Romancing The Fortress
Ever since we saw the movie Romancing the Stone, Cartagena had been on our must-visit list. There was something about the way Kathleen Turner spat out the name, like it was the filthy back-end of the earth, which made us want to see it.
Our introduction to Colombia, unlike hers, didn’t start in the jungle. It started at Cartagena’s Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a 17th century fortress built to stave off pirate invasion prompted in part by the scoundrel Sir Francis Drake, who was a hero in his own country but just another ruthless, plundering bar steward everywhere else.
After he robbed the city for the third time, the Spanish head honchos decided they had to discourage such behaviour or they’d run out of the gold, silver and emeralds they had stolen from the indigenous population when they conquered Cartagena in 1533.
The stone-block fortress on a hill overlooking the harbour took 200 years to build, and its unconventional design, including underground passageways, allowed soldiers to defend the city from land or sea attacks. Viewing it from the street, we were impressed by its sheer bulk. From the top, the view was incredible.
The area at the front was heaving with tour buses, while street vendors pounded on the windows to get their sales pitch in before the tourists could set foot on the pavement. “Price goes down now! Buy this hat half the dollars!” Costumed characters scurried about trying to make a buck posing for pictures, among them an amply-built woman in the sort of bright, multi-colour peasant dress that exists only in 1960s travelogues.
She had a wide enamel bowl on her head, filled with half a watermelon, a pineapple and a hand of bananas, like a fruit salad waiting to happen. Her black cheeks were heavily painted with rouge, her lips done in a complimentary red, while long, beaded ear-rings hung from stretched-out lobes and a matching necklace cascaded down her massive bosom.
The street was manic with local shuttles, their riders often jumping on and off without waiting for the shuttle to slow down, some hanging out of the doors in anticipation of their launching point. Motorcycles were everywhere, most carrying at least two passengers, creating a whirl of dusty non-stop activity.
We followed a tour guide into the fortress, figuring this would be our only chance to see the place so we might as well know what we were looking at, and Corpus proved to be worth every penny. As we toured, he told us the castle’s history, sprinkled liberally with personal stories. Corpus was a talker. He introduced himself, saying, “I am a Chreestian but I have not been good in my life. I have five women and lots of children.”
“All at the same time?” we asked, wondering how he had the energy to give castillo tours.
“No, only one at a time,” he said. “But a lot.” It was an interesting revelation, and, although it might have put some people off, we felt a bond of camaraderie, like a friend you haven’t seen in years telling you about their hair plugs or some scaly rash they couldn’t get rid of.
Switching subjects, he continued: “This castillo was built by slaves, many of whom died in the process. Something like a million slaves were brought to Cartagena, and their descendants still live here today.”
Trudging up the ramp leading to the top of the fortress, we came across a man in military uniform complete with white gloves, playing traditional songs on a trumpet. As we drew closer, he segued into the James Bond theme, and, as we passed, he shouted out, “What nationality you?” A medley of Beatles songs accompanied us as we continued our climb, which turned into a march as a busload of Germans arrived.
The trumpeter never finished a song, but his enthusiastic snippets were a satisfying gesture. “Smart man,” we noted, admiring the creativity it took to take a hobby and turn it into steady tips, while all the other peddlers were running around like mad chasing dollars that rarely came.
We reached the top – a flat, roof-like area split into several levels, with watchtowers and cannons. From one side, we could see the walled Old City, low, dirty and crumbling in places, while the opposite side looked out at gleaming modern high-rises. It was a perfect representation of Cartagena’s sharp divide between haves and have-nots, privileged and under-privileged, blacks and not blacks.
“The iron gate covering this stairway isn’t original,” Corpus told us as we moved along, pointing to an enclosed stairway so steep and narrow daylight couldn’t penetrate beyond the first few steps. “Teenagers used it for fooking, so it had to be closed off.”
We looked at him quizzically. “Fooking?”
“Fooking. You know, sex.”
We peered into the entry, imagining how easy it would be to slide down those grimy steps when your attention was on other things. “We can go down those stairs, but hold on tight and duck your head,” Corpus said.
We tried not to think of all the fooking that had taken place as we descended into the citadel’s nether regions, instead commenting between us that Corpus would have made an excellent teacher, knowledgeable as he was about the fortress, the city’s history, and the realities of life in Colombia.
Our tour ended an hour later, and, as we parted ways with the intention of walking around the Old City, Corpus warned to stay together and avoid side streets. “Do not go off on your own,” he told us. “Do not lag or act like a tourist. Do not go into a shop. Just really do not do those things.” He was being honest, and without saying it he informed us we looked like the kind of starry-eyed rubberneckers who could easily be robbed right down to our underwear. And he was probably right.
Cartagena was rough around the edges; earthy and sweltering and mildly chaotic, but we delighted in taking it all in, no matter how slimy the steps were.