Although I respect that on a global level it’s been less than stellar, I have to say all in all, on a personal level, 2016 has been a pretty good year. However, by the day before Thanksgiving when I packed up my suitcase (I just don’t do backpacks) for a two-week vacation to Colombia, I was feeling a bit burnt out. Let’s put it this way, startups do not become Facebook over night. Additionally, Trump had just won the election; the guy I liked had just left San Francisco; and my shoulder was starting to hurt in freestyle. As the days became shorter my life felt increasingly vélo, boulot, dodo – Ugh!
I was a little nervous – The last time I’d taken an trip down below the border I’d come back, quit my job, and gone on a year-long odyssey across nations. What if I felt compelled to do the same? Would I ever want to live a normal life?
The view from the hostel I stayed at in Cartagena, The Viajero. I shared a cab to my hostel in the Centro Historico with a couple from Barcelona and Uruguay on whom I practiced my rusty Spanish. Not yet used to the currency (1000 Colombian Pesos is about 33 cents),when the cab driver dropped me off first I accidentally paid for the whole taxi ride , and the couple tracked me down at my hostel to pay me back! The whole cost of the trip amounted to about $4 USD, but it was appreciated nonetheless. Realizing it was 85 and humid, I put my suitcase down, changed out of my long sleeve black shirt, long black pants, long black socks, and heavy black combat boot high heels (I consider these my signature shoe), changed into the fewest amount of clothes I could find, and set out to eat and take pictures of buildings.
Lonely Planet recommended a delicious seafood restaurant, Espiritu Santu, just a few blocks from my hostel, and it was there I met my first temporary companion of the trip, another American female solo traveler named Latricia. She was from a rural part of Beaumont, Texas but worked for the city of Houston, and I immediately liked her friendly Southern vibes. Her mother was from New Orleans and she spent her summers as a kid under the guise of her grandfather in the Ninth Ward. In typical Southern fashion, she was eating pork ribs; I ordered the bass above complete with patacones (fried plantain slices), avocado salad, and my new favorite, arroz con coco (coconut rice). I do not know how I’ve lived my 27 years of life up until this point without it.
Latricia’s clothes that day, a marigold blouse and deep lavender shorts paired with the brightest magenta she put to her slips were just made for posing against the brightly colored facades of Cartagena’s oldest neighborhoods. I convinced her to leave the Old Quarter with me to go to Getsemaní, a lower-class neighborhood on the other side of the Avenida Venezuela. Only a few years ago it was off-limits to gringo travelers like ourselves (although Latricia blended in much more naturally with the locals than I did), but like many underdog neighborhoods around the world, it’s experiencing swift gentrification – As of November 2016 is a central hub for hostels, hip coffeeshops, and dance halls, and of course, street art and graffiti. I acted as Latricia’s paparazzo and managed to stop every couple of blocks for some Beauty in Buildings shots, one thing I was intent on doing on this trip.
That night Latricia and I went back to Getsemaní to Club Havana, a popular salsa club known for its mojitos. We showed up early, and the lack of people made me assume it was a dud. We sat at the bar and talked life and politics over mojitios (I caught on that she was not a Texan who had voted for Trump). All of the sudden we realized we could barely hear each other anymore – The club had swelled to maximum capacity with the arrival of the female-led salsa band, and more and more tourists screamed their drink orders to the bartender through the small space that was open between me and Latricia. After a bro-esque gringo, attempting to impress a local chick and her friend, had his credit card decline three times (so cringe), we decided to squeeze our way out of the bar and walk down the street to the Plaza de Santísima Trinidad. It was full of people, lots of teenagers dancing in the street, food vendors, groups of tourists, stray dogs. The plaza was lit up and it appeared that this, in fact, was the place to be on a Friday night.
A friend of mine had recommended Cartagena Connections, a walking tour company, so I signed up on my second day for their food tour. Led a a German, Jonas, and his apprentice, a French guy named Nico, they were both in love with Cartagena. Like many foreign men I’d meet on this trip, they’d met Colombian girls abroad and had moved over here to be with them and found jobs in tourism.
The food tour was strictly fried food, but I snapped this photo on of a bunch of kids at one of my favorite things about Colombia – fruit stands! At any time of day or night you can buy cheap, freshly prepared fruit. In The Mission each cup there would go for $6! I actually don’t really like mango (unless it’s dried and from Trader Joe’s), I find ripe mango a little too gooey and sweet for my taste. But in Colombia a speciality is to serve mango slices unripe, drizzled with lemon juice, and topped off with salt. It is a bitter recipe for sure, but nice and tart! What’s more, fruit stands seem to understand that everyone has their own preference for mangos, so most of them offer an array mango in about 10 different states of maturity, so you can always pick the level of tough, sweet, or bitter that you desire. They’re very pro-choice.
Arepas. Colombia’s national snack, I would describe these as cornbread pancakes. You fry them up on a stove, cut them open, stuff them with mozzarella and / or meat, fry them again, and then serve them with one last dollop of butter on top. The yellow-corn arepas (arepa de choclo) are sweeter than the white ones (arepa de queso), and each region of Colombia has their own take (and opinion on who makes them the best) on the arepa.
Costeños (people from Cartagena) were lined up all over eating arepas with that extra slab of butter on top. Good genes I guess, because most Costeños to me some tall, skinny, and lanky, and with well-defined muscles. On the busy streets where we stood enjoying the deep fried food, the people watching was incredible. What the average Colombian looks like is impossible to say. From the deep black of the descendants of escaped slaves to the dark brown of the indigenous so to the paler descendants of the European and the Lebanese, the people bustling their way down a hectic Cartagena Street tell the history of all the different people who have done the same over the course of pre-Colombian & Colombian times.
More arepas! This woman was preparing arepas de huevo (arepas with egg). Yellow cornmeal is rolled and flattened, and then thrown into a deep fryer. It emerges looking like a taco and pita bread had a child. It’s then cut open, filled with ground beef and a full raw egg, and then thrown back in the fryer. Top it off with pico de gallo, spicy sauce, guacamole, and finally, suero (a sour-cream-like sauce). The Cartagena Connections guys explained that arepas de huevo are very indicative of many of the people that have settled in Cartagena – The egg was brought by the domesticated chickens brought over with the Spanish. The corn was already being grown by the indigenous populations. The frying and the seasoning of the beef was brought over by African slaves. And the suero, the fermented milk-based sauce was brought over by Syrian and Lebanese immigrant merchants, the same ones who would later spawn Shakira (Paste Magazine).
I was not convinced I was going to like this treat – Dried guayaba (imagine a very thick fruit chew) with queso costeño. The latter is cheese from the Caribbean coast – It looks almost like a block of feta, but the texture is quite soft and the taste a bit salty and at times almost flavorless. Fruit and cheese? I don’t have synesthesia…But I liked it! Interesting textures together, a surprise fiesta in the mouth.
There was a Scottish man staying in my hostel, he taught Spanish and French at a private school down in Cali. I thought he was Colombian at first, his Spanish without accent to my ears. Two of his friends had arrived from Medellin for the night, would I like to go out to dinner and salsa with them? It was exactly what I had had in mind. A Brazilian they met at the beach that day joined as well – Aside from the Scottish guy, no one spoke a word of English, so it was my first experience of the trip not just to communicate i.e., ask the price of something or for directions, but really to converse entirely in Spanish. And I held my own! Although I was pretty jealous that the Brazilian, with no formal training could find himself completely fluent after just a few weeks of traveling through Spanish-speaking South America.
Back at the hospital we scooped up our newly arrived Dutch roommate, and were off to salsa. We ended up at a small but maze-like Cuban club where tables and chairs formed small alleyways for a dance floor. Fidel Castro had died the day before, and patrons were dressed all in white, eyes transfixed to the screens of the television broadcasting images of memorial service for Fidel.
The party moved next door to a proper nightclub, filled with gringos, locals, and prostitutes dancing to salsa on the first floor and imported jams on the second. We moved from the second to the first, where the Colombians were teaching me the ways of salsa. Then the police showed up and shut the place down. I couldn’t confirm the rumors in the chaos. We spilled out into the plaza with hundreds of other party-goers, street vendors, and performers. The effects of having given in to the guys standing on the street corners whispering “Marijuana! Coca!” to passing-by tourists had finally caught up with the Scotsman, and the group slung him between their shoulders and ushered him back to the hostel together. I decided to call it a night too.
Outside of the Centro Historico, Boca Grande is an area of Cartagena that from afar could be Miami – It’s beach and condos for miles. Boca Grande is also the name of a beautiful old fashioned Florida town near my grandma’s, and these associations, conjuring up images of flat paved highways, pristine sidewalk, newness of Florida convinced me that it would be the same here in Cartagena. The Brazilian, Wellington aka “Tom”, from the night before had taken a certain liking to me, and said he do whatever I wanted that day. And I wanted to rent bikes and bike to Boca Grande. I also wanted to know why his name was Wellington, but he didn’t know.
Easier said than done. From the Centro Historico the sidewalk edging along the coast to the wealthy, condo-heavy area of Boca Grande was covered in rubble or gaping holes, and ran along a highway. It was rainy season and the roads were flooded from between a few inches to three or so feet. The bike ride was not exactly what I had in mind, but with my mother’s classic credo, “You’re not leaving until you have a good time,” in mind, I persisted along the muddy potholed highway, Tom pedaling behind. If he was unnerved biking along a Colombian highway on a rickety rented bike with shady gears, he didn’t show it.
Once in Boca Grande, we pedaled along the beach until we let ourselves be roped in by a very salesy fisherman, we had a full meal of fish and arroz con coco. I freaking love arroz con coco. Tom watched our stuff while I plunged myself into the ocean and then fell asleep on the sand, lulled to sleep by his endless repeating of “No gracias” to the many vendors of massages, marijuana, jewelry, cigarettes and whatever other things are for sale on a beach.
We biked back to the Centro Historico as the sun was just beginning to set, and we made a few circles around the walls of the town. We crossed through a park in Getsemaní, it was nothing special, but when I glanced to the left there was a massive king iguana! It was just lounging on the grass and trying to eat as many tuffs of it as it could. Tom and I took a million photos, the iguana practically posing for us. A mother and her two young sons stopped to ogle the creature as well, and the mother confirmed that it was not every day she saw a king iguana in her city, and that these are not the Colombian version of squirrels. He was really guapo.
Tom and I biked through to Plaza de Bolivar to sit down and eat the cups of fresh watermelon and mango we bought from a black woman in a traditional dress selling fruits and chasing her rambunctious 3 year old down the street. As there had been on my first night a group of eight or so teenagers were dancing traditional dances to the heavy beat of some drums. Flashbacks to traditional dances as I watched in Senegal and New Orleans, the music and movements forced from one side of the ocean to the other to reproduce themselves and evolve in a new land with new people. Sometimes the kids stripped down to nearly nothing, loin cloth and tassled bikini tops, feet and hands moving to an almost dangerous African beat, faster than your eyes can keep up with. For other dances the girls donned long hooped skirts and the boys danced around them in a manner more Spanish.
For my last night in the city I wanted to do something bougie, so Tom came with me to a semi-fancy restaurant, La Cevicheria. On the corner of a busy area, it’s still manages to having relaxing atmosphere despite the impromptu singer who set up a boom box and mike across the street, the writhe dancer she brought along, and the infamous rap duos with boomboxes tangled around their necks harassing locals and tourists alike. Somehow I was able to tune all that out and enjoy the subtle lighting, the nautical blues, the colorful combinations of fish in my ceviche, a crisp glass of white wine. A classy end to my first leg of the trip – I wouldn’t change out of my bathing suit for the next week up on the coast in Santa Marta.
To be continued!