A backward glance

 At the last turn in the path
“goodbye—”
—bending, bowing,
(moss and a bit of
wild
bird-)
down.
Daitoku-ji Monastery
—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.


Liz

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…
ranita
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.
Totumo
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.
sunset behind Bocagrande
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.

Just erotic. Nothing kinky.

the bird book

It started with a book that I bought to read on the flight from Johannesburg to Capetown: The Search for The Rarest Bird In The World by Vernon R.L. Head, a South African bird-lover. It was a strange book, surprisingly dreamy with a lot of beautiful language, images shimmering like a tree shot with sunlight and a thousand cherry-sized birds. An emotional book, with just touches of natural science. I read that book 8, maybe 9 times…it was not very mentally taxing, just a pleasant ramble through forests and savannahs, chasing birds with one’s thoughts. I wanted to keep it, but didn’t want to read it a 10th time…felt strangely compelled to interact with it, somehow.

I started doodling and painting in its pages…beginning with the catalog of eggs used for the endpaper design, the large white spaces around chapter titles, then moving into the text…
the bird book
the bird book
the bird book
the bird book
the bird bookAt some point this feather thing took over, and I set aside the altered book project to explore feathers in my sketchbooks. Colours, brush marks, how to make a feather using a single stroke of the brush…
the bird book
the bird book

Moved from sketchbooks to watercolour paper, with a mapping pen to draw fine lines, and a lick of gouache to sometimes give a highlight.
the bird book
the bird book

The final version is at the top of this post…a series of feathers using yellow and sepia paint, on rough watercolor paper. A present for my Colombian friend Liz.

“Just erotic. Nothing kinky. It’s the difference between using a feather and using a chicken.”     ― Terry Pratchett, Eric

street art :: Getsemaní

Sitio Getsemaní

Getsemani used to be Cartagena de Indias’ impoverished slum area…this is where epidemics of cholera started in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book, Love inThe Time of Cholera. The city’s blacks lived here—slaves, servants, fishermen—in the low, marshy area next to the river, on the outskirts of the main walled city.
These days, Getsemani has risen from the ashes and fish offal to become Cartagena’s bohemian neighbourhood. Youth hostels, thumping bars and hip ethnic restaurants, the church plaza (Plaza de La Trinidad)  where locals and backpackers gather and mix in the evenings to make music, kick a ball around, stroll, ogle, smoke, eat, drink, discuss politics…the place hums with the activities of everyday neighborhood life, unwinding on streets flanked by colourful houses at least a hundred years old…
Sitio Getsemaní
Sitio Getsemaní
Getsemani graffiti
Sitio Getsemaní
Getsemani graffiti
Getsemani graffiti
Getsemani graffiti
Getsemani graffiti

Getsemani graffiti
Getsemani graffiti

Maria Mulata

Maria Mulata

Cartagena’s favorite bird, and a symbol of the city, the maria mulata. “Mariamulatas, with their piercing songs, announce the arrival of the night”. If you change ‘mariamuatas’ to ‘palenqueras’, (the city’s colourful, Afro-colombian fruit-sellers in flounced skirts, who bawl their wares in loud, emasculating voices, the sentence maes just as much sense.

In this drawing, I have the bird crying the names of fruits, a hybrid of the city’s two noisiest denizens.

The María Mulata is Quiscalus mexicanus, known in other countries as quiscal or zanate, belonging to the family Icteridae, found in warmer climates. The bird is black, has a distinctive, high-pitched and musical song, and is a symbol of the fauna of Colombia.

29355a90c2f015053416701bf63f5198

Colombian artist Enrique Grau imortalised the bird in several public sculptures throughout the country. Of this quirky, cranky, engaging bird, Grau writes,“The Mariamulata is the one that accompanies us from birth, is the one in the courtyards, where the girl sweeping the corridor at the entrance or leaning on the windows watching what you are doing is

Me gusta Cartagena

Believe it or not, this is what I have spent most of my evenings doing in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia:
Sitting on a sidewalk with my friend Liz, who makes and sells her jewelry to tourists and locals out for a stroll, while the nightly parade of freaks, street artists, vendors, young people, drunks, hookers, and horse-drawn coaches pass by.
It was a great way to fade into the local scene…my spanish improved a lot by talking for hours to Liz, her friends, and other craftspeople selling on the street with us. I enjoyed watching the Vanity Fair drift past. Some nights I would bring a bottle of wine, a couple of wine glasses, an herb-infused round of mozzarella, crackers and olives, and we would share our fancy sidewalk fare with a couple other women, talk about music and literature and metaphysics and love…

April 14: La Vitrola

La Vitrola

Cartagena de Indias’ oldest operating restaurant, La Vitrola stands on the corner of Calle Baloco and Playa de la artilleria (Artillery Beach). It is said to be the best restaurant in Cartagena, and among the best in Colombia, though I couldn’t tell you as I have never eaten there (reservations till the end of June, strict dress codes, no children allowed, average price of dinner between 40 and 80 dollars) and when I drew this I sat on the ramparts across the street, eating my pastel de pollo lunch (like a tamale of rice and chicken, wrapped and cooked in banana leaves) which I buy, most days, from an old man who pushes a cart around and cries his wares in three notes, like the call of some bird: “pas-TE-LES!”

from the murallas