In Cartagena, with Love
We travel not so much to see what a place has to offer, but to embrace how it makes us feel once we're there.
I think this is the best way to describe Cartagena. For some people that I know, Cartagena was a busy, touristic destination, scorching in the summer heat, where you went to party, drink, and maybe take in some culture on the off-chance that you weren't too hungover. But I felt there was more to this city than just the nightlife, which was spectacular in its own right. So, I explored.
As a disclaimer to everything, you cannot get away from the heat. I learned that on the first day, and it stayed true until the last day. The combination of humidity and sunshine is overwhelming, and because the city is essentially rock, there's no place to escape the rising heat that seems to be reverberating through the city walls. I realized on my first day, as I walked with camera in hand and sweat profusely coming down in buckets, that I was a part of the tourist crowd that constantly kept wiping the sweat away. The more I wiped, the sweatier I got. As I looked around, all the other tourists were doing the same thing, the painfully hot expressions on their faces begging for a breeze. But the locals didn't seem to mind it. I remember passing an old man, slumped down in the frame of a door in the midday sun, his eyes closed and his face turned up to the sky. He must have been well into his 80s, the deep wrinkles on his face like rivers on topographical maps. He lay there, motionless, breathing evenly and lightly, and at first I felt rather odd staring at a man on the ground, but as I profusely tried to keep the sweat at bay, he simply allowed it to be. He understood that to fight against something that will always win is a waste of time, space, and opportunity to see the goodness in it.
So, I allowed the sweat to drip. I even let my super-long hair down, which immediately melted into my skin, but I didn't care anymore. Why fight the heat or the sunshine or the need to be put together just so? There is a beauty in Cartagena that I believe grows exclusively from not giving a shit. That's when I fell in love with the city.
No matter where you turn, there are cobble-stoned alleys and roads that seem just too small for any car to pass. Coffee shops, restaurants, markets, and shops line the roads in wall colors bright enough to pull you out of any slump. There's a bustle in the city as cars honk, traffic piles, and people hail you down from across the road to sell you trinkets, and somehow there is always a smell of fish in the air. The sidewalks are too small for everyone to pass, so you end up rubbing shoulders with others who are just as hot and sweaty as you are, and if you turn any corner, eventually you'll come face to face with a group of kids holding a speaker and blurting out rap lyrics in your face. There's a chaos to it, but it's steady - just enough to keep you awake, in awe, and in perpetual sweaty surrender.
This is something I learned after I gave up trying to stay cool. There's no rush. There's nowhere to be that is that urgent where you can't stop to buy some mango from the señor on the corner, or turn around to catch the gaze of a handsome man walking by you. There is time for everything, and most importantly, there is time for passion.
I think passion is a word that marinates in Cartagena. There's a sense of importance placed on only the things and people who bring you the utmost joy. There is no room for anything less than that, and how amazing! Because I don't know about you, but I live in the States - we give a lot of undue attention to things and people who bring us down, in the fear that if we were to take this attention away, we'd somehow be at fault for disturbing the "natural order of things." Not in Cartagena. There, I gained a sense of clarity and honesty about what made me happy: traveling, exploring, opening myself up to new and wonderful opportunities, and one new important thing - a sense of belonging.
My Spanish was rusty, but I walked the streets with ease and comfort. I met the kind eyes of ladies in bright dresses selling empanadas, lounging in that same way, their faces turned up to the sun. I'm not interested in food or souvenirs, but I love their simple, kind spirit, just as much as I love the man across the road, sitting on a crate, playing the violin, just because. Being in their presence, and welcoming my own was the best souvenir of all.
With passion comes a sense of sexiness. Just like the heat, you can't escape it. The air is thick with this primal desire to just be seen and admired. For women, that's a tall order, and one that's long overdue. Being a single woman living in the States, I find it harder to nurture this sense of sexiness. Between working to support myself emotionally, physically, and mentally, and striving to make something of myself, career-wise, that small, precious window of feeling sultry closes far too fast for me to explore it, or even enjoy it. Add to it the fact that men have become our mirrors, and are likely out doing the same thing for themselves, you can see the problem: we come together in a complacent, boring way to satisfy needs that are anything but boring.
But just like time and space and heat, sexiness in Cartagena doesn't falter or get lost in the shuffle of small talk and conversations about the future. Cartagena is now. Everything is explored and felt in the heat of the moment, before it escapes you. Life is lived and experienced in the present, even if that present is hanging by a thread in the wee hours before the sun comes up, and a new day changes everything. Each moment is counted, blessed, kissed, and admired, because each moment is all that we have.