Thursday, March 25, 2010

Idols, Ides, or Idiosyncrasies

It would be unfair to say that we have been "disappointed" with Cartagena. Far from it. However, I would feel more comfortable with a synonym for "disenchanted." Of course, this sense is a combination of factors - I don't mean to condemn Cartagena as a whole, but let me put down my jugo de zapote and back-up a little.

I should begin with our last day in Quito.

You would have to try very hard or have very little time to be unimpressed with Quito.

With less than twelve hours left in the city we managed to fill up yet another day and marvel at what a quality place Quito is (and Ecuador as a whole).

We started with an attempt to find various embassies scattered throughout the Mariscal (new town). This being largely a failure, we abandoned the search for a new search - coffee. Near Parque La Carolina we found a nice little international café with a good latte and a crazy-delicious donut-sandwich hybrid. From there we made our way through the park to the Jardín Botánico de Quito which boasted tons of orchids, carnivorous plants, and bonsai trees (not to mention tons of roses, cacti, and trees)! I don't ususally enjoy botanical gardens (WHERE ARE ALL THE ANIMALS!), but the collection was so diverse that each plant seemed to take on a character of its own allowing my imagination to thoroughly enjoy itself.

From the garden we headed up-town on one of Quito's clean and efficient buses (costing a quarter) to an outdoor market it in a plaza that I have forgotten - hurray! With most family members now covered in the souvenir department and Kaitlin making marginal progress in the haggling department - we could move on to other things.

Another bus ride took us into the old city center and after hoofing it a few blocks on foot through the Plaza Theatro we were on the steps of Quito's Mercado Central. Walking inside, I immediately had the sensation that I was in a 1920s-30s hospital. High-ceilings, lots of natural light, stalls randomly dispersed through the space, people shuffling in and out around corners and down the aisles, colors, and noises. As if it could be any better, we were joined by only one other pair of gringos which made us think that this meal had potential to be quite special/authentic.

And in good-ole Quito fashion, it did not disappoint. My dish consisted of rice, hard-boiled egg, a massive half of avocado, and stew topped rice with big chunks of potato and miscellaneous beef bits. DELICIOUS. Top it all off with a healthy pitcher of blackberry juice - all for under $6 - good times.

Content we were off to the nearby Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Siena. For three dollars our tour included a healthy showcase of tons of morbid-gory religious art and artifacts, topped off by a spiral staircase leading to a rather perilous view of the city from the monastery roof.

After the tour, we were closing in on four hours before it was time to leave for the airport, so we decided to head back to the hostel for some pre-flight rest and relaxation.

Around 8pm it was time to head to the airport. Twenty minutes later we're in the main lobby of Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport about to embark on an all-night-flight-othon that would take us from Quito to Cali, Colombia - Cali to Bogota - Bogota to Cartagena. No flight lasting more than an hour, but the entire ordeal lasting from 8pm in Quito to 10am in Cartagena. Built-up by myself as our most perilous journey of the trip - I was pleasantly surprised-amazed-in awe when we landed in Cartagena, safe with all of our luggage. Incredible.

Each airport was so small and easy and clean, it was hard to believe how smoothly everything was going. Compared to most airports in the US and especially to Buenos Aires - these guys really had their act together.


I will start off by saying, "We are not Anthony Bourdaine."

In Buenos Aires, the combination of cabin fever, Marko's enthusiasm for Colombia, and this episode of "No Reservations" put us on a crash course with reality.

The truth is, Cartagena is VERY touristy. This morning, I went to get a shot of espresso from one of the men in the Plaza del Reloj and had to wait to cross the street as a train of more than ten horse drawn carriages full of beige and white clad seniors turned left - for each tourist a camera waving in the air that could feed a family here for over a month. I don't mean to digress into the economics, politics, ethics of the situation - suffice it to say..I know enough after five months down here that "touristy" places aren't necessarily where you want to be.

Though we haven't encountered anything like the persistence we saw in Peru, street vendors are eager and it's impossible not to feel that local eyes are always watching. Tourists come and go - these people stay behind and have to make a living chasing down Nikon toting gringos.

It's also very hot here, which would be okay, if there were a proper beach nearby. The old city (where our hotel is located) is surrounded by walls (originally built by the Spanish to protect the vital port from pirate attacks). Once the aesthetic wears off - it can be a bit claustrophobic and oppressively hot and confusing just trying to get to and from the grocery store.

Lastly, possibly our last meal in the market in Quito has afflicted Kaitlin with a stomach illness that has rendered her more or less bedridden. Thus, it is likely our plans to snorkel are scuttled and with one day remaining in the city - I'm not sure there is much opportunity left for our impressions to change.

No doubt there is much to see, do, and eat here in Cartagena. But without a local guide or a private vehicle - even under the best conditions it would be difficult for us to have had the time of our lives.

Alas, all is not negative! How could it be when we are so fortunate to continue our travels to yet another beautiful country!

Easily the highpoint of our time in Cartagena has been our ability to reunite with Rob and Blanche - the Australian couple we met in Puerto Natales and hiked Torres del Paine with. It was again, the refreshing couples dynamic that has been so nice after months of one on one interaction. We sat for hours in different parts of the city, eating, drinking - discussing our travels, pending reintegration into our respective societies, and if that were even fully possible considering all that we had experienced and where our priorities now lie.

As with Antti and Laura in Finland, it has been a reaffirming and inspirational gift to know that there are other couples/people out there with similar priorities, "fighting the good fight" all over the world.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that with these near-chance encounters across the continent, there is the bitter-sweet farewell. With only an afternoon together, Rob and Blanche were now off to Santiago where they would stay for three days before flying back to Melbourne.

Just the two of us, again.

Today has been a rather lackluster day, which is quite alright by me. Kaitlin has been hydrating and resting. I have been reading articles, making brief excursions into the city for breakfast, coffee, or lunch, but mostly attempting to plan our exit from Cartagena.

With the anti-climax of the flights from Quito to Cartagena past, our bus journey from Cartagena to Medellin is our last great logistical hurtle. Consensus is that with rebel groups and paramilitaries beaten back into the jungle/hinterlands, the route is safe to travel. Still, there are no guarantees in Colombia and when it comes to my personal safety and especially the safety of others, that isn't good enough.

Suffice it to say, with Kaitlin unable to assist with speaking to locals, I am a little uneasy about our journey on Saturday. Everyone has said that there are no problems, that there will be plenty of buses, that it's okay to go through the night. Still, I'm waiting for advice from a (strangely enough) Clemson native who runs a hostel in Medellin before I sit back and relax.

Of course, like nearly every scenario where I have played the paranoid-cynic, I'm expecting, I'm hoping, to be proven wrong. But, sadly for Colombia, I think it will take the lift-off from Aeropuerto El Dorado in Bogota on April 6th for me to breathe that final sigh of relief and tell people, "Yeah, Colombia is not what it was. I traveled there for two weeks and had no problems at all."

In the meantime, I'll try to muffle my paranoia as much as possible. I'll slough off the breaking news bulletins that the US has been inundated with since my childhood. I'll minimize. I'll drink lots of fruit juice and coffee. I'll eat lots of beans and egg and avocado. I'll watch lots of soccer. And read. And talk to Kaitlin. And maybe that will be enough to wake-up on April 7th in Miami International Airport bound for Denver and a completely different journey.

1 comment:

  1. And don't forget... then a new journey will begin. Ready to have you stateside again...