A wise Colombian tour guide one said that to speak more than one language is to physically divide oneself in two — and to experience the world as two separate beings. During our time in Cartagena this summer, I couldn’t help but think of the city as having a split personality of its own: so unique from Bogotá yet so uniquely Colombian. A modern relic characterized by both unmistakable wealth and undeniable poverty. An authentic tourist trap. A colorful blank canvas reluctantly being shaped by the 21st Century. As our guide highlighted, it’s necessary to specify “Cartagena de Indias” when referring to the Colombian city in order to avoid confusion with its Spanish namesake and to pay homage to its indigenous past. I couldn’t help but feel the sense of irony in the city’s proclamation of such a distinct cultural identity juxtaposed against my experience of its cultural ambiguity.
Our walking tour of the city taught us about its history of piracy and how it bore witness to both English and Spanish atrocities as part of the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, the result of British merchants and bankers demanding additional access to lucrative Spanish-controlled ports. Today, party boats carrying thousands of tourists pass daily through Boca Grande and Boca Chica, the very ports where hundreds of members of the British navy died of disease several centuries prior. Cartagena has become the most expensive wedding location in all of Colombia; prospective brides from around the world clamor to have their destination wedding on the very land where tradesmen formerly built their wealth on the backs of African slaves.
As we watched the sunset at Café Del Mar on one of our last days in the city, the colorful terracotta-roofed houses to our backs, modern skyscrapers in our periphery, it was hard to not reflect upon these inherent paradoxes. To fully understand Cartagena is to live in this gray area — to become acquainted with ambivalence as if one were reading a magical realist novel. I pondered this briefly, then returned to posing for photos while sipping my $12 authentic coconut cocktail, thinking about which Instagram filter would best capture the moment. Clarendon. Definitely Clarendon.
By: Matthew Doup, Lauder/WG’19, Latin America Program