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Thoughts About the Town
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Thoughts About Cartagena

Cartagena has two very distinct central areas existing side by side.  One is a beautiful, well-preserved colonial city where the long past is always present. Just walking down  the streets of the old city of the viceroys you can feel the centuries moving underfoot and in the air you breathe. The other, called Bocagrande or  Big Mouth, is a modern sector, built up over the last four decades, with lots of beach and lots of high-rise apartment buildings. It’s similar to what you’d see in cities on the coasts of Florida, where the past has been completely banished.

The old walled city is not another taxidermic tourist spot, beautiful but dead.  It is a place which is still lived in and vital, where the details of day-to-day life have the well-worn and appealing homemade character of a small town.  But at the same time the place exudes a dreamlike, poetic quality because the details of everyday life are constantly seen in the context of the stateliness and outsized proportions of the city’s grand architectural setting. It lends them a touch of monumentality, the ephemeral is blessed by a few drops of the eternal, making it something of a haven for the artist in each of us.

If the large bronze efigy of Bolivar were to come alive and the great liberator were to descend, still mounted on his horse, from the large marble base of his monument at the center of the Plaza de Bolivar, he could easily gallop straight through the front door of the Palace of the Inquisition which borders one full side of the Plaza and he could well do the same through scores of other big doors (portones) throughout the city.   And the big door out front means high ceilings inside. If you have enough time to get used to the extra headspace low ceilings come to be seen or felt for what they really are: one of the curses of “modern” living.   

Then add to that the glad fact that here in Cartagena de Indias you are in the torrid zone of the planet, in a land of irrepressible growth, inexorable decay, and constant rebirth – it ain’t the four seasons, it is another kind of cycle rather like the one formed by the snake eating its own tail, where life eats life. And it’s a different time zone too, one marked vertically rather than horizontally: in the Northern latitudes clock time has more authority, and “Time is Money” as the famous equation goes. This drives whole populations to clock-madness and the rushing river, or what’s known as the rat race, of acceleration. “Gettting ahead “ of others means getting ahead of one’s self as well. Routine, the enemy of the simple creative condition of not always knowing what to expect, takes over and imposes an endless daily cycle of deadlines. People live with the sad irony that, on the whole, that have more things but less time to enjoy them. But this is accepted as part of the enviornment, like the rain in Pittsburgh.

The patinas that come from prolonged use are paid homage to here in a large bronze monument to the words of a local poet likening the feel of Cartagena to the affection that one feels for an old pair of shoes – one’s own of course, not those of another.

Worthy of mention is the absence of resentment among the races here. People here just don’t carry such baggage around with them. There is no such tension on the street. This is not to say that racism does not exist in Colombia. But it is racism felt on an institutional level in that you don’t see many black or indigenous people in high office or positions of economic power. But you don’t feel it  on an interpersonal level, at the level of the heart.  This is owing to el mestizaje - the mixing of the races – our manifest destiny -  is the cultural process that explains a spacious absence of the bad vibes of racial tension and conflict that cloud the social atmosphere elsewhere.  Somewhere in the big extended families practically everyone has a relative who is darker, lighter, more European looking, more indigenous looking.

 The conventional tourist literature on Cartagena almost invariably features scenes from inside the Old Walled City in which the streets are empty because the photos have been taken early on a Sunday morning.  So anyone contemplating a first visit to this Caribbean city could get the impression that this is a tourist spot of the taxidermic variety – extraordinarily well preserved  but dead – because no one really lives there anymore. While that is a danger, we haven’t reached that sad pass yet... However, any notion of that sort is dispelled completely as soon as you feel the vitality on the streets of the center of town which are filled of citizens most of the time.
Tourists sometimes ask, “Why are there so many people in the street?” The answer is that the climate permits it, the subsistence  economy demands it (business is done there), and it’s an aspect of the culture which everybody enjoys since people here are naturally gregarious. Watching street scenes you might feel a bit like you’ve entered one of those marvelous Bruegel paintings which visually catalogue different  classes of everyday human activity.  There’s a lot of freedom on the street.  The sense of public space has not been so diminished here, as it has been, for instance, in many parts of the United States. Score one for Latin American democratic values.

Take, for example, the strolling street vendors who earn their living  serving people on the street or in a plaza or a café. Throughout the city and its enormous environs all sorts of fruits and vegetables are sold by pushcart vendors There is a greater variety of fruits  in Colombia than in any other part of the world.  It’s no accident.  In fact, Colombia contains 15% of the biodiversity of the planet.

The pushcart vendors and others who hand-carry some smaller load announce their presence by shouting out the goods or services which they are selling (with a pregón) in a sharp, often in a bit nasal,  tone that penetrates into the interiors of the houses.

A dull tapping sound of metal on metal announces that a man selling butifarra, a local pork sausage - is near by. With his knife blade he will open up a portion for you drawn from the large aluminum bowl which he carries by a leather strap around his neck and   skewer a  piece for you. He’ll also provide you with some pepper, salt, or lemon to sprinkle on it if you like, and a napkin.

There is also a plethora of prepared foods and drinks  – empanadas, pandebono, peto caliente, lemonade, orange juice, all sorts of homemade snacks or munchables and meals on the run – tropical fast food eaten a portion at a time. 

You can buy just one of almost anything else as well, one candle, one flower, one cigarette, one diaper, one cell-phone minute (the price of aminute gets cheaper the farther away you get from the center) … one portion of a lottery ticket.

Previews: a few references to Cartagena de Indias in films which are available in part or in full on You Tube

Many movies have been filmed here over the years... 

“The Mission” directed by Roland Joffe and produced by Puttnam of which many of the scenes were filmed here in 1984.  You will find only swatches of the city scenes  shot  in Cartagena but in  this case it’s worth getting a copy. 

The film has an intense authenticity in its portrayal of colonial times without becoming tedious. It has a long list of excellent actors in the cast (and excellent extras as well) including Robert DeNiro as one of the main characters, a trader  of Indian slaves who becomes a penitent and finally a priest fighting for the liberty of the Indians after killing his own brother in a jealous rage.

“La Quemada” Marlon Brando was here for quite a spell in the 60s filming an interesting version of the William Walker story called La Quemada with Brando, of course, as the megalomaniacal Gringo who managed to take power in Nicaragua for a brief period early in the 20th century. A lot of Cartageneros were involved in the production. Brando is not remembered as the the most gracious of guests

”After a short stint as a lawyer, Walker became co-owner and editor of the newspaper New Orleans Crescent. In 1849, he moved to San Francisco, California, where he worked as a journalist and fought three duels, in two of which he was wounded. Around that time, Walker conceived the project of privately conquering vast regions of Latin America, where he would create states ruled by white English speakers. Such campaigns were then known as filibustering or freebooting ... included the legality of slavery... Walker was attempting to set up a slave-holding republic in Nicaragua”

Forget “Romancing the Stone” (if you can) – it was not filmed here and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Cartagena. Not even the pronunciation of the name Cartagena is correct (Michael Douglas, the leading (or, better said, misleading) man made it rhyme with hernia).

Love in the Time of Cholera The most recent film to be shot here is after the 1982 novel by the Colombian Nobel laureate in literature Gabriel García Márquez.  If you google Youtube and the title you can see as much as you like of it in Spanish or in English.  There’s also a segment there with warm and appreciative commentaries by the director, the producer, the actors, the crew, about their experiences working here in the city. 


Tour in Cartagena with Marelvy Peña-Hall © 2009
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