The country is captivatingly typical of the Latin American traits one might envision without visiting it. The football fervor never subsides: it’s omnipresent. As a local friend says, the city would be literally “paralyzed” when there’s a soccer match wherein the national team is competing to qualify for the next round of FIFA World Cup.
They’ve appeared in the finals of the FIFA World Cup five times; first in 1962 and lately in its most recent edition in 2014, and they’re yearning for more. It doesn’t make a difference to them if they’re playing the two-time champions Argentina, which takes pride in Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María. They boast their own 24-year-old hero James Rodríguez, so no worries: “Los Cafeteros” should be potentially able to defeat every squad. And once the match is over, which I didn’t watch so as to meet the elusive deadlines of my reporting, they appear communally dejected at the calamity of losing to the Argentine powerhouse, yet they’re hopeful and try to repossess their routine joviality and unfaltering sanguinity.
Like every other journey abroad, traveling to Colombia emerged a challenge for me. After several days of searching, I found out, to my utmost surprise, that the Colombian Embassy in Tehran had been closed a few years back, although the non-existent address and telephone number appeared everywhere on the internet. So, I was advised to apply for an electronic visa through the Colombian Embassy in Ankara, and luckily enough, I could get it shortly.
The unrelenting flights and lengthy stopovers at the airports in Frankfurt and Bogota, totaling 27 hours, eventually took me to the city which the late Nobel Prize laureate in literature Gabriel García Márquez – a Colombian national icon – sets some of his major novels, including “Of Love and other Demons” and “Love in the Time of Cholera”, in: Cartagena.
In a get-together with an American journalist, whom I was not sure I would meet up in Cartagena prior to my arriving, I ingenuously shared the impression I got after strolling across the walled city. Habitually, I do not veil such impressions, even though I may sound naive.
“I’m perhaps the first Iranian who has ever set foot in Cartagena,” I opined. And he contested me quite courteously by saying that the Iranian photographer, Kaveh Kazemi, has also been here some time ago. I was only nearly right. A country with some 14,000 Muslims, of whom I would doubt more than a couple of dozen residents are Iranians, is not the first choice for the Iranian travelers and migrants, even though they may find it difficult to resist the lure of paying a visit if they realize that Colombia is way more peaceful now than they would envisage.
After saluting to an inimitable humidity that dawned on me as soon as I get off the plane and crawled through the passageways to enter the city – needless to say a city that is emblematic of Amazonian climate, I was welcomed at the airport exit by a taxi driver who wanted to take me to Hotel Monterrey for 40 USD. I was privileged to have been told that the ride would cost only 4 USD, something around 12,000 Pesos. So, I just revealed to him that I knew the real price, and he graciously guided me to the office of “taxi autorizado,” which was primarily concealed from my sight, and wouldn’t overcharge you unduly. During the trip, what stood out quite noticeably was the massive congregation of people in the streets and plazas, cheering to the Latin America songs, and coming into view totally untiring: it was 1:30 in the morning.
Welcome to Cartagena!
The rainfall is alternating, yet ubiquitous. We needed to move our dishes and drinks inside after a sudden showering of rain began to catch me and a small group of my journalist friends off-guard, as we were seated outside a relatively luxury restaurant in the walled city to have dinner. We were in Cartagena to take part in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism 2015: an ensemble of journalists from Colombia, five Latin American countries and five countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America plus the Middle East represented by me.
Once we relocated from the exterior, and as we were just settling, a group of restaurant stewards emerged from one corner of the bistro, carrying a chocolate cake adorned with some candles, chanting “cumpleaños feliz”. They approached a young Afro-Colombian woman sitting in the edge with her partner and clapped in concert, and the entire restaurant began giving a round of applause– I could realize from the melody, before asking my Peruvian friend for interpretation, that the song was a “happy birthday” hymn, and apparently the girl’s partner had coordinated with the restaurant staff to surprise her on her birth anniversary! Mission accomplished: she was obviously stunned, as manifested in her big, excited smile.
As we finished dining and left the restaurant to saunter by the ancient wall city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, I noticed that somebody is going behind us. He was taking long strides, and tried to keep a very short distance from us. I was initially frightened, but as I was told he was a “mimo” begging for some money, my fear collapsed. Honestly, he was not pursuing us in an aggressive manner. A friend said that you just tell him “gracias” a few times, and he would tire out and leave you. The mimo had painted his face and wore a hat like the clowns. I didn’t find other mimos in the days to come, but my first encounter with such a local drifter was an amazing one, even though it was indicative of a social gap, which my Colombian friends said has been narrowed down in the recent years.
Life in the walled city
The walled city is literally a fortress that encompasses everything a traditional town of antiquity should consist of. My friend maintains it’s not simply a fortress by name; it’s genuinely a stronghold within the borders of which you feel safe and guarded. However, the city doesn’t just stand out for its ancient traits. There exists a delicate mixture of modernity and old days: luxury restaurants and local food places, souvenir shops, chain stores, representatives of fashionable clothing brands, cathedrals, plazas and shops exclusively selling the Colombian coffee, which every tourist will find irresistible to visit. The life flows in the walled city dynamically. The alleys confusingly look like each other, and without a guide, a Google Maps application or some degree of Spanish fluency, a first-time traveler would definitely get lost: cobblestoned, tapered lanes, balconies that tower the not-so-much-lofty buildings and thus are mundanely noticeable, jardinieres of blissful, never-dying flowers and potted plants steadfastly dangling from those balconies and flags of different countries draping over at the outer surface of restaurants, which in turn underlines the existence of a diverse, multicultural composition of minorities and immigrants in the city.
I had the chance to dine with my Colombian friend at one of these restaurants. Although it was not a Muslim or Arabic cafeteria, it was suitably Mediterranean and could connect me to the pleasant feeling of eating at home: a Greek restaurant! Extraordinarily, I discovered yoghurt there, something I doubt would be found prevalently in Colombia, but unavoidably has to be hit upon in the Greek district of Cartagena. Yoghurt is an inseparable part of the Iranian dish. So, after gulping down the first bowl of Greek yoghurt, I willingly asked for the second. With a glass of doogh, it could have brought me entirely back to Iran, but to find it, I couldn’t rely on the Greek restaurant. Maybe a Turkish one would serve the purpose.
The sculptures of heroes, martyrs and busts of historical figures can be spotted universally in Cartagena, especially at every plaza in the walled city. But what the visitors tend to be in love with more is “gertrudis”, the fat, naked woman created by the prominent Colombian figurative artist, Fernando Botero Angulo, whom the people here venerate a great deal. The painter-sculptor gained worldwide attention in 2005 for his Abu Ghraib series. Through his critical paintings, primarily exhibited in Europe, Botero has censured the abuse and torturing of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility West of Baghdad by the US forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Botero has donated several artworks to museums in Bogota and Medellín. Just in 2000, he donated 85 pieces from his personal collection to a museum in Bogota. There are usually vendors rambling around “gertrudis,” selling her small-scale replicas. I was told that there are three gertrudises that Botero has composed, and the one in the Plaza de Santa Domingo is perhaps the most popular one.
Graffitis in Getsemaní
After returning from a three-day trip to Santa Cruz de Mompox, I find the time to explore Cartagena more deeply. It’s quite stupendous that the walls in the old districts of the city are embellished with graffitis and murals unanimously. The majority of characters and figures depicted in the graffitis are black-skinned. The locals say the painting of abandoned walls has emerged as a tradition just recently. The city has been grappling with the impacts of colonialism so inexorably that such murals couldn’t be traced up until 4 or 5 years ago, so the majority of them are pristine and still unaffected by the rain and sunlight.
The graffitis are more perceptible in Getsemaní, an antique, quite deprived neighborhood, which despite its destitution enthralls tourists and so many photographers – of course, thanks to its charismatic architecture and the colorful, vivacious murals. The international hotel chains have become progressively more interested in investing in the area; Viceroy Hotels Group and Four Seasons are negotiating plans to construct luxury hotels in the non-luxurious district. The local residents in this quarter, mostly Afro-Colombians, outnumber international visitors and foreign dwellers. But as more people talk about the delicately slender, charmingly paved alleys of Getsemaní and its graffitis when they’re back home, they spontaneously invite new sightseers to come and behold what’s happening amid all the tranquility which exists there, sporadically interrupted by the commotion of cabs, “servicio público” vehicles and military sedans.
Some of the graffitis have a preeminent historical implication, including the one that depicts Pedro Romero, the legendary Spanish bullfighter, who headed a group of blacks and mulattos in 1811 called The Getsemani Lancers and spearheaded a revolt that eventually ended in the independence of Cartagena.
The district is undergoing gentrification so that it can function as a more well-liked tourist haunt, but the architectural pattern is still preserved and the colonial legacy is silently there. However, you don’t find so many cathedrals or museums in Getsemaní, enchantingly present everywhere in the city, underlining, as many of my local friends told me, the piety and strong religious integrity of the people in Latin America.