Are you American?
"No.. soy Australiana"...[ Pause for wide-eyed disbelief] "Sii... Muy lejos!" (Very far).
He insisted. But.. do you play baseball?
Well.. when I was a child I played softball. He agreed it was the same thing and started talking excitedly with the others.
It was Wednesday night. I was in the Plaza Trinidad Getsemani, watching the old-timers labour over their chessboards and occasionally getting flogged royally by whichever of their number decided to take pity on me and give me a go.
But now something else had piqued their interest: my supposed proficiency in baseball. Another hour of heated discussion and it was decided. I would be joining one of the local women's baseball teams. I was ushered off with vague instructions that I would be playing on Sunday at 4pm.
I didn't know where, who with, what or much else. I needn't have worried. The entire neighbourhood knew everything on my behalf. For the next few days as I walked the street, the usual greetings were modified to include a mimed baseball swing and a thumbs up. Then on the appointed day, I was walking home after a meeting at about 3pm and a skinny kid with an enormous smile came running up to me.. talking quickly and grabbing my hand. I needed to come play baseball NOW.
I quickly shoved on what I thought was baseball-appropriate attire and tried to keep pace with my new friend as he weaved in and out of the backstreets. As we ran, I received the excited calls of good luck from my neighbours. The kid led me to the team captain who explained (eventually) that I would also need a photo for the registration card. Woah. This was official. Paperwork completed, I was dragged (literally) by three girls to meet the coach.
I started to get a bit nervous. I mean, the last time I had held a bat was when I was ten years old. Ten. And now there was a building crowd and a coach and an entire neighbourhood cheering me on.
The coach took me through some warm ups. Catching. Fielding. Batting. I cost the team 4 balls as I belted them over the buildings. Oops. Coach seemed happy though. As I completed the drills I noticed a couple of the old-timers from the Plaza watching my progress from the side and nodding conspiratorially amongst themselves.
Then the drills stopped, there was more rapid discussion in indecipherable Costeno Spanish and I was dragged off once again. This time it was to the house of one of my teammates (picture a city shack, 6 people sharing a double bed, clothes strung throughout the ceiling and a lot of happy semi-clad children) to get my uniform which was, appropriately enough, an incredibly bright pink tshirt. Awesome.
I was ready to play.
So the venue. I found the above photo that someone else took over a year ago through a google search. But when I arrived in my bright pink tshirt, the wall was filled with supporters. Standing room only filled. And standing is dangerous because a home run is whenever you hit the ball over the wall. Some had signs. Some had noisemakers. The wall you see in the photo is centuries old (like 16th?) and I think you'll agree it makes a pretty impressive backdrop for a first-time baseball game. Home base is actually on the other side of the road now. And the streets are filled with hotdog and hamburger vendors. The photo also doesn't show the music. I mean it can't. But the music was blaring! Contagious wiggle-your-bum salsa, hip-grinding reggaeton, sing-out-your-soul vallenato. I joined my teammates at the side of the diamond and waited. There was a game still in progress and I witnessed one of the most Colombian scenes ever. Bases loaded, scores locked and still the tubby guy on third base couldn't help himself from dancing when his favourite song came on. Classic.
So the game itself was pretty straightforward. I batted fourth and managed to equip myself fairly ably, hitting the first ball I faced and making it to first base. Our next 2 players struck out, but then curvaceous Catalina hit a cracker and I sprinted for home. Unbeknownst to me I had accumulated something of a fanclub, and as I pounded into homebase, they erupted into a stirring chant of "GRINGA GRINGA GRINGA!!!". My teammates surrounded me, hugged me, high-fived me. It's been a long time since I have felt such a profound sense of accomplishment.
Then it was three out, change sides. In the field we kept the other team to a single run also but they were noticeably better than us. Next time at bat I repeated my first-ball, first-hit effort and made it to first. But we were three out before I could make it home. The crowd shouted instructions throughout the game. And this crazy crazy fanatic who I think was aligned to our team, was forcibly removed on two occasions for screaming at the umpire. The final score was 3-1 to the other team. And unfortunately my teammates didn't accept the loss graciously. The game ended with them shouting at the umpire something I still don't understand and storming off to gossip amongst themselves and leaving me bewildered and shaking hands with the girls of the other team.
It was crazy, colourful, manic and I loved every minute of it.
So.. putting on my tour guide hat now.. If you are in Cartagena on a Sunday you must must must get yourself along to a ball game. Buy a hotdog con todos (with everything), a beer or kola roman from the local store, plonk yourself down on the wall and soak up a non-touristy but totally delicious chunk of Cartagena flavour. And look out for a tall blonde girl on second base who can't help herself from dancing between batters.