Posted by: Sarah | October 31, 2007

If you’d call my name out loud…

Cartagena, Colombia revels in love, sans cholera

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA — It was a place that “stood unchanging at the edge of time . . . where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels.”

That was Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s rich description of a town very much like this Caribbean port in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the Nobel laureate’s sultry saga of lust and decay.

Cartagena’s distinctive character and its postcolonial decline may have provided late-20th century inspiration, but this is no longer a cholera-plagued, half-abandoned metaphor for elegant decadence. Far from it.

Today, this gem of a walled city of 1 million and sometime home of Garcia Marquez is enjoying a tourist boom and a wave of tropical cool, emerging as a chic destination with a literary pedigree in a country better known for cartels, car bombs and coke.

Once a principal port in the slave trade and terminus for gold, silver and rum, besieged by pirates and soldiers of fortune, Cartagena has joined the global “A list” of must-see sites. Frightened off for years, cruise ships are back, daily disgorging souvenir-hunting, camera-pointing visitors in shorts and sandals. Cartagena de Indias, as it is officially known, has become an offbeat convention site and arts festival mecca.

November marks the premiere of “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the film adaptation of Garcia Marquez’s evocative 1985 novel, an epic tale of pent-up passion and moldering charm set in an unnamed city very much like Cartagena during its period of 19th century degeneration. The novelist held back for years on selling the movie rights.

Indigenous people still make the trek from isolated villages to sell woven baskets and pots shaped from gourds, wandering about the twisting lanes of the Old Town like callers from another era. Female Afro-Colombian hawkers known as palenqueras balance bountiful fruit baskets on their heads, a reminder of the city’s deep African roots. Street vendors sell phone time by the minute.

Salsa and cumbia music blare from steamy, dimly lighted bars where couples chug Aguila beer and get sweaty on the dance floor. Young lovers hold hands atop the turreted, cannon-bedecked city walls. Imposing doors conceal shaded courtyards, respites from the unyielding heat and humidity.

Around the edges, in districts such as the sublimely named Getsemani, there’s still the somewhat seedy hint of an old port town, a place where you can have a good time for cheap, but you need to be careful about the company you keep.

Shacks on the city’s outskirts, many housing people displaced in civil conflict, attest to a better-known Colombian reality.

Garcia Marquez, who recently turned 80, is an almost metaphysical presence here where he keeps a home, though he is often away. Most everyone likes to drop his name, typically using his nickname, Gabo. When in town, he likes to remain anonymous, people say, the better to be able to hear the good stories.

The making of “Love in the Time of Cholera” here was a decisive moment for the city’s comeback image, reportedly only accomplished after Vice President Franciso Santos Calderon promised augmented security and met with the filmmakers, who were eyeing Brazil. Santos, a former newspaper editor, was no stranger to violence: He was one of the victims whose ordeals were chronicled in Garcia Marquez’s nonfiction work “News of a Kidnapping.”

“There is this tremendous sense of authenticity,” director Mike Newell told The Times earlier this year. “You wander around and you realize that he actually was writing about this place, the place that you are shooting in, which is a very strange feeling indeed.”

Espinosa once labeled Cartagena “a city of legends,” adding: “Perhaps the legends that arose in my city were the product of the inactivity of the people, since, for so long, almost the entire 19th century . . . there was nothing much to do other than invent, speak, read and remember.”

– L.A. Times

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