• Laura T Petersen

Guilt. Gratitude. Helplessness. Fatigue.

Feelings are surfacing. I don’t know if it’s because it’s the last week of our trip and I am soon to be home to my predictable life. Perhaps my optimism has become weary. Soon I will no longer have to keep my chin up in the face of unforeseen circumstances in a foreign place. Much of the trip has been about enjoying the novelty and not sweating the small stuff. Now the small stuff is rearing its head. I am tired of putting used toilet paper in the garbage can instead of the toilet for the last 3 months (it’s a South American thing). I am tired of the smell that ensues. I am tired of unpredictable showers. I am tired of seeing discarded plastic bags hanging from the trees.


On a daily basis I see people whose lives are difficult because of where they were born. There is some extreme poverty here in Colombia. The man selling books and school supplies on the sidewalk is of meagre means. I imagine the stories the Venezuelan woman, selling origami art made from worthless Venezuelan dollars, could share. The water vendors walking around the city selling their plastic water bottles from styrofoam coolers have lives starkly different from mine. I feel guilt. However it’s the same guilt I feel when I go to San Francisco or any city with homeless people. I feel guilty for having parents who invested in me, guilt for access to a decent education, and guilt for having had open doors to economic opportunities. I am well aware that these Colombians who live financially day to day may be healthier and happier mentally and socially than me and my fellow stressed out Americans. However, the images of a crying child, old men picking things out of the garbage, and a mom breastfeeding her child in their cardboard sidewalk home stay with me. Perhaps they are meant to, since they ground me in gratitude and increase my awareness of the multitude of life’s perspectives.

We decided to spend our last week on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We had a great time at Carnaval in Barranquilla and then went to the town of Tagonga. I had high hopes for our visit to Tagonga, the small beach town right outside Tayrona National Park which connects with Sierra National Park, home of the highest coastal mountains in the world. The Tayrona Indians live in the National Park and are the largest indigenous group in Colombia. They worship Mother Earth and their way of life has remained the same for centuries. During our visit in the last week of February, the national park was closed for a month so that the Tayrona Indians living in the park could celebrate their rituals and give the land a rest from the tourists. I was impressed by this example of indigenous people’s rights being respected by the government.

As a result, I expected neighboring Tagonga to be an eco-conscious destination. I was gravely disappointed. Instead, directly on the beach, just a few feet from the ocean, we saw ridiculous overflowing “garbage cans” made of wire 4 inches apart which easily allowed the trash to fall through onto the sand. It was quite windy so plastic bags and trash blew directly into the ocean. The beach goers, a mix of locals and foreigners, didn’t seem to take notice. We had arranged to do a morning of diving however Keegan was hit with a cold and spent the day in bed instead. John and I dove with Oceano dive company just outside of Tagonga Bay.

Since Keegan couldn’t dive and I was disenchanted with Tagonga, we changed our plans for the next day to leave Tagonga earlier and go to Minca in the morning instead of scuba diving. We organized a driver to take us to Cartagena with a stop in the town of Minca up in the Sierra mountains, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. During the drive we saw people sweeping and cleaning the sidewalks and streets directly in front of their houses and stores while around the corner was a pile of garbage. We saw people burning these piles of garbage and plastic even though there are garbage collection services. The landscape quickly changed from the dry dusty cactus covered hills to lush vine and flower

covered mountains. The area is known for it’s sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, cocaine and marijuana growing abilities. Beginning in the70’s, Minca had a tragic and violent history

of being caught between the cartels, guerrilla troops and paramilitary groups. Now it’s a safe backpacker destination with beautiful hikes to coffee plantations and waterfalls. We had a lovely breakfast on the second floor balcony of a coffee bar shack. Unfortunately the Minca history museum wasn’t open so we continued on our 5 hour drive to Cartagena.


Our driver Gilberto made us feel quite welcome in his new Citroen. Near Minca, he stopped to take a picture of the house where he and his wife of 30 years spent their honeymoon. He spoke Spanish clearly and precisely so John proceeded to have a 5 hour conversation with him about an array of topics: electric cars, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and Colombian politics. Keegan and I worked on our Spanish comprehension from the back seat. Gilberto gave us insight into the perspective of a middle class coastal Colombian.

We arrived in the colonial old town of Cartagena with it’s fortified walls and cannons. There were beautiful colorful buildings and bougainvillea vines. The town was charming and full of restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Young Colombians who attend the several universities located within the walls of the old city, also filled the streets. We all did a walking tour of the old city, Keegan was feeling better by this time. Cartagena’s prosperity started with a 1552 fire which revealed the treasures buried within the tombs of the Sinus Amerindian tribe.

This prosperity and it’s strategic location brought explorers eager to conquer the city; Jean-Francis Roberval (1563), Sir Francis Drake (1586), Sir John Hawkins (1576), Robert Baal (1586), Jean-Bernard Desjeans and Jean Ducasse (1697). At the end of the 16th century Spain decided to protect this city, which was the largest port in the Americans, by building a fortified wall around Cartagena. Around this time the King of Spain ordered the city to become a hub for the slave trade. Our tour guide said there were about a million slaves that came through Cartagena. We also learned about the Spanish monk, Pedro Claver, who was later canonized for his history of providing food to slaves and treating them as humans.

During the French occupation of Spain under Napoleon, Cartagena claimed independence on November 11, 1811. It was part of New Granada when General Morillo arrived from Spain in 1815 to reconquer the colonies of the Americas. Morillo cut off the city from supplies for over 100 days, starving to death a third of the city’s rebellious citizens before they surrendered. Later Simón Bolívar gave Cartagena the nickname “La Heroica,” or heroic city. On October 10, 1821 the city finally won lasting independence. Cartagena is quite charming however I was ready to not be a tourist anymore. I was aware of how people lived outside this quaint city. We had driven through the small coastal towns, where I saw the pollution and poverty. I felt helpless. I felt guilty. I also felt ready for a hot shower.

My life is influenced by my experiences and expectations. If I knew nothing else but the world in which I was raised I might be quite content. Traveling has enriched me and also reminded me of the vulnerable circumstances in which many people live. I am vividly aware that those most impacted by human-created climate change are often the least able to do anything about it. I am grateful for, and burdened by, the fact that I occupy a place in this world where I have the privilege and experience to do something about it. I can make choices to minimize the role of plastic in my life, support like-minded organizations and invest in companies trying to solve the plastic problem, whether it be recycling efficiency or getting it out of our oceans. I can raise awareness. I am ready to be home and to do what I can.

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