I should start with telling you about Colombian coffee, or as they say Café, and chocolate but then perhaps most of you already know how heavenly they are. The quality coffee and chocolate though, not sure fortunately or unfortunately, are exported to other countries. For example, it’s easier to find Swiss and Belgian chocolates in Cartagena than pure Colombian ones. However, those who persevere, find the good ones!
Life in Cartagena has many faces but in short, it’s a mix of magic and the sad realism. Cartagena is a beautiful city located right on the water. Days are hot and humid but not too heavy. There’s always an easy breeze that softens the air. Nights are warm and pleasant. It’s not only the weather that radiates the warmth, but also the welcoming and genial approach of the people on the street. Regardless of their English skills, they are always eager to strike a conversation when they get a chance. Not always because you’re a tourist and they want to sell you something, but just because they want to socialize and make new friends. Their happy nature is a cultural thing. Of course, like in many other developing countries, poverty creates the necessity to be crafty at times but for the most part, they are good people just trying hard to make a living.
One day I was standing at the gate of the Old Town (Walled City), admiring the architecture when I heard a friendly voice saying “hi” in english. When I turned around, there was this short, dark-skinned and very thin man is his late 40s looking at me with a smile. I had never met him before but he looked like a nice person and I soon found out that he really was one. His name was Daniel and we ended up chatting for almost half an hour. He told me about the history of the town and my favorite writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom as it turned out, had a house inside the Walled City. Daniel had lived for some years in New York and loved it but after getting married, had felt the need to come back and rebuild his life in Cartagena.
In the beginning, being approached by complete strangers for a chit-chat seemed odd and it took me some time to get used to this type of exchange. In my defense, after all, I was coming from a place where people would think you’ve lost your mind if you do something like what Daniel did!
Hence, coming from an individualistic culture, there were times when I needed my space and solitude. For those nostalgic, “I miss home” times, I’ve discovered the ocean view at night is the best remedy. I spent many nights at the harbor staring at the ocean and the lights from the boats. It’s hard to explain that peaceful feeling and zen moment, when one is looking at those little lights shining like diamonds from the far, mixed with all the sounds of a Cartagena night. Gabriel Garcia Marquez says it way more beautifully”….it was a still water. From the windows at the prow, when I went for a breath of air a little before dawn, the lights of the fishing boats floated like stars in the water. There were countless numbers of them….” (Living to Tell the Tale)
The rest of my trip passed by quickly. I had school everyday and almost everyday an opportunity to meet interesting people. My classmates were people from all walks of life and different nationalities who had put their life on hold for months or years to learn a new language, try a new adventure or experience new cultures first hand. Some of them had come for some volunteer work to make a difference in our crazy world.
Jochem, a friendly and kindhearted 29-year-old guy from Holland, who had then just accepted a great job offer in the UK, was planning to travel through South America on a motorcycle before starting his new job and get to know their culture. Not sure where he is now but I’m sure he’s having a blast wherever he is. The last time we talked, he was on his way to Ecuador.
Richard and Audrey are United Nations all by themselves. Audrey’s parents are Dutch, she was born and raised in Canada and lived for many years in the US as a result of marrying Richard who is half American and half Caribbean. Three years ago, they decided life had become too fast paced and stressful so they quit their high pay corporate jobs, sold their house, bought a boat and decided to make their hobby of sailing to a new journey.
Fieke, a social worker from Holland, is a generous young woman who has put her life on hold for 7 months to volunteer in a school for poor children in Cartagena. She had traveled once before to Colombia and fallen in love with the culture so after going back to Holland, she had decided to get some unpaid time off and teach english to kids over there in Cartagena. Once she told me, “I could be in Amsterdam right this moment, living a convenient life and party the night out with my friends but the time I spend here with these kids gives me something so special that I can never experience back home.”
I do agree with her. I too am glad that I had this chance and ever so grateful for having the opportunity to meet people like her and more. It feels like this trip opened a door to a whole new world that I didn’t know before, a world of endless possibilities and the right to happiness under any circumstances, and it’s just the beginning.