded.
“The life of a refugee isn’t easy, but we make do with what we can. I’m Diego, by the way.”
We shook hands and smiled at each other. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jakob.”
A white girl came by next to us, pale skin and a short haircut, wearing a blue dress with no bra. She looked European. My friend Sarah is half Peruvian, so she looked like everyone else there, and her accent in Spanish was flawless. Mine was not. I sounded like a gringo ordering a Margarita in Cancún, even if I could communicate well enough. I’m also Norwegian, so my skin in Colombia was either white or red, depending on the amount of sunscreen I lathered on my face.
The girl who sat next to us also had to put on lots of sunscreen. She had braids in her hair, little tokens of her alternative lifestyle. She spoke with a French accent, and she sold bracelets to pay for her travels through the “mystical South America.”
“Do you want to buy one?” she asked me.
“I already have some bracelets,” I replied, showing her my wrists, and sipped more of my beer.
Diego slugged the rest of his beer and wiped his dripping chin with his forearm before letting out a loud belch.
“I need another beer, but I can find a much cheaper place to get them. Only 2000 pesos per beer. Can you pay?” Diego asked me.
I nodded and got some cash out of my pocket. This is how we got drunk. As we left sobriety, we met more of Diego’s friends. Except for Sego (the French girl), they were all Venezuelans, some of whom had crossed the border only weeks ago. We drank with them, listened to their stories, listened to the music around the square. Beers followed more beers, and I heard about traveling by plane, bus, foot, and boat. About following loved ones, and about leaving others behind. We made jokes about the tourists who held their expensive cameras tightly against their hips, taking photographs of the Cartagena nightlife in the sweaty streets. We made jokes about dichotomy.
“Do you smoke?” Diego asked me.
This is how we got high. Diego got up and ran over to another friend, and when he returned he showed the pot to me. Then, he jumped up and called us away from the boisterous square and the looming church to a road alongside the water, with a large ridge separating the road from the bay below.
The ridge was long and wide, and we had to climb on it. I sat next to Sierra, who studied architecture in Venezuela before arriving in Colombia. Now she made bracelets. She had a short skirt on, flip flops, and a small top. She had dark skin, darker eyes, curly hair.
“Do you like my bracelets?” she asked.
They looked a lot like the ones that the French girl Sego made.
“I want to be a tattoo artist one day,” she said. “Of course, becoming an architect would be the best, but probably it won’t happen for me now.”
“Do you have a tattoo gun now?”
“I used to, but I left it in Venezuela.”
We swung our legs below the ledge of the ridge, kicking them back and forth like teenagers skipping school, smoking our first cigarettes.
“Is your family still there?”
“Yes, my father.”
Diego finished rolling the joint, and we smoked it, looking over the water to the other side of Cartagena. In the distance we could see the impressive skyscrapers built with cocaine money, reaching for the dark clouds above.
Sierra asked me what I did for work, and I told her I worked in humanitarian aid.
“What’s humanitarian aid?” she asked.
“I work for an organization that rebuilds water infrastructure, gives out food, rebuilds buildings that were blown up by armies in a war. That kind of thing.”
“So where did you last work?”
Sierra nodded. She took a long drag of her cigarette.
“Venezuela could use that kind of thing.”
We continued to smoke and drink, and my head began to feel fuzzy, in that state where it’s easier to remember the feeling of the conversation than its content. I looked over at Sarah and Louis, who were giggling and smiling, talking together in rapid French. The next time I looked at them, Sarah was talking to a bigger Venezuelan guy with a kind smile, and he put his arm around her while she laughed at one of his jokes. Time began to blur.
Sierra and I talked about music, about hip hop, about old, heart-wrenching songs by Chavela Vargas, and about her favourite architects. We talked until our wells ran dry, until we still wanted more of each other but had exhausted time and words and simply sat, looking out at the sea, the sky above, and the lights of Cartagena in the distance.
The others slowly filtered away. Sarah said goodnight to us, and she walked home with Louis. Sego walked home with one of the older Venezuelan guys. Then it was just us, Sierra and I, sitting on the ledge and looking out at the skyscrapers so far away. Only a few lights were on in the high-rises.
“They look like stars in the sky,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder.
I squinted my eyes. “Maybe we can find some constellations,” I said, and we kissed, smiling together, forgetting about those stupid buildings.
“Only the stars seem closer,” she murmured between kisses.
I looked up. The stars themselves were barely visible through the dark haze above Cartagena.
“Do you want to have sex?” she whispered quietly in my ear.
I looked at her, a hoop nose piercing, kind, dark eyes, and a wide smile. Her eyes were slowly closing, her lips moving toward mine, and we met again.
She suggested the beach, which I thought was a terrible idea, a great way for us to get robbed.
“Let’s go back to my hostel.”
She smiled and nodded.
I took her hand, and we walked back through the square, the ground now filled with broken glass, people sleeping on benches, and a few drunks still stumbling home. When we reached the hostel, I asked if I could rent a room (one where Louis and Sarah weren’t currently sleeping), and the desk attendant looked from me to Sierra, and then looked back at me contemptuously.
“No rooms for rent until the morning.”
I asked him again, but he shook his head, giving me the same look.
“You cannot rent any rooms now; it’s too late. No rooms after two a.m. You can go to your room, but she cannot come with you.”
He pointed to a sign which repeated his words above his head. My head was swimming.
“It’s okay, cariño, we can go somewhere else,” Sierra says.
Before I could argue further, she took my hand and led me away, and I asked Sierra why we couldn’t sleep there.
She looked down at her shoes.
“He might just be racist against Venezuelans,” she said. “Not all Colombians like us right now.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, turning back to argue with the gatekeeper.
But she swung me back around and asked me how much money I had. Around 30,000 pesos, or eight dollars.
“I know where we can go.”
I started, “Maybe we should just meet up tomorrow, what do you think? Maybe the world is against us today—”
But she kissed me hard on the mouth and led me down a few streets, left and then right and then left again, until we were in front of a small, skinny door. There were a few men outside it, smoking and laughing. Sierra walked up to them and started talking rapidly in Spanish, so fast I couldn’t really make out what they were saying.
“How much you got?” the man said to me.
“It’s fifty thousand for a room.”
I shrugged. The man in front of me was small, and the cigarette that was in his hand was burnt to the filter. He took a drag.
“It’s all I have,” I replied.
The men looked at each other.
“Fine. You can have the room for one hour, brother. Room number 2.”
Sierra thanked the men, and I followed her up the stairs.
“Wait,” the man called.
I turned back.
“You need a condom?”
I frowned, narrowing my eyes. “I have one.”
“Vale.” The man said something to his friend, and they laughed.
The walls were dark, the hallway was skinny, and the longer we walked down that hall, the closer the walls got. I felt like there was something creeping along my brain, a little parasite I could almost always see, but always out of focus.
We found room number 2, the door frame rotting under the weight of the humid air. Inside the room was a small television, a large bed with a thin sheet on it, and a pillow without a pillow case. There was a trash can in the corner of the room near the old TV set.
“Look,” I said. “Maybe we should just go…”
She kissed me on the mouth, and then down on my neck, and felt me below, and I felt myself growing in her hand, and everything aside from those four walls and that bed, and Sierra and me, disappeared and melted away. I was inside of her, holding her on the bed, fucking and sucking and moaning, until she got on top of me. The small room was filled with our bodies, and our sweat hung in the thick air as we danced in a room without walls and our power twisted and swirled together.
When it was over, she kissed my neck and lay her head against my chest.
“That was so nice,” she said lazily, getting a cigarette out of her bag.
“Yeah, it was.”
As we smoked, I could feel myself sobering up from the sex and the tobacco, which tightened my chest. We finished the cigarette, put on our clothes, and walked out of the room. Before leaving I dropped the condom in the trash can. The men in front of the building were gone now, and the streets were empty. It was just before dawn.
I walked Sierra back to her hostel. Before she left to walk up the stairs, she turned back towards me, looking up at me and then down at her shoes.
“You’re a nice guy,” she said. It looked like she was about to say something, and she even opened her mouth, but words didn’t come out.
“You’re pretty cool, too,” I replied.
She tried to speak again, but the words refused to leave, and we kissed.
“I was just wondering,” she breathed as we separated from another embrace. “You’re from Europe, you know, you work for that organization…we had such a nice night…do you think…”
“Do I think what?”
Her voice barely left her mouth, I had to lean down to hear her.
“Do I think what?” I asked again, the smile leaving my face.
“Do you think you could give me some money? Things aren’t so easy for me now.”
“Oh, forget it, never mind. I shouldn’t have asked.”
Sierra wiped a tear from her cheek, or maybe it was sweat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Forget that I asked.”
She turned to walk away.
I looked in my pockets for any more money I had. I felt some bills, my passport, my phone, and some coins. All I could find were two 10,000 peso notes, a total of five dollars.
“This is all I have on me,” I said.
She smiled. “When I buy some cigarettes, I’ll think of you,” she said kindly before kissing me on the cheek and walking up the stairs. A well deep inside my chest felt dry, numb, and a heaviness fell over me.
“I could…” I began.
Sierra looked back at me and smiled, but said nothing.
“I could send you some money…”
Or should I not…
“What did you say?” Sierra asked, looking back at me, smiling from the stairs.
I didn’t respond.
“Don’t worry, guapo. Everything will be okay.” She walked back down to meet me and kissed me on the cheek.
I stood there in the street for some time, and in the distance I could just make out the tall skyscrapers across the sea, looking like fragile sticks climbing out of the mire of a thick bog.
I stumbled back to the hostel, where the same clerk let me in, with his same disapproving look. I got into bed as my stomach started to churn, anticipating the day’s hangover, and looked over at Sarah and Louis sleeping blissfully in our air-conditioned room as the sun began to rise, and I shut my eyes as tight as I could to stop any light from coming in.