The last night of my life as a 20-something I spent at a historic resort off the coast of a warm and blustery Caribbean Sea. I took the laptop with me to the Sofitel pool and started writing. What became clear: an effort to summarize a turbulent, magnificent decade in one 60-minute swoop of furious typing is: a) futile and b) embarrassing. A cursory reread showed the quality of these hasty paragraphs to be shoddy at best. At worst, they read like the most grating of self-congratulatory diary entries – overly dramatic, stupidly descriptive, emotionally void. All-in-all, a big boo from the bleachers.
But I loved that night for other reasons. The sunset on the ocean is a cliche for beauty, but it is beautiful nevertheless. The open space within the hotel that was built inside the ancient wall of this very old city was so hushed as dusk became night. Recorded Gregorian chanting came to us through hidden speakers, a nightly tradition in remembrance of this site’s original function as a Catholic convent.
It’s impossible for any young person, say a 23-year-old, to predict where they will be when thirty comes a-calling. But when I was that tender, foolish age, I had imagined many accordingly outlandish scenes. London, New York, maybe Africa, possibly Seattle, I mean really – it could be anywhere. But it was going to be cool.
Let me tell you, Colombia never crossed my mind. Maybe it had to do with the FARC, the violence, the drug-saturated reputation. But my apathy towards Latin America predates any solid historic knowledge. I always thought Europe, the Middle East, even Asia, and certainly the two continental coasts were more interesting.
But like my 20s – full of surprises – Colombia, of course, proved me completely ignorant, totally wrong.
Cartagena, case in point. This town was Spanish-built, and brought with it some of the best and definitely the worst of 16th – 18th century Europe. The narrow streets are vibrant, multi-colored, balcony-filled, strung with flowers and lights. The architecture is astounding, and backed up next to the beach, it’s a gorgeous piece of history.
Deeply regrettable, this Spanish founding carried the Inquisition with it. And so, at the Palace of the Inquisition and Historical Museum (the former moniker seems woefully inappropriate), we learned of various modes of torture inflicted upon Cartagena’s residents in pursuit of a purified Catholic church. I remain ever appalled, and ever thankful for life in the 21st century on American soil. I wondered: on my birthday of all days, why are we here? What does it mean?
When we traveled to the upstairs of the museum, the mood also lifted. Our tour guide, an amiable, bilingual entrepreneur asked me to translate the word “hatched” from a novel he was reading, used in this context “hatched a plan.” I did my best. He then showed us a portrait of a one San Pedro Claver, the saint of slaves. Claver boarded the slave ships upon arrival, and spent his life ministering to those toiling and abused in their miserable bondage.
It is a wonder that an ideology which produced the torture machines in the dungeoun is the same religion from which a Claver emerged. So much suffering coupled with such a noble soul. The Catholic paradox, then as now.
It’s a fitting description of Cartagena itself, where loveliness and wealth abound, no doubt. But certain sidewalk stops emit the old sewer system smell, and – like Bogota – the hints of a different world, one which lives in poverty, sneak into view, are simultaneous, right there alongside the beauty…
We didn’t venture too much outside the hotel, as babies don’t handle heat all too well, and it was definitely smoking out on the pavement. But the hotel had plenty of convent history, artifacts, delicious food and entertainment for our short stay.
I’ll dedicate this post to my beloved husband, without whom, the trip, the little one, the great love – none of it would have ever existed. Thank you pepe!