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Pausing for Cartagena


The heat lay in the air; a giant slumbering beast with a wooly coat that refused to wake and rise and free the breeze. I shaded my eyes with my palm and looked around me. The street was long and narrow. The kerb paved with cobble stones. Store fronts had their shutters drawn and doors in the walls stood shut and mute. Spanish siesta when not even a leaf stirred.

The only sound was from my belly which rumbled in protest at not being fed for many many hours…Where was I going to find food in this sleeping city, I wondered? And then, the question that was to be the leitmotif of my period of stay: What am I doing here?

I turn a corner. Beneath a dangling sign are a few chairs. They sit stacked under an open umbrella. Another pile of tables under another umbrella. All testimony to 'we are closed'. Then I see that the door of the tavern is open. I pause and stare. Do I venture into the dark but inviting confines of the Mecon Pacuco? The rumbling again. I see two policemen at a table sipping wine. At the bar are a few people chewing. I see a vacant stool and make up my mind. This would have to be it.

The barman has bleached hair and wears a lab coat. He speaks no English and my Spanish is minimal. Finally I point to the hams dangling from the ceiling and ask for Jamon. He nods and then I point to a bottle of red wine and say vino. A voice whispers in my ear : Parlez vous francés?

I turn around to see the young man on the stool alongside mine practice his 'you may not know this but I could be a very interesting person for you to discover' smile. I am tired and hungry and in no mood for flirting games. I snap: No Frances.

He smiles again and I must admit to myself despite my fatigue that he is rather a fine specimen of manhood. His eyebrows raise in question: Italian?

I mouth 'No".

Then I add: No Espanole, no Frances, No Italian, No German. Only Anglais. And if you want Malayalam, Hindi, or Tamil…..and some Kannada….

He smiles triumphant at having provoked a response. He points to the ceiling at the cured meat and says: Jamon and then kisses the tips of his fingers and lets them flower. I know the gesture. Very good it means….
And then I smile to myself at this surreal situation. What am I doing here?

When my food arrives, I take it to a table. I eat quickly and quietly. When I am done, I raise my eyes and there he's standing patiently for me to finish eating. He gestures to the bench opposite and asks: May I?
He picks his cup of coffee and places it on the table. Then he asks me if I would like one. I give in to his persistence and say: Si. Gracias.

Café Negro? He wants to know. I try café latte wondering if he will understand. He doesn't. So I sketch a cow on a paper napkin and show milk spouting from its udder… He smiles in understanding. We are getting very good at this, I realise as we chat using gestures and hieroglyphics.

Eduardo is a professori of languages and an interpreter. He translates from Italian and French to Spanish but knows no English. He doesn't let me pay for my food and drink. I give up insisting. It seems churlish to ward off such gallantry, I think. He writes his telephone number on a piece of a paper and insists that I call him. We will go walking around, he gestures….I say Si, Si Si vociferously and add a Manana to buy time….

He points to my hair and says: bonito.

I begin to understand where this encounter is going….

This then is my introduction to Cartagena, 37º36' N, 0º59' W, a seaside city in Southern Spain. The first thing you have to learn about Cartagena is to swallow the consonant 'g' and replace it with an 'h'. The second thing is that just about nobody goes to Cartagena on a whim….

Instead northern Europeans prefer to flock to Alicante. An hour's drive away from Cartagena, Alicante connects this part of Spain to the rest of Europe by both air and high speed trains. While I wait for my taxi from Cartagena to arrive, I watch very blonde men and women arrive in tiny beach clothes and surf boards. They have huge bags of sports gear….Alicante's exceptional location between the mountains and the sea provides the city with a special kind of enrapturing beauty that's irresistible to tourists.

In the car to Cartagena, the landscape is unfamiliar. As we head further south, the land gets drier and the terrain emptier. For the first time in many years, I feel as if I have travelled. There are no billboards testifying to why X, Y and Z brands [that are available in my city as well] are so essential to my well being. There are no stores or people…just a car that whizzes past or a truck that looms in the periphery of my vision and then falls back…..

The taxi driver Pablo who speaks some English tells me, "Cartagena is not so good. Alicante is good. Murcia too. You must go to le Manga. Good beach…"

In the week to come, I encounter this apathy to Cartagena again and again….In fact weeks before I boarded the plane to Spain, when I mention my impending visit to Alvaro, a Colombian friend, he gave me a curious look and asked, "But what will you do there for a week? There is nothing there…"

I swallowed and wondered about how I managed to get into such a situation…When the invitation to Cartagena first popped up in my mailbox, I sat up with a start. Cartagena -- the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera" -
But this was Cartagena Spain, the real Mccoy that led Spanish conquistadors to dot Latin America with versions of the original. But even Cartagena Spain is only a version.

In the 3rd cent. B.C., the Carthaginians began to conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearics. Lured by its gold and silver ores, Carthaginian Asdrubal established Cartagena in 223 B.C. as capital and called it Cartago Nova or new Carthage or Punic Cartagena.

Back in my hotel room, I turn the air conditioning to Max and burrow under the bedclothes. I still haven't heard or seen from my hosts for the week. What if they don't turn up? Perhaps I could stay here for a week and emerge only to go to Mecon Pacuco for food and hieroglyphics, I tell myself…. What was it Eduardo saw, I wondered? A woman in free fall? I'd come to Cartagena expecting little more than a week off ; a pause from 'the writer as performing animal' act that is so de rigueur to book tours….it would be nice to be the mysterious stranger with no words in a small town.

Then the phone rings and a voice full of apology and contrition murmurs in my ear. Natalia Carbajosa Palmero my interpreter for the week who is a professor of English and the Director of the Department of English in University of Cartagena promises to be at my side every moment, every day….Goodbye Eduardo, I tell myself….

Natalia when she arrives is a young woman in her early thirties with light hair and very pregnant. She has a lazy smile and an equanimity that is awe inspiring. In the many hours I am to spend with her, I never ever hear her raise her voice even when vexed. Viewed through her eyes, Cartagena acquires a serenity despite its volatile history.

While Cartagena was founded by Carthaginians as alternate city to the real Carthage in northern Africa, the Punic presence was to be brief as the Roman Publio Cornelio Escipion conquered the city in 209 BC. The Roman influence lasted till the beginning of the 2nd century BC. Thereafter began the dark period in Cartagena's history. The city was looted by vandals and finally in the 5th century BC it was conquered by the Byzantine troops of Emperor Justinano. However, in 624 the Visigoths soon regained the city. But Cartagena was not to know peace for long. In 734 the city came under Arab domination until Fernando III the Saint reconquered it and incorporated it into the kingdom of Castile….in more recent times Cartagena was the last city together with Alicante to fall into General Franco's hands. During the civil war of 1936-39, Cartagena was a naval base.

Everywhere is evidence of Cartagena's multi faceted history. From the slight hook in Emilio[ Natalia's husband]'s nose that speaks of an Arab presence to Cartagena's flag: Initially what was used was the 1869 federalist uprising flag: plain red. The story goes that in the city there were no red flags, so a Turkish flag was used, and a soldier covered the crescent and star with his blood. This is why the flag of Cartagena was later dark red (blood red). Currently it is dark red with coat-of-arms in the centre.

In Torres Park is the Castle of la Concepción. Standing on a hill, it has been a fortress of Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Castilians.

We drive along the shores of Cartagena's marina. The Sea Wall, built by Carlos III (18th century), marks the boundaries of its historic quarter. Facing the Mediterranean are two features which are clearly linked to the sea: the prototype submarine designed by the inventor from Cartagena Isaac Peral and the National Museum of Maritime Archaeology. This museum, on the Navidad dyke, also houses the National Centre of Underwater Archaeological Investigation. Through its discoveries, one can chart the course of naval construction, trade and navigation developed in the ancient world.

The entrance to the town centre is dominated by the Palacio Consistorial or City Hall, a gem of modernist architecture from the early 20th century. On the way to the Torres Park (behind the Sea Wall) is the Old Cathedral. It is the oldest church in Cartagena (13th century), whose remains stand on the steps of a Roman Theatre discovered in 1987. This structure dates from the 1st century BC and is one of the most important in Spain along with the theatre in Mérida.

Other fine examples of the city's Roman splendour are the Molinete Archaeological Zone, the Colonnade of the Lower Moorish Quarter and the Byzantine Wall, which, despite its name, is also Roman.

My own favourite piece of history is the remains of the Amphitheatre which is situated beneath the present Bullring erected in 1854. The amphitheatre was built around 70 AD and is estimated to have held about 11000 spectators. The irony of this grabs me. Why did the architects of the bull ring choose this very site? Is the scent of that soil laden with shed blood and the need for man to display his brutal strength?

I prefer to view history from the sidelines and decline to do more. Even this, I tell Natalai and Emilio is only to absolve myself the guilt of being a tourist in a historic city. Now I am free of the tyranny of tourism that demands I spend my time visiting some museum. Or taking a guided tour of architectural marvels. "In the evening when the sun has gone down, let's walk through the streets at random," I tell them.

Cartagena despite being on the seaside the city itself has no beach. Instead it has a pier that you can stroll along and benches where you can sit down to catch your breath and the breeze. Your ears echo with the faint sound waves licking at the pier wall.

Perhaps because there is no beaches, sun worshippers disdain this city I think. Instead the ones who seek it are the ones who travel nautical miles. Vessels of different sizes bob in the water and I stand by the farthest wall and peer at a boat. Its decks are swept and the sails are rolled. A father and two sons come to stand alongside. One of the little boys says something in Spanish. Natalia smiles. "He is asking his father if they can jump onto the deck and set sail." she translates.

Only little boys would want to do that, I think. I would be happy to stay here in this seaside city with no seaside I think. Sipping a Horchata - a digestive summer drink. Content to be where the only thing unfurling is the cry of a seagull….

Then there is the Mediterranean. How could I leave without swimming in its waters? But first on Sunday morning I have breakfast in Natalia's home. Natalia's mother in law Pepita has churros and chocolate ready. I, an avowed chocolatephobe dunk my churros gingerly in the creamy chocolate and taste heaven….

In many ways, I notch my travels in a region with the discovery of a dish that encapsulates my experience there. While I do greatly delight in the Spanish practice of doing a tapas bar crawl and going from tapas restaurant to the other gorging on the simple rounds of bread soaked in olive oil, lightly toasted and sprinkled with crusty sea salt to nibbling on chorizo [ sausages seasoned with red peppers]to savouring the aroma and taste of jamon Iberico [ pigs fed entirely on acorns and then the meat is cured and smoked in special caves, a gourmet assured me], I find Spanish cooking heavy for my tastes. In Cartagena, without a doubt, salted fish, fish, stews and paellas are the order of the day. The plentiful supply of Mediterranean salt is used when it comes to making salted fish (above all tuna, mackerel or melva) and fish with salt, such as sea bream. Stews of grey mullet, monkfish, grouper... are accompanied by rice, which is cooked in the same juice, and is eaten with garlic mayonnaise. Fig bread is a specialty of the region and the "asiático", typical of Cartagena, is a coffee with condensed milk, brandy and cinnamon.

While Pepita's tortillas are light, it is the churros that will represent what Cartagena will be for me. A sense of well being. Perhaps it is only a combination of high cholesterol and heat induced stupour but I have no desire to probe the genesis of this feeling.

We set forth for the beach. Most people prefer the La Manga del mar Menor, a sandy strip that is twenty kilometers long and which creates an albufera or interior sea on one hundred and sixty square kilometers with a surface where the water stays permanently calm. Naturally summer resorts and tourists seek La Manga. We are heading to Cabo de Palos. A protected area of Calblanque where a great habitat diversity co-exist. From brushwood, woods, salt mines and sand, the beach and mountains marry each other quite harmoniously….

We pass many cars. Natalia explains the Rodriguez syndrome. Of husbands who stay back in the city while their families' vacation in the beach houses during summer. The husband usually has a little bit on the side and he for his amorous dalliances always calls himself Senor Rodriguez. A version of the English Smith and perhaps with only as much veracity of a caricature…nevertheless we spend the time in the car counting Rodriguez speeding to wife and beach house.

The beach is unspoilt and sparsely crowded. Natalia anoints herself with sun block. Emilio stands at the water's edge watching the waves make patterns on the shore. I ride the seas on my back.

In the narrow streets of Cartagena I found a pause from myself. When I tread water, my toes wrap around a pebble. I hold it in my palm. A bluish grey pebble with a brown edge. The sea and the shore I think. A memento of a place where swallowing a consonant allows time to stand still and history to be cancelled.

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