Today we had a long, hot walk to the plaza central to find some cigars. Santander (the state we were in) is known for tobacco production, so we thought it wouldn’t be that hard to find. We walked and walked and walked and I kept asking people where I could find them and they kept saying the plaza central and we couldn’t find it – though we found more shoes that we could ever possibly need. There was shoe shop after shoe shop throughout the downtown area. Apparently Santander is also known for shoe production!
We finally found the building that we had been pointed to. It was four floors high and looked like a parking garage with the sides open and staircases on the sides. It was concrete and rather unremarkable. We were told that the cigars were on the fourth floor – which seemed oddly specific – then we discovered that there are like things on each floor so that one knows where to go to exactly. As we were climbing, we saw things that were for offer on each floor – one was furniture and such, then fruits, veggies and such, then we got off thinking that we were on the fourth floor – it was awful! This was the meat floor and it smelled like goat and fish and dead things – there were flies everywhere and I almost threw up on the spot! I was involuntarily gagging as I made for the stairs – Norbert was right behind me – he suddenly didn’t need cigars that badly!
As we were walking down – I asked someone about the cigars as it felt wrong to make it this far and leave with nothing to show for it but a sick feeling – and they laughed and said we got off on the 3rd floor – so… back up we went, racing past the smelly floor – I don’t know how people work there or go there to buy their meat – I would be an instant vegetarian!
We found our tobacco and the floor was amazing – filled with incense and herbs and spices. What a difference to the floor directly below it – it smelled amazing and delicious and clean. We bought some coca leaves as well – the people here talk about how good it is for your stomach and general health – so…. I’m sold. We decided to make some coca tea in our room tonight.
We exited the building and were stopped by two members of the national police. These police officers wear black uniforms with green vests and markings that let you know who they are. I am used to seeing them out and about, but have never before been stopped by them. They asked us to hand over our documents. I asked them why they needed to see them. The police officer repeated that we needed to hand over our documents. I said that I wasn’t questioning his authority – I just wanted to know why – he repeated in English this time – ‘passports – passports’. I handed over my cedula and Norbert handed over his copy of his passport. They were not impressed that he only had a copy – I explained that he didn’t want to walk around with his passport – so carried a copy – they looked at the documents carefully and handed them back to us. I then asked what the issue was – he told me that whenever the national police want to they can stop and asked for documents and that it is our responsibility to hand them over immediately.
I remember that we were told that we had to carry our cedula with us at all times at orientation as this was a law. I asked someone about it later and they mentioned that whenever there is a report of a crime or something suspicious, there is a report sent out and that anyone who matches the description is stopped. He said that women were rarely stopped, but guys by themselves often were.
It is all very un-American and I was a bit overly defensive in the face of it all – I definitely have to be more ‘tranquila’!