Memoirs of El Mono, gurl.
I became Colombian when I was 29 years old. It was something that happened suddenly, unexpectedly.
After my 27th birthday, I flew to San Diego to spend time with Kendall and Adam. I had thrown together a bag full of clothes and left my problems in New York. My heart had been recently broken and I was in crisis. Being around Kendall and Adam was the best medicine I could buy, so I cashed in my airline points and hopped across the country. On our first night, we all fell into our familiar rapport and laughed about our crazy lives. We couldn’t believe that we were 27. It seemed so old, something that crept up on us and was unwelcome. “My God, we’re practically 30!” This theme took on a life of it’s own. After several bottles of wine were emptied, we started compiling our “30 before 30” bucket list. My list included typical adventure goals and some wacky items like “date an Eskimo”. When I came back to New York, I tucked the list away in my underwear drawer and forgot about it until it caught my eye six months before my 30th birthday.
Prominent, at the top of my list, “travel abroad by yourself” was written. I took this as communication from my past self and it set me into a panic to book a trip as soon as possible. I chose Cartagena, Colombia because it jumped off the page at me and I could afford the airfare. My tickets were purchased practically sight unseen. Almost immediately, I felt a wave of anxiety come over my body. What was I thinking? My first trip alone, and I choose Colombia?! My fears doubled as I started typing into the Google search bar “is Colombia…” and the first thing that came up was “safe”.
Against the wishes of everyone in my life, I got on that plane. A few hours later, I set my feet on a new continent. It became obvious to me how uncommon it was for Americans to travel here, rarer still as a solo white female. English was not something the locals were accustomed to speaking. My days were spent primarily alone, wandering through cobblestone passages curtained by bougainvillea. The historic part of Cartagena was surrounded by a wall that was built to protect the city from pirates. I spent hours each day in solitude on top of that wall looking for pirate ships and thinking about my life. It’s amazing how you start to listen to yourself when you are outside of your comfort zone with seagulls as your only companions. I was hopping from hostel to hostel throughout the area when I received notification that I had been booked at an airbnb place on an island. I felt I had had my fill of salsa dancing and of asking everyone I met if they had children, cats or if their cats were on fire. The host of this airbnb told me to meet him “behind the hospital on the beach” and to ask for “el mono”. Other than this, I had no idea what island I was going to or what was in store for me.
I felt that my limited Spanish had prepared me to experience embarrassment as I walked up and down the beach asking for “the monkey” at 8am. I slung my big backpack onto the sand and was starting to plan my backup move if he didn’t appear. Secretly, I was also praying that he would emerge out of the ocean, hand extended, with a monkey on his shoulder. A shadow interrupted my thoughts as I turned around to meet a very handsome man face to face. “Are you Katy?” I felt my voice shake as I replied “yes, you speak English? Are you the monkey I am looking for?” He picked up my bag, threw it over his shoulder and laughed as he led me to a small metal boat.
I was so happy to have someone to talk to that I immediately started grilling him about all of my questions I had written down about Colombia. “Do they always leave the eyes on the fish when they put it on your plate” was at the top of my list. I also needed to know why he was known as a monkey. He proceeded to tell me about how I was the first American to come stay with him and that “el mono” is a slang word for “blonde” in that part of Colombia. I was listening to everything he had to say in-between my alternating internal dialogue of “will I die?” and “is he single?”.
I learn that we are approaching Isla Tierrabomba as a crowd rushes the boat offering to carry my bag. El Mono separates the crowd with a series of high fives and hand shakes as he leads the way towards a steep hill. I gaze around the island as we hike and a sharp round of first-world guilt starts to seize my body. The poverty of this island stood in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan skyline of Cartagena, which was only a short seven minute boat ride away. All around me were children running around barefoot on sharp rocks. El Mono had been trying to teach the children English, so a chorus of “nice to meet you! How are you?” came as each child showed up to welcome me. El Mono’s property was beautiful. I had my own cabana and hot tub. I was the only guest on that day, so I immediately sat in the hammock to take everything in. I was panicked that I had not come prepared for that day. I was wishing that I had brought something for the kids; I could have stocked up on clothes and toys. I watched as three little girls played cards on the street while I held back tears. It wasn’t because I felt bad for these people, but because I knew that this was the reason Colombia had called to me. I knew deep inside that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, which was very unusual for me. I needed to get some serious perspective on what’s important in my life, and watching donkeys carry up containers of water for peoples homes provided me with that insight. I am insignificant if I don’t make a difference in this world. I knew that I would be back to this place one day and I stitched the moment into my heart.
A little while later, I put on my bathing suit to head to the beach. A group of young boys had offered to take me, so I packed some cash to buy them something to drink. Over the next few hours the boys made fun of my Spanish and they took turns flipping through the pictures on my iPhone. I became completely mortified as my language skills were unable to explain away the weirdness that is my life. After the third consecutive picture of me being motor boated by a drag queen came up, I confiscated my phone and suggested that we go swimming. We spent hours doing handstands and showing each other our own special tricks under water. In the water, we all spoke the same language. “Can you do this?” I would ask using the universal body language for “come at me, bitch.” I twirled under water three times and came up like Ariel crashing upon the rocks. This has always been my winning signature move, but I awarded the boys points for their adorable attempts to mimic me flipping my hair. We dried off on the beach where I taught them how to toast with Coke bottles. The beach was completely empty, save for ourselves and the lady we bought the Coke from. I had to laugh to myself as I finally had the perfect set up for a story about the time I did Coke in Colombia. “Cheers!” echoed about a hundred times into the jungle behind us before I told them I was ready to head back to the property.
El Mono was busy purchasing a donkey with burn injuries when we arrived. He gathered the kids around to teach them a lesson about kindness to animals. He told them that he would nurse this donkey back to health with the help of the kids. He told them that animals are to be respected, and in turn they will respect you by carrying your family’s water up the hill. He turned to explain to me that he had also rescued the three dogs he had running around the property. All of his pets had been abused. He went on to tell me that people treated animals like pests on this island. One of his neighbors could not afford a door for their house, and when this unlucky donkey had wandered through their front door, they threw cooking oil on it to get it out. I stroked the nose of the donkey and looked into its beautiful brown eyes that were broken through no fault of its own. El Mono then took me to show me his house of rabbits. “The Iguanas on this island are almost extinct because people were hunting them for food. I breed rabbits, who are free to come and go as they please. They make lots of babies very fast, so my neighbors sometimes catch them for a healthy dinner. If the rabbits leave my property, they are free for anyone. Now, the Iguanas are left alone and I can teach the kids about animals.” I had to catch my breath a few times as I felt I was having an out-of-body experience. This man was my age, and he was quickly becoming my hero. The simplicity in his mission made me so proud that I could witness these spontaneous lessons, even as a mere spectator.
El Mono continued to show me things on his property. Every corner had something that impressed me, from rain barrels to personal touches made by the children. I found a big pile of stone statues that were going to make an underwater zoo for the kids to create reef so they can learn about marine ecology. Next to them was a big pile of plastic bottles. “We have one man who is a garbage man for the whole island. We don’t have recycling. These families take five years to build a house because they can only afford one wall per year. The kids bring me bottles, packed tight with trash, and I give them a toy. Today I will teach the kids how to build things for free out of the trash we have around the island. We are making a school and the first wall will go up today using these bottles as bricks.” I told him to immediately put me to work, that I wanted to help while I was there. We strung together the bottles onto chicken wire, then poured concrete. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the kids with each bottle. Since it was the first wall, we tried and failed together. We tried again and succeed. The children participated in every step until it was time for hydration by way of coconuts and an afternoon nap in the grass. I returned to my hammock and to my thoughts.
I couldn’t believe my luck with this unplanned adventure. I was experiencing so many emotions that it was hard to keep up with myself. I wanted to travel alone so I could get to know myself, to really depend on myself and to be myself. Who am I when I’m being authentic, when the laughter stops and the disco ball is turned off? That afternoon I realized that the lesson I needed to learn on this island was also a simple one. If I had my own property, literal or figurative, what would I do with it? Would I make it all about me and my extravagances? Or, would I dedicate part of it towards bettering my community? What lessons could be taught? El Mono was doing things that really spoke to me. I just felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude that my life had led me here, even for a day.
Before I knew it, the lights were twinkling across the waters as Cartagena brought me back to earth. Close to fifty children were showing up to watch a movie on El Monos deck. While “El Gato con Botas” played on a projector, I had my hair braided by a little girl. When the movie was over, El Mono started playing music videos and cleared away the chairs for an all out dance party. It was shocking to see children under ten having a twerk off to win dollar bills, but I wasn’t one to judge as I have pictures of me pole dancing as a child. I made it rain a little. It was for the kids.
My time on Tierrabomba lasted exactly one day, but I think about it almost every day. My friend, KL, even visited El Mono and has her own story to tell. At 29, a “monkey” taught me how to be Colombian. It is by some poetic luck that my passport expired when I turned 30. Closing out my 20’s passport was my stamp from Colombia, which felt like the end of a chapter in my life. I flipped through the used pages and reflected on all the places I had been. 4 continents, 10 countries, but only 1 “monkey”.
WATCH: El Mono’s first Recycling Event for the entire Island
VISIT: Take a trip and make a difference