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Friday, June 30, 2006

Romancing Cartagena...

If I liked Bogota, Cartagena astounded me. It was a Technicolor odyssey of architectural sights, set inside a fairy-tale-like wall that surrounded the city like a fort. Well, it WAS a fortress once upon a time ago. Cartagena is a port city, so of course, it was the sight of many a battle for occupation. Those Spanish, always trying to take over South America, one city at a time… The now-rusty canons that once fired at such Spanish proudly stand tall against the backdrop of a Caribbean Sea; the Colombian flags wave at intervals along the dated stone walkway (you can walk atop the wall surrounding the city – at sunset it makes for the beginning of a great night); the watchtowers still loom, nowadays filled with school kids peering out or lovers making out, and the skyline of a more modern side of Cartagena is outlined in the distance. It’s unlike any city I’ve been to in South America, and in keeping with my Colombian theme, it’s another favorite.

My stay in Cartagena was semi-quiet but amazing...
As most of you know, I like my beach time solitary, I’m not a big fan of sand-side chatter and nonsense; too much fuss in creating a relaxing environment negates the whole experience. I need an uncluttered space, and like a bit of solitude when I find myself near the water. Plus, this trip was ending and at each trip’s end, I get a little anxious. Cartagena provided beautifully. I stayed, as instructed, inside the walled city. I filled my mornings lazily taking breakfast poolside, spent afternoons on the beach, and evenings strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Cartagena. The vivid colors of the buildings; the people dancing in the streets at sunset; the horse-drawn carriages that transported people from place to place; the little cafes with dancing couples inside – heads of ladies on shoulders of men, hips in unison; the seafood menus that make me hungry just thinking about the coconut or cilantro based incarnations of fish stews, ceviches, and grilled filets; the beautifully lit churches that demanded attention against the night sky; the people, infused with a little bit of South America and little bit of Caribbean, as colorful as their city, and as hospitable. I took a trip to the Islas del Rosario, ecological islands that reminded me a little bit of the Galapagos because of their seclusion and their natural beauty. The boat-ride to Islas del Rosario showed Colombia to be a country of such diversity when comparing the hills of Bogota to the old city of Cartagena to the untouched jungles of the coast. The blue of the sky, meeting the green of the landscape, meeting the turquoise of the water. I feel almost as if I’m romanticizing Colombia, but really, I was just overcome by how surprised I was by this place, this country, these people. All of it.

I could tell you a hundred ridiculous stories about how I had to change my hotel room three times and after that everyone in the hotel knew me by name (“Aaaah, si, si…Senorita Martinez…” not, I’m pretty sure, in a good way), how I got into a scuffle with a church usher who wanted to take me into the church museum (I didn’t want to go) and he asked why I was being such a “scared American?” I could tell you how my Australian pop-star from Vietnam resurfaced and is now looking for ME to be HER friend or how I saw the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez going into his house (around the corner from my hotel), but I was too terrified (and way too sweaty, it’s about 100 degrees everyday here) to approach him and try to talk to a WRITER in Spanish (god, talk about grammatical pressure…). I can tell you how I seemingly had a stain on the back of my white skirt the day I went scuba diving that looked like blood, rendering me completely mortified in front of the Islas del Rosario tour group when I was the first out of the boat. I quickly became “that poor girl.” The kicker was that it was chocolate, not blood, but WHO would believe that if you saw what it looked like (and try explaining THAT to a boatload of vacationing Colombians). I can tell you how everyone gets searched, thoroughly and repeatedly, when flying anywhere in Colombia, and the guard, upon opening my bag and seeing the order, the effort, the anality with which I packed, looked up sheepishly, and said: “I’m going to ruin all of your very hard work,” and removed EVERY piece of clothing from the bag. I had to sit on my hands to actually allow it to happen – don’t even ask about HOW he repacked it all. I tried not to watch. Instead, I’ll just leave you with all the amazing feelings and images that Colombia inspired. I cannot wait to return, hopefully with someone who I know will be as awed and surprised as I was during their first trip. It’ll be a pleasure to experience that. There are only a few places where I’ve thought that: I MUST return with someone else to appreciate what I’m seeing. Both Bogota and Cartagena are two such places.

My trip finished as it started, in reverse. I found myself sitting in the airport in Panama City, awaiting a flight connection that would deposit me into NYC in the middle of night, instead of South America. Waiting with me were two precious little girls and their mother, in Ecuador World Cup shirts, going to New York from Quito for their second time, to visit some new friends. How apropos…life's little coincidences.

More soon from Europe…a very different trip with many different stories, I’m sure.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Horace Mann Bogota!

Like most people, I had my ideas about Colombia. I knew of the horror stories dealing with drug cartels, burning coca fields, drug “mules”, Pablo Escobar and his empire in Medellin, political kidnappings. I knew of pop culture references like coffee man Juan Valdez, Shakira and her fabulous hips (I’d love to be able to shake like that!), and writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (both books I devoured). I’d always heard it was “dangerous” to visit (as many of you reminded me on hearing I planned to come). However, having traveled around South America last year, I met many Colombians and other South Americans talking about this country; how beautiful it was, the mountains of Bogota, the beaches of Cartagena, how little it was visited by tourists, and I was intrigued. So now, having spent the last week here, I can say without hesitation, I’m fascinated. I will return; it’s easily my favorite country in South America, after Argentina. Everyone else should stop fretting and visit too, it’s amazing…

It’s funny, when I went to Bangkok I had been warned that I’d want to get in, get out; that the seedy underside of Bangkok outweighed its positives. I couldn’t have disagreed more. I loved Bangkok, in all of its seedy splendor and returned three times during my trip to SE Asia. I was given the same warnings about Bogota. And again, found myself enamored by a city that I didn’t expect to be taken with. (What’s with those B capitals…?) Bogota, set high above sea level, is about 60 degrees year-round, and has so much to offer. It’s at once modern and historic, trendy and old-fashioned, immaculate and filthy. Fabulously sleek tapas lounges sit next to old Colombian standbys. Chic little boutiques neighbor artisans souvenir shops. Beautiful red brick high-rises of the tree-lined northern districts are offset by the red-roofed colonial houses of the more southern Centro, or La Candelaria. The cobblestone streets rise and fall in sync with the altitude, and spending a day winding through them, -- the museums, the cafes, the plazas, the people-watching -- I found myself smiling a lot.

Part of my day in Bogota was spent in the Botero museum (the easiest way to describe his work is: he paints fat people – sounds mean, but you’d know his subjects if you saw his work), easily the best modern art museum, the most comprehensive I’ve seen on my trips yet. The art is both his own work AND his private collection of Picassos, Chagalls, Monets, Miros, and de Kooenings. The other part of my day was spent with a friend of China’s, the cute, funky Adriana, who sat outside in Usaquen (a northern plaza) for hours with me lazily drinking wine and talking shop: dating in Bogota vs dating in the NY, men in Colombia vs. men in the States. I found it’s all the same, we just speak different literal languages. Then, we went back to Adriana’s (their apartments are SO much more fantastic than ours!!!) to meet her friends. She was having a reunion of her four girlfriends from high-school. They hadn’t seen each other in ten years. All, except Adriana, are married. Two lived in the States, one in rural Colombia. One of the States-side girls lived in NYC . . .

The two girls that arrived first were the Colombian and one of the States girls who lives with her husband in Mississippi (Why, right? He’s Army.). They’re so sweet, unassuming, wouldn’t know a Blahnik or Choo if it him ‘em on the head. We’re chatting away in Spanish, they’re asking me about my trip, having wine, quietly…when the New York Colombian walked in. WELL…it was so scary how familiar it all became. She is stunning, hair just fresh-from-a-blow-out, with ends so perfectly flipped up, I could lick them. Camel pointy-toe boots, skinny leg jeans, blazer, blinding cushion-cut-rock on her finger, $2000 bag, and she talks faster than the wind. In BOTH Spanish and English. And, from that moment on, ONLY SHE TALKED. Everyone just listened to her fancy NYC life. She lives on Riverside, in the 90s, with her husband, “but they’re moving to Miami because it’s just too much money in New York and her two kids are both under four, but they’ve been in private school since they were 2, and they were at a point where they were starting to think about Horace-Mann and other schools that are competitive and does she want that for her children, for her life with her husband?” Going in and out the subway (and she mimes walking a stroller down the subway steps, in heels, with her bag...), not having a grassy place for them to play besides Central Park, and "the process of getting me, my husband, two kids, a nanny and TOYS to the park! Aye, Mammi!" They contemplated only having one child to stay in New York, “but she’s Latin and wants a big family like her own,” and blah blah blah…. And, I burst out laughing! Like, unable to help myself burst out! Because this WHOLE conversation, every hair-flip’s worth, is in staccato-Spanish BUT IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME AS oh-so-MANY I’VE OVERHEARD (or had with some of you…yes!) at home. I almost died…. Thankfully, she understood. Like I said, same shit, different language.

I didn’t continue onto dinner with them.
While I loved Adriana, there was only so much Horace Mann and hair-flips I wanted to take…in Bogota!

Onto Cartagena, the Caribbean city where, YES, Romancing the Stone was set.
I didn’t know that, but everyone else seemingly did…

More soon.