Mark Twain was curmudgeonly in Innocents Abroad. Twain was no “innocent” in traveling to Europe. He assumed the mask of a naive American to poke at the pretensions of the Old World—just as Will Rogers did almost a half-century later.

Mark Twain was curmudgeonly  in Innocents Abroad. Twain was no “innocent” in traveling to Europe.  He assumed the mask of a naive American to poke at the pretensions of the Old World—just as Will Rogers did almost a half-century later.

So two older types go to a country, Colombia, knowing little Spanish.  Thanks to the translation applications on smart phones in taxis and elsewhere, we manage to communicate without feeling particularly overcharged.  We appreciate the portable credit card scanners waiters bring to our table.

We could have timed it better. Easter weekend in Medellin, we discover many sites closed; taking a ride to a huge monumental rock, we discover where all the people have gone.  Trapped in a file of cars miles long, expected to climb hundreds of stairs to see a countryside we have just inched through?  Turned around.  Small towns block through roads for processions.  Possibly a situation we would have found in any Catholic country?  (Plan better.)

Being older, of course we have medical conditions.  My nose sniffs the local pollen and goes into drip. Meds are needed.  Why can’t allergists come up with country-specific shots for travelers before they get there?  My cousin brings a load of pills with him.

Being on meds, older, and knowing little Spanish, we are partly cranky most of the time.  

My recourse is to go silent, and brood on my inherent frailties.  Calvinist upbringing, I suppose, added to Norwegian genes.

My cousin tends the other way.  Taxed with a deep cough, burdened with more potent meds, he rags the locals.  Faced with several forms at a money changer’s in the airport, he asks for the orphan child such paperwork must lead to.  He thinks he’s making a joke.  Each of the guides is asked about her or his childhood, marital status, children.  I credit him for eliciting good stories, sometimes.  In Medellin, once the site of drug wars, our guide tells of her first communion, when she and others had to flee the church because a gunman entered, looking for his target in the congregation.  Made the paintings of Pablo Escobar being shot or lying dead all the more real.

Not to worry: Colombia has been colonized.  It only grows product for the Mexican cartels.  That’s where the violence occurs, we are told.

Cousin interrupts a delightful rum tasting with an objection to the chocolate.  We are sampling a local Cartagena brand called “Dictator.”  A five-year, 10 and 25 are being compared, first alone, then after chewing a piece of chocolate.  Our taste master makes the mistake of saying the local chocolate is excellent.  “No!  It doesn’t melt in my hand!” Cousin goes on to explain that whatever-it-is that makes chocolate melt quickly has been removed and sold to pharmaceuticals.  Do we care?  Do I care?  Yes, because I have just raised my small glass and am prepared to luxuriate in the smooth taste of very old rum infusing with bits of chocolate!  Hold everything for a mini-lecture.  Have to take another bit of what is now seen as not-so-excellent chocolate so one can try the rum. Something has been lost.

Sometimes it’s better to pretend than correct.

Thankfully, Cousin is not up for taking some of the arranged day trips.  A trip to see clever cat sculptures in Cali, followed by a walkthrough of the town’s art museum, featuring—as I have come to expect—paintings that take shots at abuse of women, religious idolatry, and bland American magazine covers of the 1950s.  A side table shaped as a woman with very large breasts, one of which is hinged and open to reveal a shot glass inside.  Maybe Freud could make something of that.

The whole display reminded me of the theory that art often flourishes in a repressive environment: religious where one denomination is official, socio/political in dictatorships or in the South before integration, Jewish writers after the oppressions of Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe, black writers from Harlem or one of the ghettos of American cities.  It reminded me too of the very political paintings I had seen in Rio, referencing the violence, the disappeared ones, the corruption of public officials.  

The cat sculptures in a park reminded me of the huge public sculpture park in Medellin, large Botero bronzes of various kinds, with people posing, kids climbing on figures of reclining women, a large cat, a naked Roman soldier.  Some parts show brightly, where many hands have patted—the paw of the cat, the rump of a reclining woman, the penis of the soldier.  My guide informs me that women who wish to become pregnant pat the soldier just there, as also do women of the street who hope for a profitable night.  

These are wonderful consolations for a pair of cranky, medicated seniors, along with a good visit with my brother who has retired to Cali, near his wife’s family.  

Not that either of us would choose to live in Cali.  Traffic jammed up from 6 to 10 am and later from 3 to 6 pm, leaving—what—about five hours of daylight when one could navigate with relative ease.  Otherwise, hit the rush hours and one inches forward in narrow streets with lines of cars, cutting in and out, motorcycles and scooters weaving between lines (don’t stick your arm out the window), cars from side streets forcing their way across the flow.  Impossible.  Due in part to all the Venezuelan refugees who have flocked to Colombian cities, I am told.  Not quite, I think.  Narrow city streets, overburdened public transport, and sprawling, uncontrolled housing on the outskirts contribute.  

My brother has lived there over a year and hasn’t purchased a car.  His wife wonders why, thoroughly Americanized after living in Northern Virginia almost 20 years. “Are you going to  drive in this city?” he asks.  So they rely on little yellow taxis that charge in and out of lines of traffic.

Come now: did we see any thing else we liked in the country?  Very much: the old walled city and Spanish fort in Cartagena, a hummingbird “farm” in the mountains outside Cali, an estate, also outside Cali, with beautiful gardens and a pathetic story of an artist who lived in the big house with his family, including—at the opposite end of the house—the cousin he loved but was forbidden to marry.  A channel of running water surrounded the house and grounds, supposedly designed to keep noxious insects from intruding.  (I emerged from the grounds unbitten.) Medellin had a nice restaurant district and a fancy “boutique hotel,” with old passports behind plastic walls in the elevator and live plants in the room, some with cute bugs on them.  Did I mention the emerald company and the Inquisition Museum in Cartagena?  All delightful in different ways.  

Still, neither of us kicked our medical complaints until returning to the USA.  

Cousin said, rather too loudly, that he would never return to this—expletive deleted—country.  Said while waiting in a long line to be processed by Colombian security at the airport.  Seems only appropriate that his passport picture, taken with a wide-angle lens, was not immediately seen as matching his real face.  Official, then Official’s Superior, looked at the picture, looked at Cousin, looked at the picture, looked at Cousin, repeated three times, before acknowledging enough likeness to let him pass.  

Cousin will not go back; I probably will.  After all, my brother lives there.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at