I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.