“Be careful,” he said, eyes full of concern, “Don’t bring anything with you - no phone, no wallet.”
Nodding knowingly, we stepped into the street, awash in smoke and the acrid smell of fireworks.
Upon our exit, the hostel attendant - the one who had warned us to bring nothing - immediately bolted the wrought iron door behind us: top and bottom.
Steeling myself against the nervousness in my gut, I grabbed G's hand and continued onward.
It was our third day in Cartagena, Colombia and the weekend long Independence Day "party" was coming to a head. Each day we had watched with bated breath as the celebrations escalated. This so-called celebration was beyond any imaginable expectation, and we would be relieved when they were over.
Like most things that make me nervous - jumping from high places, the unknown, and anything that involves attention from strangers - when considering whether or not to visit Colombia, I applied my usual approach. Do some cursory research. Then, look the other way and jump.
This is one of the few times I've ever questioned that philosophy.
In hindsight, there's no way we could have known what awaited us in Cartagena. More than that, I truly believe that had we been there for literally any other weekend, our experience would have been vastly different. However, we arrived when we did, and what happened happened.
The thing is... I was so sure I would love Cartagena.
It just that, this time, Cartagena didn't love me.
FRIDAY - NOVEMBER 11
Our first foray into the streets of Cartagena was rather brief.
We had spent all day in transit, beginning with an hour long water-taxi from Capurgana, a small Colombia coastal town, to Necoccli, where we had boarded the 8 hour bus to Cartagena. As far as busses go, it wasn't bad, but 8 hours is a long time - no matter how comfortable the seats.
Despite our travel fatigue, we decided to do a little exploring in search of food.
The streets were lively - brimming with excited people, the odd cat or dog, and taxis that seemed to weave and honk with the music that bounced out of every open door. After turning a few corners, we found ourselves in the circular pavilion surrounding a small stone church.
A live band played Afro Caribe salsa from the church steps and locals danced below. Food carts rimmed the entire perimeter, and the rich scent of cooked meat and spices enticed our senses, much deprived after a long day of processed food and over-zealous air conditioning.
We gravitated towards a vendor whose stall/makeshift grill was laden with piles of chicken, chorizo, and various other meats. We opted for a massive skewer of grilled chicken, onion, and potato, as well as a whole chorizo sausage, coarsely chopped, and served with big chunks of tender queso fresco.
As the vendor heated our choices over a plate of red hot coals, we noted the police officers gathered to our left. There presence in and of itself was not surprising.
During our stay in Panama (also over Independence Day weekend) the streets had been absolutely lined with law enforcement. Literally one or two officers standing watch at the corner of every single block.
With this many people in the streets, it makes sense that the police would be out.
Here in Colombia though, there was one significant difference.
These officers were dressed head to toe in what appeared to be riot gear: leg guards that went from hip to toe, thick kevlar vests, and helmets with blast shields. In each hip holster there was a handgun, and more than one sported a long-barreled shotgun.
Despite the aggressive attire, their demeanor was casual and their body language relaxed. They chatted amiably with one and other as they leaned against the building behind them, each sipping from a bottle of water or fresh juice bought from the store next door.
The vendor had finished heating up all food, and we paid him quickly, gleefully grabbing for the plate. Everything looked and smelled ridiculously tasty, and after confirming our delicious suspicions with the first bite, we quickly consumed the rest.
Still hungry, we moved on to the next appealing stall.
Our next choice was serving what appeared to be a small mound of cabbage, topped with a massive pile of melted cheese and mixed meats, all of which was heated to glistening perfection of the large flat-top grill. A dish we later deemed, “Meat party! With cabbage...”
As we stood in line, waiting to place our order, eagerly anticipating the hot and delicious goodness that awaited us - a noise like a gunshot, accompanied immediately by blinding light made us both jump and shuffle quickly to the side.
It took me a moment to realize, but a firework had just exploded directly beneath our feet.
Though neither of us was injured, the sound was massive, and it left us both momentarily disoriented - ears ringing.
My first assumption was that it had been a mistake.
It had only taken a few steps into the square to realize that fireworks and poppers were a big part of this celebration. Everywhere across the church pavilion they were being thrown onto the ground and into the air.
One must have simply gotten away from someone.
But as I turned back to re-enter the food stall line, I saw a group of kids to the side laughing uncontrollably, pointing at us, and high-fiving one and other. I flash of anger ripped through me: not a mistake after all.
I turned away, hoping that if we ignored them, it wouldn't happen again.
They threw another.
This one a multi-burst popper that skittered in every direction, sparking and singeing as it went.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Even as they broke out into another round of uncontrolled laughter, I saw one in their midst pull another from his pocket. At that point, it was abundantly clear that we had become a target, and that ignoring them was not going to help.
Thoroughly put off, we left the pavilion and started walking back to the hostel..
I love a good fireworks show, but being the target of one has never appealed to me.
Despite the unpleasantness, we decided to chalked it up to hot weather and stupid kids doing stupid shit. Our beds beckoned, and tomorrow shone with the promise of a new day.
SATURDAY - NOVEMBER 12
We started the next morning with a massive breakfast of arepa con huevos (a pocket of deep fried corn stuffed with a whole egg), scrambled eggs with tomatoes and salchicha (cut up hot dogs), and cafe con leche. Two portions of each for a total of only $4 USD.
We left the panaderia/cafeteria more than pleased with our choice.
After breakfast we moved towards Cartagena’s main attraction: Old Town.
It was as I had imagined it.
Guarded by a grand clocktower, whose apparent age only adds to it’s stature, Old Town Cartagena overflows with bold colors, endless variety, and golden Caribbean sunshine.
Baubles and bracelets gleamed from every sidewalk, colorful artwork spilled from small galleries into the streets, even the houses - great colonial style Spanish mansions - were painted in lovely and vibrant hues. Verdant vines and fuchsia flowers climbed stucco walls, and small bohemian boutiques beckoned the trendy woman with supple leather goods, neon crochet shoulder bags, and beaded necklaces in every color and design imaginable.
As the afternoon faded away, we talked, snapped pictures, and marveled at the vibrant city surrounding us - so full of life, and so very different from what we had found in Panama.
While wandering back to our hostel, we ran into some friends made during our four day speed boat trip between Panama and Colombia. Chatting in the street, we laughed about memories from the trip, compared our many bug bites, and discussed where each of us were headed next. Then, I relayed our experience from the night before about the fireworks being thrown at us.
The girl paused, her smile somewhat hesitant.
“Yeah, two our friends were robbed last night. One was even robbed twice,” she confided.
“What? That’s insane! What happened?”
“The first time she was walking and a kid sprayed foam in her face, then grabbed her food and ran off when she went to wipe her eyes.”
“Jesus. Her food? Who even does that?," I asked, "And the second time?"
“A guy on motorbike came by... Snatched her purse right off her shoulder."
“Wow, how terrible! Twice in one night? And they took her food?”
Somehow that seemed almost worse than the purse... You expect someone to try to steal your purse, you don’t expect them to steal your food.
She nodded and I promised myself I would be more on guard.
We said goodbye and continued back towards our hostel. The walk stretched on in a blur of punishing heat, hawkers - Auga y cerveza fria! Ray bans authentic! - and ever more rowdy crowds.
The poppers and small fireworks from the night before, what I had assumed was an isolated occurrence, had started going off citywide - just a few at first, but increasing quickly as the sun loomed lower in the sky.
After a brief and necessary cool-down/siesta, we found ourselves at dinner.
The courtyard was spacious, filled with people yet not overcrowded, and delightfully decorated with a strange assortment of items - think carnival junkyard meets bohemian chic.
Our entrada, appetizer, a cream of pumpkin soup dotted with chives - a refreshing counterpoint to the buttery richness. Our main course, a pairing of freshly prepared ceviche (much lighter on the lime than those we had found in Panama), and large plate of rice cooked in beet puree creme, then topped with with a beautiful arrangement of various verduras.
Savoring every bite, we could not help but remark on the nuanced flavors and expert preparation. The restaurant was called Gastrolab Sur, and the meal we enjoyed there was easily the best since leaving Seattle.
Later, walking through the streets, bellies full, ice cold beers in hand, we began to came to edge of a large crowd outside the Old Town clocktower. As we began to make our way through, I suddenly remembered my conversation from earlier in the day.
Immediately, I double checked the zippers on my purse and held it in front of my body. Not a minute too soon either! Just as I had finished, I saw a man to my left raise a can towards my face. Bracing, I ducked to avoid the stream of foam, and maintained a steadfast pace.
Emerging from the crowd, I took inventory of myself and my things.
Despite looking as though I had just run through field of shaving cream, everything seemed to be present. Turning around I found G and couldn't help but laugh. He had been foamed much worse than I, his hair covered entirely with puffy white shaving cream.
We breathed I sigh of relief as we continued onward. I still had my purse, he still had his wallet, and they hadn’t taken our beers.
Nothing more than a bit of rowdy fun.
Soon enough, the seal broke and I begged G to buy me a cookie from Subway so I could use the bathroom inside. After standing in line for what seemed like forever, I joined G at the small yellow-top tabled, and started munching on my cookie.
“Fuck,” he spat, hand patting his front pocket, “Where is my phone?”
My heart sank.
His phone was gone.
More than a bit of rowdy fun after all.
Despite our earlier warning about the foam, we had missed the pull completely.
“I wondered why he was getting so close to me," he sighed, "I suppose I have to give him credit for smoothness.”
SUNDAY - NOVEMBER 13
Waking up slightly hungover from the night before, we sat in the blessed coldness of our air conditioned room for quite a while before braving the scorching air outside.
After finally having gone downstairs, we grabbed some breakfast, and started discussing the day ahead. The wet and muggy air hung like a thick blanket all around us, and I could already feel the sweat beading up in the center of my forehead and sliding down the backs of my knees.
I was mid-bite into a forkful of scrambled eggs, when BOOM, the first firework of the day went off less than a block away. I jumped at the suddenness of the explosion, and the eggs tumbled off my fork onto the floor.
It was 9:23 am.
Recovering from the blast, we shared a look that said: And so it begins.
Trying not to let it bother me, I brought up the UFC fight we had watched the night before. Despite the phone being stolen, we had committed ourselves to making the best of a bad situation. Rather than heading home to mope, we did what any young traveler with no phone would do, started drinking in earnest.
Colombia does has some downsides, but the price of rum is definitely not one of them.
Rum and Colombiana (super sweet cola) in hand, we poured ourselves some roadies, and headed to a hostel where we knew some of our speed boat friends were staying. After a few more drinks, we all headed back to Old Town to watch the Irish favorite win the UFC fight.
Despite the theft, the night had actually turned out to be fun.
After finishing breakfast, we donned our running gear and took to the sweltering city streets.
Colors and sounds drifted by as sweat dripped down our faces.
Again, we ended up at the outer city wall, small windows in the stone allowing us quick glimpses of the Caribbean as we pattered by. Slowing to a walk and beelining towards the shade, we found ourselves in a line of small shops known as the Bovedas - each one boasting an array of items that spilled from the front door and onto the street in a bold melange of variety and color.
Moving between the shops, we quickly realized that far from our initial impression of variety, most shops had wares that were quite similar, if not exactly the same.
Later, at a handicraft market in Bogota, G would note that this market (the one in Bogota) felt much less desperate than those stores we were perusing in Cartagena. A statement that makes total sense when qualified with the fact that most people in Cartagena make less than 5,000 Colombian Pesos (approx. $1.50 per day).
Whether you had shown actual interest, simply glanced their way, or had even stopped on the street to look at something completely different - shop owners in Cartagena always and immediately went for the hard sell.
After a cold shower and a delicious lunch of fresh fish fillets with garlic sauce and baked patacones, we headed for Castilla de San Felipe - a massive Spanish built fortress that, like the town’s outer wall, had once served to repel potential invaders.
Slowly, we climbed the ramparts to the very top and watched as the city gradually dropped away below. It was close to sunset, and after taking a few pictures we perched at the highest point we could find and gazed out at the gathering darkness below.
“It sounds like a war zone down there.”
My first response was to argue, but I paused again to listen and knew he wasn’t wrong.
That single frightening firework from the morning had been followed by a steadily increasing progressions of pops and bangs - the nerve-wracking clamor becoming louder and more widespread as the hours passed.
Now, with the setting sun, it seemed to have reached a crescendo.
So many were being ignited at once, no single firework could be distinguished in the din below.
I was flooded with the memory of our first night: the firework thrown directly below our feet, the bright flash, the massive noise, and the kids laughing as they pointed.
“Let’s try and get to the hostel before it gets completely dark,” I suggested.
He agreed, and we began the long walk back.
As we drew near to the hostel, we suddenly I remembered that we had dropped off our laundry at a nearby laundromat earlier in the day. We decided that since the laundromat was so close to our hostel, we might as well go pick it up. We needed the clean underwear and really, what could it hurt?
Laundry safe in hand, the bulky bag tucked under my arm, we started again towards our hostel, walking down a street had taken many times throughout our stay: well-lit and relatively open, it seemed like the safest bet.
After only block we heard, just ahead, the loudest and longest series of explosions yet.
As we turned a slight bend in the road, and the scene came into full view - we immediately stopped short.
Not ten yards ahead, at the intersection between our street and it's perpendicular neighbor, we spotted the source of the unnerving noise. The small square ahead overflowed with a seething mass of people, all laughing, drinking, and yelling. Seeming to comes from the street itself, a thick haze of greenish, grey smoke sifted between moving bodies and formed an ominous, slinking cloud that drifted off into the air above.
The once welcoming street, lines with old colonial homes, vibrant murals, and verdant flowers had morphed into something different, something dark - a place I hardly recognized, one in which we clearly did not belong.
We glanced nervously at one and other.
“Should we find a way around?”, he asked.
“I don’t know... Maybe.”
Though I felt wary of what lay directly ahead, I feared we might only find the same, or worse, if we tried another way. Our hostel wasn't on the main drag, so no matter which way we went, eventually, we would find ourselves on side streets. More than that, I was afraid of drawing out our journey back - the longer we stayed in the streets, the more these so-called "festivities" would escalate.
We were on the quickest path, and if we could make it past this intersection, the street beyond seemed clear.
Quickly, I took stock of my possessions.
My cellphone was tucked inside the zipped inner pocket of my small cross-body travelers purse, which was also securely closed. I had less than 50 Colombian Pesos (approx $15 usd) in my pocket - not too much to lose someone did try to rob me. Besides those few items, it was just the laundry bag.
Triple checking the zippers on my purse, I tucked it under the laundry bag, and then wrapped the string of the laundry bag around my hand. Definitely not a perfect system, but it would have to do.
Doing my best to look unperturbed, I grabbed G's hand and we started forward.
As we neared the intersection, I felt a minute rush of instant relief.
The massive sound we had heard, the milieu of fireworks, seemed to have thinned to crowd, so as we entered the throng we were able to move around people with relative ease.
Moving at a steadfast pace, we neared the edge of the crowd.
Before me and to the right, I saw a little boy standing with his mother. Clutched in his small hands was one of those damn foam cans. He watched passively as several locals passed - his hands stayed down, and the can remained dormant. Then, as I neared his eyes lit up.
He raised it as high as arm could muster, and began to spray it directly at me.
Innocent in his intent? Definitely. He was no more than seven years old, and barely coming up to my waist - this was no pickpocket. He was however a validation of what I already knew to be true.
Foreigners were the preferred target.
As we finally put the intersection beyond us, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
No one had bothered us and for a moment, I chided myself for feeling so nervous.
As I kept walking though, I looked back - the already growing mass of people, the fireworks going off everywhere I looked, the ominous smoke rising above - and I knew my feelings were not unfounded.
Arriving to our hostel at last, we found the wrought iron screen door bolted closed - top and bottom. The hostel attendant hurried over, undid the bolts, and ushered us inside.
Over the next few hours, sitting downstairs playing chess and drinking caipirinhas, we watched as everyone else who eventually followed through that same door had similar stories to our own.
Most were covered in foam, and over half had been robbed. One man in his late twenties, staggered in on the verge of tears, sagging against the wall as he tried to compose himself.
Out of everyone who had been robbed, only one managed to retrieve the item.
At one point I went upstairs to use the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, the loudest explosion yet seemed to rock the building. Downstairs, I found people picking up the now extinguished parcel of fireworks that had been thrown through the bars of one the windows. After that, the attendant bolted the large wooden shutters.
Our last foray of the night was a reticent one.
We hadn’t eaten since noon and it was almost nine - our bellies were rumbling.
“We’ll just go quickly,” G suggested.
“Ok," I agreed, "But let's not bring anything except a little cash.”
Leaving everything else behind, we headed towards to wrought-iron door.
“Be careful,” said the attendent, eyes full of concern, “Don’t bring anything with you - no phone, no wallet.”
We nodded knowingly and stepped out into the unwelcoming streets.
“Go this way,” he continued, pointing to the left, away from any main squares, “It’s better this way… less people.”
Thanking him, we headed into the night: on-edge and jumpy, eyes scanning.
"Let's make this quick."