In an abrupt departure from our recent time in the cool, rainy Ecuadoran highlands we are currently in the sweltering Caribbean port city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. For a number of reasons, not the least of which was at least some semblance of sanity, we opted against subjecting ourselves to a series of bus journeys that would have worked out to around 54 hours, instead taking two quick flights, suddenly finding ourselves deposited in front of a tall, somewhat dated, apartment building on a hectic street lined with restaurants and tiendas, taxis and boat tour touts, honking buses and roving sellers of sunglasses. On the back side of the building was a narrow strip of beach looking out onto Cartagena Bay and Isla de Tierrabomba (Land Mine Island – sounds awesome). Following three full months on the move we decided we needed to change up our routine a bit and rented an apartment for a few weeks in a city that is not only one of South America’s most famous (castles, forts and an incredibly well-preserved walled old city), but also one of its most popular (kilometres of sandy beaches and warm Caribbean water) and most beloved (by international drug cartels in search of convenient smuggling ports that have great nightlife, hot women and cheap street food).
We are on the 10th floor with a great view of the ocean, islands and beach (thankfully we are still carrying our binoculars), have air conditioning for when the breeze dies down (or at least did until it died a couple nights ago), cable TV for watching soccer and Top Chef (Every day at noon like clockwork, Laynni watches people express their creativity in the kitchen, as she eats the exact same salami and cheese sandwich lunch she has every day we’ve been here), and a kitchen to spare ourselves, most of the time, the epic frustration and painful struggles of getting the attention of a South American waiter. A recharge, is what we’re calling it. Lazy bastards being lazy bastards, is a phrase others have used. Nonetheless, here we are, enjoying lethargic walks on the beach, daily toast, cereal and fruit, and restocking our fridge with small bottles of Coke and 6-litre bags of water. Now, some random thoughts about our time in Cartagena: Not all is perfect in our little apartment paradise. For example, the toaster isn’t really a toaster, but more like a cross between a sandwich-maker and waffle-iron. You can only toast one piece at a time and the knob burns your fingers, so there’s that. We are also fighting a constant battle with tiny ants that take every opportunity to convene on the counters, walls and tables despite intermittent apocalyptic applications of Raid. What we wouldn’t give for the little bottle of industrial ant poison currently sitting in the Rubbermaid we left in Guatemala. No full size couch, but there are two loveseats, which unfortunately haven’t proven to be quite as sexy as they sound.
The neighbourhood we are in is actually narrow peninsula called El Laguito (The Little Lake) in honour of the small, fetid lake on the far side of the peninsula from us (all of one block over). Laguito mainly consists of one long street full of vaguely depressing hotels and apartment blocks that look like they would be a perfect fit for a Mexican beach town in 1985.
The beach below our window, however, is endlessly fascinating. Disreputable lancha captains chasing down passersby with tales of island paradises just a short $20 boat ride away, bracelet salesmen eagerly hawking their wares, scurrying children industriously creating sand structures that make no sense, their plump, listless parents alternately napping under canvas shelters and bobbing listlessly in a few feet of water as teenagers circle them relentlessly on the sea-doos they are hoping to rent out, nodding their heads enthusiastically and grinning like idiots in what is apparently their ill-conceived idea of what temptation looks like. One of our favourite moments of every day is around 8 am when all the sellers arrive by boat ready to take on the day, and there are always a handful of unlucky souls who, apparently too late to garner a seat in a boat, have had to resort to crossing the bay on an inflatable banana, their stiff-backed postures and grim embarrassment in stark contrast to the usual merriment of rowdy frolicking children.
One of the most popular foods here is called an “arepa” – my favourite is the “arepa carne”, which is basically just four different variations of meat stuffed into a tortilla. Five different food groups, by my reckoning. Also, as for the word “arepa”, I wouldn’t recommend using it any more than necessary among other English speakers, especially not in sentences such as “I would like arepa” or “you want meat arepa?”
From our window we occasionally see groups of fishermen pulling in huge fishing nets by hand from the beach, then harvesting the flopping, thrashing bounty in a surprisingly slow and clumsy manner, much like the way I butter toast. One day we watched as a young female tourist somehow managed to convince them, in her bikini and titillating sun dress, to let her help. And while her effectiveness was questionable considering she found it necessary to sit on the edge of the boat while she did it, apparently unable to manage such a daunting task as pulling on a rope, as hard or easy as she chose while standing upright, I don’t think any of the men would dispute her positive effect on morale, especially after she decided the time had come to flop bonelessly to the sand, hike up her dress and spend a few minutes doing numerous variations of the splits, all of which seemed so popular it was practically impossible to tell which lewd pose was their favourite. She was either extremely high or… no, she was definitely really high.
Knowing we had so much time in Cartagena it took us several days before we actually made it to the walled city, known as “La Ciudad Amurallada” in Spanish, or “jackpot” in the parlance of terrace bars promoting sunset happy hours. We went for a meal in a quiet, picturesque plaza with, Alex, a friend we met a couple years ago in Guatemala (like us, he is still aimlessly roaming the globe; unlike us, he is actually still a functioning and contributing member of the world’s work force, at the moment in the midst of a few months doing in Colombia). All in all, the whole area is very impressive, with narrow streets lined with well-preserved colonial buildings, quaint terraces dripping with bougainvillea and photogenicity, with the eponymous wall itself extending for many kilometres of history, viewpoints and the jarring contradiction of centuries-old cannons pointing across taxi-filled streets toward modern high-rise apartment buildings.
While reading Google News one night I discovered that earlier that day a massive cocaine bust had taken place just across the bay from us. 7 tons of white gold worth roughly $250 million confiscated a couple kilometres away. All while I watched the Masters and ate M & Ms. Hopefully that drug smuggling coup is the reason a well-armed submarine was lurking ominously just off our beach yesterday, and didn’t have anything to do with all the bad things I’ve been telling people about Colombian movie popcorn.
We’ve gone to a couple movies here, when we’ve been able to find any in English, not an easy task, and the reason I’m not going to apologize for going to see Captain America the other day. “Not as bad as I thought it would be”. I’ve submitted this quote for use in their trailer but still haven’t heard back. There was one geographical highlight, however, the scene where Robert Redford makes derogatory reference to some of the horribly distasteful experience he has gained through the school of hard knocks, saying with an ironic sneer, “You know where I learned that? Bogotá.” The Cartagena crowd loved it. Like the Pope coming to Saskatoon and saying Regina water tastes like old lady urine, or Robin Thicke getting drunk in Calgary and claiming that Edmontonians stoke their furnaces with puppies. Regardless, their mirth only lasted seconds before they all had to get back to talking on their cell phones.
Taking into account a variety of factors, from heat management to comfort maximization to laundry minimization to drop dead sexiness, I have slowly begun to bypass the previously mandatory portion of my day where I put on clothes, instead choosing to spend most days sitting around in my underwear, only occasionally getting up to venture to the bathroom mirror to monitor the progress of my beard. Of course, the look is probably even more unsettling when I spend time at the window scanning the beach with my binoculars, or go to the store for more water bags and chocolate bars.
Next week we’ll be talking about Semana Santa, aka Holy Week, aka Easter, aka Disco Beat Central, and how it has had a terrible effect on our ability to sleep at night, but has been a huge boon to sightings of feces on the beach.