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.
After a full day in town paying Australian rather than Colombian prices for things, and spending almost seven straight hours with my mother, after five months of not, I was ready for a wine or ten.
Parents have a knack for asking annoying questions like “what are your long-term plans?” right around the time you are tossing and turning over your long-term plans.
Mum and I had had a nice day, but I was at my threshold. We got home, dumped the shopping, and I dragged my sneakers out of storage. There was only one way to deal with my stupid Irish temper bubbling just below the surface before it got out of the bag.
The shoes felt like tiny slippers of cloud after months of hiking boots. I basically skipped down the road….for the first hundred metres at least.
It wasn’t long before I was puffing like a steamer and the shoes felt like cement clogs. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Plod. Plod. Plod.
My legs began to loosen and the evening air began to drive away my worries. This was it, addictive as smoking (but not as good for you, if you ask Winfield, Marlborough or Lucky Strike).
Helidon’s valley air filtered through my blood and my spirits were at last persuaded upwards. C’mon endorphins you sexy sons of bitches!!
The moon trailed me like a vanilla grin on a string; running at my pace.
I rounded the corner into the slight uphill and pumped my little legs. Bloody hell.
Ryan’s (who runs up tabletop twice in a row for fun) voice echoed in my head, “don’t whinge and don’t be a quitter.”
I’m not sure about the grammatical structuring of that last sentence.
As I passed the paddocks I tried my animal sounds to make sure I still had it. These things are important in case you ever have to survive in the wild. And by wild I mean local farming community with domestic animals.
I mooed deeply at a small herd of cattle. The wily, white bull –sensing the threat I may impregnate his cows- moved to stand between his harem and me.
Down in the flood-break paddock, which had been filled to overflowing that fateful day in 2011, I spotted two horses gossiping.
I neighed sharply and the bay mare’s head shot up, a classic characteristic of a gossiper. The white mare continued chewing, unphased – a classic characteristic of the long suffering friend of a gossiper.
I beat my merry way across Kapernick’s Bridge. Three baby water hens were striking out on their own. They swam nervously, their heads tugging them across the glassed creek.
I remembered the wrath of that creek in the summer floods of 2010/11. This very bridge had been torn in two, a huge expanse of concrete, metal and bitumen simply gone. The locals came down and stared in disbelief.
People swept mud out of the top storeys of houses. My Dad found a photograph of a lady on Kapernick’s Bridge and handed it in at the local shop, lest it be the only remaining souvenir of a life washed away.
In the cleanup week they found a body in the rubble piled on the remaining portion of bridge. I stopped as I thought of that, my breathing loud in the still air.
Later a little boy from the city 20 minutes’ drive up the Great Diving Range was found washed right down into the valley.
A small community mourned.
I climbed the rail and sat with my feet dangling, looking into the water. We’d jumped off here once as kids, hitting the bottom softly. I thought about doing it now to cool off. I remembered how much heavier I was and decided against it.
The drawl of an engine slowing turned my head.
White ute, two bales of hay in the tray. Tray hay.
A cute farmer type looked out the window, bemused.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“Yeah I’m good, just went for a run….it’s been a while. Needed a rest.”
“OK,” he chuckled.
I looked down on the house perched on the creek bank. People had been choppered from that roof in the floods.
I decided to suck it up and keep running. Past the fruit and veg honesty stand.
Lettuce: red, iceberg, $2 or 3 for $5.
At Hartz Rd I made a U-bolt.
I laughed at the memory of Dad’s stunt on that road. Our youngest sister had joined him on his regular morning walk. I could picture him striding out; piece of polypipe in hand to hit vicious dogs, should they appear; navy stubbies and work-shirt on; boot protectors over his socks, no burrs getting in there.
They separated for some reason. Maybe lil siswa jogged ahead, or more likely still, sat down for a while.
They had been talking about snakes and heart attacks.
Lil siswa looked up and saw her father lying on the dirt track, body twitching. She covered the ground between them at a sprint, blonde hair flying, gravel skidding.
Dad with roaring laughter stood. She was not impressed.
I jogged back across the bridge, past all the animals who eyed me suspiciously; now aware I was neither cow nor horse. Up the little hill like the train who could. Past the spot we’d wait as kids for the bus, breath as steam in the air, cold knees knocking.
As I hit our street I made myself work hard to compensate for the short distance of the run. 60% capacity, wheeze wheeze, 70% capacity, past the barking dog, 80% capacity, glance at the orange tree I used to raid as I ran for the school bus- shoes and socks in hand.
Hold that speed. Don’t be a quitter. Across the electric grid and home, doubled over like an athlete, feeling like anything but.
I stretched on the lawn under the stars. Sammy, the white yard wolf (a breed closely linked to the suburban Labrador) came over to check out the scene.
Pinned in a calf stretch I was hapless as he coated my face in dog breath. I breathed jogger breath in his direction to even the scales.
Toby the cat came over too, having heard that a human had run without anything chasing it.
I didn’t even touch the hot tap when I showered. Just like Townsville days again. On the ABC news a moustachioed hombre from the Gold Coast was being interviewed about the truce reached between surfers and the council.
Sand pumping was no longer clogging up the best breaks. The surfers had been consulted this time and were happy.
“I think we’re finally catching the same wave,” said the mo-bro with a grin.
The whole thing was deliciously Australian.
In other news our country’s gender pay gap has hit an all time high in 20 years.
Now at 18.2%, with women on the losing end, it is the highest since records collected in 1994. That’s the national pay gap of Australia on average. Men being paid 18.2% more than women for the same jobs. What a fucking embarrassment. How disgustingly Australian.
Thankfully, someone is doing something about it. A new website launched now allows employees to search their company and check whether they have completed a gender pay gap analysis. It is for companies with 500 or more employees, but it’s certainly a start.
And then I found the best Youtube video I’ve seen in a long time. To tackle the pay gap issue, 3000 CEOs who haven’t done the workplace analysis have been sent a bottle of Daughter Water.
View the video here. Tackle important issues with humour. Gold:
Important to note, the battle for gender equality is not always set in underprivileged countries.