Cartagena lays claim to why spanish is spoken in South America. Granted, it’s old history, battles fought hundreds of years ago between Spanish soldiers holed up in this fortified city and depending on the year either French or British naval invasions. Walking around brilliant forts (or castles or just the walled city) and learning about soldier’ slaughters, I thought if it weren’t for war, Paul Revere would’ve saved himself a late night ride and been able to tweet about the British coming (for tea – remember no war). Let’s just say there are riches to fight over here and many have been fought. For better or for worse that is at least one of the questions.
Fast forward to modern-day Cartagena where I’ve been for the last week, teaching a young man to be a TEFL/English teacher. Especially interesting since I haven’t really taught English and I’m happily relying on my hundreds of years of experience facilitating and presenting ‘train-the-trainer’ workshops. Fear not, I am helping him even as the class curriculum dribbles in like afternoon showers here. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
There are the foreigner-filled beaches, and the tourists who wander in packs through the charming ‘Ciudad Vieja’ – the old walled city, with emerald shops on every corner, while you can’t avoid the offers for tours of every kind from men in front of every shop. Everyone has something to sell, something to offer, smelling the sweet scent of foreign currency. One tour guide linked Cartagena with St. Augustine. An urban planner from New Orleans said she was reminded of her hometown thanks to the architecture, ‘festival’ and the intimate streets, not to mention the weather. A torrential rain last Tuesday flooded the city and I got a the smallest taste of how Katrina must have devastated that city.
Traveling to any country is like falling into a whole new world. Of course it’s not uncommon to cross a street almost anywhere in this same world and experience the passage from 1st to 3rd world. My time in Cartagena finds me somewhere in between. Discussing the differences in amenities with German travelers this morning we agreed we were very lucky to live in countries with such a wonderful standard of living – and how easy it is to take it all for granted including having sewage systems that can handle flushing toilet paper.
Substituting walking for motorized transportation – taxis or buses is a fascinating albeit harrowing experience. The closest comparison is bumper cars though with everyone going in the same direction at dizzying speed and three lanes of traffic regularly swelling to five with motorcycles regularly competing for lane space – or should I say painted line space. I haven’t taken pictures/videos of my experiences because of iPhone theft warnings: see somethings are the same wherever you are! And honestly, there are times I’m holding on tight. It takes nerves of steel to ride in one of these vehicles not to mention cross the street (which I’ve now mastered with a hand wave!). It must take nerves of titanium to get behind the wheel. Good thing I love to walk.
Taking time to breathe, I luxuriate strolling more as a citizen than a tourist inside the wall, exiting each afternoon into the ‘slums of Getsamenie, where I’m working. Stepping out of my ‘world view’, I’m following the footsteps of the locals. Slowing my pace and expectations and most of all trying to take things as they come. There’s no sense of urgency here. No ‘timely fashion’ as we might say in the first world. Sharing this time challenge with ‘my NYC boss’ she responded: ‘well that’s why some places are not doing well and not advancing’.
It’s not that simple. The culture is so different here in a way I can’t explain. I don’t understand it yet, but give me another week to try. Understanding – isn’t that the purpose of travel?
Enjoy! And Shana Tova: Happy New Year.