Friday, October 21, 2011

La Costa Chronicles Part 2: Kickin’ it in Cartagena

The sun about to set near Cartagena.
Standing on the old Spanish wall watching the sun set over the tranquil Caribbean waters, I sensed a pervasive romantic feeling in the air—one that seemed to penetrate the skin and simultaneously fill one’s being with both hope and despair—like looking upon the girl of your dreams and knowing you could never have her.

In Cartagena—within the old city, at least—an unshakeable sense of history transports you to another time; when the city was the main Spanish port for exporting plundered South American gold back to Spain; when the warning bells would sound, signaling an impending English attack. But you are also reminded of the city’s darker side—when it served as the South American hub for importing African slaves. Nevertheless, Cartagena—like a beautiful girl with a complicated past—draws you in without letting go, a siren that, if you aren’t careful, can consume your very soul.

When the sun finally vanished over the horizon, I headed back to the hostel to await my friend’s arrival.

The Old City.
The day after I picked up my friend and former college roommate, Derek, from the airport, we headed into the old city’s narrow streets to find something to eat. Despite the relatively early hour, the city was already bustling with tourists and street vendors setting up their wares. Pushy people waiting outside restaurants accosted us in broken English in hopes of convincing us to eat at their establishment.

Passing a bar, one guy said in decent English, “Come to party here tonight brother. We have lots of pretty girls for you.”

Without stopping, I threw him a “No, gracias. Estoy bien.” (the most useful Spanish phrase a gringo can know in Cartagena)

After breakfast, we headed back to the hostel to pick up my friend, Jessica, and set off for the day’s main activity—touring Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.

Derek and I in front of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas sits on the hill of San Lázaro overlooking Cartagena’s Old City. Built in 1536 to defend the city against pirate attacks, it was one of the most impregnable defensive military structures the Spanish ever built in the Americas. Walking up the steep incline to the cannon-studded parapets, I could clearly see why.

My inner history geek rejoiced as we descended into the fort’s dark tunnels—old soldiers’ quarters and what must have been a jail for prisoners of war. Closing my eyes, I imagined what it would be like to be in this very spot hundreds of years earlier, the fort shaking under the relentless bombardment of English cannons.

Exiting the tunnels and ascending to the cannon-fortified walls, I decided that I’d rather be the one defending the fort than someone trying to attack it—I couldn’t imagine the attackers faring well against such a strategically-superior structure.

Beware the elderly Canadian armies!
Although the English may have failed to take the fort centuries earlier, today a camera-wielding horde of English-speaking white people had succeeded in storming the position after paying a meager $16,000 pesos at the ticket kiosk. Well-dressed and looking way to well-off to be backpackers, these older gringos could have only originated from one place—cruise ships.

My suspicions were confirmed when an older man wearing a bike helmet meandered over to where we were sitting and asked me, matter-of-factly, “What ship are you from?”

“I’m not from a ship,” I said, “I live here.”

He gave me a fish-eyed look and paused, as if waiting for me to tell him that I was just kidding.

In the tunnels.
“Really?” He said. “What do you do here?”

“I teach English in Bogotá,” I replied, “I’m in Cartagena for vacation.”

“How cool,” he said, “Well, I am gonna go take a ride down through the old city. Our ship guide says it’s a bad idea, but I think he’s just being overly cautious.”

Before I could tell him that the ship guide was absolutely right and that it was a terrible idea to attempt to ride a bike through the Darwinistic nightmare of a Colombian city, he had already turned to head back down to the fortress entrance. On the back of his helmet I spotted the red maple leaf of the Canadian flag. Canadians—that made perfect sense.

That night, we sat out on our hostel’s balcony overlooking the centro’s streets. After befriending a roughneck Australian, his Canadian girlfriend, and a quiet Norwegian guy, we decided to go grab a drink nearby. Since it was Monday, our options were limited, so we settled for the bar with the cheapest drink deals in the main square near the clock tower.  

Outside the bar, a swanky fellow with a creepy beard approached us and said in less-than-good English, “You want drugs and girls? I got them.”

On the fort walls.
After politely declining the gentleman’s gracious offer, we went upstairs to the rooftop bar. The place was deserted save for an old gringo and two younger Colombian women and we took over a corner table and ordered a bottle of rum and some Coca-Colas.

Drink in hand, I went to the balcony to look out at the city. With the full moon shining overhead and the city lit up below, I couldn’t help but smile. All I needed was someone to share it with, and it would have been a perfect moment.

A Colombian woman appeared next to me and leaned on the balcony to take in the view. I looked at her and said, “Hola.”

“Hola,” she said.

I made small talk with her in Spanish for a few more minutes and when I asked her what she did for a living, she replied, “Soy un compañera de amor.”

Awesome … I had just spent the past few minutes making small talk with a Cartagenian prostitute.

When I told her I was not interested in her services, she peaced out so fast, I swear she left a dust trail. From the table, my friends laughed at my expense.

Cartagena at night.
As a gringo in Cartagena, it is common to be constantly offered illegal drugs and prostitutes, a reality that bothered me a lot while I was there. I get it, a lot of gringos come to Cartagena for these things, but I found it hard not to feel insulted every time someone assumed I was interested in such things. Staying at hostels on the coast and being among backpackers, I soon realized that a good number of them were indeed interested in cocaine and other illegal drugs, but more on this later.

The next day, Derek, Jessica and I took a bus an hour away from Cartagena to see one of the region’s most up-and-coming tourist attractions—Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. After making its way down an unusually well-maintained highway, the bus turned onto a gravel road, following it a ways until we arrived in front of what appeared to be a giant termite mound.  

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo.
Exiting the bus, we got in line to ascend the rickety wooden stairs to the volcano’s peak. The line moved slowly, but we eventually made it to the top and beheld one of the strangest sights we had ever seen. Several mud-lathered people sat submerged up to their chests in a silvery, sloppy mud, reminiscent of dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. Some locals stood by the pit holding way too many cameras and taking pictures of the mud-covered tourists.

After waiting nearly a half an hour, we finally made it to the pit’s entrance point. I handed my camera to one of the locals and slipped into the mud. Being inside the El Totumo mud volcano was one of the most awkward yet awesome experiences of my life. The mud pit’s consistency made it so you could not sink below your chest and maneuvering yourself in the stuff was like trying to swim in half-melted butter.

Lying on my back, one of the locals gave me a mud “massage”, which was more akin to torture than comfort, but there was no way to turn them down. Once the three of us had been sufficiently mud-tortured and covered in mud, we simply stood (without actually standing on anything) there like flies trapped in Jell-O. I kept an eye on the guy with my camera to make sure it didn’t end up on Colombian eBay and he took pictures of us hanging out in the mud.

In the mud with Derek and Jessica.
When we decided that we had had enough, we climbed out and headed down another set of wooden stairs. Now resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, we waddled down to a nearby lake to rinse off.

In the water, a local woman sporting a small bucket began to toss water on me. As my height prevented her from splashing my upper body and head, I squatted down to make it easier, but drew the line when she told me to take off my shorts and waded deeper into the lake to rinse the rest of the mud off my body alone.

Since the lake was too shallow to swim in, I sat looking around at the others rinsing off around me. I saw another guy close to my age fall victim to the bucket lady and when he declined her attempts to bathe him, she said that there were piranhas and alligators in the lake—therefore it was best for her to do the job.

Piranhas or not, the lake was better than being molested by an old Colombian lady.

About to pick a fight with the ocean.
When we were reasonably cleaned-off (I would continue to find mud in my ears over the next several days), we returned to our bus where the locals were holding our cameras hostage until we paid them for their services. I told the guy to wait as I entered the bus to retrieve my money and when I returned, massage-torturer guy and bucket lady were there, demanding their cut of the gringo peso pie. After paying to get my camera back and being guilted into paying the other two opportunists, I boarded the bus and we left the mud volcano in our dust.

The bus drove a ways back towards Cartagena then turned onto a dirt road, through a poor-looking pueblo and stopped at a beach called Playa Mansanillo. The bus let us out and the tour guide said we had a half an hour to hang out on the beach until lunch was ready.

Eating Colombian food by the water.
Derek and Jessica hung out on the beach while I went to face the Caribbean waves—battling the ocean has been one of my favorite pastimes since childhood. The warm Caribbean waters felt like a bathtub and I swam out far enough to see the tall towers of Cartagena in the distance.

When lunch was ready, I came back to shore and we enjoyed a traditional coastal Colombian meal of chicken, coconut rice, and fried plátano. After lunch, the bus took us back to Cartagena.

Although I was loving my time in Cartagena, it was time to move on—the next day Derek and I would head further down the coast to Santa Marta, where we would meet up with my friend and fellow volunteer, Pam, and check out some Colombian jungle.

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