Peace Corps Writers
Drowning (page 2)


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And then Cartagena, a city of colors and textures: the deep blue of the midday sky broken by massive billowing clouds; white buildings, shaded by umbrella trees that cast long shadows across rococo balconies and narrow streets; the barrios a sprawl of sepia houses and dusty roads; the ocean on all sides a milky mix of blues and greens. Cartagena, a city of shimmering, sultry heat, the sun scorching the days, the air a tangible thing, a gauzy curtain to be parted as a misty rain falls in the late afternoon, covering the streets and sidewalks with a glistening, steamy wet.
Many of the people living in Cartagena are black, the decedents of slaves brought by Spain’s colonists to labor in the fields and build huge coral walls and revetments with square openings for canons. Surely it was these same people who built the ancient houses that surround a lovely tree-filled plaza where an ornate fountain sprays arching fantails of water, marked by luminescent rainbows.
The port, seemingly ad hoc and running for blocks, just outside the city wall, teems with life. Wooden boxes, filled with bananas, are stacked three or four deep. Fishing nets hang on listing poles, drying in the sun, and men sleep in colorful hammocks on board fishing boats, shaded from the harsh midday sun by heavy canvas canopies. All is redolent of decaying fish and fruit, motor oil, tinged with an astringent metallic odor that seems ever-present.
Out on the tip of a finger of land, a truncated peninsula called Bocagrande, stands a grand three story, wood frame hotel called El Caribe. Colonial in style, from another time, it faces the Caribbean. Large windows, framed by wide, green shutters, look out over an expansive patio with a swimming pool and round tables and an elliptical bar with high bamboo stools. The languages spoken around the pool are international and only enhance the sense that Cartagena is a remote, exotic destination.

A frequent guest at El Caribe was a tall German man, deeply tanned, who often sat at a table with two lovely dark-haired young women. They laughed and spoke Portuguese in staccato sentences and sipped drinks and swam in the pool. His back was pock marked, as if shrapnel had exploded near him. He would be absent for days, a week or more, then reappear at the same table. From the first moment I saw him, his silver hair combed severely over his balding pate, I assumed he was a Nazi officer living in exile, one who must surely have Israeli agents on his trail. One who when Germany fell had escaped on a tramp steamer to South America and made his way to Brazil — a suitcase filled with gold bars and a painting by Van Gogh.

     I had been in Cartagena for just a few weeks and had spent my days trying to absorb its beauty and its poverty, the contrasts stunning and sobering.

A man sat at the entrance to the hotel, his back against a white pillar, and held out a large tin cup, often banging it on the sidewalk. Look at me, he seemed to say. His face was ravaged, deeply lined, burned walnut-brown from the unrelenting sun, his clothes rags. His gnarled hands were dark, blackened by the grime of the street, his nails broken.

     Often, I would wake in the dead of night, covered in a sheen of sweat, tangled in my sheets. The fan overhead moved slowly, the air in the room stale. I walked to the truncated balcony and stood looking out over the street and a small park nearby. I was dreaming. I was home. Everything was familiar. My parents were in the kitchen and the sounds of dishes and pans being moved reached me. So real, so tangible and I heard my mother’s voice. But now, looking out into the darkness I couldn’t remember what she was saying.

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