The evening air of Santa Marta hung warm and thick. Three chivas, traditional farm transport turned Colombian party bus, were waiting in the parking lot. With their garish paint jobs and purple strobe lights, they looked more traveling carny than mobile disco. We were a group of nine middle aged Philadelphians who came to Colombia sharing only our devotion to Elizabeth, our Colombian Spanish teacher.
Our destination was Playa Rondadero, Santa Marta’s beach, where, we were told, there would be music and dancing. It was Fat Tuesday, the last night of Carnaval. Visions of a beach pulsating with throngs of white-clad Colombians dancing cumbia filled our minds.
Rubiella, our guide, led us to one of the chivas. Our driver appeared with a cooler of beer and water, then disappeared. The two other chivas took off into the night. A wizened woman walked by carrying a tray of beer on her head for sale.
We drank beer. We waited. The driver returned to switch on some loud dance music and vanished again. Energized with anticipation, we started dancing in the cramped aisles.
After an hour, a group of young Colombians joined our bus, drinks in hand. The chiva finally chugged out of the parking lot around 9PM. The music accelerated and the Colombians sang and waved and moved rhythmically in the back. A young man with a shaved head and tight shirt leapt to the back of the chiva and motioned us all to dance while humping the seat backs.
We drove slowly through the streets of Santa Marta, music blaring with hip-hop and reggaeton and Latin pop. The Colombians were shouting the words with the lively familiarity of a family wedding. We stopped at a gated liquor store to buy booze. We stopped to take selfies wearing curly yellow Carlos Valderrama wigs next to an outsize statue of the Colombian Pelé.
The chiva meandered through Santa Marta as the music grew louder. The smell of diesel permeated the humid air. The Colombians were still animated while the Americans began to fade. The promised Carnaval was nowhere in sight. Elizabeth, who prefers Chopin to Pitbull, had paled from the din and the fumes, looking like a china doll in distress. The rest of the us smiled gamely.
Around 10:30 the chiva stopped downtown. The Colombians descended, disappearing to buy food. We lingered along the busy malecón, enduring what would be only one of the many inexplicable pauses on this trip, understood only by our guides. My friend Cathy pointed to a taxi and said “we could escape now”. But we stayed. The Colombians returned and the chiva carried us through increasingly poorer neighborhoods of Santa Marta.
The chiva finally pulled into un unlit parking lot behind an apartment building. “Llegamos a la playa!” exclaimed Rubiella. We had reached the beach, two hours after we had left.
The beach was dark and deserted, illuminated mostly by the green neon of restaurant signs across the street. Scattered groups of young people stood on the street nearby. There was a faint smell of marijuana in the air but no throngs, no music, no Carnaval.
Rubiella led us to an empty patch of beach under a dim street light. A few bright red plastic chairs had been arranged as if in a prayer circle. She motioned to us to sit and a singer, a drummer, an accordion player, and the percussionist with a guacharaca materialized into the circle.
The men began to play vallenato, the traditional music of troubadors, the improvisational griot of Colombia. As the singer cast his ballads across the night air, Elizabeth’s face began to glow. She stood up, sang along, and began to sway to the music. A skinny man in loose white clothes came over to dance with her, hips rolling and hands circling.
Rubiella beamed. More people gathered on the beach.
We sat in our plastic chair circle for another hour, as the vallenato music floated across the sand and toward the Caribbean Sea, watching Elizabeth smile. We danced and clapped. The two hours on the chiva faded into the past. The ride had been the prelude to this, the blessing of a Colombian folk tradition on the wide white sands of a Caribbean beach. The Colombia of Elizabeth’s memory.