We step off the plane at Cartagena's Rafael Núñez International Airport, into the thick Caribbean heat on the tarmac, and back inside the air conditioned freeze of the airport. At baggage claim, an efficient man grabs our bags and places them onto a cart.
“Don’t worry,” he repeats each time I try to help move the bags. "Don't worry."
I suspect he isn’t a zealous airport employee who has been hired to move passengers’ baggage, but he gives no indication that we have a choice in the matter. We simply have to run after him as he rushes through the baggage scanner and to the taxi queue.
He says something to me, and I identify the words “propina” and “mi familia”. It takes me a few seconds to remember that “propina” means “tip”. A few more seconds to try to figure out what the appropriate amount to tip is. A few more seconds to remember I don’t have any of the local currency. He rushed us through the airport so quickly that I forgot to look for a place to exchange money.
While I’m processing, he grows increasingly frustrated.
“Money!” He yells while rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.
“No efectivo,” I shrug.
He huffs at me and mutters under his breath.
“You take US dollars?” I ask.
“Sí, claro!” He warms up considerably.
I chose a three-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood called Bruselas about twenty minutes outside of the city center.
“If you are the typical tourist,” the Airbnb listing reads, “you will not appreciate being in the middle of real Colombian culture. If you want to immerse yourself in the true Colombian people this is the place for you!”
Perfect, I thought. I’m not like other tourists; I’m a cool tourist.
What I had not considered is that neighborhoods outside of the tourist areas have no reason for currency exchange booths. We walk around the corner to an open-air restaurant, lured in by the sound of sizzling meat on a brick-oven grill. The no-nonsense waitress radiates annoyance every time I ask her to “say slowly please.” I apologize with my eyes.
After an eternity of trying to connect the phonemes firing out of her mouth to the Spanish words I’ve been drilling for the last year and a half, and a whole lot of gesturing at the menu, we reach what feels like a consensus. They will take US dollars at a poor exchange rate for their trouble. We will have one beef and one pork with rice, beans, salad, french fries, and patacones.
“Patacones?” I repeat slowly. “Pa.. ta.. co… nes” Some kind of potato thing?
She releases a barrage of words and I make out “platano”.
Ohhhh you mean tostones. My first misunderstanding based on a regional (not language) difference! “Sí, patacones, por favor. Patacones, sí, patacones,” I nod like a mad woman obsessed with fried plantains.
We return from lunch with our bellies stuffed full of starch and meat. The apartment is beautiful, full of art and light, but all that sun makes it oppressively hot. Only two of the bedrooms have air conditioners, and that air doesn't penetrate the wall of heat in the rest of the apartment. My mother insists on taking the bedroom without an air conditioner because she would rather be too hot than too cold.
The next morning she whines, “It was so hot I couldn’t sleep at all!”
I offer to swap bedrooms.
“But your room is so cold,” she says.
Here is a sampling of the running commentary from my mom and brother over the next few days:
It’s so hot. The AC is too cold. I think the fan is making this room hotter. I have a rash. My skin feels like it’s being pricked all over. The water doesn’t get hot enough. The water doesn’t get cold enough. The WiFi stopped working. I don’t have any hangers. What are we going to eat? My stomach hurts. Is the water safe to drink? This water filter you brought is so slow. Why isn’t this burner working? It’s so hot. Where’s that portable AC our host said she’d get? There are ants in the apartment. The music is so loud. The rooster crowed at 6am the first day which was good, but now it’s crowing at 5am, and that’s too early. I need more toilet paper because I used an entire roll in two days. The WiFi stopped working again.
Because I am the only one who speaks any Spanish, I have to handle every issue. Even perfectly reasonable requests like “can we buy some groceries?” require research and conversions and interactions with people which invariably devolve into my staring blank-eyed at the other person while trying to will their mouth-sounds to congeal into meaning.
I go to a corner which I assume is the location of a bank based on Google Maps, but I only find an unmarked wall. I ask a passerby if he knows where the bank is. He tells me to go to El Centro, the touristy center inside the walls of Cartagena. He explains that it's not safe around here to walk out of a bank with a bunch of money. Then he cautions me to tuck my phone away.
On day three, I have a meltdown. I spend four hours in the morning at my laptop, unable to write a single word. Instead, I tunnel my way down an internet rabbit hole of wildly contradictory advice about the safety of Colombia. “If you don’t act like an idiot, you’ll be fine.” “Watch this video of a gang of men with assault rifles mugging an entire restaurant.” “I’m a blonde influencer who lived in Colombia for two months and hiked solo and never had any problems.” “I’m a dude on Reddit who was stabbed.”
It had been so clear to me before: A life spent not furiously pursuing what you want is a life wasted. But now that I’ve actually left my comfortable job in New York, booked a one-way ticket to South America, and dedicated myself to finishing a novel, that confidence is crumbling. Am I stupid, delusional, or naive? (It’s gotta be at least one.) What if something terrible happens?
Outside, the neighbors set up giant speakers on their front patio and blast music in celebration of Cartagena’s Independence Day. The portable AC we requested still has not arrived. I am permanently sweating.
My coping mechanism for stress is to dissociate and ignore all sensory input. So if someone points out how hot or noisy it is, I react like a bear being dragged out of her cave when she’s trying to hibernate.
During dinner, the neighborhood kids start setting off poppers on the street. Every time one explodes, my mother jumps out of her seat and shouts in Korean, “Shut up already!
I snap back that her shouting is more annoying than the explosions. Then I cry in the shower and go to sleep early.
The next day, I realize I haven’t had coffee in three days and feel instantly better after my first sip. Caffeine is a powerful drug.
A small caravan of roving fruit carts passes through our street every morning, and the vendors call out their stock for the day: “Platanito! Mango! Papaya! Piña! Coco!”
My mother and I venture outside to purchase fruit for breakfast. The elderly man who lives next door greets us and points out the names of each item.
“Platanito.” He points and nods at the bananas.
“Corozo.” He points to a bag of small red berries.
“Jugo.” He gestures like he’s drinking a glass and flashes a thumbs up. He mimes eating the berries and pulls a face like they’re sour.
He gestures a slicing motion to ask if we want the fruit vendor to cut the pineapple. “Pele?”
The vendor pulls out a machete and expertly hacks off the prickly skin and stem for us.
By the end of the week we settle into a routine. My mom wakes up at 5:30 to go for an hour-long walk through the neighborhood. I wake up around 6:30, and no one speaks to me until I’ve finished my coffee. We head out to the fruit carts for breakfast.
“Hola, señor!” I greet my neighbor. We attempt small talk.
According to my host’s brother, Cartagena is the worst place to learn Spanish. Even people from other parts of Colombia have difficulty understanding the coastal accent. They tend to discard chunks of words and smash the remains together. Paque instead of para que. Porfa rather than por favor. Instead of buenos días, I hear bueno. But once I adjust to the way people speak, I start making out some of the basic words. I’m learning how to listen.
I return to the restaurant where we got lunch on our first day. Now that I know what to expect, and I am equipped with Colombian Pesos, I fluently ask for the chicken platter to go. The grill cook chats me up, and I manage to tell him that my family likes the food here.
He says something along the lines of, “I’ll give your family a discount because you’re so beautiful. Are you single or married?”
I laugh and tell him I have a boyfriend, but I'm not married. He knocks off a fourth of the price.
I’m certain the discount is because we eat there almost every day, but it still feels like a win. My theory is that once you’re able to order food, tell a joke and flirt in another language, you’ve reached basic competency.
We don’t venture far from the apartment during our first week in Cartagena. We spend the days holed up in the air conditioned bedrooms. I am ostensibly writing. Mom’s gotten obsessed with YouTube videos on cooking and investing. My brother plays video games and watches hockey. At night, we watch Squid Games and order delivery.
Slowly, though, we expand. My mother walks through the neighborhood in concentric circles which ripple further out each day. I purchase a cheap phone with the substantial help of our host’s cousin. The giddy sense of freedom I get from cell service and google maps emboldens me to go for a run across a series of insane highways, over the bridge to Manga, along a beautiful waterfront running path, and up to the hip neighborhood of Getsemaní. I wander the narrow streets which are flanked by colorful buildings and graffiti murals. I sidestep tourists posing for photos under the iconic sunshades made of umbrellas or flowers or flags. I dodge overly friendly men trying to sell me knickknacks.
“Beautiful lady! What do you need?”
This is the Cartagena that everyone goes to Cartagena for, and it is lovely.
All of the advice I had received about where to stay echoed the same idea: There’s nothing outside of the Walled City. Everything you could want-- the food, the architecture, the nightlife-- is all within the tourist center, safely ensconced within 400-year-old walls. A lot of people speak some English. Most restaurants accept credit cards. If I had stayed here, my first week would probably have been a lot easier.
I down an arepa and fresh coconut water. Then I haggle with a cab driver until he angrily accepts my lowball bid, and he brings me home.