After some technical glitches, we made it to Cartagena Colombia on January 6. A friend told us last week that years ago the Colombian government had changed the celebration of Three Kings Day to the Monday following Three Kings Day, so the only parade we say was the long line of traffic that extended the four miles from the airport to our hotel, this being the big holiday weekend in Colombia, the city is hosting two music festivals, one of electronic music and the other classical. That and the fact that many Colombian familiest celebrate together in their vacation condos here, meant that the four mile trek from the airport took upwards of an hour.
Myra successfully negotiated a room change to a room that had a balcony-something we most definitely enjoyed. Especially Saturday night, while browsing through the picture postings of the snow accumulation in New York on our Facebook pages.. We did need to wait a bit until the room was ready, so we hung around by the pool. I tried to go down to the beach, but my inability to commit to the vendors who procur you shade for a fee caused an argument between three of them and I left, returned to the grassy areas maintained by the hotel and listened to Gabriel Garcia Marquez tell of Cartagena of a gentler time. I had the audio book of love in the Time of Cholera on my cell phone.
We returned to the traffic to go back into to town for dinner. Myra had reserved a table at 1621, a fusion restaurant of Colombian and French food. We got our first taste of the Old City. The Spanish built 11 km of walls around their premier port city in the 1600’s to keep out the English, and today they still stand protecting the visitors, inside, outside and on top of them.
We walked around the Old City for a half hour, looking at the artisanal crafts and other fare available in tourist magnets like the Old City. Many of the shops did have nice things, but we availed ourselves to none of it. We did have an extremely nice dinner. The service was top shelf luxury, the food delicious and they brought Myra a birthday cupcake of a sort and sang Feliz Cumpeanos. A most satisfying experience.
The ride home was also quite an experience. We got a good look at the city walls as we drove by much of it. Slowly. Very slowly. As the Swedish guest at our hotel described the city had much tourist trade and little structure. Our taxi driver at one point decided to back up down the highway lane, swing right, drive fifty yards more along the entrance ramp and return to the traffic. A one hour ride home covered four exciting miles.
Saturday January 7
We tried the beach experience. Friday we abandoned the beach for the hotel property after three different locals got into a fray about who had offered us the opportunity to pay some unspecified amount of money to rent beach chairs and some shade. We tried again. The price dropped from the equivalent of thirty dollars US to the equivalent of fifteen dollar by the time we finished negotiating. Myra wondered if it would have gone even lower had we spoken Colombian Spanish well. But, then we wouldn’t earn the amount of salary we earn in the US either. Probably the trade off worked real well in our favor.
We spent three hours on the beach, dipping in and out of the warm Caribbean waters, while watching hawkers, hawk just about everything. electronics for your cell phone, pails, shovels, blow up kiddie pools, and every food that could be ported around the beach including Carmen Miranda like fruit sellers with baskets of tropical fruit on their heads. A local young man stood behind my chair and tried to get my attention. He wanted a pair of broken styrofoam airplane model wings that were stuck inside the prongs of the beach umbrella. I returned them and he returned to a series of hawkers.
wWe showered and headed back into the Old City shortly before sunset. We strolled onto the street of sweets, Calle de Dulces where women dressed in colorful dresses sold every version of coconut candies. We found the Torre De Reloj or the clock tower in the Plaza del Coches. We strolled under an arch where the slaves had once been brought to auction in the city. The port was right outside. We saw a couple of models of old sailing ships and strolled around the outside of the walls around the Naval Museum. Crowds were gathering on the walls to watch the setting sun, but with waning sunlight we chose to re enter the city and continue through the plazas. In front of the Iglesia San Pedro we watched an orchestra set up. The classical music festival was in town as well as an electronic music festival. The orchestra must have been in some way part of it. We listened to small excerpt from the opera Carmen before moving on. We walked through the Plaza de Aduanas, the seat of the colonial government and then we stopped to watch the local dancers in the Parque Bolivar. They brought to mind the local dancers we watch often in Flushing Meadow park on summer weekends, the local and the global often overlapping in our lives. There are many Colombians who have made their homes in Queens and sometimes the food and the folk culture felt familiar.
We past the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a giant church festively lit, and Myra asked if we could enter. “No,” the policeman answered it was a matrimonial. Alas we were not invited to that wedding and we moved on. We wandered through the darkening streets, lit with electrified versions of what I suppose were supposed to be colonial lanterns. The already busy streets filled with even more tourists and coches or coaches, pulled by horses competed with taxis and strollers for space. We turned one corner and a mother struggled with a sobbing child, who wailed in Spanish that she wanted to ride a horse. Neither she nor we did that night.
Myra, ever vigilant in researching the best restaurants choose La Mulata from my guidebook. It was the opposite of 1621, small and spare except for the walls that were covered with pictures of famous people from Che to Marilyn Monroe to Mick Jagger. We again had very tasty dishes, fresh fish with local flavored sauce.
We had another exciting taxi ride home.
Sunday January 8
Alex, our first taxi driver, had offered on Friday to give us a tour of the city. We had not committed one way or the other, but when he picked up us again to bring us into the city of Saturday we decided it was meant to be.. I am pretty sure the doorman at the front of the hotel was not quite convinced that Alex’s English was good enough for us, nor was our Spanish good enough for Alex, but in the end the communication was just fine.
Alex told us how he used to be a policeman in southern Colombia but the job was not for him, how he lived with his two daughters and parents since the children’s mother had moved to Spain without them, how his brother worked security in the Emirates and how he would like to a job like that, but the new found peace in Colombia made many army personnel available to compete for those jobs. So he drove the taxi and looked for better opportunities.
I had read about the Bazurto market in one of the guide books and asked him if he would take us there. He was skeptical when I asked him Saturday evening but was willing to take us there Sunday morning with many warnings to not take out our cell phones or cameras. (the photos included, demonstrate that we were not exactly compliant). We drove through neighborhoods with a variety of Caribbean style houses in varying states of repair and disrepair. The market lined several streets and unlike the tourist shops of the Old City, the stuff for sale was strictly things locals could eat, cook or wear. Alex strolled us down a street of fish and fruit vendors. At one fruit stand we purchased two unknown fruits. Alex identified them as nisperos and zapote. Myra used the Google translator and defined them in English as meldar or loquat and sapodilla. We carried them back in a my daypack which made them kinds of squishy and sticky but very sweet and delicious nonetheless.
With our crazy request out of the way Alex was able to continue on his proposed tourist tour. As we looked over the harbor from the Bazurto market we noticed two cruise ships in port. The tourist sites were filled with tourists.
We drove through the barrio of Bolivar to La Popa. Alex, unfazed with American political correctness, explained the La Popa was founded in the 17th Century. Myra questioned how a hill could be founded especially since Alex noted that it had been a traditional place of worship for the native people before the coming of the Spanish.. But we settled on the guidebooks interpretation that it was the home of convent built in 1606, by Augustinian Monks and afforded beautiful views of the City along with a mule dressed in Colombian colors and a the usual assortment of souvenir hawkers.
We stopped at a plaza with a bronze statue of old boots that honors the poet Luis Carlos Lopez whose poem compares the city of Cartagena to old boots. The information board stated that the poem was on a plaque in front of the boots, but alas there was none to be found. We were told the park was being renovated. I wonder if poetry.com has a copy.
We did not wait in line to take our pictures ensconced in the boots.
We proceeded on to the Castilo de San Felipe a huge Spanish Fort, Today it flies the Colombian flag, but once it protected the city from attacks by the English and pirates who wanted to sack the city. We did not go in.
We drove through the neighborhoods of Manga, named for the Mango Groves that once grew their. We took a picture in Manga Park of a small Spanish Port.
Alex checked in with his mother as he drove through Manga and onto to Boca Grande. His younger daughter was ill causing Alex lots of stress. We drove down the main street of Boca Grande, and you could convinced me were on Collins Ave in Miami Beach, high rise residences and hotels interspersed with lots of high priced shopping. Our last stop was the neighborhood of Getsamani. Like the Old City, though outside the Muralles, the Old City, walls Getsamani is a colonial city of narrow streets and two storied buildings with ornate balconies, all painted in pastel colors. We ate lunch in another restaurant thanks to Myra’s research, Cocina de Pepina. A waiter, with perfect colloquial English offered us translated menus and again we had a wonderful lunch of soup with shrimps in flavorful broths. We ordered two different kinds of soup and the waiter brought two bowls for each of us, each with one kind of soup.
The ride back to the hotel might have been the most exciting in a series of exciting rides. Again the two, perhaps three laned highway whittled down to one lane as we left the city center. This time, however, a whole host of motorcycles, from little weeny scooter-like sized cycles to big ape hanger, Hell’s Angels Harley styled ones, weaved in and out of the heavily packed traffic. At one point, our driver, who agitatedly explained to his father on the cell phone why he would be late for some family event, gave up driving in the right lane and flew down the left lane, the one supposedly assigned to oncoming traffic. We survived. We sunned, slept and swam in the pool before Myra found yet another wonderful restaurant. With a little bit of research we discovered and then located the Restaurant Sara, right next door. There we were served beautifully prepared and presented, new style food, in a restaurant mostly devoid of other customers. It was delicious yet again and we noted that we had a surprising wonderful experience with Colombian food at very reasonable prices.
We ended our short vacation,but long enough to miss a snowstorm in New York on Monday. We strolled the beach in the morning, had the resort style buffet breakfast and got to chat with a young Colombian woman and her German boyfriend before packing up and hailing one last cab to the airport.The driver asked politely, so politely it took us a few tries to figure what he meant, how much we paid for our airline tickets.
Ay, he sighed, he would like to got to Tampa. Like so many of the Colombians we met, he longed to go to the US.
But fortune, had us born Americans, and we boarded our flight back to New York.