Travelling in Columbia is an essay from on of our skills exchange members currently working as a volunteer in South America
No matter how much you travel it is one of the enduring truths that you can never predict how someone will emerge on the other side. One man’s epiphany is the next man’s implosion; for each formative flirtation somebody somewhere will surely cave in on themselves. Rather than encourage a new perspective, travel will inspire some merely to defer to their base prejudices.
I remember pounding through Havana’s shabby and inspiring streets four years ago in the company of a New Zealand backpacker whose every thought wanted me to chuck her into Fidel Castro’s pit of crocodiles – which she was inclined to believe existed beneath every decaying building in Cuba. She was of the right, me of the left (at the time) and this country, the ultimate ideological battlefield, brought all our gripes and allegiances to the surface. Horribly.
She was a self-made business woman who wouldn’t accept that efforts as noble as hers could still end up in poverty and hopelessness. People were dealt a cruel hand because usually, that is what they deserved. The Cubans among us didn’t have as much as her because they hadn’t invested as much as her, they hadn’t slogged like her, but if there was one thing they were good for it was fleecing her for all she was worth.
I argued of course that unfortunately, the world was not a level playing field, and so it was not so straightforward to apply such an absolutist model to society. We argued, and we argued, on and on. But it was over the way in which her world view informed her behaviour that we really came to blows.
She would dismiss the most innocent gesture of friendship as a threat to her personal security. We all knew that foreigners were largely beyond the reach of petty crime in Cuba, with such an overbearing military presence on the streets, yet she made no attempt at any point to communicate with locals – lest they molest her.
At one outdoor ice-cream parlour she was told her change would be delivered to her table in a couple of minutes, because Cuba being Cuba, they were short and needed to run and get some. But she rooted herself to the spot, refusing to move away from the cashier until she got her 50 cent change – lest they make off with it and who knows, melt it down and turn it into a bullet.
Worst of all, she tried to avoid paying the lady of the house we were staying at money for water we had consumed during our few days’ stay. In Cuba, where two currencies circulate, it is critical for people to earn the more valuable peso convertible. That water money meant a lot to Melady, who eventually had to ask me to ask her for the money, as she was walking out the door. A woman as mindful of her pennies would never let such detail slip. I knew it was no oversight.
The point is, in all these scenarios she upset the locals to varying degrees, and ultimately, she ended up being the thief.
I was mulling over that experience as I strolled through Cartagena’s wondrous colonial streets last week. Now what of our niggling biases could be uprooted here? Nope, this place could only ever invite a universal glow of approval.
The cradle of Colombian civilisation, archaeologists say the first ancient human communities sprang up near here around 7000 BC. The oldest ceramic objects in all of the Americas have been discovered here, the regions inhabitants apparently owing their comfortable lifestyle to the mild coastal climate and an abundant wildlife.
Founded by the Spanish and coveted by the French, Cartagena soon became a jewel of the Caribbean. Pirates made multiple attempts to breach its defences, and Sir Francis Drake notoriously destroyed nearly one quarter of the city. Thereafter the Spanish poured millions upon millions into its protection.
It has a naval, pirate and slave history to make you gasp in awe. Today, a UNESCO world heritage site, it presents a brilliant contrast of the old and the new.
The preserved walled city has a mesmerising fairytale quality to it, outstanding colonial architecture with grand balconies upon which you swear you can still see the old black fishing couple, he sipping rum and her sewing garments. The thick warm air too is a constant. Back then with no motorised ventilation I suppose they would take turns to employ the manual version, and pray a wind would whisk in from the bay to do the job for them.
The humidity makes Cartagena one of the most oppressively hot places on earth, but up on those city walls you can perch yourself in the evening to chase the sun over the horizon, and receive the bliss of a beautiful Caribbean breeze, the pirates and all their stories blowing in with it.
All around the people carry themselves with the laziness and colour that Caribbean folk do, as animated as the heat will allow, imploring you to buy their food, or their glasses, or their creams, or their clothes. You usually need to decline the persistence more than once, but thank god, you think, for the warmth and the charisma.
In my modest hotel the female owner was so deliriously nice in greeting me as in went in and out each day I decided that the air conditioning was making her high. But it turns out she was just being nice. This is the colour of the place, and it is reflected in everything. Where we might choose to paint a door or a ceiling in conjunction with the wall colour – to ‘go’ with it – in Cartagena they will paint a deep blue alongside a bright yellow or green. It is a shameless embrace of the manic, bold and extroverted, so awful that it is completely loveable.
But as you sip away the evening, it is across the bay that the rush of darkness illuminates Cartagena’s most dazzling aspect. The modern downtown of Bocagrande, jutting out on a slither of a peninsula, with beaches on both sides, which observed from the sea looks exactly how I imagine Hong Kong to be. Upwards of 100 skyscrapers all erected in the last 10 years, around a dozen of which are under construction. As a foil to the antique old city, it is a stunning sight.
I suffered the heat, gladly, and wandered about for a week. You couldn’t but be impressed. The only thing, however, was that Cartagena didn’t overflow with things to do after dark, so one night I went to consult the tripadviser.com blog for ideas.
The thread I came across was a compare and contrast with other cities debate, and one of the entries went as follows:
‘It could be wayyy better this old town. Getting rid of the locals hanging around every corner and sticking them inside restaurants, bars and hotels. If i was a European or Gringo Id be intimidated by all the locals in these streets. There isnt enough tourism for you to feel that you are completly safe. If I ever got a job as a waiter or bartender in cartagena id die of hunger… You only see the tourists in patches here and there.. not in bunches. The government needs to do something with the locals. Cartagena needs a major change.’
Like I was saying, with some people you just never know.
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