I had a day in Santa Marta and no plans for what to do with it. A full day of plane, taxi, and bus rides had landed me in Northern Colombia faster and more smoothly than I had anticipated.
Tayrona National Park, only 25 miles from Santa Marta, is considered one of the great gems of Colombia, a place where the beach meets the jungle and a landscape teeming with monkeys, wild cats, birds, and, allegedly, really aggressive mosquitos.
Local buses – the “chicken buses” as they are known around the world – depart from the Santa Marta market and cost 5000 Colombian dolares, about a $1.50 US. For a lot more money, you take a taxi, and for a lot lot more money, you can ask your hotel to call a taxi.
Now, my natural inclination is the chicken bus. They are full of adventure and good stories, and, most importantly, they’re cheap. Very, very cheap.
And, after all, I’m a Norcini, a clan of humans known for their frugality and bred to endure physical and emotional suffering, sometimes for days, if they overpay for something. GasBuddy was an app designed for the Norcini tribe, not only to help us find the cheapest prices but to provide real time reminders that there are always nearby stations offering a lower price than you just paid. Thus, GasBuddy complicates the decision making process by presenting each seemingly easy fill up as a mathematical and ethical dilemma: should I drive the extra 17 miles to save 1.9 cents per gallon? That, in a nutshell, is life in the Norcini mind, constant reassessments of costs without adequate assessment of benefits.
Complicating things was the fact that I had a week in Colombia by myself as a result of the generosity and love of my wife. What would Jess want me to do? Chicken bus it alone? Probably not. Taxi? You’re getting warmer, Norcini. Order a taxi through the hotel, thereby linking inextricably my fate and experience with that of the hotel clerk who depends upon a positive review from guests on TripAdvisor? WWJD – the other J – had been determined.
I asked the clerk for a taxi to Tayrona Park. He was, of course, happy to oblige. He asked me to wait a minute as he texted his friend, er, the taxi.
Though I wasn’t privy to the conversation, I’ve been able to reconstruct it based on visual assessments of thumb acuity and facial expressions.
Hotel clerk: Luis, my man! Hop in your car and get over here. I have a GFB! (Translated as gringo flashing blingo, I later learned.)
Luis, taxi driver: I am on it! Cold beers on me tonight, my friend!
Clerk: beers? Yes! Beers and steaks! There is a delicious hunk of slow roasted Colombian cow being prepared for us right now! Not since Pablo Escobar has there been a man willing to spend so prolifically and thoughtlessly on Colombian soil.
And so it began. A simple decision that would not go without punishment. The curse of the tribe does not make exceptions.
For context, it’s important to recognize that the day I decided to be a teacher (committed to a life of limited raises, seemingly a choice for meaning and purpose over profit and promotion) was a dramatic departure for the Tribe. So disruptive was it, that a minor earthquake was recorded in the region stretching from tiny Abruzzian mountain village of Fallascoso to the eastern city of Teramo that day (the ancestral home of the Tribe) as generations of Norcinis simultaneously rolled over in their graves.
But you’re traveling, Norcini, let it go. Embrace all that this is. You’re supporting the local economy. Beers between the driver and his hotel clerk buddy are on you tonight, Matt, and think of the joy and merriment your dolares have made. Maybe the driver will use the extra money to pay for a critical surgery for his grandmother. Or to get his daughter’s ears pierced. Socially responsible investing is trending right now, so this makes you trendy, Norcini, and no one has ever accused you of being trendy.
But the curse runs deeper than logic.
I’ll skip lunch. The food in the park is overpriced and not supposed to be very good, anyway. Granola bars and local beer for dinner sounds quite delightful, really, and runs very little risk of food poisoning. Maybe this trip to Tayrona would net you a story for that blog, too, or one you could sell to another site.
And, then it hit me. To get home, I could take the chicken bus back to Santa Marta. That would quickly average down the day’s cost of transportation. I mean, by 4 PM, I’ll have been in Colombia for 24 hours. That should qualify me as grizzled enough to safely navigate the public buses. Jess would – possibly? With puppy dog eyes? – understand.
We were moments from the park entrance, and I was feeling good. I had a plan, and I could now more fully enjoy the day’s adventure that lie ahead of me. Coastlines and rainforest, flora and fauna – a day hike alone in one of Colombia’s National parks. My phone was fully charged with space for photos. I am ready.
We came to a stop at the park entrance. The gate was down. Luis got out of the car to talk to the park ranger. He looked back at me and motioned his arms like a baseball umpire announcing a score after a close play at the plate.
The park was closed, and it wouldn’t reopen until Wednesday. “Maintenance” was all I could get from the ranger.
“What do you want to do?” Luis asked. With no other options at the ready, and my next trip scheduled for the next day, we’d have to drive the 45 min back to Santa Marta.
I looked around the entrance. Not surprisingly, there were no chicken buses. I paused, took a deep breath, and made eye contact with Luis.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” I said. “Return to Santa Marta.”
Luis smiled with that twinkle in his eye again.
“Okay, all aboard!” He said excitedly. As we prepared to pull out of the park entrance, a woman selling donuts on a stick approached the vehicle. Without asking, Luis purchased two – one for each of us.
His look said it all – he knew that I was his hostage and that I would have to pay for the ride back. He knew it hurt me, and probably recognized at that moment that I was doing the math in my head.
“Sorry about the park. How about a donut?”
Though it didn’t make things better, the gift of the donut, did distract me from the math and suppress the curse, if only for a few delicious moments.