The historic centre of Cartagena is a splendid Spanish colonial town where cruise ship tourists buy coconuts and t-shirts. It’s surrounded by thick walls and patrolled by street vendors and scores of police. Here you can sip cocktails on what looks and feels like Miami Beach.
As you walk out of that enclosed space however, things begin to change rapidly and, as you pass crumbling hillside houses on streets that seem more like Mumbai than Miami, it becomes clear there is more to this Colombian coastal city than what’s experienced by the day-trippers.
For just under two months I walked the same stretch of road heading east from the centre for 30 minutes to ‘Pie de La Popa’, where I rented a room.
Passing through the entrance to Getsemani at the edge of the walled city you trace the steps of Simon Bolivar on his last journey to Cartagena. And it’s here that things begin to change. At the end of the trendy road ‘Media Luna’ there are the bars and brothels where sex workers wait for their clients. The women, who don’t refrain from smacking you on the behind as you pass, are mostly in their 30s and 40s. Often they sit in the shade staring into the distance, waiting for a punter to lead up the dark staircases behind them.
Getsemani ends at the bridge. Here barefoot men, almost all of them young and dark-skinned, search through the bins with their bear hands. Things of value (like plastic bottles and other litter that can be sold on) are set aside, whilst much of the trash is strewn along the bridge, often falling into the water that laps gently against the shore.
Fisherman, with cheap cigarettes in their mouths and nets or lines in their hands, spend the day hauling in whatever swims in the murky water that flows beneath the bridge. In the distance lies the district of Boca Grande. Its shining white towers sparkle in the sun as its residents peer over the rest of the city.
Buses and moto-taxis zoom past, beeping their horns while drivers and conductors scream for your custom. The pavement is shared, reluctantly, with motorbikes as we all wait together for the lights to change. Street acrobats, with dreadlocked hair and brown sun-kissed skin, throw knives and juggle balls to entertain drivers in exchange for their spare change.
It’s here, as your cross the street and pass the petrol station, that you notice them for the first time. Often it’s their feet you see sticking out, pale on the sole but nearly always dark skinned on top. The rest of their bodies are covered by rags to protect them from the wicked sun as they spend their days in a constant quest to escape the heat. These people wake as the sun goes down to search through piles of rubbish for food to eat.
On your left a fort rises on a mound. An oversized Colombian flag, with it’s yellow, red and blue stripes, droops in the breezeless sky. This is where Cartagena ends for most tourists. In fact the city, which houses almost 900,000 people, stretches on for many more miles. The shopping centre opposite the fort is the last cool building people can catch their breath before heading home – the vast majority of Cartagena’s residents can’t afford air conditioning.
Now you’re beyond the fort and you start to notice the security. Whilst police in this part of town are few and far between, armed guards are everywhere. Every bank, car showroom or block of flats has a guard sitting outside. Two guards are needed when G4S come to fill up the cash machines. Whilst one puts the money into the machine, the other stands with his finger on the trigger of a double barrelled shotgun.
Fences are everywhere. The middle classes live behind razor wire and glass topped walls. The poor, whose houses you can now see more clearly on your left, live in shacks they’ve built on the hillside.
Here is the part of Cartagena where Colombians live and work. People stand on street corners, eating arepas filled with meat or cheese and drinking sweet black coffee from plastic cups. Juice stands sell cups of iced drinks under parasols, women burn scrap wood under vats of hot oil to make empanadas and the man selling deep dried meat on the street corner laughs along with his friends. Nurses from the nearby hospitals, all clad in bright blue uniforms, jump on buses and drink fizzy drinks in roadside cafes.
Once the sun goes down, however, things change. In this part of town the streets are eerily quiet at night time.
When I get home late a security guard on my street waves to me. I’ve seen him a lot in the last seven weeks and he likes to talk. He sits in a red plastic chair, his young face showing his constant straining to keep awake, and watches a bank for twelve hours every night. He sees it all. The poor begging for food, and even water, from passers by, the rich driving to a nearby mall in their 4x4s, the nurses, the doctors, the hundreds of smiling students who fill the streets every morning on their way to college. He sees dire poverty in the face of extreme wealth and he sees fences locked and doors bolted every night as people get home from work.
If he’s still sat in his plastic red chair in five years time, who knows what changes he will have seen. What lies ahead for Cartagena is, like so many of the world’s cities, wholly unpredictable. It could split even further or the fences could be pulled down and the guns put away as it steps towards greater equity for it’s citizens.
As I sit in my room, watching the storm clouds gather and hearing thunder rumble across the city, I can only hope that this place I’ve called home for the last few months changes for the better for everyone who’s living here.
More photos of Cartagena and my time in Colombia are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewbutcher1988/sets/