Drawing connections in Cartagena.
“…when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez
There are some places that take time to reveal themselves, and then there are places we fall into as effortlessly as we fall in love. No thinking, or worse yet, over-thinking; just feeling.
From the moment I land in Cartagena, Colombia, on a Friday afternoon in late August, I’m grateful the latter holds true. From the moment I step out of the airport into the blazing, heady heat, pass beneath the branches and vermillion blossoms of two Royal Poinciana (or flamboyant) trees, and catch a collectivo bus into the city center, I am in love.
Once within the walls of the Ciudad Amurallada – the historic heart of Cartagena – I book a room in the neighborhood of Getsamaní and immediately begin to wander. I follow any and every street wanting only to end up at the coast, which I eventually do, kicking off my flip-flops and walking straight into the Caribbean. Five pelicans perch at the end of a promontory; two fishing boats pass by, headed somewhere I don’t know. A festival of kites, cometas, dances in the air.
I settle down to sketch on a plaza, in the shade of a church whose saint – San Pedro Claver – also gives his name to the square. I am drawn there by four female fruit vendors, selling their wares while in vivid outfits. I’ll later learn they’re from Palenque de San Basilio – a village about two hours southeast of Cartagena, known for its distinct Afro-Colombian culture – and throughout the rest of the week, whenever I show someone my sketch of the women, they’ll always respond, “Ah, sí, la palenquera.”
But I know none of this in that initial moment – only that I haven’t seen so much color in one place since India, and that their tables alone hold a spectrum worth celebrating: ruby-colored watermelon and green mangoes, bright golden pineapple and orange-hued papaya.
Standing beside the women is their friend Adela, who with her daughter Dailín sells cold drinks from an upright styrofoam cooler. As I sketch from a bench a few meters behind them, Dailín walks over and hovers next to me. I learn she is nine years old and the youngest of five siblings. She says that drawing requires much concentration, something I agree with wholeheartedly, and at one point she asks me, “What is your favorite color?”
She asks this in Spanish, naturally, and for the first time all day, I understand immediately and require no hesitation for my answer.
Blue, I say. “I think it’s blue, but also green. And you?”
“Rosada y verde,” she answers. Pink and green.
It is the smallest of moments, my encounter with Dailín, but for now, here on the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, it is enough.
* * *
I return to the plaza the next day at noon, for a late breakfast of fresh papaya and to see the fruit sellers once again. There are three – Carmenia, Antonia, and Angela – as well as their friend Lázaro, who had seen me sketching the night before. Now he hands me a tiny plastic cup of white rum.
“If you are going to continue to draw,” he says with an almost solemn air about him, “you’ll need this.”
My hand wavers in the air before accepting it. All I can think is, when in Cartagena…
The rum seems to bond me with the plaza – from that point on, there isn’t a day when I don’t pass through it, sometimes lingering to do another sketch, other times only to say hello to the women and to Adela and Lázaro. And as I keep returning, my familiarity with the cast of characters in the square grows. I meet Camilo, one of the policemen assigned to patrol the area every day, and Aride, a wizened man who sells bags of corn kernels to tourists to feed the plaza’s many pigeons.
There is a gentle-souled street sweeper named Miguel, 24 years old. I learn to look for his lime green jumpsuit and the dark green trash can he wheels with him at all times, a broom with blue bristles attached to its side. One evening, when I spot him eating dinner on the same bench I’d first sketched on, I ask if I might join him, to finish a cup of watermelon Angela has gifted me. He suggests I sketch the Public Clocktower, saying it is the “most emblematic” symbol of the city, and so the next day I do.
And there is a coffee seller named Wilmet. Men (and occasionally women) like Wilmet are ubiquitous in Cartagena; known as a vendador de tinto, he follows the same circuit through the city every day with a wooden tray of thermoses swinging from one hand and a box containing cigarettes and candy in the other. Once, I heard a group of schoolgirls call out, “Tinto!” as Wilmet walked by. He swiftly turned around and began pouring them the tiny styrofoam or plastic cups of coffee which cost 500 pesos (about 25 cents) and are served sweet without milk.
Wilmet has a knack for finding me wherever I happen to be sketching – whether it’s in the plaza or on a doorstep in the San Diego neighborhood or sitting on the ledge of a fountain in front of the Public Clocktower. We always shake hands, I order either a coffee or a cup of fragrant aromatica tea, depending on my mood, and every day he asks the same question: “So what did you draw yesterday?”
It’s this process of sharing my artwork with him as the week progresses, of slowly marking my time in this place, that brings me one step closer to understanding it.
Little by little, sketch by sketch, Cartagena begins to feel like home.
* * *
I leave the city one week after I arrive, on a bus bound for Santa Marta. I say goodbye to Wilmet and Miguel and the circuitous path I myself have come to follow every day – from Getsamaní to the plaza to the beach and back – and on my mind, as the bus begins to make its way north up the coast, is a conversation I had with Adela the previous Sunday.
I am back in my beloved plaza, sitting on the stone steps of the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, sketching my favorite streetscape in the city. Adela walks over, briefly leaving her post behind the cooler full of cold drinks, and sits down right next to me, so close our elbows are touching.
“I have always wanted to learn how to draw,” she says. “I have always loved art.”
I tell her what I told several other people that week, whenever they asked me where I learned to draw and paint. I tell her that I didn’t go to art school; that I learned only by practicing. I hand her a pencil and spare piece of watercolor paper from the back of my sketchbook and say, “The most important thing is not to learn, but to practice.”
“And to see,” Adela says, pointing to her eyes.
I nearly jump off the stairs from excitement, but manage to remain seated beside her. I am ecstatic, thrilled by this profound truth she has shared. For isn’t seeing the truest, most important thing? And isn’t it the very reason we travel? To see the world for ourselves – with our own eyes and ears, and with our own hands and hearts. We see it so that we may come to know it, to know the heat of a foreign city on our skin, to know its coffee vendors and fruit sellers, and to know how much we don’t know.
Just before Adela returns to her drinks cart, I tell her you don’t need much to practice drawing – that just a small notebook and pencil will do.
And then, remembering her wisdom, I add one last thing. “Your eyes.”