Cartagena

Babak Movahed

Driving up to the Airbnb, I was mesmerized by the colors, an endless strip of pastel Spanish homes with white shutters and overflowing bougainvilleas. I had seen pictures of Cartagena to expect that beauty, but I couldn’t feel what I felt then through pictures, elation. I turned to my wife and friends. We’d already spent twelve days in Colombia, trekked through jungles, sprawling cities, and offbeat towns. Despite our fatigue, we were smiling. 

Throughout the planning, there was a consensus around being lavish for a portion of our vacation. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, so spending more seemed an appropriate reprieve from the drudgery of work weeks blending on and on. Cartagena was the final city before flying home, so money was of no concern to the pressing matters of total bedrooms, the size of the pool, any housekeeping services, and location. Ultimately, we settled on a seven-bedroom manor with a rooftop jacuzzi overlooking the Plaza de la Trinidad. 

Our taxi stopped in front of the manor, a yellow two-story building with a large door just a few steps from the sidewalk. We piled out of the car and took a moment to take in the vibrancy of the home and surrounding plaza. Although it was only noon, the cobblestone streets stirred with the movement of people and performers, and the air, dense with humidity and the aroma of grilled meat, hummed with a symphony of voices and music. Every sense was given a warm welcome. 

“Hello!” A woman announced from the doorway to our rental. 

As my wife and friends walked in, I stopped at the threshold. A pair of eyes were boring into me. I turned around to an old man sitting on the elevated ledge that framed the church. He was leaning back staring at me with sunken eyes set by wrinkles and dark skin weathered from years beneath a South American sun. His clothes weren’t tattered, but ill-fitting and speckled with dirt. I waved, and although he saw this gesture, the old man didn’t move. 

“Babe! Come check this place out! It’s incredible!” my wife called. 

The hallway was wide and long before it let out into a massive, open-ceiling foyer. The host gave us a tour through each of the bedrooms, pointed out the bathrooms, and guided us up the spiral staircase that led to the rooftop jacuzzi. I was too excited to listen to him. The patterned mosaics tiles, the mahogany banisters, and textured walls made the home unlike any I’d seen before. Our money was well spent. 

After the host left, we changed and rushed with a bottle of rum to the jacuzzi, and a perfect view of the plaza below. But we were too preoccupied with drinking to care for the view. The liquor flowed until we were giggly and drowsy, feeling our worries melt away. 

My wife and friends headed down to get ready for dinner. I stayed back, partly out of laziness, partly because I wanted to watch the people below. The mixture of voices, music, and cars was louder. There were more individuals scurrying around than before, their faces blending together within my distorted vision. The crowd seemed cheerful, or at least I was, so it was easy to presume that sentiment in everyone experiencing the charm of the city. Only one stood out, both in his features and the appearance of discontent, or perhaps anger or dismay. Regardless, the old man didn’t look happy. 

Perched at his previous post, his back was curved like a crescent moon with arms resting at his sides and palms facing the sky. He wasn’t panhandling or waiting for anyone. No, like me, he was watching others pass by. Droves of Colombians and tourists alike walked from food stand to peddler without consideration for the old man. One person stumbled against his out-stretched foot. The passerby didn’t bother looking down at what he tripped over. He just moved on. The old man fixated on that man, watched him order an arepa from one vendor and a blended juice at another. The old man must’ve been hungry. His stare settled on the flat top. I wasn’t sure if he was asking for food. His mouth moved, but he wasn’t directing his speech at anyone in particular, maybe anyone that cared to listen. Before I could tell if he’d ask again, my wife shouted from the bottom of the spiral staircase, 

“Hey! Start getting ready. We’re going to this restaurant that overlooks the ocean and we’ve got to catch the sunset.”

By the time we were ready to leave, I was very inebriated and didn’t have a care in the world. The alcohol had satiated any hunger and dulled my awareness. My memory pieced together a series of images we must’ve seen as we walked to the restaurant: a group of dancers, a park with worn arches, the aged brick walls that gave Cartagena the moniker “The Walled City.”  

We reached our destination right as the hostess called for our reservation. She seemed bothered that we hadn’t arrived earlier, but it didn’t matter. Our table was situated near a relic cannon overlooking the ocean. The sun was beginning its casual descent into the horizon, drenching the sky in a gradience of burnt orange. We talked about nothing and everything between sips of round after round, until the sun was tucked away into a hazy evening. 

The narrow roads were teeming with life. Crowds drifting from place-to-place going somewhere and nowhere in particular. We slipped into the general merriment as we leisurely paced our way back home, stopping when something caught our attention: a store selling cheap shoes, an ice cream shop, a man with a bar cart. We were out for hours. The longer we wandered, the more the night wrapped its cool air around us.  

It was very late when we reached home. My friend purchased another bottle and skewers of meat, suggesting we enjoy both from the comfort of our hot tub. Before we could cap off our adventure, I noticed the old man from earlier was still out. He had moved to the steps between our door and the sidewalk. We excused ourselves as we walked by, but the old man didn’t react. As my wife struggled turning the key in the lock, and as we teased her for it, the old man remained still, gazing out toward the plaza. I thought we should’ve offered him a skewer or two, maybe he had eaten, it didn’t look like it, but an offer couldn’t hurt. Would he have accepted? Sitting out there could’ve been his strategy for feeding himself. A stoic pride kept him from asking, I imagine, but a being a believer in the charity of others kept him from starving. The slouch in his posture and his dull expression implied he’d done this before, hour upon day, surveying the locals and foreigners until one leaned over and asked if he needed anything. Before I could think of what to say, the lock gave, and we went inside. 

We woke up late the next morning nauseated, with throbbing headaches. Luckily, our rental was equipped with daily visits from a housekeeper that cooked breakfast prior to her cleaning service. She must’ve guessed we’d wake up hungover since she didn’t start cooking until I walked down. No one else was up, and I didn’t have the energy for small talk, so I grabbed a coffee and sauntered my way to the roof. The heat was already radiating and nestling itself between the buildings and roads. The few individuals below took their time crossing the plaza or half-heartedly dealing their wares. Through blurry vision, I still couldn’t miss the old man. What time did he arrive? Did he sleep out there? He was seated on the step closest to the church door. Two policemen were talking to him. The exchange didn’t seem hostile. The officers were casually gesturing in a direction, for what I purpose, I wasn’t sure, and from what I could conclude, nor was the old man. His head hung low, nearly tucked between his bent knees, with his eyes fixed to the ground. There was a chance he was deaf, but I didn’t get that impression. No. He didn’t care to listen to what the police said, or was embarrassed, or deeply troubled by it. They noticed, as plainly as I did, that the old man wanted to be left alone. Eventually, the policemen shrugged and walked away. The old man stayed the same for however many minutes I watched him. The only discernable movement was a slight rise and fall of his stooped shoulders. He was snoring, struggling to breathe, or crying. I couldn’t tell.

Downstairs in the dining room, a feast awaited me. My wife and friends must’ve made their way to the table while I was on the roof. We sat around filling our plates with the assortment of breakfast foods and fruits the housekeeper prepared for us. The ease and taste of the meal was the perfect salve to our queasy stomachs. Once we tossed back more coffee and some Advil, we were ready to explore. I looked around for paper plates and disposable utensils. We had leftovers and figured the old man would appreciate something to eat. There wasn’t any way to pack him some food, but I was determined to at least buy him something once outside.

Unfortunately, the old man was nowhere to be found. I had forgotten that there was a possibility of him leaving. He’d become a fixture of the plaza in my mind, a roving statue set amongst the crowd of living people moving along while he stayed inert. And as the people drifted by with barely a passing glance, the old man remained, stuck between a time passed and an end waiting to be reached. 

We spent most of the day in a park by the harbor. With freshly purchased blankets to sit on and wine to sip, the park was a relaxing respite to the consecutive days of trekking and partying. A casual breeze slipped along the banks of the wall and through the trees. Clouds hung around just enough to cool the dank Colombian air. In between our exchanges, we felt the calm of that afternoon. 

My wife recommended we head back and rest before going out for the night. As we approached our home, I checked for the old man. He was still gone. I hoped he had a home nearby. I hoped there was a loving family in that home. I hoped that family had a warm lunch waiting for him. Unlikely, since the old man dressed the same and wore the same languid look. 

Everyone went to bed except for me. I couldn’t sleep and went to the balcony with a book in hand, but it was difficult to read; there was too much commotion. A tour bus had dropped off a group of European tourists. They spilled out of the bus doors like products being sent down an assembly line, each minimally distinct because of the different hat or backpack they had on. They spread throughout the plaza. A group of three middle-aged women became enamored by a stray dog lying on the ledge before the church. The dog was adorable and quite the ham, rolling on its back as the women squealed with delight. They rubbed its belly and talked to one another before springing up. It was clear that the women were going to bring back a treat. The dog shifted around licking its lips in anticipation. Suddenly, I felt the same anticipation as the dog, not because I cared to watch him eat, but because I spotted the old man, leaning against the church watching the European women. 

The women rushed to the dog, pulled a piece of steak from a skewer and held it above the dog’s face, cooing some command. The dog sat down, raised its paw, lied on its back, and with each trick, the women rewarded him with a piece of steak, taking pictures all the while. They laughed and the dog received a snack, everyone benefitted, everyone except the old man. 

He was motionless, still watching. His eyes watered following each juicy morsel being feed to the dog. What tricks could he offer? What service? He could only watch as these women, like he watched the hordes of people just like them, refusing or denying his existence. The old man was no cute dog, but he was hungry too. That city, that plaza, that wall, he was a part of them all, yet so many glanced by and around him to see only what they wanted. For those women, they wanted to see a cute dog, not an old man abandoned by world pushing forward without him. 

I had seen enough. He was once my age. The details of that life, where he’d been, what he’d seen, were gone. He wasn’t. No. Before, during, and after our stay, the old man would last.

It was quiet; everyone in the home was still sleeping. I grabbed some cash and walked outside. The European tourists had flooded the plaza and were joined by various bands of street performers. The performers must’ve known the tour schedule because they seemingly sprang from nowhere. With the crowds of meandering bodies, the old man disappeared into the mass. Had I not already known his perch, I wouldn’t have found him. As I started to sift through the people, I stopped. Would it make more sense to buy him food or give him cash? Both couldn’t hurt, so I purchased an arepa and had some change leftover. 

The old man had his eyes closed and his head resting against the wall. I was worried he was asleep, but to my surprise, his hearing was better than I expected. As I approached him, the old man gradually lifted his head and opened his eyes. He looked at me with the familiarity of an old and distant classmate, a vague recognition of facial features without being able to identify where you’d seen them. I too surveyed the old man a little perplexed. The face I’d become accustomed to from the roof or balcony was different. He was the same old man, but the melancholy I assumed could’ve been taken for apathy, or exhaustion, or relief. The old man I regarded as a statue was a painting, shades and features etched into a tableau face hiding opinions and emotions from onlookers. And through his lens, who was I but a stranger, another joyful person visiting a foreign land he called home. 

We stood there for a minute or two. No words were exchanged. Even without a language barrier, I don’t think either of us would’ve said anything. I leaned closer and extended out the arepa. The old man peered at it, assessing it before he briskly raised his hand and waved in the gesture of no. I wasn’t going to press the issue. The old man still could’ve used the money. I dug into my pocket, took out a bill, and held it out. He didn’t move. I stepped closer, within arms-reach of him. Slowly, he lifted his arm and took the bill. I don’t know what I expected to happen. There wasn’t a need for thanks or a brief conversation. It might’ve been nothing that happened, but old man made me feel otherwise. Plastered on his face was an expression somewhere between confusion, gratitude, or shame. He didn’t know me, yet I was giving him money, an act that the old man certainly was rationalizing in his mind. Whatever conclusion he came to, I’d never know. Our moment ended unceremoniously. We nodded to one another, and I walked away, leaving for a night with my companions, leaving his city, leaving his world.

Babak Movahed

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

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