The Filly of Folly

Folly Beach, it’s called, and it’s a wee little town – village, maybe? – just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and it became, quite surprisingly, the highlight of my trip to South Carolina one chilly February over the space of only a week.

In my typical adventurous – some may say naive – fashion, I opted to do minimal research on this tiny new location, considering I was really going for their annual tribute to Mardi Gras, aptly called ‘Folly Gras’.  Always in search of a party, a social event, or any reason to don my most colourful costumes, there were no further requirements other than showing up and having the time of my life, sharing with thousands of other joyful, costumed revellers.

I arrived early in the morning of Folly Gras, setting up shop at what appeared to be the only proper hotel in town, The Tides.  Perched high over the sandy beach at the edge of the main strip, which consisted of only about three blocks, I took a deep breath; where were all the people?  Had I gotten the dates wrong, perhaps?  Was this a ghost town?  Being Canadian, I’d somewhat gullibly assumed that February in Folly would be mild enough for a swim; not so.  The air was cold and the sky grey, the streets just about deserted, with the exception of the occasional middle aged couple, sauntering along holding hands, sporting matching hoodies or sweatshirts.

The Tides greeted me with a lively atmosphere in the lobby of what I could only assume would be soon-to-be party goers in search of the seemingly elusive Folly Gras parade later that day.  Perhaps it would be a wild one, after all?  I rushed to my room to change, hurriedly unpacking my rainbow bustle, fluffy boot covers, rainbow wig and the rest.  I would fit right in!

Have you been to Mardi Gras, I mean the real one, in New Orleans?  If not, here’s an opportunity for a side note: it’s big; to quote Trump, ‘yuge’, even.  It’s days – weeks! – of celebrations and revelry, costumed debauchery and music, and in typical New Orleans fashion, anyone in attendance is invited or even encouraged to come exactly as they please: Storm Troopers, Batman, Unicorns and Meticulously-Placed-Socks are a-plenty, and nobody would dare bat an eye.  It had been a year since I’d attended the real deal, and now I was determined to see this event play out in my new favourite beach town for their annual Folly Gras.

Once costumed-up, I proudly let my rainbow-coloured fluffy unicorn flag fly and marched proudly onto the street where the parade would begin.  I looked around at the somewhat subdued, fairly small crowd and noticed the strangest thing: not a single person was in costume.  Should I go back and change?  Would it be best to duck my head and – ahem – blend in with the crowd?  No, I thought, why not embrace this and become a part of the parade, instead?  It was decided.  I would take over Folly Gras.

The parade began with hand made floats and raucous music, much to the delight of the somewhat subdued crowd.  People stopped to get pictures with me, and I was noticed by a slicked-back hairdo of a guy with a wry smile.  He approached, his walk confident.  “Come over here,” he persuaded me with an ever-so-slight-Southern accent, and gifted me with several strings of brightly coloured beads.  After I thanked him and a chat, he slipped a card into my hands.  “Don’t forget to vote for me as the next mayor of Folly Beach!”  And like that, he was gone, schmoozing his way through the crowds, stopping to run his fingers through his coiffed hair and pose for pictures with delighted soon-to-be voters.

After a short period of time and somewhat reserved cheering, the parade came to an abrupt end, and party-goers dispersed along the main drag to the various pubs and side streets, in which bands played as though in competition with each other.  The party had truly begun, and I was delighted to be right in the centre of it all.

It was interesting, being in this tiny town in South Carolina, dressed up like Rainbow Dash on LSD, and the attention I managed to draw from the crowds.  People asked where I was from, and when I replied, simply, “Canada”, the questions and exclamations came in.  “Which part of France is Canada in?”  One asked.  I studied him for awhile, unable to make much sense of that question, let alone come up with a witty retort.  “The North,”I replied, dryly.  “Oh my gosh!  Do you know Celine Dion?”  Another asked.  “Where in Canada?”  A hopeful fella asked, his interest very obviously piqued, “Ottawa,” I answered, wondering if he knew of my little city, which happened to be the capital.  “Oh!  Awesome!  I have a friend in Vancouver,”  He let that hang in the air for a second before following it up with, “His name is Mark.  I wonder if you know him?”  I stared, blankly, for a moment.  “I happen to have a friend called Sarah.  In Los Angeles.”  When I realized he wasn’t quite catching on, I turned and left, a rainbow sparkling hurricane in a crowd of drunkenness.

I sat alone at a cafe on the outskirts of the main drag as the chilly drizzle started to come down, alone in the crowd of otherwise normally-dressed folk, still donning my fluffy rainbow attire.  I opted to keep the mask on as I ate, just a regular Saturday afternoon, nothing to see here, folks.  On my walk back, I saw the would-be Mayor scooping ice cream in a wee little parlour that looked brand new.  He waved me in with a grin, a double scoop in hand, drunk as can be, and walked over to offer a sideways hug.  “Don’t forget to vote for meeeeeee!” He exclaimed like a child, albeit a drunk one.

It wasn’t until the day after Folly Gras that I got to know the proper Folly Beach, and I mean the off-season, tourist-less version.  The Tides hotel was swiftly emptied out, it seems, within the night, and the chilly vast beach empty, the angry Atlantic churning against the shore.  Time to explore the wee little strip of land that I had no idea I’d fall in love with.

The day was so quiet, I opted to take my time wandering the street, poking in to the many souvenir shops that, despite this being out of season, stayed open in hopes for someone like me, the rare tourist, to pay for a few token trinkets.  I took a lazy, long, and utterly delicious brunch at a little nook off the main road called the Lost Dog Cafe, soaking in the busy, homey atmosphere and lively conversation around me.  The walls were plastered with images and cartoons of dog-everything, and the wait staff took no issue with my sitting for hours, jotting notes and observations, overheard conversations and ideas as they came to me.

It was that night that I opted to dress myself up and buy myself a cocktail, a task I had long held myself to perform in each of my travels.  No matter where, no matter what, I would take myself out and force myself to enjoy the solitude.  The hotel bar was empty with the exception of a couple engaged in animated, focused conversation in the corner and one person at the bar.  Still, I sat and requested a glass of wine, urging myself to sip slowly, enjoy the moment, and not be embarrassed at my solitude or over-dressed style.  After a few tentative minutes, I took myself outside, wrapping my shawl around me from the cool evening wind, imagining a slew of places to pop into, perhaps find a live band, or friends to meet.  Only one appeared open, The Crab Shack, and I reluctantly toddled in, stilletoes and all, to be met with interested looks from the few patrons huddled inside.

At the Crab Shack, I sat at the bar yet again and ordered food – probably crab? – and tried to bide my time watching the television overhead, which was airing the Presidential Debates, at this point in time it being Bernie Sanders and Trump.  The numbers were up; Sanders was the clear winner.  I whooped with delight, being the Socialist Canadian that I am, and promptly put my flailing hands down at my sides, embarrassed.  “Around these pahhhts,” Said a southern drawl beside me, his face largely hidden under his cowboy hat, “We keep our political opinions to ourselves.”

It so happened I was sat between a retired Colonel, and a US Federal Deputy Marshal who went by the name Pepper.  To this day, I don’t know if that’s his real name.  We ended up chatting and laughing the evening away, sharing our stories – mine hardly seemed anywhere as interesting – and it was time for me to head to bed.  Pepper rushed to hold the door for me.  That southern charm, I thought, as I skipped back to the hotel, delighted from a surprisingly lovely evening.

My last night in Folly Beach happened to fall on the Folly Family Reunion, or something thereabouts.  Pepper had invited me to meet some of the locals at none other than the Crab Shack – I suppose there weren’t a lot of options, anyway – and I happily joined in.  Walking into the room adorned in white fairy lights, I was greeted by convivial salutations, greeted with handshakes and two-cheeked kisses, met with a joyful reception one would imagine only being reserved for old friends.  Here I was, a complete stranger to them, and yet I was welcomed as though I, too, was a part of the Folly Family.

As I was gearing up to leave, in walked one of the most beautiful, elegant older women I’ve ever seen.  She was sporting a head to toe fur coat, and under it a velour suit the colour of wine.  She put out a perfectly manicured hand to mine and said, “Hello, Dahlin’.  Such a pleasure.  My name’s Shugah.” Both charmed and a little bleary by this point, I repeated, “Sugar?  Like the sweetener, Sugar?”  She smiled, “Not Sugar, dahlin’.  It’s pronounced Shu-gah”.  It’s pronounced ‘Shu-gah”; I would have to use that the next time I ordered a coffee.

Leaving Folly Beach early the next morning, before the sleepy winter town could wake, I took a moment to gaze out at the ocean one last time.  Behind me stepped a middle-aged man with dark, thick glasses on.  “Have y’all enjoyed your stay here in Folly?”  I nodded, and replied, “I can’t wait to come back one day.”  He slipped me his card.  “I run the local real estate agency round these pahts; y’all can give me a call when y’all return.”  I turned the card over, to see his company name was Giddy Up Real Estate Rentals.

Folly Family, I will be back.  Giddy Up, indeed.

Tayrona By Boat, and Other Poor Decisions

Of all the poor decisions I’ve ever made – and trust me, I’ve made a few doozies – taking the boat to Tayrona was one of the worst…

Of all the poor decisions I’ve made in my life – and trust me, I’ve made a few doozies – taking the boat to Tayrona National Park in Colombia was up there in the top, let’s say, seven.

It’s also worth noting I never really found my “sea legs”, and have never done particularly well on boats of any kind, preferring to stick to dry land when possible.  Tayrona is accessible by bus or car, and, once there, passable by foot or horseback through the meandering trails, however if one’s primary goal is Cabo San Juan – as mine was – then a boat is the best idea..or worst? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

As with any bad judgment, it really did seem a good idea at the time, staring at Google Images of Tayrona from my comfy chaise at home, coffee warm in hand and all the creature comforts my Canadian life brings: shelter, for starters.  I was determined to backpack Colombia, all on my lonesome, or at least a part of it, and had already settled on Cartagena as ‘home base’, along with stops in Bogota, Santa Marta, and a wee little hostel that sat smack in the middle of the ocean called Casa en el Agua, appropriately enough.  But Tayrona! Tayrona was a whole different adventure…a wild, largely untouched national park off the coast, famed for its natural jungle beauty and a hot spot for intrepid overnighters like myself, or how I saw Yours Truly…or no, wait, how I wanted to see myself.  Yes, that’s more like it.

Allow me to preface all of this by saying I am the type of traveler who considers camping sleeping on the floor of my hotel room.  That’s about as close as I’ve previously been to staying in The Great Outdoors, or as some may say, “Being at One with Nature”.  Backpacking, to me, was a crazy idea created by someone with a little bit of a masochistic side, perhaps seeking atonement for some – quite frankly, awesome – life of debauchery and excess.  Perhaps backpackers just really enjoyed walking, and simultaneously being laden down with painful weight on their backs, likening themselves to a mule?  At any rate, it was something I’d widely regarded as crazy, self-harming and absolutely not my style; I had to give it at least one try.

To board the boat from Taganga – and I use the word ‘boat’ a little freely, here – one must purchase tickets in advance, as spots are limited, and I opted to get mine from the local hostel I was staying at, a lovely sprawling garden of a place called La Casa de Felipe.  The receptionist gave no indication that this was showing terrible judgement, only a smile and a brief exchange of pleasantries and pesos, and I had tickets in hand.  I wandered off that evening to find dinner along the dark sand beach that Taganga is known for (along with crime, but let’s not chat about that now), and looked out at the glassy water before me, the sound of salsa blaring in the background, as the sun set.  Tomorrow, I would be on that open sea, the breeze in my hair, and off to explore the ruggedly beautiful Tayrona National Park.

It was around 8 a.m the following day that I was to be at the meeting point at the beach for the Lancha – also known as a ridiculously small motor boat that offers no cover or other safety – and I wandered down along the dusty winding roads until the ocean came into view.  There were a number of flimsy little passenger boats bobbing in the morning waves, and it took a solid 20 minutes or so to find the general idea of where to sit / stand and wait for someone to take my ticket and point the way.  This being Colombian time, of course, it was around 40 minutes past the announced departure that we were yelled at by an unidentified man, “Lancha Tayrona!  Tayrona, aqui!” And I, along with about 20 other bleary eyed tourists, made up a queue to board the wobbly little raft-like bark, climbing from knee-deep water and half falling into places.

I chose to sit in the very back, the ideal spot to people watch as my fellow passengers made their tottering steps to their benches.  We were given life jackets and our bags and belongings taken from us abruptly, hauled off to a cabin in the front which we were told was secure and would keep things nice and dry.  With a few more sailor yells and grunts, we were off, motor running and turning, facing the vast ocean before us, the day bright and warm, the ocean welcoming us, peacefully.

I was sat next to a little boy of about maybe ten years old, and his very enthusiastic mum.  Opposite us was a young couple, perhaps honeymooners, she in a beautiful straw hat that protected her face from the reflection on the water.  Everyone on the boat chatted happily, taking pictures of the jagged cliffs along the coast, and I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun, relishing its warmth and the adventures to come.

It was after about an hour of gliding through the ocean that we reached a bit of a swell, I suppose one might say.  The sea seemed to suddenly churn beneath us, and white foam rose to the surface, waves growing in height and intensity.  At first, I’ll admit, it was quite exciting, this sudden lilting, the boat rocking along as though to the rhythm of a song, until the lilting became a little more raucous, a little more, say, Metallica than Simon and Garfunkel.  In no time, the waves were several times higher than the vessel itself, presenting themselves before us, menacing walls of water that we had to climb to the top of, and once at the peak, unable to see below us.  We would thrash violently down off each new swell, head first into the abyss, only to be tossed anew, jolted riotously yet again.

I looked around me at my fellow passengers.  The slightly over-enthusiastic mum was now a pallid shade of greenish yellow as she tried, in vain, to comfort her son, who looked as though this was, by far, the worst day of his life.  The sweet honeymooners held each other close, and, as I looked on with interest, she tore off her lovely straw hat and used it as a receptacle for some lively projectile vomiting.  This seemingly had an effect on the passengers nearest them, as the trend caught on quickly, and in no time, the entire boat was filled with passengers in the throes of either uncontrollable heaving or crying, some of them both.  My eyes gazed briefly to the shoreline, miles in the distance, and protected by jagged rocks which the turbulent ocean crashed against vigorously.  There really was no escape; stay on the boat and hope for the best or jump ship and be beaten down by the rocks.

Finally, after two wretched hours, my stomach empty, we arrived at Cabo San Juan, Tayrona National Park.  It was a sight to behold, the waves crashing agains a white sand beach surrounded by jungle, and to the left, a rocky climb up to a palapa strung up with colourful hammocks swaying under its leafy roof.  I had to explore.

Another side note, here: I have what some might call an extreme fear of alligators.  Who doesn’t, right?  But this fear is so great that I can’t look at images of them, cannot see them on the screen, or even think about them without my feet clenching under me or my breath catching in my chest.  And yet, here I was, in Alligator Land.  There was a tiny little lagoon in front of me, just off the beach and surrounded by shady spots ideal for a reptilian sunbathing session, and though the water seemed clear of any glaring yellow eyes, I was careful not to get closer to examine.  At one point, I ventured off into a jungle path, only the first few steps in the light of sun, the remainder covered by dense wood and winding along, slithering through the trees.  I walked and whistled to myself – does whistling scare off gators? – until I cam across a narrow stream, somehow too quiet for my liking, suddenly paranoid that there were quiet reptilian eyes watching me, plotting their meal.  With no hesitation (or whistling), I turned and ran back to the beach, only recuperating my calm once in the presence of humans again.

Cabo San Juan is divided with two beaches in one, really.  One for the boats to anchor and quite wild, the waves, and the other more of a cove, protected by the hill in which the palapa stood, and the sand adorned by sunbathers and a few swimmers, playing happily in the somewhat calmer water.  All around the beach is jungle, protected and wild, with little foot paths, some of them very difficult to navigate thanks to large sloping boulders that slant into each other somewhat haphazardly.  Several other beaches – some not safe for swimming – dot the trail that takes a few hours to walk, something I most certainly did not want to attempt alone.

After winding my way through the several tents and tiny cabins that dotted the flat grasslands before the jungle took over, I found a shady spot with a number of horses and their guides, the horses loosely leashed to the swaying palms all around.  I spotted one who seemed calm, and approached her owner.  “How much for a tour?” I asked, stroking her softly, appeasing her in hopes she would guide me slowly through the jungle.  “For just you?  A thousand pesos.”  I turned abruptly, knowing this was far beyond the price I’d heard advertised.  It only took five steps before he called me back.  “Okay, five hundred.  For you, five hundred.  Just for you.”

Clumsily, I hopped on the horse.  Does one hop onto a horse?  I certainly did it without dignity, sort of half jumping, half hurtling myself over her ample, muscular back, sliding off the other side before correcting myself, fixing my hair, and saying a confident, “Listo!” We trotted through the narrow paths, slid carefully along the boulders, and took in the breathtaking scenery of Tayrona’s verdant jungle.  Breathtaking.

I dined at the only restaurant in Cabo San Juan, a shady busy nook with a few simple menu options, and devoured my fresh fish and patacones (plantains) with a freshly made banana smoothie, looking out at the beach, then to the jungle behind me.  Paradise found.

It was after a lazy lunch that I trotted up the hill to the palapa, stopping to read a sign that read something along the lines of “protect your integrity; stay on the path!”  Wise words indeed; my integrity would not be lost over a path!  The top of the palapa was filled with sleepy, colourful hammocks, the ocean breeze giving just enough cool, backpacks strewn everywhere.  I opted not to stay the night, as I honestly wasn’t sure whether alligators could climb hills – yes, this was my exact thinking – and headed back down to the beach, soaking in the sun until it was time to climb back onto the Boat of Doom for Taganga.

Tayrona, as I rode off into the sunset, stood proudly before me, this natural paradise, a gem of Colombia.  A few happy backpackers – “masochists!” I screamed in my head – stayed behind, bidding farewell to their friends on the boat, from their place on the shore.  Darkness would come soon, and I hoped they had torches and bug repellant.  It would have been incredible to stay and be a part of it all.

The ocean swirled before me as we ventured off, back to Taganga, back to more adventures.  I wouldn’t soon forget Tayrona, it’s indescribable beauty, the peace of the place, the majestic jungle that was laid out before me, willing me to explore its shady paths, its flourishing labyrinth of palms.

Perhaps next time I will stay the night; first, though, I must make sure alligators can’t climb hills.