The Log of Moira

Cartagena, Colombia (May-July 2007)


These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


Club de Pesca


The Club de Pesca Marina was recommended to us, and we to the Club <Larry: entry requires an introduction from a member>, by the crew of Contigo, whom we had met in Panama on their way to the South Pacific. The marina was everything Contigo said about it. The marina is built into a Spanish fortresses left from the early history of Cartagena. An excellent restaurant on-site is sponsored by the Club; it is particularly lovely to sit in the restaurant on the old battlements, which are pierced by embrasures for cannon (no longer present), and take in the glorious views of the upper harbor, the old town, and the Boca Grande area of Cartagena with its flourishing high-rise residential life style. The marina is secure and gated, with armed guards all over.


The cruiser population in the marina was a heterogeneous mix of Americans, English, Canadians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Germans and French. As the name implies, the Club de Pesca is a sport fishing club, and we found few Colombians actually cruising. The marina had nice amenities including showers, laundry, WiFi, and an on-site haulout facility for quick jobs.


Another amenity of the Club was the Friday night “happy hour.” The cruisers all came to the “happy hour” because there were free appetizers. The Colombian members of the Club came to the “happy hour” as well—but only the men. The wives of the Club members almost never appeared. The men were friendly and chatted with the cruisers, though it seemed that they generally preferred to be with each other, sipping Scotch or tequila. The Friday evening scene reminded me of stories I have read of the 1820’s in London, featuring marvelous dinners available to the upper crust in London’s restaurants, but only for men. Women ate at home, and no proper woman (“lady”) would think of venturing out for a restaurant dinner. We’ve been told that ladies began to appear in European restaurants when Auguste Escoffier, the famous French chef, introduced more feminine dining rooms for his restaurant instead of the mannish bar style of dining rooms seen before, but the tendency for women to be excluded still survives in many areas of Central and South America. <Larry: If all it took was a change of décor, perhaps it was “to exclude themselves”?>. We have seen very few women dining in public in Colombia, and never without a male escort.


Wet or Dry?


One can anchor safely in the harbor of Cartagena <Larry: being mindful of the soupy mud bottom>, but our insurance is effective against theft in Cartagena only if we are in a marina which has 24x7 security. Besides, after several months at anchor, I was more than ready for the amenities of a good marina. <Larry: The anchoring antics of the folks in the low-rent district become especially entertaining when the wind comes up. Gives the term “drag racing” a whole new meaning.>


Once we were settled into the marina the overwhelming heat of Cartagena quickly began to take its toll. Forever, when I think of Cartagena, I will associate that city with the word “Hot!” The city is classy and beautiful because of the fine restoration of the old city and the beauty of the architecture and color of the new city, but the whole place is hotter than I have experienced in any other place we have been. Cartagena is located a bit north of the equator and is on the Caribbean Sea, but because of the geography and position of the city, the trade winds don’t seem to cool the city at this time of year. The temperature and humidity are both above 90 (degrees F and percent) at all times of day in this season (May-July) except for the early morning (before about 6:30am) and the evening after sunset (after 7pm or so). Friends had told us that this city required one to bring water, two bottles or more, on any walk outside of the marina. It’s hard to drink enough water to maintain hydration. We would be up about 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning and, without any exertion, sit in our boat sweating. We were not doing anything other than reading but we could feel the sweat dripping from us. This place is HOT and HUMID in May-July. Living here would only work with some air conditioning, so we started looking at apartments.


We had thought that we would pull Moira out of the water and keep her in dry storage during the summer. We wanted to travel in South America and go back to the States, coming back to Cartagena in October, when we had heard the city starts to receive trade winds which cool things off somewhat. If we stored Moira, we needed a place to stay. After looking at apartments we realized our plan did not make financial sense, particularly since we would be away most of the time, because nice apartments were very expensive. Spending $1,500 US (per month, for seven months, for a small place) for storage of gear and an occasional visit did not make sense <Larry: plus the cost of dry storage for Moira>. So why not leave Moira in the water, her natural element, and use her for a base of operations whenever we were there?


Back to the marina! The marina was very helpful. We were introduced to a Colombian laborer who came highly recommended. In exchange for appropriate remuneration, he would look after the boat, run the engine regularly, polish the stainless, check for mildew, check mooring lines, and such. We solved our heat problem by buying a small, standard, window air conditioner. With the AC unit in place, the boat was very comfortable, and our CD player and discs started to work again. Living began to feel cave-like, reminding me of a troglodyte existence. We came out of our burrow to visit with friends or to see the sites of the city. <Larry: Hey, lady, what have you suddenly got against troglodytes? Some of my ancestors were knuckle-draggers!>


The City of Cartagena


Skyline of Boca Grande, Cartagena Colombia, including lighthouse and city wallThe experience of visiting this lovely city was worth the heat and the need constantly to drink water. Restoration has been going on for the last thirty years. The revival started with wealthy Colombians buying properties in the “old city” <Larry: the area still surrounded by the Spanish fortifications, visible in the photo> as vacation homes and then the word started to spread. Someone in the city had the smarts to add good public improvements and assure that buildings were not demolished, and that the old wall which surrounds the old part of the city was left intact and protected.


<Larry: It was a near thing, though. Demolition of the old walls had begun, but labor in Cartagena was so expensive that the city gave up on the project. The walls, made of quarried coral and brick, are dramatically floodlit at night and show up rather well on the photos in Google Earth. During the great Spanish plundering era, a galleon in transit “empty” from Spain to Cartagena had its hold filled with bricks to give it stability. Once the galleon arrived in Cartagena, the brick was taken away for fortress-building, making space in the hold for the gold being shipped back to Spain.>


There is much attention to detail in the restorations, from using the old colors of the original Spanish town, to beautiful doors, to gardens and plazas, to retaining the two- to three-story building heights in the old city. Beautiful churches abound alongside many of the public buildings left by the Spanish. Outside dining flourishes, and there are colorful signs, narrow cobbled streets, street vendors, very fashionable retailers, and excellent restaurants. It works beautifully, and the city is now a vacation destination for Colombians and tourists from all over the world. This is a warm seaport, with every possible amenity we wanted in a vacation. The popularity of Cartagena as a vacation destination also makes the city expensive, especially to a cruiser used to the prices of Ecuador and Panama.


The city is clean, very sophisticated, and very safe. Many have asked us how we dared to sail to Colombia. Well, Cartagena is an “open city” here: we were told that the drug lords and the rebels bring their families here for vacations, and that there is an unwritten agreement among them that no major violence will occur within its borders. Keep in mind that Colombia is a very different country from what it was ten years ago. The new President, Uribe, has pushed the terrorists far south to the jungle areas, and has used the military to secure the main cities, cut the drug trade, and keep order for the majority of the Colombians. He is very popular, and many Colombians expressed their support for him and hopes for a more stable country. We did not plan to travel by bus around the country, as that mode of travel is still risky. (We did fly to Bogotá: it is lovely, up in the mountains, cool…and full of armed guards. We stayed in Bogotá overnight during an extended airline layover and saw three armed guards in full fatigues with automatic weapons outside of the very nice hotel.) <Larry: The US State Department continues to recommend against travel to Colombia, but you have to look at their cost/benefit tradeoff: what benefit is it to the State Department ever to say that it’s “safe” to travel anywhere? Let one US tourist get his wallet picked, and the sky will fall, right? So they tell us never to travel. There’s a new commercial by American Distress: “Don’t leave home. Period.”>


This is not to say that Cartagena is perfect… far from it. Outside of the tourist areas of the old town and the glamour of the new city of Boca Grande, there are the usual South American slums, which are distressing to see and hard to accept. How this segment of the population is ultimately integrated into the economy of Colombia will most likely determine how successful President Uribe is at stabilizing this lovely, friendly country.


We toured Cartagena by foot, cab, and tour bus. During this time we were delighted to have our son, John, visit us. We saw gorgeous views of the city from the top of El Convento de la Popa. We enjoyed many of the well done museums, particularly the Naval museum, and the giant fortress Castillo San Felipe.


The most astonishing museum was the restored Palacio de la Inquisicion. This was the home of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World, to defend the Catholic faith in Colombia for 300 years. The Inquisition was not disbanded in Cartagena until the early 1800’s. In fact, the Inquisition still exists as an institution in the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, see especially the heading “Disciplinary Documents.” For another description, see Wikipedia. Watch what you say in Rome, I guess. The museum was amazing for the detail of the lovingly reconstructed tools of torture from all over the reach of the Inquisition. <Larry: Thumbscrews, rack, skull-crusher, iron maiden, funnel (you had to be there), tongs, the usual stuff. The auto da fé (trial of faith) was the original Catch-22. In one variation, the “trial by water,” you were chained up and tossed into a pool. If you floated, you were guilty. If you sank, they waited a reasonable length of time, just to make sure, then they called your relatives to come get your body. Fun bunch of folks. Our guide’s refrain was, “This implement was never used in Cartagena.” It became amusing after a while.> It is curious and distressing to imagine the cruelty used in the name of the Church for so many years. It made me wonder “Why do religion and the faith of its users survive?” There were no answers here. <Larry: Religion survives because some people need certainty. It is important to remember that there were multiple Inquisitions (Spain, Portugal, France, and Rome). The Spanish Inquisition took on a number of unique characteristics because it was, effectively, the Spanish Secret Police, and an arm of the State.>


I discovered that some Cartagenans look for opportunities to seek out members of the international community who speak English. One afternoon, a fellow cruiser stopped by the boat to invite me to join her in attending a meeting of the English-Speaking Women’s Club in downtown Cartagena. After admitting I did not have any white gloves, I agreed to accompany her. Off we went in skirts <Larry: Susan owned exactly one> and nice sandals to the top floor condominium of a new residential building overlooking the harbor. Our husbands were on their own for the night for dinner, because the meeting attendees planned to fill up on the elaborate appetizers usually served at these gatherings. We discovered that that night would be somewhat different. The poor hostess had been told to expect four guests (the previous meeting was not well attended), but about 18 women attended, the majority of whom were cruisers. No white gloves here! The remaining women were Colombian, plus one US Navy wife who was fluent in Spanish. The Colombians were dressed to the nines, but we international cruisers held our own. I commiserated with our hostess the entire time about her inability to provide a  sufficient “tea” for the group, given the unexpected attendance. She had just moved into her condo and was not well-enough supplied with food to be flexible on quantity. The condo was lovely and she had a maid who served what she had been able to pull together. Interestingly enough, in this new condo there was no central AC or heating. These apartments use individual AC units and space heaters <Larry: a characteristic we saw again in Buenos Aires>. The English-Speaking Women’s Club was formed to give its members a chance to practice the English language, which we all did with gusto, but while talking they also raised funds for needy schools in the city. There were elaborate discussions about which type of school to assist, or which program to enhance or introduce. But funds were raised and projects accomplished. The meeting lasted about two hours. The friendships formed from the group led to something very good. I became friendly with one of the Colombian women who assisted me that very afternoon to find a doctor’s office in a complicated area of the city. It’s a small world actually, as she and her husband were both medical doctors, having practiced for forty years in Chicago (Highland Park) and had come back to Cartagena to help Colombia grow and prosper.


One of the tourist “rags” we read early on to acquaint ourselves with the life of Cartagena was DestinationCartagena.  It had many articles on places to see, places to eat and stay, and a good map of the city. It was edited by an American expat named Lee Miles. Lee’s name was immediately familiar to us because Lee owned a boat in the marina and had been our local sponsor to get us into the marina. You need a recommendation to get in, and the good folks on Contigo (who had previously met Lee) asked him to recommend us as “good people” to the marina. At our first Friday evening happy-hour at the marina we finally met Lee and thanked him for his assistance.


With his newsletter in hand we discovered that Lee styles himself “Mister Emerald,” and is an expert in Colombia's emerald trade, a very big business here. Colombia is one of the few areas in the world that has emeralds. Lee buys these gems direct from the mine owners, a rugged, difficult business: one does not go near the mines without the consent of the mine owners and their armed guards. He has the gems cut, polished, and set, and sells the resulting jewelry. While our son John was visiting us, John and I went shopping in the area where Lee has his store. We stopped in “for a moment” and left an hour later, having enjoyed many stories of Lee’s experience, and with a much better understanding of the trade. We did not but any emeralds as I do not know what I would do with jewelry in this life I lead. Jewelry does not go well with sailing, but if I ever find an emerald for sale I will be able to tell whether I should buy it. If I have questions I know I can always call on Lee for an expert opinion.


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.







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