Intrepid Den: Colombia's finest city – Cartagena

Here’s the next dairy entry from Intrepid Den…Columbia’s Cartagena.

Old Sir Frances Drake plundered this city so often to pillage the gold already pillaged by the Spanish, that they had to build huge fortifications that took a couple of centuries, but which still remain and which make this city, apparently, so beautiful.

I arrived early afternoon, having flown over mountains from Bogota to what then emptied into a flat plane with brown rivers rich with silt flowing towards the sea. Mexico’s terrain was barren, inhospitable and inaccessible, but Columbia is green and florid. At the airport to meet me were my new airbnb hosts Alexander and his dad Isaac – a tour guide for the city. They wheeled my bag to the main road, flagged down a cab and took me to their “Big house in Cartegena” which is on the outskirts of town in a newish hand built neighbourhood and they showed me my room. This is probably the master bedroom vacated for my stay. It was boiling hot even with a ceiling fan so they brought another free standing one in. It’s basic, but it has a huge double bed, an open lattice brickwork window, (which looks out onto a wall 30cm away), a big mirror, a rack to hang my clothes and within minutes, a little table and chair for me and my laptop. They showed me, proudly, around the house – no it’s not like my house, but this is Colombia and NOTHING is the same. It has a kitchen with a massive rumbling fridge and a little bathroom – what more could I want?. Isaac took me out onto the verandah, sat me in a rocking chair and showed me several “tours” that he could organise for me but all I really wanted to do was relax. They offered lunch which for some reason I declined and instead Alexander nipped me round the corner on his motorbike to, yes, a chicken joint. I finally bought myself a Spanish English dictionary and feeling invincible and no longer having to mime being a chicken – arms flapping and clucking, I somehow ended up with a plate of rice and chips! Oh well, so much for that.

I’m a long way from town, but, apparently, I can raise one finger and flag down a “collectivo” taxi, cram myself in and get in to town for 50p. Even so, I’m staying in the equivalent of Hounslow or some such backwater. Never mind; a nap and coffee (my little stove top is just SO useful), I asked where I could buy a beer. Alexander seemed alarmed that I would walk there on my own – this is a street away, and off I went. There are people everywhere, sitting on their porches and verandas, music playing, men with donkey carts wandering by and boys on bicycles selling that weird rice milk drink of Oaxaca. One man, black as jet, pushing a wheelbarrow saw me coming and I must have looked as weird to him as he did to me and he just said “Wow!” We smiled and I walked on, to the shop. The only thing I know in Spanish, apart form “I love you very much”, (it might come in handy…) is dos cervezas por favor and for the first time since I’ve been here, I got the chance to say it! Obviously, mistaking me for someone who could actually speak Spanish, he said something back to me and as if my magic (there’s that old Marquez seeping into everything), Alexander was by my side, saying that what I wanted, was Colombian beer – of course I did! And all for 75p for two! Things were looking up. So he whisked me back on his motorbike, hair blowing in the wind with no helmets but not before he took me past his grand parents house and then his uncle’s, tooting his horn and everyone waving. I, apparently, am like some exotic creature flown south for the winter (which is, of course, exactly what I am) never seen before in this locale…

So, back out on our verandah, in rocking chairs, I drank my beer and smoked, whilst Alexander blasted salsa music out from his enormous hi fi ( featured in the airbnb photos) and he danced. Then his mum, Esther, came out and joined us. She is a great bubbly woman, proud mother of four sons AND she speaks English – not much, but more that I do Spanish. And so we got talking and it turns out that she loves to dance too – dancing is one of my absolute passions and I haven’t done any since arriving on this great continent. I asked her where she goes to dance and she said the “disco in town” so I said, “why don’t we go?” And she was thrilled! Suddenly, staying in the boondocks has it’s merits – I can dance with the locals, eat with the locals, talk with the locals and then her son, Andy arrived and events took yet another turn. He is a water sports instructor on the beach and he said anytime I wanted to go, just let him know!

And so now I have a plan, whereas before, I was just cursing myself for not paying the money to stay in town with other “travellers”, I am happy that I made the choice to be more independent. Tomorrow, I will walk to the end of the road, raise a finger and take a collectivo into town and walk the streets and take in the sights, Saturday we are all going to the disco and Sunday, we are all going to the beach! Once again, I feel as if I am having an adventure rather than a holiday.

Day 2

Fried plantain and sausages for breakfast – the beginning of a food fiesta day although an unplanned one. I didn’t have to flag down a collectivo after all. Esther, all made up and looking gorgeous, was going to give someone a massage – that’s what she does, so I shared a taxi with her. The road follows the Caribbean sea on a highway and then, it
turns left, through the old city walls and suddenly I was in Wonderland. Such a difference from the drabness of Bogota.

It’s hot, it’s beautiful and it is full of colour and the sweet scent of bougainvillea, with salsa music carrying on the breeze. This city is 500 years old and rumoured to be the most beautiful in South America – and I can believe it. It is filled with narrow cobbled streets, balconies overhanging and the walls painted such vibrant colours that the sun has a hard job to match their brilliance. Then there are little squares everywhere, some with fountains but all with shade and today, the city was packed. There are a lot of tourists – some rich, some not and the shops and restaurants reflect that. There are ultra expensive boutiques, jewelers selling emeralds and gold in all forms of elaborate design and even an entire road full of material and haberdashery. I couldn’t resist taking a look and the fabric is just magnificent! If I had room, I would have bought a couple of metres. I would also have bought the two pairs of sandals but stopped myself – I will after all, be coming back this way.

So what does Intrepid Den look like?
So what do the people look like? Mostly, they are Afro Caribbean, with smooth, shiny milk coffee coloured skin. They are a good looking nation, mostly slim, but with the usual tubs of flab and enormous bums and once again, no one smokes and apart from beer, no one seems to drink. And then there are the ones who are laden with a European sophistication – they could all be countesses and counts and they carry with them a casual, yet confident elegance – designer sunglasses and bags to match – and that’s just the men! The streets are spotlessly clean although, as usual, there is a traffic problem but with the sea breeze, the fumes don’t linger. Every other Friday, certain cars and bikes are banned ((common in many cities) and today was that Friday.

I had no plan other than to walk every inch of the old city and have lunch – it’s the most important meal of the day and so once again, I wondered around looking, but now, with my new dictionary, I at least had a chance of ordering something that I wanted. I found a little covered passageway which led to a pretty shaded courtyard with tables and overhead fans whirring like helicopter blades. It had a set lunch menu and so I sat down, and for once, ordered with confidence… First came the chicken soup and then along came the minced beef, chilli beans, rice and vegetables – I couldn’t believe that I got what I expected!
And then back out to explore. I was confronted by local man who introduced himself as Edwin McCarthy – his grandfather he told me, was Scottish. He said he would teach me to dance salsa – I said that all I wanted right that minute was coffee. No problem, he said and walked me to the most expensive coffee shop in town and said that he would like coffee too. I’m not gullible, I’m not gullible at all and asked why he had chosen the most expensive coffee bar and that I wasn’t paying. We left in a hurry but he was still persistent – guiding me along with his arm around my waist. Once again, I felt uncomfortable and told him so. He seemed shocked that anyone would rebuff his advances, gave me a slobbery kiss on the cheek and abandoned me – thank god!

And so I started walking again, this time in search of a bank. My trusty Rough Guide listed two but a helpful girl from Nicaragua took me to a supermarket which had an ATM. I put my card in once, I put my card in twice and NOTHING except a message to contact my bank. Disaster! Did this mean that I had no access to money – ever? I needed coffee and to sit in the shade and think. I walked to the new (ugly) commercial complex, found a man selling coffee from flasks – tiny, hot and sweet and all for about 5p! It is so hard to understand the pricing ofanything in this continent. Finally, caffeined up, I found a bank and voila! Out coughed the money, so what was all that about? Back in business, I bought a much longed for plain salad (which cost more than lunch) but so what? And then, obviously delirious, I bought the other thing that I’ve been craving – chocolate, in the form of ice cream and it was sensational! For countries that have cocoa coming out of their ears, it is SO hard to buy any decent chocolate!

By this time, I’d walked just about every inch of the this wonderful vibrant city. Certain parts of it, clearly lost (yet again) I’d walked several times, but what impressed me most is that the buildings have been here for so long – five or six centuries. There is such a majesty to it and it’s hardly changed at all. It is still the same and as tourism booms, the buildings are being restored and the city built for the Conquistadors and immortalised by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is as vivid today as it would have been then. There are still horses and carriages clip clopping over the cobbles ferrying tourists around as they would once have carried the elite and in amongst it’s splendour, there are still the myriad of street stalls selling everything from fruit to drinks to jewelery to hats to pastries to bags and to emeralds – what a city! And it exudes vivacity. It is like one big fiesta all day long.

As the sun began to fall into the sea, I was about to make my way home when I was bamboozled by dozens of English Language students, desperate to try out their English and was it OK to ask me some questions – of course i
t was. What is your name, what is your telephone number (?), what is your job, do you have children, what is your address and their enthusiasm was infectious. We all took photos and they were just so happy!

By this time, I was at the formidable wall of the old city. The new city, with all its skyscrapers straggles south along the coast but I have no idea what that is like and I have barely any curiosity about it. For me, the old city of Catagena is what I thought Columbia would look like and it is exactly what it does look like – a vibrant, happy, colourful, sweet smelling, sweet sounding melange of everything Caribbean but with a solid architectural design to compete with, and outstrip, many, if not all, European cities. Cartagena was built to symbolise the sheer sovereignty of the Spanish empire, and that is exactly what it did. And today, it lives on – a symbol in its own right to a great nation of people. I love Cartagena!

But the night didn’t stop there. We, once again, gathered on the verandah in the rocking chairs. I drank my wine, they drank beer and whiskey, salsa music rocked the house and we danced as a practice run for tomorrow and once again, I felt at home with friends, not strangers.

In the morning, in an empty house, I was at peace – sometimes you just need your own space. I decided on a day of laundry. Esther, who appeared from nowhere, offered her twin tub washing machine but having no idea how it works, I declined and washed nearly everything I have with me in the sink, chatting all the while like a couple of washer women – she is such fun and her sons and husband adore her and I can see why. Next on the agenda was to book my bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta – that’s when Alexander introduced me to Google translate – what a revelation!

And so to the evening of dancing. Esther had been working all day so we, Alexander, Isaac and myself, sat on the verandah drinking beer as the street blossomed with kids playing, grown ups sitting around talking and eating ice creams and music blaring – a different variety from every house including ours – the bass speaker working so hard the floor throbbed. I mentioned that years ago, we used to have parties at our house every night and Isaac asked what the neighbours thought about that…. So, finally, Esther was ready – all dolled up and ready to party and off we went in the taxi but not before I got to say one of the other few Spanish words I know – Guappa (I think that means good looking woman – Esther seemed to take it as a compliment).

We rolled into town, through the city walls by the clock tower and the whole place was heaving! In the entrance stood a slim tall attractive girl with an enormous backside – was it padded? And, shock horror, was she a prostitute? Isaac just shrugged when I asked as if to say “of course”. She wasn’t the first one I saw that night. The square was full of people, tourists in casual wear, Rich Colombians decked in their finery – it’s so weird to see people with such sophistication amongst such a raggle taggle bunch of people, but they just breeze through, or glide past in the little horse drawn carriages, showing off their splendour for all to see and maybe envy.

Fidel’s was where we were headed – a tiny bar on two floors, shuddering under the thundering of salsa music. The music is by video on enormous screens, showing the most famous salsa bands of the country and beyond, and the funniest thing, is that all the singers and musicians are all over 40 or 50 – maybe like Flamenco for women and Tango for men, salsa is something you are not respected for doing until you are of a certain age.

First of all, we got a table in the square and ordered our 4,000 peso beers (£1 each) which to them, is expensive. We watched a mime artist lampooning people’s walks, swapping hats with them and generally drawing attention to their ideosyncracies. Everyone laughed even the victims. I thought, if this was England, he’d probably get a punch in the face. But it isn’t England, it’s Colombia and people just want to have fun! All the time! Finally, we got a table inside, up the wonky rickety stairs in the brightly lit little room with its very own dance floor. Couples showed their steps and with no hesitation, Esther was on the dance floor salsaing as if she was born to it. People clapped and danced with her and she loved it! Alexander, her adoring son, whisked her around and the two of them made such a great team. Obviously, I was itching to get up there too but despite doing zumba for 2 years, I don’t actually know the steps. What I needed was a partner and that partner was Alexander. Next thing, we were dancing as if WE were born to it! He span me here, he span me there, he span me everywhere. I was delighted and so it seemed, was everyone else – the novice does good. At one point I went out to smoke and someone approached me and told me his friend wanted to kiss me – obviously he’d noticed my fancy footwork and this was surely a compliment except that his friend was absolutely plastered and not capable of noticing anything. I declined.

Finally, after about five hours, the place shut, but not before the legendary Fidel was spotted and I have the photo to prove it – he looked a bit jaded – I imagine it’s tough being the king of Salsa in the country of Salsa. Esther, however, wasn’t ready to go home yet. She spotted a sort of Mariachi band, whipped out her
purse (she’s the one who carries the money) and paid them to play us two more songs and so there we were, dancing yet again, in the middle of the square, her effervescence charging the air. I’m not sure if I’ve met anyone with such a love of life! She was still dancing when we crammed into the taxi and then she sang all the way home. What a woman!
And so we arrived home about 3am and we all fell into our beds – just as the party started next door. Now I know what my neighbours used to think and ear plugs or no, when your bed is moving with the beat, there’s not much you can do…

And so to my last day. Everyone was too tired to do anything and the beach plan faded like colour left too long in the sun. It seemed like an anti climax and in a bid to do anything, I walked to the shop with Jeffrey (the third son – the oldest lives in Bogota) and his girlfriend. Jeffrey is a welder and one of the sweetest men I have ever met. The only thing I wanted was a small bottle of rum. What they wanted was an entire shopping list – olive oil tied up in little bags, eggs tied up in little bags, rice tied up in little bags – you get the idea. He bought me a beer while we waited – this is not a supermarket but an old fashioned grocers with personal service behind the counter. And then finally, he bought 30 bottles of beer. I couldn’t imagine why on earth he would do that and then it was revealed – they were throwing me a leaving party! I just cannot get over their generosity, their warmth and their sheer love of life. I even dressed for the occasion and suddenly, I was a guapa too.

Jeffrey and Alexander’s girlfriends prepared the kebabs (sausages and some sort of cheese textured corn – how is that possible and even though I shouldn’t eat it, I simply didn’t care), whilst Esther cooked up a mountain of chicken. Jeffrey kept the beers coming and Alexander pumped up the sounds. Isaac said that someone had died and the music shouldn’t be too loud – I’m never sure if he is a bit of a kill joy when he’s not the centre of attention, but once he sat down to translate for us all, the music crept up a few decibels and he didn’t seem to mind or notice. The barbeque was lit and people just dropped by. There was one young girl about 6 months pregnant, slim as a stick from the back but with a huge great baby belly. There were Esther’s sisters and their families dropping in and out and half a dozen children including twins. I was having such a good time, I even played with the kids! And then the dancing began. I was made to show off my steps – I’m a show off, I don’t mind and when I snuck in a song of my own – George Ezra, “Leaving it up to you”, the place erupted and we all spiralled like whirling dervishes. And the greatest thing is that you can do whatever you want and they really don’t care, they just want to have fun and not only that, they wanted me to have fun and that is exactly what we had, What a family. What a city. What a country!

In the morning, I packed and tidied my room, or should say Esther and Isaac’s room, the minibus came to collect me, as planned (even though I doubted it) and with one last hug, I was gone but maybe with a plan to return for one last night before I fly out to Costa Rica… Nos veremos Cartagena..

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