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PHOTO: The Hemingway Restaurant, the site of G Adventures' last stand in its Caribbean Colombia Express. (Photo by David Cogswell)
After G Adventures' Caribbean Colombia Express built to its climax at the luxurious mountainside huts at Tayrona National Park, it was into the home stretch. The group packed into a van for a drive back to Santa Marta for its farewell dinner and a final hotel night before flying back home.
We stayed in a different hotel than when we had been in Santa Marta a few days before. But it was the same neighborhood, and once again it was a block from the shore road and the beach. The hotel followed the formula of most of the trip: a location in the middle of the action, simple accommodations, rich local color, friendliness, good air conditioning and free Wi-Fi.
The Hotel Casa Vieja was modest, basic and indigenous in a richly in-depth way. The place had its own history; you could feel it in the walls and the atmosphere. But you could only imagine what that history consisted of.
The front part of the hotel was a restaurant that opened onto the narrow street. Practically every bit of space on the walls was covered with something: a poster, a framed picture, a wooden clock, racks, ornaments, art objects, etc. Besides being a restaurant and hotel lobby it was like a little museum.
It was unbelievably sweet and had a charm and richness that no amount of money could produce. That kind of feeling has to be aged and marinated.
The kindness of the proprietor/manager and his team of ladies handling check-in, food service and whatever, was palpable. Their generosity of spirit radiated like a warm glow and was completely disarming.
It was the best kind of people-to-people exchange that tour operators such as G Adventures purposefully set up to produce life-changing experiences. You see phrases like "life-changing experiences" in tour operator brochures, but when you actually experience these kinds of simple encounters so rich in meaning, then they are no longer just words in a brochure.
What you sense in an encounter like that gives you a feeling for a past and an experience that you can only guess at.
Remember, this is a country that just within the last couple of years concluded what had been called "the longest civil war on Earth," stretching back decades. What these people we are encountering in Colombia have gone through is probably nearly unimaginable to those of us who have been fortunate enough to live in a country that is at peace.
Some years ago I came across an interview by Bill Moyers of a Colombian writer named Laura Restrepo. She said many things about Colombia that were almost shocking to the system. But they were very moving and gave some indication of how much suffering the people of her country had endured.
There was no one, she said, who had not lost someone in the war. The violence was so pervasive that it affected everyone. But, she said, the other side of that tragedy was that when you are in such a place where there is so much death, life becomes luminously precious.
"When death is near, then life shines, with a very special glow," she said. "And I believe that's what you feel when you go in Colombia."
The war is over, but the 50-year experience has left its mark. These are people who, as Restropo said, truly understand the fleeting preciousness of life. It is good to be around people for whom the value of every moment is vividly apparent. That preciousness is something we too often forget, we who have the luxury of forgetting.
For me this is really the most profound kind of thing that can happen to you when traveling, to encounter people who move you and put you onto a new plane of awareness. They show you a world you had no knowledge of.
Interacting with those people and getting a feeling of the qualities in them that Restrepo referred gave me the urge to find out more about that history, to do some research.
When traveling in Latin America such historical investigations often lead back to my own country. Colombia was no exception in this regard. The handprint of the U.S. is indelibly etched into the country, and played a large role in its violent past. The history of the U.S. in Latin America is unfortunately not a very pretty picture.
But as an American traveling as a guest in Latin American countries, I feel some responsibility to learn about it. It's good to learn about that history, even if it is often unpleasant. Hopefully the mistakes of the past will not repeat themselves. The more people travel between countries and get to know each other, the less chance of it.
On our last night as a group we gathered for dinner on the rooftop of an amazing little restaurant called The Hemingway Restaurant. It had a bright earth red front with a four-foot tall sculpted mask of Hemingway mounted on the wall near the entrance.
A singer/guitar player accompanied by a bongo player provided tight, subtle orchestrations of traditional Latin American music. From the roof we could hear them downstairs. In between songs we could hear a romantic trumpet from another restaurant nearby.
It was Saturday night and the streets were filled with people out for the night. Colombia is closer to the equator than Mexico or the Caribbean and the heat of the day is even more intense. So the release when nighttime rolls around is also proportionally more intense. The night time is definitely the right time to go out and enjoy the festive street life.
Margaritas, fresh-caught fish, the open air of the night and the sky above, waves of music wafting through the space, groups of colorfully dressed people moving on the sidewalks below - it was all too wonderful. And knowing it was our last taste of Colombia made it even more delectable, down to the last drop.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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