It’s after eight on Friday night in Cartagena, Colombia’s most touristed town, both by domestic and foreign travelers. The sidewalks should be packed. The beat of salsa music should be resonating from behind the heavy wood doors of the clubs in the centro. Bar clientele should be spilling out into the streets. But instead there is silence.
Elections are this weekend.
Without ever intending to, Jeff and I seem to end up timing our travels with elections more frequently than you’d think possible. We landed in Nicaragua at election time. We were in South Africa as Zuma took the presidency. We were woken up at 4 a.m. by Likoma Islanders celebrating the election of their candidate. And now we’re here in Colombia as they elect a new senate (or whatever they call it here).
I’m guessing there are a lot of people who think that visiting a country during elections is not the smartest travel strategy. Elections have been known to bring out the ugly. But all we’ve ever witnessed is election enthusiasm that makes American elections look like the most boring event in the world. (Given, we’d probably look more closely into election schedules before we decided to travel somewhere like say Pakistan, not that its on the itinerary.) From everyone we’ve talked to here in Colombia, it seems this weekend’s elections are going to be entirely uneventful.
Which leads me back to Cartagena, and its dull state on a weekend evening. It’s not that everyone is so absorbed in the elections that they’ve all opted to forego partying in order to stay at home and discuss politics; it’s that they literally can’t go to the bar, can’t get their groove on at the club, can’t slam down the rum and cokes on the chiva party bus. In Colombia, it’s illegal to sell alcohol during the three day election period. You can’t buy it the day before the election. You’ve got to dry out before you go to the election booth. You can’t buy it election day. You might accidentally put your X in the wrong spot. And you can’t buy it the day after election. You might be more likely to start a riot when your candidate loses.
Actually, I’m not sure the reasoning behind the law, but I imagine it’s something along those lines. Whether things would actually get crazy if people were allowed to buy alcohol, I can’t say. (I kind of doubt it, especially since there’s nothing to stop people from stocking up the day before the ban goes into effect and drinking at home all weekend long.) But I can say that without the alcohol, Cartagena is one quiet town. We’ll see if it changes on Monday when the ban lifts. Until then the city will have to make do with fruit juice and coffee.