Monday, December 1, 2008

The "Donde" Situation

I have had several situations during my time in Colombia where I have asked myself "where am I?" Sometimes out of actually being lost but most of the time out of complete awe for my surroundings. Cartagena De Indias fell into both categories. One of the few "discovered" Colombian cities by North American tourists, this walled Spanish city on the Caribbean coast dating back to the 1500's is truly an enchanting place.

Donde Estamos?
Between myself, my roommate, Nira, and my life-long family friend Sarah (who flew in from Minneapolis for a warm Thanksgiving weekend) we asked ourselves "Where are we?" quite a bit. This despite having two different guidebooks and being in a walled city next to the ocean one would think getting lost would not be a problem. Well, this is the one Colombian city without numbered streets and they often times change names every block. So, while, yes, you will eventually end up at a wall or the sea, that doesn't help you find that one restaurant or your hotel if it isn't embedded in the exterior.

"Where are you from!?!?!"
The one thing that dragged down the magical time capsule-like atmosphere of Cartagena were the street vendors. I know I am spoiled traveling around a country generally unruined by touristic consumerism but I feel as though I was commercially accosted more times in the first day than the entire year and four months I've been here.
People selling jewelery, Cuban cigars, "real" emeralds and silver products, as well as boat trips and money changers, all from the street. The sad thing is that people actually fall for it. Honestly, who exchanges currency from some dirty man on the street? I got many of them to give me a slight reprieve by telling them I lived in Colombia or in Cali; that seemed to at least confuse some of them long enough for me to get away.
The vendor that gets the top prize for persistence was the umbrella salesman who insisted we purchase one of his two umbrellas after dinner one night when it was no longer raining. Even after explaining this to him he followed us for a good five blocks. Another man insisted on knowing where we were from by literally screaming at the top of his lungs "Where! Are! You! From!" over and over again in English. When I didn't respond to that he preceded to ask if I spoke French or Portuguese, but in Spanish, of course.

Where to now?
With all the history (Cartagena was one of the first Spanish forts in the "new world," enduring numerous pirate attacks, and being one of two main hubs of the African slave trade) and architecture, it is easy to forget that it is located on the Caribbean. Well, not "easy" - it is incredibly sunny and humid and the heavy air has a nice salty odor.
On Saturday we joined a group of fellow tourists to venture out to the nearby National Park in the ocean that encircles several small islands known as the Islas del Rosario. A few hours after leaving the grey-blue water of the port, we encountered the most magnificent shade of turquoise I think I've ever seen in the natural world. As we weaved in and out of the tiny islands, some with just one little house on them, the color of the sea seemed to change like a vending machine mood ring. We got off the boat at a tiny aquarium located on one island and walked the boardwalk through which the ocean crashed up between the planks with each surge. There were dolphins, sharks, rays, and sea turtles, all in the most organically natural setting they could have been in. Had you wanted to, you could have reached out and touched each one.
Back on the boat the sea was getting to Sarah and we had to persuade an old man to let her lay across "his" seat. He obliged, but not happily. The other stop on the tour was lunch and beach time at the beautiful white sand beach on the appropriately named Playa Blanca. Lunch was typical Colombian fare (rice, fish, plantains, salad) but the beach was anything but. Somehow there were vendors here too and they brought their women friends who were offering massages. (Because when you're on a beach in paradise you're tense?) Again, the water was unbelievably aquamarine and the breeze made for the perfect place to rest after a nice lunch.

The best part about Cartagena though was wondering the narrow streets, admiring the leafy and ornate balconies and coral and limestone facades. Between the walls, the dungeons-turned-craft shops, weathered old canons, and uneven roads, it was impossible not to marvel at what this mass of buildings has seen. The trials of early colonial Spanish settlers, violent battles against pirates, the inhumanity of humans being sold as property, and finally tourism and relative calm leave much to be learned and even more to be imagined.


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