Time Off in Taganga – Taganga, Colombia

Part I

A Caribbean Idyll
What a strange place. And what odd people.

I had gone to Taganga to meet my Aussie friend – I’ll call him Bruce. I had met him in Merida. He’s a good lad and we spent many a happy hour discussing the finer points of wine, women and song. He had been an English teacher in Merida and had discovered that having spliffs at the beach was a far more satisfactory way to while away the months.

When I arrived in Taganga he had been there for about a month and knew the lay of the land. Where to go (nowhere). What to do (nothing). Who to trust (no one). Saved me a lot of time and trouble.

I came off the bus from Santa Marta – at the wrong place, as it turned out. There is a "hotel" on the beach in Taganga called La Casa Blanca – The White House. As I was coming down the hill into Taganga, I said to the bus driver, "Drop me off at The White House." Which he did. It was a white house. Houses are white in Taganga. Oops! It was downhill, at least. And there he was on the beach – replete with beard and peeling nose.

Bruce was laying on the beach on what I had expected to be an idyllic, sandy, palm-fringed paradise – clear blue warm water, soft white sand, smiling, welcoming locals and a little bit of broken down rustic charm. Being on the Caribbean coast one could be excused for such thinking.

It was more like this. In Latin America the slums are called barrios. Barrio means neighbourhood but it is usually taken to mean those places that are pretty run down, where gringos don’t venture. Taganga reminded me of Barrio-On-The-Sea.

Nice people live in barrios, for sure. But barrios usually have more than their fair share of unsmiling, gruff and rough people. So it was in Taganga.

The town/village of Taganga is spread along the back of a small bay enclosed by hills. There is a paved seaside road with piles of rubble dotted along its length. Sporadically alongside the road ran a pavement. You needed to watch out for those places where the pavement didn’t run. A careless step could place your feet paddling above three feet of air.

Service with a Snarl
Between the road and the sea were some cantina/restaurant-type places that served fish and rice. Fresh fish for sure and lots of different kinds of fish but after a couple of days of fish (and not being an "a-fish-ionado"), I yearned for a bloody plate of mammal.

In I went for my fish, rice and beer. The maitre d’ shuffled grudgingly over to me wearing a loathsome face. Not exactly welcoming. Yet diners loved it.

Waiters didn’t look me in the eye. They acted like they would rather be doing a million and one things other than serving me and my appalling request for food. After taking my order, they shuffled off again. I didn’t know whether I offended him and, of course, I wondered whether I was going to be fed.

Bouncing Dogs
Between these un-welcoming oases of fish and the sea was another pile of rubble called the beach. At one end of the bay the beach was sandy-ish, but still fairly littered with garbage – no rubbish bins in this part of Colombia. The beach by the eateries was more stony, rubbley ground crossed by ropes that tied up the fishermen’s boats.

These ropes usually layed taut on the ground as the boats tugged at them. As the sea swelled with a wave, the boat rose and yanked the rope off the ground a foot or two until the wave subsided. The rope was then firmly pinned to the ground.

The dogs didn’t understand the dynamics of this. This led to much merriment one day. I was sitting with my book, a beer and fish at a table at the edge of one of the cantinas. I noticed a dog smelling around near one of the ropes. It seemed some doggy-sustenance had died by one of these ropes.

This dog was typical of most of the dogs in Taganga – balding and hungry. That put him in the class of being in rude health. The more unfortunate should have been put out of their misery. They were almost hairless, had tennis ball-sized growths on their heads, could barely walk and had open sores which they licked to alleviate the pain, that or they were really hungry.

Inevitably this particular dog was tempted toward the nutritious slime under the rope. He straddled the rope and bent his head to slurp. Along came a wave, up went the boat, up went the rope with a jerk that catapulted the dog three feet into the air with a yelp and a look of astonishment. The rope then relaxed to the ground giving the dog 10 or 15 seconds to prepare for another launch. In came a wave and up he went. I couldn’t stop laughing.

"Care to be ripped-off, sir?"
On the other side of these eateries were sort-of shops and hotels. The shops (some three or four) were general stores. They sold to foreigners but at inflated prices. I met a lovely Canadian/Colombian couple. When the Colombian bought a beer, it was 900 pesos. For us foreigners the price went up to 1,000 pesos. So what? you might ask. What’s a 100 pesos? Given the amount of beer I drink, 100 pesos difference is a small fortune!

The thing is, I/we aren’t rich package tour tourists. We are itinerant, unemployed and underpaid English teachers trying to learn a bit about the culture and life in distant lands. Not some fat rich cow to be milked.

And, if they bump up the price for a beer you can be sure that they will be bumping up the price for everything. And I hate getting ripped off. Getting ripped off with a smile is one thing but getting ripped off with a sneer is really beyond the pale. Be fair and nice, that’s all I ask.

"Carry your bags, sir?"
We weren’t paying top dollar but these were the standard Tagangan hotels along the sea front. Should be ok, right? My room (the second one I had tried) was hot, dark and dirty with an intermittent water supply. Mornings only. To maintain my exacting standards of personal hygiene, I had to ask for a bucket to store water for my pre-slumber wash.

The provision of a rickety ceiling fan allowed the sweltering heat to be somewhat ameliorated but at the cost of potentially being decapitated. It had one speed, full – enough to lift your wig off. And what a noise. If it worked its way loose, fell and chopped you to pieces, maybe it wasn’t so hot, after all.

I had two beds in my room. One bed was equipped with a mattress with some kind of organic filling. Hair? Whose? Things live in organic mattresses. Things that wriggle and squiggle and bite in the night. The other had a foam mattress about the thickness of a fag paper. If Hans Christian Andersen had hidden a pea under this mattress I’d have found it (and eaten it ‘cos it wasn’t fish!). My ingenious solution was to lay the fag paper-thick foam mattress on the creepy-crawly mattress. I think I got about as good as I could get.

The room was very dirty partly due to hurricane force winds blowing through that lifted tons of sand and assorted crud into the air. A fair proportion of this sand found its way in through the room’s tiny window.


And, of course, the liberal sprinkling of garbage was having a whale of a time in the gusty wind – flying gaily or swirling and whirling in some building-bound eddy waiting to smother an unsuspecting victim. Me. I’d sit down on the steps of the hotel to excavate the grit out of my orifices only to be surprised by the clingy, amorous overtures of a grubby plastic bag which had suddenly taken a fancy to my face.

Part 2

Tagangan Troubles

This being Colombia, there was a plethora of dodgy geezers. Bruce told me he had them hanging out of his ears – a slight exaggeration but not by much.

In fact, there was only one real dodgy geezer in town whom I never got to meet. Phew! But there were lots of dodgy geezers acting on his behalf. They engaged you in some innocent sounding conversation that began with something innocuous like, "Do you want some cocaine?" If you declined, they offered "mary-wana." If you wanted to sit on the beach, to watch the sun go down and contemplate the meaning of life, you’d have a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer by your side trying to engage you in drug-related conversations.

One evening an old black guy came up to us on the beach. His English was understandable. He regaled us with stories from his mis-spent life. He said he used to run cocaine to the U.S. He was a ship’s navigator and smuggled ships around the coast, up to the Land of the Free. He did this with a Venezuelan-flagged ship when the U.S. Coast Guard picked him up. Although he was Colombian, he was taken to a Venezuelan port and handed over to the authorities who duly threw the book at him. He was sentenced to 25 years.

Twenty-five years imprisonment in the U.K. is horrendous enough. For a Colombian to be sentenced to 25 years in a Venezuelan jail, it is disastrous. Venezuelans (in jail at least) detest Colombians. It seems neighbouring countries in Latin America generally have an air of mutual disrespect.

Rough Guide to Latin American Jails
This chap said he had a rough time for the 12.5 years he was in jail. Lucky for him, he was paroled. He told stories of machete attacks and numerous beatings. He gave us a rundown of who not to be caught by if you are Colombian. The Mexican police are the worst. They beat you. If you protest, they kill you. He wasn’t joking.

When we asked him if he still did anything naughty. No, he laughed, those days were behind him. He said there was very little crime in the poor town. Not because of the police, but because of a group of people – vigilante, paramilitary – who had lots of guns. They kept order. Whoever transgressed the bounds of acceptable social behaviour, got a ride in a car, where they were taken along the coast, shot and thrown down the cliffs into the sea. Since this was the unofficial arm of the police, there was no investigation to speak of. Peace reigned again.

Be Nice
The man said to be careful, respectful, nice and not bother anyone. Nobody would bother us. I had no trouble taking his advice.

This brings me to the subject of drugs, specifically cocaine. Colombia is renowned for its production of this substance. It is impossible to ignore its presence. Added to its brain-addling effect is the fact that it is, even in Colombia, illegal. A Colombian jail is the last place anyone would want to spend a holiday. However, not everyone thinks this way.

Herman the German
Herman was not normal. He was non compos mentis – away with the fairies – singing from a different hymn sheet – from planet Zog. What he said, though, in a strange, twisted kind of way made a lot of sense to me.

Herman was in touch with something and that made him really fascinating to talk to. Rather he talked to you. But he insisted on whispering. Like everything was a secret. And a German whisper at that.

Herman was both right and not right in the head. He had a lot of piercings. But in Taganga he just stuck out like a sore thumb. Remember this is a small village in Colombia. It just happens to be by the sea and it just happens to ‘welcome’ some foreigners who go there for the sea and the C.

So one night was party night. Me, my Aussie friend Bruce, my Canadian friend Jack (as in Lumber ~, of course) and his girlfriend, and Herman.

Be weird if you want, but not in "The Man’s" House
When we reached the house, the man wasn’t there. We were invited inside. Herman, who couldn’t really speak Spanish, tried, in his weird way, to engage the locals in conversation by flailing his arms and talking about how he didn’t like to boil lobsters. Given the unsmiling, stony faces, Bruce moved towards the door, grabbed Herman’s arm and pulled him out of the room onto the street.

Bruce joined us in the sauna, a.k.a. my hotel room, while Herman went to his room to secrete his stuff. Waiting for Herman at his room were a couple of policemen. No doubt you’ve heard this before – sucker buys something from a dealer only to be hauled over by the police a few minutes later. Police and dealer are in cahoots. And this happened to Herman, so he told us later.

Time To Go
This is what I think happened. Herman had been in Taganga for about six weeks by this time. He was obviously a coke-headed tourist in Taganga for the powders. When he started acting weird in the man’s house, I suspected a call went out to the police to get the German. They were waiting for him.

As nutty as Herman was, he wasn’t stupid. He had secreted his stash in a place where most men wouldn’t want to look. He was safe but he still had to pay a significant fine to get out of jail. When Herman told us this story, I thought that being associated with him was bad news. I didn’t want to be viewed as the crazy cokehead’s friend. Enough. I made my excuses and left town.

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