The next stop on my little “tour de mat leave” was Cartagena, Colombia. We upgraded to first class for the flight from Quito so we could sit with James’ parents, who decided to join us for this leg of our journey. Felix took to VIP travel right away, falling asleep on a comfy armchair while the rest of us attacked the breakfast buffet.
We arrived in Cartagena before noon. The city was hot, loud, busy. Our taxi driver was brash and irritated, lacking the usual tourist-centered attitude we were used to. It took us more time than usual to find our hotel and get settled.
We set out to explore and though South American, Cartagena seemed immediately different, new. It was a city in watercolour: Easter-egg hues wrapped the facades of cafes and boutique hotels, pink bougainvillea tumbling from their balconies; greens and blues shining back at us from the street murals in Getsemani, the district where we stayed. On every street corner stood the women fruit merchants known as the palenquera (descendants of San Basilio de Palenque to the south—the first slave town to achieve freedom from colonial Spanish rule). They were merchants of colour themselves, draped in reds and yellows as if competing with the bright fruit on their heads.
Cartagena, the “jewel of the Indies,” only recently became a popular tourist spot. Because of this, it felt alive in a different way—functional—especially once you’re outside the old city. Down a narrow alley, watch repairmen were hunched in workshops the size of closets, surrounded by tiny unidentifiable watch parts, batteries, and other mysterious tools. They seemed to exist on a different plane—completely oblivious and uninterested in me, a literal foreign body. Something about them made me feel at home.
This was also the case at the Bazurto market, which we visited at 8 a.m. one morning to avoid the heat of the day, and where, instead of the tourist trinkets of the old town there were all the necessities of life, from heavy bags of rice to shining steel cooking pans. Here, winding through a maze of dirt and skin, I realized what it was about Cartagena that was different from the other South American cities I’d visited: the African influence.
Cartagena once served as a key import point for Africans enslaved under Spanish colonial rule. Just like the cruise ship had in the Galapagos just a week prior, I was transported to West Africa, a place I haven’t been in 20 years ago. The smell of ripening fruit hung thick in the air, while pig carcasses swayed from hooks overhead. Fish lay in piles waited to be descaled, cut, and sold. The merchants, in bright and boldly-patterned clothing, proudly presided over their wares under a canopy of wrinkled tarps.
Places never really let you leave them behind.
Felix made no fuss as if the market’s cacophony was just another performance in the circus of his day. It was no different than the last place or the last airport, no different than the mobile hanging over his crib at home. He was content, even as we shooed away flies and steered the stroller to avoid spattering oil from an empanada stand.
I can’t imagine his world, where every day is a barrage of colour, sound, and smell. Where every flowering vine, every ray of sunlight flashing off a scooter mirror, every barking dog, every corner busker is unprecedented, without a framework. I thought about how travel gives us adults a chance to return to that state—to be captivated by Gaudi’s Sagrada, a Galapagos owl, a market that is momentarily not in Cartagena, but Cotonou, Benin.
We saw the “rough” parts, sure, but we also ate ceviche on rooftops saturated with the setting sun’s orange-pink glow. We visited Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, good tourists that we were, and found a different path through the walled city every day. I tried on oversized hats, feeling temporarily glamourous; James paid homage to Botero’s bronze. We poked our noses into churches and museums. We sipped coffee until it was time for sangria and then dashed back for our daily siesta. And then we went out to do it all over again, in the cool and carefree cover of night.
Travel, to me, is more about the people I’m with than the places themselves. This was the first time I’ve spent any significant length of time with James’ parents, and I relished the time with them more than anything else. They are a hardy pair, with the stamina to keep exploring even as temperatures soar over 35 degrees C. They are casual in the way only seasoned travelers can be, yet stubborn about the essentials: food and a good nights’ sleep.
One day, late in the afternoon, the elder Stewarts returned from their explorations and set up shop in a nook of the hotel just outside our room, waiting for us to wake. James and I joined them shortly after, armed with books and iPads, and Jim opened a (really) nice bottle of rum he’d bought at the corner bodega. An hour later, it appeared that Felix was well on his way to breaking his own three-and-a-half-hour nap record. (Either that or he was protesting the insane schedule we were subjecting him to!)
In that dimly-lit sitting room, adorned with cheesy Christmas decorations that nobody had bothered to take down yet, we sipped rum and waited. Katie read restaurant menus to us from her iPad, while Jim and James compared their photos from the Galapagos. The baby’s epic nap became our only reference point to the passage of time; we chose not to wake him.
Perhaps Cartagena seemed that much more colorful, that much more alive because of this crew—four people who were, in many ways, as new to me as the sand and sidewalks unfolding underfoot.