Big Swamp and The Fishmongers of Tasajera, Colombia In Photos

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BEACON

Tasajera, Colombia is a small village that lies a little more than an hour east of the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla, and is home to a thriving community of artisanal fishmongers. The fishmongers of Tasajera live from booms to busts. Sometimes they come to market with a catch that nets them $50 a day, and that’s good for a fishmonger. Other days, a crew of three might go a whole stretch of days with no catch.

Colombia’s ‘Big Swamp’, Ciénaga Grande, is home to a thriving community of artisanal fishmongers on the country’s Caribbean coast. This photo essay takes you inside Tasajera, a village where fishmongers from around Ciénaga Grande come to sell their catch. Continue reading on Beacon…

Her Loyal Lieutenant Is Gone

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BEACON

Let’s face it: the crime committed down at the Getsemani Hotel wasn’t even a very complicated stunt to pull off, nor was it very elegant. But hell… the guys who did it still got away with it.

Would the crime committed against a guest of the Getsemani Hotel ever have happened if Lieutenant Riveros hadn’t been sent away? This is a personal essay about the corruption surrounding a petty crime on the streets of Cartagena, Colombia’s False Positives Scandal, and loyalty. Continue reading on Beacon…

And I Like You Too, Julio Cesar

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BEACON

I often see Colombians crossing themselves when they walk in front of a large church like La Santísima Trinidad (that means Holy Trinity in English). It’s a very Catholic tradition. What you do is you hold your hand open and raise it to your forehead. From there, you draw a line down the center of your body to your chest, then swipe over to the left for a second, and then swipe to the right, and that’s it. You’re done.

I met a man in front of a sad-looking yellow church with sea green doors called La Santísima Trinidad. He wanted to know about my beliefs. His name was Julio Cesar. This is a personal essay about an oil man, Colombia’s tradition of Catholicism, and tolerance.

“I like you,” Julius Cesar told me. He liked me. But did I like him? If I did, that would mean that Julius Cesar and I like each other, and that sounds downright off color according to my sexuality. I just couldn’t say the same about Julius Cesar right away. We had just met on a park bench.

Not just any park bench though. It was more of a plaza, a big, wide open brick plaza in front of an old sad-looking yellow church with sea-green doors that I’ve never seen open before. It was called Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood. And lots of people come and sit and watch kids play soccer and eat street meat drenched with ketchup and mayonnaise and some people booze. Julius Cesar was boozing. He even offered me something to drink. I said no because I already had some. It was a Wednesday night to be precise. 10pm.

Ok, now I’m going to tell you a secret: the truth is that I did like Julius Cesar. No, not because of his name (which, was a pretty cool one, to be honest, because he really looked like a Roman gladiator: he had a big rub-a-dub belly and a bald, glistening head in the shape of an egg. Plus, when he smiled, he looked like he was ready to eat you whole, so if it weren’t for his otherwise polite and friendly demeanor, you’d be scared of him) but because of how he treated me: he was a nice man.

Having belief is important, and I’m a believer that two people can be of different religions and still treat each other well. And it’s funny, because religion is usually thought of as a foundation for forming our values and our sense of right and wrong, and yet, people of different religions often hate each other. Anyway, it turned out that like roughly 95% (check stat) of all Colombians, Julius Cesar is Catholic. He told me he believes that going to church every Sunday is very important too, and whenever he’s with his family, and it’s a Sunday, he goes.

Then he asked me what I am.

“What are you?” he asked.

“Well, my mother was raised Protestant, but my Dad was from a Catholic family,” I said.

“So you’re both?” he asked.

“Neither,” I said.

“Interesting…” he said.

The other thing I should tell you about Julius Cesar is that he is an oil man. Well, not exactly an oil man. I mean, he doesn’t go drilling holes and sucking out crude per se. He’s more of a construction man who works in the oil sector (No 1. export and big business in Colombia, by the way) and travels all over Colombia for his job.

“I work here, but I live in Bucaramanga,” he said. Let’s be honest, Bucaramanga is a very silly word. But let’s be honest again, it’s a real place.

“What do you do here in Cartagena?” I asked.

“Building a refinery,” he said.

From what I’ve learned, Julius Cesar and other oil men get shipped all over the place to do work, and that often means moving away from their families for long stretches of time. Some of them go a month on the job, and then two weeks rest, then a month back at the field.

I wondered if maybe Julius Cesar was separated or had family troubles from moving around so much from work.

“Does it put a strain on the family?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Because when I’m with my family, we treat each other well. We do things together, we share together, we’re a really close family, but then sometimes I have to go off and work, and it’s hard, but I’m happy,” he said.

Julius Cesar seemed like such a nice guy.

Ok, so I guess it’s easy to say that you like someone because they’re nice, but let’s face it, it’s not too hard to be nice. And being nice doesn’t mean someone is good. Come to think of it, nice people have totally screwed me over before. What if this Julius Cesar ham turned out to be an ace lier (un mentiroso en español)?!, I thought to myself. So I got to thinking why I really liked Julius Cesar…

No answers.

So the next night, I went back to the plaza and sat down in the same exact place where I had met Julius Cesar. Except he wasn’t there. In his place, there was an old woman in a very pretty purple dress. My guess is that she made it herself, but since she was a stranger, I didn’t ask that right away. Instead, I asked,

“Would you like some wine?”

She looked at me and opened her mouth. I could tell she would have been smiling, but since she didn’t have any teeth, it just looked like an open mouth. I opened my mouth at her in response.

“Ok, but I can’t get drunk, ok?” she said.

She was so sweet. I asked her what her name was and it was something like Magda but a lot of what she said was incomprehensible so I could be wrong. We sat and watched the neighborhood kids play soccer and then some Argentine jugglers came alone and put on a show. Then some Spanish jugglers, some bicyclists, etc.

“The whole world comes here to meet,” she said.

“Yes… it sure seems like it,” I said. “It’s really lovely.”

Old Magda had some more wine and I had some more wine too, and she asked if I had a girlfriend and I told her yes and she told me I was a nice young man and that she was a teacher and she told me she taught little children and I said oh how nice.

And the truth was, Magda was nice, but she wasn’t getting off the hook that fast.

She told me she was a teacher of religious education and when I asked her what kind of religious school, she said,

“Mormon.”

“Oh, how interesting,” I said. “Now how is what you teach in Mormon class different from what they teach in Catholic school?”

Old Magda paused and got thoughtful. Then she turned serious.

“Mormonism is the truth!” she shouted.

“But what’s the difference, I mean, there must be different interpretations of those biblical stories or something like that, right? I don’t know, so I’m just wondering, you know?”

“Jesus said there would be one path to the truth! and Mormonism is it!” she shouted again.

Now, I don’t want to come off sounding like a trombone or anything, but this old bat was turning out to be a total kumquat. She wasn’t answering my question. And she couldn’t plead guilty for being drunk, because I looked and she hadn’t even had a full glass of wine.

It makes me sad, but Magda turned out to be the most intolerant old bird in that plaza. She said she had even disowned some children over the whole religion thing. And it’s funny, because even though she recognized the beauty of this diverse plaza teeming with people of every sort, she couldn’t reconcile the fact that someone might do it Catholic-style or Islam-style or some other style than Mormon. I capped my wine and said goodbye. It was box wine, that’s why.

As I walked back to my room, I thought about Julius Cesar again. And I realized that the reason I liked Julius Cesar is because even though I was a very different man than he was, he was very tolerant of me, and sometimes being tolerant is a hard thing to be.

Fooled At Night

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BEACON

It’s remarkable how easy it is to get fooled. Sometimes, clever people really get the best of me. And the hot night of July 24th was one of those times.

Much earlier that day, through a reckless series of Si Señors and No Señoras I found myself in the company of a new friend. He’s a leather smith and we were sitting in his shop. It was a sweltering night, around 9pm or so in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood, and my new friend the leather smith was done for the day. So we set to drinking.

Just the thought of old Javier kills me. What a clever old ma he turned out to be. I’ve known some pretty clever folks, but Javier earned a spot right up there at the top.

 

The reason I knew? The old bird tricked me. You see, I met Javier on a hot July night in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood. Much earlier in the day, through a reckless series of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no mams’ I found myself in the company of a new friend. He was a leathersmith, and we were sitting in his shop. It was around 9pm or so and my new friend the leathersmith was done for the day. So we set to drinking. And that’s when Javier interrupted us.

 

Even though it’s a dangerous habit, I love to make judgements about people before I meet them. It makes me feel good, and as long as I don’t say my judgements out loud, it’s hard to hurt anyone’s feelings when I’m flat out wrong. So in this case, I figured Javier was probably 50 or 60 years old. Maybe even older. And since he told me his family had lived in the neighborhood forever, he must have known everything about everyone.

 

He didn’t strike me as a clever hawk at all when I first saw him leaning up against the cool stucco in a shady doorway in the Getsemani. He actually looked more like an old grouchy buzzard perching, waiting to clean up the remains of a kill that would never come. He had long legs and long arms and he sat with his legs tucked up to his chest and his arms hugged his legs together. Tight. And then every once in awhile he kind of sprawled out and stretched everything. He watched everyone who passed and didn’t say much of anything to anyone.

 

My final judgement made me sad. I couldn’t help it: Javier looked like a poor old bastard. I said hello.

 

It was only later that I found out that old Javier knew everything about everyone – at least a lot more than I did anyway.

 

Javier told me his family goes back five generations. He said the Spanish shipped over his family to be slaves. The slaves the Spanish brought from Africa built Cartagena with their hands, hauling around stones to build Cartagena’s fortress of walls. The walls the Spanish built were there to keep out pirates and competing houses of royalty. The Spanish fended off the… WHO? Buccaneers?

 

But some of the slaves turned into maroons and escaped. Javier said they fled from Cartagena to a place called San Basilio de Palenque.

 

Develop this narrative. One slave, Benkos Bioho, led the resistance and founded a village, which Javier calls the first free town in the Americas: San Basilio de Palenque. Many of Palenque’s residents say Benkos Bioho was the town’s liberator and founder. Bioho was a leader of African resistance movements during the 17th century. He even organized guerrilla attacks on the port of Cartagena with stolen arms.

 

The way the Palenqueros remember Benkos Bioho is the strongest of the strong. In the middle of the town, there’s a statue of Bioho’s torso shooting out of a brick wall. His arms are outstretched and his wrists are bound together in chains. When you look closely though, you can see he’s breaking free of his chains, and his face is filled with glory and indignation.

 

Because Benkos Bioho’s new town was made up of maroons, the language they spoke was a blend of western African languages and bits and pieces of Portuguese, the language of the slavers. The language in Bioho’s town is known as Palenquero. Many words in Palenquero come from African Bantu, a series of languages spoken by people from Africa’s western coast – from Niger to Angola.

 

It’s no surprise the Palenqueros have trouble expressing themselves with Spanish-speaking Colombians. The word for peanut in Spanish is mani. In Palenquero peanut is ngubá. In Colombian Spanish, you call ‘money’ plata (which also happens to be the word for silver). In Palenquero, ‘money’ is burú.

 

The thing is, the Palenquero language is disappearing. San Basilio de Palenque is made up of around 3,500 people, and only the older folks speak it.

 

What is Colombia’s history of slavery?

 

Javier called the town of San Basilio de Palenque a free town, and I could tell he was proud of how his ancestors liberated themselves from the ugly chains of slavery. But the people of San Basilio de Palenque live in something of an poor economy, and it’s hard to escape the poverty that comes with yam and peanut farming.

 

(What is Palenque’s condition? Even though the town is free from slavery, it’s subjected to a great deal of poverty. People who grew up in the village and try to find work close by sometimes cannot because Spanish-speaking Colombians discriminate against them.)

 

Reflection?

 

I looked at Javier. I could tell he cared a great deal about his good looks and handsomeness because he was holding a pink razor blade in his hands. And without shaving cream, he was shaving a white, bristly patch of whiskers on his chin and his throat. It seemed the sweat dripping off of him was the only thing he had for lubrication. Good thing he had something to make it smooth. He took a quick few swipes with the razor blade. I’ll admit, old Javier looked pretty suave.

 

But then I took a closer look. He didn’t have any whiskers. The razor was just a prop.

 

Javier was much more clever than I thought. As it turns out, he was a drug dealer, and you could buy prostitutes from him too, but you’d never guess he was a merchant of such things. He probably even called himself a salesman. It’s a more dignified title, and Javier kept up a very dignified appearance. Boy did he fool me.

 

The thought I couldn’t get off my mind was about Javier’s condition: when you’re whole race is dehumanized, illegitimized and put under the lashes of such an ugly institution as slavery, you have to be smart, you have to be clever to survive. For the descendents of Javier’s family, to survive meant being captured by the Europeans, enduring their torture, being herded into a ship, crossing the ocean and not losing the willpower to live, and – eventually – using their cunning to escape.

 

All along, that probably meant going against the rule of law. But it’s no surprise to me that when the rules of civilization were so cruel, so inhumane, so disgusting, the Afro-Colombians felt compelled to break them. Otherwise, they would have been screwed.

 

I looked at Javier. He pretended to swipe the razor against his whiskers, waiting for the night’s business to begin. To think, I had him cut out for a poor old bird.

Introducing The Bacatá Diaries

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BEACON

Almost every reporter I know has a notebook. Like Polish journalist Ryszard Kapusckinski, I like to keep two. The second one is a more private one, where I toss bits and pieces of less formal reporting, thoughts and reflections into a personal, hand-written rough draft of history.

That second notebook is what I hope to share with you through The Bacatá Diaries. You can expect the stories I publish on Beacon will read in the style of personal essays woven together with bits of original reporting and Colombian history that I find interesting. I like characters, but I think the dance of back-and-forth that happens between reporter and subject sometimes tells more about our humanity than the story itself. Continue reading at Beacon…

A Day At The Zoo: Colombia, Soccer, And Rules

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BEACON

The goal came late in the second half. Ricardo’s rum came in a cardboard carton box. It was around 1pm in the afternoon and other things were happening too, and it really didn’t matter who you were or what you looked like, just as long as you were dressed in a yellow jersey, swinging your fists, and screaming ¡hijueputa¡s and ¡joda!s and ¡Aayyyyyyy MARICA!s and praying deeper and harder than you have for any God, any religion, any personal wish, that Colombia would win.

After supreme footballer Andrés Escobar got murdered for committing an own goal in 1994, Colombia’s national team started to droop. Between 2002-2010, it missed out on three World Cup tournaments. So in 2014, when Colombia played Ivory Coast and claimed a 2-1 victory, the world around me turned into a zoo. I wasn’t worried though. I knew the rules of the game. Continue reading on Beacon…

This Tastes Wild: Ivan Ospina’s Kitchen

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BEACON

Ivan Ospina remembers being on his Grandmother’s sugarcane farm and smelling the sweat. It never bothered him. He liked it. Now, closer to Bogotá’s cosmopolitan beat, when he smells sweat, it reminds him of the country, of the farmers, of where food really comes from. It reminds him of Guarapo, a fermented sugarcane juice. Ivan says there was always a big pitcher of it that was fresh and everyone used to sip. But then there was a pitcher of really strong, fermented Guarapo that Ivan used to sneak off and drink when no one was looking. It was what the farm hands used to drink, and it was delicious.

Colombian chef Ivan Ospina grew up eating the same boring rice, beans and tasteless pieces of meat in a small farm town in central Colombia. When he came to Bogotá as a young kid, he started to reflect on how his country’s gastronomy could be better. Now, at 39 years old, Ivan’s restaurant and kitchen are transforming the way Colombia tastes. Continue reading on Beacon…

Immigration in Colombia: News from Caracas

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BEACON

It was really hard to see her crying all alone. It was dark in the room where I found her and she was crying into the light that came from the television screen. On the screen, you could see how huge the crowds were, and how everyone was in the streets. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew that whatever was happening, it was cutting Yoselie Gonzalez wide open.

Yoselie Gonzalez is a Venezuelan student living in Colombia. As her studies ended, she made the hard decision to stay after Venezuela’s crisis stripped her of any opportunities back home. Now she faces life as a ‘foreigner’ in Colombia. But being ‘foreign’ in Colombia is nothing like the sense of immigration she grew up with in Venezuela. Continue reading on Beacon…

The Broken Song: Making Salsa

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BEACON

There are a couple of places around Bogotá where they play Salsa. This one was a modest looking place that sits just off this side street in Centro. It was housed in an old colonial and the only way you know you’re there is the name engraved into a stone block next to the door. It reads Quiebracanto.

Colombia has a strong tradition of Salsa that resonates from the Pacific-coast city of Cali. So when I found myself at a salsa club listening to Toño Barrio, a Cali-based Salsa group, I tried to remember the fast, complex Salsa step, the rules I had learned several years back. But sometimes it’s better when the rules get broken. Continue reading on Beacon…

Oil, These Leaves, And Aura

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BEACON

Through those tiny porthole windows, New York City must have looked mammoth, maybe even terrible, as her plane hovered above the tips of the city’s skyscrapers, dipped its nose toward the runway, reversed the engines, and landed. I always get a rush when I see the skyline out those tiny airplane windows. I can’t imagine what it all looked like to Aura though – this place so new and different from her own.

Aura Tegria didn’t seem as scared, as nervous as I thought she might be when she told me that she and Vladimir were in Bogotá to apply for U.S. visas. She wasn’t just going to New York City on holiday either. Continue reading on Beacon…