Cartagena and the Spanish dilemma
The more I learn about Colombian history, the more pissed off I get at the Spanish. Which creates an awkward situation: I can’t possibly stay mad at the nation that gave me paella, sangria, tapas, flamenco and Penélope Cruz.
And so I reconcile this loving hate the American way, by which I mean pan-American, from Alaska to Patagonia, a continent founded on Europe’s thirst for dominance and baptized with the blood of natives and African slaves. I paint over the ugly parts, make it pretty, erect small monuments to the tyrannized, and get on with life.
It’s what South Americans excel at, and the city of Cartagena de Indias is the most vivid reminder of this. Stroll near the northeast city walls and you’ll find an enclosed courtyard housing several expensive restaurants. One of them, offering Spanish cuisine, has three angled arches made of aged, exposed bricks. That’s because this was once a gunpowder depot, and if there was an accidental explosion, the arches directed the force of the blast down the length of the room, rather than sideways into the courtyard, where people could be working.
A few blocks away, a series of arched cubbyholes called Las Bóvedas house souvenir shops selling T-shirts, miniatures of the city, and colourful shot glasses. These were once used as prisons, where no doubt the captives were tortured.
I know this about the restaurant because a waiter told me. I now this about Las Bóvedas because an aged plaque above a Botero poster says so. One wonders if the tourists strolling down the city’s cobblestone lanes, admiring the stunning, brightly painted colonial homes are aware that this was a strategic port where the Spaniards shipped treasures they stole from Peru back to Madrid.
You have to look for this, as cartageneros dwell on the past in memory, not in sustained grudges. They swept off the streets the systematic slaughter of Amerindians and the countless deaths from English and French invasions and stored them in neat displays at the Naval Museum and the Inquisition Museum. They’d rather keep the city gorgeous and romantic.
But what defines the Americas if not the beautification of past horrors? From the evils of slavery were borne many beautiful things, like samba and capoeira in Brazil, reggae in Jamaica, compas in Haiti, the blues in the United States. Bloody struggles for freedom became stunning plazas and sobering monuments. Then they blend into the cityscape, citizens give a nod to their memory, and then move on.
In Bogotá, the splendid Museo de Oro houses the few pre-Columbian treasures that weren’t melted into gold coins. And that’s because they were found in buried tombs long after the conquistadores did their damage. There I saw groups of schoolchildren on a field trip taught to admire the ancients’ craftsmanship, silently honour their memory, and move on to enjoy what they have today.
A chant in capoeira has a verse that goes, “I’m grateful for slavery / For without slavery, there wouldn’t be capoeira.”
But this is a continent that has been routinely mistreated by its leaders, men afflicted by psychic echoes of their ancestor’s love of power. And when the hurt subsides, they demand closure so they can honour the tyrannized. We saw this most recently with the movement to bring to justice the leaders of Operation Condor, the conspiracy among right-wing South American dictatorships to share torture and repression techniques in the 70s. Pinochet and other bastards were nailed and others continued to be hunted, despite denials and obstacles by current governments.
And when the truth is found, they move on.
Cartagena is so fascinating because it invites you to look past its beauty and contemplate on the many layers of hideous bits that sustain it. And as such, it becomes a multi-dimensional beauty, more complex and intriguing than other pretty historical towns you’ve visited. And it makes you wonder if perhaps a mutant flower sprouted from the seared grounds of Hiroshima, and if it was more stunning than anything that had blossomed before it.
In the paradisaical Parque Tayrona I met a couple from Barcelona who have been travelling for eight months. I felt the urge to ask them what it’s like to visit the land their ancestors both raped and beautified. Do they feel any retroactive remorse? Should they? But the girl was charming, friendly and beautiful, and the guy chatty and chummy. We talked about food instead and got along great.