The massive wall of stone, brick and coral around Cartagena de Indias, built to keep English pirate Francis Drake out, now keeps tourists in, creating a world apart from the modern life of gleaming glass and steel outside.
Horse-drawn carriages clop by, trailing the whiff of the stable that brings locals to call them huele pedos, or “fart smellers”. Here, crawling plants and oilcloth flowers punctuate bright buildings painted yellow, orange and pink. Laundry hangs from verandahs that lean out over narrow streets and sun-faded shutters hide the darkness inside thick-walled colonial buildings. During the day, the heat thickens the blood, slowing the brain.
I lie in my hotel bed for a siesta and see a beam of bright light walk across the floor and spotlight an orange on my bedside table, its color made more vivid than life. A flies settles, pauses, then flaps its wings, seeming to be trying to carry the fruit away. It fails, and buzzes off to look for smaller prey. I venture out to find street vendors have turned the plazas into open-air restaurants.
I sample arepas, fried balls of cornmeal filled with cheese or egg, chuzos of grilled meat and potato, and ceviche. Big laughing black women in bright, multi-layered dresses the colors of the Colombian flag shout the praises of the bowls of juicy mangoes, blood-red papayas and ripe watermelons they carry on their heads. Lines form to buy sticks of bright green mango, sprinkled with salt and red chilli, or limonada de coco, while carts go by bearing fish tanks full of brightly colored tamarind or lime juice.
Pointing at unknown dishes to try them, licking greasy food from my fingers, feeling the joy of fresh fruit juices on my tongue, my senses come alive. One side of the street is in dark shade, the other is an intense blaze of light that hurts the eyes.
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