Friday, March 16, 2012

The joys of sleeping together

Besides learning Spanish (getting better every day), my first weeks in Cartagena can be captured in three words: Friendship, food and fiesta. I'll blog about all of these topics sooner or later, but I'll start with friendship for now. 
New friends
Up until two week ago I had never stayed at a hostel before. You know me, I don't like funny smells and those drunk backpackers seem to create quite a lot of those. On my holidays I usually traveled with someone, which made sharing a private room a better option. When on the road for work, I got to stay in (sometimes very) nice hotel rooms. Before departure my friend Sebastian told me that sleeping at a hostel is one of those things you have to have tried at least once in your life."Bucket list it" he told me.

Not intending to actually put it on my bucket list, I set off for a very nice little hotel in Cartagena. I spent my first nights there while looking for long-term accommodation. As I didn't find any as fast as I'd hoped, I ended up checking into a hostel: Casa Nativa. The owners advertise it as being a calm and clean place, which it is. Not only that, it's cozy and has a great family cat. The price for a bed is higher than elsewhere so as to attract a less (smelly and) drunk crowd. Three days ago, after spending almost two weeks there, I checked out of the hostel and in to my new temporary home (a room in a fantastic apartment). With pain. Yes. I seriously liked staying at the hostel. The bunkbeds have charming curtains that provide some privacy and a big locker to store your stuff. My introduction to new people in the dorm would often be "So, I hear we're sleeping together tonight" (I know, my sense of humor is not to be appreciated by everyone). Travis' response was the best: "But we've only just met".

Casa Nativa owners, Marcela and Mitzy, on the doorstep
The pros of 'sleeping together' in bunk beds definitely outweighed the cons: I have met so many interesting, fun and sweet people! It's been a great experience. I've shared the dorm with an Argentinian, a Colombian, two Canadians, an Englishman, an American and a Swedish girl. I've had huge Colombian lunches, was given a tango lesson, went dancing at cafe Havana, saw amazing sunsets on the old city wall, tried my first shots of aguardiente, was taught the expression 'se le corre el shampoo' (meaning someone is out of his mind), got to know a lot of new music, cooked an Indonesian dinner and mostly laughed a lot.

Cafe Havana
Sunset with Travis, Amy and Richard
The people I've met told me stories of their travels and life back home: about Parque Tayrona (which I too will visit), about Carnival in Rio, about balconies in Cuba, about the stress at their busy jobs (and leaving that job to start a hostel), about the cats that are waiting for them at home, about teaching poor women basic hairdressing skills (see cutting borders), about the experience of traveling alone, about learning languages and so much more.

We've fantasized about staying here for good and starting an ice cream shop/Indonesian restaurant in one of the many houses for sale here. Some of us will stay here a bit longer and other will go back to their lives back home. I think I'm doing pretty good at crossing off items from my bucket list.

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Cartagena: Que chevere!

For four days now I have had the pleasure of being a guest of the beautiful city of Cartagena. It's truly amazing! The city breathes history, which makes you want to explore - with salsa music playing in the background and the weather... well, let's not even talk about the weather.
First the citizens, then the tourists
The first days, I stayed in the backpacker part of town, Getsemani. Even though this neighborhood is nicer than most tourist traps, it also has a stench of dirt and prostitution. While I have breakfast, I actually see a tourist stepping into a cab with two hookers - this was at 8 AM! As I enjoy my muesli, tourists, unwashed and with messy hair, come out of their hostels to smoke a cigarette or to quickly run to the supermarket for a healthy breakfast of Sisi and chocolate bars. A salesman shouts out 'Paaaaapayaa' as he pushes his cart filled with tropical fruits ahead. An old garbage collector sings a beautiful song and seems to be followed by unexpected admirers. The sidewalk is suddenly busier behind and around him. An old woman begs, a young man tries to sell white hats. The man whose car has been blocking my view for ten minutes is asked by a (well-armed) policeman to move. The man yells something to the staff of the restaurant and drives off moping. A fine morning in Getsemani.

Papaya seller
Quite the location for a benetton store...
Yesterday I moved to the historic city, which is what Cartagena is know for. Despite the fact that I now sleep in a hostel (as opposed to my Getsemani nights where I stayed at a more luxurious little hotel), I cannot stop grinning: I am here! Every street corner provides a photo op. These Spanish and Italian architects in the late fifteen hundreds really did a good job; it's breathtaking. And it's not as swamped with tourists as I had expected it to be. Still remembering the streets of (other Unesco world heritage sites) San Gimignano, Hoi An and Luang Prabang (which I also loved, so maybe you shouldn't take me seriously on all of this), I was ready to brace for hawkers and hordes of sunburnt American retirees. But no! The city is thriving, with both tourists (from abroad and Colombia itself) and university students. Cartagena's international film festival was free for the first time this year and was so popular that I didn't get to see any movies (despite having waited in the burning sun for half an hour, booh). There were a lot of groovy young Cartagenans in the queue with me. I will report as a further explore the historic center.

Film festival head quarters
Open air film screening
View from my hostel
Of course there is a lot more to the city, of which I had my first taste today. I was invited to lunch at a friend's house (arroz con pollo, which means rice with chicken - very tasty!) in a neighborhood twenty minutes outside the center and got to see a more lively and real part of Cartagena. While the local beautician worked on our nails, I discussed food, cultural differences, men and family with my host, her sister and their ninety-year-old mother. Granny's eyes lit up while she talked about how there are no cars around and people dance on the streets when the party is on. Did I say we (mostly they) spoke in Spanish?

The feet lady knows it all
Granny speaks in a pace that makes it easy for me to understand
*"Que chevere" means "awesome"