Mama, what does 'racist' mean? (Colombia)
I was feeling it after leaving Santa Marta’s Gold Museum, taking photos and basking in the absolute glory of just how much Black Atlantic history there is here. I spotted a bookstore across the street and couldn’t resist. I skipped across the street and hopped up the concrete stairs. Only to be stopped by a short stout white bespeckled somebody. The store owner, I guess.
“Can I help you with something?”
He demanded in Spanish. I was barely underneath the Librería sign. Frida scooted past me and got into some Peppa Pig books.
“No,” I replied in Spanish. “Just looking, thank you!”
I moved to step around him. But he didn’t move.
“I have no books in English.”
“That’s ok. I’m speaking to you in Spanish.” Then I looked at his face.
“Come on, Frida. Let’s go.”
“Why?” Then my husband walks in. He, white, walks right past the store owner, ducks under the sign, then looks back at me. “What’s wrong?”
“It seems like this guy doesn’t like black people.”
'This guy' chimes in.
“If you’re going to speak in English I don’t understand you.” He puts his hands in the air like he’s surrendering to cops.
He should have just let me go. “And you’re proud of your ignorance?”
Ignorancia, with a th where he’d put a “ssssss”. I’m using my Castellano, my proper Spanish, now, subjunctive and everything. Voice raised enough for the family standing outside to hear.
“If I want you to understand me, you will. I was talking to my husband!”
I turn to leave and my husband follows me out, shaking his head.
Free’s behind us.
“Wow. How can people be so racist?”, he says.
“What is racist?”, asks Free.
“He doesn’t like black people,” I reply without ceremony.
“Ah!” She lets out a little scream and clutches pearls that aren’t there.
This is the first she’s heard of it. People who don’t like other people because of the color of their skin.
She closes her mouth after a beat.
“Well. I’m not black. I’m going in.”
She turns on her heel, and marches right back into the store.
I want to remind her that “we” are Black as hell, but she’s already in the store. I watch her from outside. She’s ignoring the store owner as though he hasn’t made his preference clear. As though he doesn’t even exist. He’s waiting for me to call her back out. I don’t.
She peruses the books with an aspirational nonchalance. She’s taking up space. She’s a Keke Palmer meme: sorry to this man, and she picks up Peppa Pig en Paraïso. “What about this one?”, she asks.
“We don’t give racists our money,” I reply. “Let’s go.”
I’ve said it in Spanish, but she gets it. She puts the book back in the wrong spot and walks out.
On Turtles Part 2 (Ostional, Costa Rica)
Read On Turtles Part 1, here.
Dogs have lives of their own in Costa Rica. Public, interactive lives that have them looking like strays. It shouldn’t be a surprise that freedom looks like a disadvantage to human eyes. Anyway we’d already learned this about dogs, that they were as sovereign as owned things could be; wandering the streets, meeting people, congregating in the town square, or digging in the sand at the end of the world.
Even cushioned by lush green foliage, Ostional, a beach and wildlife reserve on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, looks apocalyptic. We’d heard that baby turtles would be hatching from their eggs over the next four days, and making their way to the sea.
By the time we arrive, empty egg shells were strewn and glittered across the inky sand, and those, alongside the dog, are the only signs of life. He’s alternately digging and protecting his hole from swarming vultures.
There is another beach off to our left, across what looks like a sand bank—submerged, but shallow. There are people on that beach. We are contemplating crossing it when a smaller, spritelier dog comes running over from my blindspot, followed by a barefoot man in khaki shorts and a sweatshirt that reads Ostional Conservation.
‘Did you just walk across that sandbank?’ I ask.
He’s about to answer, but stops abruptly to pick up a stick. I flinch as he hurls past me towards the digging dog and surrounding vultures. They all scurry off.
The conservationist ushers us over to what is not a random hole, but a mauled nest.
I hadn’t read anything about dogs as turtle hunters. ‘We should have chased that dog away,’ I say, uselessly. ‘Do they even eat turtles?’
‘Now, yes,’ the conservationist says. ‘The vultures are here because this is their habitat. The dogs are here because of us, and they disturb the balance of this ecosystem.’
‘We shouldn’t touch any of this,’ he continues, then picks up a shell.
The girls squat beside him. Their sparkly boots make light play with a grim scene.
‘Do you see this?’ He fingers the fluid inside of the shell. It looks like skim milk. Dogs have an unfair advantage, being able to dig where vultures cannot. The fluid means these hatchlings needed a couple more weeks to grow. Something’s moving in the sand. It’s one baby turtle out of more than one hundred, clinging to life. Moving slowly, but moving.
‘He won’t make it.’ The girls help the conservationist make a slow grave. A final nesting place. The girls sing him a lullaby.
The town’s best pizza is served from a brick oven at outdoor wooden tables with plastic chairs. Turtle eggs as a delicacy are sold just across the dirt road. A family of puppies live under the raised wooden floor boards. We head back to the beach after our late lunch, and a playful, spotted puppy follows us. We try to turn him away, but he’s too quick.
Nearby a group of people are huddled, heads hung as if in a prayer. A conservationist called Rosa has led them towards a nest of hatchlings that had all been eaten, save one.
This is the one percent. A one percent for whom the privilege is simply, life. He makes his way towards the sea.
These creatures are born with the memory of where they come from and to what they must return. They have an internal compass. I think we all do.
We take turns taking photos, guarding him, and chasing predators away.
As the tide rolls in to meet him, he gains in speed and energy. His little feet pat across the sand. The sea washes over him and knocks him back. Never mind. He recovers. Pitter patter. Three waves later and he gets the hang of it.
He’s swimming. Then, gone.
The next morning we arrive at Ostional to witness dozens of baby turtles emerge from the sand, and set out to sea under the rising sun.
On Turtles, Part I (Tortuguero, Costa Rica)
We sat in a restaurant scarfing noodles and counting lightning flashes as our night beach walk began. There’d been 10. I figured the call coming in was our guide, canceling our walking tour to see the giant green tortoises for which CR’s half island are famous. “How far away are you?,” he said. “2 minutes”, I answered, shoving the last of Toni’s spaghetti into her mouth.
We walked about 20 minutes to “station 3”, in the pitch black and a quickly flooding trail. We,as in V and I; Toni hopped into the carrier on my back at the earliest convenience. The water had collected so quickly even the adults were pouring water out of their boots like wine from a carafe. Eventually Free also had to be held.
It sounded like fun yesterday. By the time we approached the bare concrete pavilion that was station 3, I imagined us getting eaten by jaguars or hacked one by one by a crazy with a machete right there in the middle of a jungle.
The girls fell asleep after 45 minutes and a bunch of complaining. Each group waits at a station as 2 quasi rangers search the beach for tortoises. Groups are only let into the beach as rangers spot them. If they don’t spot any after 2 hours, you don’t go further than that pavilion.
20 years ago we scoured the beach for tortoises ourselves.
Our guide tried entertaining us with stories about this and that and how long his mom lived there and such, but we were too first world for such things. We paid good money to see tortoises. Our entire group contemplated packing it in taking a water taxi back to our hotels. This was ridiculous. (Insert righteous indignation and a few mumbled threats to report the guides to Air BnB. None of us were our best selves.)
Then our guide got a call. There was a tortoise preparing to lay eggs near the hotel beaches. (More eye rolling here, but we follow.)
Fifteen more minutes of waiting and talking, and we’re invited to follow a red flashlight towards a big flowery bush. Beneath it a tortoise drops soft white eggs into a deep hole. We wake Toni. The tortoise is as big as she is. The eggs are small like chicken eggs. The guide keeps moving the tortoise’s hind leg so that we can more clearly see the eggs drop and I want to slap his hand away. Or walk away because this feels sacred.
Only 1 percent of the 125 eggs she lays here will make it to sea two months from now. The rest will be eaten by birds or jaguars. As long as we’re here, those particular predators will not come. I stay.
She starts covering the eggs with black volcano sand, using her hind legs. She pauses every couple minutes and I imagine she’s scared and exhausted. The sand hits us as she flings it furiously. Our tour is over before the process is. We bless the tortoise and head back to our hotel. Dodging street dogs. Wrangling 2 overtired but very excited littles. A bit emotional, because we know what it means to just wanna protect your nest.
Finally the rain lets up.
The Heart of Nature in Arenal (Costa Rica)
Of all the hot springs and thermal baths in Arenal, Baldi was The One. Ask anyone. It has a kids’ pool! “Kids pool!”, they say, looking at the girls, then at us, then at the girls, eyebrows raised. How could we possibly go elsewhere now? We are traveling with kids. These are the only hot springs with a playground for kids. It’s a no brainer.
Well, I don’t like no brainers. We have brains for a reason. So we went to the trusted volcano expert at our hotel’s front desk. He knows things. Like the exact locations of all the volcanoes that form a ring of fire around the earth. Surely he knows about hot springs.
“Baldi is the best. The Eco place has put stones in the water to make it look more natural but it’s all the same water And plus, Baldi has a playground!”
Okay, fine. Kitsch and performative sustainability are equally annoying. And the kids will have fun.
Baldi looks like a casino. With 25 pools, 2 restaurants and how many bars, we’d arrived to the Vegas of Costa Rican wellness. The Christmas decorations only slightly intensified the sensory load. We ate lunch then went straight to the kids pool.
Vólcan Arenal rose up from behind the strawberry-hued water slides with majesty and menace. Our guy at the desk said, 'It could erupt at any time. Of course, it gives us clues, but we don't speak volcano'. It was the best view in the city, with the arguable exception of the Observatory Lodge, where we stayed.
The girls found friends and played with an abandon only kids can, half-dressed. When the rain came we found shelter in a cave fitted with benches, waterfalls and green and purple mood lights. We took selfies until the downpour slowed enough for us emerge into a hot pool, where Toni sat on my lap.
My husband’s excited voice cut through my heat-induced haze— “Oh my God look!!!”
Look. Toucans. One of two creatures indigenous to Costa Rica* that we hadn’t yet seen in our 6 weeks there. We thought for sure we’d see one in Corcovado, the third most biodiverse region on the planet. Or Tortuguero. Or Cahuita National Park. Or literally anywhere else in the heart of nature. But here they were. Sat in a tree directly in front of us.
Unbothered by the glitter, artifice, and Christmas carols blaring out of speakers disguised as rocks. Humans boiling themselves to health.
The most 'unnatural' setting in the country.
*we also didnt see jaguars
What You Should Know About SANTA MARTA (Colombia)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born about an hour and half outside of Santa Marta, the oldest continuosly inhabited city in South America. His parents were married in the local church (one of the oldest in South America) just a few blocks from this library erected in his honour. A timeline of his life is etched into the outer walls.
The Gold Museum, just across the street, tells the stories of the region’s first inhabitants, the Tairona, through their beliefs, artistry, and innovations with gold, silver, and bronze. The glass encasing the earrings worn by the chiefs reflects he style of urban queens in hoods the world over.
The great Liberator, Simon Bolívar lived his final days in this building, also known as La Aduana. He didn't intend to die here, he just got too sick to board the boat to Spain to visit doctors. I like to think that was kismet's way of staying in step with his soul's earthy mission. Bolívar was born in Venezuela, and led the independence of Venzuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama from Spanish rule. Bolivia is named after him. As early as the 16th century, he was the first to declare that anyone born in Colombia should be free. This included Africans.
Access to this history is free of charge for all.
Everyone we spoke to said that Santa Marta is incredibly beautiful: a beach town and playground for Colombian vacationers. The taxi driver on the way to our hotel pointed out a gated community of slick all white buildings he called, ‘the Miami of Santa Marta’. It’d have been way more helpful if he could have pointed us towards a palenque (towns, during slavery times, where Black people lived free).
We came for the sea. Stayed for the history. And the food. The Caribbean side of Colombia has the best food we’ve tasted since the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I’m sensing a pattern here.