eso es en Cartagena

by Jacqui

I’m home!  Well, back in Medellin, which will continue to be my home for the next few weeks.  On Wednesday (or was it Tuesday?)  I took an overnight bus (translation: 13 hours) to Cartagena, a town on the Caribbean coast of Northern Colombia.  I had heard of it as a must-see destination since arriving in Medellin.  Mary Jo has been twice, and so if I wanted to go, I knew I was doing it solo.

(The picture below was taken from Mary Jo’s balcony, straight from the camera.  I will never tire of this view.)

The smart thing to do before settling back in your single digit degree of reclinable chair is to pop a sleeping aid, be it prescribed or over the counter (read:  whiskey), make sure your blanket is covering your feet, and let the driver gently shake you awake the next morning once you’ve arrived at your destination.  The smart thing is not to innocently climb aboard the bus, bottle of water gripped in hand, book in the other, and think that you’re going to get some solid reading time in before dozing pleasantly to sleep to the always calming, choice sounds of Sade whispering to you through your earbuds.  The ride from Cartagena to Medellin takes 12-13 hours by bus, or one hour by plane.  The difference in a one-way ticket is around $50, but when you are traveling on an extremely tight budget, and when time is on your side, the answer to which route you should take is pretty clear.  The reason the time difference is so great is because by plane, you are basically coasting at a descent towards the sea from the mountains, a straight shot from Medellin to Cartagena.  By bus, the route winds around mountains on a mostly two lane road, shared with trucks transporting livestock, very likely.  Have you ever taken a bus from Chinatown in New York to Boston, or Washington D.C.?  Lucky Star?  The experience is pretty similar to that, meaning you just sort of have to realize that by choosing to take the cheaper route, nothing is guaranteed, and that it is, indeed, in your best interest to just squeeze your eyes shut and imagine you are on a super exciting and impressively realistic simulated ride, a themed roller coaster thumping Reggaeton as the driver swerves into oncoming traffic in order to check if it’s safe to pass the vehicle in front of him, that he has surely obtained a legitimate license earlier than yesterday, and trust that all will be rosy in the morning.

And it is!  And you feel like you’ve accomplished something once you’ve arrived, even though you did nothing but doze in and out of sleep and drool and accidentally elbow your neighbor in the head (in my defense, she was completely covered by a blanket, and if not for her impressive flexibility, her head would have been resting on my shoulder instead of near my ribs).  The real accomplishment is surviving a taxi ride from the bus station to the middle of Cartagena.  Sweet moses.  In my entire 27 years of existence prior to last Wednesday, I was convinced that the worst drivers were located in the southern part of the United States, where a large amount of retirees tend to migrate to, where tourists saturate and rent cars and cover steering wheels with gigantic maps looking for a yellow brick road, and where far too many kids are given luxury cars with no threat of consequence should they choose to engage in risky behavior before they are even old enough to legally vote.  This place I speak of is Florida.  Sure, European drivers might have a reputation for being a bit crazy, but Cartagena takes the cake for the worst.  drivers.  ever.  And they are scam artists, those cabbies!  There are no meters in their cars, so it’s a good thing I had people tell me how much I should pay, or I would have exceeded my budget for the day before I even stepped out on the streets of my destination.

I arrive at my hostel.  There is no room.  I am kindly told that there might be an opening in a few minutes, if I’d like to wait.  So I do, for about 10 minutes.  I wonder if a few minutes might mean a few hours, but I don’t know how to politely express my curiosities in Spanish.  So I wait longer.  I finally call Mary Jo’s friend, Sam, who also happens to be in Cartagena for the week.  Mercifully, he answers, and there are open rooms at his hotel for around $25 a night.  My backpack is heavy, Cartagena is hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch, I’m hungry and thirsty and I don’t know my way around, and so I give up trying to find another hostel and I take a cab straight to Sam’s hotel.  I was sort of disappointed that I wouldn’t be staying in a hostel, since I never had before, but also secretly excited that I’d have my own bathroom (for $25!) after all.

Cartagena! How can I describe this….I never knew this city existed until a few months ago.  It is divided into the old city and the new.  The architecture is Spanish colonial style, in colors of turquoise and tangerine and celestial blue and lime and bright white.  The streets are too narrow for more than one lane of traffic.  Huge oak doors studded with two inch diameter nails (the bigger the nails, the wealthier the home owners in those days) hide stunningly gorgeous spaces with pools, open terraces, marble lobbies of boutique hotels.  I love to look into windows as I pass by houses and apartments, to get a quick glimpse into the lives of others.  I know it’s nosy.  Cartagena is a haven for idiosyncrasies of this nature.

We sat on the beach, drank hot sugared coffee from plastic shot glasses (it’s a thing there), sampled tamarind sugar balls and coconut wafers from a woman who balanced a bowl full of sweets on her head, tried every kind of Colombian beer that exists (which is only 5 or 6), met some really cool people from Chicago, Sao Paulo, Pereira, Austin, Venezuela, and Ireland, and I did get to stay in a hostel after all (found one while walking to dinner the first night).  The first night, I was ill-prepared for bed and subsequently as I walked into my shared room, 7 heads turned in my direction when I turned on the light to find my bed, and, not wanting to upset anyone further by rummaging around in my bag for a toothbrush, a t-shirt, or earplugs, decided to keep my standards high and to just sleep in my clothes.

More to come…