Aruba and Cartegena were supposed to be nothing more than brief ports of call on the way to our main destination: the Panama Canal. But that is not the way it turned out; especially Cartegena. But first, Aruba. Or maybe I should start at the very beginning which would be well before Aruba.
Several years ago, my Aunt Mozelle (yes, the great lady I have written about before) expressed a strong desire, a near-the-top-of-my-bucket list desire, to go through the Panama Canal. She wanted me to go with her, and even though I had been through the Canal twice as a child, I was eager to see it again.
For the next several years we tried to bring the trip to reality, but it stubbornly refused to come together. One time we came within a week of booking when the tour company stopped operations; permanently, I understand. Then last summer Aunt Mozelle made a connection that finally brought everything in line for a November cruise.
I had not been on a large ship since childhood, so the whole cruise experience was new to me (and let me tell you, not hard to get use to either). My aunt had been on small boat cruises in the Caribbean and Alaska some years earlier before she was widowed, but she had never been on a 2,000-plus passenger ship.
We arrived in Aruba before dawn. I was up in the window-wrapped cafeteria having breakfast with a very interesting young man from Montreal (more about him in another post). It was a magical sight full of lights. Then, as night retired and day arrived, a very busy port emerged.
Aruba is a semi-desert island. It is one of the ABC islands belonging to the Netherlands; the others being Curacao and Bonaire. The island is flat with several startling high points sticking up from the plain. Our local guide, Winkie, gave us a running commentary in a lyrical voice as we crammed our brief visit with seeing the sights. Winkie told us that most Arubans speak four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish and a dialect combining several languages, including some from the African slave trade.
Our tour included a visit to the national park on the north shore of Aruba. It was a lonely, desolate landscape; the kind of beauty that I find most compelling. One spectacular geological arch had caved in a few years ago but we got to walk around and photograph another one.
In residential areas the houses were small and brightly colored with red tile roofs. Winkie explained that each year in preparation for the Christmas season, residents repainted their houses and their family tombs (above-ground burials are common in the Caribbean). The prevalence of a rich, golden yellow was indicative of the paint color that was on sale at the hardware store the previous season.
We also visited a lighthouse, a tourist beach, and a nursery with lots and lots of bouganvillea, one of my favorite tropical flowers from childhood.
Next stop, Cartegena, Colombia on the mainland of South America. I knew it was a very old city; almost 500 years old. That was about a generation or two after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. My expectations, frankly, were neutral at best.
Imagine my astonishment as we entered the approach to the inner harbor. A panorama of skyscrapers grew larger and larger as we passed a Virgin Mary & Child buoy on our way to our docking area. Aunt Mozelle said that the skyline, which also surprised her, reminded her of Hong Kong. I thought of pictures I have seen of Los Angeles and Miami Beach. Another passenger suggested Shanghai. Later, I learned that Cartegena now has more than a million inhabitants.
Cartegena fell into several distinctive categories. The ultra-modern city of the tall buildings, heavy vehicular traffic, and expensive, upscale stores. We actually visited one of those high-class stores, one devoted to emeralds. Armed police guarded both doors as we walked through drooling but not buying anything from the vast array of emeralds: raw and uncut, scattered polished stones of every size, and beautifully, crafted jewelry in mostly silver settings.
The only things I bought on this stop were several sheets of postage stamps, several little girls’ cloth purses and two hand-held fans, one of which I brought home to add to the collection of decorative ladies’ fans I had inherited from my mother. Later I noticed that they were made in China.
We also drove through some residential areas where the houses were encircled with high walls, some draped in bouganvillea. We saw a little of the poorer sections and glimpsed narrow cobble-stoned streets, some of which we later walked along. In the Old City, where we toured on foot, we saw donkeys in the crowded streets, young women looking down from balconies and teenagers break dancing near one of the plazas.
One of our first stops in Cartegena was the massive fort, the Castillo de San Felipe. It was a steep climb to the top but our admirable guide, Walter, took it in stages, pausing to tell us about the history of the area and to point out the sweeping panorama below us. The fort had been the scene many attacks including from pirates, Europeans, even one that was a joint American/British venture. Gazing down from the highest point over the city, I could believe that a million people lived here.
Later we visited a very old cathedral dedicated to Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest, who was sainted some time after his death. His remains were encased in a glass coffin, and much to my surprise, we were allowed to take photographs in the church; some people even stretched out level with the coffin and took pictures. I did not.
Claver was not always appreciated by the powers that were during his life because of his strong advocacy on behalf of the slaves who came through the port. He not only baptized the them but, reportedly, tried to ease their hard lots in life with food and other practical things.
Next door to the church was the arch-bishop’s residence, an elegant, colonial building with a lovely, cool, plant filled courtyard. The last stop in this area was the headquarters of the Inquisition. Walter flat-out said the Inquisition was a terrible, terrible mistake. I didn’t take any pictures of the rack or the gallows either.
Walter, our guide, was a very interesting man and the best of the four main guides we had on our trip. He was in his forties, a goldsmith by profession who guided tours once or twice a week. He was a family man with a teenage son and several younger daughters including a three week old named Sofia. Walter’s English was very good and he was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his city, especially the Old City.
Cartegena turned out to be the most emotional stop for me. It first hit me when I saw the old, red tile roofs which were a sharp contrast to the redder, newer tiled roofs on Aruba. Those muted tiles took me back more than a half century to the two years I had lived in Colombia as a child. Not down on the hot coast where the almost ancient port of Cartegena was located, but high up in a valley in the Andes Mountains in the City of Cali.
To get to Cali from Buenaventura, the hot coastal city where we arrived, we had to take a very narrow road up into the mountains. Barely wide enough for two vehicles, the rock of the Andes towered on one side and the jungle far below on the other. At the half way point, all vehicles stopped. We got out and placed lit candles on the rock side of the road in thanksgiving for having safely gotten half way to our destination. It was night when we came around yet another bend and saw the city sparkling below us. I recalled that experience years later when, for the first time, I came around a curve on M-22 and saw Beulah and Crystal Lake spread out below me.
This was well before the days of the Cali Cartel. Walter told me that Cali was also now a city of more than a million people. I don’t know what the population was when I lived there. Children usually don’t care about such facts. However, even in the 1950s Cali was a big city. A large, sophisticated city of old and new buildings, tree-lined avenues, a river rambling through downtown over a stony river bed and under old bridges. It was a refuge from the civil war that was going on in mountain and jungle villages.
Cali was situated in a wide valley in the foothills of the Andes. On one mountaintop stood three gigantic crosses; I think they were stone but I’m not sure. When we hiked the trails behind one of the houses where we lived, we came across a cement or stone pool where the peasant women came to do their laundry. I remember visiting the slum area at the base of another mountain — hovels (they couldn’t afford any tiles for their roofs) and a central hand pump where several narrow, dirt paths came together. This was the water supply for the whole area. Ditches alongside the shacks constituted the only plumbing. It made an impression on me that I have never forgotten. Oh, by the way it was called Belem (Bethlehem).
Belem was a huge contrast to the gold-encrusted churches I had seen in other South American cities. Even as a child I was aware of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, between the middle class life we lived and what we could see from our own front yard. It wasn’t that far; it was walking distance for a little girl. One day our cook, Saturia, went home to her village higher up in the mountains to check on her family and came back to tell us that everyone in the village had been killed. Several years later, back home state-side, I was quite irate to find that even TIME magazine only devoted an occasional paragraph or two to the civil war which cost the lives of more than 200,000 Colombians. I remember times when the only aircraft in the sky were military planes and troops convoys moved silently down the early morning streets.
The international community, of which we were a part, consisted not only of the other American State Department employees like my father and missionaries, but also of British and Germans with fresh memories of World War II, all trying to make new lives in a new world.
In Cali, I attended a marvelous school where I had a great third grade teacher, Beth Matthews. Third grade would be my only happy school year until my junior year in high school. I learned to play kick ball in the streets, hide and seek, and hike in the mountains, and I started to scribble simple little stories.
In the short time we lived in Cali, we lived in three houses. If I ever knew the street addresses I have long forgotten them, but the houses I remember well. In the first one, we were housesitting for someone. There I read The Secret Garden for the first time. After a few months, we moved around the corner to take care of another house. That house was located at one end of a child’s dream of a park: little traffic, large, full of grass and trees and neat hiding places. Ah, the games we played sometimes well into the evening. My first crush, the tow-headed English boy home from boarding school on Bermuda, racing his red bicycle around the park while his younger sister and our girlfriends, giggled, much impressed.
Our last house was farther out, on the outskirts of the city. A Scottish family lived on the street behind us and several German families two doors down on our street. Guinhilde (I’m guessing at the spelling) and Elsita and I played together almost every day. Our house was broken into while we slept, despite the high walls & barbed wire. We experienced several earthquakes. I remember the tall glasses in the china cabinet dancing one afternoon. My mother was stung by a scorpion, and the medicine bottle didn’t make clear whether to pour the medication on the wound or down her throat. As I remember, we did both but she was quite sick for a few days.
That brief time was one of great internal changes for me, and some of the memories are too, too bittersweet to revisit or recount even now. But when I saw those old, reddish tile roofs in Cartegena, it all came back, and my voice got thick and tears filled my eyes. Cali was the first place I ever felt I wanted to call home.
And, yes, we will get to the Canal and some other interesting places and people in future posts.