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Published: November 23rd 2007
“Yo soy Miss Colombia
.”* The bold claim leapt defiantly from the text. My eyes flicked back up to the accompanying photograph. Catalina, the septuagenarian fruit vendor, undoubtedly had the poise of a beauty queen and certainly wore her age well, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.
Reading an in-flight magazine from cover to cover on a grounded plane, I had chanced upon an article about the palenqueras
of Cartagena. Characteristic figures in this Caribbean city, these vibrantly-clothed women negotiate the streets of the ciudad amurallada
and the beach at Bocagrande, their palanganas
laden with luscious fruits or syrupy confections. A small bill will acquire you a sample of their wares, and a small tip a photo opportunity.
We didn’t come across Catalina - at least not the palenquera
Catalina - but we were closer to Miss Colombia than we imagined.
Each November, Cartagena plays host to the Concurso Nacional de Belleza
, two weeks of events culminating in the crowning of Miss Colombia. The country celebrates a number of other beauty pageants, including ‘Miss Coffee’ and the Reinado Popular de Cartagena
- a popular pageant coinciding with the Miss Colombia one - in which local women from Cartagena compete. But
it’s the concurso nacional
that brings the big benefits: 2001’s reina
, or queen, had a postage stamp issued in her honour, and a 1958 contestant who went on to bag the Miss Universe title (an achievement that has yet to be repeated in Colombian beauty queen history) was reportedly granted tax exemption for life. Without knowing, we had arrived in Cartagena as preparations for the contest were underway.
The pick of the nation’s knockouts had arrived in the city just days before, but in the colonial quarter there was little evidence of them. Settling for a different kind of bonbon
, we wandered past the multicoloured walls slowly shedding their paint work in an eternal, languid battle with the Caribbean sun, and the picturesque balconies lovingly suffocated by bougainvillea, as we made our way to the Portal de los Dulces
. This confectionery market shelters under a shady arcade the Plaza de los Coches
, its stalls stacked with cocadas
, bolas de tamarindo
and a sticky glut of other candies bound to satiate the appetite of even the most ardent sugar-addict.
Just beyond, we passed a cordoned-off area where a stage was being erected. A distracted policewoman mumbled something about a
Palenquera, Cartagena, Colombia
The shaky camera work was as a result of the sugar from her bowl of goodies already having gone to my head...
race being held in the city, and we wondered if the clutch of middle-aged men loitering by the barriers, fidgety in anticipation, were hoping for a guest appearance from the Misses.
Turning the corner, we came across the other Catalina. Proud and poised as the palenquera
with whom she shares a name, she had the long-limbed grace of a Miss Colombia hopeful. This Catalina is a sculptural representation of the indigenous woman who served as interpreter to Pedro de Heredia, the Spanish founder of Cartagena. She is now synonymous with the city’s film festival - La India Catalina statuettes are awarded to festival winners. Another version of this statue is located on a wide avenue outside the old city walls. Based on the sittings of two life models, some suggest that the representation isn’t an accurate reflection of the indian girl - who they claim was actually somewhat smaller and plumper - but conforms instead to a certain ideal of beauty, just as the pageant contestants seem to. (Perhaps this is why there is a plastic surgery clinic named after her).
The sun had returned to mop up the morning’s puddles and tourists spilled out around the artesanías
shops at Plaza de las Bóvedas. At one end was the unmistakable silhouette of a palenquera
. Our purchase completed and the obligatory tourist shot snapped, I saw why that bold claim might not have been all that exaggerated. With practised ease and a final coquettish glance, she raised her palangana
and swayed her way to the next punter. Languid, assured, queen-like.
* “I am Miss Colombia”.
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