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- Travel annoyances, Travel tales, Travel: South America
I lifted my head from the pillow.
A sharp pain cut through my forehead and into the neck. With a brief moan, I dropped the head back and pressed my eyelids closely together.
The small lamp on the bedside table was on and I could feel its soft cosy light gently touching the pillow. It was night time and the song of crickets sounded strangely soothing.
I lifted my head again and looked around slowly. A small floor fan was on, and the mosquito net over the bed looked frozen in the constant flow of the air.
This late night awakening was probably nothing unusual. I had often before fallen asleep while editing photos from the day gone by, only to wake up later, quickly brush my teeth and go back to sleep.
I rubbed my feet together and suddenly felt sand on the sheets. Realising how strange it was not to have showered before bed, I pulled myself up with one sharp movement.
I was still wearing my beach dress from the day before, pulled over my favourite blue bikini. My hair was unwashed and I could feel tiny salt crystals on my skin.
What had happened? I put a hand to forehead and scarce recollections started to float up. I was on the beach, chatting to a local guy running the makeshift bar. As on the previous two days, I had bought a snack and a couple of cocktails. The bar owner played his guitar. Some Canadian tourists stopped by, and we talked about the Canadian welfare system. I laughed about something, had several dips in the sea and exchanged some messages with my fiancé.
And then? Blank.
Typical view of Providencia: Manzanillo beach
Providencia: Colombia’s Caribbean paradise
When I arrived on the small island of Providencia in the Caribbean Sea, I could hardly believe the island formally belonged to Colombia. Located much nearer the Nicaraguan coast than mainland Colombia, Providencia seemed decidedly different from the latter in a number of ways.
Most importantly, the majority of Providencia’s population speaks a form of English creole rather than Spanish and resents being compared to the rest of Colombia. Many locals are Rastafarians, and, similarly to the larger island of San Andres not far away, the culture on Providencia strongly resembles that of Jamaica.
Local boys play on an old jetty on Santa Catalina island
Local girl looks thoughtful in front of her home
As Spanish as Providencia gets
I had arrived in Colombia only a couple of days before reaching Providencia, but had already got some taste of the country in Bogota and San Andres. Aware of the criminal activity in Colombia, I had not ventured for a swim on San Andres once for fear of losing my possessions – I was travelling alone and had nobody to watch my backpack. And in just one day in Bogota, I was driven insane by being constantly redirected away from rough areas by police and well-wishing locals only they knew to avoid. It is not unusual to stray into a rougher part of Bogota owing to ignorance alone: there are usually no signs of potential danger obvious to a first-time visitor.
Providencia, however, promised to be different. Sold to me by several well-travelled friends as Colombia’s “paradise of calm”, it looked secluded enough to attract very little, if any, criminal activity.
Southeast beach is one of Providencia’s most popular beaches
Disoriented, I looked around trying to spot my mobile phone. It could still have been in my bag. There was the bag itself, propped against the wall by the bed.
Shivers suddenly shot down my spine as the tips of my fingers grew numb. I had no idea how I got back to the hotel last night. Unbeknown to myself, I may have got drunk – and, possibly, robbed along the way.
I rushed to my bag, ripped open the zip and counted off the contents. My camera was there. My wallet was there with all its modest pesos, credit card and ID still inside. My secret US dollar reserves were in their hidden place. And my two fancy camera lenses? Amazingly, they were also still there.
But my phone wasn’t there. Guessing where it could be, I tapped gently on the sheets piled up on top of the bed and, feeling I might be close to my goal, finally dug the phone out of the pile. I must have fallen asleep holding it. As expected, it was fully discharged, and, almost automatically, I plugged it in.
Manzanillo beach, a little piece of paradise not far from the hotel
As I touched the sheets, I noticed, not without some disgust, that they felt damp. In the dim light of the only lamp in the room, I could see that parts of the sheets had lightly coloured stains on them – but it was the unmistakable smell that finally confirmed my fears. Mortified, I quickly pulled the sheets off: there was a waterproof cover over the mattress. Besides the obviously embarrassing incident, there would be little to have to explain to Mrs. Doris, the owner of the hotel.
Unsteadily, I walked to the bathroom. My sarong was spread over a chair there – the way I always dry it overnight – and I wondered how, still recalling nothing of last night, I had seemingly remembered to do something so mundane before falling asleep.
I stood under a cold shower for a few minutes and returned to the bedroom where my phone was now showing signs of life. It was 3-odd o’clock in the morning. I had sent my last email around 5:20pm the previous day and had my last exchange with Alan around six. The messages looked positively worrying: my final replicas were completely unintelligible, as if I had pressed the same buttons for long seconds at the time. In response, my fiancé seemed to think I had been smoking something and told me to be careful. I did not have any recollection of reading that.
Providencia could easily have been the most chilled place I had ever visited. In the three days I spent on the island, I did not see a single person in any sort of rush and very few people seemed to be working. Of the three non-weekend days, the island’s sole souvenir shop was open only once, and only for a couple of hours. Some locals spent their days circling the island on their motorbikes in the hope of giving a stray tourist a ride for a fee. Many others were chilling by their homes or wandering from beach to beach striking casual conversations.
Local man at work in a combined shop for motorbike parts and food
I was having a wonderful time on Providencia from the first minute of my arrival. My small B&B was near the Manzanillo beach, and I had quickly developed a “habit” of walking down there in the wee hours of the morning for a skinny dip in the backdrop of sunrise. I would return, happy and refreshed, to Doris’ delicious breakfast and set off for the day, combining endless motorbike rides around the island with walking from beach to beach. I hiked to the Peak, Providencia’s highest, well, peak, and admired the view over the entire island from the top. I did not manage to do any scuba diving – I am not a big fan, anyway – but I did so much walking and swimming on Providencia that scuba-diving did not seem like a necessity.
Manzanillo beach is usually empty in the morning hours
Lizards come in many bright colours in Providencia
The Peak is Providencia’s highest point and provides great views
Providencia’s beaches did not particularly wow me though. Manzanillo was wonderful in the mornings but would quickly get flooded up to the very edge of the dense tree forest, pushing everyone into the small space where the water could not reach. Southwest beach had been largely overrun by nasty seaweed that attracted tiny flies with disproportionately painful bites; the only part of the beach free of seaweed was frequented by jellyfish, and I quickly got unpleasant burns from their stings. Freshwater beach was truly lovely but had the island’s largest hotels built right by the water, making it by far the busiest beach on the island. There was a beautiful beach on the nearby Santa Catalina island, which I absolutely loved, but one needed to hike a certain distance to it.
Manzanillo beach in the morning, shortly before getting all flooded
Nice part of Southeast beach: nasty flies and jellyfish not pictured
Freshwater beach and its modest hotels
Santa Catalina beach and Providencia in the background
I had therefore quickly settled on what was pretty much the last remaining beach on Providencia: Almond Bay. Besides a pack of somewhat scruffy looking dogs eternally camped on the beach, it was a lovely place. The water was deep, void of jellyfish and not overly still, making swimming more interesting. And there was a small bar run by a local guy, Delmar, bringing a nice touch to the otherwise empty beach. There was always ample supply of reggae music flowing out of Delmar’s simple stereo – and, if not, the owner would pay tribute to Bob Marley’s timeless melodies on his own guitar.
Random man and woman kiss on Almond Bay beach
Delmar entertains visitors with reggae classics
Typical beach dish: crab meat, rice and local potatoes
‘Songs of freedom… redemption songs.’
As I tried to go back to sleep, this song was stuck in my head. I vaguely remembered Delmar singing it the day before; he had a small repertoire limited to several reggae classics but visibly performed them from the heart. Watching Delmar play, I again wondered how Providencia could be a part of Colombia when its culture was so decidedly different.
I asked myself what had happened to Delmar. I had absolutely no recollection of how I left his beach and who brought me home. I was hoping at least Doris would be able to tell me more later that morning.
Finally around 6am, I heard a faint knock on my door. I opened it and met Doris’ visibly worried look. She asked me in Spanish if “all my possessions” were there.
Now, one would hardly be asked this after a leisurely and uneventful day out. I assured Doris I was not missing anything and ventured the only Spanish phrase I could put in the past tense.
‘¿Que pasó, Señora Doris?’
Seagulls relax on an old jetty in Santa Catalina
From my host’s enunciated explanation that followed, all of it in Spanish, I could at first only understand that I had been brought to the hotel by somebody called Bill around 6:30 in the evening (I sighed with relief as I heard this – this meant that I barely spent a few minutes in complete blackout). I arrived at the back of Bill’s motorbike not wearing any shoes. I did not make any sense, would not go to sleep and was so hyper that Doris and her husband resorted to closing all the shutters in my room to prevent me from accidentally falling out. Apparently I confessed love for their sick dog, Toby, hugged it and told Doris that, unlike for Toby, I had no feelings for her and her husband whatsoever.
‘Embriagada,’ concluded Doris, and signed. My behaviour last night was so obnoxious and out of whatever character she had observed for three days that she was thinking I had been taking drugs.
‘But marijuana calms you down, and you really weren’t calm,’ said Doris, ‘so it could have been something much stronger.’
She went downstairs to get me something to eat. My plane back to San Andres was leaving in a couple of hours and I had to get ready. In confirmation to Doris’ story, I finally noticed the absence of my flip-flops; thankfully though, I had also brought a pair of sneakers along.
Rearranging my daypack, I suddenly unearthed a maraca I most certainly did not own. I recognised it as one of Delmar’s old battered “instruments” used to entertain the visitors to the beach. Shaking it and hearing its familiar rattling sound brought back a trickle of memories from last night. I remembered holding a maraca in each hand and accompanying Delmar’s guitar with pretty wild shaking. He served me a very strong “coco-loco” cocktail, and I remembered thinking that the amount of rum in it was significantly above the usual proportions. It was going to be my second and last coco-loco of the afternoon though, and I did not mind.
‘Here,’ Delmar said when he brought it over. ‘This one is especially for you.’
I did not think much of these words at the time.
Coco-locos can be served straight in a coconut
Still a little unsteady and crouched under the weight of my large rucksack, I descended a narrow flight of stairs to the kitchen where Doris was already pouring me coffee.
‘You must drink a lot of fluids. I am packing you ham and cheese sandwiches for later but please avoid vegetables and fruit… your stomach will struggle after the substance.’
The “substance”? This was the second reference to drugs I heard that morning. I always prided myself on never taking any sort of drugs and assured Doris of the fact.
She shook her head.
‘You don’t understand. We think Delmar might have slipped something in your drink.’ She paused. ‘When Bill saw you, you were holding Delmar’s hand and walking barefoot from the beach towards the main road. You both looked semi-mad. So Bill grabbed you away from Delmar and brought you here.’
‘What was his full name…’ Doris rubbed her forehead. ‘Clinton. Bill Clinton.’
Bill Clinton! How could I ever forget a local with an actual name like that? I met Bill on my first day in Providencia when he stopped me, just in time, from stupidly taking a bite of a manchineel fruit (they look like small apples but are in fact toxic). And we chatted for a few minutes longer the following day when Bill came down to Almond Bay. He came across as a seriously nice guy and mainly spoke about his American girlfriend who was preparing to join him on the island very soon.
And, it appeared, I had a lot more to thank Bill for – despite not even remembering his second act of kindness towards me.
Here a lizard can be seen among (very toxic) manchineel fruits
‘Delmar,’ said Doris and paused. ‘Please do not think that he is a bad person. We used to live next door and know his family. He had to leave them because of the drug problem. But he works very hard… who knows what went through his mind.’
My taxi was waiting. I gave Doris a farewell hug and patted Toby the dog. I had developed quite a soft spot for that infirm little creature – exactly as announced last night in my delirious state.
By the time I got to Providencia’s tiny airport, the sun had already risen. I checked in for my flight back to San Andres and stepped into the departures area which, with its woven deck chairs, mostly resembled somebody’s summer terrace. I unwrapped Doris’ sandwiches, suddenly realising just how hungry I was.
A small steel tin fell out of my bag, rolled to a neighbouring chair and landed flat on the ground. I picked it up hesitantly; it wasn’t mine. I vaguely remembered telling Delmar about my jellyfish burns and him offering some Vaseline to soothe the pain. I unscrewed the tin open and smelt the contents, almost terrified – but inside was actual Vaseline.
What happened the previous night? I had no way of knowing. The online reviews for Delmar’s beach bar were all positive and the handful of blog posts I found all praised the host’s hospitality. I wondered if Doris had made a mistake. I could have simply got drunk on coco-locos without any drugs having been involved. Despite a few joints lit in front of me (which I attributed to a cultural peculiarity), Delmar never looked high to my inexperienced self – and most certainly did not give evidence of being under the influence of any stronger substance.
Delmar lights another joint
But, the more I thought about it, the more unlikely that seemed. I come from Latvia and handle my drink extremely well. I can recall still making sense after numerous shots of vodka on occasion and certainly have no memory gaps lasting as long as nine hours. And, when I did get fairly drunk, I would quickly pass out rather than walk around holding strangers’ hands, rioting against going to bed or, unbelievably, wetting myself. Two coco-locos, even with generous servings of rum, would be a drop in the ocean.
So what happened? Only Delmar could answer that question and, luckily, I had his email written down on the back of a random receipt. I quickly enabled roaming on my phone and sent a couple of simple lines to that address.
Almost instantly, an error message popped up: that email did not exist.
I sat back on my chair and followed the first arriving plane of the day with my eyes. I knew there was no more way of knowing why I had entire episodes of last night erased from my mind.
Last look at pretty Providencia
What mattered more was that I was safe and that I got away with little more than a strange travel story. I imagined returning to Providencia one day – no, not necessarily to confront Delmar, but certainly to thank the local Bill Clinton for getting me home safely at exactly the right moment.
‘Songs of freedom,’ I whispered, smiling as Providencia disappeared from view. ‘Redemption.’
Were there many mosquitoes in Providencia and San Andres? Which months of the year did you go there? Were repellents and mosquito nets necessary? Were the beaches mosquitoe-free zones?
Hmm, interestingly, I do not recall having mosquito issues at all. I was in Providencia at the end of December.
[…] travel incident: After infamously getting my drink spiked in Colombia at the end of 2015 (read about it here), I have, admittedly, been spared big incidents this year. My worst travel experience of 2016 would […]