They have fruit salads with mango pieces in them!

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Cartagena, Colombia

1-7 December 2012

Bogotá and Cartagena are two Colombian cities. Both speak Spanish. That is about where the similarities end.

Where the capital is perched up high in the mountains in the interior of the country, Cartagena hugs the southern edge of the Caribbean Sea. While the former is the heart of business in the country, the latter focussed on tourism. Where Bogotá is cold and wet, despite its equatorial location, Cartagena enjoys warm weather year round. In fact, during my visit, it very much resembled the climate of a South East Queensland summer, with highs in the mid-thirties, warm nights, and high humidity. Being tropical, it had a plentiful supply of mangos, which floated my boat.

Cartagena is probably at the forefront of the Western mind of late, with good thanks to Barack Obama’s security, who decided to check out the local talent and hold a casual orgy while there for a summit.

Spanish built fortification of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Spanish built fortification of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Discounting that, Cartagena is a city with a fascinating history, the city was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish as a port city, for the purposes of exporting gold ‘acquired’ from the natives back to the motherland, and later as an important trading port of precious metals. Over the next couple of hundred years, the French and the English realised the value of the city, and both attempted to capture it. The Spanish poured today’s equivalent of trillions of dollars into repairing and fortifying the city, and maintained rule until 1811 when while Napoleon distracted the overlords by attempting to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, the Cartageneros declared independence. The lasting legacy, is a compact city centre, impressive castles, and countless historical curiosities dotted throughout the town. I got lost following the trail of cannons.

Besides, who isn’t impressed by a city surrounded by grand and impressive walls. What makes it even better, is when you can enjoy a delicious mojito while watching the sun set from atop the wall.

Sunset from Café del Mar

Sunset from Café del Mar

Right next to the centro histórico lies a peninsula called Bocagrande. From the moment I laid eyes on the towering high-rises by the beach from the window of my inbound 737, analogues of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast quickly formed. It is remarkable how similar the two places are – both heavily geared towards tourists, sporting countless glistening high-rise apartments, with popular beaches just across the road. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the two. Sure, the beach at Bocagrande isn’t quite as clean as Surfers, but local entrepreneurs have set up small tents along

Not the Gold Coast

Not the Gold Coast

the beach front for families to cheaply rent. Concessions exist on the beach for small huts to sell drinks without leaving the sand. And you’ll never go thirsty, with many souls walking around carrying Styrofoam boxes offering agua or cerveza as they stroll up and down the beach. Perhaps the Gold Coast could learn a thing or two?

Beach aside, Bocagrande is a pretty soulless part of town. Strip away the residential developments, the beach and the restaurants, and you are literally left with a few roads atop a sand bar.

Speaking of beaches, I’m kicking myself I didn’t use my full free day to take a boat ride to a famous local beach playa blanca, where you can literally sleep overnight in a hammock, hanging from a palm tree, looking out over the Caribbean. I could not think of anything more serene – except perhaps for the sandflies.

My primary objective in Cartagena was to use the time to improve my español, and it is arguable whether I succeeded or not. I undertook four hours of private lessons for five days, with señora Victoria. She bombarded me with information, teaching me the nuts and bolts of the Spanish language, how to conjugate verbs, what a reflexive verb is, how to impersonally use pronouns; I swear I know more grammatical jargon about the Spanish language than I do the one I natively use.

View from my balcony in Pie de la Popa

View from my balcony in Pie de la Popa

While there, I stayed with a home-stay family. The experience was certainly unique, and got off to shaky start. I was picked up at the airport, as previously arranged, and was taken to an older brick apartment block in a barrio called Pie de la Popa, about three kilometres south of centro. When I arrived, I was enthusiastically greeted by a fifty-something year old woman named Yolanda, who escorted me up to her apartment and showed me the room I would occupy for a week.

It quickly became evident that the language barrier would be a minor issue. She knew zero English, and my Spanish was next to non-existent – this was going to be a problem. Amid a barrage of words I didn’t understand, she said, “¿Vamos?” I recognised this as “let’s go,” and followed her out the door on a whistle stop tour of the city. It wasn’t until late on Sunday evening that her English-speaking son returned home from a weekend holiday to Medellin, when I received important information about my classes, such as where and when to go. You know, minor details I was slightly concerned about not having. All started to make sense.

By the end of the week, with the limited Spanish I knew, we were conversing and laughing about a few things, and it felt really good to be able to converse on that level, as poorly as my phrases were being constructed. On the last night, I treated Yolanda and her two grandchildren (or maybe nephews, I never quite worked that out), to the movies to watch the children’s film Rise of the Guardians in español (and 3D). They appreciated the gesture, and I was mildly surprised with how easy I was able to follow the story.

One of the many plazas in Centro Historico

One of the many plazas in Centro Historico

In my time there, I mastered the local public transport, comprised of many many busetas, small little buses with perhaps 20 seats. There seems to be very little coordination between them all. If you want to get in on the action, it seems you just buy a bus, and start driving along one of the de-facto established routes. The only thing that appears to be regulated is the price, 1,500 pesos (~$0.80) per journey.

It is a completely hail and ride system – end result, quite slow journey times. If the bus is not full as it leaves the centro histórico, they just drive slower, shouting at passers-by, hoping to pick up more passengers along the way. I’m told this is going to be a trend through much of South America. When you want to get off, you simply stand up and make a noise. It doesn’t really matter what noise, and I’m sure there’s an accepted phrase for it, but as long as the driver spots you indicating an interest in disembarking he will stop immediately.

You just need to ensure that the noise is much greater than that of the salsa music blaring out through the bus. It is a genre of music that is virtually inescapable in this place. It’s played in every store, blasted through every bus, emanates from the phones of the roadside vendors. Salsa is very much the soundtrack of Cartagena, if not the Caribbean*. It never really gets annoying, with the smooth percussive noises gently blending into the background, but it’s certainly ever-present.

Mind you, it was strangely refreshing that for a full week, I completely forgot the song Call Me Maybe existed.

Peak hour, Cartagena style

Peak hour, Cartagena style

*Complete assumption, I have no evidence to back this up

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