On July 25, 2016, I found myself sitting next to a friend, twiddling my thumbs at LaGuardia waiting for a flight to my segundo hogar (second home), Colombia. The butterflies in my stomach were relentless as my eyes were fixed on the departure screen. My ears were caught in the rapid cadence of Carlos Vives’s ballads about the oft dubbed ‘land of the forgotten,’ providing the melodrama that matched my anticipation of returning after years of being away.
As we approached Cartagena de Indias, I fixed and re-fixed my hair as if to make the best impression possible upon touching down. The humidity that hit us as we exited the airplane might as well have been a cloud of nostalgia, which continued to chase me through the nooks and corners of the city, familiar and new, on the late-night taxi ride from the airport. It took me back to the day in early 2010, when I first arrived in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, a young and green intern at an English language school in the city. After 20-odd flight hours, three layovers, and three immigration counters, I finally stood in front of a sign that said ‘¡Bienvenida a Cartagena!’. The exhaustion from the journey was dwarfed by the excitment of arriving in the city I was to call home for the next six months. As it goes with life, my plans changed and I stayed on for three years. My plans changed because I had fallen in love—with a country.
I spent the majority of my three years in Cartagena. My early days were filled with local exploration that helped fill the void of living away from the la comoda casa mamita (comforts of my mother’s home) for the first time. Cartagena was established as a port town in the 1500s by the Spanish colonists following the conquest of the indigenous village, Calamari. It was a self-contained walled world to protect from pirates and others eyeing this fertile land. While the city has expanded outwards with high rises, el centro (the city centre) of Cartagena retains much of its old-world charm. The entrance through the clock tower leading you into the old city temporarily transports you into a world that once was. Large colonial houses and churches line narrow streets and the balconies adorned with vibrant bougainvillaea. At every other corner lies a cobbled plaza full of Cartageneros taking their afternoon siesta, children running around the statues of Simón Bolívar and Pedro de Heredia, and vendors selling arepa de queso (corn cakes with cheese), buñuelos (fritters) and agua de coco (coconut water).
The Caribe (Caribbean) had so much to offer a young girl just out of her teens, who quickly and unwittingly fell in love. But how could one not fall in love with the land that Márquez so poetically romanced? Romance offered itself up at every corner: the comfortable spots on the murallas (fort walls) to read Márquez and watch the sunset, impromptu Vallenato dancing in the Getsemaní square (thanks to a generous señor’s boom box), live music in little bars that found the best local talent, and the unbelievably beautiful marine and riverine islands only a boat ride away. Through my rose-tinted glasses everything in this budding relationship felt wonderfully perfect.
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