I am normally a tea drinker but this morning in Cartagena, a cup of coffee was what I needed. I wandered down to the ship’s coffee station and placed my order.
Usually a strict, young blond, most likely of Eastern European background, rations out the coffee requests. She would be pretty if she weren’t so stern and clearly judgmental. But this morning there is a new woman this morning and she is much friendlier. Her dark hair is pulled back and she goes cheerfully about her tasks. I far prefer todays barista who hands me my coffee.
It is hot.
Both the coffee and the weather.
The heat of the weather is oppressive and omnipresent, except in the super cooled ship’s air. This bubble of western opulence is docked in Cartagena for the second day. The first day I had high hopes for this Caribbean city, but my hopes were quickly dashed.
Yesterday I took a tour of Old Town Cartagena. It was a disaster on many levels. Super cooled buses deposited tourists at touristy shops to shop. Colorfully dressed women with fruit baskets balanced on their heads demanding payment for pictures.
But it was the throngs of vendors that appeared with each step that did it fo me. Pearls! Hats! Cigars! They thrust their wares into my face.
“No,” I reply.
But they pester at every step. They step in front of me, impeding my ability to simply walk, and hawk their wares.
I feel hunted.
I feel unsafe.
Then there was the ignomy of group travel. This is just not for me. I like to explore and wander on my own timeline, but yesterday’s foray left me feeling with no feeling for this historic town. My recollections are of oppressive heat, ice cold air conditioning and a moving heard of overweight tourists led by a guide (kindly) hustling for tips.
This is just not my style.
It is day two in the Cartagena harbor and I weigh whether or not to venture out or just stay on the ship as I sip my coffee.
German, French and English wafts across the room. A conversation in accented English catches my ear.
“… Their driver provided a private car…she had it all day.”
My ears perked up.
“He took them everywhere and just waited for them…”
I inserted myself into the conversation.
We introduced ourselves. “Sandra,” one woman says. “Teresa,” the other woman smiles.
Sandra continued her story.
“She paid $50 for the day. A private guide and a car whenever she needed it.”
This was sounding better and better.
I relayed my experiences from the prior day and my resulting trepidations about going into the city alone.
Now I’m seldom fearful of anything. I fly airplanes without engines over un-landable terrain. I’ve taken off traveling, homeless. I’ve done three rounds of chemo, radiation and surgery, alone. It takes more than a little bit to rattle me, but my instincts that arose from yesterday’s experience clearly said be careful.
So I’m wondering how to visit the city on my terms.
And then, thanks to a cup of coffee, serendipity has brought the feisty Teresa into my life. We look at each other and smile.
“Let’s do it!” Perhaps her husband Gerry will join us? We decide to meet up in half an hour.
It would appear that an adventure is in order.
So it was that Teresa, Gerry and I became fellow travelers for the day in Columbia.
And then came Alfonso.
Alfonso presented himself at the exit from the docks.
“Hello, Welcome to Colombia,” he greets us in near perfect English. “Would you like to go into the city?”
We talk; we haggle. Teresa clearly enjoys the negotiating process. After some back and forth,we agree on a price. And we’re off.
Three people with three separate agendas.
Gerry wants to buy Colombian coffee.
Teresa wants to shop.
I want to wander and take pictures. Maybe follow the wafting smell of garlic and see where it leads.
We climb into the cab and weave through the streets of Cartagena towards Old Town.
Old ramshackle buildings share the route with gleaming white high-rises. A long beautiful stretch of beach lines the waterway and follows the road. Inside the cab we chat.
Teresa runs a hotel (one of several) in Florida. It’s a smaller property, more of a middle class property she explains. Not $600/night, she emphasizes.
The recent brush with Irma was devastating for some but thankfully not too bad for her property. She had a downed sign and debris, but power was back on in a day or so. Which meant warm food and hot coffee.
Teresa cooked for the volunteer doctors, fireman and others that had come to help, offered them rooms and set up a coffee station. Word of hot coffee spread, and a line formed. People gathered, grateful for the warmth of a beverage, along with some companionship.
With things reasonably under control at her property, Teresa walked the streets of the neighborhood, surveying the damage, sipping on her steaming cup of brew.
“Where did you get the coffee?” a cop asked. At the mention of coffee, the entire compliment of policemen perked up.
Teresa counted. Five. There were five policeman.
“Stay here, I’ll bring you some”, she replied.
Teresa went back to the coffee line with 5 cups in hand. “It’s for the policeman”, she explained as she joined the line. The line parted, allowing her to go to the front.
Five cups of hot coffee. Five cups of community and warmth at a time of need. A simple cup of coffee indeed!
Humanity Runs On Coffee –unknown
Teresa is a hard working, grounded woman who immigrated from Poland. Her husband, Gerry, had a stroke a recently.
“He can be a bit difficult”, she confided.
I can handle difficult. But that’s a separate story.
No problem, I tell her, and the three of us, plus our driver Alfonso, head for the Old City where we park just outside the walls.
Vendors with linens and coffee! greet us with their wares. Gerry quickly hones in on the absolute, very best Columbian coffee.
“This is the one I want,” he proclaims. “We’ll get it on the way back.”
“I’ll be back,” he waves to the vendors as we head into the walled city of Cartagena.
Gerry is a friendly, affable fellow. His stroke has meant that Teresa needs to keep an eye on him.
Gerry hates to spend money, Teresa tells me. So his karma, of course, is to attract every vendor in Old Town. He seems to delight in the art of surveying the goods and bargaining.
Today the vendors seem more friendly, even fun, as they approach us with their wares.
Teresa keeps a close eye on Gerry as she divides her attention between shopping and her husband.
“I’ve got him,” Alfonso, offers, giving Teresa has a rare day off. Alfonso and Gerry wander off, a trail of merchants hawking their wares in their wake.
I sense an opportunity to make a break from the solicitations, and Teresa and I head off down the main shopping streets.
On the corner, a leather store beckons. An beautiful, rich orange purse with embossed shapes immediately catches Teresa’s eye. She handles the bag, turning it over, surveying the workmanship.
“How much,” she asks.
The shop keeper comes back with a number. Teresa comes back with another. Back and forth; back and forth, until Teresa walks away.
“I’ll come back later,” she confides once we’re in the street.
“You have to understand the culture here,” she tells me. “The average salary is $300/month. This is how people make money”. And part of the process is the dance of the deal.
So dance we did, everywhere we went.
We wandered the streets and the shops. Jousted with the vendors. Visited the emerald museum and the churches.
A few hours into our foray, everyone has long since sweated through their clothes. The damp fabric just sits on the skin. It’s too humid for the moisture to even evaporate. Sweat-soaked is a constant state of being in the omnipresent heat.
We reconnect with Gerry and Alfonso in the Plaza Santo Domingo. The Plaza was once used as a market for slave trading. Today it’s a meeting place. The sculpture “Fat Lady” by Columbian artist Fernando Botero dominates the square.
We order a round of cold beers.
I’m not a beer drinker (Woody, an old—and now dead flying buddy—always said that you were allocated so many beers in your life. I feel that I’ve probably had my allocation). But in the incessant, stifling heat and humidity, nothing does it like a cold beer. Even a lukewarm beer offers much needed sustenance.
I sip my beer gratefully and watch the world go by.
And then, a hat vendor decides to hone in on me.
And I am a hat person.
It started years ago in New England in an attempt to keep my naturally wavy hair in place. A hat kept the humidity at bay, at least for a bit.
And along the way there have been sun hats, soaring hats, tennis hats, ski hats, cowboy hats and now, of course, the possibility of a Columbian sun hat.
I have a crushable sun hat with me but it’s just too hot to even wear it. But the persistence of the the hat vendor finally paid off.
Two, two for $15 the vendor offers
Two for $10, Teresa counters.
My new found friends bargain for me. I walk off with two hats. One a classic black and white; the other a cream hat with a black band. I am a sucker for a good hat.
Gerry orders another beer.
Alfonso and I stick with one.
Our conversation ranges, from history to shopping to coffee to immigration.
“Have you ever thought of going to America”, Teresa asks?
“A green card is needed to get into the U.S.,” Alfonso explains.
The precious green card. Traveling through the Caribbean I see how wealthy we must appear to many of the people we come into contact with. I think of my former perfect house with endless air conditioning. Such a luxury would be unattainable here for most.
“Coffee,” Gerry interjects after the beer. It is time to move on.
Along the way, we stop at one of the street side fruit vendors. While Columbia boasts over 400 types of mango, there are lots of other exotics that I don’t recognize.
The street vendor beckons to me, holding a piece of fruit. The universal language of a food offering is one everyone understands.
“What is it?” I ask.
The vendor cuts an opening in the top of the orange like fruit. A grey mass huddles beneath the rind. It really doesn’t look too appetizing.
He hands me a fork and gestures for me to scoop out the sticky grey goo.
Grey goo? Seriously. This looks like dead brain matter. Should I at least see what it smells like before I taste it?
I eye the strange fruit with the fork sticking out of its belly.
When in Cartagena…
Inside the citrus rind are pearl-like bubbles, bound by a viscous goo. I stick the plastic fork into the hull of the fruit and it comes up with pearls suspended in a grey mass.
I look at it and pause. I think fleetingly of my cancer impaired immune system, of sanitary conditions and of the goo.
What the heck. I put the muck into my mouth.
And I smile. A big and unexpected smile. It is sweet and oh so good! I greedily gobble the contents of the fruit.
“What is this,” I ask Alfonso?
“Sweet granadilla,” He replies. I ask him to spell it.
Granadilla is a variety of passion fruit.
I buy another, and one for the ride back, delighting in the sweet, grey goo.
I am always pleased when I discover something new to add to my culinary repertoire. No matter that it’s an ancient fruit, known to many. It’s new to me, and I am delighted.
Old Town Cartegena is well policed, and seemingly safe from a tourist perspective. Or at least that is my perspective today. I’m gratetul for the chance to dispel my first impressions from the previous day. Perhaps it was just too much oppressive heat, too many people attracting aggressive vendors like flies feasting on a carcass. Today even the vendors are more playful. and probably so am I.
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Alfonso is fabulous. He indulges our individual quirks, herds us carefully in a general direction, and keeps an eye on Gerry as he is surrounded by various vendors on every street.
With a cold beer refreshing my ability to continue to sweat, we decide to keep wandering. Teresa revisits the leather store where she finds an acceptable bargain, not only for the orange handbag, but for several pairs of shoes as well. Gradually we wander back towards the cab, just outside the old city walls. The heat permeates everything, everyday, everywhere, and it is inescapable. The thought of arctic shipboard cool beckons. It’s time to head back, unless of course staying on in Cartagena is on one’s agenda.
The walls of the old city are thick and time tested. We pass through one of the gates one last time on the way back to Alfonso’s cab, looking for the coffee vendors Gerry had seen when we first arrived. We brace for the final onslaught of linens, hats and coffee sellers. Perhaps a few cigar vendors or sellers offering strands of pearls.
But it is quiet; empty. They were gone! The vendors had left for the day!
Gerry spun about. None of us could believe it.
Gerry is disappointed but the disappointment seems to pass as we weave our way back to the dock where another a cold beer potentially awaits, not to mention the arctic air that will freeze our sweaty clothes in place on our exhausted bodies. A shower is definitely in order.
After cleaning up, I head to the lawn deck where a sunset awaits. I wear my new hat and watch as the ship pulls out to sea, leaving Cartagena in its wake.
I order a glass of wine as I watch the coastline of Colombia recede. Cool white wine.
The coffee can wait til the morning.
If you go…
You can contact Alfonso Arroyo directly. He is kind, well spoken and gracious.
His email is Jodysman444@hotmail.com And tell him you read about him in this blog!
Thank you Alfonso, for a terrific day in Old Town Cartagena, Colombia!
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