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And we’re off!

Today I arrived in Cartagena.  I hadn’t planned on arriving alone.

My first week was supposed to be a vacation, with my son. But he and I have a troubled relationship and my leaving — even though he’s technically an adult and has refused to accept any actual parenting or direction from me for years — brought things to a head.

During our overnight layover in Fort Lauderdale, a small argument escalated into an epic battle. It went on for hours. I won’t elaborate on the drama, but at 2am I bought him a flight home. Neither of us could take a week of this intensity. It needed to end.

So when I stepped onto my flight I was emotionally wrung out, heavy-hearted and grieving instead of feeling powerful and celebratory. And completely alone. At some point in the air I realized that I had never written down the directions to my rented apartment, I only had the address. Oh well, surely that would suffice… right?

The view flying into Cartagena is spectacular. The city is made up of narrow, curving strips of land that reach out into the water like fingers, often seeming to be only a block or two wide. This creates beaches at every turn and a beautiful Caribbean climate, but also a confusing city layout.

The coastline of Cartagena

I knew the price for the cab should be about $7 (always ask your landlord for this information!). The cab driver didn’t know the address I showed him, but I remembered that the directions included telling the driver to take you to Plaza Santa Domingo, and he knew where that was. I was hopeful but nervous.

I know better than to get in a cab without a meter without negotiating price first, but with our Spanglish discussion about the address I forgot. Halfway there I asked him… he wanted $20. Not much you can do about that once the ride is underway, but either he was cheating me or taking me to the wrong part of town entirely. Turned out he was just cheating me, and that’s a relief, I guess?

He stopped on a road that didn’t look like a plaza to me — featuring a couple of rough-looking characters from central casting — and dumped me and my bags out on the street. I shouldered my 35 pound backpack, put my 15 pound tote bag over my shoulder, and hefted the smaller 15 pound pack on the other arm. There were some policemen nearby, so I showed them the address. They never heard of it. No advice at all. Just shrugs.

I chose a street at random and started walking up it. I called out to a passing woman walking by with her son, and asked if she knew the address. No. Never heard of it.

A Jamaican-looking man with dreadlocks came up behind me. “I can help you” he said, in Jamaican-accented English. I showed him the address. Nope. “Is it a hotel?” No, it’s an apartment. Someone else runs up “Oh, you need an apartment?” No, I have an apartment. I just can’t find it. “I can get you one cheaper.” Thanks, but I’ve already paid for this one. “Oh “

It’s nearly 100 degrees, you could wring the humidity out of the air, and I’m carrying some 70 pounds of luggage and wearing hiking boots (because they don’t fit in the pack). I’m physically miserable, but pleased to see that the neighborhood is improving as I walk. Lots of flowers, little gardens, peeks into gorgeous courtyards, touristy shops. Cartagena is charming, and this is obviously the old town section, always my favorite part of a city. But I’m hot, tired, thirsty, my legs are trembling from hauling the extra weight uphill, and I haven’t eaten since yesterday. And no one has heard of this address. I don’t know what to do.

Old-town Cartagena

Suddenly the road widens and there, like a mirage, is an open-air cafe! Soon I have a tasty Club Colombia beer, a bottle of cold water, and an internet connection. I’m traveling without a phone, but I logged into the wifi on my Kindle and pulled up a map of the address. Bingo!

I used the fork to fish a fly out of the beer and then drank the rest of the beer. Cuz I was thirsty.

A man comes running up to me, gesturing. “I heard you need an apartment! I have apartments right over here.” No, no, I have an apartment. I just can’t find it. “Oh ” He hands me a card for his emerald shop anyway. I use the address on the card to map out a path from where I am to where my map says my apartment is.

It’s a 16 minute drive — too far to walk with my luggage. I’ll need another cab. The new cab driver understands the map and takes me to the area indicated,  pulling up in front of the luxurious Hotel Caribe. I try to tell him I don’t want the hotel, I want an apartment that, according to the map, is near the hotel.

We are virtually unable to communicate. Cartagena Spanish seems to have its own accent, a Caribbean slant, that is making my minimal language skills useless. I show him the address. He doesn’t get it. I tell him about the Plaza Santo Domingo and he asks me questions. I don’t understand. He gives up and starts driving — back to where we came from! No, here, on the map, I say. But Plaza Santo Domingo, he says. Oops, maybe I remembered the name of the plaza wrong? Could it be Plaza Santo Dominico maybe? Or something else?

Now I just want to cry. He is driving in circles trying to figure out what I want. He stops to ask some other cab drivers. I have to hand my brand-new Kindle Fire HD out the window to these strange men on the street so they can pass it around and study the map and the address and hope they’re going to return it. They can’t help us.

I can’t keep having this man drive me around forever, I only have about 60,000 pesos in cash left  to pay him with (roughly $30) and it’s going to be dark soon. What will I do?

Take me to a hotel, I say. “¿Hotel Caribe?” he says in a helpful-yet-exasperated tone. He’s being very nice. “No, necessito un hotel mas económico.” He takes me to a little row of cheap hotels and I pick one. I try to grab my luggage and pay him, but he insists on waiting while I make sure there’s room at the inn. There is. Thank God.

“¿Cuanto?” I ask the driver. How much? He shrugs and laughs, mutters something I don’t understand that I suspect means “I have no idea what to even ask for all that, crazy lady.” I finally get him to name a price. He wants 100,000 pesos (about $50). It’s too much. I show him the 60,000 pesos in my wallet and tell him it’s all I have left. He took all my money and drove away.

The hotel room is simple but blissfully cool. I was so grateful to set my luggage down for the night. I rested up a bit, changed into some sandals, then walked around the block. Found an ATM and got cash to pay for the room. Found a restaurant and dined on sea bass, my favorite. Best salad bar ever, with cold eggplant and green beans, pickled vegetables, lots of strong olives, and some kind of shredded greens, kale maybe? At home, I would be a little self-conscious about eating alone in a sidewalk cafe, but it doesn’t bother me here. A tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice feels indulgent and restorative. (Juices may be the best part of travel. I always wonder what people think when they try American juices for the first time!)

My salad, bread bowl, and people-watching vista at the restaurant near my hotel.

After dinner, I order coffee and decide to let them just bring it however it’s usually drunk here. The waiter and I have been having a lot of trouble communicating, although we’ve made a point of exchanging giant, friendly embarrassed smiles a lot so we are pals now. He brings me a small cup of strong black coffee, halfway between Americano and Espresso. Delicious, I could get used to that.

Back at the room, I shower (cool and refreshing) and check the sheets for bedbugs (just a flea and something that might be a mouse turd).   I dig my silk robe out of my bag and sit my clean body down in the cool air conditioning. And write this blog post!

So, it’s nothing like what my arrival was supposed to be when it was a vacation with my son. But I’m fed, showered and sheltered for the night — and my son  and I were able to leave things on reasonably good terms —  so we’ll consider Cartagena a success so far. I can’t wait to get out and explore this city! It’s a wonderful mixture of a South American city like Quito or Bogota, but much more coastal and with a large AfroCaribbean population. And seafood and beaches everywhere!

But first, I need to figure out where the hell I live.