The Great Colombian Journal Hunt

I always meant to pack a journal to write in on my first solo trip, but it never happened. It may have been that my last week in New York was just so hectic I didn’t get a chance to buy one, or the fact that I came down with some kind of mutant head cold just days before setting off. In any case, it wasn’t until I was on the plane that I realized I hadn’t brought anything to write in, but at that point I wasn’t really concerned. This was the first trip of its kind for me, so who knew if I would have the time or inclination to write about my adventures as they were happening? I figured I could always just buy something once I landed in Cartagena.

This proved to be easier said than done, but in retrospect it was a blessing in disguise. It led to one of the stories I’ve told people over and over about how amazing the people you meet on the road can be.

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The first night I spent in Cartagena, Colombia was an emotional rollercoaster. I was thrilled to finally be on my way, but also nervous. I was still suffering from whatever bug I’d gotten back in the NY winter too, so I didn’t feel all that well physically. I hadn’t slept at all the night before my flight and proceeded to completely wreck my sleep schedule by taking a long afternoon nap the moment I got to my hostel, so I didn’t really get to meet other people who were staying there until later — and then it turned out that almost all of them were from other South American countries and I was the only native English speaker there. Though I do speak some Spanish, I wasn’t confident enough in my communication skills to break in on any conversations, so I felt very isolated and alone. I ended up spending the evening in my hostel bed, writing on whatever scrap paper I could find just to put my feelings and thoughts in order.

The next couple days were much better as I met other travelers and started exploring the city on my own, but I was still so overwhelmed with feelings (now good ones!) that I really wanted to get my experiences down so as not to forget anything. I kept my eyes peeled for journals as I wandered the streets of the old city and didn’t see anything promising, but for one exception: tucked away on a dark shelf in a fancy bookstore and cafe, a single blank book with a portrait of a man on the cover. The problem? I had no idea who that dude was. For all I knew, he was like some Colombian version of Hitler and I just didn’t feel comfortable carrying around a picture like that without knowing anything about who he was.

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On my fourth day in Cartagena, I woke up and decided: This is the day. I swore to find and purchase a journal, or at least something passable to chronicle my trip with. I started my search at the local mall but once again, none of the stores seemed to have anything close to what I was looking for. One man working there was very helpful and suggested that I might try at the university bookstore, so once I managed to locate the university I mustered up my courage and in careful Spanish asked a couple of friendly-looking students hanging out outside. I had to explain what I was looking for: “A book…for writing…because I am traveling and I want to write about what I do each day.” It took a while to get the point across, but once they got the gist, they all offered to accompany me to a store they thought might have one.

These boys proceeded to spend the next two hours hustling me to every store they could think of in the area, asking the sales girls and explaining what I wanted on my behalf. It took a lot of trial and error, because the concept of a journal or diary seemed completely alien here. First they kept showing me agendas and day planners, so I explained that I wanted blank pages. Looseleaf binders were offered — no. “Un bloc” yielded a couple of large drawing pads. I was also shown various school notebooks, so I explained that I wanted “más linda”.

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The guys were extremely patient with my hesitant spanish and were excited to help me, as if finding me a journal had become their personal mission for the day as well. When it seemed we had exhausted all other possibilities, I mentioned that I had seen one at a bookstore the other day but couldn’t remember where it was. New mission! They made me describe everything I could remember about the place, pumping me with questions. I explained that it was on a corner, and sold books about Cartagena (I remembered some beautiful coffee table books), and had tables to sit at. One of them asked if they served coffee and wine — I said definitely coffee, but I wasn’t sure about the wine. He said he knew it, and after he led us all there, I found the journal I had seen before and asked them all if they knew who the man on the cover was. They didn’t.

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There was one more on the shelf but it was in shadow and I had assumed it was an identical journal, since the man who worked there said they only had one type when I asked. But one of the guys noticed that this one had a different portrait on the cover, and when he pulled it out they all immediately recognized the face. This other journal even listed a name under the portrait: Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda. They explained that he is a famous Colombian author and poet. Okay, as long as I know he’s not a genocidal maniac!

So I purchased the journal (even managing to negotiate a discount because of some slight water damage on the back cover), and mission accomplished, the boys invited me to come meet some friends of theirs to drink boxed wine on the city walls. Of course I accepted! We spent several hours there, watching the sun go down and chatting about nothing in particular (entirely in Spanish — I was very proud of myself).

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To date, this is one of my most treasured travel memories. The whole experience completely blew my mind. Back home in New York, sure, I’ll try to help a tourist out by giving them directions or ideas on where to eat nearby if they ask, but this was on a whole different level. The fact that this group of students stopped what they were doing just to help me out and show me around for an entire afternoon seemed crazy to me.

But the really impressive thing? As I kept traveling, I realized this isn’t even that unusual of a story. The world really isn’t a scary place and you meet kind, friendly people at every turn. This was just the first time I realized it.

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