Lost and alone in Cartagena, Colombia, Will struggles to make friends and confronts paralyzing loneliness. When he finally does make friends, Bank of America and Verizon Wireless conspire to ruin his night. Salsa bars and exotic adventures will have to wait. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- Man, hindsight’s 20/20, isn’t it? I remember the jitters of my early travels so fondly. In building this episode, I was taken so deep into my psychology at the time that I actually felt it again. There’s an adorable innocence about it, and I can’t help but smile. Something’s beautiful about firsts.
- I mentioned Republica Hostel by name in the episode. There’s such a fond recollection of a first hostel, but this one was pretty great. It’s a chain, but it doesn’t really come with the downsides chain hostels often have: unfriendly team, business-over-community mindset, etc. I met some lovely people there (Julia chief among them). It was a perfect starter hostel. If you’re ever in Cartagena, check them out.
- I’m 90% sure the first bar on the bar crawl was Crazy Salsa. I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure.
- Julia’s not Julia and she’s not from Ireland - she asked for that change when I used her likeness in a story for my Medium blog back when I was traveling. Celine’s not Celine, but honestly I thought that was her name and I recently learned it’s not. She is from the French region of Switzerland, though. No other details are changed.
- The rugged Dutch marine was so fucking handsome it was insane. No one should be that attractive.
- Kit Conway of the band Stello on the theme music.
Things I wrote that you should read
- Finding Your First Hostel
- The Dark Underbelly of Cartagena, Colombia
- Appreciate Your Firsts
- Awkward Travel Interactions
- Report Card Six Months Hence (member content - click here to learn more)
- Bonus Episode: On the Backs of Better (member content - click here to learn more)
I hear with my little ear (AKA credits)
- A quiet street in the Netherlands.
- A salsa band in Cuba.
- Good times. Except for the one woman with the hideous cackle. Sorry about that.
- Hustle and bustle in Bogota.
- Shower making shower sounds.
- A hair dryer.
- Spanish murmurs at a bar in Seville, Spain.
- Music from a live band at a flea market in Bogota.
- Good times and live music in Medellin.
- Morning birds in Belgium.
- Morning bells.
[Sounds of a city at night]
I’ve been in Colombia for a day, and I’m alone. By myself on the streets of Cartagena at 1am with no phone, no people and no idea where I’m going.
I was just trying to make friends. For a minute there, the friend making thing was actually going pretty well, and for the first time in South America, I wasn’t lonely.
But, yeah. Here I am.
Yesterday morning, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was a Bloody Mary and two mimosas deep at a brunch spot in New York City. Now, I’m lost on the streets of Colombia.
But I must be in the area - all this looks, I don’t know, vaguely familiar?
[bar music fades in]
Walk up to a bouncer at a nearby club. I point to my bracelet. He nods.
I figure there can’t be that many groups of twenty white people running around the streets of Cartagena, so I ask if he knows where they are. He looks at me blankly. I say “donde esta” (which is wrong) and he chuckles. Points to the right. Further away.
I look back in the direction of the hostel. I look the other way, into the dark scary abyss of night-time Cartagena.
I walk into the dark.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is the third episode of Baggage Claim, and I'm Will Conway. Text POD to (332) 877-9540.
You ready for a pathetic "sad boy" episode? Alright, let's go.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of laughter, people talking]
I heard hostels are where young people make friends, so when I got off the plane, that’s where I went first.
Mine’s called Republica - it’s three stories tall with a big courtyard in the middle. There’s a pool and a bar. A sturdy wooden table in the center. There are lots of other young people. They all seem to be doing things. Laughing. Talking. Going places. They all seem to know each other. I figure I should be doing things, too. So in the morning, I leave.
I wander around Cartagena’s Walled City, too timid to venture out very far. The city is gorgeous and European. Narrow cobblestone streets and pastel, stucco walls. Ivy crawling from the bottom and hanging vines from above. I wander into an alleyway with umbrellas strung from up high. There are couples taking pictures and smiling, and I assume it’s something I’m supposed to be impressed by so I take a picture, too.
A local guy approaches me with a big smile and I think it’s happening - he’s seen the American and he wants to make friends. This is what happens when you travel, after all. He’s going to show me around his homeland. But it turns out he just wants to sell me sunglasses. When I say no, he tries to sell me weed, and then cocaine.
“No, gracias,” I say, as polite as I can.
By the afternoon, I figure I should head back. I wander back into the hostel as the sun sets. The string lighting over the hostel’s bar kick on. The pool glows blue. The whole place glows, really.
Bar chatter. Splashing. The hostel is coming alive.
This place looks like a place where I should be having a good time. But I feel a thick wall of glass between me and the people around me. I just can’t punch through, and so I’m painfully, devastatingly alone. Made more so by all the people having a great time in every direction.
I got a drink from the bar - una cerveza, por favor. I smile politely at the people there, but then I plunk down alone at the big sturdy wooden table in the center.
I scroll through Instagram. A picture of my three closest buddies at a dive bar around the corner from my old place, as if they’re taunting me. My brother with my parents. My ex-fiance at a concert with a fella I don’t recognize.
I sense motion in my periphery. A stool slides. A person sits. I glance.
She’s a beautiful, petite woman with tightly knit, curly flaming orange hair extending no longer than my own. I imagined her walking into her hairdresser with a bust of Augustus Caesar under her arm. “I want my hair to look exactly like this,” she would say. “Except even more noble and Roman.”
Anyway, she’s focused and frustrated, frantically scribbling in an old notebook. Every few seconds, she shakes her head and viciously self-edits with a furious pen stroke through whatever she’s just written.
After a moment of this, she looks up, locks eyes with me, and pouts. She says in a gentle accent, “I am a terrible writer.”
“Where are you from?” I ask.
Celine’s from the French region of Switzerland. She hasn’t been home in nearly six years, though. She is fluent in three languages, which I soon learned isn’t unusual for Europeans. She had been a travel agent, but that’s not really a career any more. Also, she was more about the “travel” than the “agent” anyway. So she bopped around for a while and found herself here, at a sturdy wooden table across from me in Cartagena.
She asks if I’m going on the pub crawl. I didn’t know there was a pub crawl.
I say maybe. I don’t really know anyone. She said no one does. That’s why there’s a pub crawl.
Time passes and more people sit at this big, sturdy wooden table.
There’s a Dutch Marine, recently on leave after an extended tour in Aruba, of all places. He has piercing blue eyes, elegantly tattooed arms and spends many of his non-military hours professionally modeling. I can see why. There are two French accountants who worked together just to quit their jobs on the same day in favor of doing something a little more interesting. There’s an Argentinian welder who had been laid off in January and remembers the day with a hidden smile.
A lady came around with bracelets for the pub crawl. $40,000 Colombian pesos. Seems steep. That’s like thirteen bucks and change, US. Whatever. I’m feeling good and these people are nice. I pay it.
I wander off to the bathroom to brush my teeth before we go. Grab my toothbrush and toothpaste and meander into the shared bathroom.
[Sounds of a shower, sounds of a hair dryer]
And there’s Julia, blow-drying her hair.
Julia’s 26. She had been living with her boyfriend of four years in their apartment in Dublin. She has the summer off before starting law school, and she found her relationship overcomplicated by all sorts of terrible things I won’t share here. She gracefully bowed out, booked a flight and got the fuck out of Ireland for the summer.
She says this all without even the softest touch of pain. And I certainly spoke with no pain moments later when, between spit takes and brush rinses, I explained that I knew exactly what she meant when she described career complacency, and I maybe knew a little something about breaking off long relationships and getting on an airplane.
Her hair is dry. My teeth are clean. We hug like old friends and follow the crowd to the first bar.
[Sounds of salsa music]
Couple hours later, and we’re twenty travelers from around the world, each with our own unique journey to this exact moment, and each in this same funky, sweaty salsa bar in Cartagena, Colombia.
Some can salsa and others can’t. Some speak Spanish and others don’t. I can’t really do either. It doesn’t matter. We’re twenty people, all with our own stories. All with our own broken pasts. Some are escaping, some are searching, but all of us are right here.
I’m 2500 miles from any place I’ve ever been, and I feel home.
And then my debit card gets declined. I guess Bank Of America can’t figure out what the hell I’m doing at a salsa bar in Colombia. I don’t blame them. I tell Julia I’m stepping out for a minute, but the music is loud and I can’t tell if she understood. She nods. I step outside but I don’t have service because, you know, I’m in Colombia. So I rush it. I scramble back to the hostel, connect to the Wifi, clear the hold, and scramble back out to the bars. But I get about halfway back and I realize I have no idea where the hell I’m going.
[Sounds of city noises at night. Footsteps]
There are five bars in the nighttime abyss. In the first four, there’s no Julia, no Seline, no rugged Dutch Marine. There is only me, alone, and fully aware that these people are not my friends, this is not my local pub, this isn’t my city. I am a passing stranger, and if I left right now, no one would miss me, even for a second.
On the bright side, it turns out my Spanish actually borderline exists now. That happened really fast. Well that’s not true at all, but I can use a phrase like “my Spanish” and be referring to an object of some kind.
I walk into the fifth bar. Stares. Murmurs. Gringo in Colombia. Got it. And then, over my shoulder, I hear:
I don’t have any friends on this continent, so I assume it’s not for me. But I hear it again.
I turn around. He’s a heavier guy. My age, maybe. Black tee, friendly face.
He asks if I’m looking for a big group of white people.
I say I am and what gave it away. He doesn’t understand. So I say “yes, thank you.” Simplify.
He motions that I should follow him, and he walks out the door.
[Just music. Then, footsteps. Bar music slowly fades away. Two sets of footsteps.]
“¿Puedas hablar español?” he asks.
I look at him blankly. He laughs. Takes out his phone. Types. Hands it to me and my eyes adjust. Google Translate.
“Where are you from?”
I say New York out loud. And then, I say two of the twenty Spanish words I know. “Y tu?”
He points to the ground, indicating he’s from here. I’ll stop asking that question of local people soon, but I haven’t learned yet.
He types again. Hands it back: Why are you in Colombia?
Ugh, I don’t know. I hate this question.
I type: “I want to explore the world. Meet new people.”
He nods. In English, he says “You like Cartagena?”
I say “me gusta mucho.” I nod enthusiastically. He laughs. I smile.
We walk a long way in silence.
[Sounds of a bar, live music]
Another bar. Nicer than the last.
He says something to the bouncer in Spanish. Points to me, points to the bracelet on my wrist. The bouncer waves me in. I turn to my new friend and say thank you. I go for a handshake. He goes for that combo high-five hug thing we’re all so fond of. We settle on the hug. He walks back into the night and I go upstairs.
No white people here, either. It’s time to go home.
[Sounds of bells, birds chirping]
I wake up the next morning, melting into a twin size mattress in my dorm room.
Julia walks in, brushing her teeth. She sees I’m awake. “Oh, what happened to you?” she wants to know.
I explain the whole thing: My card got declined, didn’t have service, I needed WiFi to clear the hold. Went back, couldn’t find them.
“Why’d you need your debit card?” she asks.
To buy a drink.
“Drinks were included with the bar crawl. Check your bracelet.”
I look down. Spin the bracelet on my wrist.
“Son of a bitch.”
[Theme Music Begins]
Heh, that was dumb. Next week, I trample all over a cherished community holiday when I can't find a bathroom. Text POD to (332) 877-9540. If you haven't already, mash that subscribe button on whatever platform you're on. Show notes and other credits at heybaggageclaim.com. See you next week.
[Theme Music Ends]