Life in Cartagena had been in a perpetual forward motion long before I ever took my first plane flight. When I was inserted into Cartagena on March 4, 2017, the city did not stop to welcome me. It honked, blazed, sizzled, and hawked. The city had its own pulse, and through its veins we began to wander, and as we gained confidence, explore.
Dawning my dusty summer clothes and topped with a Panama hat, S and I made our way to the walled city—a short 15-minute walk from our Airbnb in the newly trendy (but still sort of seedy) Getsamani neighborhood. It was during my first conversation with a local—at an Emerald shop—when the pasty white color of my winter skin gave me away as a day 1 traveler. My street cred was at an all time low, and my rusty Spanish was certainly not helping the situation.
In my defense, the Spanish spoken in Colombia is incredibly fast. Like all Spanish speaking countries, it has it’s own unique slang and accent. My favorite phrase quickly became, “Mas despacio por favor.” More slowly, please!
Like all good travel stories, ours took on some comrades. After significant debate over where to enjoy our first meal, we succumbed to the aroma of a mysterious mash being cooked up on a portable skillet right on the street bordering Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad. Our English-language debate over what we could have possibly just ordered sparked a conversation with some European 20-somethings, who soon became our dinner-mates. We humbly plopped ourselves onto a cement bench, gazing up at the charming, mustard yellow church that anchored the commotion of a rowdy Friday night.
Freedom came in the form of a street-blended mojito and a mismatched crew of mischief seekers. Relaxed and at ease, even in a foreign city, in a country that had a questionable reputation, our new friends maneuvered us through the grid of cobblestone streets hastily lit with obnoxiously yellow street lamps. They were part of a Spanish language learning program and were all staying in Cartagena for varying lengths of time. We had unknowingly penetrated their web of whatsapp initiated evening plans.
Our night became an elated procession of music filled pit stops. Along the way, more internationals joined and departed, like a moving force through the old city. Street beers, lively plazas, cocktail bars, and well-guarded night clubs. The excitement of the novelty propelled me, while many others were fueled by the vices Colombia is most known for.
Exhaustion eventually overcame us, but my newfound sense of freedom continued to invigorate. We were reveling in the vibrant energy as we found our way back through the abandoned streets of Getsamani.
Our Airbnb room was on the third floor of a beautiful home with a large balcony and jacuzzi overlooking a glistening bay. We had those first-night-of-vacation feels pulsating through us. I stared out at the view, took long deep breaths, felt the roughness of the wooden deck beneath my bare feet, and did my best to code all these sensations into my memory. I was only a short 24-hours out from my computer screen existence in the financial district of San Francisco and already I felt anew.
There was a scare around 3:30 a.m. when we had still yet to unwind from the night’s events. This was the story that did not make it back to Mom and Dad. Without going too deeply into the dramatics, there was banging on the front door of our Airbnb and we were the only ones staying there that night. I’ll admit I was staking out an escape plan in my mind, imagining having to jump from rooftop to rooftop, Jason Bourne style. S scanned the room for some type of defense mechanism and debated going to open the door which was met by my insistent disapproval. The aggressive knocking on our door went on for 20 minutes, until nearly 4 a.m.! Many terrorizing endings played out in our minds. Eventually, my eyes grew too heavy to watch through the crack in the curtains and we fell asleep.
It was a wild first night in Colombia. We were most certainly alive.