Chapter 24: Cartagena, Colombia
Monday, August 2
Bucaramanga was almost exactly as I imagined it to be. I emerged from my darkened room into the dazzling morning light. It was a working type of town with people busy doing their thing and being productive. I strolled about before lunch, safe in the knowledge that the local speciality, large fried ant, was out of season. I visited yet another cathedral, this time the Catedral de La Sagrada Familia. Its dark interior held its own special charm. However, the evident riches of this church, like many others, contrasted so vividly with the impoverished struggle of many people to put enough food on their table. My cash card wasn’t being accepted in some banks, but put into perspective I didn’t have an immediate or day to day crisis to fend off. I was eventually able to withdraw 200,000 pesos at the BBVA Bank though. This would assist my next travel and first night in Cartagena. One still had to avoid the chance of being left stranded. The Museo Casa de Bolivar was closed but there was an impressive bust of Simon to look at through the large iron gates. I felt hot and bothered by the afternoon heat and remembered to buy some sun cream. A gentleman called Juan remarked on my very good footwear. They were looking quite tatty but Juan brought out the best in them on his little wooden box. Despite their grips fading, I wanted to hold onto these shoes. There were some fine music shops on Carrera 22 to check out as the afternoon wore on. Once the sun went down I climbed up onto the hotel’s top balcony to look out over Bucaramanga whilst enjoying some more beers.
Tuesday, August 3
In a bizarre dream I was stranded in a bus terminal in just my t-shirt and boxers. I kept yelling to my sister and family that I needed to collect all of my things and suddenly realised my hold-all was missing. I woke up with a slight hangover but gathered my belongings and took a taxi to the bus terminal. I felt shattered. The taxi driver tried to converse with me. I repeatedly said no entiendo (I don’t understand). The cloudy, muggy morning mirrored my mood. I arrived at the station in good time and bought an Expreso Brasilia bus ticket for 60,000 pesos to Cartagena. I really wasn’t with it. In the cafeteria I enquired about breakfast and also asked what time it was. But my limited Spanish probably translated as ‘what time will the breakfast be ready?’ when the ladies behind the counter just frowned at me! I couldn’t find my watch and I had a bus to catch at 8.30am. They understood my confused state more than I did apparently as there was food on my table within minutes and there was plenty of time before the bus departed. I relaxed further as the friendly, fat bus driver called over the passengers. There were only half a dozen of us. Once on the bus, the cold air-conditioning system quickly froze us out as the heat increased outside. When we stopped for lunch my glasses properly misted up as I exited the bus. I walked up to the bus driver to show him how cold his bus really was. The other passengers were highly amused. I could just make out the driver’s smile as he explained the air conditioning was at its lowest setting and would automatically switch off at certain temperatures. “And what temperatures were those?” I enquired. Apparently the system couldn’t be switched off when the bus was running. I gave up and bought some snacks, including some fresh bananas from a nearby grove. There were many American cars in the Santander region. Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge vehicles were everywhere. One of the passengers had a touring bicycle. When we resumed the journey he came over to talk to me. His name was Gustav, from Buenos Aires, and he’d been touring South America since the age of 18. He was now 36. After half a lifetime of cycling adventures he had no intention of stopping. Gustav wrote about his travels and picked up some itinerant work along the way. He had a wide eyed expression and seemed an extremely intelligent man. After explaining my chosen route, which still included a visit to Bolivia, Gustav recommended I travel to Brazil, a country he described as stunningly beautiful. He went back to rest in his seat further down the bus but we continued chatting at more stops during the day. By the time we reached the north coast it was dark and raining heavily. The windows misted up and it remained cold but at least I had my alpaca cardigan from Cusco. We picked up a lot more passengers at busy looking Barranquilla, and arrived in Cartagena at 11pm. Gustav asked me where I was staying. I presumed it to be Casa Viena because they’d replied to my online booking request. He then suggested I took a hotel room for the night and reminded me that I was actually on holiday! He laughed as I insisted on checking out the Casa. I thanked him and promised to keep in touch. The streets were awash with massive puddles. Casa Viena was fully booked. They had a plan B though and directed me to Hotel Holiday just around the corner. I arrived just before a group of Scandinavians got there, and I was in luck. There was space in a two bed dormitory. The receptionist took me to the room. I then heard a familiar sounding voice. It was Julie, the young woman I’d met in Bariloche, Argentina after leaving her banking job in London. She was her usual buzzing self and going around in circles to pack her stuff and get away. We chatted for a few minutes. Julie was travelling next to Medellin and I remarked on what a great place it was. She jolted and shouted, as if offended, that she knew, because she’d already been there! I just smiled and laughed to myself as she bossed her way out of the room for an early morning flight to Medellin. I fancied a drink. The other occupant in the room, a friendly Japanese lad called Eno, wasn’t up for it. He was feeling ill and reckoned too many cigarettes had left him with a strange neck ache. I made my way out into the dark Calle de La Media Luna. There were still a few places open or opening up in the Getsemani district. The streets were dotted with clandestine characters. Lots of drug sellers, pimps and pouting ladies tried to attract my attention. There didn’t feel to be much danger but I decided to stay much closer to my hostel where a next door bar offered some space to enjoy a couple of ice-cold beers.
Wednesday, August 4
The inner walls of Cartagena contained an irresistible, charming and romantic old port town. It was a bright and beautiful day, ideal for checking out Cartagena’s magic. At the main gateway into the old town, the Puerto del Reloj, a lively middle-aged man in a replica Liverpool football shirt accosted me with pleas to check out the jewellery in his friend’s shop. I happily took a peek inside and thanked the gentleman for his time. Free maps were being handed out by tourist information people on the inner side of the Reloj. I followed the recommended route to take in the splendour of the stunning streets, enormous balconies, impressive churches and lush plazas. I also checked some of the boutique hostels and hotels. They were expensive but a night or two in this remarkable location were quite tempting. La Flaca Bohemia had a board outside offering affordable lunches so I popped in. It was a delightful little restaurant with friendly staff and decent pasta dishes. Later, I continued my walk down to Iglesia and Plaza de Santo Domingo. I then returned to the hostel where Eno was still bed bound. I took a refreshingly cold shower. Cartagena was so hot. I sorted out another night’s stay and enjoyed a beer on the patio. There were many Australian and American travellers. They seemed a lot younger, and while initially alert, they drank quickly and descended into brash boasting and shouting over the top of each other in competing conversations. The noise levels increased and I sought out an alternative. On the Calle de La Media Luna there were a few modern bars and I popped into one. It lacked charisma, but right next door, I found the dark interior of the recently opened Maria Feliz, a cinema, singing and eating establishment where they screened classic films every night. There were a few characters enjoying Rebel without a Cause, dubbed in Spanish and projected onto a large white wall. A couple of film buffs ran the joint. One of them was called Jaime and he made me feel very welcome. I sat at the bar and soon took to the dark, dusty atmosphere. Jaime had high hopes for his venture. When I told him about my reporting background he really opened up about some of the social issues in Northern Colombia. By the time James Dean reached his final confrontation with the police there was a sizeable crowd of youngsters and older types mixing happily together. Jaime now had their attention and stepped around the bar to put on a screening of a community film. It showed an impoverished black community struggling for access to clean, fresh water as nature and the nasty people put up all sorts of awful obstacles. The 15-minutes film was followed by Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance. I enjoyed the screening sequence throughout the evening. It was thought-provoking and entertaining. I remained seated, drinking a few more beers and chatting away with some of the clientele until the early hours.
Thursday, August 5
A large guy shouted across to me from the other side of the street as I left the Hotel Holiday for a morning on the beach. No hoy (not today), I responded. The night rain left a steamy air over Cartagena. Despite a decent sleep I woke up all hot and sweaty. The cold showers worked a treat. Many of the private rooms, like the one I stayed in, had no bathroom. After dropping off some laundry, I walked into Cartagena’s old town and then on towards the seashore. Underneath the hot sun, a digital temperature sign read 34 Celsius at just before midday. I stripped down to my Zoggs and walked the two kilometres down to Bocagrande, the plush looking, commercial location of big hotels, expensive restaurants and shops. Despite applying plenty of sun block my back started to burn. There were many refreshment sellers wailing across the beach and mingling in with the bronzed bodies soaking up the sun on the lovely, golden sands. I stopped to rest on a huge, horizontal tree trunk when a larger than life lady came ambling over to me. She started to rub my back and recommended a hot massage. I laughed with the lady as she continued to coax me with the twinkle in her eye. A nearby vendor could see I wasn’t being taken in and, with a winking eye, he joined in our conversation and implored the lady to leave me alone. She got cross as only a hearty Caribbean woman could and, at any moment, she was going box his ears. I waved goodbye to the arguing pair and went to check my camera memory card reader at an internet cafe in Bocagrande. It began working on a computer but as soon as I put it back into my camera the display screen did nothing but say ‘protect right’. Back out in the late afternoon heat my t-shirt became soaked in fresh sweat. I took another shower, visited an Exito supermarket and bought a new memory card in a nearby shopping arcade. After dinner, I spent another evening at the Maria Feliz which was showing a black and white film about Colombian journalists. There were lots there, paying full and quiet attention to the white wall. A yelping dog tried to enter and break the concentration. I stayed out and crossed the street to another bar where a jazz band was warming up for an all-night session. Back outside again I came across a dealer who I thought was offering to sell me some weed. In the slight confusion I bought two grams of cocaine instead, for 40,000 pesos (about £13). Following the quick exchange, the big guy I’d seen earlier in the day trying to sell me some weed, came across the street and grabbed me lightly by the arm. He produced some police documentation. I gulped but the earlier beers smothered any fears and I immediately retorted that he wasn’t a policeman and freed myself from his grip and retreated towards the hostel. He laughed and admitted yes, but that I’d been a little too eager in the deal and should have walked further along and possibly out of view down a side street. The hostel bathroom was free so I took a snort and then went straight back out again. The receptionist warned me to be careful with the dealers as the hostel couldn’t afford any hassle with drugs being found on the premises. I bought a packet of Marlboro Lights from a street vendor and caught up with the jazz band, then returned for another snort on the cistern. I felt freshly awake and a little too eager. I hid my little stash underneath a large flower pot outside the dormitory door then tried to get some sleep but the extractor fan was making an increasingly horrible noise. Everything seemed a little bit fucked up and I couldn’t rest or sleep all night. I lay there with my heart beating so fast in fear and reaction. I’d drunk a lot of beer as well, so it was quite a dangerous mix in my system. Perhaps not my cleverest night in South America but the experience was still positive.
Friday, August 6
I experienced incredible stomach pains the next morning. The hostel cleaner could see I was in agony and allowed me to use one of the en-suite facilities. It was raining outside so I later went to check out the museums. Starting at the Museo de Arte Moderno, I admired some interesting images by French painter Pierre Daguet. The Museo Naval del Caribe stood out with its comprehensive display and recording of the naval history of Cartagena and the Caribbean. There were lots of guns, flags, paintings and impressive models, from various international fleets, including The Bounty, Cutty Sark and HMS Victory. After another fine three-course lunch for just 7,000 pesos at La Flaca Bohemia I wandered over to the cathedral. The Gold Museum next door was free to enter but the cathedral admission cost 7,000 pesos. I questioned the church attendant about why, if the museum with so much wealth on show was free, did a house of God with probably just as much gold on display charge people to enter. He sort of saw my point and just smiled and I went next door to enjoy the gold collection and the venue’s extremely refreshing air conditioning. Cartagena didn’t really have much of a beach, just big boulders piled up as a sea defence. Eno left the Hotel Holiday to look for a place with air conditioning. I spent an hour or so checking some of the hostels around Parque del Centenario. Most were fully booked for the coming weekend. I found one decent place, an old establishment for just a few more pesos, but my mind veered to the idea of moving on. I loved Cartagena. The young and vibrant street dancers by the Reloj encapsulated the town’s beauty but the ubiquitous pushers and the added hassle from other street sellers tested my patience. I wanted a place to relax. As the late afternoon haze melted into a hot and sweaty evening I returned to Maria Feliz to check out its Friday night atmosphere. They were showing Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. The film, about gun violence in the United States, suddenly included brief footage of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster to illustrate football hooliganism and violence. Apparently, The Hillsborough Justice Campaign rightly protested to the director when the film was first released. Moore claimed he had been mis-sold the footage by the BBC. However, given his reputation for investigations into wrongdoings by the establishment, why was this gross misrepresentation included in his film? He later promised to remove the offensive item from any future releases of the film yet there were still copies out there, such as this one in Maria Feliz. I, along with my brother and two friends were in the Leppings Lane Terrace on that terrible day in April 1989. We managed to escape the fatal crush by getting through to a side pen just before the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest kicked off and all hell broke loose. It seemed chillingly strange to be randomly confronted with this so many years later and such a long way from home. In fact, the episode decided for me, once and for all, that it really was time to leave the hustle and bustle of extraordinary Cartagena. I would leave the next day for Santa Marta.