Since this is our anniversary, I wanted to get all romantic and write a bit of a love letter/thank you note to my adoptive city. It might help to explain what the heck I am doing all the way over here in Colombia. And maybe even inspire some of you to visit.
Cartagena! Mi vida! Mi amor! It's been one year since I found myself at your tiny aiport after flying from Buenos Aires, via Peru. We got off to a pretty good start right away. Despite never meeting me before, new friend Willy, picked me up from the airport and dropped me at my hotel. This, ofcourse, involved driving along Avenida Santander where I first saw the kilometres and kilometres of unobstructed beachfront I am now so familiar with, stretching out for me under the setting sun. And man! You sure know how to set a sun. Where do you even come up with those colours? The dreamy purples and blues, nudging their way into the shock of almost fluorescent orange and peach, all set off with a kindof halo of gold and a salty ocean haze. Each day your sunsets are different and differently spectacular. I never tire of them.
So I joined in. Obviously.
There was a tall, dark stranger who held my body close so that I had no choice but to move as he moved. I overcame my Australian “personal-space issues” and together we danced; sweaty, exhilarated and punctuated by shots of Colombia's own rum, until the sun threatened to rise again. I retreated to my beachfront hostel by way of a hilarious taxi driver, rested for a few hours, then set out once more under the gloriously warm sunshine, impatient to explore.
People often ask me, Why you? Why would I choose to live in Cartagena? My answer usually has something to do with the warmth, the colour, the music I encountered that first day walking around your streets, and that I continue to experience each day as I fall more and more in love with you. It somehow felt like you were giving me a giant hug. The way 8 different types of music were playing simultaneously from 8 different portable music players within the one short street and it still felt right. The way the vendors pushing carts of fruit, saturated in colour, would sing out their daily haul – aguacates, papaya, limones, so that the people in the houses could come out and buy from this ever moving mobile market. Everyone and everything here seems to move with music. The people act with kindness, humour and smiling eyes. Life is taken way less seriously than dancing here.
I've more than embraced the dancing way of life. I manage to dance in some way every single day. Sometimes all day (hello fiestas de independencia and Carnaval, I'm looking at you!). And that's good enough for you. The people have in turn embraced me; this crazy Australian who dances a lot like a Colombian (but a little too fast and a little too big – “mas SUAVE por favor!”) and it hasn't seemed to matter a great deal that my Spanish is below par, so long as they can see me wiggling with all my energy and with a mega-watt grin. I started going to Zumba classes with the amazing, incredible, inspirational Erv. We started giving the classes publicly in Plaza Trinidad. The locals, the children, the expats, the everyone – joined in.. lending me almost celebrity status in the barrio. One of the songs we dance to is that previously annoying car alarm sound. Like the entire song is made up of that series of sirens. So anyway, thanks to zumba and Erv and you, Cartagena, even a previously annoying sound now makes me smile and want to dance.
So yes, even though I definitely stand out here, I still feel like I fit in.
I've learned so much!
Drink half your cup when you buy a juice so you can get a top up free. Tourists never do that. Suckers. And isn't that awesome? You always want just that little bit more, right?
Catch a colectivo. This is the best concept ever. No matter where you are going you can always share a taxi with three other complete strangers and share the expense, you just have to know where to leave from and get ready to raise a single finger (this is the symbol for colectivo as opposed to regular private taxis). When I do catch a taxi (very infrequently) I know all the real set prices for the different barrios depending upon the time of day. And if the taxi driver says an amount higher, I've learned to say “No jodaaaa” until he realises I am, in fact, a costena disguised as a blonde Australian. I've also learned to decipher the meaning of the different taxi-horn beeps (“hey, I'm here”, “hey, want a ride?” “hey, you're pretty”, "Hey other taxi, if you don't move I will hit you", “Hey, I'm bored waiting in this traffic”).
I've learned to distinguish between merengue, vallenato, champeta, reggaeton, salsa, cumbia and bachata (among others) and do a passable impersonation of someone who knows how to dance each of the different styles.
I've learned a lot about your history, the stories, the monuments, the ongoing struggles, the controversies. There's still so much to learn. Your past reads like an adventure novel: Ameri-Indians and gold-filled tombs, Spanish kings and Inquisitions, corsairs and pirates, gold and emeralds, slavery and immigrants, cholera and Catholicism, fortifications and fights for Independence. You've definitely led an interesting life.
And wow! You are super popular! It seems everyone in the world wants to visit you, have a major international conference or event with you, get married with you. A city after my own heart, you really like to party. And when you party, you always do it for at least a week. None of this weak-assed single day stuff for you. No senor.
I've had pinch-me-moments where I've been invited to enormous colonial mansions with grotto-like swimming pools and chandeliers with real candles. Days out on yachts visiting private islands and eating lobster. Met inspirational people and certified geniuses. Basked in the glow of their ideas and ambition, then felt a little cold when they all inevitably packed up and returned to reality.
I haven't found a boyfriend. But I've amassed some seriously entertaining stories while I've looked. And I think I'm getting close to developing an understanding of the complexities of Colombian men and the way they are different according to which part of the country they hail from. And why I probably won't end up being with one. That's all fodder for a separate entry, however. Perhaps a book.
More importantly I've made some really amazing friends. America's best and brightest who are here working as part of Peace Corp or the Fullbright Scholar programme, other expats from around the world who are captivated by the latin world and have come here to teach or translate or volunteer and make a difference, others who work in tourism or hospitality, locals who are endlessly sharing their perspectives and priceless insider knowledge with me, or teaching me street-slang. People I've partied with, danced with, eaten with, spoken very bad Spanish with, felt a connection with, felt like I belonged with. People who visited for a short while but somehow formed a bond with me that I will carry forever. So many amazing friends that it really feels like it has to have been more than a year to have amassed such quality and quantity. I'm not going to name names, but thank you. I love you.
Can I just name random things I love about you now? Gonna.
I love the pimped out buses with all their glitter and signs praising God. I love the enterprising rappers and chocolate salesman that travel on them looking to make a bit of money. I love how the buses have sound effects (like a cheesy radio station) so they can wolf-whistle hot girls they pass.
I love all the public holidays you have. It seems like there's one a fortnight. Someone recently told me that Colombia is second only to Argentina as having the most public holidays in the world. Nice, right?
I love Getsemani and the feeling of community there. If one person owns something, the entire barrio owns it. Need a ladder? Well, go see Rodrigo. Need a hammer? Dario is your man etc. People have less, but then they also have more because everyone shares.
I love how it's always Summer. Always.
I love leaving the house feeling dowdy only to be declared a goddess, queen, precious princess (insert multiple other over-the-top compliments here) by every man I pass.
I love $3 pedicures and $4 haircuts.
I love bolis (frozen home-made ice-blocks in various tropical fruit flavours).
I love the bright pink Kola Roman softdrink. I especially like how big, tough men drink it completely unaware of how effeminate the pretty-pink creaming-soda-like drink appears. And gosh! The old 80s adverts are so awesome!! .
I love the Plazas: Trinidad for chess playing and friends-greeting. For watching freakishly talented youngsters play after-school soccer. For warming up with a few tienda-bought beverages before heading out for the night. San Diego to soak up the creativity of the artistic students who frequent it. Simon Bolivar to buy enyucado from one of the Palenqueras. Santa Domingo to watch Shakiro (your tubby-bellied male drag version of Shakira) mime and dance.
I love the way costena women colour-block. And colour-block in neon no less. Black? You've got to be kidding. Their patchwork painted houses are just as bright and I really believe all this colour makes people happy. It definitely makes me happy.
You can buy hot pork crackling whenever you want, but my obsession is coconut water. It's all new craze and fancypants in the first-world (or is it back to being old news now?) but here it is fresh from a coconut, fresh from the beach. The water is poured into the same long thin plastic bags they use for bolis, and tied off. When the bags are used and empty they look like condoms. This amuses me too.
I love all the hand/body gestures and their meanings, like how Colombians point to stuff with their lips. The way they say “no” with the most decisive finger-wave you've ever seen. [OK!! I will not give you any more tea.. sheeeesh!]
I love running along your bays, your beaches, feeling the salty breeze on my skin, perhaps on the way home, pausing to buy freshly caught fish from the very man who caught it.
I love that people love big butts here, to the extent that butt implants are really commonplace. If someone tells me my ass is big, it is 100% genuinely intended as a compliment. My roommate actually applies butt-enhancing cream every night in the hope of making hers bigger.
I love my work. Our website, www.thisiscartagena.com is going to be a huge success and I love that I've been on-board almost since the beginning. I'm also loving doing my tours with www.cartagenaconnections.com and sharing all the the things I love about you, giving visitors the local experience even if they are only in town for as little as a day.
I love your walls – 11 kilometres of communal seating area with amazing views surviving from the 1600s; the perfect perch for making-out, sunset-gazing, wish-making. Or just public drinking. I love how on Sundays they turn into the perfect backdrop for baseball.
I love how if you feel you need to “get-away”, you're just 15 minutes by dinghy from Tierra Bomba, which feels like your own private island retreat. And if you have ganas to go further afield, the islands just get more and more beautiful and remote.
There's things I don't love, ofcourse. My biggest gripe is the way people (like, every single person) litter your beaches, your streets, your waterways. Then they tell me it's good to do it because it gives the people who clean, an occupation. But the public cleaners only clean certain parts and the rest of the rubbish mounts up and clogs drainways, and lines the bottom of the bays and chokes wildlife and is stuffed amongst piles of rocks on the beach. But I am going to do what I can to try and change some of these attitudes.
And I've got time to do it. Although we're still in the honeymoon phase Cartagena, I really believe we have a future, and I plan to dedicate myself to making it work with you (sorry Mum).
So, thank you Cartagena for an amazing year. Thank you for giving me a place in the world. Here's hoping things just keep getting better.
And can we maybe do something about the boyfriend, please?