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Feb 6-17, 2014

Arriving in Cartagena already feels like a different world. Or it could just be my excitement for being on a different continent, having made it this far, and finally being in a country that I’ve heard so much about. I set up camp in the old district (Getsemani) which is described as “gritty” by Lonely Planet, but looks fine to me. It’s here that most of the hostels are, and it’s also where the old walled-in part of town is. I’m staying on Calle Media Luna, the epicenter of young foreign debauchery. I get a quiet hostel, away from the noise and go roaming around. One hostel has a bathtub of a pool with girls draped lavishly around it, and a ping pong table hogged by a couple of bros. Another hostel has a bar that is blasting some of the best music I’ve heard so far on this trip. I grab a seat and order a beer. At night, every drug is offered to you (emphasis on cocaine) and at every step you’re asked if you want a girl (prostitution is legal). Cops pass by on bright motorcycles, but nobody seems to care. Young folk walk around with bottles of vodka, Coca-Cola (rum) or beer in their hand, while girls start slurring and dancing in the street. And this is Thursday – apparently the night to be out is Wednesday.

I go to Tu Candela, the nightclub where a few secret service agents started the end of their careers. Beautiful women, with curves reminiscent of Caribbean islands scan the room, sip lazily or dance perfectly. Two professional dancers, no more than 18 years old, get up on the bar and dance so well, that mostly everyone stops what they’re doing (including dancing) to watch. If you have a vice in your life, Cartagena is probably not the place for you. If you’re 18 and you’re on spring break, it might just be. Think of it as a marriage between the freedom of Vegas and the landscape of Miami, but beautiful. I end the night at Club Havana, named the best salsa club in Cartagena. There’s a live band belting out sweaty, desperate salsa, while the décor, atmosphere and strong Mojitos make it truly a one of a kind place. In the morning, at breakfast, I overhear an American woman, mid-thirties, talking on her cell phone: “OMG Mom, I made out with a local boy last night. He was 19!!!”. If Americans were almost nowhere to be found in Mexico and Central America, they are everywhere here.

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I spend a lot of time in Cartagena waiting for the car to arrive, so I take my first tour from one of the hostels. It’s mostly a bust, you board an ancient school bus that circles around for an hour picking up every tourist with a ticket, and then drives around at a snails’ pace. We drive up to the highest hill and the church that sits on top it. From there, you get a full view of the whole city. Turns out Cartagena is a lot bigger than I thought, and it seems that 80% is slums and pure poverty spread out over an ever-expansive stretch of land.

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I meet Kris, who’s here from Costa Rica, travelling for a few months, vacationing and trying to find a nice wife. I’m put down in his phone as ‘wingman’. After a few days, Ciro and Gina arrive as well, and we share a few lunches and dinners. Guillaume also arrives, after a treacherous 24 hours on a speed boat from Panama – but at least he comes armed with two French girls he made friends with in-between vomiting.

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Guillaume practicing his eyesight

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Ciro practicing his violin

One of the nights, I check Trip Advisor for a good restaurant that has something else to offer besides empanadas. Turns out right across the street from me is the Saint Roque restaurant, serving Indonesian fare, and with the tips (and profits) going to a local children’s foundation. After dinner (which is delicious), I ask the waitress Kelly, to meet the owner, Gerard, who even though is running back and forth, takes the time to talk, and invites me the next night to speak more about the foundation. Kelly also promises to show me salsa the next night.

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The next night, we sit down, share a beer and eat more great food. I also get a lesson in wine pairing. Gerard used to be an officer in the DKDB, the Royal Dutch Diplomatic Protection Service, being in charge, along with his team, of protecting the Queen wherever she went. I think to myself, surely somebody of a smaller stature could not be given such a job, but then I remember his handshake, and I also remember flying through the room in jiu-jitsu class at the hands of much smaller men. Like most people (it’s easy to see why later on), he fell in love with Colombia many, many years before and decided to stay. Being half Indonesian, and having been taught how to cook by his mother, he opened this restaurant. And together with Nathalie, (another Dutch transplant) he founded La Vecina.

Nathalie won a charity contest in the Netherlands and with the grant, came by herself to Cartagena, and in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods, right by the beach, rented a house to teach children in 2006. I cannot stress enough the respect I have for the courage or the type of personality needed to do something like this. Since then, the school has moved to a much bigger location, and today, they teach around 100 kids, from grades 1-5, also providing them with counseling services and most importantly, meals. They’re all taught by local women (something that reminds of this article) and volunteers (especially men), go under a strict scrutiny by Gerard before even thinking about stepping inside the school. Some of these kids are homeless, others can’t afford food, so the lunch they eat at the school is really their only meal of the day.

I talk to Gerard about the money I raised for Save the Children, and while that’s great, I’m not able to see directly where the money went – I know for example, most of their focus is now on Syria. I tell him how hard it was to find a local charity in Central/South America that would respond to my emails or prove to be trustworthy. I really want to see the school and the work they’ve done, so Gerard gets on the phone with Nathalie, and says, OK, but she would like to meet me first. We see each other the next night, and while she is very presentable, she doesn’t hold back in asking plenty of questions about my intentions. The next day, I hop in her truck, and meet Klaus, a Norwegian volunteer, who is also going to the school, to paint. I meet the children, watch their proud soccer team train and with the help of a local (for safety reasons), we walk around the very poor neighborhood. It feels like I’ve stepped in a very different world.

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While I’ve seen this kind of poverty in Egypt before, it’s a little more dysfunctional when it’s set next to a gorgeous beach with palm trees. And gone are the beautiful towering hotels with expensive cars parked outside, gone are the happy go-lucky tourists holding Mojitos or bottles of sunscreen. This barrio of ramshackle poverty is minutes away from downtown Cartagena and nobody knows it, at the very least, none of the tourists. Most of the children and locals wave and talk to Nathalie for awhile, but once we reach a bridge, halfway through, we have to turn around, since it’s not safe anymore to continue. Back at the school, I watch the kids come down to eat lunch, the young ones first, all sitting down nicely and quietly. They devour a chicken soup and a freshly caught fish with vegetables prepared by the cooks. They all steal glances toward me, sitting in a corner, alternating between a first grade Spanish book and shooting video.

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I say my goodbyes, return to my comfortable and safe hostel, eat a big plate of spicy beef at Saint Roque, sip on strong Mojitos, resuming in my outsider, touristic globe-trotting, but more disfigured. Around the corner, people are already gathering outside the two main party hostels, drinking and smoking loudly, groups of boys frantically watching groups of girls. Just a few miles away, young children go to sleep on straw mats in little clay or metal huts, without sanitation and some without having eaten dinner. But during the day they were kept safe in school and they learned something, and they had a chicken soup and a big ole’ fish. And it’s because Nathalie and Gerard took the time.

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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.