Jewels and Affluenza in South America

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

First time in South America! Whoo-hoo! We pulled into port in Cartagena, Colombia and must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Cartagena is a bustling city on the Caribbean and has a population of around one million. It was occupied by the Spanish, and still has several remnants of that time, including a gorgeous downtown (which reminded me a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans) and a “Walled City” fort, which is now available for, you guessed it, tours.

ImageView of Cartagena from the ship!

We only had about five hours in Cartagena, so I was excited to meet our tour guide, who was also named Paula and get going. I was signed up for the Emerald Jewelry Making excursion, since I really couldn’t go nearly three weeks without some kind of crafting! We hopped on the bus and only drove about a mile into the city until we were dropped off at the Fundacion Escuela de Joyeria del Caribe. This is a jewelry school in downtown Cartagena which funds scholarships for teenagers and young adults from the developing parts of Cartagena. They train them in various jewelry-making techniques, which is big business in Colombia. After coffee, bananas, and flowers, emeralds are Colombia’s largest export and they are still mining Colombia for emeralds, while veins in other countries have long since dried up.

We were ushered to the instruction room where we were given an introduction to the school and taught about the mission. Then, each of us were paired with a current student who was the “master” while we were the “apprentice.” I met Yazmina, who was 18 years old, and going to school part-time to become a teacher. She was learning how to make jewelry to fund her education. Between her limited English and my limited Spanish, we were able to get along just fine. It was lovely to be able to have a conversation with someone from the place I was visiting, instead of feeling so separated on the bus, through translators, etc. We made a variety of jewelry using raw emeralds and hung out for nearly two hours. I ended up making a ring, pendant, bracelet, and earrings. I ended up buying all of the them and plan to give away some as Christmas presents. It was also nice to know that at least some of my money was going to fund the education of Yazmina and the other students of the school.

ImageSelfie in Colombia with my incredible instructor


 Started with raw silver and emeralds, and ended up with these beauties 

After we were done making the jewelry, we went to see the walled city, which was left over the colonial days and then headed to an emerald museum. To the surprise of no one, we ushered through a high-end emerald shop on the ground floor. I am not really a jewelry connoisseur, so I had no idea if the prices were good or bad, I just knew they were far too rich for my blood. I was a little perturbed that we were one again asked to purchase items, but then realized that the emerald store completely funds the jewelry store and usually employs the students upon graduation, so it wasn’t simply an easy way to prey on tourists.

ImageWalled City with Colombian flag

I didn’t want to buy anything, so I headed back to the bus where I met a young guy named Hunter. Hunter said he was 22-years-old and from Santa Barbara. He had shagged brown hair, wore purple John Lennon sunglasses, and had an air of privilege to him. Do you ever just meet someone and think to yourself, “I bet you’ve never been told no in your entire life.”? Maybe it’s just my seven years of working at private, very expensive schools, but my privilege radar was beeping like crazy. I didn’t think much of it, until we got back on the ship and they started paging Hunter over the loudspeaker.

A little context before I continue with this ridiculous story. For every port, the passengers had an on-board time and a departure time. It is absolutely essential that you are on-board by the on-board time because we WILL leave you by the departure time. Obviously, some tours may go over by a few minutes, so there is an hour buffer between on-board and departure time. They need to be really strict about this because there are title issues, immigration issues, and a host of other issues that start to occur if we are in port longer than agreed upon with the country in question. Therefore, when you hear someone’s name being paged in between the on-board time and departure time, you know either they aren’t on board, or failed to swipe their ship ID properly at the entrance.

Hunter’s name kept being called. Since he was on my excursion, I knew that we had made it back about 30 minutes before on-board time. Also, the ship was docked in a residential neighborhood, not a bustling marketplace or shopping district, so it’s not like he just lost track of time looking for souvenirs. Here’s what ended up happening, all of which we were told at the beginning of our next pre-port meeting. These meetings are kind of like floor meetings in residence halls in that it is a way for the community to come together before heading out in a new country, learn about customs, traditions, political climate, ideal spots to visit, etc.

Our pre-port after Colombia started with a staff member throwing up a picture of a speed boat. I was a little confused, until the staff started talking about the adventure of Hunter. Apparently, when you fail to make it back by departure time, the Semester at Sea staff leaves your passport with the country’s authorities and convey the message that you either need to find a flight home, or need to meet up with us in our next port of call. In Hunter’s case, he got back just as our ship was leaving the harbor, so the Semester at Sea Captain said he could hire a tug boat to ferry him to the ship, and then he could have to climb aboard using the exterior ladder, usually reserved for pilots who take us through the Panama Canal. Since we were heading to the Canal next, we couldn’t afford to lose our spot in the queue. It would have cost thousands of dollars in fuel costs and penalties to slow down, turn around, and wait for Hunter. According to the staff, the tug boat wasn’t fast enough, so the tug turned around, Hunter rented a speed boat, and then tried to catch up in what, to those on the outside decks, looked very much like a high speed chase! The speed boat was able to catch up and Hunter was brought aboard.

The story would have been over at this point, but Hunter was, in the staff’s description, “overly alert.” His behavior alerted them and they did a thorough search, which resulted in about three grams of COCAINE! In less than two hours, Hunter had ventured into Colombia, purchased cocaine, then chased down the MV Explorer, after nearly 1,000 people had been waiting on him and him alone, for over an hour. The staff then had the choice of turning him over to Colombian authorities, or waiting to turn him over to American authorities when we traversed the Panama Canal. Being kind-hearted people, who didn’t think a 22-year-old white guy would fair too well in a Colombia prison for attempted drug smuggling, so they decided to allow him to stay on board for the night, and then turned him over to U.S. authorities the next day in Colombia. Between the tug boat rent, the speed boat rental, the amount of fuel the Explorer wasted slowing down, then speeding up so he could board, plus flights home, they said he would be charged between $15,000-20,000, much less all of the legal fees when he returned home. Needless to say, most people on the ship thought Hunter was suffering from a near fatal dose of affulenza.

photo(18)View of Cartagena from the ship after I was able to get my butt back before departure!

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One thought on “Jewels and Affluenza in South America

  1. Nic says:

    I am really enjoying this blog. I try my hardest to imagine you reading it to me in your voice.

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