Historical and picturesque Cartagena, Colombia Day 3

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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
June 11th 2019
Published: June 14th 2019
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“Our” bus driver Jorge picked us up for a tour of Getsemani. On the way we passed the estate of the Roman family. Manuel Roman came from Madrid around 1800s. He was a rebuscar, or a hustler and married a woman from Cartagena. His family originated the Roman Pharmacy and created Cola Roman (a cherry flavored drink similar to coca cola) before Coca Cola came about. Sam told us some people added lime to enhance the flavor. This drink became a cure for everything. Refajo, (Cola Roman with beer), is traditionally the first alcoholic drink for young people. Cola Roman later merged with Coca Cola and now the real Cola Roman can only be found in Cartagena. We drove by the imposing Roman family house owned now by the matriarchal leaders of the family business who we are told, are very tough ladies.

I had been most anxious to get to Getsemani because I had heard it was one of the best places to photograph in Cartagena, but I was even more anxious to get out of that hot unair-conditioned bus! Plus I was frustrated that Jorge hadn’t a clue where to position the bus for photo ops or observations based on Sam’s discussion. Roberto was a much better driver. Jorge would slow down and even stop, but not in front of the object of discussion or where we could take pictures or even see the subject in question. Sigh.

Finally Getsemani! Getsemani is the bohemian neighborhood of Cartagena where locals far outnumber tourists. We arrived on a Sunday morning so there were not many people out and about, and from the looks of some who were lazing in their doorways, they were trying to get over their Saturday night excitement.

In 1811 Cartagena became one of the first cities in Colombia to declare independence from Spain, backed up by a group called the Getsemani Lancers. “This group continued to resist the Spanish until independence was won in 1821. By then, Getsemani was home to craftsmen, freed slaves and merchants, and the area became known as the ‘popular quarter,’” but today this area is known as the ‘culture quarter’ for the poets, painters and photographers who call this their home. Artists like sculptor Alejandro Frieri and graphic artist Ruby Rumie found more inexpensive digs in this quarter than what they could find in greater Cartagena. Plus there is a certain vibe that is conducive to creativity when you live in a place like this. In fact, sometimes the neighborhood becomes their studio.

There is nothing fancy here but what you do see is the side of Cartagena that is alive with its own unique culture and art. The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning author, set many of his novels in Cartagena and kept a home here. His image is portrayed on a street mural as he is shown happily playing an accordion, while yellow butterflies surround him on a sky blue background, a testament of the devotion locals have for his work.

The streets were nearly empty when we first began our walk in this intensely colorful community. Sam pointed out the many vibrant depictions of Caribbean life that are portrayed in the murals on the crumbling stone walls lining the gritty Calle San Juan street. Paintings, collages, graffiti and appliqué, most with a sociopolitical or historic message, are composed on these walls such as a painting of a tiger with sunglasses that tells a story about the need to protect the environment. A beautiful self portrait called Raza Mulata was on an opposite wall. Erre Girl Power showed that girls stand up for themselves. What a great message! More recent subjects plaguing Getsemani are visible in expressive murals depicting racial segregation, gentrification and increasing tourism. Tourism is a conundrum for sure because tourism brings money but it also risks changing the essence and purity of a place and raises the price of real estate that could push out the very artists who make this place unique.

Everywhere you turn you can see culturally significant images from the historic to the modern that seemlessly blend into the wonderful architecture, from the Casa Covo Moorish style, influenced from when Spain first arrived, to the remnants of newly painted yet crumbling old historic Colonial buildings. On one such turn we discovered a narrow white walled street with brightly colored umbrellas hanging above the street as far as the eye could see. What a delightful surprise! Sam told us the locals hang these umbrellas, then after a time, take them down to replace them with other fun things. Not far away, another street had colorful pendants strung across the street. Soon people began to mill about, sitting in doorways with their coffees. I saw a Papaya eating finch “greyish salteater” in a cage hanging on the wall outside. I hope he is well fed and watered. I am always sad to see caged birds.

Throughout my walk in Getsemani I found wonderful tropical scenes, depictions of folk tales, Colombian fruit sellers, and vignettes telling the story of the rise of the Afro/Caribbean Colombians who inherited Cartagena from the Spanish hundreds of years ago. One of my favorites is a painted bird on a wall in Trinidad Plaza by street artist Yurika MDC who painted her vision of a traditional story about a vivid bird named Maria Mulata and transformed this story into her impression of the bird on the bright yellow wall of a house in Trinidad Plaza. The essence of the story is this: “… exotic multi-colored birds with melodious song came to the rescue when the town was enveloped in flames and helped carry the local people to the city limits in their beaks. But flying back and forth through the smoke and soot the Maria Mulatas lost their colorful feathers and were blackened after that. The villagers were saved and forever grateful to Maria Mulata.” I had learned that on sunny bright days, you can still see the brilliant colors in the bird’s black plumage. I was incredibly lucky to have such a day. Samuel Fidel Lopez, Director of Creativity Graffiti Vertigo, said of Getsemani’s street art, “One of the advantages of Urban Art lies in turning a wall into a conversation space, in a moment of tolerance and recognition of the thought of another while at the same time it draws attention to issues relevant to the community.”

The Getsemani neighborhood has undergone a massive Cultural Renaissance over the course of the last decade. Historically this district was home to servants and the lower class of Cartagena as well as prostitutes and drug dealers and all the violence that accompanied that element. Girls, Sam told us, at a minimum age of 18, can still be prostitutes, but pimping is illegal. These women must be tested every 2 months and carry card proving they have been tested. But there has been a significant rebirth, for now it is the artistic heart and soul of Cartagena welcoming artists and creative people from all over the world.

We ended up in Plaza de la Trinidad which is anchored by the San Jose Church completed in the 17th century. We peeked inside during mass but did not enter. Although few were out today, this is the hub of the neighborhood where local residents gather day and night to eat street food like griddle-cooked chocolo (sweet corn), arepas filled with salty cheese, grilled meat or hot dogs all sold by street vendors. Bronze sculptures depicting the prominence of the Getsemani Lancers, most especially Pedro Romero, a priest and Getsemani Lancer commander and hero of the 1811 independence movement, sit quietly in front of the church. This square played a major role in the struggle for independence from Spain and because of that many people tried to rename the square Freedom Square but it was not to be.

From Plaza Trinidad we walked to another, smaller neighborhood, I think it was Plazuela del Pozo, that had many sculptures by the famous Edgardo Carmona. I mentioned before that he is famous for his “trash art,” that is, taking rusted old metal parts and repurposing it into whimsical sculptures. What I didn’t know is that his art was famously installed in a special exhibition in 2016 in Fort Meyers, Florida! (Road trip.) In this little plaza we found one of Edgardo’s most talked about sculptures called Territorio, depicting a man and his dog peeing together on a post marking their territory. Some in the states had objected to the man exposing his penis, others said get a life. Another fun sculpture was of a child holding onto a bench while a dog tried to pull down his pants, and another, a man was leaning against the side of a house playing a clarinet, you get the picture. And in the same plaza on a bougainvillea adorned wall was a mural of an old man in a rocking chair reading a newspaper at the Basilica Pizzeria Cafe. I just love this place!

I think I literally had to be dragged away from Getsemani.

We were headed next to the “quaint fishing village” but on the way Sam wanted to stop for a snack. Sam kept raving about (pan de Bono or good bread) made with yucca and bunuelos (fried sweet cheesy dough) which is a special treat especially at Xmas. We stopped at a roadside fast food operation called “Universidad del Buneulo”. Each of us were given a sample of the yucca and the cheesy bunuelos to try. Bacano means awesome, for him, not for me.

We were headed to Zona Norte, the northern area of Cartagena near the financial district and airport.
On our way to La Boquilla we passed modern high rises that used to be fishermen’s houses with no charm or reference to the villages that were torn down. La Boquilla is not the quaint village as described in our travel writeup. Sam told us the fishermen fish early in the morning, and are gone by 4AM. We arrived around 11:30AM so again, no quaint fishing village opportunity. Very disappointing. Just a long beach in site of the city with breezes. It was not the mosquito ridden swampy area that both I and the CDC thought it was. Wish I had known/gotten better information from OAT.

Numerous thatch-roofed palapas lined the beach and we entered one called Restaurante San Basilio de Palenque where a birthday party was under way. I felt like we were intruding on their space. After we settled in plastic chairs around wobbly tables near the party, a traditional Vallenato band appeared playing music to celebrate someone’s birthday. Vallenato is a type of music from the northern coast of Colombia based mainly of a combination of three basic musical instruments such as an accordion, a bongo and a guiro. The word Vallenato comes from the phrase “nato del Valle” or native of the valley. Soon the palapa was in full celebratory mode and with smiles from some of the party I felt a little better about invading their space and was even encouraged to photograph some of the children. Women went around offering massages “for a fee” but Sam had told us ahead of time to ignore them.

I left the palapa to walk the beach where I attempted to find some other opportunities to photograph. I shot the few beached fishing boats near the shore but the light was harsh at midday and the view of the city skyline did not add to the “remote fishing village” character. I did find a nice woman with her children playing in the ocean and photographed them at their play. I walked a little further and found a soccer (futbol) match on the beach and I think after the men saw that I was photographing them, they began to work much harder at their game, checking to make sure I had gotten their shot.

However…if I had known more about this “fishing village” and had been given the choice, I would have spent much more time in Getsemani over what I felt was a waste of precious vacation time along the long beach.

After a hot day in the sun we returned to our hotel where Dave took a siesta and I took my camera to take advantage of the afternoon sunlight and sea breezes to see what I could find. I wandered the very photographable narrow streets taking note of the fruit sellers with their produce balanced high on large carts and wheelbarrows, men loaded down with baskets and hats to sell for tourists, and more Las Palenqueras, or Fruit Basket Ladies asking for money to be photographed in their colorful flowing costumes with their fruit baskets balanced on their heads. Some of these women were very pleasant but many were grouchy and pushy and if caught having their photo taken, even if I was shooting a street scene they happened to be in, they would look angrily at me and cover their faces or turn their backs. I understand this is a living for them but the ones who were gruff did not get my business.

I later learned that these women originally came from San Basilio De Palenque, an hour from Cartagena. They represent Black Cimmarones slaves who had escaped from their owners. I also later learned that they were actually selling the fruit on their head, not just pushing to have their photos taken. If I had realized that I would have bought some fruit and gotten a proper picture. I did, later, buy some fruit from a Palenqueras lady who sat on the curb with her array of fresh fruit. She cut up some fresh pineapple that I was happy to enjoy. I found a sweet young woman selling traditional, colorful flower shaped head bands from her bicycle. I had seen her before and she always had a smile so, remembering my granddaughters, I bought some of those colorful headbands to bring home for them.

Sunlight brought out the many wonderful colors of the vibrantly colored Colonial buildings from bright yellows, peaches to orange colors, to pale or rich deep blues, and the equally colorful balconies that were draped with many colored bougainvillea and greenery. But at the same time, on the other side of the street, I often found deep shade which many times presented a challenge to photograph.

Doors and door knockers in Cartagena: In colonial times, door knockers in Cartagena were important signifiers of the families that lived inside. An iguana door knocker was a sign of nobility. A lion door knocker identified a military officer. The star-shaped studs indicated the family’s wealth – the more studs on your door, the richer the people who reside there. Many of the massive doors have a smaller, more utilitarian door cut into them which becomes the main entrance.

While wandering I took a turn and again was lost for awhile but it is in those times I get some of the best surprises and shots that are not on the “tourist map”. I never felt concerned as a woman alone, even when I stumbled upon an area that clearly was run down with nary a tourist in sight. I did find my way out listening for the sound of hoof beats of the many horse and carriages that roam the cobblestone streets in town. That sound led me to the center of the old city.

Getting my bearings I located the cathedral tower and made my way back toward Bolivar Plaza where I found people preparing for a wedding! As is the practice in Cartagena, THE place for destination weddings, all the churches are open and anyone walking by can come in to photograph, sit or watch someone’s private wedding ceremony. I saw people milling about in front of the golden yellow Cathedral of Cartagena, officially known as the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the oldest episcopal sees in the Americas. Black and white tile cover the floor of the entrance to the beautiful stone church and an enormous red door stood wide open, and invitation for sure.

Curious, I stuck my head inside. Tourists were seated in some of the pews. I thought of sitting to watch the ceremony but the real action was in the prelude to these nuptials. The grooms were already waiting in the back of the church and the mother of the bride was giving instructions to the men. Several young boys and girls roughly 4-8 years of age were not so patiently waiting in front of the church. The young boys were attired in a little black suit, bow tie and flip flops, the girls were in beautiful white dresses with flower wreaths in their hair.

One young girl caught my eye. Ever the photographer, I had my camera ready photographing some of the celebrants when this young 6 or 7 year-old little girl, in her lovely white dress, ballet slipper shoes and flowers in her hair looked at the massive church door and began to climb it as if it were her very own climbing wall. She held on to several of the protruding knobs on the door to pull herself up. She gained purchase with her feet on other knobs, and she was off! I was quite impressed. She got away with it for a minute or so before she was spotted by the father of the bride who promptly removed her from the wall.

Very quickly the mother of the bride said “Did you get that?!” I said “I sure did!” I was invited to photograph more of the family, which I happily did. As the children were ushered inside to their seats I noticed my now favorite rascal of the boys was being pulled off the padded kneeling bench at the altar. I left after the bride, escorted by her father, made their way down the aisle for the nuptials to begin.

Leaving the church I began to photograph the cathedral in the warm afternoon light. Suddenly a small taxi pulled up and, like a circus clown car, out popped three women wearing voluminous white dresses with their hair wrapped in white scarves and their hair piled high on top of their heads, plus a tall gentleman, also in white, carrying an enormous bongo drum! I have no idea how they got in or out but they did. I followed the women into the Bolivar Plaza and rushed up to photograph them in the lovely backlight. They were going to perform after the wedding, but whose? I imagine it was the one at the cathedral but I didn’t stick around to find out.

I still had some shopping to do so I went on a mission to find a bowl I had seen on one of my many walks through the old city. I eventually found the artisan shop I had been at before where I was admiring, no lusting after, the many beautiful high quality crafts of the indigenous people from southern Colombia. Arteralda, located on Centro Calle Landrinal had so many beautiful handcrafted pots, bowls and decorative artwork. I was fascinated with the beautiful Enchapado en Tamo, a traditional technique of applying the tamo and tallo of naturally colored wheat fibers that are glued onto an object such as, in my case, a wooden vessel. The colors will not fade and each piece is unique. They are not cheap but I had never seen anything like it before and I knew it would go perfectly in my home so, decision made.

I rushed back to the hotel to meet Dave and to show him my new purchase. I found him reading on the rooftop of Casa Factoria. I was very pleased that he was able to relax and enjoy the view, the atmosphere and his book. The view was too much temptation for me with the golden hues of the afternoon light so I gave up sitting and began to photograph the other rooftops surrounding our lofty perch.

Dave offered to join me in my quest for a sunset photo so we left the hotel and headed towards the baluarte, or ancient wall that surrounds the city. by the time we arrived the sun was already beginning to near its set point so we hurried up the wall to get in position for the big show. The wind was fierce and kept blowing my hair into my eyes and the lens of the camera but we did finally see the sunset and the resultant orange glow of the sky. It became obvious that the colors of the buildings were influenced by the sunset.

We began to head back to the hotel but I spied, at the base of the wall, a group of beautifully outfitted dancers posing for their photos. I wanted to join in the photography session. I am assuming because I couldn’t ask, that these were Cumbrian or Cumbian Dancers. The name “cumbia” comes from “cumbe” which is a Guinean dance form. Many countries throughout Latin America combine the cumbia dance form with their own national styles. In Colombia, cumbia is considered Colombia’s main folk style of dance along with the vallenato. The music in Cartagena is influenced by the majority of Afro-Colombian musicians dancing to the rhythm of the beat of drums, claves and other percussion instruments. But the dress comes from the influence of the Spanish. The dance itself expresses love between a man and a woman, in fact it originated as a courtship dance around the later 17th century.

The dancing pairs that we found were dressed in wonderful pale pinks, greens and yellows. One of the men was dressed in blue pants and a blue shirt, the other was in pink and green to complement his partner. Each had a large woven sombrero that he waved in the air as he twirled. The women had beautiful long flowing lime green skirts with hot pink skirts trim and wore multicolored head scarves similar to those I had bought my granddaughters. The women, as they danced, pulled the edges of their skirts in the air to swirl them like a strutting bird would do with his feathers. There was no music, yet, but we had to leave to get back to our hotel for our farewell dinner arranged by Sam.

By the time we got back to Casa Factoria everyone was assembled in the bar. Sam had to go out to make “arrangements” so we patiently waited for his return. We were very pleasantly surprised when Sam came into view from the open area of the bar waving to us as he stood in one of two horse and carriages! What a great surprise! There were eight in our group and we broke up into groups of four each for the half hour tour of Cartagena. We sat opposite Jim and Maureen listening to the clomp clomp of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone street sharing in the good fortune of this evening’s surprise. At times our carriage driver cut in front of other traffic causing some Ohhs! and Ooos! but passing through the lamplit streets was a very romantic evening indeed.

Our carriage dropped us at the La Cocina de Cartagena restaurant where we ate our final dinner together. The dinner turned out to be anticlimactic after the wonderful carriage ride. We had a fried yucca cakes with toppings of tomato, cheese and avocado, an eggplant tartin, which I didn’t love, a green salad with avocado and tomato, a rolled and stuffed chicken breast, sweet brown rice with corn and mashed potatoes and sort of rice pudding flan for dessert. Nothing to write home about…wait I just did. I probably should have ordered the fish instead of the chicken and the chocolate cake instead of the rice-flan but who knew? Dave, whose stomach was still not up to par, had soup and plain rice.

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