A little past lunchtime in the walled city. Heat like off a lamp in a reptile enclosure and a finger of sweat running down my back. The bodies on the street around us shuffling past, so close, too close and the sound of oil at a boil while our guide stands on his tiptoes on the curb’s edge, lobs his voice out over all of it, down to us.
“ These are fried plantains and cheese.” He’s saying. Somehow it is cool the way he’s saying it because he’s cool and that’s just the way things work for cool guys. He pulls sweat through his hair with a tattooed hand, adjusts his shades on the bridge of his nose.
I could flick a lit cigarette into a puddle of gasoline and walk away from the explosion in slow motion and not look half as cool as this dude does when he’s introducing us to cheese and fried bananas.
He hands me a sheath of paper that is becoming translucent and I hot potato it back and forth while he passes out the rest.
“It’s a very traditional snack here. You just tear it, yeah, like that.”
The Brit next to me has dug into his. My wife is digging into hers.
It is a disk of smashed flat plantain, lightly salted submerged in golden oil. A single brick of cold cheese on top of it, stark white like my northwestern belly. I tear a corner off of the tostone, a chunk off of the cheese. On the face of it, it’s such a simple pairing that it almost seems ridiculous until you get it past your lips. All the low, hot and sultry of the plantain and the cold, sharp and creamy of the cheese. It’s fantastic.
The guide is paying the vendor with a folded wad of pesos. The vendor makes the deposit into his pocket with one hand, working the oil with the other. The guide waves us along, weaving through the crowds, talking over his shoulder.
“This city,” he says, “is very, very confusing. It was designed by military engineers who were just trying to make it hard to invade. Obviously, the walls” He says, waving his hand in their direction. “Some say that the walls go down 22 feet, to prevent tunneling.” He points to the end of the street. “But even if you got past them, the city itself was laid out to be confusing.” The block ends abruptly in the side of a house. “Every street looks like a dead end. Some of them curve around. The buildings are colorful now, which helps, but all of them used to be white.” He points around us in a circle and my brain cramps up trying to imagine how impossible this city would have been to get your bearings in without the wildly painted walls. Just a rat maze full of hostile defenders.
He leads us down an alley, across a street to a man with a pushcart, hacking through fruit with a wicked looking knife.
“This is what you do when you’re poor.” Our guide says, and it seems like he might know first hand.
“This fruit isn’t ripe, but people needed to eat now, so they made it edible.”
The man with the pushcart hands our guide a plastic cup full of green spears of guava. It’s been squirted with lime and dashed with salt and pepper. The guide passes them out to us and we gnash them by a busy street alive with the honking of horns.
The fruit is crunchy the way a carrot is crunchy. It isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but that doesn’t detract from what it is. Tangy, smoky from the pepper. I fumble around for a comparison, but nothing comes to me. It’s a wholly singular experience to my taste buds. Our guide waves us onward, our three-person tour snaking off behind him, weaving through the crowds. The tour company gave us instructions to meet him at a chocolate museum in the heart of the walled city and we found him there, leaning against the wall out front, looking like a young Colombian Johnny Depp. Don Juan Demarco, Johnny Depp. Dual Wielding Uzi’s, Johnny Depp. The Brit found us all right after. A single ginger British guy in a baseball cap with a slick looking pair of Raybans perched on his freckled nose. Somehow, even the ginger-Brit has a better tan than I do. I try not to think about it.
Standing in front of another cart now. Just a stove top on wheels basically, topped with what appears to be bricks of cornbread.
“These are a type of arepa, “ the guide explains as the woman with the spatula starts levering them up off the heat. There are two kinds in front of her and she gives us a half of each one on a napkin.
“One is sweet and other is salty,” which is mostly true. They’re both more savory than sweet to my American palette , but they’re also both delicious, so it doesn’t really matter. Texture like really thick, smooth mashed potatoes. The ‘salty’ one is run through with cheese and probably minced jalapenos and the ‘sweet’ one has a hint of maple syrup and that cheese that we had with the plantains, only hot and ropy.
We eat. We make noises. We walk
Boiling oil, maybe not too different from the kind they’d throw down on pirates in the 1500’s, only this oil has arepas rolling in it. The woman with the slotted spoon scoops them out for us one at a time, here on the edge of the walled city. The guide stands with his back to the traffic that divides us from Getsemani, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, pressed like a hand in a vice between the tourist draw of the walled city and the south-beachy playground of Bocagrande.
The woman with the spoon fishes our arepas out of the amber oil, gives them a shake to cool them then it’s onto another napkin. Mine has eggs and chorizo in it and it’s been fried so what else do you really need to know about it? It’s delicious, fill up all the cracks kinda food. According to the guide, this is a pretty regular breakfast for the working class people on the go.
“That is India Catalina.” Our guide says. He’s pointing at a statue of a woman in a simple dress at the mouth of the walled city, surrounded by roiling traffic. Her hands are at her sides, like before a hug.
“She was an indigenous princess who was captured by the Spanish in the 1500’s,”
He continues. “They brought her back to Spain and she taught them all about the indigenous people’s weaknesses and ways, then they brought her back and she helped them commit a genocide.”
“Fuck,” I say through a mouthful of arepa.
“Yeah,” he says. “She was kind of like a… Bad Pocahontas.”
We cross the wild street into Getsemani. There are murals here that stop you in your tracks. Vibrant, poignant works of art erupting off of a cracked wall. Our guide points to them as we walk. “This is about the fractured identity of the people who live here.”
A man hands us popsicles through a barred window. There is no sign over the window and for all intents and purposes, this is just someone’s house. Like many treats here (especially liquid ones), the popsicles come in a plastic bag. You have to peel the plastic down off of one end of it and hold it by the other side like a thick otter pop.
There’s absolutely no way to eat it so that it doesn’t look like you’re giving a mango colored man a spirited blowjob, and honestly, it tastes so good that I don’t care what I look like eating it. People notice, though. Eyes are averted. Somewhere in Getsemani, there is a man who just doesn’t sleep anymore. A man who breaks out in a cold sweat when he sees a mango.
We are on the last leg of our tour. The sun stretches through the trees and we are speckled by the shadow of it on a narrow avenue in Getsemani. The guide is describing the subtle pressure that is crushing the wind out of the families who live in this place.
“Take the utilities, for example,” he’s saying, “the way it works, is your utilities are charged depending on what number they assign you. Like, if your house is in a lower income neighborhood, you’re a 1. If you’re in a nicer neighborhood, you might be a 3. It goes all the way up to 4.” A dog trots past us, alone. Many dogs, out and about on their own here. “The problem is, the government can just change your number whenever they want. You can be in your little house, living the way you always have and then all the sudden they build a hotel down the street and someone comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘hey, you’re a 4 now.’ And your utilities just quadruple.” We pass a spattering of graffiti. ‘Resiste’ it says.
The last stop is a little coffee shop down a winding street. It’s dark and beautiful inside just like the smells wafting out of it. “ This is Cafe Del Mural,” our guide says. The mural it’s named after lights the wall behind him on fire. “ The coffee here is very good. I hope you enjoyed the tour.” We all thank him gushingly, my wife and the Brit and I. As he folds himself back into the street, he unloads one of those cool-guy waves that dorks like me remember. Effortless and fluid, like the rest of him. I could powerslide a muscle car through a factory with Raybans on and not look half as badass as he does when he leaves a tour group at a coffee shop.
When he’s gone, we all sit together, my wife and the Brit and I, in the relative cool of the coffee shop, sipping at very good coffee. The Brit just came from Brazil. He was robbed at gunpoint there by a boy on hard drugs with wild eyes and he ran away and the boy didn’t shoot. Later he asked someone if the robbers usually don’t shoot and he was told that often times they do. The Brit is amazed by how pleasant Cartegena is. How beautiful it is, how safe it feels. I wholeheartedly agree with him. I’m a bit of basketcase abroad, what with the dangerous job and all the military aggression, and I haven’t felt unsafe here once. Police on every corner, minding their own business. People on the streets, living their private lives. The vendors all smiling as they pass me a snack like they don’t know that I’m staying in one of the hotels that’s driving their utilities up into 4’s because it’s “so authentic”. Letting me take my pictures and ask my questions like it won’t lead to more people like me. Like I’m not just another bad Pocahontas.