Taganga, Colombia: Dice Games & The Irish

Dice Games & The Irish

By: Rad Wood

I sat naked in a white plastic chair. Six dice in my right hand. A short make-shift table in front of me. My three companions–James, Jeanie and Michael, all also naked–sat around the table, awaiting my roll. The evening air in the small courtyard was cooler than the days hot sun. But not nearly cool enough to keep me from sweating. How had I ended up here? I retraced the steps that had led me to this tiny decaying flat down one of Taganga’s many poorly lit pebble-filled alleys. Was it not less than two hours prior that I was walking the city’s main strip with the Irish lads? Indeed even as I shook the dice in my hand I was already late, having promised to meet my Irish friends for dinner thirty minutes ago. How was I going to explain this? No need to figure that out now, I decided.

The dice hit the table–four, six, one and three numbers I cannot remember. For Bones, the game we was playing, it was one of the best first rolls possible. I had only just learned the game an hour ago. But the dice had been good to me. I had won the first match and now in the third contest my first roll placed me in an envious position to those other naked persons around me.

I liked the game. And not only because the dice were treating me well, but because of what it represented. It was a game, as James said, “About letting go and exhibiting integrity.” Those words don’t normally accompany the description of dice games. But Bones was not a normal dice game.

The idea of the game was simple. Before each contest, each player offers up something of equal value to that of the other players to the “dice gods”–James’ words. The offering did not have to be a physical object, though all of us being of the modern human variety that is owned by what we own, it most often took a physical form–Michael’s favorite bandana, Jeanie’s favorite painting by a close friend, James’s Moroccan satchel and my new serong (as well as one month of writing every day) were all put forth in game one.

We were now in the third game and things had changed a lot. For starters, we were all now naked. The first two rounds we sat clothed. But before round three, James went into the house for a drink and came back to the courtyard naked, telling Michael and I that his preferred state of being was clothes-less and that because he felt comfortable around us he was going to play the next round that way. Michael and I, both being open minded, told James we were fine with this. Then Jeanie, James’s wife, offered forth an idea, “Why don’t we all play this next round naked?” While nakedness maybe James’s preferred state it was not my own. I could feel the resistance to this idea swelling inside me. But Jeanie smiled widely, James was so welcoming and Michael did not reject the idea outright. A moment passed and before I knew it, I had agreed to Jeanie’s proposal and was unbuckling my pants. I was playing a game of letting go. What better way to play it than naked. We were forced to let go of inhibitions and social constructs around nakedness and accept our bodies the way they were.

Moreover, this third round, in addition to lacking clothes, was unique in that it did not involve any physical objects. More on that later.

Back to how the game works. After the offerings are made, the rolling begins. Each player takes a turn. After each roll, the rolling player must select at least one die, but can select as many as he or she wants. Then the rolling player takes the leftover dice and rolls again. Thus the most rolls per player is six– one for each die. The point of the game is to roll one 4, one 1, and then as high as possible with the other four dice. As a result, the best round is a 4, 1, 6, 6, 6, 6. In other words my initial 4, 1, 6, put me in great position to win.

After each player has completed their turn, the player with a 4, a 1 and the highest remaining score is the winner. The winner picks the loser. The loser’s offering now belongs to the winner. Or, if there was a non-physical offering, the loser is now required to complete the task he or she offered.

Now comes the letting go. The loser must now accept the object they offered is no longer their own–a lesson on the temporary nature of possession. Or, if the loser offered up an undertaking, he or she is faced with accepting the responsibility–learning that time and desires are not always our own. Another lesson in letting go. Indeed playing Bones naked, as I mention earlier, took letting go to another level.

Now comes the integrity. There is nothing that requires the losing party to follow through on their offering. There are no mobsters threatening physical harm or lawyers demanding performance. It is the loser’s integrity that is tested. Does he or she live up to the offering by giving the winner the item or by following through on a promise to act a certain way or to perform a certain task.

The life lessons of Bones–(1) possessions are temporary they do not define us; and (2) following through on promises is a quality worth cultivating–are important. But they also produce an emotional roller coaster. Each roll, depending on the dice, is either filled with anxiety over the possibility of losing that which one values, or full of hope as the high numbers foretell of a possible victory, and with it, control of the outcome. Another life lesson–ride the waves of life with grace, peaks and valleys come and go, only you remain.

The game continued. I placed the 4, 1 and 6 aside and rolled the three remaining dice, then two and then one. When my next three rolls were complete, I had acquired three additional sixes. I now had the highest possible roll in Bones. Victory was all but assured and with it the power to select the loser. Which in this round was different from the two before. The loser would not have to give up something of their own, instead before beginning this round we had agreed that whomever lost would have to write a fairy tale and share it with the others. This round of Bones was about giving out homework.

I was the first to roll. I handed the dice to Michael and sat up straight keeping my bare back from the white plastic and waited as my naked companions all took their turns; the dice gods playing the role of fate, the fairest of arbiters. Each player took their turn, first Michael, then James and finally Jeanie. None would equal my high score. It was my second victory in three rounds. I had also won the opening salvo, selecting Jeanie and her painting as the loser. With the painting in hand and with the support of James, I burned it. Jeanie watched on as the thick paper disappeared into ash. The ultimate lesson in letting go.

It was now my turn to select again. I contemplated my three naked neighbors. Who should I pick? Jeanie had already lost in round one, I thought. And then she had won in round two, selecting James as the loser. I had now won twice. As I contemplated this picture, it quickly became clear who I had to select (and it was not myself, although that is an option in Bones). Michael. He had gone the entire evening without winning or losing. In the spirit of ensuring everyone gets involved I informed Michael of his homework. He took the news with a forced smile.

After delivering the assignment, I looked at the time. I was an hour late for my scheduled meeting with the Irish lads. I quickly dressed and gave my still-naked friends goodbye high-fives (hugs felt more than a bit awkward), as I hurried out the door. I sped down the rubbish-filled side streets, past dark alleys and broken-down buildings, navigating the maze of Taganga until I found the lights of the town center and the sidewalk that hugs the beach. I walked at a near jog, searching for the restaurant where we were to meet.

It was my last night in Taganga and my last night with my Irish friends. What had begun as a connection based on the shared hardship of trekking in ankle-deep mud through constant rain and up and over a seemingly endless series of peaks and valleys had solidified into a true friendship in Taganga. Indeed I had been adopted by the group–an honorary Irishman for a week. And what a week it had been.

On our first night back in civilization, Match 18th, we stumbled out of our jeep dirty, tired, dehydrated and in need of a place to stay. The group broke up in search of rooms. Steve and Shaw returning to the place they had stayed before the hike while I followed Roy and Ross to their prior accommodations. We all failed at this first attempt. Both hostels were full. We reconvened as a group and the five of us soon found a place–four of us in one room, Ross in a dorm. Settled, we quickly showered, changed, added a British guy and a Swedish girl from the hostel to our group and set out for a belated Paddy’s Day celebration.

We would celebrate with all the vigor and force of a group stranded in a jungle for nearly a week. At our first stop, we met Daniel, our default translator from the trek, and a couple of others. We enjoyed a happy hour, stuffing our faces with delicious food and sharing a continuous stream of cocktails. When our dinner was complete, we were off to a roof-deck club to continue our praising of the Welchman, St. Patrick.

When we arrived at the club, the mood was relatively subdued. The wooden-deck dance floor was vacant, save for a couple people standing on the outer rim slowly swaying to the music. With our arrival all this would change. A round of drinks was ordered and the dance floor was quickly occupied. Ross, Roy, Steve, Shaw and I forming a jovial half circle. But soon our numbers increased as the watching masses began to join. Our own group also added numbers as a group of Aussie girls and two Irish lasses joined in. We would dance till the club was full and we’d continue to dance till it emptied upon closing. Along the way, numerous hugs were shared, high fives became the standard hello, dance competitions broke out, Shaw and Steve were given to break out into Gaelic and, on more than one occasion, Irish songs were shouted over the DJ’s selection. When Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind came on, the lads showered me, the New Yorker, with back slaps as I took to the center of the circle to dance. A great time was had by all. In fact, at one point Shaw proclaimed to Ross, “I’m the happiest man in the world, Rossie. I really couldn’t be happier.” Words he would live to directly contradict the following day as we all nursed our Paddy Day hangovers, “I’ve never felt so bad in my life. I really couldn’t feel worse,” a red-faced and tired Shaw mumbled.

The next day would be dedicated to lounging around the pool in the hostel that Ross, Roy and I had moved into in the morning. It was a day of taking in the sun, drinking lots of water, eating food and wishing our headaches would subside. This day also brought me a stomach bacteria that would leave me in fits of extreme pain twice an hour and would not subside for five days. It was tolerable, but barely so.

The third day our group took a shuttle to a beach next to Tayrona Park, paying too much for the ride. We would stay for a few hours, during which time we befriended an Argentinian who had taken the same shuttle and watched the locals fish using a large net to drag in half the beaches living creatures. Having had our fill, we decided to leave early in favor of a Mexican lunch in the city of Santa Marta. On our way out of the beach a Colombian woman in her fifties asked if she could take a picture with me. The Argentinian translated. “She thinks your famous,” he said with a grin. The older woman was now wearing a huge smile as we posed for the picture. A group of locals had watched this transaction and began to shout as I walked by. “They think you are a TV star in Colombia,” the Argentinian said laughing. Ross grinned and made a couple sarcastic comments. By now sarcasm had become our preferred mode of communication. As we had continued to hang out we grew more comfortable with each other. And as the comfort level increased so did the banter. There were constant jokes about me being American or, at times, Lebanese. “Duzn’t heh speak gud English, lads?” Ross would ask the others. I would return the favor, however. My go to banter being the Irish accent, “Te ting ubout te Irish is tey cont spik English…”

At times, however, we would set aside the joking in favor of more serious topics–Ross’s loss of his older brother and best friend to cancer; Roy’s ideas of travel and the world; Shaw’s experiences living in San Diego and his thoughts on the future; Stephan’s business savvy and life back in Ireland. I had grown to be friends with each and now we were soon separating.

After a couple of wrong turns, I found the restaurant where we were to meet. It was on the second floor of a large building overlooking the beach in town. I sped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Upon entering the restaurant, I looked left, immediately seeing the Irish lads and a group of our friends sitting around a large table. Before I could say a word, I was greeted to a chorus of shouts, “Ah, here he is,” “About time!” “Mogly’s a busy guy.” When explaining my tardiness, I referenced the dice game and how intense it was, but decided to omit the part about playing the third game naked.

As we sat and ate our final dinner together, I knew I would soon miss my new friends. But I also knew that though our time together was temporary, these were not temporary friends. We would see each other again.

The food was eaten quickly. We laughed and reminisced about our time together. We talked of future travels and what we would do after dinner, Ross and I quietly deciding to head back to the hostel to get some rest, leaving the revelry to our friends. Yet mostly we simply enjoyed each others’ company as we had for the past week.

The next day, I awoke early, ate breakfast with Ross and coordinated taxis to Santa Marta–the Irish lads were off to Medellin and I was headed for Cartagena.

Before leaving, Ross and I exchanged books, signing and dating the inside covers–I gave him a book about the downfall of Lance Armstrong, which I had acquired along the way, and he gave me Thinking Fast and Slow. Simple gifts to last a lifetime.

Soon the taxis arrived and we stuffed ourselves and our large bags into the back seat. I was saying goodbye to the Irish as I had said hello, crammed in the back of a vehicle. Luckily the ride to Santa Marta–they were off to the airport, I was off to the bus station–was short and not the three hour marathon we endured on our way to the Lost City trip.

We said goodbye with the same sarcasm we greeted one another with in the back of the jeep over a week before–Ross making some silly comment about not wanting me to cry at the separation.

We hugged and wished each other well and said goodbye, for now.