Sunday, 13 March 2016

Cartagena: Days and Ploys.

Some travellers interrogate their guide book, note all the recommendations and set forth on a prescriptive tour. All power to them, they'll need it, they'll also be in need of treatment; for a cultural religiosity overdose and a par-boiled nose, blistering toes and auto-jitters. I, on the other hand, like to set a search, not for a geographical point, more a ploy for a concept. Then set forth in a vague hope of success, more happy to find what serendipity flings my way. I'm rarely disappointed - there's always a story. For there's no such thing as a boring place, only boring observation.

First day, first ploy; to source some corrugated cardboard. Which is how we find the contents of two cruise ships being disgorged into the Castillo de San Felipe and a man with a parrot on his shoulder. But no cardboard. Which isn't a problem.... yet. We've several days before our flight leaves. Several days of excuses to wander the warrens of the old town's streets ostensibly searching for suitable packaging for our bikes.

Now we could have been logical in our old town exploration, as the gridded layout isn't that dissimilar to a supermarket's organisation. There, The Forager insists that I follow a logical route, start with the nappies and potties, turn left at the top and proceed down glassware and broomshanks, check your basket and feign surprise that it's still empty. I, on the other hand, get distracted by quirky names and juxtaposed positions, as a consequence I miss collecting the basics. My way we'd be living on porridge and thin air. It's why she's The Forager and I'm not.

Logicality lost, so we wander aimlessly. There's little chance of getting properly lost, as back in the late seventeenth century, due to the activities of some earlier visiting travellers (undesirables like Drake, Cote and the appropriately named François Roberval), the conquistadors built a useful retaining wall.

At each junction we have deliberations as to whether we've been down this lane before, was it yesterday or just this morning? "Is that Papa JP2?", if so, then we came the other way, so, no we haven't been this way before. "See if we can find that frozen yogurt stall again, I'm sure it was over here". "Is that a fat naked woman disporting herself in front of the church?", in that case we could go down this street, it'll take us back to the rampart walls. We're bouncing around like pin-balls on a bagatelle board.

Grackle bird.

We've acquired some intelligence which suggests that a previous cyclist had sourced an bicycle box in a shop whose location is described as 'opposite the video rental shop'. However, the latter will be long deceased, killed off by downloads, so we need to be vigilant. We follow the road away from those city ramparts and deeper into the generic scape of condo-land, the highrise filling cabinets that fringe the sun-bathed beaches. Surprisingly, we do find that shop (and along the way Columbia's worst cup of coffee), only to find he's disposed of the cardboard and the café has dispensed the impossible.

In truth I'm not surprised. Most shops have little spare space, that, and there's the recyclers with their trundle carts who, each evening, sweep up any usable card. That's our problem - we are competing against the professional skip rakers. Then wandering anonymously, we spot the hit, there, propped outside a white goods shop are two overlarge empty cartons. Perfect. All that's required is to manhandle them back through the heaving masses in a humidity made for papier-mâché creations. Two sweaty gringos: one awkward load; it's a magnet for every taxi in town.

New day: new ploy. Find a tape measure and a roll of sticky tape. Two days of exploration behind us, we know the general direction to head in. All we need is the street containing the local variant of the PoundStore. This is Colombia so we want a 'Tienda 5 mil pesos', of which there will be at least six, all in a row, from which to choose. Which is how we found the street-art school and a street-cat feeder. The ploy's reason: a dollar gets us the means to seal the boxes and a method to prove that we've complied with the airline's size requirements.

Next day: last ploy. Find rags, gloves and degreasers. The bikes will need to be broken down to fit in a box. So this one's simple: head straight for the supermarket, a quick run around its shelves and an interminable wait at its checkout. In doing so, we find swamp mangrove topiary, and discover, as if we need to be reminded, that check-out efficiency is so unColombian. We've already stood in line at the cash dispenser whilst the preceding customer appeared to be completing her tax return, then started on her year-end accounts. The ploy's reason: our bikes so deserve a clean, that, and we will have to face 'that' enquiry. Similar to the question: "Have you ever been a member of the Nazi party of Germany", the US customs will ask: "Do you have dirty wheels? No jokes, no sir.

Penultimate day: no ploy. Nothing needs doing. Which is how we found the tin-men and the weld-women and in doing so, collected the documented evidence.

It could of course be that ancient smell of history. That's what I explain to the commenting visitor who complains that little boys have been re-enacting history by using the castle's long-drop latrines. Only here, step into one of the rampart's iconic guard towers, a tight columnar space fit only for one conquistadorian squaddie who's watching for a 'Golden Hind' sailing over the horizon, and the smell hits you. The same is true of just about any convenient corner, door recess or lamp post. Today, Cartagena has no public conveniences, it doesn't feel it requires them, it's already one giant gent's urinal.

Ultimate day: forgotten ploy. Find replacement for unsticky, sticky tape The packages have to survive, not airline, but the short distance to the airport, balanced on a taxi roof. I've watched the antics of these swarming hornets, how they corner, attack junctions, buzz walkers. It's the source of that affliction all visitors contract: 'auto jitters' So we'll have to resort to bowlines and reef knots, parcel string and wrapping skills. First find a ball of string, which is how we discovered that all the cannons on the ramparts are made from fibreglass and ended up in that frozen yogurt place for the third time.

Flight day: final ploy. To check-in our encumbrances of luggage. Now take the world's most efficient transport, remove their wheels and they simply become rudderless lumps of unco-operative metal. It's six in the morning, the streets are empty, we've flagged a taxi, cruised the silent streets and what seems like moments later, there's a heap of baggage at the arrivals hall door. Which is how we found an airport with liveried shoeshines but without cargo trolleys. Two porters are, for a fee, prepared to transport that heap, the few paces from kerb to trolleyless abandonment at the entrance to a labyrinthine maze called queueing management. A potential problem if it wasn't for the fact that Cartagena International is small, regional and empty.

All those hours of preparation have come to fruition. The cartons of dismembered bicycles don't cause the suck of a tooth nor the raise of an eyebrow. They're removed from our care with a smile, leaving us free to calculate the best deal on losing our few remaining pesos. Four coffees and one cheesecake. Emblematic, as we leave Colombia for USA.