After four days bouncing around the Caribbean, it was back to reality and back to work. Our van was still in a container in the port of Cartagena and in order to drive her off we had miles of red tape to unravel. Before beginning the process there was the matter of getting ourselves from Capurganá, a small Caribbean village near the Panamanian border, to the city of Cartagena. It would be a long grueling day of travel which included a two hour boat ride through rough seas, a five hour bus ride over terrible back roads, a second five and a half hour bus ride over even worse roads and, finally, a 45 minute taxi ride into the center of town. All of this after staying up late to watch the US presidential election results come in (at last we could breath a sigh of relief). Luckily for us we had two amazing friends along for the ride who would take some of the sting away from a long and arduous process. When you are at the mercy of so many factors outside of your control, the value of people with whom to share your misery cannot be overstated.
We arrived at our hostel in Cartagena late Wednesday night after sixteen straight hours of public transportation. Having been cut off from the world for almost a week we were anxious to check our email to find out that our vehicles had arrived safely and were ready to be picked up. The email we received from our coordinator confirmed this but also revealed some very bad news. It explained that due to a four day public holiday in Cartagena, of which we knew nothing about, Thursday and Friday were half days so it was imperative that we begin paperwork on Wednesday. As in 12 hours ago. This was stated in an email that was sent at 10:00 am Wednesday morning. Flustered with both stress and frustration towards our coordinator we were left with nothing actionable we could do that evening. The four other vehicles we shipped with had begun the process and the odds were against us that we would be able to catch up before the long weekend. The four of us took a walk to a small public square to regroup and calm our emotions. With the help of a couple Pilsens and a Ipad app of a cartoon kitten we were able to lift our spirits and create completely unsubstantiated optimism. We would wake up the following morning and start working our way through the process with 16 fingers firmly crossed.
Despite all odds, by midday on Thursday we were 7 steps through the 25 step process and had caught up to the other four vehicles. Until that point the holiday, which commemorates the day in 1811 when the city became the first province to declare independence from the Spanish Crown, was seen as an impediment. Now that we were back on track we were free to spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the festivities.
By two in the afternoon the city was pulsing with energy. Every restaurant, public square and corner store had transformed itself into a bar. It felt like a half day of school. One of the traditions being celebrated, its historical significance questionable, involved spray cans of water soluble foam. People of all ages would walk around spraying friends, family and strangers all in the name of fun. I suspect our light skin made us walking targets. Another fun but somewhat hostile tradition was to be smeared by a corn starch paste that people would work in their hands. Considering how much alcohol was being consumed it amazed me that things never escalated. Everyone seemed to enjoy the festivities in good spirits, although by the end of the afternoon we were anxious to return to the safety of our hotel.
By Saturday, we finally regained possession of our car and had only the 25th step of the process left to do. Unfortunately the 25th step was to buy Colombian car insurance which could not be completed until Tuesday due to the holiday weekend. So close to freedom we could taste it, we came to terms with the fact that we’d be spending another few days in Cartagena. Cartagena, it turns out, is not such a bad place to be stuck. We spent our remaining days hanging out with our close friends, sharing meals and enjoying the endless line of festivities. The nights were spent walking through old town without purpose, truly enjoying the place in which we found ourselves. We had spent over three weeks with Paula and Jeremy, which in travel time can feel more like three months. But thanks to our friends the time absolutely flew by. We were given support in times of stress and plenty of laughs in times of boredom. It was a sad day we said our goodbyes and we can only hope that someday our paths cross once again.