Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Conference in Cartagena

The moment I stepped off the plane at the Cartagena airport, I was encompassed by a strange, sweltering sensation. My body began to secrete driblets of moisture and even the air seemed to be contaminated by some kind of alien property.  

What was it?

Wait…could it really be…heat?

Indeed, it was.

With Bogotá’s utter absence of warmth, I had forgotten that climates such as this even existed.

I was in Cartagena—the pride of the Colombian Caribbean coast—for the WorldTeach Mid-service Conference. All of the volunteers from all over Colombia would be descending upon the coastal city and over the next two three days, discuss our progress thus far, exchange teaching ideas and simply catch up with one another—many of us had not seen each other since WorldTeach orientation back in January.

Super secret WorldTeach business
Since what actually went on during our meetings is highly classified information, I will tell you a little bit about my impressions of Cartagena.

First and foremost; I could not believe it was in the same country as Bogotá. Climate differences aside, Cartagena had an absolutely different feel than Colombia’s capital. It was, in a word, laid back. Whereas in Bogotá people seem to always be in a hurry to get somewhere, those here hung out on the streets, socializing and gossiping. With the overbearing and oppressive heat, who could blame them for just wanting to chill?

Secondly, the people themselves were distinct from those residing in Bogotá. During the Spanish colonization of Colombia, a large number of African slaves were brought to the coast; today, most costeños, as they are called, are Afro-Colombian; much different than Bogotá’s white and mestizo majority. Although I might pass for Colombian in Bogotá (if I sit down and don’t talk), here there was no fooling anyone about my gringocity.

Cartagena coast
Thirdly, the place was filled with gringos. Being Colombia’s main tourist city, there were a lot of non-Colombians walking around. Since the city is used to catering to gringo desires, for the first time since I arrived in Colombia, I was offered sex and drugs by some wretched-looking hookers on the street corner near our hostel.

Let's just say they called me a bad name when I said, “No, thank you.”

Although we didn’t have a lot of time to play tourist, one day I had the chance to walk along one of the old Spanish walls. Back in the day, Cartagena was the most important port for exporting plundered South American gold back to Spain. Naturally, it became an attractive target for English and French pirates and after renowned English explorer/pirate, Sir Francis Drake, sacked the city and made off with 107,000 Spanish Eight Reales (or $200 million in today’s U.S. dollars), the Spanish began an exhaustive effort to fortify the city against future attacks.

On the old Spanish walls
As I strolled over the old walls, I imagined what it would have been like to be there centuries earlier with pirates pounding with cannon balls the very place I walked. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the famous Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the Spanish colonial fort overlooking the city. Next time.

Overall, my trip to Cartagena was enjoyable albeit brief; I hope to return later this year to see more of the beautiful, historic city.

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