Saturday, 28 August 2010

I only went and got here didn't I?

One (very hard fought for) visa, 25 hours, 4 cities, 3 time zones, 2 valiums, and one underrated movie (Free Willy 4: Escape from Pirate’s later and I have arrived at my destination: Cartagena. While I do not wish to dwell on the tedious flight, I would like to make two observations. The first is that on the flight between Bogota and Cartagena, just like in the consulate, everyone greeted each other with kisses and embraces like old friends. I can truthfully say that I have never been inclined to kiss the Geordie to my left on the Ryan Air domestic flight from Bristol to Newcastle. I am clearly missing something. Something big. The second is a realisation that I hate it when people clap at the end of a flight, as everyone did at the end of the transatlantic leg. While congratulating the pilot on achieving a safe landing, it alarmingly implies that landing safely is not a certainty, but an accomplishment. It’s like high fiving your dad every time he drives you home from the station without crashing, as if with every journey there is a nonchalant expectation of death. I don’t like it and it should not be encouraged.

And so to the beginning of my new life. Stepping out of the plane I was hit by a wall of heat, the sort of heat that crawls over your body and makes your temple bead with sweat in seconds. I looked around me. Everyone was wearing jeans and appeared comfortable. If I had been wearing jeans I would have caused a natural disaster similar to the Pakistan floods. It suddenly struck me that I may not blend in very easily. These thoughts were confirmed when yesterday, a pair of men stopped me in the street to have their photo taken with me because of my “blond” hair. I’m definitely not blond, I just walked into the hairdresser and asked them to make me look like Ke$ha.

Cartagena is an unbelievably beautiful city. The houses are brightly coloured, with a smattering of colonial plazas and enclosed with a huge sea wall. Think opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean, and anything you know about Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose house is on the sea front of the old town, I thought he was dead, who knew?).

However, there is a much, much darker side to the city. Because of its geography (look it up), Cartagena is unable to expand, as all cities must with time. Therefore, since the 70s the poorest of the poor have taken to building houses on sticks and rubbish in a swamp. These became more and more numerous and the swamp was gradually filled in. This dwelling is home to some 50 000 people. Houses are made of rubbish, with no bathrooms. Because it is below sea level it often floods and the unpaved streets swirl with dirty water and sewage. The children walk around with bare feet. With each generation there is less and less money and more social problems, like violence, drug addiction and a resentment for their ethnic back ground (it is a predominantly black population). This is the area I shall be working in, teaching basic English alongside the sewing, hospitality and cooking courses the charity provides, to help young people find work in tourism and break out of the cycle of poverty. I fear I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I suppose I had expected to swan in, hug some babies, sing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, get a sun tan and be on my way. Time to toughen up.

Last night I met for the first time my future house mate, Diego. After ascertaining that we share an interest in electronic music and alcohol consumption it became clear that we would get on like a house on fire. During our dinner at Pizza in the Park (you sit on a park bench, people bring you pizza) I was witness to possibly the funniest thing I will ever see: an obese man in red lipstick, a bikini top, a yellow wig and a fake microphone impersonating Shakira. He did the EXACT moves from She Wolf, Waka Waka and Hips Don’t Lie. Astounding.

House hunting this afternoon, must start taking photos.

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