Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cartagena, or, The Scent of Memory

JOTA DANCER, CARTAGENA ( copyrightmannypanta@2007)

The scent of bitter almonds beguiled me in Love in the Time of Cholera. The trickle of blood with a mind of its own creeped me out in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The abundant red hair cascading from a nun’s corpse  in a demolished crypt horrified me in  Of Love and Other Demons. Now, my cruise ship  M/V Crown Princess was in Cartagena de los Indias,  Colombia, and I was within a fifteen-minute  taxi drive to the center of this storied, antique colonial city on the  Caribbean coast of  Colombia, setting of many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels.  Would actually touching  the walls and  walking the places in which   much of the action in his novels took place confirm to me what  he  wrote about? Would Cartagena prove as  enchanting and magical as it was made out to be in the author’s bewitching prose?
     Not at first. In fact, on this my very first visit to Cartagena, I didn’t venture into the city at all. I stayed in the safe, enclosed cruise terminal grounds.  It was on account of the  Colombian taxi drivers. They had massed outside the closed iron gates, hollering and shouting out for fares among the alarmed  passengers. It was a formidable human gauntlet in which the desperation was so palpable  that anyone could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was being set up for a possible assault. Many passengers chose to stay inside the cruise ship terminal, scared and intimidated.  Inside the gates were souvenir stores, emerald shops, food stalls and security. Colorfully-garbed dancers performed on shady lawns and blue and gold macaws croaked from cages hung from the branches of trees. Hummingbirds as tiny as dragonflies zipped among the flowering bushes.  No need to go out. Outside was bedlam and uncertainty. This was Colombia, where  one can imagine the scent of violence hanging in the tropical air like the whiff of gunpowder. Besides, the weather was terribly muggy and hot. There were passengers and crew who just circulated in this small tourist area. As far as they were concerned, they were in Colombia.
     The next time our ship was in Cartagena, I finally summoned the courage to brave the taxi drivers’ scrum. A heavyset  black woman dressed in a white, official-looking uniform raised her hand to greet me  and asked if I needed a taxi. I said “Si”, trusting her no-nonsense demeanor. She led  me off to a  waiting taxi. Relieved, I sat on the back of the taxi. To my surprise, the same woman opened the front door and sat on the seat beside the taxi driver.
     I asked in Spanish: “Perdon? Are you coming with me?”
     “Oh senor,” she said, “I will be your guide.”
     “But senora,” I protested, “ I don’t need a guide. I just need to go to town.”
     The taxi driver said nothing but looked sheepish. He was in on it.
     “Senor, “ said the woman, “ let me just bring you to a store. The owners are my friends. They’re very nice.”
     I quickly debated with myself whether to go in this taxi with this woman. Once again, I was not sure anymore whether I wanted to visit Cartagena. During this period of time, there had been a lot of kidnapping and murders in Colombia. True, Cartagena, maybe for the reason that it was a major tourist attraction, didn’t suffer any of the violence that beset the rest of Colombia, but I was still wary. I didn’t want to become a statistic in this country’s crime wave.
Sensing that I was going to leave them, the taxi driver  joined in in pleading with me to stay.
“ You will like the store, senor. We will only be there a few minutes.”
I finally relented and agreed to be driven to town. At ten dollars round trip, it was a good deal. In fact, as I was about to learn later, you could hire a taxi for twenty dollars the entire day.
Off we went to the old town.
     The cruise ship port was in a part of Cartagena that was separated from the old city by a body of water spanned by a bridge. An ancient Spanish fort, much like Fort Santiago in Manila, guarded this approach to the city. One of the remarkable things about Cartagena is that the original city walls, having suffered no damage  except from the pirate raids that occurred in the 17th and 18th h centuries and the general depredations of age,  were still intact and encircled the city. Inside, the old colonial buildings also stood whole and restored, a testament to Spanish architectural styles and flair. This was what Manila would have looked like if it had not been destroyed during World War 11 by both the Japanese and the Americans.
     As promised, despite my unwillingness, the taxi deposited me in front of a souvenir store. My two abductors, the taxi driver and the black woman in the official-looking uniform, led me inside  the establishment.  A man and woman in their fifties threw delighted looks at me and cried: “Bienvenido, senor! Welcome!” I was the only person in their large  space that was full of souvenirs of every sort.
A tray with a cup and saucer and a pot of Colombian coffee was produced.
     “Taste our coffee, senor,” said the man. “The best in the world!.”
     I took a sip. The taxi driver  and the woman stood near the doorway, watching this play of potential customer and shopkeeper, perhaps anticipating the commissions they would earn from the activity.
     “May I interest you in some souvenirs, senor?” asked the man.
     “No,” I said, “not really. I was just brought here. I want to see your city.”
     “It’s a beautiful city, senor,” said the man. “Can I interest you in some emeralds?”
     Resigned to the fact that I wasn’t about to see the beautiful city of Cartagena anytime soon, I gave in. I had to admit that I was interested in emeralds. I just didn’t want to be coerced into buying them.
The man led me to a glass case in which emeralds in every sort of setting - rings, brooches, necklaces, bracelets – were displayed. It was dazzling, but I had no interest in buying any of it.
     I dutifully pointed out a ring or a pendant  to please the excited shopgirl who was showing me the gems. I could feel her desperation in the air. No sales, no commissions. No tourists came into the store. The competition must be intense, or else the visitors weren’t buying.
     Finally, I said: “I’m sorry, but I am not interested in buying any jewelry today. Maybe some other time.”
     The shop girl looked crestfallen. The  owner did not give up.
     “How about a little souvenir senor? We have some antiques too.”
     One of the peculiar things about Colombia is that you can buy antique pre-Colombian pottery without any sort of export restrictions by the government. If you are knowledgeable in this branch of antiques and can recognize the fake from the genuine, you can get real bargains in the stores here. I examined a few, and found them too expensive. On hindsight, I should have bought a restored bowl that I fancied, but there was the nagging suspicion that it could be an expensive fake. I'd learned my lesson many years ago when I bought a celadon vase from a reputable dealer from Cebu, only to find out, from an appraiser at the National museum no less, that it was made in Cebu ca 1975!
     Again I firmly said no, and, with disappointment on their face, my store hosts let me go.
To judge from their faces, the driver and my guide were disappointed as well.
     I went outside into the cobblestone streets of Cartagena. It was like old Manila, or what was left of it. The guide followed me from a distance. I ducked into an old church. She ducked inside as well. She was not about to let me go.
     Finally, in frustration, I turned around and declared:
     “ Yo quiero volver al barco. I want to return to the ship.”
     I had only seen the inside of the store, some surface roads of Cartagena, and the dank , gloomy interior of that antique church. I was not about to allow myself to be followed everywhere I went by persons I did not know.
     The taxi driver and the guide brought me back to the ship. I paid them off with the $10 and walked briskly back into the shaded security of the cruise ship terminal.
     Thus went my first incursion into Cartagena.
     Later, I had more satisfying and pleasurable  visits to the city in the company of fellow crewmembers. On these subsequent visits, I was able to visit churches, forts, had lunch in old cloisters, ambled about in the marketplace unmolested by stalkers, and even finally purchased emerald jewelry which Colombia is justly famed for.
     If I were to judge Cartagena solely from that first unfortunate encounter with the taxi driver and the guide, I would not return to Cartagena. But I was able to make several visits afterwards in less stressful circumstances and now I have to say that Cartagena is one of my favorite colonial cities in the world.
     One particular scene remains in my mind that has defined Cartagena for me forever.  Not the churches, forts, old walls or cafes, but a fleeting tableau.
     I was walking around the Plaza de los Coches, the former slave trade market of Cartagena. I was delighted to find a vendor who sold a variety of sweets that reminded me of the Philippines, in particular,  those  balls of sweet shredded coconut we called bocayo. I bought a dozen and as I launched myself into one of those balls (no joke intended!), I saw a  man walk past me carrying a pole from which two  weaver birds’ nests dangled. The scene was so startling, yet so apt for this city, that it has stuck in my mind’s eye in  the dozen or so years that have passed since I saw it.
This hot, steaming city of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Botero  enchanted me with its antique beauty and its tropical phantasmagoria. I hope I can return to spend more time there and read one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpieces in a cloistered garden there.  And if I cannot, I take comfort in what the author had to say about past experiences:

     “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”

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