I approach the customs official at the US security gate in Edmonton and hand him my three boarding passes and the lovely security slip featuring the image of my 6 AM happy face.
“Final destination?” he asks.
“Cartagena, Colombia,” I reply.
“Are you travelling alone?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Are you meeting anyone while you’re down there?”
Well, yes. A friend of a friend of mine was set to be in Cartagena at the same time, and my partner would be meeting me in Medellin a week later. To keep things simple and not get questioned about meeting up with drug cartels, I reply, “No.”
His brow furrows. “You’re going to Cartagena, Colombia by YOURSELF?”
“Yes,” I reply firmly.
He lets out an exasperated sigh. “Good luck.”
Armed with only a plethora of pre-reading as the booky planner I am and a monstrous backpack that weighs way more than it should, I chose to take his words as a gesture of good will and not that of condescension.
Cartagena, Colombia was the first stop of my five month predominantly solo adventure in South America. It’s Colombia’s second oldest city, after Santa Marta. The wonderfully-preserved colonial old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a complicated history of slavery, Spanish Inquisition, and piracy, on top of two separate fights for independence from Spain, the heroism of which led to its nickname within Colombia as “La Heroica.”
The 90% humidity and 38 Celsius heat posed a serious handicap to a Northern Canadian like myself. Determined to begin my trip with some excitement, I found something, rather, someone, to frame my first day: Gabriel García Márquez.
A quick google map search revealed that the Cartagena home where Márquez only spent some of his time was a five minute walk from my hostel. You can’t go inside – I’m sure his death is still too recent to have a full interpretive centre dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, though the primary location is never stated, is said to take place in Cartagena. At the very least, it was inspired by Cartagena – this was the place where Márquez dreamed; perhaps, even where Márquez’s version of magical realism was invented.
I registered to take a walking tour with a group called Context Travel, a tour led by a historian and which focused primarily on Márquez and his work. Unfortunately, they didn’t receive enough registrants for the time I selected and I’m on too much of a budget to pay for a private tour, so I had to make do with a combination of imagination and what I learned from the internet.
Cartagena is a city steeped in mythology. On my free walking tour, I learned about India Catalina, an indigenous woman kidnapped by the Spanish to work as a translator, whose image is now used for the Colombian version of the Academy Awards for film. Pedro Romero, a major protagonist in the fight for Cartagena’s independence, is idolized in the form of street art in the Getsemani neighbourhood, but no one knows what he looks like so his image takes many forms.
When you mute out the countless street vendors selling hats or water bottles, you begin to notice an air of hauntedness in the city. The walls of the old city, which were used to defend Cartagena from the Spanish, were built by slaves. The brutal Spanish Inquisition was alive in Cartagena. And though less infamous for drug activity than other Colombian cities, its position as a port city and the tall, expensive apartment towers still act as evidence of that history.
There is a small park in Cartagena, the Parque Centenario, which separates the touristy old city with the edgy Getsemani neighbourhood. On my first visit, I stopped to eat a melted protein bar under a tree, and found myself being stared at by a curious monkey. The second day, I watched two giant lizards fight over a square meter of grass, and a sloth slowly ascend up a tree. The third day I visited, I brought two Americans I had met on a street art tour to show them the animals I had seen randomly in the middle of a city, and we saw nothing. It was like they were part of a humidity-induced hallucination – magical realism, indeed.
Travelling alone means paying attention to all the details and subtleties of a city. On my free walking tour of the old city (which I highly recommend), my guide, Edgar, would ask several trivia questions based on the information he had already provided in the tour, and award postcards and prizes to individuals who answered correctly. Since I was paying attention, I won a few postcards, and at the end, as the tour concluded at the home of Márquez, his questions focused on the author – which, as the English student and huge nerd, I already knew all the answers to.
Edgar concluded the tour with a brief summation of the struggles Colombia has endured in the last twenty years. “It was very tough being a tour guide in the 90s, when there was no one to give tours to,” Edgar admitted. He told stories of watching his favourite television program, The A Team, only to have it be interrupted by a news announcement of bombs going off in Medellin. But he did not dwell too long on the past, and instead was full of hope for the recovery of Colombia and La Heroica.
When the tour ended and I went to give Edgar a tip, he took my hand and said, “I love how much you already know about my country. Please share the stories of what you have learned with your friends and family back home, of how wonderful Colombia is.”
And that is what I hope to do.