27 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 5: Cartagena Dreamin'

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Cartagena, Colombia
Today's Telling Detail: The bookstore

It's sometime after the third or fourth hour of wandering and eating (and wandering some more and eating some more) that one of us puts our amused, slightly perplexed facial expressions into words.

"I really can't believe I'm in Cartagena," Erica says with a small laugh. "Eating tamarind ice cream." She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, ice cream in hand, and surveys the scene.

"It's pretty great," I reply. "This is ... not quite what I expected." I take another bite of my own ice cream--guava, because, like tamarind, it seemed an appropriately tropical choice.

Our two companions chuckle and nod in agreement, even Charlie, a history professor who's been to this history-rich city before. Keith's smile isn't quite as big and goofy as mine or Erica's are at the moment, but his wide eyes signal his glee. He's an entertainer on the ship, a comedian and magician, used to being on stage, and he has the most expressive eyes I've ever seen, every slight widening or virtually imperceptible half-wink telling a story of its own.

There's something surreal and wonderful about seeing a place for the first time and feeling that out-of-body sensation of questioning if you're really here, doing this thing, in this unfamiliar place--because you'd swear that thirty seconds ago, you were still at home, living out your everyday life. Your brain hasn't quite adjusted to being on the road; you still get a sort of Novelty Buzz from the newness and strangeness of it all. That Novelty Buzz is especially profound if you've stepped straight into this new world from a ship that is basically a continuation of life at home, what with all its cushy amenities and familiar language and potable water. And the Novelty Buzz is most potent--most brain-tingling, most mood-enhancing--when a place is drastically different from your expectations.

Let's just put it out there: I did not anticipate being completely charmed by a city in Colombia, especially not after last night's pre-port presentation, which included warnings that there had been explosions in the country. So, you know, watch out for that.

The fact is, in the Venn diagram of tourist expectations, there is no overlap between Daydream Caribbean City and Colombia. 

Well, I'm here to tell you: It turns out that when you're thinking of your daydream Caribbean city, you're actually thinking of Cartagena, Colombia. The Caribbean that doesn't exist outside of your daydreams and the Colombia that doesn't exist at all, if you go by news headlines and Hollywood thrillers (always such an accurate indicator of reality) are somehow manifest in a single municipality on the Caribbean coast. 

Charlie and Erica walk along the top of the wall of the original fort.

In fact, Cartagena will see your Caribbean Daydream Checklist and up the ante. For example, there are two forts because. Charlie, the history professor, excitedly tells us the town's decidedly siege-filled past, as we stand on top of the stone walls surrounding the old town--these walls were the first fortifications, built in the 16th century. They did the job for a while, Charlie explains: "The locals can't take it. But here come the English and the French, and they've a lot more firepower. So now we need a bigger fort." He points to the hill on the other side of the walled city, where we see a massive fort surrounded by angular walls, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. It's impossible to overstate how massive and intimidating structure this is--it's the Spanish Colonial Death Star.

But for all that history and all those balcony-lined streets, it's a more discreet detail that sticks in my mind as the day's best moment, the town's most alluring feature. It's a small shop, part bookstore, part cafe, called Abaco. We nearly walk past it without noticing, but Keith is on the lookout for a place to get some water--it's a hot day--and spots the coffee shop display case just inside the front door. When he steps back outside, there's an Evian bottle in his hand and a look of delight in those expressive eyes.

"That's a really nice little place," he says to the rest of us. "You should go look inside."

The space is seriously not big--compare the footprint to a typical Barnes & Noble and it's probably not much bigger than, say, Self-Help or Teen Paranormal Romance. But there are very high ceilings, and large windows on the street side flood the room with light. A brick archway divides the room in two, and the bookshelves, stretching high above arm's reach, are tucked in a larger framework of exposed-brick walls, as though the books are revered icons on display in the niches of a church.

It feels like some ideal combination of library, chapel, and hip modern loft; an effortless blend of old and new, and crammed with books yet somehow uncluttered. We linger for several minutes, enjoying the calm and the utter charm of this store. Erica and I try to find our books, to no avail, although we do spot the Spanish translations of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. And when we return to the bustling streets and outside, we look back over our shoulders, slightly dazed, the Novelty Buzz in full effect. In this city of unexpected delights, this is the most surprising and wonderful of them all.


  1. Glad you loved it! I talked to Samantha for a really long time last week to hear all about it, and she said you were just awesome and your classes were so entertaining!

  2. It really was a wonderful voyage--and Samantha and all the rest of the staff went above and beyond to make it great! I'm sure they were all juggling a thousand things and putting out a ton of fires (if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors...), but they sure made it look easy.

  3. I am so glad that you liked Cartagena. It is a city that has fascinated me since I first read about it years ago when I was a little boy, but I had for years heard nothing but bad reports about Colombia. When I was younger I fear that if I went there I would want to go on into the interior and no good would come of it, but now perhaps I could just go to the city and poke around the book stores and antique shops and have some tamarind ice cream.


You know the drill: keep it civil and on-topic, don't spam, don't run with scissors, floss. For posts older than three weeks, comments will be moderated before publication.