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Cartagena de las Indias
Friday, June 11th

Dear Bunny,

And so much for Cartagena, which ought to be a wonder­ful place. . . We arrived in sweltering heat — hey, that's what's what here (izzat a modern equivalent of ða ða?) — in the late morning of Wednesday and took a cab to our hotel. I was slightly prepared; the name of it is 'Decameron' — still, it's one of those vertical cruise ships on dry land where you must wear plastic bracelets [. . .], they cut 'em off you as you leave, and where masses of people are being encouraged to participate in silly contests in the swimming pool or in the talent show; loud music and lonesters in their late twenties milling around until all hours of night, fortunately on the 19th floor the surf filtered out things and one can sleep, although you couldn't! The hotel itself is actually rather good, the food is more than adequate, lots of fruit and fruit juice (I'm going to use our juicer much more when I come back), the views from the rooms magnificent, especially ours, and the rooms clean and very comfortably airconditioned; but the planeloads of Argentines and Canadians are really a bit much.

And ye gods! do they — the entire city of Cartagena — try to sell you things! nothing of interest, to boot, but absolutely everywhere, so that in most areas it becomes disagreeable to walk. I was assaulted, I use the word advisedly, inside the cathedral! by two 'guides' in succession who just walk up to you and start a spiel in a loud voice — the second, as I just walked away quietly (there was a mass going on) said something gross about stupid gringos. . .

The fault of all this is of course squarely on whoever realized that Cartagena could be made a port of entry — and domicile — for a good deal of foreign exchange; so that to the old city sitting on its island, and the newer rather nice suburbs on another, was added a strip of hotels, like a poor version of Miami Beach, on a third, basically a sand bar. Fortunately, ours is at the near end of the strip.

[image ALT: Two women, standing, and a man, half-kneeling in front of them, all facing the camera, on a brick terrace in front of a powerful stone turret. It is a tourist photo of me with two friends at the Castillo in Cartagena (Colombia).]

Three insane people squinting into the broiling sun: Lupe, Betty, and me. In the background a tiny fraction of the Castillo of Cartagena.

Anyway, the girls had the loony idea of immediately going to visit the Castillo, a monstrous pile of brick concrete with stone copings and facing, built in three phases (1656, 1715 or so, 1770 or so). Loony, and Betty very soon repented, Lupe apparently is a Bogotana version of Ginger. We had an excellent guide, Don Hugo who announced himself with his badge number 095 — who led us thru a fascinating maze of posterns, tunnels 60 m long, ventilation shafts, an enormous work of engineering.

The rest of the day I basically spent in the pool, returning to the airconditioning of our room and Plutarch when the pool got too noisy with loudspeakered festivizing (reading among other things by the way that the only testimony to the fable and the stork's being Aesop's is Plutarch's casual so mention) — In the evening, we went to the local Hilton, where the food was said to be very good and fairly Colombian; Bubí in his cute little stripèd suit and the girls decked out in long flowing dresses. It is proof that pretty much anywhere one can have perfectly comfortable and civilized facilities like in the U.S., and it wasn't exorbitant either —

Yesterday Thursday we were collectively a bit brighter about the weather, and left fairly early to visit the old city. Early meaning around 9; I'm waking up around 5 usually now, and I went for a dip in the Caribbean then: you mustn't imagine lovely white beaches and crystal-clear waters or blue, although the palms may stay, occasional and scruffy along the boulevard behind the dark grey sands of a long series of artificial inlets about 40 m long terminated by small rocky moles — good surf, pleasant swimming, and the view especially at 0500, wonder­ful with the great dome of St. Peter Claver's, the city walls, and a needlelike clock tower brightly lit thru the night by sodium vapor lights, furnished no doubt by the U.N. since Cartagena has been declared a Treasure of Humanity or whatever the officialese is, and rightly so too.

St. Peter Claver, of course, the Spaniard who ministered to the black slaves here in 1616‑1654, and one of the very great SS. in my book. Cartagena is still largely black, a fairly Caribbean city, where women occasionally carry basins of fruit on their heads, the first time I've seen that on this trip.

The church is of very little interest architecturally, although solid and well-proportioned; but it is embedded, although built well after Claver died, in the old complex of buildings where he had lived, and has some of the same atmosphere as the crypt of S. Eutropius in Saintes (not as that of St. Benignus in Dijon, tho'): and the saint's living quarters, including the adjacent room of the sickbay where he died, are preserved, unfortunately all his furniture and belongings having been destroyed in an anti-Jesuit purge apparently in the 19th c.? Still, very impressive, and the furniture was reconstituted already now many years ago, simple wood blocks and roughly squared logs lashed together with palm cordage or something like that.

This old part of the complex, still home to five priests, forms a two-storey cloister around a lush tropical garden where 4 huge brightly colored parrots are kept, a guardian or parrotkeeper bringing them out to perch on our arms for the obligatory picture. The guided visit again by an extremely well-versed wizened old man, Don Guillermo Pájaro de la Espriella in which Pájaro means 'bird' by the way, animal names being common in Cartagena.

Under the main altar of the church, in a glass coffin, BONES. . . or at least the remains of St. Peter Claver — a skull to the left, I seem to remember it missing the lower mandible, and an 18th‑century embroidered chasuble, small mostly pink flowers on silver altho' not tarnished so maybe something wrong here, covering a pillow-case sized bag placed crosswise where the chest ought to be, containing all the remaining bones (he was buried at least twice before being exposed), trailing off therefore into white froufrous much like christening robes, towards the feet end.

The same guide, by our consent, then took us on a separate tour of a bit of the old City, ending in the house of the Marquess of Valdehoyos, a great grandee. Rather splendiferous house, courtyards, balconies, etc. The most interesting feature to me being a huge bathtub in a courtyard, where supposedly the mistress of the house would go, ringing a bell as she went she was in a shift or nude, and thru the hole in the wall a slave chained on the other side would pour appropriate water. I don't think I believe this, since simple means of providing water of the right temperature more automatically were available, since the chain device (a fastening ring) that was shown us didn't look to me so plausible for retaining a slave, and I'm not too sure that women even in their own houses would walk down a flight of stairs and across a huge courtyard in a state of undress.

[image ALT: A rectangular concrete basin or tub, about 4 meters long, outdoors, with the foliage of a tree hanging low over part of it; it is accessed by two tall steps from a terra-cotta patio. It is a bathing tub in the courtyard of the colonial house of the Marqués de Valdehoyos in Cartagena, Colombia.]
The tub in the courtyard of the house of the Marqués de Valdehoyos

I forgot to mention an extremely interesting museum of religious art in one of the rooms of the great damp white-plastered cloister of St. Peter Claver's — a single 16m‑long room but several good 17th century paintings, colonial religious art (mixed in with a small proportion of 19th cent. reliquaries and ivories and maudlin madonnas rather like the Treasury of Notre Dame in Paris). The most fascinating item was a life-size crucifixion of St. Dismas, correctly identified by our guide or his mentors, but anyway one never sees one of the 'Good Thief' since it looks too much like that of Christ himself: except that there is no lance mark and there are nasty gashes across each tibia. As I mentioned this to B. and L., the guide became interested, and Bubí emerged from the museum as being some kind of expert on crucifixion, having delivered himself of a fairly detailed spitback of everything we read in those shroud books, in my usual flawless Spanish of course. Don Guillermo was clearly taking mental notes — anyway, the St. Dismas must be close to unique.​a

Back to hotel, swim & airconditioning, until late p. m. when we went back to the old city just to wander around: what New Orleans must have been like, except huge; there still exist many hundreds of old wooden- for the most part balconied houses down every street for something like a square mile, all almost completely surrounded by walls. Quite magnificent, and the first place in Colombia where given enough money I might imagine myself having a secondary house. A couple of old squares with stone palaces on one side and enormous trees in the center, deep green against the remaining pastel stucco of the houses, quite lovely. The President of Coca-Cola in fact does, and he comes to town, they block off the street and post guards: almost anywhere/one of any consequence at all has a couple of Vigilancia Privada, thruout the country.

This morning I woke up at 4:45 and went for a walk, which wound up taking me to the old city about 1.5 km away, then a full circuit of the walls, then back. The walls themselves actually of not much interest, long stretches w/o redoubts and curtains and other things of interest to Uncle Toby is it? also not particularly high, say twelve feet, sloping like a well-cut hedge or more so, and of pitted rough rock which must all converge to make for an easy climb. No picturesque quality either until I rounded the end at the shore to turn inland, where promptly the pedestrian is met with lagoons that get increasingly dirty, with brownish black egrets, brownish grey herons, and yukky-looking vultures, until the city dump is reached, vultures picking away at the debris and fruit vendors setting up their stalls at the actual edges 3 feet away, with people eating their breakfasts; this gives way to a wall-less stretch, some idiot mayor pulled it down in the Twenties, but the British consul raised such a stink that only about 2 km. were torn down; the idea was to foster expansion, but where? the city is on an island. Then a large pleasant modern cubist convention center and lots of attractive balconied houses and restaurants, followed finally before the return to the hotel by much nicer fruit stalls set up on stone wharves chock-a‑block docked with fishing vessels in good repair.

Some of this letter was written on the bus to Santa Marta — not much, bumpy — and the rest on arrival there; but about which later lest this be quite unstuffable into a normal envelope.

So greetings — idiotically, since I'm probably home now — from Booby [. . .]


Later Note for the Web:

a So far, I've only seen one other, in the church of S. Maria infra Portas in Foligno, Umbria (photo).

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Page updated: 20 Oct 11