Monday, April 23, 2007

Castle San Felipe, Cartagena

The waiting taxi driver was tall and black, so black it was as if all the light had been sucked out of him leaving only that from which we all came, the raw material of the universe. A small tuft of crinkly silver hair around the base of his skull was a proud reminder of the full head of hair he must have once had. As there was a standard price that required no negotiation, he wordlessly opened the door and I got in the cab.

We got going immediately as the driver wasn’t the type to lag around. There were more fares to be had and the faster he got me to the Castle, the more money he would make. Or so I imagined.

We exchanged a few brief pleasantries, the types of words men say to put customers at ease, before lapsing into silence. He either wasn’t the chatty type or he needed all his concentration for the road. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to mix words with a stumbling Spanish speaker.

Once the car cleared the hotel lot, the horn accompanied the soft melodies emanating from the radio with a symphony of its own. Up and down the horn sounded, a crescendo of insistence and observance. The driver whipped the creaky yellow Daihatsu past busses, around and over potholes, and through impossible narrow pathways. This would have concerned me except I had lived in Colombia long enough to know that this was more than just one man’s rush to road rage – it was the normal way to drive and I couldn’t complain if it got me to my destination faster. As I had heard once, in Colombia, taxis are only a good thing when you’re in the cab.

The road from the hotel took us west down the coast. Angry blue green waves slapped the sodden beach, lashed on by an unrelenting wind. As far as the eye could see, white caps broke the Caribbean Sea either portending of things to come or reminding of angry storms just passed.

On the horn honked as if it was speaking a language of it own, a language of the road understood only be the drivers and conductors of the great moving heaps that clogged the two lane highway. The car weaved back and forth among those heaps, an incessant race against time. Cool breezes blew in the open windows at regular intervals cutting through the steel oven of a car. It was like opening the freezer on a hot summer day to cool your face, but just like that, as if your mother shut the freezer door and berated you for wasting energy, the car would go around a bend or turn a corner and the stifling humidity and heat would slap you silly.

Soon, we turned off the main road and headed inland, for the Castle was not directly on the water. This part of Cartagena would never be found in the glossy brochures or alluring advertisements. This was the unseen and unspoken Cartagena where the desperately poor constructed rough houses out of steel, stone, and brick. You could see the poverty immediately, just as you could in every other part of Colombia, as the potholes got bigger, the streets more littered with every sort of unwanted waste that could be imagined, and the looks alternated between vacant stares, downtrodden, stressful faces, eager eyes seeing only opportunity.

Back and forth we weaved to the point where I almost expected that my stoically quiet driver was taking me for a ride that would only end in a lighter wallet, if not much worse. But soon I saw the Castle peek above the semi-urban wasteland and knew that I was only minutes away.

A stoplight reared ahead of us and the little yellow sunbox skittered to a puttering stop. An attractive black woman squeezed into a pair of jeans two sizes too small sauntered by, ass beckoning man’s most primal instincts. As she passed the car, the horn barked out a new melody as the driver hung his head out, mouth slightly ajar, the tip of his tongue on his lips. A movie score has never been as…enthusiastic as this new symphony of admiration, although it seemed to be ignored by its target audience. A grin and a wink in the rearview mirror told me the driver was as much the dirty old man as I expected, not that I judged him for it. The lifelong drive of delivering tourists had but few spoils, and the admiration of youthful beauty offered the man momentary respite from an otherwise stuffy, boring day. Perhaps it was his way of stating to the world that he was human, he was alive, he was more than just a moving part of a speeding yellow box. Whatever his motivations, it marked the only moment where the driver and I shared a moment that was more than just customer-client.

Moments later we arrived at the Castle. I paid him his $12,000 pesos and he was off, his melody ringing out on the street, letting the world know he was still alive or, maybe just telling the next heap to move aside so that he could chase after the next client. Either way, the North American was forgotten.

I, however, was besieged by a legion of hawkers, each offering something different. Interested in only one thing, I declined hats, sketches, water, beer, and a half-dozen other things that I either could not directly classify or was too inattentive to bother. Another $12,000 pesos later and I was off, ticket in hand.

Up the long stone path I walked, gently rising from street level, slowly becoming steeper, it zigged and then zagged before I found the ticket collector. He was stationed in a stone guard station that I could only imagine was a sort of waypoint years before. I chuckled that they still used it to regulate passage into the Castle and handed him the ticket.

As I continued on, I found the Castle to be more than a bit confusing. There was virtually no information, nor restrictions on where you could go and what you could do. But, after spending a few moments gaining my bearings, I made a plan and headed to the Eastern side. It seemed like a good idea to go from one side to another as the Castle was at least twice as long as wide.

From the stone guardhouse, I traversed the Castle taking in the different sights and sounds. I found it to be majestic, but a place barely utilized, said better, exploited, by the city. The Castle should have been a place to go and spend hours, it should draw millions per year, instead it’s a lonely old stone fortress with an untold stories and a forgotten history. The subterranean tunnels bore out my thoughts. Underneath the Castle they went, back and forth. They represented different points of access and security against invasion. A man could hide in a dark crevice, of which there were many, while his eyes adjusted to the light. Waiting patiently, he could easily spear an unsuspecting invader who could barely pierce the gloom. This history should be told, the tunnels should be mapped, explanations should be given, yet there was barely enough available for me to concoct my explanation.

I walked down a very long, twisty, and truth be told, creepy tunnel expecting it to lead me somewhere. But it did not. Whether it should have lead to an exit, I never found out, for the bottom was flooded from the previous day’s drenching, as I realized when I splashed into cool water. I had to climb the slippery path with soggy, traction less sandals and never before had I felt so much like a tired hobbit. I left the tunnels wondering why that path existed, where it led, and what history has been left unsaid.

The high parapets of the Castle, while not as grand as those in Warwick, gave a great view of the city and the outlying areas. Shaded guard towers rifled with cool breezes pushed away the oppressiveness and I imaged that it must not have been so bad to stand guard in scratchy uniforms when the wind blew. Of course, the view of the sea was mostly obscured by the rigors of modern development, but the vision of turret and cannon, gun and spear remained in my head.

After just over an hour, I left the Castle feeling slightly unsatisfied, although duly impressed. The Castle, as castles are prone to do, carried a certain historical significance like those I had seen in England, yet with fewer frills. I imagined a world of traditionally garbed soldiers stalking the walls, a site in which explanations were given about the various histories of the outpost and in which the visitor’s experience was greatly enhanced. It was a more crowded and expensive vision, but those were costs I would have been willing to pay.

Once outside the Castle, I bought a tourist priced bottle of coke. I should have bargained the price, but the savings just wasn’t worth it to me. I was sure the vendor needed the extra $1000 more than I did. While having a portfolio of paintings hawked at me, I negotiated a price with a waiting taxi driver, and headed back to the hotel. This gentleman was much more talkative and we had an amicable chat.

The path we took was shorter, as he explained, but took us directly through one of the poorest barrios of Cartagena. I believed that the driver wanted me to see it, that he felt I needed to see it. He had misjudged me on the latter part. I was not and am not the typical tourist. I was not bound to look away and ignore the poverty that is everywhere. Instead I drank it in, wondered what the lives of the downtrodden and forgotten must be like, and got high on thoughts of how to help those most in need.

Eventually, we arrived at the hotel and, after paying the man, I was forgotten like yesterday’s breakfast. He had new clients to negotiate and ferry along and I had to find a nice quiet place to listen to the wind, cool in the shade, and think deep thoughts about things which are outside of my control yet with which my heart flagellates my conscious.

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