Now that herculean GOP efforts to kick 23 million Americans to the curb have been iced, it's time to have some good, clean fun.

It was the only time I've ever been taken by street hustlers. It was outside the Bogota train station in 1979. It was Holy Week, I had been studying in Bogota, and I was at the station to board an overnight train to Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast for a week's vacation.

They were doing a shell game, a little round ball racing around under three little cups. Pick the right cup and win, and they had patsies winning regularly, the better to lure suckers like me. They probably had pickpockets working the crowd too, but while I lost eight bucks on the little ball, I managed to keep my other possessions.

The train wasn't going to win any Conde Nast awards anytime real soon, but it was great fun. Overnight we descended from Bogota's 8,800 feet to sea level, and whatever air conditioning the train might have had in its heyday had long since vanished, which was as good a reason as any to drink beer in the restaurant car, as I quickly learned from some other students I met on the train.

The train broke down in the middle of the kind of vast banana plantation Gabriel Garcia Marquez memorialized in his epic novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and my newfound friends and I had great fun cutting great big banana stalks as tall as us from the plantation and distributing their fruit to a trainload of grateful passengers.

I had no plans beyond arriving in Santa Marta, so when my newfound friends invited me to camp with them in Tairona National Park an hour east along the Caribbean coast from Santa Marta, I accepted.

We were to make the trip by taxi, but first we had to make a stop. We stopped at a pool hall with big doors and high ceilings, for the relentless heat. The place looked like it had been lifted right out of an old western, and my friends asked for “El Pulpo” (the octopus). A little kid ran out the back door to go get El Pulpo, and a few moments later appeared a man who was walking like, well, an octopus. I don't know what ailment he had, but I had never seen it before, nor have I seen it since. And that, apparently, is one way to get one's spring-break pot in Santa Marta, Colombia. We proceeded on.

We landed in a small cove with a brilliant white-sand beach and crystal-clear turquoise water. You could easily toss a stone from shore to the pristine coral reef, and the cove was surrounded by dry, unforgiving mountains that looked like they'd suck the water right out of you before you cleared the first ridge. But you could stand on the beach in blistering heat and stare up at the 18,000-foot snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the great inclines of the world.

In the cove with us was a family and one urban dropout from Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. Both parties were sustained by fishing in a boat scarcely larger than a rowboat, and every day they finished by 10 a.m., when any animal with any sense took cover in the shade till at least 4 p.m.

The cove had no electricity, and the fish not eaten right off had to be salted. Once a week a truck would come from Santa Marta and trade rice, beans, salt, cooking oil and some miscellaneous fruits and vegetables for the salted fish. And every once in a while some of the most isolated indigenous people in the world would descend from the Sierra and trade pot for the salted fish. And so the days went.

At night we rose from the dead and watched the smuggling boats out at sea, at whatever distance offshore. With flashing lights they signaled to shore to bring out the cargo, which in those days was primarily or exclusively pot. That was before Manhattan's Studio 54 nightclub thrust cocaine onto the Christmas wish list of every yuppie north of the Rio Grande. It was a more innocent time, before cocaine's fat profit margins caused blood to run in the streets of Medellin, before Cheech and Chong's innocent ditties about the wonders of seedless Acapulco Gold were replaced by Pablo Escobar and his phalanx of body guards armed to the teeth with automatic weapons.

I left the Tairona cove early, before the week was out, chased away by the brutal heat. I bummed a ride back to Santa Marta on the fish truck, and caught the next day's train back to the blissful cool of Bogota. But that evening, before I departed for Bogota, in the unrefined streets of Santa Marta, I ran into a few Danish sailors and they invited me for a beer. I accepted.

I thought it was a bit odd when they knocked on the curtained window of what looked like a normal, nondescript house, but immediately upon gaining entrance, the considerable friendliness of our hostesses solved that mystery. It was my first-ever foray into a brothel — I was 20 years old. The young employees asked me to dance — they said the customers never wanted to dance. I accepted.

Back in Bogota, as Holy Week drew to a close, it had one more surprise up its sleeve. Arriving back home exhausted from the trip, I made a beeline for my bed, for a good, long nap, only to be awoken by a quick spasm of an earthquake that felt like a mule or a human of considerable heft had reached back and kicked my wooden bed frame for all she was worth. An appropriate wake-up call for my return to workaday reality after a memorable Holy Week in Colombia.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.