At the last turn in the path
(moss and a bit of
—Saying Farewell at the Monastery after Hearing the Old Master Lecture on “Return to the Source” by Gary Snyder
Forcing myself to shake off Cartagena’s hold on me, today. The spell this city cast was so strong that even though we have been in Guatemala for three weeks, I felt duty-bound to pound out a few more posts about Colombia before I could start on Rio Dulce.
When I try to write, though, I find that, loathe as I am to abandon the topic of Cartagena de Indias, the urgency rests mostly in vague things that are difficult to impart to readers on the internet: like a sense of homesickness for a city I only spent three months in. Nostalgia for a past that was never mine. And an intense feeling of love that I have nowhere to put. There is nothing concrete left to say.
I thought perhaps I could write a post dedicated to Garcia Marquéz and Love In The Time Of Cholera. About the park where poor Florentino Ariza used to sit, waiting for the wealthy young Fermina Daza to walk past. Or the bench opposite The Arcade of Scribes where Florentino put his love-letter-writing skills at the disposal of strangers, simply to unburden himself of all the love he wanted, but couldn’t, share with Fermina (and where I always sat to enjoy a café granizado.) But I’ve briefly mentioned these things in other posts, and today’s Arcade of Scribes is so dilapidated that a photo would only disenchant fans of the novel, anyway.
Sometimes the impulse to go on is nothing more than a desire to keep something precious from fading into a memory. A sincere love and friendship bloomed, for a time, and by casually moving on to write about the next country, I feel as though I were ruthlessly mining my life for mere blog content, and betraying the experience. Becoming unworthy of it.
Not everything can, nor has to, be shared. Some things exist only in their moment, for those who were present. But I will try to describe one afternoon that I hold close to my heart, because something in me wants closure, wants to write at least one purely personal blog post about Cartagena. MY Cartagena…the impossible-to-photograph moment that no other traveler to the city will have on his map, or among his “Things To Do in Cartagena” list.
On my last day in Cartagena de Indias I went to the house on Calle de Las Maravillas (The Street of Wonders) to say goodbye to Liz. I found her sitting in bed with her 16-year-old son, Nahuel. The power was down—an almost daily occurrence in Getsemaní—and neither fan nor lights were running. I took my shoes off and joined them among the pillows (the house is shared with Liz’s siblings and their children…the only place Liz has to call her own is her tiny bedroom, which is also her craft workshop, her storage room, her clothes closet, her office, and her reception room when friends drop in. Everyone gets into bed…well, there are no chairs. Pillow fights with Nahuel are a condition of entry.)
Liz was in the process of sorting her collection of tiny treasures—souvenirs gathered from travels around South America, jewellery inherited from her mother or purchased from antique shops, others that she had made—into two piles: objects she would keep, and the ones she would sell. Despite her day job at a tourist gift shop and the nights she spends selling her own work on the streets, she needs more money to singlehandedly support the growing needs of a teenaged son.
Hundreds of little things were spread in the centre of the bed. A solid silver rosary. A chunk of raw emeralds still clinging to their rock. Pre-Colombian buttons and a large bronze nose ring. Fabulous and incredibly valuable gold earrings, a thousand years old, from a Zenú burial site. Horn figurines small as coffee beans. Clay pendants shaped like ears of corn from Peru. Jade beads. Agate vials for cocaine. Liz’s own first pieces of jewellery, from when she first learned to work with silver and stones. A lady’s turtle shell comb inlaid with silver from the 1800s. A flat stone with seven fossilised fish the size of rice grains. There was an old iron house key that I ooh-ed and aah-ed over (I’d just had a dream that I’d bought such a key, from a palenquera with gold teeth, on the bridge into the medieval city, a weeks or two before) and she told me it had been unearthed, during renovation work, in the courtyard of the very house we were in.
Each time Nahuel or I picked something up, Liz would supply the story: who made it, how old it was, where she got it, and at which time of her life. As I became aware of the connection she had with each item, its value grew. It represented a lifetime of travelling and living. I lamented, more than once, that she could part with such special things.
A few times she chose something, held it in the space between us for me to see, and then gave it to me. “Para ti.” At first I protested, but Liz’s zodiac sign is the maternal Cancer, and she would not take no for an answer.
“I’m telling you to TAKE it, niña.”
And, very much like an eight-year-old niña, I dropped my head in apology, said thank you, and tucked the little treasure away.
There was a fish carved from bone, two frogs—one of horn, the other a Pre-Colombian replica in terracotta…
A chunk of raw amethyst (my birthstone) and another, polished and set into a pendant. A large ring of silver and amethyst, a braided leather bracelet and matching choker with a round bone bead, a hand-stitched leather coin purse, a bone hair pick, and a gourd dish decorated with pyrography and colored inks…all made by Liz. She also sent a piece of raw emerald, and two real Pre-Colombian buttons for Kris.
The hours passed too quickly…the dying light from the window told me the sun was setting. Kris wanted to depart that very night, and the only thing that kept him from finally raising the dinghy onto the deck was Me. I had to get back.
Nahuel wandered off to kick a ball around with his cousins in the street. I put on my shoes and made sure I had everything packed away into my backpack. Finally, we stood facing each other in the shadowy room.
“Tu sabes que te quiero…” she said in a tight voice.
“Si, yo sé, mi amor. Y yo te quiero igualmente,” I choked back.
We hugged each other for what felt like an eternity. She put the iron key in the palm of my hand, and closed my fingers over it.
“Lleva la clave para la casa de las maravillas, con cariño.” (“Take the key to the house of wonders, with love.”) My eyes blurred with saltwater.
More hugging, more thankyous, and I don’t know what else…goodbyes are always so hard to deal with that my mind shuts down and I tend to rush through the final moments, in a hurry to get away from my own feelings. The cousins come noisily in from the street and Nahuel is browbeaten by his mother into saying goodbye. He gives me an awkward hug and a pretty boy’s smile, cluttered with braces. The mood changes. I am smiling, now, chattering last promises; Liz is smiling, nodding, waving…
And before I know it, I am on the street, charging past the new graffiti mural taking shape on Calle de Las Tortugas. Past the young whores getting ready for work on the corner of Calle Media Luna. Past the shell pink, sky blue, and orange houses of Getsemaní. I cross the bridge for the last time…and the sun setting is like a logo for telecommunications among the skyscrapers of Boca Grande.
I outpace the dogwalkers, the lovers, the strident palenqueras wailing the names of their fruit as though calling for long-lost children, the yuppies power-walking through the twilit park. I hurry home, to my one true love, to my own life—this strange thing, compact and contained within a boat—and this liquid, shifting existence.
Returning to the source.