A Cartagena Surprise.
Cartagena has three main sections (plus the long expanse of skyscraper hotels and offices stretching off down the coast). The Old Town is the primary tourist section, with museums, shops, and discotecas, where old walls, either crumbling or restored, line the narrow streets with colorful exuberance and colonial history. (There’s an expensive restaurant where the slave market used to be.) Rooms here cost 3-4 suitcases full of money.
To the northeast is San Diego, for the still-affluent but not extravagantly so. The buildings are all in good condition, the paint new, the personality bleached. A relative bargain, it only takes one suitcase full of cash to spend the night here. This is where the well-to-do Colombian tourists seem to stay.
Then there’s Getsemani. Guidebooks describe neighborhoods like this as “gritty.” There are stray dogs, homeless, expanses of rotting garbage, and flocks of backpackers cramming into party hostels. A meal here costs about $4, there are real people in the street and plazas, and you don’t get hassled nearly as much.
I got lucky when I rocked up off the boat, Australians in tow, and ended up at the quiet one. There is no real common area to meet people, and there have only been a few other travelers. After a few days the Aussies left and, missing human contact, I went to look at other options. Each time I found a typical backpacker hostel, crammed with drunken kids chasing into each other’s underwear, for about twice the price. I’m too old and spoiled for that crap right now.
So I’ve been enjoying the quiet comfort of the Hotel Familiar. I got lucky though and met a little group of travelers in a restaurant a couple nights ago, so get to hang out with people as long as I want, then have a quiet place to sleep. We also made friends with the restaurant staff, who have been hanging out with us after work.
Today I ran into one of the waitresses out front (the restaurant is 2 doors down) waiting in the blazing sun for her shift to start. It was brutally hot and I offered to let her wait in my room, which has no aircon but does have a good fan. She hung out for about 10 minutes, checked her facebook on my computer and talked at that machine-gun speed about her family (talking to Colombians is maybe the world’s most challenging and interesting Spanish class) then went to work.
After she left the hotel staff informed me that there is a charge of 15,000 Colombian pesos (about $8) for visitors.
What?!? They pointed to a small sign up in the corner saying as much. Oh. This was one of the stranger things I’ve encountered…it took me a few minutes to figure it out.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia. Apparently the way it works here is they go to the specific bars, pick their girl, then either take them back to their hotel or to another one, which charges an hourly rate. Saying this, I suspect that is how prostitution works all over the world, but I hadn’t really thought about it as being different from the European Red Light Districts, where they have their own little rooms.
Once I started thinking about it I got a new impression of the rooms upstairs in my hotel, since there is no stairwell that I have seen, nor any people up there, other than what I assumed was a couple, getting intimate up there a few days ago.
For the last week I have been living in a brothel.
Well, not really a brothel, per se, but still. The “visitor” charge must be for prostitutes, but since it’s a general-language rule, they’re going to charge me for letting a friend browse her facebook here for 10 minutes. I can’t think of a more peculiar way to throw away $8.