Cartagena in Love

The story of Cartagena is a story of love for me. Most of you reading this will know at least bits and pieces of the back story to this journey. In the fall of 2018 Tripp and I, both recently single and cooped up in our house during a hurricane, decided that we wanted to make the most of our lives and started talking about what that might look like. We both wanted to travel, see the world, meet people. We wanted a direct experience of the world instead of having it filtered and fed to us through news and media. The conversation was fueled by the realization that we were likely in the last window we’d have without significant others, families, or other anchors that would keep us bound to Charleston. In that very conversation in the backyard of our house in Riverland Terrace we made the pact to sail around the world. That decision has since blossomed into a journey and mission wilder than we could’ve ever imagined as we sat in Charleston that night. However, as seems to be the case with such things, a month or so later I met the love of my life.

Joanna was her name and it was slow at first. The attraction was immediate but I had just made this life changing decision, a decision that would inevitably complicate any relationship. We would run into each other when mutual friends would have get-togethers and each conversation or glance across a room was thrilling. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask her out for a date. I tried to be clear from the start about the journey ahead of me, it didn’t seem fair to do anything else, and part of me knew that the revelation would mean an early end to my burgeoning dreams of love. I could never blame her for that decision, but somehow she continued to join me for dates. Drinks here, coffee there, a walk in the park. By January of 2019 I was hopelessly in love and by some miracle it seemed that she was too. For the first few months of that year my November departure seemed eons away, even though many a night after work was spent apart from Joanna as Tripp and I worked toward our goal. Nonetheless, with each passing month Joanna and I fell deeper in love — all the while new pieces fell in place to make Apparent Winds a reality. There are things in life that are just too good to pass up and I suddenly found myself with two of them. All credit going to the strength of Joanna’s character and her capacity for love, I also found myself lucky enough that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. The looming challenge was a gift and a curse. There was no time to take each other for granted and I cherished every moment I was able to spend with Joanna, a quality that I hope will be imbued in our love forever. The obvious struggle, the curse, was the deep pain of missing one another that was always around the corner in those months before I left. We made plans to see one another as my departure approached, the first destination being six months into our journey, in Tahiti. The day I stepped on J. Henry to sail to Bermuda I watched Joanna and the dock get smaller and smaller as we made our way out of the harbor. The pit in my stomach grew, the reality of six months sinking in. The time since has been a battle of conflicting emotions that are hard to communicate and maybe even harder for others to understand. I am on the journey of a lifetime, living my dream. I am also apart from the woman I love. I think it’s a struggle that few people ever have to deal with, or even wrap their head around. If you’re in a relationship imagine what it feels like to spend a week away from your significant other, now multiply that feeling by 24. Just to keep things interesting, when you finally get that break at 24 weeks and spend one blissful week together, there are at least 24 more weeks until you see them again. If that doesn’t sound painful to you then perhaps you’re in the wrong relationship. Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m sad all the time, or that I don’t have an acute sense of how lucky I am to be on this trip, but it does mean that Joanna is never far from my mind and that I miss her almost every moment. Thankfully things like FaceTime help bridge the gap a bit, Joanna’s got a great face and I’m grateful that I get to see it as often as I do. But ultimately that’s no substitute for touch and smell and the things that come with life together. FaceTime doesn’t allow you to hear your loved one walk in the door, or hear them in the kitchen milling about. Sure, at the end of this trip we’ll have Tahiti and other once in a lifetime memories together, but there are times that I’d give anything to hear my name called from the next room to help a wayward insect find his way back outside. I crave the quiet time together, no plans, just enjoying being near one another. These are things that I won’t have for the 18 months that I’m on this trip and I feel that deeply some days — that’s what brings me to Cartagena. Christmas Day was especially hard in regards to all of the above. I was missing Joanna, thinking about the fact that I would not only miss this Christmas with her but the next as well. It was a hard day and the time ahead of us was stacking up in my mind. I think Tripp recognized this and it served as the catalyst for helping Joanna surprise me in Cartagena. I found out just before the sail to Bonaire. All of the sudden that six months that had been hanging over me was chopped in half and I would be seeing her in ten days.

Joanna could have met me at a cardboard box in the middle of a vast white expanse and I would’ve have been thrilled with that box, solely because it served as our point of rendezvous. But the backdrop for this reunion happened to be one of the most splendid cities in the world. Known as “The Jewel of the West Indies,” Cartagena is the oldest walled city in this hemisphere and boasts the accolade of having the most attempted sacks of their city as well — hence the wall. A statue stands at the end of the harbor, near the entrance to the old city. A woman holds her hand high in front of her and the inscription reads “Noli Me Tangare” — “touch me not.” When you visit Cartagena you understand why so many people were trying to get in. It’s a gorgeous and vibrant city that has a large natural harbor, well situated for defense. It is the perfect intersection of sea and land based trade routes and there is abundance everywhere. Jungles overflowing with fruits and other foods, freshwater rivers brimming with fish, and the sea’s bounty just in reach. Nowadays its offering are less reliant on trade routes and strategic defense and more based on colorful Colonial architecture, widespread street art, incredible food and drink, and a lively nightlife. Cartagena turned out to be one of the biggest surprises so far this trip. That feeling is surely influenced by Joanna’s surprise visit, but even so, the depth and diversity of culture and nature in Colombia was astounding. The people are beautiful and friendly and there is so much to see and do. You could easily spend days just walking around the city, taking in all of the beauty — and that’s pretty much what we did. It is sort of like Charleston in that regard, there’s plenty to do but sometimes the best way to spend a day is to simply take a walk.

I will always remember that first moment I saw Joanna after leaving Charleston. We planned meet at the AirBnB where we’d stay for the week and I had the address in my GPS. I let her know I was walking her way, she told me she would be waiting in the street. The streets of the Getsemani district in Cartagena are cozy and narrow. Doors on either side, always open, give you glimpses into people’s homes, small restuarants, and tiendas. Most everyone is outside – people sit idly enjoying the day, others play dominoes, children ride bikes and rollerblade, dodging all the others. Potted bougainvilleas creep over murals and window frames, always in bloom. Flags, string lights, and umbrellas criss-cross above, connecting the buildings on either side and creating a colorful urban canopy above your head. I turned on to one such street, the street where Joanna waited. I craned my neck, trying to see around the men welding a bicycle in the street, sparks flying, I caught sight of her. I walked quickly, she ran, we met in the middle in one of the sweetest embraces of my life. She clasped my neck and draped her body on mine. I picked her up and carried her to our home for the next week, finally reunited. We spent the days that followed soaking up everything Cartagena had to offer – fresh tropical fruit, incredible cuisine, salsa lessons, sea, sun, nightlife. It was perfect.

One of our last days together we decided to peel off from the larger group that had come to visit and do a day trip. Initial hopes of jungle exploration were dashed when we saw that most access points were 5 hours away, or more, so we resorted to a google search to find our way. A search similar to “best day trips cartagena” churned out a list of possibilities, many of which seemed too far without a car. One of the options caught our eye though, only 15 minutes from Cartagena’s walled city. On this particular site the Bazurto Market was billed as a bustling and lively local market. Some blogger, who had probably never been to Bazurto, penned a charming tale about immersing yourself in color and true Colombian culture. It sounded exciting and authentic and Joanna and I decided that our day trip would be to Bazurto. We got in the cab and I told the driver “Vamos al Mercado de Bazurto.” The cab driver looked at my strangely and asked “which part of Bazurto?” “There is more than one part?” I asked in my limited Spanish. He laughed, a bit chidingly, and informed me that yes there were many, many parts. Bazurto was huge. I told him I wanted the part with fruits and fish and he said ok, hesitantly. He was probably wondering what this gringo was getting his girlfriend into. We drove for a while, first into the Manga district with huge mansions and suburban homes. We drove on and homes got smaller and simpler, we were getting to the edge of town. We turned onto a highway that took us to an industrial part of town, trash was more prevalent here and was becoming increasingly so. Ahead I could see cars moving slowly, crowds of people, and hundreds of birds. It seemed we had reached Bazurto. People, trash, fruit, fish, and filth closed in around us as the cab came to a stop. Overwhelmed by our surroundings and only mildly proficient in Spanish I understood none of the directions that our cab driver dispensed before we left the backseat. I nodded and smiled, said thank you, and paid. He likely gave Joanna and me invaluable information on how best to navigate the belly of the beast we had just entered, only in hindsight do I wish I would’ve asked him to repeat himself. We left the cab and entered a world that felt close on all sides. It smelled sweet and pungent and putrid all at once, a blend of human musk, animal blood, fish, and rotting fruit. All eyes were on me and Joanna, many were curious, some were kind, others a bit threatening. We were clearly tourists in a world that had no need to accommodate us. We walked a bit aimlessly, trying to remember why we had come here in the first place. Romantic ideas of finding fresh fish and produce to make a lunch seemed far from me as we walked into the labyrinthian passages of inner Bazurto. Joanna walked ahead of me, as disoriented as I was, looking at mysterious fruits displayed next to plucked chickens and meat on hooks. The occasional jeer would float across the stalls to reach us but there were smiles too. Each turn led down another dark alley with a thousand more alleys splitting off of that one. It was chaotic and loud and expansive. We had been walking quickly, searching for some space that would offer a moment to catch our breath and regroup, that moment never came. I asked Joanna how she was doing, the look in her eye said enough. Both of us agreed that there was no way we would leave there with a coherent set of ingredients to make a meal. The amount of energy it would take to navigate, communicate, learn exotic new ingredients, and stay safe would induce a week long coma. After 30 minutes at Bazurto we made the less than triumphant decision to get a cab back to the city with nothing in hand. As Joanna and I decompressed in the cab I pulled up more information about Bazurto and was reminded why its important to have more than one source. What held true is that Bazurto is one of the busiest and most popular markets in Colombia. People come from all over the country to sell their goods and the top chefs in Cartagena frequent it daily to source fresh local ingredients that they craft into stunning plates. The flip side is that the market is also notoriously filthy and tumultuous, known for pickpocketing and other crime. We left a bit defeated but glad for the calm that was creeping back in. When we got back to the walled city that had once seemed bustling, it felt as if we had stepped into a peaceful day spa. The rest of that day was spent laughing at our ignorance and our lack of travel chops while we enjoyed the beauty of the old city. The joke of the day became “are you sure you don’t want to run back to Bazurto real quick to grab a pineapple?”

The next day Joanna left and the city lost something with her as her taxi drove off to the airport. Tripp and I walked back toward the boat, our home, which we had been away from for a week. It was the longest time that either of us had spent away from J. Henry since our departure and we had to get her ready for our next two guests, Matthew and Nielson. We’d be departing for the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala) and Panama in just a few days time, leaving the Jewel of the Indies and the love that Joanna and I shared there in our wake, enshrined in our memories.


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3 thoughts on “Cartagena in Love

  1. Pingback: Guna Yala
  2. Michael Harrison February 8, 2020 — 2:27 am

    Absolutely beautiful…. I would like to say something profound but I can barely see through my tears of joy.💚💚💚

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