This is what Lonely Planet writes as an introduction about Cartagena: "Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena's old town is a Unesco World Heritage site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across plazas." - in short: a perfect place to live.
I hate goodbyes. And I'm not going to wallow in the sadness that I feel about leaving, I'm sure most of you know how it is and can relate to my pain, there is no need to write chapters about that. It seems unreal that my time in Cartagena and Colombia has come to an end, I'm confused, I don't even realise it yet. I've been traveling around so much lately that in a way it feels like this is just another little trip. Even if I have more luggage than usually, got into a minor ESTA confusion at the check in desk (S wanted me to stay here and was planning on tying me up to a hammock so that I would not be able to leave, well I almost had to stay because they didn't find my ESTA and wouldn't let me board the plane), and for the first time went to the "Salidas internacionales" side of Cartagena airport, I still don't really get it. But here I am, on the plane on my way to Miami. With my surfing teacher F we used to lay on our surfboards in the sea by La Boquilla beach and watch planes take off and fly over us. Today I could see La Boquilla beach from the plane window and I really can't believe it: I'm leaving Colombia.
This is how far I came on my first South/Latin America tour. A lot is still left to discover, I'll be back in Colombia as soon as I can and after that I think I want to spend some time in Argentina and Mexico.
These past almost 7 months traveling in South/Latin America have been beyond amazing. I've loved to discover new places and experience new adventures, and I truly enjoyed working with Foundation La Vecina. Mostly though I'm happy to have had the opportunity to learn about the Caribbean and Colombian culture, and to live amongst the friendliest people in the world. So many times their kindness and helpfulness have left me open-mouthed. Despite a violent past and overall challenging living conditions, the Colombians, as well as Cubans and Jamaicans, have an exemplary attitude to life and an easy-going mindset that I envy and have tried to adopt myself too (quite successfully actually I'd say). Moreover, I've made a bunch of new friends here, locals and foreigners, with whom I've spent many many wonderful moments. I will miss you all and I hope to see you soon, somewhere in the world.
In December before I left I wrote some "goals" for my travels (read in the "About" section). I'm still not a great surfer (in the end I didn't have time to surf as often as I would have liked), but I'm doing ok and for the rest I think even more than ok. Traveling and living in new, exotic places is never easy, especially alone. This time has been full of ups and downs, and a unique experience that I will never forget. The cultural differences have been huge and even if I sometimes (often) roll my eyes in disbelief, it has been great to really live here instead of just staying a while as a tourist. Colombia is a very traditional and religious country, with a strong collective culture and values. Old habits are important and relationships somewhat macho style. For an independent European girl like me, it would be impossible to be with a Colombian man and live here. I've met and heard of many families here that, from my point of view, are just crazy.
When moving to the other side of the world, you are really in for a whole new lifestyle. Cartagena is a place where:
The list could go on and on. As I have written before, there are a lot of things that have surprised me, in good and bad. I remember that it took me some weeks to start feeling at home in Cartagena but when I did, I really started to fall for the charms of the city, and now it is hard to imagine living anywhere else. This last month I traveled a lot around Colombia and loved every minute of it, but my favorite place here is still Cartagena. It's funny, a year ago I don't think I had ever heard of such place.
When I came home from my travels I didn't feel like living with my roommates anymore, or in our apartment in Marbella. After all the traveling, changing places all the time, camping, and living in very plain conditions, I couldn't do it anymore. I needed some comfort, luxury and peace and calm for my last week. So I packed my things and moved to my best Cartagena friend S's place in Bocagrande. Her apartment is more modern, cleaner, in better condition and less Colombian (even if it's still very Colombian) and she had an extra room for me. She has moved recently and this building is maybe even nicer than the old one. I especially like the views. When you open her door you see this:
And when you are waiting for the elevator (that is very slow so you are always waiting), this is the view:
The swimming pool area is amazing and there is even a gym. We spent a lot of time this week at la piscina.
All the doormen + the pool guy (an older man though) instantly fell in love with me so I felt like a very welcome guest, haha (perks of being a blonde with blue eyes). In the end, the week at S's place was not as relaxing as it could have been since her life is a bit chaotic at the moment, but it was good that I was there for her and I loved every minute we spent together. S, I don't know what I would have done in Cartagena without you (and your swimming pools and tourist guide advice), I'm so glad that we met. It has been so much fun, you will always be my number one Cartagena friend!
No need to be sad, we will see each other soon again!
And you were the best packing assistant yesterday ;)
Last days always go by in a flash (and I always plan too much to do), and I had a lot of last-minute things to take care of. Still, I got to spend a lot of time with my friends, enjoying the beautiful city, and doing some of my favorite things.
I did some surfing with the greatest teacher F and zumba with the greatest teacher D:
I spent a lot of time with my dear friend A, on the beach, walking around, having coffee and sushi, and going out a bit. Those were perfect times, as always with you.
Also, E, my friend from Cali, came to visit and it was great to spend a lazy day with him, picnicking on the beach. And luckily K too came back from her travels so we got to spend some time together.
My last walk in the sunset was as lovely as always:
There are so many things that I will miss from my time here (for example my friends, La Vecina kids, sea, sun, sunsets, swimming pool life, coffee, fruits, hammocks, dancing and the whole laidback way of living) and there are things that I won't miss at all (for example sweating all the time, being covered in sand or mosquito repellent all the time, cold showers, rice, fried food, lack of organization, waiting, and the overall chaotic way of living). I think it is possible to adapt to any kind of place and life style. I am very Parisian but here I've learnt to take it easy and don't worry about stupid things. I even look so different: I can barely remember how it was to dry my (long) hair with a blow dryer or wear high heels, jackets or anything with long sleeves, it feels like ages ago. I've gotten used to cold showers, and to the fact that it is so hot and humid that when leaving my house in the morning i already look and feel sweaty. I'm sure I will get used to the civilisation and Parisian stylish life too, and appreciate it a lot. But it will also be very different. Here I feel so naturally pretty. Tanned, dressed in shorts and flip flops, wearing very little makeup. I just made a new record in not using mascara for 17 days in a row.
Emotionally too, it will be hard to go back to my old life. I left Paris almost 8 months ago and even if it feels like yesterday, a lot has happened since and I have changed from who I was before. I feel very confused and I have no idea of how I will react being back. However, I also realize that I'm extremely privileged to be able to do that: to come here and explore a new continent, and then go back to my life in Europe. Some call me adventurous and brave, some think that I'm completely crazy traveling alone in Latin America and moving to a place like Colombia. But why I can travel, live abroad and try new things is because I have my safety net back home. I grew up in a safe and stable environment and have always had loving family and friends around me. My parents can and will support me financially when I'm in trouble and I can always call them or a friend when I feel lonely and need comfort. Moving abroad alone at a young age has taught me to be independent, and persistent when facing challenges. I know that I survive anywhere and that I always make friends. Exploring the world and following my dreams is easy because I have always had the opportunity to do it.
Don't get me wrong, my life has never been a bed of roses. From my parents I have learnt the importance of working hard to achieve goals. Living and studying abroad was nor easy, I had my bad times and I learnt a lot from my mistakes. That I graduated with top grades from one of the best Universities in Paris, that I've succeeded in my internships, that I got the chance to live in Colombia, and that I'm (hopefully) on the right road to becoming the cosmopolite business woman I aspired to be when I was younger, is not only because I've been lucky. It is also thanks to my own ambition, curiosity and hard work. But I don't take anything for granted anymore. Here I've realized that I've been extremely blessed in life. So many of the people I've met in Colombia, Cuba and Jamaica live a life that is like from an other planet. Not only is their life a lot more modest and simple, in the sense that they may just live on the beach or work in something very basic and be happy with that, but it is also filled with real problems: poverty, violence, crimes. The stories I've heard here are crazy and beyond my understanding. South America is developing but it is still so far from Europe or the US.
Many of you (especially my mum) were panicking when I decided to move to Colombia. Me too, I was a bit scared. I even remember one time, maybe a month before my departure, when I had had a drink with a friend and on our way home I collapsed on the sidewalk and started crying hysterically, for the first time realizing that maybe Colombia was not the cleverest choice of destination. So I must now comment the safety issue.
Colombia has during the past decade or so gone through a massive development. It is now perfectly safe to travel here; the roads are good and there are police everywhere. When I came home from Riohacha, our bus got controlled: everybody had to step outside and they checked our IDs to make sure that nobody was there illegally. When taking a car or minivan from one town to another you can often see guards standing on the sides of the street, giving a mutual "thumbs up" with the drivers passing by. Like "thanks for driving here, and thanks for keeping a watch". General precaution is recommended, naturally, but that is the case everywhere. The dangers here are different than in Europe. There are conflicts between various groups or gangs but they don't care about tourists. I don't feel like being in danger. We talked about this with S the other day and of course it is true that we are lucky to live in Cartagena, in safe and chic neighbourhoods, and we don't usually have to go anywhere where we would put ourselves in danger. Except for me working in La Boquilla but as I've said many times, the people there are so kind and friendly that I could never think of it as an unsafe area. So it is not the same than for locals who live in marginalized conditions and constantly have to worry. Overall, I have felt very safe here and I'm not that excited about going back to Paris where I will see as many armed gendarme as here, and where my bags will be checked wherever I go. I left 10 days after the November 13 attacks but that horrible weekend is still in my mind, like if it was yesterday. For me it was good to get away, but I don't know at all how the atmosphere in Paris is now. If it still is that people are afraid to go out and have that uneasy feeling that while they are having a drink on a terrace, someone may just come and start shooting, it is not a very easy place to live.
Despite all that, I think that Paris is the place where I want to settle now (before moving abroad again). I had to go far away to understand it but it really is the city I love the most. These past months I have learnt a lot about myself and about what I want to do in life, and I now have a clear vision of my new life in Paris. I have accepted a 5-month contract as an International Assignment Consultant with Cartus, a company where I did two internships some years ago. After that I wish to work in Event Management because, besides writing, organising all kinds of events, parties and get togethers is what I'm truly passionate about, and quite good at too, I've heard. All tips and contacts are more than welcome! I also have a new writing project in mind, I'll tell you about that later...
Right now, on the plane destination Miami, my heart is split in two. I already miss Cartagena, Colombia, and all the countries and places I've visited here. But at the same time I know that it is time for me to move back to Paris and start a different kind of life. I know that I will be back in Colombia soon, I just have to. And it is not even only about coming back to Cartagena and seeing my friends, there are also tons of other places that I want to see. Next time(s) when I come to Colombia I want to visit the Coffee region in Salento and Corcora Valley, travel to the Amazon and to San Andres island, see whales on the Pacific Coast, and discover Caño Cristales, the river of five colours. In a country as diverse and exotic as Colombia is, there will always be more things to see and do.
This has been adventure and I've experienced countless new things. Besides my addiction to coffee, I am now also able to drink beer and I can recognise and name all possible exotic fruits only based on how the juice looks. I can pronounce "maracuyá" the real Colombian way and I think my guacamole is quite delicious. I am an expert in negotiating the price of almost anything, and I can speak good, conversational Spanish. Tanned and happy, it is time for me to go. Goodbye Colombia, and goodbye the Caribbean. I will miss you.
Read the next story here.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!