It’s been thirteen days since my feet left American soil and I placed them firmly onto the tarmac in Cartagena, Colombia, but I swear to you, that could have been a lifetime ago. Those same feet have walked further and endured more in less than a fortnight than I ever expected they could. I’m sitting here now on the rooftop terrace of my hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia, my legs a constellation of bug bites (I just now pulled some kind of biting bug out of the soft flesh behind my knee), scrapes, and bruises, my feet blistered and swollen, my skin damp and flushed, and I’m still me and yet another me, too. There was a Kaelyn who flirted with bartenders and was reminded that her heart wasn’t quite as inaccessible as she pretended. A Kaelyn who danced and sang and writhed with the electricity she created within herself. A Kaelyn who was more joyous than any of the selves that came before. That woman is still here. But she’s evolving again.
Never has shedding a skin been so instantaneous. Traveling does that to me. Nothing is so painfully pleasurable as travel, there is no touch so rough or so gentle, no master as demanding and generous. I’m using sexual imagery here because travel is a power play, and I’ll tell you what, travel usually comes out on top, but boy do you benefit from being the bottom. It turns you over and shakes you out. Suddenly, some assumptions you’ve held for who knows how long show their true, ridiculous colors, suddenly you are completely humbled, suddenly you find this amazing strength in yourself and find that you have given yourself a broader, more generous view of the world and the people in it. But enough with the abstract.
I won’t give you a play-by-play of my time here; the general idea will suffice. My time in Cartagena flew by. I have characteristically and whole-heartedly devoured my first shot of aguardiente (the local liquor which tastes like black licorice and goes down altogether too easily), a patacón con salsa (a king among street foods everywhere), mojarra frita (a fried fish which just might be one of my new favorite foods), various arepas and empanadas, probably too many Águila and Club Colombia beers, and a hot dog to put all other sausages to shame. I’ve found weightlessness and hilarity in a mud pit at the bottom of a volcano called El Totumo. I’ve partied from 5 to 5 (actually, 8) at a Colombian wedding only to literally fall asleep on the bride’s doorstep. You see, Colombia has already begun the process of changing the girl who left home.
Five days is not nearly enough time to get to know any place well and I hope to be able to give Cartagena a second look some time in the near future. For now, I’ll carry with me a picture of narrow streets with vines hanging from balconies, heat that softens your skin and frizzes your hair, and some pretty unbeatable street food.
We left Cartagena on Monday for Santa Marta, as we were scheduled to begin a hike to La Ciudad Perdida the next morning. The feeling of anticipation I had was not quite dread, but neither was I looking forward to it. For those of you that know me, you know as a child I would have rather sat in front of the TV and eaten a loaf of Wonder Bread than gone to play in the park across the street. As an adult, I’m a little better. I love soccer and yoga and surfing, but I have never been one for endurance sports, including hiking. And this was no ordinary hike and I was in no way, either physically or mentally, prepared for it.
La Ciudad Perdida, or Teyuna, is located in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was the sacred city of the now extinct Tairona Indians. It takes two days to get there, and two days to get back. I don’t know what I expected. I thought that my natural physical strength would carry me through, that five days wasn’t so long, that the brochure didn’t mention any level of difficulty so it couldn’t be too bad… I was so, so wrong. About an hour into the hike, after jumping into the river and thinking to myself “OK, this is cool”, we started going up a hill. That hill didn’t end for an hour. A half-naked man with a gold chain riding a horse came down the hill and I thought I was hallucinating, so exhausted was I already. That’s when I knew: this is the real thing, and it’s about to kick my ass. By the time we got to the first camp, I was feeling the beginnings of what would turn out to be some very serious blisters and nursing the bruised pride that came from acknowledging that I was not in the kind of shape that makes trudging up and down huge hills with a 25-pound backpack easy. I was done, agotada, and it was only the first day. Also, there was no toilet paper. Someone forgot to add that to the list of things we needed to bring. Some creativity ensued, but I won’t go into that. We slept in hammocks the first night, with toads the size of my foot hopping wetly beneath me, creating a chorus that did anything but send me to sleep. Think sleeping in a hammock is idyllic? In reality, it involves less blissful slumber and more sore necks and fear of flipping over. Add into the mixture the kind of hallucinogenic dreams that malaria pills deliver and you’re in for one wild night.
It was the second day that pushed me further than I’ve ever been pushed. By the time we stopped for lunch, the baby blisters on my heels had developed into full-blown sores and new ones were forming on each of my big toes. After a quick swim and some lunch, it was time to set off again, as there were still four more hours of hiking to go before we reached the base camp below Teyuna. Almost immediately, we started up another hill. Within ten minutes, I knew it was a hill to make every other hill I’d ever encountered laughable. In half an hour, I was convinced that every time I went around a bend, somehow I’d arrived back where I’d started because each bend was identical to the one before it. An hour in, I was sure that I’d somehow died and this was hell. Drenched in sweat, I was on the verge of tears when I practically fell onto the hill’s zenith. Never, never did I expect to subject myself to such extreme (for me) physical duress. Voluntarily, no less!
The next morning, after 1,263 worn, mossy stairs, we finally arrived at Teyuna and it was, of course, impressive. But as self-involved as it may sound, I was much more impressed with myself. Part of me knew that I was only halfway, that I still had to go all the way back to the beginning, up and down and up and up and down again to get there, but still, I had made it further than I would have thought possible. My friends and I agreed: something had changed. Some self-imposed limitation we had set for ourselves had just been completely annihilated, and it felt wonderful. The way back was pretty horrific in terms of the pain my blisters caused me (I now understand on a deeper level how the little mermaid felt when the price she paid for feet was to feel as though she were dancing on knives every time she took a step) but somehow that made the success even greater when I arrived back at the beginning. Whatever old Kaelyn had been capable of, this new one could do so much more.
As a closing note, for me the ruins were not the highlight of the trip in terms of things seen. It was something else, something simple and half-remembered. I woke up in a cold sweat after a particularly horrible Malarone-nightmare involving an ex-boss who I found out (in the dream, at least) was a serial killer of women and had me trapped in an elevator. All around me, swathed in mosquito netting, were my fellow hikers, but the dream had left a film of clenching fear on me, so I got up and walked outside and then, I looked up. Never had I seen the stars as I saw them in that moment. There was no electricity for miles. I was in the middle of the Colombian jungle. The stars were shining as they had never shone for me. The Milky Way looked tangible, like I could reach up and wrap it around myself, like a shawl. Orion was on the horizon to my right, and that warrior-god always reminds me of my dad, who first pointed out the three stars that make up his belt, and it was this reminder that chased away the evil vestiges of my nightmare. The world is enormous, but it is also small, and the people we love are with us always.
Knowing this, I went back inside and fell asleep.