Photograph by Steven Higgs

Victor was a Colombian guide in 1974. He grew up in the coastal city of Barranquilla's Barrio Simon Bolivar, where he poses here with a girl friend.

My first trip to Colombia was actually pretty ridiculous. Travel was never a priority in my family, and by 1974 I had only been out of the country twice -- camping in Canada and breaking for spring in Negril, Jamaica. The only Spanish my partner Ayres and I knew were leftover snippets from introductory Español in high school and college.

What little I had learned about Colombia didn't recommend it as a travel destination, either. I knew it was desperately poor and hopelessly corrupt. Tony the Dope Dealer had told me that one of his associates had gone there on vacation -- "He wasn't doing any deals." -- and had been thrown in prison and shaken down for thousands of dollars. And I assumed that an importing business from Colombia would raise some authorities' brows, given the country's status as an emerging world drug capital in 1974.

The primary plus I had gleaned about the place was that artisans there hand-wove cotton wall hangings and other arts and crafts that were cheap and marketable to home decorator-type Americans. Another was that Colombia truly was a foreign culture, something I had wanted to experience since I read my first National Geographic. It was Third World, and it did, after all, have the Andes Mountains, not to mention a port on the Amazon River. So, when Ayres told me just days before we were to depart that he had no money, my response was a forceful, "No way. We're going."

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  • Given this economic complication, my plan for a two-week-minimum reconnaissance trip devolved into an exercise in efficiency. I had to navigate through a country I knew nothing about and whose language I couldn't speak, find a specific type of handicraft and get out, fast. So even though Ayres barely had enough cash to buy his ticket, on May 7, 1974, we boarded a Delta Airlines jet in Indianapolis and flew to Miami, catching an Aerocondor Airline jet to the coastal city of Barranquilla.

    I don't recall what our ground plan was. But whatever we had in mind was rendered moot when a well-dressed Colombian approached us after we cleared customs in Barranquilla and introduced himself as Victor, in intelligible English. He was a guide, he explained, and could get us anything we wanted. When we told him we wanted wall hangings, he said we should go to Cartagena.

    Getting in a cab with Victor was perhaps the most adventurous move I had made in my 23 years on the planet. Definitely up there with hitchhiking to California and following a Jamaican at midnight up an unlit dirt road in Negril, where he promised we'd find pleasant lodging. I had confidence in my Karma and vetoed Ayres' concerns that Victor seemed shady. After all, we were traveling on my dime at that point. It was my call.


    I remember thinking of Cartagena as Colombia's Miami. The seaport city is the country's fifth largest urban area, with roughly 1 million residents today. Barranquilla is fourth, with about 1.3 million. Bogota, the 8,660-foot Andean capital, is the largest, with 8 million.

    In a May 2008 article titled "Thirty-six hours in Cartagena," the New York Times waxed that the city had emerged from its cocaine past as the "belle of the ball. This tropical city on the Caribbean is pulsating like a salsa party, drawing well-heeled Latin Americans and European socialites to its restored colonial mansions, fancy fusion restaurants and Old World-style plazas."

    We couldn't afford socializing with the jet set during our 48 hours in Cartagena, but true to his word, Victor helped us find everything we needed, starting with a clean, affordable hotel room, where my Colombian adventures began under a shroud of panic.

    After Victor convinced us it was okay to smoke pot in the hotel, I flashed on Jamaica a year before. Following a stranger into the Negril night delivered two friends and I to Hines and Lupe's "Pravedence Cottage -- Cool Spot, Rooms to Rent", which produced as idyllic a lodging experience as I could possibly imagine. But after two friends arrived the next day and followed another stranger down another dark road, machete-wielding bandits burst through their windows in the middle of the night and robbed them of everything they had. I had to give David a shirt so he wouldn't have to fly home bare-chested.

    Photograph by Steven Higgs

    Cartegena's historic walled city was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984.

    Exhausted, stoned and frightened, I spent my first night in Colombia with a six-inch, fixed-blade sport knife under my pillow. The night passed without incident, and, proving himself again in the morning, Victor took us to a swanky gallery/gift shop, where we found the objects of our desire -- a collection of Colombian wall hangings, alongside leather bags, wood carvings, baskets, gourds and other hand-crafted items.

    Talk about efficient -- goal achieved within 24 hours of landing in the country.

    With our anemic cash stash, the rest of the trip was brief and touristy, in the Victor sense of the word. We toured the "old city" -- historic walled district, brick streets, 300-year-old Spanish colonial buildings -- which would be declared a Unesco World Heritage Site a decade later. We dined at a restaurant with an outdoor patio/dance club filled with beautiful Colombian women, who turned out to be prostitutes.

    Before leaving Cartagena, we returned to the gift shop, and I bought 25 cotton wall hangings, a leather bag and a variety of hand-made goodies to show friends and investors upon my return home. Victor vowed to find a wall hanging source. We traded addresses.


    So quick was my first trip to Colombia that my old fraternity pal Tim smirked when I walked into the house he rented on Woodyard Road soon after my return. Oblivious to the Colombian leather bag and rolled-up wall hanging in my hand, he asked what had delayed the trip this time. Before I left that night, Tim was a partner in my fledgling importing business.

  • Plan Colombia '74: Photo album

  • Within days we landed our first retail customer -- a hip little shop called the Rama House on the first floor of the newly built Dunkirk Square. Owners Donna and Roger bought all the wall hangings we were willing to part with, placed them on a circular table in the center of the store and for the next three years helped pay their bills selling Colombian wall hangings. A year or so later, Tim would open a shop of his over in Nashville, built largely around our imports. He called it Windfall.

    We had learned in Cartegena that rural artisans wove the wall hangings, and Victor discovered a crafts village about a hundred miles south of Barranquilla. Almost a month to the day after Ayres confessed to me that he was broke, Victor and I were on a bus to San Jacinto to pursue my evolving vision of an international cottage industry with a social conscience. The ride was straight out of Romancing the Stone -- ancient, loud, brightly painted buses with Jesus statuettes on the dashboards; stony-eyed peasants with bags, boxes, babies, birds and pigs jamming the seats and aisles; and drivers who picked up anyone and anything on the roadside, no matter how packed their vehicles.

    We disembarked at a roadside shop called the Almacen La Feria de las Hamacas just outside of town. With Victor translating, I negotiated with one of the proprietors, as I floated in one of his hamacas (hammocks) and sipped a warm Coca Cola, the beverage of choice in 1974 Colombia, where no water was potable for non-natives (not even in the mountains, I would later learn, painfully). We explored the village of San Jacinto (population 20,000 today) while the store owner went into town to see if and when he could fill our order.

    A few days later, we boarded a bus back to Barranquilla, with 100 wall hangings, along with 10 scarves and a dozen purses we bought at another store called Almacen el Paraiso.


    Like Ayres, I had no money in the summer of 1974. But I didn't need much to finance this dream. Two nights in Barranquilla's Hotel Hispano-Americano in June 1974 cost 220 pesos, roughly $6. Wall hangings that would retail for as high as $30 cost a couple bucks.

    My financial ability to pull it off got a boost when a friend said I could spend the summer in her duplex apartment on Rogers just north of 11th Street, today the site of a warehouse. She had a spat with the landlord over maintenance and refused to pay rent. She moved home to Elkhart in June and said I could crash as long as the landlord let me. I never saw or heard from him.

    Photograph by Steven Higgs

    Visitors to Cartegena found a multitude of curiosities in 1974.

    I spent the summer of 1974 building an infrastructure in the United States to complement the one I was developing in Colombia. We added several new retail clients, like the Fields of Aiku, a gift shop where Siam House is today; Karma Records and Heads Up in Indianapolis; and the Truckers Union in Eau Claire, Wis. I also established a network of friends and acquaintances who bought wall hangings from us wholesale and sold directly to their friends for extra money on the side, kind of like Amway or Avon.

    By August I was back on a plane to Barranquilla for my third trip to Colombia in three months. The mission this time was to create a protocol through which we could import wall hangings without my having to fly there every time, as well as expanding our product line.


    The trip marked the end of my partnership with Victor. He took his new girl friend with us to San Jacinto, which upped my expenses by a third, since I paid for everything. And while we were in Barranquilla, a couple olive-clad cops saw me give Victor some cash in a taxicab, which he gave to a kid to pay for a hat that had been cleaned. After the officers climbed in the car and discovered the contraband at the bottom of my bag, they instructed the cabbie to drive.

    "By August I was back on a plane to Barranquilla for my third trip to Colombia in three months."

    I had been assured by everyone who knew anything about Colombia that every cop there had a price, what I came to call "taxicab justice." The going rate for a predicament like mine was 100 pesos, about three bucks. As Victor argued with the older cop, I said to the young one, "No es muy serio, correcto?" He replied, "No, es muy serio." With visions of rat-infested South American prisons, I accepted his word that it was very serious. Thirty-five years later, I remember word-for-word the conversation that followed:

    "Victor, what's he saying?"

    "I have to talk to him. He wants too much money."

    "I will pay."

    "How much?"

    Well, the going rate notwithstanding, all I had in my wallet was an American 20, and I assumed I wouldn't get change. I opened my wallet, the policeman snatched the bill, said something in Spanish while wagging his finger at me, instructed the driver to stop and exited the cab. Victor swore they were the happiest cops in Colombia that day. They never got $20 for a tiny bag of pot.

    But all that was just prelude to disaster. When we took the 250 wall hangings we had purchased to the Barranquilla airport, the customs agents asked for my paperwork. When we told him we had none, Victor negotiated a price. The agents just tossed the wall hanging bundles into the plane's cargo hold, sans any documents. I would eventually have to send that shipment back to Colombia, bribe the customs agents again to let it back into the country and then obtain the necessary documentation. I decided I needed a new partner.

    While we were in Barranquilla, Victor took me to his parents' house in the Barrio Simon Bolivar, where I met the next-door neighbors, Hilario, his wife Teresa and their six children. I felt at home with them instantly, and we traded addresses. Hilario would become my partner, his brood my Colombian family.

    Steven Higgs can be reached at .