Back in the Saddle

Here we go! Back on the road again. It’s 11:00am I’m sitting here at the Fort Lauderdale airport feeling as if it might as well be 6:30am. My body seems to be conditioned, after so many early flights in my lifetime, to feel exhausted the moment I hop into an airport shuttle or car to the airport. And, this morning, there was an additional challenge not welcomed by my tired mind named Fritz.

Fritz was my airport shuttle driver. He was also my suitor. He started out simply as friendly, asking me if I had eaten breakfast and fairly forcing me to grab a muffin from the hotel’s small breakfast buffet. We then proceeded to another property pick up a few more people. On the way, Fritz began questioning me about my marital and motherhood status. When I explained both, he relentlessly questioned me as to why I wasn’t married and why I had no children. He thought there was no reason as, “you look mighty fine.” When I thanked him and explained that that was neither here nor there, he disagreed, explaining that it meant everything. He continued to ask my age and how I could possibly like traveling over a man asking, “You’ve never had a boyfriend?” Putting his shock to rest, I told him I never said that, just no husband. Though I have chosen travel over men, I’ve also traveled under them. (Buy the book when it comes out and you can read more about that.) Finally, we picked up the other people and his questioning ceased.

Now, after clearing through airport security while following their new rules – removing my computer, iPad, and Kindle from my bag (so much for that new backpack I bought with the promise I wouldn’t need to remove my computer from it; just simply unzip for TSA inspection) – I sit at the Jack Nicklaus Cafe eating a grilled cheese sandwich that Jack would be ashamed of. (Is he still alive?)

It was a smooth two-and-a-half-hour flight – first time on Jet Blue (nothing special – good or bad) – and I’ve now landed smoothly in Cartagena. I always like stepping off airplanes in tropical lands as, in most, you exit via stairway to the ground and get an immediate blast of tropical air welcoming you.

Coffee shopBreezing through immigration, it’s a short walk to claim my luggage. From there, the customs official welcomes me to Colombia and I head out in search of an ATM. After walking to the next door, which houses the domestic terminal, I follow the directions I was given and find a bank of six or seven ATM’s. (I also catch my first glimpse of my soon-to-be boyfriend, Juan Valdez’s restaurant.) Withdrawing a minimal amount of $300,000 Colombian Pesos (COP), about US$100.00, I exit and grab a taxi. While my hotel has told me the cost should be no more than COP$12,000, the driver insists it COP$15,000. I’m not going to argue about, what equals US$1.00, and hop in.

TaxiAfter experiencing the traffic during our drive, I’ve come to the conclusion that he totally earned his money. Some parts of the ten-minute drive feel a bit like India, with cars, including ours, weaving in and out of traffic and jockeying for the best position at red lights. While yellow lines are painted on the roads, they seem to exist simply as decoration.

Arriving at the Hotel Old Town Premium B&B within the walled city, I’m happy with my selection. As usual, I’ve reserved just a few nights so I can get my bearings in comfort while I decide on my next moves. I’d considered staying at the Ibis, as it’s a chain and I know what to expect. Also, because it seemed to be on the beach. As we passed by while traveling from the airport, I was pleased that I chose not to stay there as it’s across the street from a fairly ratty-looking beach and, as I’d read in some reviews, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to eat (or to do) around it.

StairsNatalia welcomes me to the Old Town Premium and I’m surprised at how good her English is. She explains how the B&B works – breakfast hours, the swimming pool, the keys, etc., before inviting me upstairs to my room. Climbing the stairs is like walking a tightrope. As they curve around I’m careful to grip with my toes as I balance on the three-inch precipice. I enter room #5 and am pleased. It’s small, but clean and has what I need. And it has a window! This, for Americans, might seem like an odd thing to be happy about, but windows are not necessarily standard in hotel rooms in Colombia. Neither is a bathroom or air conditioning. I have both! And also a beautiful bathroom sink.

Bathroom SInkAfter dragging my bags up the tiny, steep steps to my room and chatting with Natalia, I head out to explore. I’m hungry and a bit tired and just looking for a good meal and a lay of the land. Instead, the first thing I get is a good beer and some great Latin music. (That’ll do). As I’m walking, I hear a chorus of horns accompanying a female Spanish singer. The tunes are coming from a dive bar on the corner which seems to have no customers, so I choose to be the first.

BartenderAs I walk in, I’m greeted by Brian the bartender. While his name is not traditionally Colombian, he is. He speaks no English but is quite friendly so, in my limited Spanish, I ask what beer he would recommend. Truth be told, it’s about 90 degrees with 100% humidity and I’m considering pouring the beer over my head. Brian serves me up an extra-cold bottle of Aguila, the local beer, while we sit and talk. Using my limited Spanish (seriously, I speak Spanish like a five-year-old) and Google Translate, he tells me who is singing on the CD and shows me various photos of famous Latin singers lining the walls of the bar. When I ask if he plays an instrument he says proudly, “No, cantar!” (No, I sing). I choose not to ask him to sing as I think I might embarrass him. He later adds that he used to sing as a child, but not anymore. He shows me photos of the bar’s owner who either played football (soccer) or owns a football team. (Again, my crappy Spanish).

I finish my beer and promise Brian this will now be my regular bar in Cartagena before walking around a bit more to get to an ATM in the city (they generally offer better rates than at an airport) and heading to dinner. Both Brian and Natalia have recommended a restaurant called La Mulata so I decide to stop in. I arrive just before they open at 6:30 and chat with some Austrian guys outside. They’ve just done a four-day hike through the jungle to an ancient city which one described as, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” So, I decide, um, maybe not to do that.

The doors open and we’re invited in. The place is known for its seafood so I order the fish of the day, sea bass, along with a glass of red wine. Though the wine is three-times the cost of a beer, a beer only costs about US$1.60, so neither is too expensive.

The fish arrives on a bed of rice and a vegetable (possibly cassava) and is so beautifully tender I could scream. Truly one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had. When I finish, I decide to treat myself to dessert which I’m told is vanilla ice cream. Not as elaborate as I was craving, but it satisfies my sweet tooth and includes some sort of sauce which I can’t identify but it is tart and yummy.

Satiated and tired, I walk back to my hotel and am greeted by Luis, the night host. I climb the stairs to my room and, though I’ve left the air conditioner on, the room is hot. I should explain that turning off the air conditioner while you’re out is proper etiquette in many tropical countries. I’d left mine on as it didn’t seem to be cooling well during the short time I’d spent in the room when I arrived. Natalia had told me it was just installed two-days ago and earlier we’d both fiddled with the buttons to try to get it blowing its coldest. So, returning to my room and finding it sweltering is worrisome and I lean over the stairway asking, “Luis, necessito assistance, por favor.” Luis comes up to my room, presses the buttons on the air conditioner remote control and, within  ten minutes, I’m freezing. I ask what he did to make it work and he simply shakes his head and says, “No se.” (I don’t know).

I turn on the TV and watch a bit of Frozen (fitting now that the a/c is working) in Spanish (wow, who knew Elsa spoke Spanish?!) before drifting off to sleep.

Tomorrow – Walking, walking, walking.

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