February 1, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 24.388 North
075° 31.576 West

Viva Cartagena!

By Bernadette Bernon

It's old-home week here in Cartagena. Douglas and I know the city from our last stay two years ago, and love it so much that we've talked about buying a small flat and living here at some point. So it is with great joy that we've been revisiting our favorite haunts, catching up with old friends who live here -- such as Lee and Pachi Miles, with whom we've corresponded for two years, and with whom we rendezvoused in the San Blas a couple of months ago -- and feeling the thrill when someone in a shop or restaurant remembers us from our last visit. The city seems to be thriving since we were last here, and I notice many more shops, boutiques, international visitors, and bustling cafes. Cartageneros are a welcoming, generous, polite people, and those traits have made our stay here like a homecoming.


Our friends Lee and Pachi Miles own one of the finest emerald stores in Colombia and also sell their emerald jewelry on the internet at www.misteremerald.com

I went shopping for fabrics the other day and Nergy, who works at one of my favorite fabric shops, remembered me right away from the last time I was in Cartagena, and threw her arms around me when I walked in the door. We caught up with one another, then together laid out my pile of Kuna molas on one of the shop's big work tables. We played for a couple of hours with fabric combinations for each mola. My goal was to make fancy cushions out of this particular collection, so I fussed, and changed backgrounds, and Nergy kept bringing over new fabric ideas. We had a ball. Douglas once accompanied me on one of these excursions, and it drove him so crazy so fast that he fled from the store at full gallop. Nergy and I, or one of my cruising friends -- Lisa or Linda - and I could happily devote hours to this kind of task, and be as content as kittens. For Douglas, the activity is too undisciplined, too amorphous. He likes specifics, and nothing gives him greater pleasure than checking things off a daily to-do list. I still remember, when we first got here, and we were grocery shopping, when he tried to explain to me his elaborate mathematical peso-to-dollar conversion formula. The formula made my brain hurt, and I told him that Linda and I had figured out our own system. We just divide the price in pesos by two and figure it's a little less than that in dollars. His jaw dropped in incredulity at such imprecision. Suffice it to say, I shop without my beloved.


From store to store, looking for just the right fabrics and trims

After I selected some fabrics from Nergy, and then visited three or four other stores to repeat the process, I headed to a series of different stores all over town to find the bits and pieces I need for each of the cushions. There seems to be no full-service stores in Latin America. In the case of textiles, you go to different fabric stores for different kinds of fabric, several different trim stores for zippers and thread, to one of three different industrial fabric stores for the inner roping that I use for the decorative cord on the outer edge of the cushion. At each stop, I chat with the women who work in these establishments, and who remember me and my mola cushions, and in the genteel, Latin way things go here, they ask about me and Douglas and my family and how long I'll be staying. I inquire about them and their kids and their lives since we've last seen each other.


All over town, street entertainers - such as this mime - entertain us in the evenings.

My last stop of the day was at the Carulla food store, near Club Nautico, close to where Ithaka is anchored in the bay. Cruisers in Cartagena, who are not tied up in one of the two marinas, use Club Nautico's dock to leave our dinghies. I lug my parcels, and bags, and backpack crammed full of treasures to Carulla and buy some fruits for the morning. Then I schlep it all back to the dinghy, and buzz out to Ithaka to lay out all my silks and cottons and velours, and rainbows of trims and zippers and cords, all over the boat, and arrange them into individual packages - one for each mola pillow -- with instructions pinned to each. Such bliss for me, such a nightmare for Douglas, who upon seeing the fabrics come out of the bags, takes the dinghy over to Sand Dollar until I call him later on the VHF and tell him the coast is clear.


Stefano Salvador plays the classical guitar

At night, Douglas and I head into Club Nautico for showers, then set out on the town. Every night is different. One night we went to a free flamenco- and classical-guitar concert by Stefano Salvador at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena. Another night we went out for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, either El Arrabe, or Shwarma, or one of a dozen other wonderful, reasonable places that make it almost cheaper to eat out than to cook a full dinner aboard. One night we got a little dressed up (which for Douglas means he actually puts on a clean shirt with a collar) and with some of our cruising friends we attended a salsa concert at the spectacular little jewel box of a theater called Teatro Heredia, with it's gilt box seats and mural ceilings.




Carlos, here we come!

Tonight was going to be a wild one. We bought tickets to a Carlos Vives concert that is to be held in the Plaza Del Toros, the bull-fighting coliseum, and, along with thousands upon thousands of young Cartageneros - the concert was sold out - we set out to discover what rocks their boats. Carlos Vives (pronounced Bee-bez) is an attractive thirty-something singer with extraordinary energy and talent who's revitalized his country's love for traditional instruments by creating an amazingly popular rock band that includes five-foot long wood flutes, bongos, accordions, and noise boxes to accompany the electric guitars. His music was awesome, his stage presence mesmerizing, and the crowd ecstatic. Along with everyone else, we spent the whole concert dancing in the aisles to one of the most successful performers in South America. Around us, kids were gyrating to the music, or thumb typing onto their cell phones, or cocking their heads to the side, in that universal cell-phone stance of the young, always moving and chatting.


New cafes have opened since we last visited the city, which seems thriving. Photo Courtesy of SV Lisa

The day after my fabric shopping spree, and our night with Carlos Vives, I hopped on the bus and headed out to Boca Grande, on the edge of Cartagena, outside the old walled city, to visit Rosa. I had with me two big duffels of fabrics and molas, plus all my recent purchases. Rosa is the seamstress I hired the last time I was here, who made dozens of spectacular cushions for me, as well as made-to-order dresses, fitted sheets, and anything else I could dream up. Walking into Rosa's little hive of a workplace almost brought tears to my eyes. She jumped up, and rushed to me, saying, "BB! BB! Gracias a Dios! Mi amiga!" and we hugged, and caught up on old times. Then I told her I had some work for her.


The red-tile rooftops, spires, and domes of the city. Photo Courtesy of SV Lisa.

"Digame," she said, pronounced "dee-ga may" and meaning "talk to me" in Spanish - a great phrase you hear all day long. Douglas and I now use it frequently with one another.

Rosa and I went through each pillow project bag by bag. She knew the drill, knew exactly how I wanted her to do special mitered corners and serging and double trims and hidden zippers and all the rest - I'd taught her the last time we were here. At first, when we first met, she couldn't understand why I wanted so much detail in as simple a thing as a cushion, but she seemed to think I was a nice gringa, and we were friends, and so whatever I wanted was fine. She loved the molas ("Muy hermosa, BB…") was thrilled to get the work for her little team of three seamstresses, and knew the cushions were destined for a little Kuna fundraising project I had going on at home. From this day onward, I'd visit her shop and check on progress every day or two, answering questions that came up, until the job was done. Along the way, I'd bring her more projects as I dreamed them up.


Rosa Sanchez, tailor extraordinaire, holds up one of the cushions she made for me. (In case you're in Cartagena, Rosa is located at Boca Grande, Avenida San Martin, Centro Commercial, El Pueblito Local 17. Her son's phone number is 300 805 2843. He speaks English.)

Having clothes custom made in Cartagena is common; almost all cruising women commission some clothes if they're here for a few weeks. You find in your closet a dress or pants or a shirt you like, buy new material in town, bring the items to a good seamstress to copy - such as Rosa -- and a few days later you go in for a fitting. A few days after that you have your new perfectly-fitted garment, all for a small fraction of what you paid for the original, and probably of better quality.

So this is the form that my days take here in Cartagena, when I'm not working on boat projects with Douglas. Ithaka happens to be taking a lot of our attention since we arrived. We've been sailing her hard for more than a year since her last haul-out and it's been ten years since her topsides were done. No matter how well you take care of your boat, the salt and sea take their toll, so we decided to have our cockpit totally re-gelcoated and the topsides painted too, along with a bottom job while we were at it. This town is the place to do it all. The work is good and the prices are low. We visited the three boatyards, got estimates, saw the fruits of their handiwork, and tried to make a decicion about which yard was right for our boat and for us.


Colombia's Tall Ship Gloria visited the harbor of Cartagena for December and January. The US Coast Guard keeps a major presence in Colombian waters. Photo Courtesy of SV Simba

We also needed to get our sails serviced and restitched. We needed to run around doing boat errands, which in Latin America means that something that might only take a quick trip to a West Marine at home will take all day here, and maybe two or three days to accommodate two or three visits to the same store while you await the part's arrival from somewhere else, and in the end it probably won't be exactly what you wanted when it gets here. Our friend Frank on Simba, after searching high and low for a Sunbrella-type fabric so that he could commission a custom cover for their dinghy, repeated to us a great phrase that we hear from Cartagenero workers and shop-keepers and boat professionals when we're looking to replace something specific, such as a paint, or a waterproofing solution, or a part: "Si, tengo esta. No es mismo, perro es similar" - (Yes, I have it. It's not the same, but it's similar.) In other words, chill, you're never going to get anything like that here, nor can you get anything similar, so this will have to do. Your job is to make it work.


Teka Johnson, dressed to party.

So this is how it's been going. Our Cartagena days are interrupted by little joys and surprises. Lisa and Cade adopt a scrawny little street dog, who they name Teka - the luckiest dog in Cartagena - and we watch her thrive. One day, Rosa presents me with a pair of earrings she's made for me. They are wild and dangling cornucopias of Carmen Miranda-style colored beads that hang almost to my shoulders; Rosa thought I was a little too "conservativa" (read "drab") and could use a little spicing up. I accept the earrings with gratitude, and a little sceptisism about whether or not I can carry them off. Let's just say, Cartagenera women of every age dress rather seductively; they love to be noticed, and Rosa herself has tried to get me to make my dresses a bit tighter and shorter, and I've resisted. So I put on my new earrings, and then a wonderful thing happens. For the rest of the day, I receive compliments from everyone I encounter. I've decided that I love the earrings. There're the new me!


The Botero exhibit was a stunning expose on the country's bloody years. .

We visit the modern-art museum, and see a Botero exhibit that is probably one the most powerful collections we've seen in years - images of war and suffering and hardship in Colombia during their various reigns of terror, all done in the artist's signature "fat people" style. Meanwhile, time moves along, the enormous statue in the center of the harbor, the Virgin Of El Carmen, patron saint of sailors, smiles down on us as we scurry about our affairs, doing what we can, drinking in the Latin life, and enjoying a respite in one the most beautiful old cities in the Americas.


A Cartagena street, dressed for the holidays of December and January.