Ty, the Rambling Artist
The art of making drawing smiles and making connections, anywhere in the world.
Those that know me, know that I’m a little different. I have a mixture of skills and personality traits that can cause. . . well most often, they cause small, unexpected magical moments. When you look at me, you may see just a “street artist”... something slightly more than just a kid’s party clown, but being a caricaturist, and working with hundreds of thousands of people has given me a unique perspective on people, personalities and cultures.
I have the privilege of doing something for a living that can make people happy. Often, I don’t realize it until a person will mention to me that their day brightened, just by meeting me. Maybe they’re at a particularly boring conference or packing up at the end of a rough cruise. I’ve had people say that they remembered their interaction with me as a highlight….and all I did was make them smile.
It’s what I do. It's who I am. I’m lucky.
Recently, I had the privilege of drawing smiles aboard a 2-week cruise through Central America and the Panama Canal. My ship, the Carnival Miracle, was a good ship with a great crew. The staff are mostly young, vibrant, smart people from all over the world. I enjoyed the Miracle because, unlike previous ships I’ve been on, she had a multitude of places to explore. She was full of varied entertainment: comedians, a good selection of live music, seminars on an array of interesting topics, and buffets that would add inches to even the most disciplined of waistlines. For two weeks, I entertained and was entertained. I met so many wonderful people and, unfortunately, also saw the sadder side of humanity, groups of older, angry, hateful people from crumbling red states, content to spend their days in port sitting at slot machines or playing cards with people who looked just like them.
That being said, I connected with them all. Connectedness is in my top 5 personality traits, according to the Clifton StrengthsFinder. My top 5 strengths are Adaptability, Input, Connectedness, Belief, and Empathy. This combination of talents is what makes me who I am and helps me do what I do.
Fortunately, when we dock in the various ports, I’m allowed to leave the ship and become a tourist, like anyone else. Most of the crew can experience the port, find a wifi cafe and catch up with loved ones, or stock up on provisions that may not be readily available on the ship. I like to sightsee, and this is where my Adaptability shines. I most often travel alone and I have my small watercolor kit, a smartphone, and a small, clumsy, Duolingoesque grasp of Spanish. What could go wrong? I’m adaptable. Let's go adventuring! Let's meet interesting people and have intelligent conversations and most of all, a laugh or two. Let’s learn something about this place that we know nothing about. Let’s collect this experience ("thanks, Input.") This is also where my Connectedness gets to play. I suspect this is my most personality-defining talent, especially when I’m in that “on stage mode." I love listening to people (any people, anywhere) share their stories and share their food and culture with me. Everyone has a story, and I want to hear it. That might be the Empathy talking. Empathy is beneficial when connecting to others because I’ve learned that, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, we’re remarkably similar, and if there’s a way, I like to share my empathy and understanding with those I meet.
Somehow all of these strengths have combined with my fortune of working with so many different people and have made it easy to share special moments with many of them, regardless of how small. I take pride in being able to brighten their day. I believe that we are all here for a purpose and that this purpose can’t be fulfilled if we isolate ourselves from other cultures. I believe we need to love people, not fear them. People lose out on so much life because of fear.
So with that in mind, let me tell you about my adventure in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena was our last port on our two-week journey through the Panama Canal. Cruising through the Panama Canal is not something I had thought I’d experience. This changed with a single text in mid-January. Isn’t life amazing like that? How fortunate for me. It’s as if I was meant to be on this cruise with some of the people. Not all of them, but most. There are always a few, but I avoid the ship casinos.
Cartagena, Colombia is a vibrant, fairly large city with an excellent up-and-coming food scene, according to my wife, Crystal. You might be familiar with Crystal from my many adventures with #FlatCrystal. Flat Crystal was very popular and loved by all of those who met her. Anyway, my wife, (the real one, not the flat one) had texted me with information about various restaurants in Cartagena, some of which had reputations beyond Colombian borders. Crystal is a former chef, with a passion for authentic regional food. Even when we were a young couple, she was the food navigator for all of my business trips or road trips. I’ve often marveled at her way of finding the best food in the most unsuspecting of places. In Cartagena, she tells me to have lunch at a Colombian-Cuban fusion place called La Vitrola. This becomes the mission.
The downside of a cruise is that you never get enough time in one place, so you learn not to be too ambitious in your goals. My only objective in Cartagena was lunch. I stepped off of the ship, thinking that I would just hike into the old town. When you dock in Cartagena, there is a customs/welcome center and, of course, a gift shop. Have you tried the coffee from Colombia? The port also features a small museum and some local wildlife. Once you step outside of the port, you’re in the middle of a large transportation hub full of taxi drivers and tourist guides, all vying for your business. Many on the ship were frightened or angered by these locals' constant bid for business, but the truth is, most of them are good people, just trying to support their families. This is how they do it. “Trust Me.” they all say….and for the most part, I do.
I was traveling alone and I was sure I had time to walk to the old town square and sketch a couple of watercolors. Urban sketching is one of my favorite pastimes. It’s not unlike fishing, but for artists. Instead of fish we catch little scenes - small moments in time that may or may not be fleeting. Most of the taxi drivers/tour guides in these places are looking to fill their cars and vans with as many tourists as they can pack in. The ship is only in port for a few hours and they need to make as much money as possible. The prices they quote do not change, whether you are a group of 5, or 1. I kept walking. One guy kept walking with me. He continued to lower his price for a private tour of Cartagena. When he got down to $30, I look him in the eye and said, “$30?” “Yes, $30. Senior, please don’t walk through town alone. “ I consented and he took me to his taxi/tour vehicle: a bright yellow three-cylinder Russian car, small enough for zigzagging in and out of traffic, complete with a Bob Marley bumper sticker. I got in with my tour guide and the driver. Two for the price of one!
I smiled to myself as I thought of what I had heard the old grumpy scooter-riding, chain-smoking, casino people saying about the Colombian people, “Them drug lords will cut you up and eat you.” Funny enough, my tour guide and driver didn’t seem interested in doing either. They were just happy to have a fare. My guide’s name was Jesus and the other man was his nephew, simply known as “The Spaniard." I guess it’s a street thing. As I climbed into the back of their vehicle, I found myself thinking that this may not be the best idea I’ve ever had. I told them, “I’m just an artist on the ship. I draw smiles. Caricaturista. I just want to go to the old town and walk around, do a few sketches, maybe a watercolor or two. Then I have to be at some restaurant for my wife at noon.” Then Jesus asked, “Is your wife here in Cartagena?” “No,” I replied. "She's back home in Orlando,” I went on to explain that Crystal works at Disney World and that she couldn’t make the trip because of work. Jesus and “The Spaniard” were listening intently so I reached into my backpack and pulled out #FlatCrystal. Their faces were priceless. At first, there was shock and then they both broke out into big smiles. Jesus asked to see a photo of my real wife - to make sure I’m any good as a caricaturist, I presume. So. I showed him a photo of real Crystal holding Flat Crystal. They both began laughing joyfully. I continued to answer their questions, their English was far better than my Spanish. Yes, I’ve taken pictures with Flat Crystal throughout the entire trip - even with some important people: The Captain of the ship, the Entertainment Director, the Cruise Director, and all the people I drew and met on the ship. Yes, I’ve taken pictures of her in all of the places this cruise has stopped: Huatulco, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica the Panama Canal. And now to Cartagena, Colombia. I showed them all the photos on my phone while the Spaniard was driving up a zig-zagging mountain road to a monastery they had decided I (and #FlatCrystal) needed to see. On the way up this road, Jesus was telling me about the city's history: The beginning, the Spaniards, the pirates, the church, the people, and the inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Finally, we arrived at the monastery on top of the mountain. As we got out, Jesus told me to take as much time as I needed and they’d be there waiting for me when I was done. So off I went to see the monastery and the views from the mountain top. Once I finished the tour, I walked back to the entrance and decided to do a few fast and loose sketches, and even a watercolor postcard. While I was painting Jesus was having a break in the shade with the tapas vendor and talking to several Colombian police officers. There was a significant police presence in Colombia. They were all armed with AR-15s and flash grenades and protected by flack jackets. As I was sketching, a guest who recognized me from the ship came up to me and asked with fear in her eyes,. "Are you traveling ALONE?" I smiled and almost chuckled and said, “Yes, but I’m okay. I think I’m in good hands." I then looked at her sideways and mumbled, “If I’m not at dinner tonight, tell someone.” She laughed and went on. I’m glad she got that joke. I went back to my quick watercolor sketch. A few moments later, I looked up. There were some vendors, locals, and a few tourists from Denmark watching me play with my watercolors. Jesus, my guide, quickly came over to assure me that they were all just fascinated by me taking my time to do a 20 minute 5x7 of the monastery. Jesus then pulled out his phone and took a selfie of us. I considered that a compliment. I put away my paints, looked at him and said, “Let’s go have some fun, Jesus!"
He laughed and told me to show the small crowd who had gathered, #FlatCrystal. I pulled her out as Jesus explained the story to them in Spanish, which elicited smiles and laughter from the group. A Colombian police officer asked if he could take a selfie with me (and #FlatCrystal, of course.) Who else on my ship got a selfie with a Colombian police officer? Smiling even? I’d bet money that no one on my ship of 2500+ people had that experience. The highlight of that moment was that it was shared with a nice crowd of strangers, who lived in a foreign city that I was quickly embracing. I had made some friends. Jesus, the Spaniard and I continued our adventure back down the mountain road and Jesus continued to share his knowledge of Colombia and his hometown of Cartagena. The Spaniard expertly navigated alleyways and short cuts to bypass all of the tourist traffic. Together, in our little yellow three-cylinder car we visited all of the important sites leading up to the fort: The big solid stronghold which protected the old city inside from pirates and waring nations. On our way to the old town area, we discussed the arts of Caragana, the Colombian education system, the thriving beat of the city's culture. We talked about reggae and Cuban Jazz. He even stopped a few times in old town to introduce me to some of his friends, a few street artists with whom I traded sketches. Their street artworks are some of my favorite treasures from the trip.
When we arrived at La Vitrola. Jesus got out and told me that this was the jewel of Cartagena’s culinary world. He said that Crystal must be a very good woman to know about La Vitrola. I asked him how much I owed him and he said “Let’s settle at the end of the day. I’ll pick you up. What time?” I tried to pay again explaining it was a pleasure to meet him and I was very thankful for the time we spent together. He again said, "How about two o’clock?” I stopped trying to pay him and shook his hand and said, "Okay two o’clock. We can finish up and go back to the ship." And he left as I walked into La Vitrola.
I instantly knew that Crystal had picked a good one here - a family-owned restaurant in the heart of Cartagena’s old walled city. In the evenings they had a Cuban jazz band. The old upright base leaned in the corner behind the speakers next to the bongos and the keyboard. But for lunch, the food was the star. I had fish with a white wine reduction, served with rice and beans. The food was heavenly and the service was crisp, professional and polite. It was the most pleasant moment I’d had to myself on the entire two-week cruise. #FlatCrystal got a selfie in La Vitrola, though here the staff thought I was crazy. I went outside and across the street for a couple of quick watercolors. People from the tour buses again recognized me and waved.
Before I knew it it was two o’clock. I started paying attention to all of the little yellow three-cylinder cabs piping around. At 2:10, no Jesus. 2:15 no Jesus. I started thinking that maybe Jesus wasn't coming. Maybe he'd had enough of #FlatCrystal. I probably weirded him out with my openness and my enthusiastic fever for knowledge of his culture and his world. Just then, a tiny cab that I thought bore Jesus’s license plate on it stopped. The back door opened and I thought, "There’s Jesus!" and I hopped in. Just as I hit the back seat, I realized it was not Jesus, but it was another cabbie/tour guide. I immediately felt panic. He wasn’t Jesus, my kind and faithful guide. I explained to the driver that I’d made a mistake. I thought he was Jesus and his nephew, ’The Spaniard." The driver turns and stops the car and says “You artists. You artists.” I looked at him puzzled and then realized he was in the crowd at the monastery while I watercolored. I continued to say let me out, I was waiting for Jesus. This went on and on until he sternly said, “If you get out now, you pay me $20.” So back to the ship I went.
It was a silent trip. Spanish talk radio was played, which sounded a lot like American talk radio. There was no laughter, warmth or joy on this ride back to the ship. How different things were now that I had stood up Jesus. I ripped him off. I ripped off Jesus in Cartagena, Colombia. How could such a thing happen? I offered to pay him when he dropped me off at lunch. I really did. I trusted him when he said he would come back and get me. I did. I did believe him and I valued his intent to do so, but I lost him. I left too soon, I’m sure he showed up right after I got in that other cab. I’m sure he looked around for me. He probably went into the restaurant and asked if they had seen me. I'm certain they told him I was crazy and carried a goofy cartoon of a woman with me like she was my wife. He most likely went back in the cab with the Spaniard and drove around old town looking for me. I wasn’t there because I ripped them off. I swindled every bit of wisdom from Jesus, for what? What did Jesus get from me for all his sharing and all his storytelling? Nothing. I left Jesus in Cartagena with nothing more than a smile and some laughs. Later sucker. This bad hombre Americano is just like the rest of them: Mean, greedy and shallow.
I felt that way, even though I knew it was just an accident. In life, not all goes as planned. We prepare for things to happen, we schedule moments to occur. We organize our presented opportunities in hopes of unlocking some magical code that will release to us an experience of a lifetime. In this case, Jesus didn’t come. I could have waited longer, but I didn’t. I had to get back to the ship on time or risk it leaving without me.
Or maybe, just maybe his end of the story of meeting me went in another direction that I would have never suspected. What if he left me at lunch and he told his nephew, the Spaniard, "See kid. That’s a man being a good man. He was a real artist. He lived his life like an artist: Always exploring, always wondering, always willing to experience life to its fullest. He makes his moments with others special. He makes people happy for a living. He influenced all those people watching him create. He was a genuinely nice guy.” I'd like to think that he felt that way. It helps with the guilt I have over stiffing Him. Poor Jesus. Maybe he found a full car of people, got a full rate and couldn't get back to me. That would be a good outcome. Maybe he felt so good about the time we shared together that he felt like that was enough - a magical moment had. Or, he may be cursing my name in vane with a vengeful vow of retribution. Most people would and I wouldn't blame him. I left a tab open for what he said would be $30. I was going to pay $50. It turned out to be quite the adventure and something that would have never happened had I not taken the risk of getting out in the world. My time with Jesus turned out to be a priceless moment in a two-week adventure drawing crowds of smiles and connecting with people on a ship from San Diego through the Panama Canal. Wow, what a great time it all was. I’m ready for the next one. “Come on Jesus, let's go have fun.”
From Ty Walls:
After four decades drawing smiles I often encounter remarkable people. I've learned to create little special moments for people from all around the world with my simple smile-drawing skills. But sometimes, life creates little magical moments for me. This blog is my attempt to share them with you.