Just a few final pictures from Kaunas.
Just a few final pictures from Kaunas.
It is a short story. The Jews first came to the Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th century, they thrived. They lived their lives alongside their Lithuanian neighbors and then the Second World War came. Ninety percent of them were murdered. That’s it. If that’s enough- skip to the pictures.
Here is the very long story. I separate this piece from my regular travel journal because there is nothing regular about it. Still I fill the need to record it.
On the first full day in Vilnius, Myra and I walk up to the Town Hall Square. The breakfasts are so good, and the hotel so comfortable, that although it is only several blocks away it is almost ten when we reach there. There are two groups of tours forming, Free Vilnius by foot (maybe not so free-it is just about mandatory to tip 10 Euros at the end) and the Jewish Tour of Vilnius-the cost 10 Euros up front. We don’t even discuss it, we join the Jewish Tour.
Milde, our guide, explains she is a Christian Lithuanian but she is a religious studies major in the university and knows much about Jewish life in Lithuania. So we go through an arch, she explains is known as the Jewish Gate. For centuries the Jews lived in the two neighborhoods we visit, but it was always known as the Jewish Quarters. It wasn’t until the Nazi Occupation of Lithuania, that the Jews were restricted to living in these areas, and then they were labeled the Jewish Ghettos. We visit a statue of the Gaon of Vilnius, a revered religious leader who could read the Torah by age four and had it memorized by age seven. According to Milde he was responsible for codifying much of the question, response method of traditional Torah study. I make a mental note to ask friends or the rabbi if this information is in fact correct, but before I even get home a friend comments on Facebook about how Vilnius is the home of the great Talmudic scholar, the Gaon of Vilnius.
We stop at a playground in front of a school. Here is where othe Great Synagogue of Vilnius once was located. Nothing remains but a marker.
We stop in front of a one story building. Milde explains it is a registry of some sort. Many people from around the world, stop by and try to trace family members. Our knowledge of our history really begins with our grandparents (and one great parent emmigrating from other parts of the Jewish Pale, to the Lower East Side- but on the map Milde shows of us of the territory of the Litvaks- Jews from the area-includes names I recognize from Eric’s background).
We look at a statue of a happy doctor engaged in conversation with a pigtailed young girl. This is Dr, Shabad, our guide explains, a well known Jewish doctor who treated children as well as their pets. Some think Dr. Doolittle is based upon his story.
We spend the next hour, visiting a library where Jewish books were collected during the War years, looking at courtyards, a couple from California ask how many synagogues were located in the area. Milde replies, more than a hundred, all sorts of shuls for all sorts of groups. She points out a courtyard where once the Tailor’s Shul stood. We see all traces of Yiddish writing indicating where once Yiddish merchants engaged in all sorts of street level enterprises.
Milde brings us to the Choral Synagogue, a synagogue that is functioning today. Barbara, at the hotel had told us that a Chabad rabbi leads services there at times. Its ironic that community of the Gaon of Vilnius, who raged against the Chasidic movement of the 17th Century, is led by a Hasidic rabbi who does his best to nurture and grow the fragment of the remaining Jewish community.
At the end of the tour, we gather in yet another courtyard and Milde says it is difficult to discuss the role of the Lithuanians in the process of the extermination of the Jews. She tells us that many Lithuanians (though not all, -more about that later) assisted the the Nazis in rounding up the Jews, restricting them to the ghettos and bringing them to the forests where they were shot to death and buried. She spends a few minutes attempting explanations, like the Lithuanian non-Jews felt the Jews were Soviets and therefore the invaders. She added that it is human nature to want what your neighbor has, and you do not, and that explained why the Jewish possessions were so easily appropriated. Myra spoke up. “It is not human nature.”
I am disturbed to recall an incident in Riga. In the breakfast room of our hotel, I told the Jewish couple, eating breakfast next to us, that a New York Times writer had used the line , “First they came for…'” from the Holocaust poem, to title an opinion essay about Trump’s edict (or as it called -today-tweet) about banning transgender soldiers in the US military,. the husband responded that writers from the Times and the Washington Post like to put ideas in our heads.
“Name one US citizen that has lost his job since Trump became president.”
I should have said , Sally Yates, James Comey, Preet Bharara, but I don’t think fast, so I said, how about all the immigrants that have been rounded up.
“I said US citizen,” he replied.
My response was weak. What I should have said, was -all those non-documented Hispanics, Muslims, Asians (and I can put so many faces to each of those categories) are no less worthy of living decent, safe lives, than the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the War were. But I am so eloquent only in hindsight
I cannot understand what happened, but I no longer am unable to fathom why it did. .
In the afternoon, we hike up past the Frank Zappa memorial. Yes Frank Zappa, its a head on a pole, and you are supposed to be able to get a phone call from the statue explaining more about it, by scanning in a QR code. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, so I have nothing else to say about it. Our goal is the Holocaust Museum. It is a green, wooden, house-like structure, that reminds me of the buildings in the woods at our old summer camp. There, in a series of rooms, the low-tech exhibits retell the stories of the Jews in Lithuania beginning with the letter from Duke Gediminas, granting the Jews permission to settle in the area. The final exhibit is a map of Lithuania where lights indicate places all through the country, where Jews were shot and buried. The pre-war Jewish population was close to 70.000 and less than 3,000 Jews remained at the end of the War.
I had downloaded an app, Discover Jewish Vilnius, in New York. There are a series of dreidels all over the map and I click on any one as I walk around the city and more information appears on my cell phone. Clicking, sometimes produces old photos, a few videos, an audio blurb but always some text relating the spot to Jewish Life in Lithuania. On Monday night, when we first arrived, I attempted to figure out exactly how it worked. Near the Town Hall Square were two dreidels. One dreidel, indicated the location of the Jewish Theater. Through the war years, the theater performed to full houses, despite the objections of some to performing theater under the conditions of the ghetto. Yet the theater served the purpose of employing Jewish actors, therefore saving them from the label of “useless” which would have quickly been a death sentence, as well as ticket sales provided money used to buy supplies for the ghettos, Jews, Non-Jews and even Nazis purchased tickets.
The other site we located, was Zalkind’s Department Store. The store opened in 1872, was Jewish owned and the first large department store in Vilnius.
It took a while for me to figure out this geo-locating, cell phone thing, and Myra has a large preference for paper maps, so a lot of Monday night consisted of walking a few feet in one direction, deciding that the blue location dot on the screen was moving in the opposite direction and then making an about face and trying it all again. Then there was the matter of figuring out just how to access the information available. This took some effort and our technology learning curve is not our steepest.
All this to say, on Wednesday, when I decided I would like to find some of the sites on the map that were not part of Tuesday’s tour Myra was not enthusiastic about the plan.
We split up for the morning. I take my cell phone, and my umbrella and am off to the area outside of the old city in search of dreidel -notated sites and Myra is off in a different direction. Walking through the University I am directed to a plaque honoring Ona Simaite. She is one of the Non Jews that risked her life repeatedly to save Jews. A librarian who worked at the University, she repeatedly smuggled food and provisions into the ghetto and Jewish children out. She was arrested three times. Twice her colleagues were able to obtain her freedom, but the last time the best they could do was change her death sentence to imprisonment in Auschwitz. She was liberated there at the end of the war.
Vilnius, was such an important Jewish community, was sometimes referred to as Jerusalem of the North, that the next two sites are places where Moses Montefiore and Theodore Herzl visited and met with the Jewish community.
I find myself on Gedimo Place next, a large, lively Boulevard filled with non-tourists working and shopping. There I am directed to a lobby where I should have seen a depiction of a bear eating chocolate. Alas, I could not locate these chocolate loving bears. It was once a chocolate shop owned by Jews that provided chocolate for European Royalty. Next I pass the site of the Bristol Hotel, a series of silver colored half domed roofs, it was once the fanciest hotel in Lithuania, now a series of shops, offices and a theater. As the skies open and the rain pounds, I am directed to the music school where Jasha Heifetz studied. I pass a building that housed a collection of Jewish Writing. Through the magic of the app I learn that Vilnius was a major center of Yiddish Texts before the war. In 1925 YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute had a collection of more than 220,000 texts. During the Nazi occupation, “Herman Kruk (1897-1944), philologist and historian Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885–1944), poets* Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) and Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908-1954), and few dozens others were tasked with deciding which books could be preserved by the Nazis for the their “institute of Study for the Jewish Question,” and which were to be destroyed.” (Discover Jewish-Vilnius)
I am directed to the Vilnius Rabbinical Academy. ” These seminaries were founded as an outcome of the 1844 tsarist edict, which tried to combat the influence of traditional Jewish education and promote acculturation” (the Jewish-Vilnius website) This is the exact opposite philosophy of the Gaon of Vilnius and the great Talmud Yeshivas.
On to Wielka Pohulanka, a section of the New Town where many of Vilnius’s wealthy Jews lived before the War. As the Jews in the early part of the 20 century gained status and wealth some moved from the Jewish Quarters to the wealthier suburbs.
A clock on the street makes me realize time is up and it’s time to meet Myra. I switch off the Discover Jewish Vilnius App and pull Google Maps. I follow the blue dot back to the hotel Artogonist.
After lunch, Myra and I decide we have had as much Holocaust as we have koyach (that is the best transliteration of the Yiddish version of the word, strength, my mother would have used in this situation). But a little bit of pizza and now we are restored and off to find the Museum of Tolerance.
The director sends us up to the top floor where we are treated to art exhibition of Jewish Artists with Lithuanian backgrounds. Jacques Lipschitz is the one I record and therefore recall.
And then down to the second floor to have our kishkes ripped out again. (I channel my mother’s Yiddish again, kishkes mean intestines literally, but used to mean heart wrenching or extremely emotionally difficult. It was often used to respond to something bad we did, as in you not coming home on time rips my kishkes out.)
While on the topic of my mother, I digress, (as in avoid the next part) for a moment, by describing a photo album of her childhood. Although her family was very poor, we have a collection of black and white photos of her and two sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s. The pages are full of plump girls dressed in the day’s fashion, as best as could be afforded, romping and smiling through the streets of NYC’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Because their parents left Europe at the turn of the 20 century they had the privilege of growing up.
The children who did not get to grow old.
On the second floor of the museum, the walls are filled with photos of children, from the same era, who lacked that privilege. Unlike my grandparents, who worked menial labor jobs and barely got by, these children were often children of doctors, lawyers, engineers and musicians.
And yet the good life came to a crashing end. On the floor along with the pictures were stories of children who survived. And here, it is important to tell the story of the Righteous Among Nations, the non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jewish children.
Some of these heroes did it because they felt the religious obligation to do so, nuns and priests hid children in churches, some did so because of relationships they had with Jewish families and some, when asked why they would risk everything just to save Jews, responded with, “because they are people.”
On the last day of my trip, because the Vilnius airport is closed we go to Kaunas. We find the still functioning Choral Synagogues as a group of black- hatted Brooklyn young men are leaving. ( Yeshiva bocha the yarmulke-wearing ,Lithuanian tells us) We shtup the donation box and he tells us zai gezundt– go in health. (My old Yiddish is getting a workout today.)
At one time Kaunas was the interim capital of Lithuania, and therefore the place where the foreign diplomats were stationed.
As the hours of my excursion into Lithuania wane, Myra and I head away from Kaunas’s Old City tourist center through the New City up some streets to the old suburbs. There among the once elegant homes (some are still quite impressive, some have fallen into disrepair) is the one time home of Chiune Sugihara. It is currently under reconstruction and all that could be seen that indicates what it was, is Japanese lettering on the door posts. Once many years ago, a member of our Temple’s Sisterhood told the story of how her family escaped Europe as the Nazis advanced. They were issued a Japanese visa and were able to leave overland through Siberia, eventually spending the war years in Shanghai.
Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania and his wife spent three weeks staying up twenty hours a day, signing visas for Jewish Refugees. Japan was aligned with the Nazis and he was ordered not to do so. Nonetheless he continued to issue the visas and is responsible for saving as many as 2,000 Jewish lives. He was stripped of his diplomatic post upon returning to Japan.
And so ends a difficult but beautiful trip to Lithuania. We watch CNN on the hotel’s tv and hear how Trump wants to cut immigration to the USA by half and limit it to well educated English speakers. That, while images of the destroyed cities of Aleppo and Mosul appear in the following segments.
It is all painful.
firstname.lastname@example.org (our guide for the Jewish Vilnius tour)
We met Barbara at the hotel breakfast. She is here for two weeks to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Institute. She, like me is a retired bilingual teacher. But though for both of us, or parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish, it Spanish that gave us the bilingual license. Barbara tells me, she has fallen in love with Vilnius. And it is to see why.
We were out of the hotel, and in the car with Linda, our guide, by 10 o’clock. Off for a day’s excursion in the Latvian countryside. Our destination was Gauja National Park, an area the locals like to call Little Switzerland. No snow capped mountains to be seen anywhere, but instead we drove up and down pine-covered mini-mountains, with the curving Guaja river sparkling below. Interspered between are stops were ski-lifts, some still operating for summer recreation, so I guess I get the analogy.
Linda took us to a number of stops, mountain-river valley views, a Lutheran Church in the midst of a Sunday service, but we shared the balcony with the working organist to look at some really elaborate mosaics created with button not tiles. Linda couln’t remember the word in English, so she grabbed one on my shirt, hard at first to realize that he art media was in fact buttons
At the next stop we didn’t see the Botantical Gardens because they were under construction, But we did see a sculpture of “an army” armed with all manner of kitchen equipment. “Just like Beauty and the Beast,” an American soldier we ran into, noted. Myra chatted with the group of young men speaking American English. They were a group of soldiers stationed in Alaska and traveling together. What was immediately noticeable to me was the diversity, Black, White, Asian and Hispanic. One young man wore a Dodger’s Cap and assured me this was there year to win the series. “not too common to see people who are not white in Lativia” Linda told me.
We visited a cave, “not such a big cave,” Linda told us, “but the biggest one in Latvia.” Linda told us the sad story related to the cave. It involves three castles, true love between royalty and a common gardener, and someone getting her head cut off in the end. Just the stuff myths are made of.
Then on to the castle complex, which included Turaida Castle, and a hightower with a round stair case and a lot of steps. At the top was someone wearing a Red Sox cap and views of the surrounding area. (not to worry- the Yankees Cap showed up a bit later at the cafeteria. Ilga, our local guide, showed us the small but informative Museum of the Liv, the indigenous people who are related to the Sami, the people we were taught in school who were called Laplanders. There were Arabic coins in the exhibits of artifacts dug up locally. The area must have been partt of the Silk trade route.
Also part of complex is the Dania Hill Song Garden, Ilga told us of a man (whose name disappears from my memory) who collected thousands of Latvian Folksongs, the sculptures that dot the well manicured lawns, are symbolic of the characters and legends from these songs. Friday, in the Jews of Latvia Museum, I read and listened to the collection of Jewish Folksongs also lovingly collected and catergorized. if and how these collections intersected, I would not begin to know.
We had a cafeteria-food lunch in a cafeteria attached to one of the many Tarzan parks, parks that have a series of climbing, jumping and tumbling equipment that Myra believed challenged the limits of US insurance practice.
I wandered into the Bourse Art Museum, back in the Old City. The exhibits were pleasant enough, the most interesting exhibit were a series of painting done in Tibet and Nepal. Spirutality was definitely a main theme.
Myra experimented with following the blow dot on Google Maps, and is a tiny bit more time, than the stated nine minutes we were able to find the only remaining synagogue in Latvia on Peitavas Street. The synagogue was not burned during World War II because it’s location in the Old Town risked setting on fire too many other buildings, but it was used for various othe non- religious activities and bombed by neo-nazis in the 1990’s. It has since beenfully restored and is a functioning synagogue.
Randon Note: I wasn’t much of a youthful wander, it took far more years to get over my general anxiety of everything, but even in my earlier travel times, I journaled my trips- just in little notebooks, handwritten with an occasional sketch.
I would take out those notebooks on trips between destinations and write away for the majority of hours long journeys. This journaling process has evolved from old PDA’s, notebook laptops, Ipads to a small portable keyboard that I connect with bluetooth keyboard to my cell phone. This post still took the better part of a four hour journey, but my hand doesn’t hurt.
I do miss the hand sketches though.
The cell phone camera is just too convenient.
This is what a beach town needs: sun (optional-but very preferable) sand, water, a street with lots of shops to buy everything you don’t need, and few things you do- like sunscreen, and ice cream.
Jugmala is a beach town. It has all of the above.
We took a taxi to Jugmala. It cost about $30 and let us off in the center of town. We walked through the street of shops up to a park with a watchtower. Which I climbed and took pictures from but it mostly looks like a bunch of treetops and me. I am not the best selfie taker.
Then we sat on the beach, splashed in the water, had a version of borsch that tasted like Greek Tsaki and returned to town to repeat the process.
I wandered around town just a bit, and the beach homes are combination of brightly colored wooden structures and modern stacked apartments.
We did take the mini-bus back. It cost 1.65 Euros or somewhere less than $2.00. I did have to stand a bit, but something I am quite used to from the Q65.
We had a nice dinner at Neiburgs a combination of Litvian specialities, fish and duck liver and all manner of pureed vegetables.
Not much to write today. Beach days are for relaxing.
I woke up early, having reached the limit of my ability to proceed on a night’s worth of airplane sleep by 9:30 pm, Gone are the days that the best current events one could hope for was the International Herald Tribune at the hotel room’s door, a little cell phone, a little wifi and the New York Times was in my hands.
Off we went to take a look at Riga beyond the canal that separates the Older part from the newer. Unlike many cities with old and new quarters, the continuation of ornately built and decorated structures make the transition much less of an instant time travel from one century to another.
Gone are the days of Yellow Pages Directories in the drawer of hotel’s night table as well. Myra needed her glasses fixed and we (well I did) followed the blue dot on Google Maps to the Vision Center. Myra much prefers the street map and good old fashioned, “if the train tracks are here and the canal is there we must be…..” navigation. We found Vision Center, explained in careful English and obvious gestures that the glasses were in need of repair, and proceeded on.
Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, in English is the name for a style of ornately designed and decorated Apartment Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century. The apartment complexes in Ridgewood New York show that at least some of the style made it to New York City, but nothing illustrates the ultimate realization of the style like the Alberta Street and surrounding neighborhoods. The architect, Mihails Eizensteins, designed hundreds of these structures that are concentrated around Alberta Street, but liberally sprinkled throughout the city. I am posting only a very few examples.
We spent an hour wandering through the Art Nouveau Museum. The architect Peksen, made his home on the first floor, and the museum is the restored representation of his living quarters. The apartment museum has many interactive exhibits including a program that allows you design your own building as well as have your picture taken in a period appropriate floppy hat. I checked myself in the full length mirror in a salon, and a pretty lady clad in 1902 clothing preened back. I’m pretty sure it was a computer animation, far too skinny to be me.
After a coffee stop we were off to the Jews of Latvia Museum. It is hard to write about the time there. The museum, which is located on the third floor of a building that houses services for the Jewish Community. Although Myra and I noticed some animated children dressed in Hasidic clothing earlier in the day (they were probably children from the local Chabad family) the Jewish Community once thriving, was just about annihilated from Latvia, during the Second World War. The relatively small museum carefully and thoroughly documents first its pervasive existence and then its destruction. We were given palm-sized MP3 player which explained in detail, exhibitions of both. Its hard to write about and even harder to portray the impact of the experience.
I found the local shopping mall, completely familiar, where I purchased some electrical adapters. Our way to dinner was punctuated by loud engine noises. A series of racecars, reminiscent of the old Raceway Motor Park vintage, lined up and farted around the peripheral streets, never actually racing. We did what everyone else did, took some pictures and moved on.
Dinner was at AlaFolkClub, which looked and sounded exactly like an underground folk music club in Greenwich Village. That is -exactly what I imagined an underground club in Greenwhich would look like. Even by the time I reached adulthood, property in Manhattan was worth way too much to house anything quite that Bohemian.
The sun sets late in the Northern latitudes and we strolled back to the hotel through an Old City capped by pink tinged sky.
Some trips you plan for a lifetime. The trip to Italy, reflected decades of thought, =some trips you plan for a week. Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania fall into the second category. Myra and I talked about if and how I would join her on a section of her travels through Eastern Europe but nothing really coalesced until a week ago, when I schlepped over my battered laptop and through a series of attempts figured out the Vilnius airport was closed for the summer, but the trip could in fact be arranged with a little flexible planning and some cursing at Kayak. (okay not their fault that the airport was closed but frustrating when my Riga out Vilnius in- sequence insisted on telling me no flights available).
After a flight the that consisted of a very quick sprint through the Helsinki airport, a forty minute layover did not seem to be sufficient but proved to be just enough time if I ran my 62 year old body down the terminal. It didn’t help that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of passport control, that ended with a border agent asking me why I was still there and my only response was I didn’t want to be, then and only then did he show me where the exit was). Needless to say the luggage didn’t make it to the next plane.
We rode in pouring rain from the airport to the hotel, past the the Freedom Monument. We are staying in the Hotel Gutenberg, and the room keys are attached to brass colored mini Bibles. It took me a few hours for my sleep deprived brain to get it, but hey I didn’t teach global history all semester without picking up some useful nuggets.
Another European city, another afternoon spent strolling the Old City. I would add another Free Walking tour of the old city which would include a small token of our appreciation at the end, but okay, I admit it, I got lost. I stop to take a picture and they were gone, including Myra, and I couldn’t find them.
So I will write what I learned in the first part. Latvia has been a trading port since at least the 13C when a bishop had a monastery built. Since then it has been part of Sweden, controlled by the German Hanseatic League and more than once ruled by Russia and the Soviet Union. About 700,000 people live in Latvia. Andres, our guide, pointed out that might seem like nothing to those of us from NYC or Montreal, but it is one third of the population of the Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States.. Andres pointed out how almost all the buildings, churches included, had a pulley system at the top of the building since as an active trade port, every available space was used as storage.
It was shortly after the second church, that I misplaced myself. Without actually having cell service, I found the nearest coffee shop and messaged Myra, but alas, she was not in cell service. So after having a nice American Coffee, or the closest thing to it, I wondered around until I was in front of the World Jazz Festival.
I studied the promo postcard back at the hotel, and I am still not sure the name of the band I watched, but they were wonderful. That’s the thing about travel, I can be standing in a city built hundreds of years ago surrounded by languages I can’t get even begin to identify and the lead singer, takes the mike and belts out Summertime. Here under the Nordic Sun, so much less intense than the Southern US, the living, (at least for me) was easy.
I continued to watch the band as they worked through a series of very familiar music including Superstitious, and Billy Jean until the set ended and I went back to find Myra
The short version- we reunited- and I wasn’t even in too much trouble.
We collected our Gutenberg Bible room key one more time, and had a wonderful dinner at the restaurant on top of the hotel. Apparently the fish were jumping, since I had a delicious piece of surgeon surrounded but the steeples of the Old City.
PS The luggage was in our room when we returned from dinner.
Oh summer! A reconstructed mansion from the early 1800’s, a picnic on a grassy hill overlooking the Hudson ( WestPoint Military Academy across the river provides intermittement booms,”oh the cadets are firing something,” the guide tells us, and of course Shakespeare under a tent.
The troupe of actors romped in the tent, around the tent, gamboled through the pouring rain, and generally provided a highly entertaining version of Twelth Night.
Yes I can produce a downpour at any outdoor Shakespeare performance I attend.
Boscobel, a relocated 1810 mansion – at sunset.
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.