The Eyes Have It

Cartagena, Colombia 10o 24. 946’ North 75o 32. 693’ West

December 5, 2002

During the recent national festival, which ran five days here in Cartagena, all of the contestants in the Miss Colombia contest, who are known in Spanish as las aspirantes, made a brief appearance at Club de Pesca, where Ithaka is moored. Each woman was dressed in a short white skirt and chest-hugging blouse, and each wore a sash proclaiming the city or region where she reigned. These unvarying uniforms gave us oglers an opportunity to judge merits rather than costume, and what we saw was a formidable array of bosom, bottom, and gam. These women, who’ve been in training for years, are front-page, major-league celebrities, the Colombian equivalent of Hollywood stars, and each of them is legitimately beautiful. One Colombiano wag commented to me that what we were seeing was a tribute to the wonders of contemporary surgery as well as marvels of nature, but I wonder—the women in this country are pretty impressive looking.

| | The newly crowned Señorita Colombia was front-page news in every paper in the country for many days.* * *| The winner of this year’s title is Diana Lucia Mantilla Prada, a 21-year-old with the awesome metric of 87-58-91. Representing Santender, she followed in her family’s royal footsteps, mama having carried the scepter as Señorita Colombia in 1977. In every photo I saw, mom still looked pretty competitive, and there were lots of mom photos, because there’s a simultaneous mini-pageant for mothers as well.

At a recent dinner party in Boca Grande, the elegant, high-rise section of modern Cartagena, Bernadette was seated next to a former Señorita Colombia, who explained that the year of her reign, she realized how terrified las aspirantes were and how they clung to their mothers. So in a move that would have Electra-fied Freud, she instituted a parallel mommy track, just for a little fun and to take the edge off. It gets less publicity, but is still a tooth-and-nail contest where sequins are known to fly.


| | Cartagena’s famous Botero statue of “The Fat Lady,” in Plaza Santa Domingo, serves as a guidepost when giving directions in the center of the old city, as in “To get to that great Cuban restaurant, follow the fat lady’s feet for 2 blocks. Its on the left.”* * *| At Club de Pesca, for more than an hour, _las aspirantes_ paraded on the docks while dozens of reporters snapped photos and hollered questions, each query prefixed by the honorific _Reina_, or queen, as in “_Reina Bogota, por favor,_ tell me about blah blah blah.” These women were perfectly conditioned in many ways. Most impressively, they could roll back their shoulders instantaneously, jut out their chests and crank on The Smile the moment their name was called. Pavlov would have drooled. What tickled me was the replacement of Bert Parks and a line of tuxedo-clad hunks with a gaggle of army guys in fatigues, toting pump-action shotguns and paying lots more attention to the women than to any realistically breachable boundaries.

| | During fiesta, boys smeared in black paint dance and cavort around people on the street, performing for coins and frightening passers-by.* * *| The national festival week also had its discomfiting aspects. Kids of all ages dressed up and roamed the streets looking for handouts. Some danced and entertained, hoping for a few pesos (just under 3,000 make a dollar), but the more malevolent little bastards—_los malitos_—carried paint in water balloons and hurled them willy-nilly at passers-by or bombed them from balconies. It was a week when you wanted to be off the streets, and many _Cartageneros_, who could afford to, simply left town. The worst of _los malitos_ painted their entire bodies black, dressed in black rags, and crowded around us threatening to slap their wet hands on our shirts or faces or mush against us if we didn’t fork over spare change. There’s the rub: extortion to avoid frotteurism. Bernadette says I’m overstating it, but to me they’re the Colombian version of CIT’s, Counselors-in-Training at summer camps. These are EIT’s, Extortionists-in-Training. I’ve just finished Mark Bowden’s _Killing Pablo, the Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw,_ and these kids remind me of how people used to describe the drug lord’s business motto—_plato o plumo_ (your choice, silver or lead). These little _aspirantes_ are wielding paint instead of bullets. All they need is time.

| | Alfonso helps us do maintenance projects on Ithaka (particularly things we’d put off for months), and takes Douglas around Cartagena to find odds and ends at the best prices.* * *| On the other hand, we emerged from fiesta remarkably paint-free, and we’re loving it here. This is a gorgeous old Spanish city with narrow, shaded streets to amble down, glorious and inexpensive restaurants, cheap boat labor, and enough irony to amuse us. Last week we had our US cell phone activated for $8, but, here in the world’s largest cocaine _bodega_, to pack a cell phone, you need to be finger-printed, registered, and carry a cell-phone permit with a picture ID. It’s a matter of national priorities.


Our priorities have centered on eating, boat projects, and temporarily enjoying tierra firma. It’s the first time in a year we’ve been tied to a dock, and that makes life different. For instance, we don’t go in the water. Cartagena harbor is so foul that all the cruisers hire local men to dive in and wrap the prop in a plastic bag to protect it; in addition, everyone hires someone to go under every two or three weeks and sponge or scrape their bottom. This is a biologically hot bay, and growth rates are astronomical, as are incidences of middle-ear and eye infections for anyone spending much time below the surface. OSHA would shut this joint down in a heartbeat.

| | Our newly chrome-plated dorades—a perfect job.* * *| At the two marinas in Cartagena, Club Nautico and Club de Pesca, there are approved laborers who hire out for between $15 and $25 a day. Their skill levels vary, and talent is passed along by word of mouth. We’ve inherited the good work of Alfonso Mendoza Villaba from Doug and Judy Decker on _Limerence_. Alfonso has a genetic make-up different from mine: He loves to clean; he loves to polish; he loves to shine. Plus, he knows where to find stuff. When we need parts, he and I jump in a cab, ever since I declined further rides on the back of his motorcycle. Taxis are ubiquitous, and no matter where you go in town the cost is either 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 pesos, depending on the time of day or night, the distance, the driver’s whim, your remembering to negotiate in advance, and carrying the exact amount, because taxi drivers don’t do change. Their doleful chant is “_Lo siento, no tengo cambio_,” which translates roughly as “No way dufuss; there’s a stupidity tax in my cab for those who hasn’t enough sense to bring the right coins.”

| | The welder at the Planta Industrial de Niquelados.* * *| I like running errands with Alfonso. When making the rounds of machine shops and chrome-dippers in out-of-the-way corners of town, I feel safer, and he seems to enjoy shepherding me about, looking out for his not-so-clever _patron_ who’s footing the bill. When haggling over the cost of some part or service, he goes to elaborate lengths to get every price lowered, even if only by a few cents. These negotiations are infused with macho melodrama, agonized huffing, and more than once, a fist slammed on the counter. I love it. Earlier in the week we took _Ithaka’s_ four dorades to be nickel-plated and chromed. The initial fee requested at the _Planta Industrial de Niquelados_ was $13 apiece, but he haggled down to $11 and was thrilled. Me too. Sparkling now, they were back in two days.


| | Maestro Amourey comes to Ithaka four mornings a week, two days for each of us, and provides one-on-one Spanish tutorials. He’s become a friend.* * *| Alfonso has been replacing bungs in our deck, sanding and touching up paint, polishing stainless steel, and making sure the bottom stays clean, a task he subcontracts because there’s no way he’d go in this water, either. He’s offended when he sees Bernadette carrying our laundry bag, because he thinks it’s his responsibility to keep us clean, plus his sister does laundry. A handsome _hombre_ with inch-deep dimples, at 31 he has three children, the eldest of whom is 16. He has a new wife now; she’s 23 and wants children, but he’s not so sure.

Neither Alfonso nor I is fluent in the other’s language, which makes for some convoluted technical conversations. But thanks in part to Spanish tutorials, we’re doing a little better. Our current teacher is Maestro Amoury Martelo, among whose many virtues is that he makes house calls. Two-hour classes ($6) are held on Ithaka. Amoury is a history and philosophy teacher, as well as a talented linguist who’s fluent in French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. Plus he’s got a smattering of Japanese and Hebrew, though he gets none of my Yiddish jokes.

| | Victor, who’s known as the best sailmaker in Cartagena, has done first-class work on Ithaka at an incredible value.* * *| My best Spanish teacher, however, is Victor, our canvas- and sail-repair guy. For $70, he’s washed the genny and sewn five repairs on it, three more on the main and two on the sail cover, plus fabricating new covers for the outboard motor, gasoline tank, windlass, and tiller autopilot. It’s all been first-class work, as meticulous and precise as his haircut and language. When we speak with each other he knows when to correct me, explain word choice, and he helps me reconjugate. He craves American idiomatic expressions. It’s a terrific trade. Yesterday, when he brought back the genny, he was excited to tell me that this week he learned his daughter will be the first person in his family to attend university. He’d hoped to have his own schooling, but when his parents died he had to go to work instead. Now, in the next generation, his dreams are coming true. Sitting on the foredeck, Victor boasted of his daughter and proudly started to cry.


| | Bernadette on the balcony by the rooftop pool at the Charleston Hotel, overlooking the old town.* * *| I’m not sure if Victor has a philosophy of education, other than a belief in its virtue, but Amoury does. _El Maestro_ told me, “_Creo en verbos._” (I believe in verbs.) Everyone should believe in something, and among many cruisers here, there is an ardent faith in the Atkins diet. In Cartagena, with grand butchers and abundant cheap restaurants, Dr. Atkins is the man. Everywhere I turn I see the ex-fruit-and-bran eaters forsaking those carbs, scarfing down 32 ounce T-bones smothered in hollandaise, and not forgetting to down their Zocor, just in case. Middle-aged guys who used to debate the virtues of Bruce vs. CQR anchors now argue which restaurant has the best (largest) bacon-and-egg breakfast platter for under $2. The jury is still out.

Cartagena is just plain hot, so for afternoon treats Bernadette and I hightail it to the air-conditioned Carullos market, an upscale grocery store where we can choose among tropical fruits and have a blender full of smoothies made for about 50 cents. They’re loaded, I’m told, with carbs, but um-um good. For total luxury, on Sunday afternoons we’ve gone to the roof-top pool and restaurant at the Hotel Charleston, a 400-year-old, the former Santa Teresa convent with a God’s-eye view of the city. There’s no charge for the beach chair and towels, and they hope but don’t insist that you’ll buy lunch and drinks. They also offer an endless supply of free fill-ups on their rich Colombian coffee—a generosity that fuels my resentment of Starbucks even more than usual.

| | Many, many cruisers get lasik procedures done in Cartagena because the clinic has an excellent reputation, and the price is unbeatable.* * *| Of all the things I love best so far about Cartagena, even more than finally finding the pin-hole leak in, and replacing our high side refrigeration hose, peaking my list is the impressive _Clinica Oftomologica de Cartagena,_ where I’ve had lasik surgery. For the first time since I was 3 years old, I no longer wear reading glasses. The total cost for two rounds of lasik treatments on both eyes, a series of advance and follow-up appointments, and enough eye drops to irrigate East Texas came to $451. In Cartagena, the eyes have it.

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]


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