Colombia: Cartagena

Like the Lost City, Cartagena de las Indias was one of the acknowledged highlights of Colombia. A compact collection of colonial gems sitting for hundreds of years on the Caribbean, this was where the Spanish fleet of galleons gathered with their golden plunder before making their annual return to Spain. To pass the time between Inquisition, slave-driving, and murder, they fervently hoped and prayed that pirates didn't attack them at bay.

Sometimes that worked out, sometimes not - twas a pirate's life in those days, after all. A massive fort was eventually built to settle this matter for once and for all, necessary after enough looting had been accomplished. Indeed, the fortress in Cartagena would be so well-built that it became one of the few under the crown that would prove impregnable.

The Old City of Cartagena - pretty much all there was back then - was still a walled concern unto itself. This allowed for safe harbor of the consistent and vast scale of colonial architecture found today. In modern times, this jewel proved itself sufficiently worthy of civic pride (and income) to act as a fortress unto itself in a cultural sense, too. THAT kept the city out of the battle zone that Colombia experienced on both the guerrilla and narcotraffic fronts. Perhaps this was done in homage to the numerous similar architectural spots found in Europe as World War II rent the rest of the continent asunder. They had also been preserved under conflict, only a short time before the madness began in earnest in Colombia.

History aside, here I was in the meantime - show me your stuff, Cartagena! Also: Ick, why are things getting stickier? I looked at my darkening shirt under the brightening sun. Yeesh, could I sweat just a bit more? Gawd, it was hot!

In one sense, certainly, the charmed city would deliver. It indeed was a beautiful town - at least the old city. Okay - ONLY the old city. The half hour it took to get there from the cacophony that was the bus station told another story completely. THAT had been a mazed jumble of broken streets, snarled and dusty traffic jams, with pollution spewing in the air or running/sitting on the ground. This reality, for me, would become THE story: did anyone live in the Old City outside of tourists?

Getsemani was the low rent part of the old walled city, still imbued with good charm, and loaded with hostels. Unsurprisingly, after initially poking around the Colonial District for digs, I continued there for a little exploring when I could no longer stomach the hoity-toity hubbub. One could find economical lodgings and meals in Getsemani, even if for the trouble one also had to walk a gauntlet of prostitutes. The women of the night (and day) loitered in many spots on the main connecting route to the Getsemani Bridge and access to the Old City.

It didn't take too long to find a place in this slightly tumbledown district, even if it was located just outside the preferred sections guarded by the Old City's inner walls. The Getsemani neighborhood, my temporary home (very, as it would turn out), had always been the place for worker bees, bars, and the more seedy aspects (drugs) of the town. Prostition here had history, if anything, as true 400 years ago as today. The symbiotic relationship of Getsemani to the more noble streets of Cartagena was history, too. I figured my visit was historic, too - why not?

Nowadays Getsemani was where one found most of the hostels for backpackers for me for good reason. Soon this would become obvious to me as to why: land in the Old City was just too valuable for my kind, travelers content to spend $7-15 for a bed (often in a shared dormitory room)... in order to eat and drink more, and stay (or be able to travel) longer.

The Old City was steadily becoming reserved for the type of traveler that was steadily homogenizing the vacation places of beauty around the world. (This is a negative thing, by the way.) Such lodgings were for the vacationer ready to fully experience a city in 24-48 hours (somehow!), on a relatively unlimited budget. With that in mind I soon came to liken the inner Old City environment to Homer Simpson's executive washroom experience, opened via a magical key (one of the more telling episodes of the ever-phenomenal show.) In Cartagena it was as if the key was thrown away, though. SPEN-DY!

Here was the blatant example of off-the-hook tourism I usually avoided, luxury available on many scales. It didn't take much to find it - rather, it slapped you silly. This was exemplified perhaps best by the impact of four massive cruise ships that, only days before on Dec. 26th, had simultaneously docked. An army of about 3000+ passengers had descended for the Christmas holiday, a new record for the town on one day.

Were they all still in port on the 28th? Sure seemed so - the group stickers plastered on shirts indicating "shore leave" parties were numerous, as were the stalls selling crafts and knick-knacks to accomodate them. I had always heard of this environment in the Caribbean, where towns scrambled to life to sell their souls to these floating cities. In those cases they only did so before collapsing again on their departure, receding to some form of reality once more.

Now I saw it in action for the first time - which should come as no coincidence, come to think of it - I was on the Caribbean. Here I had been thinking it only happened in the Jamaicas and the Caymans of that jeweled blue sea. It stood to reason that Cartagena had every right to claim this sordid Caribbean legacy - and all the stuff that came with it, too. Huh.

Lucky Cartagena? I wasn't convinced. The well-heeled tourist was able to enjoy this abundance of boutique stores, hotels, and restaurants, sure, but only the richest local could think of spending like that - let alone live within it. On a variety of occasions I would see this very select group of Colombians in cafés (almost always Juan Valdez), discussing tourism business. These cafés were typically the best chance of mingling my kind with theirs based on price point alone, a $4 latte not being that far from a $1 americano in the grander scheme of things.

Otherwise such clientelle would be cloistered off-limits to me, found in more select areas like fancy restaurants. There they'd find refuge from my funk, since I wouldn't be paying $50-100 for a meal except on the most special of occasions. From my adjacent table in JV, though, I'd listen to their conversations when the opportunity made itself available - or unavoidable, where I'd be fascinated usually only in the most inescapable sense.

The theme was almost always the same: what development could - or would - next occur? How much more profit would they see? Blech. While having no issue with one wanting to make a living, a complete sellout was a different story altogether. Cartagena was no longer a Colombian city at its core - it was turning into a Disney-fied Colonial-Land. I quickly gathered I wouldn't be staying long: the town's beautiful part felt like a shithole of greed, while the shithole part had no ready beauty. I wanted both - minus the shitholes.

One thing always free, however, was walking. (Someone would probably learn how to charge for that soon.) To foot I thus went. Over my abbreviated couple of days in town, my heels soon found almost every nook and cranny in the (fairly enough) charming streets. The number of buildings restored was truly substantial, and this extended to virtually every extent of the quarter. Many of these calles (streets) housed pocket hotels, while others had galleries and stores. It was unavoidable to contemplate the massive amount of money needed flowing to keep this enterprise afloat, with such spendy real estate.

Still, one area had managed to keep a local flavor to it. This was a marketplace to a side of the quarter leading beyond the walls to the mayhem without. This was a lively and human redoubt bustling with locals and backpackers alike, plus the well-heeled tourist that - no doubt - thought himself brave for walking a block or two among the common folk. I doubted even low-rent market would remain long, though, especially not when the developers had run completely run out of buildings to "monetize" (one of my favorite dirty words symbolizing the ills of the world) elsewhere in the district. For me, a continuing theme for Colombia had become a matter of seeing it now - before it SOON disappeared.

One positive aspect of such tourism I had been seeing was the prospect of busking, though. Trumpet in hand, I noticed many potential spots to ply that trade. Indeed, various buskers were at it here and there, not to mention dance troupes as well. Somehow, though, I didn't feel comfortable putting out my case and joining these local-looking acts. Would I just be an interloper?

I reasoned how it would play out, finally concluding that while the tips I could earn would be pittances to the loaded tourists who ambled my way, such would not be the case with the many locals. There was plenty of them to consider, moving to and fro often in service to the businesses frequented by the former. I bailed on the busk.

Still, I needed places to play without a mute sometimes, and the accoustics in these two-plus storied and narrow streets could be awfully good. Thus went the trumpet up, anyway, even if its case didn't make its way down. There were always other compensations. For example, such public play also allowed for reconnecting with that pretty Aussie girl I had met in the Lost City.

Among the locales I found to play at, the city walls proved particularly rewarding in providing a pleasant sounding board. Walking along them looking for new spots one day, I encountered - of all things - another trumpet player. How about that? My kind, the trumpeting kind, among buskers was rather rare. I found this kindred spirit outside the main city walls, blaring a flugelhorn through scales to the sea.

Not bad, not exactly good, either. We got to talking, and soon I pulled out my horn and we tried trading our way through a few songs that we had in common. I found a personal challenge in his choice of keys, unfortunately NOT the typical key for almost every tune we played. Then again, challenge is a good thing. Soon I found out my new friend was from Buca(ramanga), the same town where Alvaro the composer (met in San Gil) was from. It turned out that Alvaro was this guy's music mentor, coincidentally. How about that?

I next took to demonstrating some of the trade's practicing tricks I had learned over the years; soon we got to enjoying a coffee and talking music. He was particularly excited to check out my silent mute, but he was also curious to learn some lip trill drills to maintain lip strength. THAT is the ever-elusive goal of the trumpet player. In the maws of the lion of Cartagena, amidst gleaming gold teeth, two mice played.

The dangers crimewise of walking the streets of Cartagena, even with the trumpet slung over my back to provide paranoia, were few. Far more irritating were constant calls to me from locals: "Hey mister, what you looking for?" and "I live here all life - I help you!" Sigh. When these enterprising entrepeneurs took to following me, that was too much: I felt no choice but to tell them to buzz off.

Sometimes I tried to escape within the walls of the businesses of the area, but these provided little refuge when there was almost nothing I would ever consider buying. Botero painting knockoffs would prove the only art of true interest to me, wonderfully-executed paintings completely capturing his simple style while not actual copies. I couldn't consider buying these obviously illegal ripoffs however well-done they were, though - if simply out of respect to the living artist.

Art itself didn't have too many venues in Cartagena, at least not of the everything-in-gallery-for-sale sort. There were a few plazas with statues, certainly, plus some large pieces at the former slave market area, but museums and their ilk were few. The Museo Del Arte Moderno stood near a handsome cathedral, though - I thought I'd give that a shot.

Contemporary art is far more miss than hit, but at least when it hits it hits far more interestingly. Not true in this case, but the ancient building was of interest enough. Far better was a temporary exhibit at the Gold Museum. About twenty paintings by Pedro Ruiz ( were on display, each a magnificently-detailed work surrounded in a gentle sea of gold.

The theme was gold, unsurprisingly enough, but far more interesting was how each painting had an indigenous person in a dugout canoe moving through one of the many iconic areas of Colombia. I was highly impressed, only becoming disappointed that I couldn't buy something that had all of the paintings contained within a book. I settled for a packet of postcards that highlighted six of them, jotting the name down for future reference in my notebook.

Meanwhile I spent perhaps too much time at the one cafe I could find with good joe to sample. This was the Juan Valdez café, of course, that very place where all business great and small need be transacted. While I ruefully chose this chain because it proved rare in offering good coffee, for others it perhaps offered something more esoteric and not directly paid for: a respectable setting, of all things. As mentioned earlier, each time I entered a JV I would invariably find a host of developers licking their chops over the latest cash to be squeezed out of this fortressed anomaly.

Beyond the coffee, though, it need be mentioned that this also was the one public place with consistent air conditioning... even if taking into account that one had to move about the cafe in search of the few cold spots in a sea of warmer ones. For all the talk about breezes that the coast offered, which couldn't be found only five kilometers inland, the heat and humidity both in Cartagena had been oppressive.

In the sheltered cool of a JV café, however, was an environment where I'd coolly finish Gabriel Glasman's history of Che Guevara (who turned out to be much less of a grand figure than I had previously throught) under a caffeinated haze. I'd also begin V.S. Naipaul's masterful take on countryside Britain titled The Enigma of Arrival. Coffee and books - who woulda thought?

Partaking in the coffee ritual could also mean finding a distilled point in time to contemplate things, too. It would turn out that my last time in Cartagena's Juan Valdez was such. I thought about this odd city, particularly considering the walled highlight in which I found myself. With controlled entry points through its castle-like walls, I mused that it was practically a gated community!

Maybe that was the bad taste in my mouth. Yuck - I hated that concept with a passion elsewhere. Why would I enjoy the concept being employed here, either? True enough, a force of 2000 police were stationed inside to keep the riffraff out, and they probably eagerly did their job in that respect - but did I belong here? Is this what I came to Colombia for? No, and definitely not. It was time to go.

I reentered the real Cartagena that made the walled city a speck. This was the Cartagena of ancient Chevrolet school buses, with blinkers formed like Indian chieftains and flared rears like a '56 Cadillac. I let myself be 'swindled' by a nodding driver onto one of them, taking an hour to reach the terminal in what should have been a half-hour trip. I shouldn't have been surprised when we meandered off the direct course to get more fares in a side neighborhood. My errand was to buy a ticket out to Medellín; I'd return to Getsemani a final time only to pack up.

Within this short errand, I had ample time to actually watch the dust settle. All that muck, lifted up at the 5kph at which Cartagena operated, made itself plain to me. One man jumped onto the hood of our bus relic, long past its former trips in the U.S. Then I imagined its typical journeys to be to neighboring towns for Friday night football in Arkansas or Mississippi.

Meanwhile the 50-year-old man nimbly lolled about on the monstrous hood, sliding from one side to the other with futile swipes on the windshield. He finally jumped inside to give the dashboard an unnecessary flourish. The driver wearily handed him two coins when a barrage of pleading began, obviously old hat and an accepted nuissance of the trade. Moments later someone hustled a passenger aboard, one who would've entered anyway - there went another coin. It struck me greatly that this was much like paying the mafia for protection, as is done in so many places in the world. Hey, it happened in New York City, too.

Meanwhile, outside the bus, people hacked at meat in ad hoc, exposed butcher stalls. Others idly swept at messes of garbage, creating a dusted, airy sea of it for everyone else to enjoy. An old lady fanned herself on her porch, watching the mayhem pass by so near to where she would retire for the evening. Would it be any quieter at midnight? One after another, motorcycles squeezed through two buses at a time, each already in deathly combat for the same patch of dusty rubbled road sitting in a standstill.

Every other bus was crammed or empty, of which ours was fortunately the latter. Perhaps it was on account of that that we trundled at a creep toward the station, every other vehicle passing us by - we needed more passengers. I vowed to take an energetic taxi with A/C for the final return trip in the meantime - when that time came I'd (almost) gladly pay the 6x fare. This bus was s-low!

That time came soon enough, when I winged my backpack into one of the few taxis I could find in the evening rush hour of Getsemani. Soon we were zipping through back streets over canals littered with refuse, dodging the entrepeneurial wiper guy splashing a bucket of water on unsuspecting bus windshields. I watched as the drivers slowly reached over for the coin which devalued their already paltry fare. Not this time!

Looking ahead, I wondered if Medellín would be a repeat of this cacophony. Or would I once again be returning to the relative sanity of the mountains? I had a dreaded overnight bus to consider before then, however.

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