Digital Nomad – in mortal peril and on the run… to Colombia
Sometimes, the injudicious wielding of a pen can lead to injury and murder – or just fear and loathing and self-imposed exile.
Once, I thought I might spend the rest of my days on Carenero, a paradisiacal island in Panama’s Bocas Del Toro archipelago, but then I had to leave in a hurry because André wanted to kill me.
André is not his real name, but he is a real person: a tall South African, a sculptor, a sailor, a surfer, his body honed into sleek and lean perfection from paddling out to endless breaks during endless summers, gliding down the faces of 15-foot slabs of water, standing on the shoulders of giants while white water crashed and boomed like artillery shells exploding, always seeking those moments of pure peace that you get from a sojourn in the green cathedral, which is what surfers call riding a barrel.
I met André at Coquitos, the bar on the beach where I lived in a ramshackle wooden hotel. From my balcony, I’d watch the passing parade: women in tiny microkinis followed by men wheeling gigantic speakers and even more enormous cooler boxes. The smaller the microkini, it seemed, the bigger the speaker and the huger the cooler box – possibly there was some equation at play here with which a mathematician could make his name (akin, I imagined, to solving Fermat’s last theorem).
Coquitos was, quite simply, one of the best bars in Latin America, and I’d been to quite a few during my two-and-a-half years of digital nomadism in that neck of the woods, a journey that had taken me from Belize, to Guatemala, to Nicaragua, to Costa Rica, to Ecuador, to the Galapagos, to the jungles, Sacred Valley and beaches of Peru and down to this particular patch of paradise in the Caribbean… all the while dodging the Covid-19 bullet.
Danny, a personable German, was the barman at Coquitos, and he served the coldest beers (beads of condensation sliding down the sides) and played the best music, always perfectly tailored to his clientele, an eclectic cast of dreamers, schemers, adventurers, drifters, fugitives and misfits.
André was one of those characters. He was outgoing, with a ready smile that lit up his craggy face, always ready to share some of his experiences with a fellow South African.
He told me about surfing undiscovered waves off remote islands in the Caribbean, about living on his yacht and following the swells; he also told me about his current girlfriend, whom he called “my sugar mommy” because she was a lot older than him.
Great colour for a Digital Nomad column, I thought, and wrote about André and his sugar mommy, using his and her real names and quoting what he had told me during what he regarded as casual, inconsequential conversations at a bar.
Ben, a friend from Cape Town, who had lived next door to me on Carenero for a while, was now in Costa Rica, where he had bumped into André.
Ben messaged me after the meeting: “Man, is he pissed off with you. He asked if I’d seen you lately and if I’d read what you wrote. I said I had but wasn’t sure what the issue was. He said you might as well have taken a knife and cut his throat. Outraged that things you two spoke about at Danny’s ended up in print. Said if he ever sees you again, he will kill you.”
Oh dear, I thought, but at least André’s in Costa Rica, which means he can’t kill me.
A couple of weeks later, I was downing an ice-cold Balboa at Coquitos, when André walked into the bar.
He sat down a few barstools away from me and stared at me, his eyes blazing with hatred. He photographed me with his cellphone, and then made a throat-slitting gesture.
After a while, he came and sat next to me.
“I… I’m really sorry, André,” I stammered. “I apologise from the bottom of my heart. What I did was wrong, I realise now… I just did it without thinking…”
“You are never to use my name again,” he said. “You understand? Never.”
“And I’m gonna take you down. It won’t be tonight, but I will take you down… when you’re least expecting it. And that’s a promise.”
Then he went back to the barstool he had just vacated.
I took a long swallow of my Balbao and made four quick decisions:
- To lock my door at night;
- To never write about real people again;
- To leave Carenero post-haste;
- To have another beer.
The next day I bought a couple of air tickets: one from Bocas Del Toro to Panama City and a return ticket from Panama City to Cartagena in Colombia. (I had a visa for Colombia, the procural of which had taken 20 pages of documentation and a number of emails with the very helpful consul in Pretoria.)
Sometimes, the prudent thing to do is just get the hell out of Dodge. What an ignominious ending it would be were I to be murdered by a fellow South African on an island in Latin America because of my careless wielding of the pen (or, rather the thoughtless passage of my fingertips across the keyboard).
I’d far rather die from being hit by a falling coconut. Now that would be a fitting end to the cockamamie story known as my life.
Anyway, that weekend I landed in Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean, on the northern coast of Colombia, a city where, to the best of my knowledge, no one wanted to kill me – yet – (a big plus, these days).
I stayed in the Getsemaní district. Once a seedy, disreputable slum, it has been gentrified of late, and now has cool boutique hotels, great restaurants, and excellent nightclubs, while retaining some of its former character.
Amid the throngs of the hip and the wannabe hip, with their multiple piercings and tattoos, their beard oil, vapes, and studied casualness can be seen some of the original inhabitants… scruffy, scrawny, bedraggled, shirtless, sleeping on the pavements, approaching tourists with their hands out and the light of hope extinguished in their eyes.
Art adorns the walls of Getsemaní – every third dwelling seems to be an artist’s studio – and the walls themselves have been painted with intricate and beautiful murals. It’s a place of cool shadows and exuberant light: atop the streets hundreds of pennants flutter, and one entire street is shaded by colourful umbrellas, while bougainvillaeas hang down from trellises, providing vivid slashes of scarlet and orange.
At the centre of Getsemaní is the Plaza Trinidad, where hundreds of people gather every night, street musicians sing Colombian love songs, Michael Jackson impersonators wave sequinned gloves and murder Billie Jean, fire-eaters swallow flames, dancers twirl brightly coloured dresses and street-food vendors do a roaring trade in empanadas, arepas, papas rellenas, perros calientes, churros and patacones. (That Colombian street food: man, I could live off it – and did.)
Then there are the rappers. With a little speaker playing hip-hop drumbeats, they accost passers-by and then launch into a full-on rap about them, never pausing for breath, a reflux stream of words and rhymes gushing out of their mouths, only stopping when they have been given a few thousand pesos (the equivalent of a couple of rands) and then they move on to their next target.
Colombia’s equivalent of South Africa’s parking attendants, I guess: high nuisance value, but at least they are doing something creative.
The writer Gabriel García Márquez used to live in Cartagena, a city about which he said: “All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them. And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.”
It’s that kind of city… a place of magical realism, a city steeped in stories and histories, a thousand love songs, a hibiscus flower wilting behind the ear of a beautiful woman wearing last night’s party dress in the streets of Getsemaní as dawn breaks and a flock of parrots chatter inanely overhead. DM/ML
In case you missed it, also read ‘Digital Nomad: The Taco King of Carenero, Panama’
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