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••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Travel- Colombia

Lost in Translation: Learning the Cartagena Hustle
• Ashley Harvey

Getting into the white van took more effort than I cared to admit. I was excited to be there, but nervous about communicating with the locals. Flashbacks of my professor stating I would get myself killed by my incompetence with the romantic language if I was to ever go to a Spanish speaking country. So, here I was, in Cartagena, Colombia. A country where little to no people speak English. I felt significantly inadequate.

Ashley in the mud

The guide on the van starts speaking, and I have no idea what was going on. I look over to my boyfriend, Rodney, to see if he was grasping anything. He looked just as lost as I. I looked at his Aunt Kelly, who wasn’t even paying attention since this wasn’t her first rodeo. Having recently moved to Cartagena, we were just one more group of friends and family Kelly escorted to the infamous mud volcano. Refocusing my attention on the woman who lost me at “Hola!” I prayed I’d understand something. Something never came. So, I sat there in silence, staring at the woman talking, because even though I might be ignorant, I’m not rude.

As I’m staring creepily at this woman rolling her tongue in a way I could never master, I wonder what she could possibly be talking about. It wasn’t until googling “Mud volcano in Cartagena,” that I realized she was probably explaining how the mud volcano is called El Totumo and used to be an active lava spewing wonder. Legend says a priest thought its fiery pit symbolized the Devil. So, he did what any person would do when threatened by the devil’s spicket. He dumped water into its spout, rendering it inactive. Leaving just a warm, grey soup of muck, now used for hipster skincare.

Arriving at our destination, we charge off the bus. El Totumo resembles a giant ant hill–and I’m a tiny ant, about ready to sacrifice myself to the holy mud. The place is mad. Tourists outnumbered workers. It’s prime time– hustle alive in the air. Local workers stand at the bottom of the volcano, small vials of mud– mud I was about soak in– wrapped around their bodice, haggling the price of each one. We were directed to a set of little Caribbean shacks, complete with palm leaves as shingles, to strip down to our swimsuits.

With trepidation, we approach the stairs. Although solidly imbedded in the side of the volcano, the sun-worn, wooden staircase looks old and rickety. I fear getting a splinter. We carefully crawl our way to the top of the mud volcano; sunscreen, clay, fresh water wafting in the air. It’s a frenzy. The line of people waiting for their turn in the mud are looking down at the swimmers in the goop, like spectators at a zoo. In an effort to photograph eager tourists, a line of workers, adorned with fancy cameras and thousand-dollar iPhones, converge, yelling at the visitors below.

mudbath El Totumo My turn has finally come. I position myself on the ladder, nervousness bubbling in my gut, feeling the built-up years of slick mud beneath my feet. Imagine how awful it would be to accidently tombstone piledrive these people, as if I’m World Wrestler the Undertaker, from losing my grip.

Like a sloth creeping down a tree, I inch into the muck. Once at the last rung, I hesitate. There’s something about jumping into a substance without a visible bottom that sets me on edge. My hesitation doesn’t last long– a man in the pit clasps my ankle, tugging me into the mud.

I can’t touch the bottom. Doggy paddling. I feel like I’m about to drown in a vat of gritty mud in front of these people. How do I say I’m drowning in Spanish? But I don’t. Like a buoy, I bob up and down. I try to relax, leaning back into the thick goop. I close my eyes, relishing the warmth of the high-noon sun.

That’s when it happens. I feel hands rubbing all up and down my legs, massaging them. I look up, thinking it’s my boyfriend.

But it wasn’t. It was a man in a red hat, smiling, speaking in words that mean nothing to me. Instead of immediately retreating, I remember the list of expectations given to us the night before. It’s the red-hat man’s job to massage us tourists. I try to relax, hoping it’s not some random dude capitalizing on the situation to cop a feel. Regardless, I am well exfoliated.

Done soaking in the mud, we got rubbed down by yet another man. Scraping away as much muck as he could, running his hands down my arms, legs, back, during our climb out of the pit.

Making our way down El Totumo to the fresh water lake nearby, we are instantly approached by two separate women, each taking us by the wrist, coaxing us into the water. My significant other Rodney gets taken in another direction. I look down at the tiny woman tying a red ribbon to my wrist, claiming me as hers, and I can only be free after I pay her. She starts rapidly rolling her Latin tongue, but I shake my head, I don’t understand anything you’re saying to me. Patting her palm on her chest she says, “Rosa.” And a human connection is made.

Rosa pushing me down is the only signal I need to sit in the water. Plastic cup in hand, Rosa begins washing away the grime. Continuously dumping water, she scrubs my hair, digging mud out of my ears, running her calloused hands down my skin, scraping away the silt. Just when I think we are about finished, Rosa dumps water on my chest, grabs my swim suit top, stretching it away from by body, and starts washing it while it’s still tied to me. I look over at my boyfriend. He was sitting in the shallow water, completely naked, holding his boxers out in front of him, a woman half his size standing over him, trying desperately to put them back on without exposing his American sausage to the world. Between the two of us, I fared much better keeping my modesty intact. Note to self: Colombians don’t shy away from the human body.

Once bathed by complete strangers, we waded out of the lake. We made a pitstop at a makeshift gazebo where a man was whipping up some egg empanadas with a cold beer to top it off. We ordered our Colombian snack and attempted to dry out in the sun. Noticing my dripping hands rendering my empanada soggy, I needed a napkin. In this moment I got an overly ambitious idea to try my hand at Spanish for the first time. I walked over to the easy-going man with his blue Hawaiian T-shirt asking in my best Spanish accent, “Pardon Senor, puedo una ser-vay-yettá, por favor?” He grinned, “Ah, si! Si!” and scurried off. I felt pretty damn proud of myself walking back to my chair, Rodney giving me a thumbs up.

Settling back into my chair, I heard a Tsck…POP right before the nice Señor placed a fresh beer right in front of me. I’m confused. What did I say wrong? “No, no ser-vay-sá. Me quiero una….” I rub my hands together hoping it will translate to a napkin. Palm to face, “Ah! Lo siento!” Apologetically, he reached behind the counter top, handing me fresh napkins in exchange for 2,000 pesos. I paid for my linguistic failure.

© Ashley Harvey 4.12.19
College of Charleston - USA
Book your tour to Categena here

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