I’m not the first person to say I love the heat. When I was younger it was great, sure: sunbathing by swimming pools in Turkey and Greece with my family, summer holidays with friends to Spain and Italy – all warm, happy, and drenched in sun.
But as I’ve got older, and travelled to the more intense heats of Syria, India and Thailand, I’ve realised I have a bit of a dislike for seriously hot climes. While I still enjoy sunbathing and feeling nice and toasty, now I tend to get a bit panicky when there’s no escape from the heat.
Plus every now and again I really enjoy needing to put on a jumper.
So when we stepped out of the airport in Santa Marta, felt the hot air envelop us like an oppressive blanket and saw the heat shimmer up from the tarmac, I knew I was in for a bit of a bumpy ride.
Sorry, it’s how hot?!
At a potentially pleasant temperature of 35′C but with a whopping 85% humidity, Santa Marta is a place where everything is dripping. That irritating tickle on the top of your back, or the whole way down your calf? Not an errant bug ready to feast on your blood, but a steady bead of sweat. Many beads of sweat, actually.
This incessant heat doesn’t just affect the tourists, either. The buildings, the food, the routine of daily life; and despite the locals seeming like they’re comfortable with it, there are certain clear signs that they’re living in something very similar to an oven.
They’re happy to wear jeans but always pair them with flip-flops or sandals instead of closed shoes; they carry handkerchiefs to wipe away the sweat that gathers on their foreheads and upper lips; and juice carts and drink sellers congregate in every patch of shade.
And, perhaps most tellingly, people walk slower in Santa Marta. Skin is left as bare as possible, eyes are shaded from the sun bouncing off the bright road, and there’s absolutely no hurrying through the baking hot streets.
Accepting the heat for what it is
But the city is also rather beautiful, in a slightly seedy, somewhat faded way. Families cavorting in the sea’s shoreline waves, all shining skin and sticky sand; peeling paint and dusty pavement corners; barefoot dreadlocked beggars sifting through the garbage cans with wide grins plastered on their faces; and catcalls, laughter and radio songs mingling together in the hazy light.
Eventually, we too started to get accustomed to the heat. Despite the sweat being ever present, it no longer felt quite so suffocating. I could sleep averagely peacefully through the whole night, instead of waking in a damp mess and needing a 3am shower, and eating soup at our local lunchtime restaurant, which offered a cheap but delicious menu del dia, finally stopped making me get overheated.
The only real difficulty that remained, in fact, was watching those who had no respite from the heat. There’s a tendency for homeless people to flock to cities that are warmer – where there’s more ability to sleep rough and where people tend to be slightly more generous with their spare change.
But all those homeless vagrants wandering the Santa Marta streets? Despite their smiles, it was clear the incessant heat was working its way into their mentalities.
Being hot and homeless ain’t that fun
On more than one occasion, we were forced to step around the still form of a half naked man lying on the pavement, dead to the world with his mouth hanging open and wearing next to nothing. Once, we had to make a wide berth to avoid the cackling, dancing teenager in filthy oversized dungarees threatening to expose himself to passers by. All these people with next to nothing in their lives were going slightly crazy.
Out of all the homeless population frequenting Santa Marta, there was one who continually caught my eye. A teenage boy, bare chested with dirty trousers, who followed us along the beachfront after lunch one day, with the biggest smile I’d ever seen. He managed to spot us a second time that afternoon as we left our hostel and looked wonderfully happy at finding us again.
One evening, we were drinking fresh lemonade and eating maize arepas with cheese in the square beside our hostel. Issy, sampling an arepa for the first time, decided it wasn’t exactly to her taste and suddenly noticed our homeless friend, sitting beside the church.
“Shall I go and give him my arepa?” she said, glancing at the wide smile of the boy as he recognised us yet again.
He looked so happy when she handed him the food that we all felt something; a need to further the relationship somewhat, to make a more lasting impression on him? And on us?
And so we hatched a plan.
The next day, at lunchtime, we headed for our usual restaurant. And as we got nearer, the boy appeared – smiling broadly, as ever, and with his brother in tow.
“¿Quieren almuerzo con nosotros?”
His face didn’t register any particular astonishment at being invited for lunch with a group of gringos, but his smile may have got slightly wider.
“¿Y quieres una camiseta?” said Nicky, throwing him a tshirt.
We’d already discussed that it might be sensible to get some more clothes on his bare chest – there was a general agreement that him being half naked may make our plan a bit more difficult.
Taking some Colombian kids to lunch
We walked into the outdoor seating area of our usual restaurant. The two boys followed us dutifully, not batting an eyelid when the waitress looked them up and down. This waitress had been the most curt and unresponsive woman over the last week, barely registering our existence whenever we ordered; but now, she took a long moment before responding to our request for nine seats instead of seven.
Clearly the people who comprised our group were perturbing her somewhat.
After a bit of questioning, we got the boys talking. Kevin, our little smiler, and his brother Pedro informed us that they were sixteen and fourteen respectively – which none of us believed, as they looked a lot younger – and that their parents lived in a village a fair distance away from Santa Marta – which we were less sure about.
The boys took their time with their food, while we constantly postulated as to what they might be thinking. Maybe their stomachs were too small to handle a full plateful? Or maybe they actually ate quite well when living on the streets and weren’t really that hungry?
Regardless of the boys’ reactions, it was clear this kind of thing didn’t happen often to them. They didn’t know what to do with a knife and fork, choosing to attack their legs of chicken with spoons instead.
At one point, Jas and I looked across the table at each other, unable to suppress our maternal instincts.
“Shall we buy them a Coke each?” I suggested, melting at the idea that I could potentially make their experience with us any better.
When homeless boys and restaurant goers mix
What was most fascinating about our lunch, though, was how the people around us were reacting. Because almost as soon as we’d sat down at the table, it was evident to the rest of the restaurant that this was a situation outside of the norm.
While some patrons looked on blandly, others seemed a little ruffled; and our usual waitress was replaced by a man I’d never seen before, who didn’t speak unkindly to the boys, but wasn’t exactly pleasant to them, either. When they asked him for food that wasn’t on the menu del dia there was no hint of a smile from him – and when two drunk teenage beggars rose from a nearby doorway and walked, swayingly, towards the rope that separated them from our cafe territory, his eyes narrowed somewhat.
It was also when I began to realise that we might have started something we didn’t quite understand. The two drunk teens were loudly asking for water or some spare soup; standing very close to us yet barely able to focus on anyone. A guy at the next table stood and glared at them to no avail – but when he started menacingly towards them, they eventually walked away.
It was clear that the tension was building, but we were unsure how to handle it. I was getting the overwhelming feeling that we’d stepped into waters too deep for us.
But Kevin and his brother knew exactly what to do.
As soon as the waiter returned with two styrofoam boxes – filled with the food they hadn’t finished – they got up, waved a brief goodbye, and left.
Stupid gringos – don’t you understand?
Almost as soon as they’d gone, the angry guy from the table beside us began speaking aggressively in Spanish.
He laid his phone down on our table then snatched it swiftly back up again, all the while explaining with jabbing hand gestures that we should have been much more careful with our belongings; that kids like that were thieves, just waiting for an opportunity.
We should, as tourists, as foreigners, have been much more careful.
But Kevin, albeit totally unconsciously, managed to disprove the man’s rule. Issy’s camera, sat on the table between the two boys for the entirety of our meal, was left untouched. Every time the older teens got nearer to our table, Kevin’s ears pricked up and he gestured to our bags, making sure we kept them safe.
And when he couldn’t eat any more of his soup, he took the drunk teenager’s styrofoam box and poured the remaining liquid carefully inside.
A homeless kid willing to help other people in equal difficulty – who’d have thought it?
Being homeless doesn’t mean you’re bad
Heat and humidity is difficult enough to handle when you’re not used to it, and have a fan cooled room to sleep in. It’s another issue when you’re living in a doorway and rifling through rubbish bags left outside lampposts to find something to eat – in that very same heat. There’s no respite, and it’s not surprising that some people go a bit crazy as a result.
But you can’t judge one child on the basis of an entire stereotyped group of people. Just because many beggars get drunk and steal doesn’t mean every single one of them has the same agenda. Sometimes they’re just looking for some food and a bit of comfort.
It’s not about what we physically gave the boys – I’m sure they’ve managed to score enough plates of chicken and rice in their lives, even if not necessarily when accompanied by a group of gringos.
It was more the hope that, by dint of our small gesture of kindness, they might remember the idea that people who don’t know them can still care about them.
Because ultimately, if you can alter a person’s perceptions about foreigners with a cheap lunch menu and a bottle of Coke, then you’re doing pretty well.