Cartagena

I step out on to the bustle of a street in Getsemani, a working neighborhood in Cartagena.  At once in the warm morning light, the smells of morning in South America assault my nostrils – soap and dirt mixes in the streets as businesses clean their floors in the morning light, mopping soapsuds into the gutters strewn with dust, chicken bones, and banana peels.  Urine in the doorways from some temporary passerby the previous evening intermingles with the inviting scent of strawberry pastries, newly baked and awaiting consumption in the bakery a few doors down.  Mangoes, chopped and displayed in a plastic cup for easy eating; limes, papayas, plantains, apples, passion fruits crowd the sidewalk forcing me into the street where I dodge carts, taxis, stray dogs, and the gente, making their way in the early morning light to work, meetings, or breakfast.

The warmth of the stucco walls painted in striking hues of pink, blue, orange, and yellow, offset with balconies and brightly colored doors, envelopes me when I pass by as though I were family.  I don’t worry about the way I’m holding my backpack, or the fact that I’m carrying my cell phone in my hand.  I wonder at our insistence on buying “alternative” wedding rings for traveling.  This is not a place I feel the least bit threatened.  I greet people with a slow, drawling “buenas” as I pass.  I saunter.  I don’t rush.

Cartagena breathes its own breath.  It is a city of its own making, its own shape and form, its own design.  Its colonial history informs its every action – the hierarchy of the fruit venders, the walls guarding the perimeter, the subtle verbiage used in the streets.  Cartagena is vibrant and alive – a city growing of its own ingenuity and richness rather than the calculated designs of urban planners and architects.  Cartagena rises and falls, soft and welcoming, heart pumping, sensual and alive.  It’s a city that stirs your blood and your loins.

It’s been a week and a half since I arrived.  And with each day that passes I fall more deeply under the spell of Cartagena.  I repeat the name, slowly, over and over again, swallowing my “g” sensually.  I consider naming my first child Cartagena.  I reconsider. I walk slowly, letting the hazy light fall gently, warmly, over my skin.  I wander the streets with my love, mojitos coursing through us, wondering where exactly we are amidst the old, winding streets.  We rise and fall down off the sidewalk and up again, into the street, around a fruit peddler, over a giant hole, under an overhanging window. This is not a city for the distracted – it holds you in its gaze and makes you pay attention.

I spend many a moment reflecting on the grace that has brought me here, and the warm soul who shares this adventure with me.  Though the future holds many uncertainties for us, each morning as we walk through the calles I feel that all is as it should be – we are in the right place, doing the right thing, and experiencing the wild a varied palette laid before us each day we spend in this beautiful world, growing together and storing away a cache of memories and experiences that will sustain us over the many years ahead.

Coming to Colombia

If you’re following along at home, we’re now in Colombia.  After a pretty bittersweet realization that we were sick of not having a home of our own (as we were driving somewhere in Iowa, having a pained discussion over travel logistics), we decided to truncate our plans for traveling more extensively in South American and the Caribbean and determined that a month in Colombia would suffice to scratch our travel itch.

On the way out, we spent a fun night in Chicago with some of Rick’s friends before boarding a plane bound for Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  With an overnight layover in Panama City, Panama, it was the cheapest ticket we could find and it didn’t require us to fly through Bogota.  However, it did require a stop in Panama – something I would normally be excited about except that my passport expires at the end of March, making me just a few days short of the three month validity needed to enter the country. Definitely a potential issue.  But, we thought to ourselves, “Hey, the most they’ll do is keep us in the airport.”  So, though I was pretty apprehensive about trying it, once we landed, we made our way to immigration to head into Panama City.  We waited in line for almost an hour, and when we approached our agent he was all smiles.  That is until I saw him whip out his counting fingers and determine that I was a few days short of the required minimum.  He let out an agonized whiney sound, apparently exasperated at the fact that we were so close, yet so far from being legal, then told us to wait a minute.  I nodded, and mentioned our connecting flight to Cartagena the next morning.  About 10 minutes later he came back and asked us to follow him.

We walked to a small office where another couple was waiting, and watched our agent plead our case to a small, mean-looking woman inside.  He returned to us with his head hung low and looked me in the eye,  “You will need to take the next flight back to Chicago.  He can come with you or stay.”  I looked at him and decided to play the stupid card, “I don’t understand!  Can I speak to someone else?” He repeated again that I would need to fly back on the next flight to Chicago, leaving in a few hours.  In absolute disbelief,  I looked at Rick, looked at my agent, and said , “We could stay in the airport!  If I had never come through immigration, you wouldn’t have even known.  Please, we won’t leave! We have tickets to Cartagena in the morning!”  He looked at me, sighed and agreed that, yes, they would never have known the difference. Then he turned back towards the office to plead my case again.  I glanced at Rick, my eyes saying clearly, “Why the hell did we attempt to leave the airport!?”

Moments later, the little mean-looking woman came out and barked, “digame!” at me.  I explained, over mounting tears, that we had tickets for Cartagena in the morning and that we only wanted to stay in the airport.  We didn’t need to leave.  She looked at my tickets, thought about it for about a minute, which felt more like ten, and then agreed that if we didn’t leave the airport we could go on to Cartagena. We turned, mounted the stairs back into the airport and settled in for the night.

So, with an awkward overnight in the Panama City airport, so began our travels.

Now, after a bus ride so bad it’s actually funny (I sat next to a piece of cardboard which replaced a broken window, there was glass all over the floor, the video player was broken and repeatedly played one accordion note about every two minutes, and then the bus broke down and we had to switch in Barranquilla), Rick and I are back in Cartagena for week two of spanish classes.  We’re having a great time so far – loving all the AMAZING food, welcoming and friendly people, and warmth – and mostly just trying to find a balance between work and play.  I have to remind myself that traveling in South America isn’t all fun and games – or that maybe I have passed the point where what used to seem fun now just seems irritating.  There is a lot of garbage, a lot of bad and overpriced hostels, and a lot of really loud, young Israeli, Argentine, American, and Aussie tourists.  Having been young, loud, and a tourist once before around here, I now see with a newfound maturity, how obnoxious it can be.  Though, I shouldn’t blame the tourists exclusively.  As we travel, Rick and I are realizing that our lifestyle of waking up at six for a workout and going to bed by eleven, just doesn’t compute with the standard Colombian schedule.  So, it goes, and we adapt. And by adapt, I mean, we lose workouts and occasionally some sleep.

But, hey, we’re having fun!