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Hello! My name is Candace, and I'm a sketch artist with a passion for helping you connect with the world through art. Pull out your sketchbook and watercolors and find your favorite view — I'm glad you're here!

Drawing connections in Cartagena.

Posted on Sep 9, 2014 | 31 Comments

“…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.

Travel sketches of Cartagena

Travel sketches of Cartagena

Travel sketches of Cartagena

* * *

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.

Travel sketches of Cartagena

Travel sketches of Cartagena

Travel sketches of Cartagena

* * *

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.”

Travel sketches of Cartagena

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  • Corinne Vail

    Candace, I love that she understood “the seeing.” I feel the same way about travel and photography. Cartagena sounds absolutely wonderful. (sigh) Someday!

    • Yes! It truly was such an amazing moment when Adela said “and to see,” and I love that the same applies to photography for you. It’s just about finding the tools and methods that help to open your eyes to the world, isn’t it? Thank you as always for reading, Corinne – I hope all is very well with you!

  • Truly, Candace, you help us see. People travel every day and they don’t see. So many see what is wrong or what they don’t like about a different culture. What they can get for themselves (myself included here). You see it all through eyes of love. See what YOU can give and you make each person feel valued and important. Thank you for giving us insight into how other people live their daily lives. It helps me realize every little thing I do is important. What might happen if each one of us woke up with this intention: make every person feel valued and important. I’m going to try.

    • Thank you so much for what you shared here, Mom – I especially love that intention and will be keeping it close throughout these next few weeks on the road. xoxo

  • You always inspire me to be a better, more attentive writer. I hope we can travel together someday.

    • The inspiration is absolutely mutual, Candice! And I second that hope – let’s make it happen somewhere in the world soon 🙂

  • Seeing your sketches took me right back to one of my favorite cities. I recognize so many of those places. Can’t wait to go back.

    • It’s awesome to hear you’ve spent time in Cartagena, Michael – after just a week there, I can safely say it’s one of my new favorites as well…it’s got such a great energy to it, doesn’t it? Hope all is very well with you!

  • Roberta Charles

    As usual, love traveling with you & seeing your surroundings with your eyes & heart. Enjoyed the sketch of the clock without hands. The colors are all around you & I was wondering what the odors were. Flowers, fruit or maybe just the heat from the pavement? Crickets here are going mad right now, some kind of swan song I guess at the end of the season. What did you hear in the plaza? Birds, street vendors, children, crickets or something similar? Happy trails ♥

    • I’m so happy you asked about smells and sounds, Roberta, and am slightly ashamed to now realize I didn’t make many notes of those senses on the Cartagena sketches 🙂 Thinking back to the city now, I can still hear the cooing of the many pigeons who call the plaza home, as well as the ringing of bells that hang on every ice cream seller’s cart. A row of bells are attached to the handle of the cart and they’ll press it in as they walk back and forth across the square. And fruit was definitely one of the more dominant smells I noticed, and if I’m honest, in some parts of the city, a less-than-pleasant street odor that reminded me greatly of India. But I loved this mix and felt like it gave Cartagena such a sense of aliveness, if that makes sense 🙂 Thank you so much as always for reading – it’s a joy to share these stories with you! xo

  • Pauline Susanto

    I love these stories and sketches, Candace. Famous last words by Adela there – “And to see” – so simple yet so profound. It had me pondering for quite some time and I am still pondering on that. As always, thanks for sharing!

    P.s. I’m still doubtful that all I need is a notebook and a pencil to sketch. Really? It’s that simple? :p

    • Thank you, Pauline! I’m so glad to hear that Adela gave you some food for thought to chew on these last few days. And yes! I absolutely promise you only need a sketchbook and pencil (and maybe just a *few* paints or watercolor pencils 😉 One of these days we are finally going to cross paths, and when we do I can’t wait to try and convince you to start sketching in person! xo

  • Pauline Susanto

    Also, funny you mentioned St. Peter Claver – I just found out today is his feast day in the Catholic Church! Basically, it’s a day where we celebrate and commemorate him.

    • Love the coincidence! Thanks so much for letting me know it was his feast day this week 🙂

  • Rhonda

    Oh Candace… this may be my favorite post ever! It’s just wonderful how your sketches are not just sketches, but your memories preserved in that moment in time as you meet such wonderful people. LOVE LOVE LOVE

    • Thank you, Rhonda! What you wrote means so much, and I’m thrilled to hear you loved the post….I loved putting this one together! xo

  • Aurora

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Thank you for showing me Cartagena! I cannot wait to go to Colombia. And I cannot wait for you keep visiting south america! so exciting.

    • Thank you so, so much, Aurora!! I’ve only been here for two weeks so far, but I truly can’t recommend Colombia enough…it’s been an amazing place to explore and I’m grateful to have another week still to go here. I’m so happy you enjoyed the visual journey through Cartagena, and I’ll be sharing sketches from La Guajira very soon! xo

      • Aurora

        Can’t wait to see them!

  • MD

    Well, I think you got lightning to strike! I really am in awe of your ability to capture and convey such ethereal human moments in your words and sketches. Beautiful and bittersweet.

    • MD, I can’t thank you enough for your comment here, and I love that you described the sketches (and moments of connection) as both ethereal and bittersweet, as that truly is the case…leaving Cartagena last week, I felt a great deal of sadness, especially when the people I met said, “Que vaya bien,” which I believe is a kind of farewell blessing – similar to “fare thee well.” I’m incredibly grateful to have met them, and yet it’s bittersweet to acknowledge that most likely our paths won’t cross again. But even in the ethereal connections, the moments we did share and create will remain with us forever, won’t they? Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing your insights!

  • This is so excellent, Candace.

    • Thank you so much, Kerry! It was so lovely to see you last month, and my fingers are crossed we’ll get to catch up again soon 🙂

      • Mine too! And that I don’t mess up the restaurant this time! 🙂

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  • Candace, you made me want to pack up my bags and take off for Cartegna! Your beautiful piece made it seem both special and familiar, like the whole world is, if you look closely enough. It reminds me of an “extraordinary experience of the ordinary” that my sister and I shared in Venice a few years ago. Thank you for joining our memories and yours with details that transcend plazas and pigeons!

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  • Serendipity Tess

    I adore your sketches…and your writing is absolutely beautiful. Could read your blog all day!!!

  • Laura Mcloughlin

    Such a beautifully told story woven together perfectly with your sketches – I too want to see Cartagena, thank you so much for sharing!

  • Divya Punjabi

    Candace. Your writing has soul – it sang to me. Please keep writing, I’m hooked 🙂

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