Ch. 8: Everyday life in Cartagena

nancy park
Jul 4, 2016 · 5 min read

“What do you do in your free time?”

It’s a question I receive often and for some reason I always have a trouble answering it. What do I do in my free time? I guess I read, practice Spanish, wander around the historic center, hang out with friends new and old, etc…

But maybe the question is really trying to get at what my everyday life has been like. And if that’s the question, I think I can best answer it by sharing examples of everyday moments, rather than activities.

— — —

“I wake up drenched, with sheets wrapped around me like a mummy. I check the fan. Not spinning. I check the time. 12am, which meant I had at least five more hours of trying to sleep without power. I frown at the window, sleepily aware of my dilemma: mosquitoes or heat. I choose the former, sort of. I open the window, apply a coat of repellant, and go back to sleep. Wake up after an hour and to repeat. The next few hours are a haze. At one point, I step out onto the balcony because it is actually cooler outside. Doze, spray, zombie. Doze, spray, zombie. Finally, daylight enters my room around 5am and I decide I’m done pretending to sleep. I step into the shower to rinse off the layers of sweat, repellant, and dust. And then I realize we are out of water.”

“Nothing makes me feel more like a boss than knowing exactly how much things cost without asking. A small cup of tinto: 500 pesos. A bag of water: 500 pesos. A small box of gum: 200 pesos.”

“The buses here are completely pimped out, with bright lights, tasseled curtains, and enormous decals of a lion or some asian writing. In addition to the commuters, men hop in and out, selling bags of water from styrofoam iceboxes or little boxes of gum for a nickel. One time, the bus boy hopped off the bus during a red light and asked a woman selling soda on the street if he can have her bracelet. She was definitely not there to sell bracelets. But she took it off and gave the delightful thing to him anyway.”

“Today I saw a male pigeon aggressively chasing a female pigeon, and I muttered to myself, “Dear lord, even the pigeons.”

“After getting lost, I eventually found Sr. Rodrigo’s restaurant, an establishment I’d started frequenting to offer pro-bono consulting. Although that’s a very flattering way of putting it, given that I learned much more than helped. To no great surprise, he was still ‘on his way’ when I got there, so I spent the morning journaling on the beach, chatting with his wife, and eating green mango slices with juices running down my fingers.”

“I felt like going to the beach so I hopped on a bus, then a moto taxi, while ripping open a freezing bag of water with my teeth. The next thing I knew I was beatboxing with a Colombian dude in the middle of the turquoise-blue Caribbean sea, with rain hitting the surface like diamonds.”

“Last Wednesday, I came home around midnight and packed a makeshift bag. My attempt to get away for winter break. The next morning I hopped on a 7-hour bus, still haven’t made my mind up about my final destination. Should I get off at Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Palomino, or take it all the way to Guajira? I had no flight, bus, nor hotel reservations. All I had were my whims. I decided I’d like to be by the water instead of mountains, and hopped out at Palomino, where I spent the week being lulled to sleep by the ocean and tubing down the river.”

“Did you know you can get the worst food poisoning of your life from literally a bad apple?”

“I was in my room when I heard it. It’s remarkable how the human mind can discern the faintest nuances of everyday noise, even when it is not your native one. At first it was the same buzz, the same yells, and the same honks. And then suddenly, same ingredients, different recipe. I never ended up checking what I knew was occurring right outside the window, but my host mother told me later that a little girl had gotten hit by a bus. The girl ended up being fine, thank god.”

“On weekend nights, backpackers and locals gather in Plaza de Trinidad to people watch, work up a mood to go out, and gorge on loaded hot dogs bigger than my face. For the most part, evenings in the plaza are lovely, but one time the atmosphere was shattered by glass bottles and people running in all directions. A fight was breaking out on the corner of the Plaza, and the sound of the bottles exploding indicated that they weren’t being careful about targeting. Few seconds of chaos. Then it stopped and people slowly trekked back to the plaza and started laughing again. A few months later, we were not allowed to drink in the plaza anymore, due to someone having been killed by broken beer bottles over a matter of 80 mil COP. Or $26.80 USD.”

“At first, I thought it was a Colombian accent I was not familiar with, but his stare, the shifting of feet of those around him, and a boy giggling made me realize that he was imitating an Asian accent. Trying to ignore him, I grabbed the bottle of water I’d come for and went over to pay. I thought he would stop, as people usually do, but he went on shouting for the whole store to hear. My face started burning. The store employee didn’t meet my eye as she bagged my things. The kid was still laughing and other men chuckled along uncomfortably. Why wasn’t someone saying something? Finally, I spun around, trying to keep my voice level: ‘Usted sabe que lo que hace es super grosero?’ I saw some passive head nodding in the corner of my eye, which I hated almost as much as what the man was doing. The man put his hands together, bowed, and continued in the accent, ‘Lo siento mucho.’ I grabbed my things and left, with my ears red and ringing, and feeling embarrassed all over again by how close to tears I was, mostly over the fact that others had let that happen.”

“I was reading an American magazine on the bus ride back home. Around me were three men, on the way home from their day jobs. I felt them staring and heard them talking about me. Usually I wouldn’t have said anything, but that day I decided to strike up a conversation, asking the gentleman nearest me if he understood what the magazine said. We proceeded to have a mini-reading lesson and as we approached my stop, he asked me where he might be able to buy English books. Without having much time to think, I replied that I wasn’t sure but that he was more than welcome to have my magazine. I don’t think articles about ‘12 Sexy New Year’s Eve Outfits’ and ‘How to Make Him Jealous’ merit the string of grateful looks that followed but thank goodness I’d ended up talking to him.”

From Consultant to Costeña

Stories and reflections from Cartagena, Colombia

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