Carnival, Cocaine & Corruption

Mon 17th March 2014
Living to Be Happy 

Spirituality and Intoxication The Trilogy - Part 1

After spending a lot of time on my own in order to connect more with my Self, with nature and with the life energy all around us, I took a step out of my own private journey of Self discovery in order to party with my scooby friend from Dresden, Svenja, who had travelled all the way from Ecuador to Barranquilla in Colombia to experience the second biggest carnival in the world after Rio.

The proposito (purpose or intention) for me doing so was to experience how I felt partying again after feeling disconnected from the people getting drunk at Costeño Beach and disconnected from the people getting stoned in Minca.

With this proposito in mind, I decided to take this opportunity to do some of my own investigative research into Colombian intoxication, and think more deeply about the standpoint of spirituality on intoxication (alcohol, marijuana, caffeine, etc).

Little was I to know that I would spend the next two weeks on a journey into the Colombian world of drugs, crime, and corruption where rules don’t apply and compassion has been weather-beaten and battered.

Get comfortable for a long read, this is the full report at last!

The investigation started with my arrival on the evening of Fri 28th February 2014 at a suburb in the south of Barranquilla where it seemed no one had ever communicated with a foreigner and the whole community was trying to find some questions to ask me – ‘where are you from?’ ‘where are you going?’ ‘do you speak Spanish?’ ‘how tall are you?’ were the questions that I was being repeatedly asked just minutes after climbing out of the taxi.

The meeting point was outside the house of our couchsurfing host, Yuliana, but neither Svenja nor Yuliana had arrived yet, so I escaped to a quieter corner away from the crowd and chatted away to the two young boys who followed me.

Suddenly a whole family sitting on the street outside their house started calling me over. I thought they just wanted to ask me my height again so I ignored them, but eventually one girl came over who, it turned out, was the cousin of Yuliana. They pulled out a plastic chair for me, and I waited on the street with them for Yuliana to arrive.

It wasn’t long before Svenja’s taxi pulled up, and it was great to see her again! We sat on plastic chairs with the family and chatted together about our individual adventures until Yuliana came home from her university internship at the hospital.

At Yuliana’s house, we waited for two more couchsurfers to arrive, Luis from Colombia (living in Miami) and Sébastian from France. Two great guys and a welcome addition to the Couchsurfing carnival clan.


Carnival Day 1 – Sat 1st March 2014

The first day of the carnival was a really great day. Yuliana told us about the 44th Street carnival which was not the mainstream procession and only for people in the know. Along with Yuliana’s friend, Miguel, we set off to buy a load of alcohol and found a great place to join in with the festivity. The procession started at midday and went on for hours until the late evening. Beer was being sold all day long but no one around us seemed especially drunk. Everyone was just happy, and having a great time!

That evening, Svenja, Yuliana and I went to bed while Luis and Sébastian went out with Luis’s cousin to party the whole night away.

Carnival Day 2 – Sun 2nd March 2014

The next day, Luis and Sébastian woke up with a lack of sleep and nicely hung over. Svenja also woke up feeling unwell, but not due to alcohol. I felt fine.

Yuliana took us to the mainstream carnival on 40th street, and I was in the mood for more fiestón (big party), but Luis and Sébastian couldn’t face more alcohol and everyone except me was under the weather.

The carnival itself was not that exciting compared to the ‘del pueblo’ (‘in the know’) carnival of the day before. On Saturday you could just walk into the procession and join the people dancing, but this day we were separated from the procession by a barrier which also seemed to separate everyone from the fun.

The evening became more exciting though - with my first experience of Colombian crime! We entered a huge crowd of people at a concert near Yuliana’s home, when a guy started spraying water all over a young couple who were bending down and crawling through the crowd to escape the water attack. I ended up getting stuck in the line of fire and to avoid getting soaked, I walked in the direction of the young couple who were separating the crowd and leading the way. I quickly found a way to exit through the crowd in a different direction. Yuliana found me and immediately asked me to check my pockets. She knew exactly what had happened. I had been robbed.

The young couple had been working together with the guy spraying the water and had picked my pocket while I was trying to get away from the guy spraying the water. Even though they only got 20,000 pesos (about 6 pounds, 7 euros or 10 dollars), I felt a bit stupid. I had the feeling that something was wrong, but these organised thieves know how to keep things happening so fast that your brain just doesn’t have time to register what is going on. It really isn’t a nice feeling when it suddenly sinks in what has just happened to you. You feel emotionally cheated!

Yuliana took us to a family birthday party straight afterwards which took my mind off what had just happened. The family had blocked the road off so that the whole family could dance and drink out on the street to celebrate. Two guys, who had been employed for the night as the organised entertainers, danced and sang and blasted music out into the night. Food and aguardiente (Colombia's answer to cheap vodka) kept getting passed around until Yuliana’s dad was happy that the last man standing finally couldn’t stand anymore, at which point he called it a night and we all went back home.

Carnival Day 3 – Mon 3rd March 2014

The official last day of the carnival and we were all relieved to take a break from the fiesta that seemed to be taking its toll on all of us now. Instead, we took a walk around Barranquilla away from the carnival crowds to check out the cathedral (where it tuned out the ‘king of the carnival’ was being filmed for television), and then we set off to Puerto Colombia which is the least attractive beach on the northern Colombian coast but the nearest to Barranquilla. It was perfect!

Completely different from the other beaches on the Colombian Caribbean coast, it has an amazing pier that goes way out into the sea. Left weather-beaten and battered by the authorities, it has completely eroded with whole sections having collapsed entirely into the sea. There was a huge sign stating that it was completely prohibited to walk out onto the pier, and here I saw just how little respect people have for the authorities because no one cared in the slightest. It was beautiful out there on that rusty pier with its handsome imagery of eroded compassion.

Carnival Day 4 – Tues 4th March 2014

The final day in Barranquilla was an unofficial carnival day with one final procession in Yuliana’s neighbourhood on the south side of town. Again, there were no tourists here, and the procession looked amazing and the buildings around were spectacularly decorated. It was the most colourful, interesting and impressive procession of all the days, and for the first hour or so I was loving every single minute of it. Then something happened.

A guy started spraying Luis on the back of the head with a foam canister. Once again it was obvious that something wasn’t right and once again it all happened so fast. A second guy came out from next to Luis and walked up to the foam fanatic, whispered that Luis was holding it, and the two walked away.

Luis had remembered what had happened to me and had held tight on to his money. The guy who had tried to take the money while the foam fanatic was spraying away had been unsuccessful. Nothing was stolen but the festive tone had been tainted.

We tried to perk up, but the atmosphere had changed and the zen was no more. People in fancy dress kept surrounded me to demand for some dollars, and I felt the unease of not only having to deal with the people who expected money because they thought I was a gringo (American tourist) and therefore had money to throw around, but I was also dealing with this newly formed real worry about being pick pocketed. Although the vast majority of people there were just interested in having a fantastic time, the criminality had taken its toll. Two guys walked past and said ‘fucking gringos’ in Spanish and I was done.

The never-ending friendly street parties in the south side neighbourhoods of Barranquilla went on once again into the night, but I was ready for the tranquility of Santa Marta. 


Santa Marta – Wed 5th March to Fri 7th March 2014

I was originally just passing through Santa Marta to get back to Minca to spend a few days relaxing at a coffee farm in the Sierra Nevada mountains in order to investigate intoxication over some cups of caffeinated coffee, but Santa Marta was indeed a welcome haven of tranquility after the craziness of Barranquilla carnival, and I also met Katarina from Hamburg and things got a lot more interesting after that.

My law of attraction meditation asking the universe every morning paid off! Every morning I had sent out the desire to meet ‘a cool girl who thinks like me and thinks what I am doing is great to travel around with for a few days’. Katharina turned out to be that girl.

A debergeil (super cool) German from Hamburg who, having accidentally broken a vertebrae by falling out of a car in a drunken stooper, was unable to go on the 5 day hike to the Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) with her friend Lena and instead had to rest her back while waiting for Lena’s return in Santa Marta.

Katharina, who lives amongst a left subculture in a district of Sant Pauli in a self-organised house project on the bank of the Elbe, told me all about concepts found in Gender Studies such as Gender Bending, Queer Theory and Polyamory, and I told her about concepts found in Spirituality such as my current investigation into 'intoxication and Self-compassion'.

The perfect hippy partner for my further investigation, we started with a relaxed visit to a youth hostel called the Drop Bear Hostel. Located in the most exclusive suburb of Santa Marta, this fancy hostel with its own classy swimming pool and outside cinema was once owned by a drug cartel. The 40 year old marble bar area saw many narco traficantes pass through, including the likes of Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

Svenja did a Pablo Escobar Gaviria tour when she was in Medellin. Not because she thought that what he did was in any way cool, as she explained, but because it is so interesting how one man first took control of the city of Medellin and then corrupted his way into the whole Colombian system. Pablo Escobar Gaviria became an official representative of the Colombian government, untouchable by the law, and the exclusive cocaine trafficker between Colombia and the USA.

His inescapable policy in dealing with law enforcement and the government was ‘plata o plomo’ (silver or lead), and although he pumped money into the poor areas of Medellin building schools and hospitals, he also killed anyone who got into his way, including some poor referee after a football match when he didn’t agree with the result.

The Drop Bear Hostel is not for the smelly wash-your-clothes-yourself backpacker who likes to use his Spanish to delve deep into local Colombian culture. Like Costeño Beach and the Dreamer hostels in Palomino and Santa Marta, it is a luxury hostel for a different type of traveller - even the Drop Bear Hostel website with its changing backgrounds and log in service is too posh for my poor battered laptop to cope with.

Katharina and I, being the smelly wash-your-clothes-yourself backpackers who do like to use their Spanish to delve deep into local Colombian culture, decided to do that instead.

The remainder of our time in Santa Marta was spent in the small plazas (squares) of Santa Marta talking to the locals until the early hours of the following morning. Beer and marijuana was easy to obtain, but for the average Joe on the Carribean coast, cocaine was indeed the recreational drug of choice.

Cocaine is generally an expensive drug, the effects are short lived, and a tolerance to cocaine develops quickly meaning that increased amounts are required to reach the same high. This makes cocaine far too expensive for the general public to use on a daily basis - but not in Colombia.

On the Colombian coast, cocaine is very cheap and easily obtainable at pretty much any street corner (possibly with special thanks to Pablo Escobar Gaviria). People sit together snorting cocaine while chatting away and drinking a beer.

This is of course illegal, but the social situation is not seedy at all. It is nevertheless quite tragic. All the locals that we spoke with in Colombia talked very freely about their life history without us asking any questions, and from those with a cocaine habit, we heard some very sad stories of hard lives in Santa Marta. One guy had lost his whole family due to drug dealing. They had all moved to England and left him behind. Tears appeared in his eyes as he said that he has not dealt drugs for 4 years and is trying to convince his family that he has changed so he can go to England and join his son. They don’t believe him, but there is hope. Very recently (after a 4 year gap) his sister recently started talking to him on Whatsapp and told him that his family do miss him.

He also told us about a girl who repeatedly stabbed another girl to death with a broken bottle into the neck because she was interested in her boyfriend. Apparently the girl was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to house arrest, which means that she basically has to stay at home. Local people in Santa Marta live in this world where drugs and hardship are as normal as sitting in the sun.

Cartagena – Sat 8th March to Mon 10th March 2014

When Katharina’s friend, Lena, returned from her hike, we set off together to Cartagena for a few days. The cocaine remained just as rife and the stories just as tragic. One guy who I was talking to one evening said that it was his birthday, and asked us to join him at his place to celebrate. He said that he would cook us some food and that he has plenty of marijuana and cocaine. Needless to say that we didn’t go, but this guy obviously didn’t have any good friends to share his birthday with.

It is easy to see how people start taking cocaine in a place where hardship is commonplace for many and the drug is so readily available. It is also not as deadly as propaganda will have us believe - you will not become instantly addicted to the drug, nor is the effect so euphoric that you instantly need more – but cocaine is, nevertheless, an extremely physically and psychologically addictive drug and, from my experience meeting people on my travels, addicts can easily be identified by their moody personality and ability to become aggressive at the drop of a hat.

The need to take more means that people need more money to buy it, and although it is cheap in Colombia, for many Colombians it still becomes an expensive escape. In Cartagena I put my sunglasses down just for a moment while buying a cooked egg to snack on (yes, an egg) when some toothless guy in his 50s picked them up and stuck them in his pocket. I went straight over to him and explained that he can’t sell them because they are prescription sunglasses and I really need them back, but he just started shouting and waving his arms. In the end I had the choice either to fight the guy for them or get them back by passive means. Sharing the love is about compassion, and I have always been a harmless teddy bear anyway, and so I paid the guy 5000 pesos (nothing) to get them back. It was a sad situation.

For me, cocaine really is a destructive drug. Taking it makes you feel a little bit more alert and a little bit more loved up, but the effect wears off quickly, so you keep taking more. It is one of the drugs that is most obviously used to mask other problems, and the worst thing is that when the night is over, you wake up with what Katharina calls in German an ‘Emo-Kater’, an emotional hang over (rather than the alcohol induced physical one). With an Emo-Kater you feel emotionally delicate, highly sensitive, and even more unhappy inside than you did before you took the drug to mask your pain in the first place. 


The Dry Law – Sat 8th March to Mon 10th March 2014

My investigation into Colombian intoxication ended with an insight into the authorities message on the subject, and a deeper understanding why so many Colombians have little respect for the authorities.

On Sunday 9th March, the people of Colombia voted on who they want to represent them in the Senate and House of Representatives. This will be followed in a few months time by the presidential elections. Ley Seca (the dry law) is the government’s temporary prohibition on alcohol during such elections. Ley Seca was in effect over the weekend, and in some places continued on to the Monday, too.

The most striking thing about this law for me was the need to have one in the first place! Is the message from the government that it is irresponsible to drink alcohol, or that the people in Colombia are irresponsible? Whatever their message, it is a sign that alcohol abuse is a problem here.

It certainly doesn’t help that Aguila (the most popular beer on the coast) promotes their beer Aguila Light as a healthy alternative, and that aguardiente has become Colombia’s contest to Russia’s day long vodka consumption (I lived there. Some people meet to drink vodka for breakfast). Aguardiente can be bought sugar free and, many people genuinely believe that these drinks are healthy versions of alcohol.

Anyway, during Ley Seca supermarkets would not sell alcohol, but it was still very easy to find a shop that would. I went into one shop with the dry law signs plastered all over the place (even in English!) and asked them if I could buy beer. When they gave them to me, I asked if it is still the dry law, and they said it was. I asked if that means I still cannot buy alcohol, and they said it did. Then I paid for the beers and left the shop.

With Katharina, Lena and a small group of other foreigners, we went to find a secluded place to drink. I felt that this was being disrespectful the country and the people in it, but I nevertheless went ahead and joined the group.

Karma soon bit me in the bum for doing so when two police motorbikes suddenly pulled up. The others hid their alcohol, but the police had spotted me already and told me that I was being arrested for drinking on the street during the dry law.

While I stood there calmly waiting for my punishment, and the rest of the group pretended that they didn’t know me, Katharina and Lena turned into good cop, bad cop.

Lena argued with the police that they were being unreasonable while Katharina tried to calmly persuade them that it is just one beer and I will throw it away and move on. It didn’t matter. The police had already decided to phone the top dog policeman who soon came on his motorbike with two more bobbies on bikes behind him.

The chief of the group came over and told me calmly that I can go to the police station and sign a statement and receive a criminal record, or I can pay a fine of 100,000 pesos (a lot in Colombia).

I said that I would prefer go to the police station and sign a statement that I was drinking a beer on the street during the dry law. They looked disappointed, but after a few more attempts to persuade me to pay the fine, the now 5 policemen on motorbikes drove next to me (and Katharina who joined me) while we walked in the direction of the police station to sign my statement.

Suddenly, in a dark corner, they stopped their bikes and Katharina heard one of them whisper to the constable that they should just take the money that I had in my pockets.

Katharina quickly told me in German what I had missed, and so I pulled out a note from my pocket, gave it to them, and we turned around and walked away while they drove off into the night.

I had a 50,000 peso note and a 20,000 peso note in my pocket. The note I had pulled out was the 20,000 note ( 6 pounds, 7 Euros or 10 dollars).

When I went back to join the group, the others found it funny that the police only got to share 20,000 pesos between 5 of them, but I felt annoyed. Not that the group, except for Lena and Katharina, had done nothing to help me - but with me.

My intuition had told me not to go out and drink on the street that night, but I had done it anyway. I had not listened to my intuitive spirit at all.

Palenque – Tuesday 11th March 2014

My investigation was complete and my lesson had been learnt. Along with Katharina, I went to a small village called San Basilio de Palenque to reflect before my flight out of Cartagena to Medellin.

The word ‘palenque’ means ‘walled city’ and the Palenque de San Basilio is only one of many walled communities that were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge from the Spanish in the seventeenth century. San Basilio is the only one that survives.

Although the history of the place is very interesting, the place itself was rather strange. The people there didn’t seem to know much about their own history, the House of Culture was closed, and everyone seemed rather apathetic about us being there.

I left the north coast of Colombia on the Thursday 13th March having received a taste of the darker side of Colombia, and the taste was bitter.


The Buddha’s list of 5 things an enlightened person abstains from in order to be on a morally wholesome path includes the abstention from all intoxicants because intoxicants induce ‘heedlessness’ (a lack of care, negligence or recklessness). This includes neglect for our own health, neglect for others and neglect for our own Self.

The only conclusion I can really make from my experience, and the lesson that I learnt from my investigation, is that getting involved in drugs has left me feeling very disconnected from the journey I started with this blog.

The lesson I learnt during this investigation was still a very important one. I have now experienced how it feels when your level of compassion for others and for your own Self regresses after spending some quality time following a much Higher Self.

I also now have a much clearer feeling of just how much more one benefits from seeking happiness by following the natural path of dharma rather than an unnatural path of intoxicants to give us a temporary high.

The experience was an important one to have; nevertheless, I now have to really focus again on my journey of Self discovery if I want to pull my Self back up and continue my journey at the same place where I left off.

Be inspired ♥


  1. Well I finally read it - not tedious reading at all - but very interesting - and rather "sad." a bit worrying in places too. Mum X

    1. Sorry that it has taken me a while to start answering the comments but here I am. The experience was enlightening (in the sense that it taught me a lot about the tough side of life in Colombia, especially those who make cocaine a regular practice). But I also had a lot of fun during the experience too, and I met my muse of course. It was definitely worth it :-)