Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cartagena Tales

This first photo was taken not by me, but by Christopher Kirk.

Vendors and Touts

Cartagena is truly a lovely city for walking. The only drawback is having to resist or ignore the constant entreaties of street vendors and touts pushing the services of certain restaurants, emerald shops, or other stores. They are very aggressive. The vendors sell sunglasses, watches, (Rolex! I gotta Rolex for you!), so-called Cuban cigars (made in Colombia of course), water, soda, fruits, handbags, necklaces, wristbands, and artistic drawings. They get right in your face or step right in your path, pushing their wares.

The touts are even worse. Apparently they get "points" if they can get you to enter a particular emerald shop, restaurant, crafts store, art gallery, you name it. They come up, hollering "amigo," asking where you are from, what are you looking for, come on we got the best emeralds right here (Colombia is the world´s biggest producer of emeralds, and Cartagena is packed with scores of emerald shops), this is the best restaurant... some will follow you down the street, and even when they give up the chase will call out to you to come back. One very persistent fellow kept shouting out from a block away, calling me to come back to this restaurant! Another fellow followed me a long ways, telling me how he was trying to save money for his education and that he would get five points if I just went into "his" shop, and wouldn´t I help him out?

By the way, I came across this bizarre descripton of Colombia´s emerald industry, written by an ABC foreign correspondent:
Colombia is the world's biggest producer of emeralds, but this lucrative industry is dogged by corruption and violence. As one pistol packing emerald dealer puts it, "where there's money there's madness. Andrew Clark visits the badlands of Colombia's emerald empire. On the way he meets "Emerald Barbie", so named because of her blonde mane, fancy clothes and four inch heels. But don't be fooled by appearances - this one-time beauty queen is one of the shrewdest operators in the emerald business. Just ask any of the 'guaqeros', the men, women and children who are the lowest rung on the emerald mining ladder. They work tirelessly day and night for no pay, hoping to one day strike it rich, but of course few do. Instead the riches flow to the ruthless warlords who preside over the rough and tumble of the emerald industry with gun barrel justice.

Church of San Pedro Claver, "Slave of the Slaves"

Laura and I ate breakfast at 7am on Saturday and headed out early to explore the town before it got too hot. It´s hot here, by the way, hot and very humid, even more so than Panama. I lather on the sunscreen before going out, and I carry a face towel to wipe the sweat. We also carry an umbrella to shade Salma from the full sun. But because the streets here are so narrow and are lined on both sides with two or three story colonial buildings, one side of the street or the other is usually shaded, except at high noon.

We walked around the old quarter, through Centro and San Diego districts, taking turns carrying Salma and fighting off the vendors and touts all the way, until we came to a massive stone church in front of a large plaza. Here it is on the left. Near the entrance to the plaza is a cluster of emerald shops. One another side of the plaza is this church, on the far side is Cartagena's museum of modern art, and directly opposite the church is a large multi-ethnic restuarant that actually had Thai food! But at $15 a plate and up it was too expensive for my taste.

The plaza was full of playful black metal sculptures - for example, two men playing chess - and others depicting a priest.

After observing the statues in front of the church and being lectured by a tout, we learned that it was the church of San Pedro Claver, a Spanish priest who had dedicated his life to converting and ministering to the African slaves, and was thus known as "slave of the slaves."

Here is a statue depicting Pedro Claver lecturing one of the slaves:

We paid an entrance fee of $2.50 each to enter the church. An old man with a long and sharply hooked nose, wearing a buttoned up shirt and baseball hat, approached us and offered his services as a guide. Thinking that this might be included in the admission price (yes, I should know better by now), we accepted.

This old man (whose name I did not catch, but if you have superb vision perhaps you can make it out from his nametag on his shirt in the photo on the left) spoke heavily accented but understandable English, and insisted on conducting his tour in English, even though we replied to him in Spanish. He told us he was seventy five years old, though he looks ancient. He warned us not to use the services of streetside money changers, who would rip us off or give us fake bills. He told us a little about San Pedro Claver, or as the old man called him, Peter Claver, and how he had died of Parkinsons.

"You know Parkinsons?" he said, shaking his hands in front of us. We assured him that yes, we had heard of Parkinsons.

"He dedicated his life to take care of the slaves,"he said. That´s why he called himself, slave of the slaves! You understand my English? Slave of the slaves?"

We said yes, we understand.

Suddenly he turned and headed for the stone steps ascending to the second floor. "Come, we begin," he said.

So this old man proceeded to lead us all around this huge multi-story church, leading us from one room to another, telling us to sit here or sit there while he explained about this artifact or that, the history of this room or that tomb. He showed us the ancient cell where San Pedro Claver had lived and died, and the adjacent room with a grand table where he had met with the representative of Rome who came to see San Pedro´s work in Cartagena. There was no bed for the representative, he explained, so he had to sleep in a very big hamaca (hammock).

"You understand hamaca? You like Spanish or English? Can you guess how big was the hamaca? You see the hook here on the ceiling? Where is the other hook?"

We spotted the other hook on the opposite side of the room.

"That's right! You see how big was the hamaca?" He found this very amusing and laughed out loud.

"Now, you see these paintings, how he is caring for the slaves? That´s why he call himself, slave of the slaves. But he died of Parkinsons. You know Parkinsons?" Shaking his hands in front of him, demonstrating. Then turning away abruptly. "Come, follow me now!"

These themes were repeated many times. Don´t use the streetside money changers... slave of the slaves... Parkinsons... you understand me?... you like English or Spanish?... follow me! He walked quickly, sometimes seeming so intent on his lecture that he was not looking where he walked.

He sat us down next to San Pedro´s actual skull and bones, in a glass sided tomb set on huge slabs of white marble imported from Italy. He walked us through a room with a massive pipe organ beneath the round stained glass window that you see above, then another room with nothing but a big round, illuminated globe that was suspended by a long cable from some contraption on the celing and was swinging wildly back and forth, from one side of the room to the other.

"What is this?" we asked.

"Oh, it´s for the bell, you hear the bell?"

And indeed we realized that each time the globe passed the center of the room a bell rung from somewhere. But before we could ask for an explanation the old man said, "Come, follow me!" He turned and walked right through the path of the swinging globe, not paying any attention whatsoever, and it brushed his shoulder as it came rushing past. A worker in the church called out, "Hey, be careful", but the old man just kept on walking, oblivious.

It was humid and still inside the church, and by the time the tour was over we were soaked in sweat and tired. At the exit I had just gotten 5,000 pesos out of my wallet to tip the old man for hte tour, when he said very matter of factly, "You pay me twenty thousand now." The exchange rate is one dollar for 2,050 Colombian pesos, so this was almost ten dollars, quite a high price it seemed to me. But I paid it, what could I do?

At the very end of the tour the old man said to me, "What did you say was your name?"

I told him. "What kind of name is that?" he wanted to know.

"Arabic," I said.

He got a surprised look on his face. "But Catholic, right? Not Jewish or Protestant!" He said this as if to be an Arab Jew or Protestant would be a terrible thing, something he could not abide in his grand church.

"Muslim," I said.

The old man spun on his heel so quickly that I never saw his expression. He walked us to the door, then said, "Goodbye, Muslims!"

Not Cheap

Actually, Cartagena is not a cheap city. It's not like Panama. I mean, there are little fondas (small neighborhood restaurants) and streetside vendors who will sell you food quite cheaply, but if you want a quality meal in a nice restaurant, it will cost you the equivalent of $25 for two. U.S. prices, basically. A short taxi ride in Centro is $2. A bottle of water is $1. Hotels are pricey, with budget hotels running $35 and up, good hotels at $100 or so, and luxury hotels at $300+.

Also, don´t come to Cartagena thinking you will be able to buy a lot of cheap goods. There are four things you can get here at good prices: emeralds, cigars, Colombian coffee, and locally made leather goods. Anything else will be expensive or simply unavailable. There are hundreds of small shops here specializing in goods of all sorts, especially locally made crafts, shoes, natural herbs and drugs, Caribbean style clothing, artwork, and of course emeralds, but there are no big stores selling imported goods. I had a hard time finding a disposable camera, and I could not find an English language Colombia guide book.

Cartagena´s Real Treasures, Aside from Emeralds

Cartagena´s treasures are its beauty, the impressive weight of history in every building - most of these buildings are 500 years old and have gone through many iterations, both in design and use, having been used for a half a dozen different purposes over the centuries - the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the sheer vibrancy of the place. It's a place that hums with energy and laughter. Little plazas shaded by tall tropical trees and bordered by museums, with people relaxing in the shade and cotton candy vendors plying their wares, while horse drawn carriages trot past at a steady clip. An open square (plaza Santo Domingo, I think) with a row of restaurants and a sea of tables filling the square, and a large metal sculpture of a very buxom black woman. Shoe shiners and pretty girls, and babies everywhere.

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