Ania and I hopped on a fish truck and split from the group for the last leg of the journey to Cartagena. Hitchhiking in a group of five couldn’t have lasted forever. We talked with the aging driver as he swerved through the dark roads and, eventually, he dropped us off in an industrial city fish market …
… at midnight.
Trash filled the streets and a rotten stench filled my nose. The scene was crude, shocking. Homeless people crawled around in dumpsters. Dark figures stumbled through alleys with flattened cardboard boxes in hand. A legless man laid in the street vomiting.
My neck stiffened and my ears felt longer. It was the first time in the trip that I felt we were in serious danger.
Ania and I scrambled to find a hotel, any hotel.
Casa Paradiso, there’s one. That pink building over there.
Hotel Jaguar, just around the corner.
Come on, we don’t need a room. We’ll sleep in the hall.
We tried at least seven places in the area. Not one had space for us.
“It’s high season,” they said. “Try downtown.”
I hate taxis. Absolutely hate taxis. They’re driven by some of the worst people on earth, but at this point, a taxi was necessary.
We walked to a main street and hailed one over. Ania and I were trying to haggle the price down when I noticed a crazed man running towards us.
“Uh-ugh, aya looka me,” he yelled. “Mirame!”
The man came directly between us and the taxi and starting swinging his stub of an arm in our faces.
“Looka me! Mirame!” he kept repeating, spitting.
I had to push him out of the way to get Ania in the cab and jumped in after her. The man tried to come in with us but I closed the door in his face.
“Go, go!” Ania yelled at the driver. “What are you waiting for! Go!”
Gas pedal. Acceleration. Over the bridge. It was over.
We headed for the tall, pretty skyscrapers and the scenes of garbage and wasted human life faded behind us. The city center was manicured to perfection, clean beyond comprehension after seeing the fish market. Not a homeless person in sight.
This was the postcard-perfect Cartagena from the travel guides. The rest didn’t exist.
We asked the driver to drop us off at the cheapest hotel. He stopped in front of a tall building and walked into the lobby.
It wasn’t the cheapest hotel.
We knew it wasn’t, but it was 1 a.m. and there were few choices.
The man behind the front desk wanted $30 for a room. We talked him down to 20. (Still more than double what we were used to paying.)
Ania and I walked up the stairs and into room 315. A beige painting of a flower pot hung on beige wall paper. Two beds, one desk, a shower, and a toilet without a toilet seat.
“It’s amazing how these fancy hotels work,” I said. “In a hostel we get a kitchen and free internet and they cost a quarter of the price. Here we get a shitty replicate of a painting, have to eat out, no internet and we pay more for it.”
Ania went to sleep.
I was too angry to sleep.
Taxis drivers. Overpriced hotels. Amputees crawling in dumpsters.
I went to the bathroom and shaved.
Anything to stop thinking.
Cartagena, Colombia - © Diego Cupolo 2012