One of my first thoughts arriving in Cartagena was how similar the city is to my native city of Recife, in Brasil. Firstly, the extreme tropical heat and humidity, which gave me a pleasant jolt as I exited the plane and walked outside across the Tarmac to the gate. I immediately felt my travel mojo take over me like a wave – the travel high I know will help sustain me until the end of my journey.
Arriving at the airport, a huge line forms at immigration and security doesn’t even arrive to check our passports for another 10 minutes. The whole immigration, baggage claim, and customs process taking over an hour, I am reminded of the laid back nature of my coastal city in Brasil and the parallels with this city – there is little need to rush in this third world country.
Such is Colombia. I smile. I realize that I’ve started my journey with the opportunity to just settle into the city of Cartagena, and to release any expectations of the stresses and bustle of New York City. I’ve dutily arrived in South America, and although some areas more than others will resemble more of the structure that I’m used to in my day-to-day and in my travels to Europe, I shall entrench myself into a slower pace. Yes, busses will be late, it will take far longer to get from point A to point B than advertised, you’ll wait too long for your meal a restaurant, and you’ll learn of all the daily inconveniences that you otherwise take for granted, such as how ATMs are extremely rare in most areas and that gas stations across the street from Petroleum factories may actually be out of gasoline. These minor oddities mark the pace of this city.
I am Brasilian and Greek, two notable cultures with a more laid back lifestyle. But, for better or worse, I’m also very much a New-Yorker at heart. And so the slowness is a challenge for me, as it is whenever I go back to visit my family in Recife. But this is a journey where I accept the challenges and learn from them, no matter how insignificant this all may seem to an outsider. Unlike the other times I’ve traveled, where I would find myself acting like a frustrated New Yorker trying to catch a subway or push through Times Square, I’m going to pause, breathe, and remember where I am and who’s culture I’ve been graciously allowed to experience. It may seem odd that as an experience traveler, I haven’t yet thought to settle into the circumstances in this way. But truthfully I have only been able to let go of my habits only half the time. It’s humbling to allow myself to let these inconvenience just be.
I need to remember how life has gone on in this way in a given place far longer than I arrived, and it will continue to do so after I’ve departed. This attitude is not to be confused with an excuse for or allowing bad behavior. Rather it’s a deep acceptance of a culture and of one’s very temporary place in it, of being given the chance to dive into the fish tank instead of just watching and tapping the glass from the outside.
Being given this chance also means I get to experience all the good things which in almost every case, far outweigh the bad. This is what traveling is all about. This is why the “bad” is equally important in one’s experience.
The good things in Cartagena are magical. Fresh fruits and fruit juices, yummy cheese Arepas, the colorful buildings next to the old churches within the old city walls. The friendliness of the people, their nonstop urge to eat, drink, and party. The salsa music and never ending love of dance. The crystal blue waters off the Rosario Islands. The colonial history rooted in the Castello San Felipe. Botero Sculptures. Cartagena is full of life and deeply rooted culture. Getsemani, the backpacker’s area, is the Brooklyn to the old city’s Manhattan, yet only a short walk away.
A local lunch or dinner “Menu” consisting of fresh fish, rice, salad, fried plantains, and soup will push you back $3. A bowl of freshly cut fruit, $0.64. An Aquila beer, $1. It’s no surprise backpackers love Cartagena. And there’s a party every night of the week. An old villa converted into a hostel hosts a well known party on its roof every Wednesday night, where foreigners and locals drink and dance to live salsa, reggaeton, and local champeta music all night long. It was amazing to see the almost equal mix of Cartagena’s men and women partying until 5am with the backpackers. The salsa bar and the nightclub I went to the night before were no different. It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to where there is no divide among the locals and tourists, where the best parties are welcome to all.
I visited the Mercado Bazurto on my last full day in Cartagena. I left my phone, backpack, and camera behind, and only took enough money to get myself there and back. It’s not recommended to go there with any valuables for there is a high rate of pick-pocketing. And so unfortunately I have no photos to document the hustle and bustle of this incredible market. Shoes are sold across from the fresh fish, fruit stands next to a barber, and raggaeton music blasts in a makeshift bar/restaurant alongside a live birds and chick vendor that dyed the chicks hot pink and blue. It was crowded, noisy, dirty, chaotic, and most of all, fully alive.