Catching up

I started this post almost two weeks ago, and kept meaning to update it, but never seemed to get around to it. It’s hard to keep up with the blogging part–we’re spending too much time having fun! I’ve decided to just post it, so take it for what it’s worth.

After getting the kids settled into bed on the first Saturday night, Joni graciously agreed to stay home while I went out to see what life is like on the streets of the old city on a Saturday night. The city really comes alive after about 9 or 10PM. There are people everywhere–tourists and locals alike. The parks are full of young couples snatching an hour or two of romance, people are sitting in doorways, every little hole in the wall has at least one or two tiny tables with a couple of chairs out on the sidewalk, and the hawkers and vendors are out in perhaps even more force than they are during the day. Around 4PM, the air starts to fill with the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages (We haven’t yet figured out where the go to sleep at night).

All of the various larger plazas are filled with tables, and there’s music wafting over the air from almost every direction. Last Saturday, there was a concert in the plaza between the cathedral and the main government administration building. I didn’t catch the name of the group, but I’m pretty sure it was vallenato music, since it featured the accordion and what I believe were the guacharaca and caja vallenata.

Vallenato is a type of music with strong similarities to Cajun music–the instrumentation, the form and rhythms, and so on. This got us to thinking that Cartagena actually has a lot in common with New Orleans. They’re both on essentially the same body of water–New Orleans on the north, Cartagena on the south. They’re both port cities with a strong blue-collar  tradition, They’re also both cities with similar colonial histories, including legacies of trade in general and slave trading quite specifically. And they’re definitely both cities with other shared characteristics–architectural, cultural, social, culinary, musical, and so on.

One of the most striking things about Cartagena is that you never know what’s behind any given doorway. It could be a family residence, with the folks inside watching a telenovela or a soccer game, or it could be an ultra-modern boutique or restaurant. It’s hard to figure out exactly how the city is doing economically. On one hand, there are signs of recevelopment all over the place. On the other, there are a lot of “for sale” and “for rent” signs. But walking the streets is a fascinating experience.

Sunday March 25, we went to the Volcan del Totumo “mud volcano”. It’s about an hour outside the city. The drive to the site was our first chance to see what Colombia looks like outside Cartagena. It’s pretty typical “developing Latin America”, with fairly frequent (and fairly cursory) police/military checkstops. The “mud volcano” itself is about 20 metres high.. You climb up some ramshackle steps and slip into a cauldron of thick grey mud, where attendants (men) massage you while you float in the mud, which is supposed to have restorative properties. When the mud dries, it forms a very fine and pure grey clay–but there doesn’t seem to be an indigenous pottery industry.

When you emerge from the mud, you climb down and walk a couple of hundred metres to the river, where other attendants (women) wash you off. (This is where Joni swallowed several mouthfuls of river water, but seems to have lived to tell the tale!) There are plenty of little places at the site selling juice and snacks as well. The whole thing seems to be operated by a handful of local families.

We went with a tourism company called “Eco Turismo Los Pinos“. The only thing “eco” about them seems to be their name. There is genuine evidence of environmental awareness in Colombia, but in this case the name seems to be simply a bit of “greenwashing”. They provided a good experience and service, but there was nothing noticeably “eco” about it.

For lunch after the mud volcano experience, they took us to a restaurant on the beach. We sat under a thatched roof and got the full-court press from vendors. Sadly, it was near the construction site of “Colombia’s first all-inclusive resort” (according to the sign at the entry to the site)–the beginning of the end, I fear.

After a siesta at home we had drinks at the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Ananda. There were some people from London there as well, and it turned out that it was their friend’s wedding we had seen the  night before. We carried on too Plaza San Diego for an alfresco meal at Juan del Mar, where we were serenaded with a version of Besame Mucho by a couple of dapper old gents playing very well-worn guitars, followed by a performance by a group of teenage hip-hop dancers.

Don’t Eat the American Food!!!

We’ve been having an incredible time feasting on all the great food in Cartagena and Mompox. We’ve guzzled gallons of freshly squeezed juices and polished off dozens of arepas, empanadas, and buttifarra (spelling?) sausage from lots of different street vendors in both cities. We’ve eaten at tiny little roadside places with pigs and chickens roaming around. We’ve eaten in all kinds of local restaurants, from basic to fancy. And we’ve been absolutely, utterly, totally fine.

Last night the kids were just dying for some “comfort food”–something familiar. So we broke down and had a meal at the Hard Rock Cartagena (yes, there’s one here, too, alas). For the first time in our 2.5 weeks here, several of us had upset stomachs this morning.

The moral of the story? Stick with the local street food!!! As good old Anthony Bourdain is fond of pointing out, the street vendors and the people who run the little local holes in the wall are NOT in the business of killing their customers–i.e., the locals they feed every day. Whereas the “chef” whipping up the non-indigenous “fettuccine alfredo” at the all-inclusive is making “food” he knows nothing about for people he doesn’t know or care about. Where would you rather eat???

The coolest thing we’ve seen–but unfortunately didn’t get to try–was the elderly woman feeding a bunch of construction workers bowls of soup (sancocho, I’,m pretty sure, based on the fish heads I saw) out of a 5-gallon pail she had lugged to their building site from wherever she made it. I’m willing to wager it was amazingly good!