NOTE: The events described in this story took place in July of 2019. While tourism has declined in the times of Coronavirus, I can only imagine the class divide and socioeconomic concerns outlined below have heightened dramatically.
When I was twenty, I moved away from my home state of Connecticut to work for a congressional campaign in rural Illinois.
After work one day, I found myself in a local pub and completely enamored with a beautiful bartender. For the first time in my life, I left my business card with the check.
By the campaign’s end, I had fallen for this lovely midwestern gal seven years my senior.
This is a long way of saying I have a soft spot for chance meetings, young men trying their very best to keep pace with powerful older women, and the magic that happens when similar minds from different cultures find each other.
So you can imagine I was intrigued when I met a 28-year-old Venezuelan woman and her 22-year-old beau from Norway at a hostel bar in Cartagena. I was intrigued further still when I learned they met on a bus from Bogota to Medellin two years earlier. At the time, she spoke almost no English and he spoke absolutely no Spanish.
I said ohgodpleaseyes when they asked if I wanted to join them for a night out in Cartagena.
Out we ventured.
The walled city of Cartagena is a stunning tribute to colonial architecture. Pastel houses speckle narrow cobblestone streets; their second floors sport rustic wooden balconies and dangling ivy. Gentle reggaeton blows through the wind from open-air cafes and bars, as does the healthy tropical banter of a Caribbean city in motion.
Traditionally aggressive vendors recoil when a fiery Venezuelan woman tells them to step off, so along walked two pale gringos, under the protection of a woman a third their size.
I was told before I arrived that this city is much like Miami; heavy on clubs and cocaine by night and lazy beaching by day. And while that isn’t exactly my scene, Cartagena served as a lovely basecamp.
But in reality, I found Cartagena far more similar to New Orleans — a shimmering, celebratory mirage masking a darker truth. Cartagena is not home to the light, carefree “tranquila” attitude to which it aspires. Painting with such a primary brushstroke isn’t assigning Cartagena’s nuanced past — and present — nearly enough credit (Cartagena was, for instance, the primary port of entry for the South American slave trade).
None of this was obvious to my young Norwegian friend whose nation has no proximity whatsoever to the contextualized strife of the Americas. He knew we were in Cartagena and it was time to party, and that was all he knew.
We wandered the streets, laughing and drinking and mumbling in some combination of Spanish and English.
We braved a Colombian street hot dog. When I asked the Venezuelan if they just say “hot dog” or if they have a word for it in Spanish, she snarked back “perro caliente, so… Dog — HOT.”
And we giggled our way into a pub.
We tossed back a shot of tequila, cheered with a party of Colombians as Egan Bernal moved into first place in the Tour de France, and stepped outside. A Colombian club promoter approached.
The Venezuelan rolled her eyes and prepared to put him off, but our Norwegian friend wanted to dance. “Bailamos! Bailamos!” he chanted.
The club promoter joined.
I’d been pursued by a club promoter a few nights earlier after a pub crawl, and at the time I had been vaguely warned that these clubs were a bit of a disaster and I should avoid them. But the Norwegian was excited and along we went.
The reggaeton was loud, the energy was better than I expected and the next round of drinks was on me. I pushed forward to the bar and ordered three shots. “I could get into this,” I thought.
“Where’d your boyfriend go?” I shouted in the direction of the Venezuelan as I handed her a shot glass and a slice of lime.
“Baño,” she mumbled, indicating he’d gone to the bathroom. But her eyes had drifted to the end of the bar. She was no longer with me.
“I know her,” she said.
I followed her gaze. Three Americans were grinding aggressively against three short-skirted hispanic women, high-fiving over their heads. Yeah… it’s like Miami. Got it.
Except it’s not like Miami at all. Something in the eyes of these women is different. And so was the recognition on the face of my new Venezuelan friend.
The thing about nightclubs like this in Cartagena is that when you’re out with a Venezuelan woman, you realize they aren’t nightclubs at all.
They’re slave auctions.
Turn off the strobe lights, cut the music and close the bar.
You’re left with thirty Venezuelan prostitutes in six-inch heels trafficked across the border, desperate to pull a man from the bar, fifteen men who genuinely think these women are into them, and fifteen men ready to pay.
And that only left us: one Venezuelan woman watching a girl she knew in kindergarten pulled out of the bar. And one American from New York watching a man wearing a New York Giants hat do the pulling.
The Norwegian returned from the bathroom.
“Bailamos! Bailamos!” he said with a smile.
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