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Exploring Cartagena’s ‘Coolest’ Neighborhood As An Outsider

Exploring Cartagena’s ‘Coolest’ Neighborhood As An Outsider

We had spent so much time being romanced by the flower laden balconies and the saturated street colours within the 400-year-old, walled city of Cartagena, Colombia, that we had almost forgotten there was anywhere else to explore. I had read that Getsemani was worth visiting. It was a neighbourhood just outside the walled city with a dark and complicated past as a former host to drug trades and sex trafficking. With Colombia’s modern political shift towards stability, greater economic security, and stronger tourism, this barrio like many of its kind, was shaking off its dated reputation in favor of a safer, edgier, art filled one.
I’m thankful I brushed up on my Spanish numbers after a polite fare dispute with our taxi driver. An easy twelve dollars later and we hop out of the cab into Centenario Park at the foot of the Torre del Reloj, the crowning entrance to the walled city I am now well acquainted with. As we turn our backs to leave the walled city behind, a familiar English word beckons our ears to the left.“CANADA!!!!”A young local selling cold Colas from a cooler is beaming, waving excitedly in our direction. Generally speaking, when I travel I try everything possible to NOT look like a tourist. I avoid maps, large bags, even bringing my bulky camera if I can. I’ve always hated standing out in crowds. That I’m exposed within 30 seconds of exiting the car is a true sign of failure. I quickly scan myself for any obvious Canadian branding and see no signs. I look up at my 6’2” boyfriend­­­–ah–there it is. He smiles and takes off his hat bearing the Blue Jays symbol, and waves it “hello” in the young man’s direction.“The man knows his sports.” Andrew quips.

We cross over to explore the world beyond Cartagena’s walls.

[envira-gallery id=”2048″] As we enter Getsemani we pass by some dodgy looking markets, laundromats, and watering holes with older men gathered around television screens, Club Colombias in hand, air-coolers blowing at their highest setting. I can instantly sense the difference between this neighbourhood where locals go about their daily errands, and the walled city awash with tourists and tourist oriented activities. Here, I am not just a tourist, I am completely foreign– an outsider looking in. And while I feel warmly welcome, I am aware that my foreignness will dictate the way I am able to experience this place.

My research had informed me that Getsemani was bursting with street-art and I was eager to dig through its narrow streets and alleyways to behold the tropically hued murals I had only seen on my laptop screen.

We walk by Iglesia de la Trinidad, a demanding yellow church in the middle of Plaza Trinidad, and stop for a moment to admire the beautiful crumbling walls, rusted door handles and chipping paint. Is it a perfectly rustic place for a photo-op? Or is it a dilapidated sign of the neighbourhood’s poverty? A group of young boys stand in a circle playing cards. An old man with weathered skin and bare feet walks slowly across the square, mumbling to himself. I put my camera down.

A short walk down Calle 29, just after the Plaza and we find ourselves in a corridor of murals and street art. The colors dance off the walls and paint the surrounding air, each piece weaving into the next. Imagination and environment are merged together seamlessly. A door is transformed into a painting inside a painting, a bolt and chain become the lock to a birdcage with a beating heart trapped inside. These pieces tell a story of Getsemani’s history and cultural mindset. A look into the spirit of the place.

I’m attempting to frame one particularly captivating piece with my camera when I notice through the viewfinder that I am purposely trying to crop out a grocery cart filled with someone’s belongings. Poverty may not be beautiful, but choosing to hide it does not mean it stops existing. To an extent, a meticulously curated social media feed often comes with the consequence of meticulous sanitization of the real world. It becomes habit to crop out impoverishment for the sake of beauty. I take the shot­- cart included- and keep walking.

It’s easy to get lost in Getsemani. A friendly kind of lost, one where you never had any particular direction in mind anyways. My stomach is beginning to feel hollow so we set off in search of some food. It’s siesta time here, and I’m not very hopeful of finding anything to eat. The midday heat will swallow you whole in Cartagena, and it’s best to take advantage of this quiet period when you can. Most doors and windows we pass are shuttered. My hungry feeling is now turning into hangry, when we turn the corner onto Calle 26 and find a small terrace with dark wood seating and a mural of a man on a rocking chair reading a newspaper. “Basilica”, it reads. We sit down.

The food in Cartagena is something to remember. The city is known worldwide for its tantalizing ceviche and other succulent dishes. While I delighted in the constant access to fresh seafood, I couldn’t hide my excitement when I was handed a menu and realised this was an Italian restaurant. Pizza. Pasta. We order both.

After loading up on more familiar carbs, we head back to Plaza Trinidad and take a purposeful wrong turn down a street that is glowing blue like the Caribbean Sea. I am mesmerized by the azure walls and intricately carved wooden doors we pass by, the sound of my camera shutter mimicking my beating heart. In the near distance, a bell is chiming and a slow swell of children dressed in school uniforms begins to fill the street. We duck right picking a turn at random hoping to get away from the crowds, only to end up walking through an even more narrow cobblestone path with a low hanging flower canopy overhead. The scene is beautiful and surreal.



School children greet their mothers, who wait cross armed by their open doors. My Spanish is beginner at best, but the body language of a chastising mother is universal. Young boys discard their backpacks in favor of soccer balls, mothers are shaking their heads in disapproval, remarking to each other from their adjacent houses. I’m tempted to pick up my camera and shoot this all too familiar, yet somehow foreign, hustle and bustle but am overwhelmed by a silent request carried through the breeze to keep this moment private. The street is intimate and I am an uninvited visitor to a mundane and routine scene that should be no more captivating than my own walk to and from work.

The thing is, when we travel, everything feels out of the ordinary. We snap small moments like these of other people’s lives and use them to declare our thoughts and feelings about a place we’ve visited ever so briefly. We trade stories and ideas and put labels on places where people just like you and I experience the very same mundanity we travel to get away from. The realization of our global sameness in small moments like these brings me a comfort I can only receive when traveling.

I put my camera down, smiling, as we make our way back to Plaza Trinidad. We take a seat on some inviting rainbow colored Muskoka chairs outside of a bar named “Confussion” and order two mojitos. Marvelling at how the sunset coats everything here in a soft lavender and gold, we can’t help but laugh at how simply wandering around without any sense of direction managed to bring us so much joy in one day. We cheers to our foreignness, our sameness, and the very human spaces between.

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