Of all the anti-social hostels I’ve stayed at, the Monastery Hostel might be at the top of the list. When I saw my room at least had air-conditioning, I resigned myself to sticking it out, since I’d already paid for it. The window had been painted over, but even if it hadn’t been there was nothing to look at outside of a courtyard in disarray. For the first two days I was desperately sick. I didn’t even leave the room, surviving on two pieces of cake and a quarter bottle of water that were in my backpack.
Mixed into the sickness, which was mainly a crushing headache, was one of the deepest depressions I’d ever descended to. All I could think about were my shortcomings and failures, and the deep, deep financial trouble I was in. I tossed from side to side, holding my head in my hands, sometimes so frightened I shouted aloud. St. John of the Cross wrote about a dark night of the soul. Had he been to Cartagena? Could he hear the salsa music right outside his door twenty-four hours a day? It started sounding like the drums from hell. I prayed for the relief that nightmares would bring, but sleep wouldn’t come.
When I finally emerged, I was weakened and grim, but still managed to make the manager, Carlos, laugh when I commented on how many monks must be living in the monastery. It seemed like I was the only tourist they’d ever had at the hostel. The rest of the men, the residents, sat around the courtyard all day and took turns opening the door when the doorbell rang.
The last time I’d been in Cartagena I hadn’t been staying in a ghetto. I’d been closer to the historic core. When I looked it up on Google maps, I found it was about two and a half miles to get to the walled city. Even though I was dizzy, and feverish with depression, I decided to try and walk there. All I had were some directions that I’d scribbled down on a scrap of paper. It didn’t seem like a good neighborhood to get lost in.
Every time I came to a dead-end, I tried to follow my intuition. At last, I reached a street that seemed to be a thoroughfare. It ran along a wetland that had become a dump. Mountains of garbage sat soaking in a bog, and a small army of homeless men were out rifling through it with sacks. When I reached the end of the street, a taxi driver sitting at a stop light admonished me not to go into the area I’d just come out of, saying it was very dangerous. That was good to know. My headache, compounded now by the heat and humidity, was reaching hallucinatory proportions.
On the other side of the street, I could see a fort. It was the Castille San Felipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish in 1536. It rose like an anthill and seemed like a good place to size up the city from. Out front, vendors with souvenirs and drinks competed for attention. One man had at least thirty straw hats stacked on his head.
Right when I walked in, a man in a colonial costume, complete with tri corner hat, appeared on one of the top walls and began blowing a trumpet. It seemed like it would make a good picture, but by the time I got up to him, he’d set the trumpet aside and was playing with his phone. It must have been one of his ancestors on watch when the fort was lost to the French pirate, Baron de Pointis, during the Nine Years War.
From the top of the fort, I could see the layout of the city, and now knew what road to take to get to the walled city. There were a few tour groups following their guides around, posing for pictures in front of a giant flag that was flapping in the hot breeze. I took a few pictures of the cannons and watchtowers, but didn’t care for a history lesson. Whatever I needed to know, I could look up later.
The walk to the historic district may well have been saved for another day, but I plundered on. As soon as I hit the gritty streets, the sense of direction I’d achieved at the top of the fort vanished. Crossing a bridge, I came to the neighborhood of Getsemani, which was just a maze. It was full of exotic murals, balconied houses, and colorful characters, but I got lost a dozen times, and kept ending up back at Trinity Square instead of ever reaching the gateway and clock tower that I remembered from my last visit. A rapper and his sidekick targeted me and followed me for two blocks, before I caved in and gave them a few pesos just to leave me alone.
By the time I finally did reach the Monumento Torre del Reloj, I was spent. In a courtyard on the other side of the gateway a group of Palenqueras, the iconic women in African dresses with the fruit bowls on their heads, were posing for pictures. I took a picture of three of them walking in the opposite direction from about thirty yards away, and they must have had eyes in the back of their heads, because they all turned and started chiding me, like the witches in Macbeth. I ended up giving them five thousand pesos to pose for a picture that didn’t turn out because I was too flustered to focus.
When I got back to the monastery, the manager, Carlos, came to open the gate. He asked how things were going. I told him I had nothing to live for. He threw his arm around me and laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.