Cartagena in Colombia is a sweltering hot place.
The moment you step out onto the street, the sun welcomes you with a bright glare in your eyes and heats you from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. I volunteer at the hostel we’re staying at. This means that I need to buy bread, eggs and bananas for breakfast in the mornings at around 7:30am. The sun is already hot at that hour. I only need to walk two blocks to the fruit and vegetable shop, but the heat of the sun makes the distance seem longer. Dirk and I sleep in an airconditioned dorm room with two other volunteers. On Saturday evening, the power went out. I woke up in the stifling heat, not being able to breathe. Our room felt like a sauna. To our dismay, we realised that the whole block’s power was out. So began a very hot 20 hours in Cartagena. I had to go back to sleep in the heat. The next morning the situation was unchanged and the whole of Sunday the time spent inside the hostel felt like being slowly tortured in a chamber of hell. Luckily, Dirk and I were able to escape to the beach on Sunday morning.
The beach is cooler than the rest of the city, because of the breeze that takes the sting from the sun. We had also spent Saturday afternoon on the beach in Bocagrande (the beach area in Cartagena) and it was so much fun!
Going to the beach in Cartagena is no ordinary outing. You can walk through various bays and decide where you want to spend your day. The strange thing is that nobody takes their own umbrella to the beach – there are umbrellas and cabanas with chairs ready on the beach and you have to rent it. We managed to rent and umbrella and chairs for 10.000COP for the day -about 60 South African Rand- so we were happy.
Then you have the pleasure (and pain) of dealing with the vendors.
Dirk had set up his camera on the table between us, to take pictures one after the other; that is why our legs are in some of the pics. It was a good idea – though not the best quality, we managed to capture many of the vendors unwittingly on camera!
From the moment we have stepped onto Colombian soil, we had been warned about the people who sell things on the beaches of Cartagena. We were told that they try to sell you items at high prices, that the vendors try to trick you into tasting food and then force you to pay; that there are black women on the beaches who will give you massages and touch you without permission…
Needless to say, we were a bit weary about what to expect. After walking past many umbrellas (at prices as high as 45.000COP), a guy escorted us to a cabana in a suitable spot for the right price.
Then the haggling began. There was one guy, Quadra, who was in charge of getting the people under the cabanas drinks.
At first we said thank you, we don’t want anything right away. We said no to sunglasses, hats, jewelry, sculptures, snacks… the vendors persisted, but we stood our ground.
Yes, we were offered massages…by dark skinned women with buckets of water. If you say no without looking too strict, they come closer and stroke your leg with a wet hand. They approach you from behind and start massaging your shoulders when you least expect it.
After a few hours, we were very impressed that we were having a day on the beach without spending too much money. We were going to succeed in not having a costly beach day! We had only bought ice creams and hadn’t given in to any other vendor.
…And then we encountered Gloria. Holding a knife and a pineapple in her hands.
Maybe the other vendors had sent her to deal with us,or maybe she has a sixth sense to sniff out people who were not spending enough on the beach. Unlike the other vendors who tried to market their products by smiling and saying it’s the best and very cheap, or by guilting you into buying something, Gloria had a different approach. She was mean. Because we were under a cabana, we didn’t see people who approached us. They would suddenly appear in front of you. Out of nowhere, Gloria was there, in her colourful apron and a look of death on her face, talking to us. We didn’t understand everything she said in Spanish, but her message was clear. How dare we sit on the beach where she sells fruitsalad without buying anything from her. It was clear that she disapproved of this. After a few more glares and insults, she told us that when we were ready for our fruitsalad (and we’d damn better be ready soon), her name is Gloria, and she showed us where her stand was.
She was terrifying, but not in an aggressive way, rather in a grandmotherly way; it was almost as if she was saying that we’re too skinny and we needed to eat more and she needed to feed us. Later during the day she returned to glare at us some more. This time without the threatening knife and pineapple. Later she brought her friend along so that they could both badmouth us to our faces. It was scary and entertaining and delightful. It became clear that our cabana was marked. I stepped out from under the cabana to find someone who sold ‘loco cocos’ (crazy coconuts – it had rum in) and first the one lady yelled at me ‘Hey, where are you going? Come buy fruit salad here!” then Gloria called me over to her stand to buy fruit salad and then Quadra pounced on me because we haven’t bought any drinks yet. We were being bad foreigners on this Caribbean beach by trying to be moneywise. Eventually we had to give in. Gloria came over to negotiate her best deal: 8.000 COP (48 ZAR) for a fruitsalad for two people and we said ‘si’.