Paranoid and terrified, Will spends an afternoon in a bathroom at a bus terminal in Buenaventura, Colombia after a mysterious interaction has him convinced he's about to be kidnapped. 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
- I dropped a litany of statistics in the middle of this one. I’ll post my sources on Buenaventura below, but it’s worth noting you’re going to find conflicting numbers all over the internet. The murder rate has supposedly fallen (some claim it’s as low as 24 per 100k, which seems like an impossible improvement), but apparently the “disappearance rate” has mysteriously risen in its place. Local activists think this is just sleight-of-hand by government officials under pressure to report improvements in city safety, and I’m inclined to agree. Regardless, it’s very difficult to get a clear picture of what’s happening in Buenaventura from outside the city. The basic trend seems to be that the situation is improving after decades of civil war and cartel, paramilitary and FARC influence, but it’s improving much slower than most of the rest of Colombia, and government officials aren’t being entirely honest with the truth.
- This was one of the most terrifying situations of my life. I know - based on the way I delivered the story - that this sounds less terrifying than Treading Water. Not really though. In both situations, I felt out of options, cornered, and at the mercy of random chance.
- I gave a personal shout-out in this episode to Randy P, Aaron M, Felisha B and Jay S. If you want your name on the next episode of Baggage Claim, there are two things to do:
- It's worth noting that if you text FRIEND, POD or anything else, you're 100% getting a personal phone call. I don't know if that's a benefit or a turnoff, but it is what it is ;-)
Things I wrote that you should read
Relevant articles and posts by smart people
- The Colombian city forgotten by peace by Joshua Collins
- 'It was horrible before': how a deadly Colombian city became a safe haven by Karen McVeigh
I hear with my little ear
- A leaky faucet in a bathroom
- Another flushing toilet (sorry)
- An intersection in Saravena, Colombia
- A boat rocking in the ocean
- The hum of a boat’s motor
- A bus terminal in Varadero, Cuba
I respect that, for a man traveling a foreign continent rife with beautiful places and interesting cultural landmarks and fascinating people and cultures, I’m spending too much time telling stories about public bathrooms. I get that. But…
[Sounds of a leaky faucet, flushing toilet]
This particular public bathroom is in a bus terminal in the most dangerous city in Colombia - maybe the world. I’m kneeling on a toilet so no one can see my feet, and I’m absolutely 100% positive I’m about to be kidnapped. Through the tiny little crack in the stall door, I see a man standing at the sink. He’s been there for far too long. The water stopped running a while ago. I can’t quite see his face, but I’m convinced he’s waiting for me. I’m holding my breath as long as I can - until I feel my face flush and my cheeks turn red and I go dizzy, and then I exhale as slowly, as quietly as I can. And though I’m completely out of breath, I inhale slowly. Silently. I don’t know if this is working - I’m not trained in this Navy Seal, James Bond shit. But it feels impossible that he can’t hear my pulse, because it’s throbbing in my ears. But damn I’m hoping he can’t.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. I'm Will Conway. Alright, so we've got a ghost story today. I still, to this moment, don't really know what the hell happened. Maybe you can help me out.
Text POD to (332) 877-9540. Let's be friends.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of a motorboat, waves lapping]
I’m on a little twelve-person passenger boat motoring down Colombia’s Pacific Coast. The boat’s cramped - my black and gray backpack is fighting my feet for legroom, and my lifejacket is forcing me to lean forward and hug my knees. I can hear one of the crewmen on the thin plastic roof above me. I have no idea what the hell he’s doing up there, but I can’t stop thinking he’s going to bust through the roof and land on my head.
There’s a Colombian man sitting next to me. Over the weekend, we developed a friendship at this little jungle oasis in Bahia de Malaga National Park. Cliff jumping, whale watching, plenty of laying around in hammocks. But the only way out of that park is through Colombia’s main port city on the Carribean coast: Buenaventura.
And so as we’re bumping shoulders and getting far too close for my comfort, the Colombian man is talking and talking. The more he talks, the more terrified I become. The man’s from Cali, Colombia - about two hours away. He’s talking like someone from Philadelphia would talk about Camden. A little condescending; a little holier-than-thou.
It’s unbelievably dangerous, he says. More dangerous than I could ever expect as an American.
I said, “Yeah, I mean I read in the guidebooks that it’s a little edgy.”
He said, “No, no. It’s not a little edgy. It’s terrifying.”
He works for the government, and he starts rattling off a few stats.
First of all, he says, Buenaventura is one of the largest ports in Colombia - about 65% of all imports to Colombia come in through the city. It’s also estimated that as much as 45% of all drug exports leave from Buenaventura, so it has tactical importance for drug cartels smuggling out of Colombia. And it’s right on the edge of the jungle, where FARC and paramilitary groups still go to war. It’s also geographically removed from the rest of the country, so it’s facing levels of poverty that the rest of the country left behind decades ago. It’s a city of 333,000, but it hasn’t had a new high school built in over four decades (link).
He also rattles off a few violent crime statistics. When measuring violent crime, statisticians often use the murder-per-100,000 number. For every 100,000 residents, how many die annually at the hands of homicide? For context, New York City checked in at 2.8 in 2017 - meaning fewer than three residents were murdered for every 100,000 people in the city (link). But New York City is considered a relatively safe example. Camden, New Jersey - which is considered highly dangerous in the U.S. - checks in at 28, also in 2017. Buenaventura comes in at 144, as of 2015. The rate has fallen, but then it spiked again, and local activists seem to believe that the rate never really fell much, but that city officials under pressure to reduce crime cooked the books a bit. Regardless, the place is absurdly dangerous he tells me - orders of magnitude more so than the rest of Colombia.
He works for the Colombia government, and he reminds me it’s not in his best interest to reinforce the stereotype of Colombia as this terribly dangerous, wild west land of outlaws. But there are a few places tourists should absolutely never go. One of those places? Buenaventura.
“Thanks for telling me now,” I say. We’re inching ever closer on this boat, and it’s not like I can jump off and swim home. Though a three mile swim across the Pacific in the height of shark and whale migration season sounds dainty by comparison.
“Look no worries,” says the Colombian. “I’ll help you navigate to your bus.”
[Sounds of the boat and waves fade. Sounds of indistinct Spanish chatter rise]
My friend helped me navigate to the busport, but he’s going to Cali - it’s about two hours from Buenaventura, and there’s a bus every half an hour or so. But I was going to Medellin. It’s an overnight ride, and there’s a bus only once a day - at 8pm. It was just after lunch - about 2 o’clock when we got to the terminal. We buy our tickets, say our goodbyes, and my man looks at me and says “are you good?” I say yeah. He hops on his bus back to Cali, and I step outside for a cigarette.
[Indistinct chatter fades, sounds of motorbikes and buses rise]
It’s just the sidewalk outside the busport, right? How dangerous can it be? But still, cars are slowing down to look at me - this white guy in a purple shirt in the most dangerous city in Colombia. I catch men stealing glances from across the road. Maybe I’m a touch paranoid, but I feel like I see danger lurking in every corner. And so I flick my cigarette and turn right back around but, as I do, I hear a voice - in English - coming from behind me.
I turn around. It’s a petite woman with a big smile - early forties, maybe.
“Can I ask you a question?” she says. Near-perfect English. It’s odd - I hadn’t met a single English speaker in this town. Not at the restaurant by the port, not at the bus gate, not in the taxi. But this woman speaks with only the softest accent. I nod.
She asks me where I’m from, and I say I’m from New York City. She asks me why I’m here, and I say I’m exploring. She says, “No, no. Why are you here, in Buenaventura?” And I say I just came from the boats and I’m catching a bus. She nods. And she pauses for a minute.
“Well,” she asks, “Why don’t you stay longer?”
“Honestly?” I ask.
“Honestly,” she says.
“Honestly, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve told me this city isn’t safe - especially Colombians - let alone for a tourist who looks like me.” She nods, understanding. And then, “Are there places in New York City that aren’t safe?”
“Yeah, of course,” I say. “But the difference is I know where to go and where not to go in New York City.” I choose not to tell her I just found out Buenaventura has a crime rate that resembles war-time Baghdad more than the Bronx.
Regardless, she asks me, “Well, if you knew where you could and couldn’t go, would you want to spend more time here?” I hesitate for a moment. I’m starting to feel my heart rate. Something isn’t right.
“I think so, yeah, I guess.”
“Well, my brother and I are starting a tour company, and we want to show people around our city. Help people understand the way people live here.”
“Oh well that’s great,” I say. “But I have a bus to catch.”
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“Cali,” I say. “Bus is soon.”
“Hmm. What’s your bus number?” she asks.
I say nothing. Tuck my ticket in my pocket.
“Well, maybe we could just take a short tour. Come meet my brother. You’ll really like him.”
“I don’t have time,” I say. “Thank you very much.”
Her pleasant demeanor drops. Her eyes go cold. She pulls a cell phone from her pocket.
“Calling my brother,” she whispers.
Into her phone, she says, verbatim (and in English, so I can hear): “Yeah, his name’s Will. From New York City. Wearing a purple shirt.” And then she just... leaves.
[Sounds of the street fade, sounds of leaky faucet rise]
I’m in the bathroom, stripping down and changing all my clothes. Purple shirt and shorts are gone. This isn’t a jungle oasis anymore. I pull on a black tee and jeans.
There’s a voice talking to the attendant outside. I hang my bag from the hook on the back of the stall door and step onto the toilet lid in a crouch just as a man walks in the bathroom. And I just… wait.
He paces around for a minute. And then I hear the faucet running. And then the water stops. And there’s nothing but the ambient chatter from the terminal and the humming of an air duct, and the soft drip of a leaky faucet. His feet don’t move and he stays right where he is. And I stay there for a long time, and he stays there for a long time, and a whole lot of nothing happens and my legs are cramping.
And then… footsteps. He leaves. But I don’t move. I stay there for more than half an hour, crouched on a toilet lid and sweating and shaking and sure that at any moment, someone with a gun is going to burst in and pull me into a rusted out old white van and drive to some hut in the jungle and my parents are going to get the most terrifying call any parent could imagine.
From the comfort of a recording booth with a microphone a year later, I can say it’d be a much better story if something wild happened here. If there was some climactic finish - some chase scene or some incredible drama. But these stories on the road rarely end in such a way. That is, really, one of the most interesting sensations I’ve learned in traveling: the cadence of danger is not what you might think. In one minute, you’re rope swinging or eating arepas in a hammock. In the next, you’re hiding in a bathroom, horrified and absolutely certain death is all there is. And in the next, it’s over, forgotten.
I stayed in that bathroom for half an hour, and then I climbed down from the toilet lid and poked my head around the corner. The bathroom attendant jumped when I walked out - she didn’t even realize I was still there.
I paced around for an hour, paranoid and seeing the dodgiest of glances in every person. Seeing kidnappers and murderers in ordinary folks waiting for buses for mundane reasons.
To this day, I still don’t know what exactly happened on that sidewalk outside the bus terminal. It’s entirely possible something dark and sinister was afoot - that I made the right call ducking into that bathroom, that my instincts were sharp and smart and my heart was pounding for good reason. It’s also possible I just misread a woman who’s really proud of her city, of her community, and wanted young tourists to more deeply understand her home. It’s possible I was a new traveler with limited experience who’d lived nothing but a sheltered American life and just absolutely refused to see a human as a human just because she called Buenaventura her home. I don’t know, and I never will.
But I know, every time I put on that purple shirt, I think about her. And I think about that bathroom stall.
At 8 o’clock, I stepped on that bus, and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. I woke up the next morning, sun streaming through the window and beautiful green mountains and cattle grazing and a little red barn on a hillside, and I knew I was alive.
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. Alright, I said I would do this, so here it is:
On Apple Podcasts, Randy P. says, "Pure Entertainment, 5/5. One of the most entertaining podcasts out there. All the material is relatable and part of life."
Thank you Randy.
Aaron M. says, "Cool Format, 5/5. Really like the concept. Host has an awesome voice. And interesting, easy-to-digest stories. Great job."
Thank you Aaron.
I also want to say thank you to Felicia B, and for a wonderful conversation with Jay S. down in Oklahoma. Thank you, Jay. Appreciate that chat, man.
If you want a shout-out next week, text FRIEND to (332) 877-9540.
Alright, see you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]