Three things startled me as I stood in the check-in line at LAX. First, the “priority” passengers for the flight to Panama City were being given preferential treatment by the agents at the check-in counter, leaving the economy class waiting endlessly for their turn. Second, two SpaceX co-workers hurriedly walked into the airport and joined the priority line. Third, the man next to me was telling me that I will be seduced, drugged, robbed and murdered.
He was warning me that certain Colombian women will pick you up at bars, spike your drink and then take the opportunity to rob you. “Always order the drink yourself and watch them open it,” he said, “They’ll kill you for your watch.” Interspersed with the details of how these heinous acts will be carried out, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “But you’ll have a great time, man, it’s a fun city.”
Out of the corner of my eye I was watching the two SpaceX employees and straining to overhear their destination. They flew with me to Panama City, but then disappeared and I didn’t see them on the flight to Cartagena. My vacation was safe.
Watching the American Southwest, and Central and South America pass underneath during the 6-hour flight was awe-inspiring. The deserts and mountains of North America were followed by the the lush forests of Central America. The jungles looked like a carpet stretched across the Earth, and puffs of clouds hovered above them.
I would uncover the depth of the issue later, but it struck me as odd that the immigration agent in Cartagena didn’t speak any English. We struggled through the entry process using hand signals — one literally, when I had to have my fingerprints scanned. She asked if I was in the country for business or “turista”. In that strange way that people try to communicate across language barriers by butchering two languages rather than just one, I responded with something like, “I here for tourist!” She pointed at the tripod sticking out of my backpack. “Yes, tripod!” I said, at once wanting to change subjects and not fully understanding what she was asking.
I was also arriving at the same time as some kind of South American boy band because just outside the baggage claim area was a horde of very young boys and girls, screaming, waving signs and taking pictures. Over the din, more hand signals got me 100,000 Colombian pesos at a currency exchange.
The Old Town and hotel were a short cab ride from the airport. At one point the cab sped along the walls surrounding the Old Town with the stone structures on one side and the Caribbean Ocean on the other, then quickly darted into the fort through a passageway no wider than a Fiat.
“Casa del Curato, amigo”, said the cab driver as he pulled up in front of a beautiful, large door, which looked no different than any of the other beautiful, large doors that littered the street. A small sign displayed the name of the hotel, but it was easily overlooked. The hotel was small but cosy, clean and well decorated. I quickly took a shower and headed out for a walk around town, and a cerveza.