On the bus to Cartagena I am still the only gringo in the whole world and I get attention accordingly. The army officer, smiling and joking with everyone, finds my Finnish passport hilarious. "Él es gringo", shouts someone as an explanation, when the officer wakes me up and, disoriented, I mumble back a greeting in a mix of portuguese and spanish. Apparently it is these tiny details that make the gringo so funny. But the high-spirited officer seems to make the whole situation of the Colombian armed conflict and the constant risk of bus robberies somehow less threatening, and right now we are all very grateful for him being there, political issues aside.
At the border, the walls of the immigration office were filled with posters promising rewards for tips leading to capture of FARC-terrorists. The more important man, the fatter the reward and the bigger the mugshot. A somewhat unclear photo of recently killed FARC-leader Raul Reyes and a few of the smaller crooks had a red X drawn over them. Meanwhile in Caracas, the walls were announcing their love to Reyes: memorial slogans thrown on every surface, a stencil of his face on a Coca-Cola-truck, along with a message, short and clear: "Mata Columbianos!" (But no matter the political stances, this continent won´t give up on Coca-Cola. Even the socialist revolution is fuelled with Coke. "Argentina produces the best meat in the world and some of the best wines in the world, but the Argentinians, they eat the meat with the Coke and mix the wines with the Coke", a friend in Buenos Aires sighed one evening a hundred years ago, when we were gathered for a dinner in his strangly sad but homely apartment on Corrientes, high above the rooftops of the city, and a tropical thunderstorm was raging all around us.)
Other sights along the way: A lay preacher, furious, is screaming the Word at a busstop, veins throbbing in his arms that are desperately gripping a Bible against his chest like a drowning man might be hanging to a shard of driftwood, while I am trying to explain the Finnish weather and seasons to another highly interested and amazed local. How is it possible to sleep if the sun doesn´t set in the summer? (It all started, as usual, with following sentence: "¿Finlandia? ¿Es muy frio, no?") The roadside is a somewhat African sight, littered with a colorful mosaic of thrash. Motorbikes loaded with exotic, unknown fruits. Boys riding skeletal mules.
And then Cartagena de Indias, Ciudad Heroica. Basic facts from a travel guide: founded in 1533, Cartagena quickly flourished into the main Spanish outpost in South America, a port for African slaves and gold looted from the continent, and a hub between Europe, Caribbean and South-America. Riches piled into the city, waiting for shipping to Spain, which attracted a number of fierce pirate attacks. After the most famous one, launched by the legendary English corsair Sir Francis Drake, the city underwent heavy fortification and during two centuries, a thick walls were built to protect it. Today, the old city is still incredibly well-preserved and Cartagena has become a trendy tourist resort, main Colombian port and a city of nearly one million inhabitants. Despite it's somewhat touristy atmosphere, it is a beautiful city with a rich mix of the black, spanish and indigenous cultures.
It's already night when I get into the town. The surreal atmosphere of all the Latin American clichés coming to life: There are busses, with blinking discolights both on the inside and the outside, pumping vallenato at ear-blasting volume, painted in wildest colours and patterns. The busses are stuck in a hopeless mess of a traffic jam, together with ancient, imported American cars ready to fall apart any moment and tiny rikshas: a honking, beeping, banging and singing Gordion's knot tied of neon lights and rusting metal painted in tropical colors.
Outside the taxi I am immediately assaulted by the street vendors. Everything is on sale. Cuban cigars. Jewelry made of coral. Drawings of historic streets, this is the Plaza Bolivar and the Palace of the Inquisition behind it, but don't be scared, all the five witches found in Cartagena were burned centuries ago. Pictures of saints, collections of reggaeton, pirated, naturally. Fruits, fruits, fruits I´ve never imagined even existed. "Llamadas, llamadas!" A girl sits in a street corner, she is a call-center, offering calls on her mobile phone, about 0.1 euros for phoning home. A street kid is selling an emerald for a dollar. Columbian pesos are exhanged at an incredibly bad rate. "No, gracias", I tell the huge black vendor, but he is not satisfied. "No, gracias, de verdad, no necesito." Perhaps it is something in my tone, perhaps something about my face, but the vendor gets really mad. "Fuck you! Fuck you!" he screams, the only sentence he knows in English. For the rest of the evening, while wandering around the less well-kept streets of crumbling colonial Getsemaní I seem to bump into this same man and then the dirty walls decorated with puke and spit echo with that same scream. "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU, GRINGO!"
The sunrise brings with it the atmosphere of all things Caribbean. Rhum and pineapple juice. Straw hats, white cotton. Colorful umbrellas in pastel colors. The heat and the cool breeze from the sea. Colonial houses in Technicolour and overhanging balconies full of flowers in a seemingly endless bloom, palm trees, banana trees, all kinds of nameless trees shading the plazas that carry the names of generals and war heroes from the past. Like a set for a pirate film, everything is ready to transport you centuries back in time, old black ladies in colorful dresses, bowls of fruits meticulously balanced on their heads, bananas, pineapples, watermelons, all carefully selected by their color, then cut open and maybe sprinkled with water, and nothing too exotic, but safe, familiar fruits, and you cannot help asking yourself, is this all just for the tourists?
The invasion of barbarians. All kinds of tourists fit in, but the lines are clearly drawn. Getsemaní, dodgy and in a state of sad disrepair and decay, is packed full with backpackers in the search of the cheapest prices and perhaps some of that so-called authentic atmosphere this market segment so highly appreciates.
The rest of the historical center is in an almost too perfect condition. This is where the wealthier tourists flock, mainly loud, middle-aged Americans. They live in the modern highrises of the southern barrios like Bocagrande, in blindingly white towers designed to resemble decks of a ship; the architects dreamed of luxurious ocean cruisers and sleek sails ready for a race around the world and hidden in the wall I count seven air conditioners per an apartment, even the balconies have a ceiling fan. These people came here on a daily direct Avianca-flight from Miami, professional pensioners, grey-haired men and blonded-haired women, they know all about lounging in the shade holding a sweet coctail. At a coffee shop, wealthy locals sip on excellent Colombian expresso and two middle-aged males, armed for the tourist picture-race with professional-quality cameras, are shamelessly taking advantage of their nationality and their wealth, hitting on two beautiful Colombian girls half their age. Men only speak English, in fat, southern accents, describing their home state Florida, and the girls sit quiet, wide-eyed, either bewildered by the glamorous (though wrinkled and slightly over-weight) aliens or wonders hidden in the few English words they grasp. Nothing, if even all the cannons of Drake failed, can destroy the charm of the colonial Cartagena, but at the same time, there is something highly themeparkish to it.
But what right do I have to deny the locals the chance to take an advantage of the flood of the tourists, being one myself? In my search for authenticity, that mythic off-the-beaten-track experience, desperately preached on the pages of Lonely Planet's South America on Shoestring-guide that is found in every dusty old backpack on this continent, mine included, would I rather see the city in ruins? Is the authenticity then found in the homeless lying in the filthy shadows of the meaner streets of Getsemaní? Or perhaps the dirt-crusted street kid begging for a dollar, a whore hissing after you, "shh, senhor, mira aqui", or maybe the pusherman, "senhor, tengo porro, tengo cocaina" - is that the taste of sweet, fabulous authenticity?
Meet William: The honest con-man, the benevolent trickster, the saint of bullshit. William's big trick is that he believes in his own lies. He greets you when you haul your backpack around the Getsemaní and he honestly wants to help you. A thin, jet-black man on his fifties, dressed in humble and cheap but always smart and clean clothes. Bad teeth, big, mostly white smile and shining eyes. He owns the whole barrio, he tells you, and all the people on the street can confirm this, sure William, what ever. He knew another Finnish guy, a very nice person but drank three beers every morning, every morning under William's window this guy was shouting: "Oi, William, wake up, let's go for a beer!" William won't leave you before you've found a place to stay and he only charges one beer, or the price of four, for his services.
Next morning he is there again, waiting for you at the hotel door, he's playing with the row of pens and small tools decorating his shirt pocket. There is a girl looking for you, he announces proudly, but you don't know any girls in the town, you just got here. Are you sure? William is alarmed, he draws his hand from the shirt pocket, holding, disappointedly, a tiny screw-driver. You don't want to let William down: Well, perhaps this German girl you met along the way here, but there's really no way she'd be looking for you, that was weeks ago. William's eyes light up, yes, she probably was German, now could you spare a little money for the Saint William, because he has this sweet lady he needs to meet, he will certainly pay back tomorrow.
No, haven't got any. That is a white lie. You just think that certainly you have already given William enough. But today William still really believes that he will return the money tomorrow - so did the tables just turn, did you then become the liar in here? Okay, everything is cool, how about a tour to Playa Blanca, William knows a good one, and did you already check out La Habana? Perhaps tomorrow. Okay, tomorrow then, but could you at least spare a coke? No, sorry, totally broke. Honest. William smiles sadly, waves a goodbye and you feel like one dishonest piece of shit while you turn and climb the stairs to your room.
If both of you believe in the William's words then perhaps they really become true in a strange way? There is a band playing every evening at the close-by salsa bar La Habana, an enormous hall decorated from the floor to the ceiling with Cuba-memorabilia and spider-webs and black and white photos of musicians and dusty maps of Havana and of course the christmas lights and flags of Cuba in all sizes. Maybe some foreign friend had a peso to spare and William is dancing with the young Colombian girls, whirling around an amazing girl in a thight, short dress of yellow flower-prints. William has nothing nasty in mind, he dances with both ugly and beautiful girls, both fat and thin, he just enjoys dancing, flashing that mostly white smile, a screw-driver still in the front pocket of his old but clean almost white shirt.
Posters of Orient Express, Constantinople and French absinth. In each street corner, a fabric sack, full of coconut shells hacked to pieces, leftovers of the steaming day. Antique stores selling ship-parts and books ready to fall apart. Scenes from some romantic dream. At the intersection where the main streets connect lights and diamonds sparkle, lights on the opposite shore, lights of the roaring cars, diamonds in the deep velvet sky, diamonds on the string tops and the deep velvet eyes of mulata-girls. On the peaceful, residential sidestreets of barrio San Diego, glimpse the life of the regular families as they open their windows for a taste of cool evening air: grandmothers forgotten in rocking chairs, kids clinging to the iron bars of the windows like little monkeys, a young mother lazily browsing YouTube below the anguished eyes of a huge, grim painting of the Jesus bleeding on the cross. And as the streets bathe in the soft light of the full moon, it becomes obvious that they are haunted. There are the ghosts of the generations of generals, slaves, bankers and maids, whores, mariners, pirates, indians; inquisitors and preachermen, witches and beggars and fishermen, singers and drummers and violinists, thieves, murderers and murdered, accountants, lawyers, doctors and merchants and cooks, woodsmiths and caretakers, and there are a thousand other ghosts of those who are only remembered on the dusty pages in the archives, and finally there are a ten thousand fading ghosts more, hardly more than shadows, of those not remembered at all, their sad moaning lost in the wind from the sea.
According to Jorge García Usta´s book García Márquez en Cartagena - Sus Inicios Literarios (2007, Seix Barral) it was here that the great Colombian Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez found his literary roots. Márquez lived in Cartagena during the years 1948-1949, working in the liberal newspaper El Universal. Here, the young novelist-to-become started developing his style in an intensive exchange between a group of friends. And even though the main point of Usta´s argument is the nourishing effect of the close circle of kindred spirits, it is tempting to think that something of Cartagena´s rich mix of cultures and mythic history remains visible in the rich, lush, magical style of Márquez.
Friday, April 18, 2008