We promised you a second story from our memorable recent visit to this Colombian port-city, so buckle up for another dose of South American style – and poignancy – just to prove Over The Yardarm is not just all fun and frolics. We have a serious side, sometimes, as Treadwell will now demonstrate…
Now return with us to Cartagena, that tropical peach of a historic cruise port, on a day when we were just about dying from the heat and (especially) humidity. You know that feeling when you’re breaking out in biscuits just standing still? Well, that’s Colombia in the spring.
My heat-fuelled annoyance had reaching fever pitch, and I was in danger of snapping at Tenny, when a woman carrying an elaborate bowl of fruit salad on her head approached me, shouting “Mees! Mees! Make your picture!”
I told her I didn’t have any money and wasn’t going to pay her, but she wrestled me into a hug, like we were best friends, and bared her teeth in what was meant to be a smile, posing before I had even turned toward the camera. As Tenny hunted hurriedly in his pockets for some change, her cohort appeared, urging him to join in for another picture. We indicated we had just given the woman our last dollar, but she was having none of it.
“Maybe it’s a two-for-one special,” I whispered as our newly appointed photographer urged us on, so we smiled through gritted teeth. But salad lady wasn’t in the mood for a sale, and muttered what was probably a curse upon us and all our progeny as we held up our palms in the international gesture for “I’m skint.” In hindsight, we probably should have given them whatever change we had left, purely out of appreciation for the photographer, who actually handed our camera back instead of running off with it.
Annoying as the opportunists were, it was just plain upsetting to see all the beggars congregating in the plaza. We are used to ignoring panhandlers when we travel, having been told by a police officer friend how quickly their demeanour often changed when the law comes by.
“You know those people with ‘Will work for food signs?” he had told us. “We organised a clean-up day in a park that the city was going to turn into a children’s playground, and we hired vans to go around town picking up the various ‘Will work for food’ people.
“We offered them a free ride, free lunch, but out of dozens and dozens, how many do you think were actually willing to work for food? Two. The rest told us to forget it because they make way more money sitting there holding up their signs.”
Here, in the heart of South America, it was different. I wasn’t sure what the point of demarcation was between being a vendor and being an outright beggar, but it looked like a very fine line. Some of the panhandlers were obviously exaggerating their plight; some thrust their children – or the children they hired, according to some locals – forward, playing on the sympathies of the crowd. But one woman stood out for the fact that all she could do was stand there watching the throngs numbly. She practically reeked of genuine despair.
She wasn’t a nuisance. She didn’t follow us or curse under her breath when we avoided her outstretched hand. I turned to look at her as we passed, and when her eyes met mine my stomach clenched and I dropped my gaze, having seen her whole life in that one brief glance.
True, I didn’t know where she was from, what her upbringing had been, who she loved, or even if there was anyone for her to love. But sometimes you look into a person’s soul when your eyes meet, and the terrible sadness they carry sweeps over you in an instant. The only thing separating my experience from hers was the accidents of our birth. Hers here, mine in a place where clean sheets and hot meals were a given.
I was afraid to give her money. Afraid every beggar in the square would descend upon us. Afraid of doing the wrong thing. Afraid of humiliating her. And I was ashamed of letting fear stop me from doing what should have come naturally.
We had the privileged-people tour of Cartagena, never touching the true heart of the country. The Old City was run down, but far from a slum, and we left the way most tourists leave; with no real understanding of the place, no connection to the people who called it home, taking nothing with me but the memory of that poor woman and a sense that I had done nothing to ease the suffering of my sister. No amount of gin could wipe that failure away.
If you wanted to catch up with Part One of our Cartagena exploits from earlier this year, you can find it on this link.
Have you ever left a location feeling like you had made a deep connection? Or feeling you’d passed one by, by inches? Share your ‘connection’ stories in the comments section below.