Adventures and Reflections with El Partido de Tres In Colombia

As I scanned the hectic intersection near the India Catalina Monument in Cartagena, looking for a bus to take me to the airport, I noticed that one of the raised medians at this intersection was packed with motorcyclists, soliciting rides around town by way of a chorus of shouts — “Mototaxi! Mototaxi! Mototaxi!” Having seen that mototaxis do not seem to be governed by the same traffic laws as other vehicles in Colombia, I realized one of these traffic-weaving, sidewalk-hopping machines might just be the fastest way to get to the airport. Therefore, after a few minutes of negotiating, I found myself darting through the roads and freeways of Cartagena, racing towards the airport to meet my next set of travel companions: Justin and Isaiah.

After roughly four months traveling through Latin America accompanied by various companions (from old friends, to my brother, to fellow Spanish school students, to friends I have met along the way, to people I wished I did not meet along the way), I have grown comfortable adjusting to the various travel styles and interests of whomever I am with. However, this next set of travel companions added a new twist: my friend Justin is in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down nearly two years ago in a skiing accident out in California. I was equal parts nervous and excited to be joining him on his first foray outside of the United States since this accident. Naturally, Justin, never one to shy away from challenges, chose the developing country of Colombia, a nation that has only recently emerged from decades of violence instigated by aggressive drug cartels, a fierce left-wing armed resistance, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes. During this time, it is safe to say the country was not particularly focused on wheelchair-accessibility. However, over the next 16 days, as we made our way from Cartagena to Medellín to the mountain town of Jardín, I would be pleasantly surprised and impressed by how much we could do together, by the generosity and kindness of the Colombian people, and by Justin’s unflappability in the face of various situations involving hilariously inadequate accessibility.  What follows are the adventures and experiences of this party of three in Colombia, or, in the beautiful Spanish (which we spoke fluently throughout the trip), this is the story of “El Partido de Tres.”

January 11 – 16: Cartagena, Colombia

We spent our first two nights in Cartagena in the Hotel Fegali, a quaint bed and breakfast in the neighborhood of Getsemaní in Cartagena. The owner, Jorge, a grey-mustachioed man in his 50’s or 60’s who was usually stylishly adorned in a white, v-neck t-shirt with jean shorts and flip-flops, was a kind, spastically attentive host that did everything in his power to make sure we were taken care of…to a fault. Jorge’s hospitality went so far as to include surprise “pop-ins” to our room to make sure that we had clean towels, that the air-conditioning was off/on, that Justin could make it to the dining room for breakfast at the table — which he insisted really was a better experience than eating alone in the room, or, God forbid, eating no breakfast at all. On our second night in Jorge’s spot, however, El Partido-Jorge relations hit a nadir when we were coming back into the hotel after a late night out. It was 2:30 am, and I was repeatedly pressing on the doorbell to wake Jorge (Jorge did not trust us with a key of our own), while Justin was attempting to muscle himself up a step to bring himself even with the door. However, as Jorge approached the door, Justin lost his balance and fell out of his chair onto the street, prompting Jorge to burst through the doorway to try and drag Justin up off the ground. Isaiah and I tried to reassure Jorge that Justin was okay (as evidenced by Justin’s laughter), but a worried Jorge, still shaken from witnessing the fall, could only muster a stern warning to us — breakfast ends at 9:30 am sharp, a mere 7 hours from that moment. Jorge’s shaking head indicated to us that he did not believe we could make this deadline.

Interestingly enough, Justin was not the first person to fall at a doorway our second evening in Cartagena. That honor, in fact, belonged to me. Several hours earlier, we had veered a few blocks off of the gringo-filled bar scene of Getsemaní to explore a street that looked decidedly more authentic. As we strolled the street, our ears caught the sounds of Latin music spilling out into the street from an open doorway. I glimpsed inside the open doorway to see a bar filled with locals, many of them dancing and singing. The scene was too tempting to resist, so we decided to go inside. However, the approach into the bar involved scaling one sizable step through which Isaiah and I would need to lift Justin. As I was backing over the step and pulling Justin up from the back of his wheelchair (Isaiah had the front), I buckled under Justin’s weight and tumbled butt-first through the door and onto the floor of the bar, causing five Colombian men to rush to the rescue. After these men helped us to successfully overcome my literal shaky knees, Justin rolled into the heart of the bar where, within seconds, roughly a dozen Colombians were dancing in a circle around him. Justin promptly responded by spinning in his chair while rhythmically moving his arms, shoulders, head, and flowing brown hair to the reggaeton pumping through the bar’s speakers. Over an hour of dancing there followed by another half an hour of hobnobbing with some more locals at a young Colombiana’s birthday street party on the way back to the hotel left Justin with the momentum that had him muscling up Jorge’s front step that would, only seconds later, lead to his fall. (Enthusiasm cometh before the fall. Or something like that.)

On our third day in Cartagena, sadly, we moved on from Jorge’s spot. However, this was not before successfully repairing relations with our newfound Cartagenian father figure who was pleasantly surprised both to see Isaiah make it up in time for breakfast and to see us pay for room in full. Our next location was an oasis of wheelchair-accessibility and chilled-out rooftop vibes in the middle of the Old City of Cartagena: The Townhouse Boutique Hotel and Rooftop. The Townhouse was run by a friendly quartet, comprised of two Brits, a New Yorker, and a Peruvian (the chef), who were all eager to please given they had opened up the hotel less than a month before our arrival. The positive energy they put off would lead us to spend several hours a day on the rooftop (which conveniently also had gorgeous views of the Old City), where we would meet other travelers, trade our most ridiculous travel stories, cool-off in the rooftop pool, and sip on delicious cocktails. When not on the rooftop, we cruised the bars and restaurants of Old City and Getsemaní, befriending other travelers and becoming honorary locals at La Malagana (known for their fish tacos) and Casa Venita (known, to us at least, for their ridiculously kind waitress Wendy).

Unfortunately, our two days at the Townhouse were cut short a day shy of our flight to Medellín as the hotel closed down for a week to perform some renovations. Therefore, our last night in Cartagena was spent, depressingly, in a cramped room in the Hampton Inn, an experience over which the hospitality professional Isaiah could only shake his head and left all three of us ready to head to Medellín. However, before we could call our trip to Cartagena officially complete, Justin tried out his freewheel on the sands of a Cartagena beach. The freewheel, a third wheel that affixes to the front of his wheelchair to give it greater “off-road” capabilities (think of it as four-wheel drive drive for a wheelchair), allowed Justin to effectively balance his weight as he rolled through the bumpy, sandy terrain to the ocean’s edge where we conducted a successful Justin Beach Model Shoot (photos are currently being considered by several freewheel manufacturers for their next ad campaign).

January 17 – 24: Medellín, Colombia

Our voyage to Medellín was largely without incident — the highlight of which was our airline allowing us to cut the 4 million person baggage check line in the departing airport (Barranquilla) because of Justin’s wheelchair (Justin’s initial response to the offer — “No, we’re okay!” — was interrupted by Isaiah saying, “We actually WILL take the favor. Thank you very much, kind airline!”). In Medellín, we found ourselves in a classy, business-traveler friendly Hotel San Fernando Plaza. Although the hotel itself was basically a part of an American-style mall that had been plopped into the middle of Medellín (albeit with Colombian-owned stores and restaurants), the hotel was near where all the cool kids hang-out in Medellín, El Poblado. El Poblado is an upscale, trendy, hip, and generally safe area of Medellín that attracts the bulk of Western tourists, as well as some wealthier Colombians. Over the next week, the three of us would use this location as our base of operations for exploring the city.

The first night in Medellín, we met up with some friends I made during my time in Guatemala who happened to now be traveling through Colombia. After a delicious pizza dinner (pizza, for some reason, is ubiquitous in Colombia), we headed to La Octava, a dive bar that distinguishes itself by the grown-up sized ballpit located in the back of the bar. Upon seeing this masterpiece of bar ingenuity, Isaiah and I dove in and found that the pit not only was large in width and breadth (maybe 8 feet wide and 15 feet long), but also in depth (nearly 5 feet!). As we played with boyish enthusiasm in this pit of joy (throwing balls in the air, bellyflopping, chucking balls at innocent yet cute bystanders), I made a grave miscalculation in my own fitness to pull-off a selfie amidst the chaos…and dropped my phone deep into the pit’s abyss. Terror overcame me, worsened when the two Colombian girls beside me in the pit told me that no one…ever…had recovered their smartphone from the bottom of the pit. I looked at Isaiah, who was on the other side of the pit, and yelled to him, “Dude! My phone! Is at the bottom!” Isaiah responded calmly with ROTC-inspired rationale, “It must be here. We can find it! Let’s divide the pit into quadrants…and dive for it!” We started on either side of the pit and methodically moved through the first quadrant, “swimming” through the pit with our heads submerged and our hands running across the bottom. When I would come up for (better) air, I couldn’t see Isaiah but could see a ripple move through the balls on the surface, indicating his position. By identifying his progress in this way, I was able to stay in my lane and, thus, we worked through the pit with dangerous efficiency. After nearly 15-minutes and with the bevy of pitside onlookers mostly shaking their heads at what they perceived to be the Sisyphean nature of our efforts, Isaiah shot up from the midst of the pit, right arm raised high, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YOUR PHONE!!” And there it was, my phone held high in his right-hand, a huge grin on Isaiah’s face. I yelped with joy, “Amazing!….I love you!” as cheers and applause rose up through the bar. We then proceeded to dance in the ballpit for one full American ’90’s pop-rock song (likely played ironically by the bar at our expense) before carefully climbing out of the pit. Needless to say, this high stakes rescue mission proved to be the highlight of our first night in Medellín.

The next few days, El Partido explored the nature, restaurants, and bars of Medellín, caught up in the energy of a city that makes it difficult to turn in for the night before 3 am. One evening, we scaled to the top of Nutibara Hill to watch the sun set over this massive, sprawling city that is roughly the size of Chicago, the tranquility of the scene causing our conversation to turn personally reflective. Another afternoon, Justin and I tested the wheelchair accessibility of the surprisingly modern metro system, which includes a cable car that took us out of the city into the green, vast Parque Arví  located in the mountains above Medellín. The metro passed the test for accessibility, although there was a laughably slow electronic platform to carry Justin up and down the stairs outside of the El Poblado Metro Station. The platform was slow enough, in fact, that  a locally elderly man descending down on the platform shouted to us “¡Como una tortuga!” as we stood waiting for the platform at the bottom of a metro station staircase. We also tested out Justin’s freewheel again, this time in the hills south of Medellin, in Parque El Salado, where Justin flawlessly executed a wheelchair river crossing that solicited a much more heartfelt round of cheers from the audience of onlookers than the one Isaiah and I had received a few nights before in the ballpit. On the way back from this adventure, we shared empanadas with a mother and her curious daughter of nine years old who quizzed us in Spanish on what life was like in the United States and told us of her ambitions to learn French and English. And each night, we sampled the Medellín nightlife with other travelers we had met along the way.

On Sunday the 21st, Isaiah returned to the U.S. — unfortunately, painfully sick from the unavoidable, ubiquitous Latin American-itis that has struck each of my guests down in Latin America — leaving El Partido down to just two (“dos”), Justin and I. We mourned Isaiah’s departure over plates of a massive, typical Colombian meal at Mondongos. Each plate included a fried plantain, an arepa (a small, firm tortilla that is typical in Colombia), a bowl of beans, a bowl of mondongo soup (a meat and vegetable soup), a scoop of ground beef, a scoop of rice, a fried egg, half an avocado, and a banana. It was enough food for each of our nonexistent pet horses. (There are pictures below to convince the unbelievers.) That evening, exhausted from the nonstop nature of our traveling and full of heavy food, I crashed early while Justin, man of boundless energy, went out for the evening with with a new friend of ours — Anna from Germany whom we had met the night of the infamous ballpit rescue mission.

With Isaiah gone, we changed sleeping locations from San Fernando Plaza to the Soul “Lifestyle” Apartamentos, a short-term rental apartment complex in El Poblado managed by a cheerful, smiley, metrosexual Canadian named James who seemed to put off the “Lifestyle” vibes this new, luxury apartment complex was going for. Coincidentally, two other friends we had met in our travels (Eleanor from Australia and Kate from Canada) happened to be staying in the same building after having to vacate their AirBnB after finding a webcam creepily pointed at their room. The four of us, along with Anna from Germany, dove right into the Soul “Lifestyle” by grilling on the rooftop one evening. The BBQ came complete with grilled meat, grilled vegetables, and, towards the end of dinner, an older gentlemen from the States named Craig who proceeded to direct the conversation towards a topic more to his liking — himself. This beautiful rooftop BBQ would wrap up our week in Medellín as Justin and I would depart on our next adventure the proceeding day: Jardín and the mountains of Colombia.

January 24 – 26: Jardín, Colombia

Three and a half hours from bustling Medellín is Jardín, a quaint town perched high in the Colombian Andes that features a vibrant central square lined with busy outdoor cafes, a beautiful church, and surprisingly few tourists. To reach it, Justin and I navigated our way through the Medellín bus terminal to our means of transportation: a large, public van that proved to be quite simple for Justin to hop into while stashing his chair in the back. The winding ride up to Jardín, however, was quite a bit more difficult — not just for a top-heavy Justin (the weight of his head combined with his paralyzed midsection caused him to slide in his seat as we hit bumps and turns on the route) but also for the other passengers, many of which made full use of the vomit bags that the driver passed back upon request.  And once in Jardín, our journey was not yet finished as our hostel required a roughly 25 minute climb up out of town on a bumpy dirt road. Despite the rough journey, upon our arrival at Hostel Patio Bonito we knew we had found a special spot. We were greeted by the owner Juan (a young man from Bogota in his late 20’s), his girlfriend Emma (from Belgium), a miniature three-week old cat named Yahtzee (named after Juan and Emma’s favorite board game), Pete (a friend of Emma’s who had been volunteering at the hostel for a month and whose primary responsibility seemed to be keeping guests thoroughly caffeinated with local coffee), a German Shepherd named Rasta (all bark, no bite), Antonio the donkey (known as the “clock” given his habit of bleating roughly once an hour), and some roaming peacocks. The hostel itself was better defined as a mountain farm, with its variety of animals, crops (mandarins and bananas), and its location on the side of a mountain that provided stunning views of the surrounding coffee farms from its porch (hence “Patio Bonito”). We would spend the rest of our first day soaking in the magic of the place by drinking fresh coffee (purchased from the plantation next door), playing with Yahtzee, enjoying a BBQ dinner grilled by Juan, and gazing up at a clear, night sky densely cluttered with bright stars.

Initially only planning to stay one night in Patio Bonito, Justin and I decided to stay on for two given the idyllic location, surprising wheelchair accessibility (the porch’s hammocks were a pleasantly surprising addition to Justin’s “doable” list), and pleasant company. On the second day, we even went so far as to explore a dirt road up into the mountains above Jardín (at the advice of Andrew, the amicable Canadian and Jardín enthusiast that we met at a cafe in town). We reached the terminus of our journey, when Justin, veering to his right to avoid a tuk-tuk speeding past him, toppled out of his chair onto the road. (Luckily, I had the camera rolling to capture the theatrics of the fall.) Unscathed and in good humor, Justin looked further down the steep, rocky road and suggested that this might be a good place to turn around and face the picturesque sunset coloring the sky above the road back into town. I agreed, and we returned to Jardín and a surprisingly delicious pizza dinner at Cafe Europa, one of the few locations in town targeting Western backpackers. After dinner, our way back to Patio Bonito allowed Justin to add another item to the “doable” list: tuk-tuk riding. Antonio, the tuk-tuk driver, kept us distracted from the uncomfortable bouncing and careening of his vehicle up the winding, dirt road by peppering us with facts about his family, stories about climbing in the Sierra Los Nevados, and his enthusiastic endorsements of our hostel (“¡Patio Bonito! ¡Que lindo! ¡Que lindo!”).

January 26-27: Medellín, Colombia

After our second night in Jardiín, Justin and I made our way back to Medellín for one last night out in El Poblado before Justin’s flight out the following day. We met up with Kate and Eleanor for Justin’s farewell dinner complete with Argentinian steaks, red wine, and a poetry reading (the poem was kindly printed out in English by our colorful server who claimed to have worked in each of NYC’s Michelin three-star restaurants before landing in Medellín and the slightly less prestigious La Pampa Parrilla Argentina). We spent the rest of the night dancing to the mix of reggaeton and American pop beats at Vintrash, a crowded club filled equally with backpackers and locals, where at one point Kate looked over to me as Justin rolled away from the dance floor to grab a drink and perfectly captured my sentiment with a matter of fact, “You are going to miss him.”

And the next afternoon, El Partido officially abandoned for the foreseeable future with Justin’s departure for the airport and mine for the bus terminal. In only a few hours, I would be in a hostel in the mountain town of Manizales, prepping for a three day trek into the Sierra Los Nevados, while Justin would be gearing up to get back to his routine in his Denver, Colorado, apartment. However, during those few hours in transit, we would both be suspended in that “in-between time” that traveling so beautifully affords. A time where the mind dances to and fro between thoughts of reflection and expectation as the body is physically transported from the past to the future.

As is so often the case when writing about my travels, I find that just summarizing the facts of who, what, when, where, and why only partially capture the experience. And in many cases, it feels as if my written account only expresses the hollow shell of a much fuller, more vibrant experience. The richness is found a few levels deeper than the mere facts of the day, although where I find this deeper, more rewarding side of the story can vary. For instance, in my solo travels, I have at times, unexpectedly, felt a sense of belonging in foreign places surrounded by people from a variety of different countries I have only recently met. Going from a feeling of amicable camaraderie with new companions to a deeper sense of belonging is difficult to pin-down in a narrative arc, but it has been one of the more rewarding experiences I have had in my travels.
In my time with Isaiah and Justin I experienced something different but equally rewarding. By committing to spend nearly most of our time together for 2+ weeks, in addition to having time to do a lot of things together, we had ample time to allow for meaningful thoughts and conversations to bubble up. One conversation that will stick with me is Isaiah and I’s discussion over breakfast prompted by David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement address (yes, we read this over breakfast), where we agreed with Foster-Wallace’s argument that real freedom is found in choosing to live unselfishly and marveled at the literary skill at which he brought this point home (if you have ~15 minutes, the linked transcript is well-worth the read). We talked about how difficult making that choice daily can be and some tactics around how to get there. However, Isaiah pointed out a flaw behind Foster-Wallace’s anecdote of how spiritually draining a normal routine of, say, going to the grocery store may be — there are many people who would love to have an ordinary, uneventful daily routine where they have the opportunity to make healthy choices regarding their inner monologue. Isaiah’s point made me recognize and be grateful for the relative privilege we both had to be discussing how to best deal with life…when life gets boring.
Another conversation that stands out to me is hearing about Justin’s reaction to the book and movie Me Before You. (Spoiler alert: The story involves a young man who is paralyzed from the neck down and decides to commit suicide a year after his accident even though he and his caretaker have a romance of sorts.) Justin’s response to the main character’s decision to commit suicide was visceral: the character made a narrow, uniformed choice on life, where he overemphasized his new limitations over what he could still experience and what limits could be questioned or stretched. Justin’s passionate argument for life gave me a glimpse into his own conviction of how profoundly worth it life is, even with a loss of some his physical ability, and put a fine point on one of the primary challenges of living in his post-injury world: Staying grateful for what he can do, while maintaining a spirit that constantly challenges and tests assumptions behind his “limits,” and, through that process, having the wisdom to acknowledge that although some of his limits are, in fact, real and final, others are merely vestiges of fearful, faulty thinking that can be steamrolled with a healthy dose of grit and gumption. Justin has been intensely focused on fighting — and winning — this battle since his injury, and it was my pleasure to join him as he dove headlong into this challenge for 16 days in Colombia.

2 thoughts on “Adventures and Reflections with El Partido de Tres In Colombia”

  1. This is a magnificent account of an amazingly memorable experience shared by the truest of friends. You write so well, Richard, and I can’t wait for your book! Thank you for sharing, and thank you especially for being the very special friend you are to my boy!


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