CARTAGENA de Indias, Colombia, June 20, 1986. “Let’s build a castle on the sand and bring the sand set with us,” I said to my mom with a big smile on my face. It was my second day in Cartagena de Indias. I had seen the ocean once, but I was too little to be able to enjoy it to the fullest. “Where can we get some plastic cups?” I asked mom. “Why do you need plastic cups for?” she replied. “I need them to give shape to the towers of my castle.” “Have you realized mom that damp sand is easier to handle? It fits the shape of any container and feels colder when it is touched by water?” She smiled back at me, letting me know that she would be finishing her drink soon, and she would let me use her cup.
“Be careful” I heard my mom screaming in the back. “Don’t get too close to the shore. Just move up a little bit. You don’t want your castle to crumble”. My eyes and hands were fascinated with the tiny golden sand grains running through my fingers as if it was dry rain.
As I continued building my castle, loud voices broke the silence of my game. “Lleve el mango verde,” “Lleve el mango verde a cien pesos la unidad”. A big shade was blocking the sunshine from illuminating my castle. A big black woman appeared in the back, with what seemed to be a heavy basket of mangos on her head. Her rounded hips were moving as if it was a slow rhythmical dance. Suddenly, a group of kids surrounded her, asking for lemon and salt. “Limon y sal?” Are they putting lemon and salt on the mangos?” “Mom,” Are they crazy?” She explained to me that people in the Atlantic and the Pacific Colombian coasts are used to eating them like that. My mother also explained that in a city so beautiful, anything is possible.
She was damn right! Walking on the beach, I found myself in front of big “mango ladies” braiding people’s hair. Big plastic bags full of ‘beads’ of different colors rested on their laps. The big mango woman showed me a small photo-album with almost twenty different pictures of hairstyles. I begged my mom to let me have my hair braided like the blond girl in front of me. And as soon as she agreed, I picked a simple style weird enough to make me look extravagant.
What a painful session I went through. It hurt even more when I looked myself at the mirror. “You look beautiful,” mom said, but I was not fully convinced. Then, I started to realize that my head was egg-shaped and that my nose and my ears looked even bigger than they seemed. My head felt heavier than before. I was feeling a little disappointed…But as soon as I started walking, I got fascinated with the movement of my braids and the light sound of the beads striking each other.
Sooner, I forgot about my hair. We went back to the hotel to change our clothes. My parents had planned to visit the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress. “El Castillo de San Felipe?” Are we going to a castle, mom? She smiled back at me and asked me to wait.
“Let’s catch a ride on a horse-drawn carriage,” dad said. Wasn’t that exciting? My dad then negotiated the price with the young horse rider before we climbed aboard.
The three of us fit perfectly in the back seat. My mom allowed me to sit in the corner, so I could see the ocean. For a moment, I felt just like Cinderella, but without the prince. The streets were narrow and crowded with people selling Cartagena souvenirs: t-shirts, towels, coffee mugs, key holders, among some other cool things.
From the distance a big gray building appeared in front of me. “We are getting closer,” dad whispered in my ear. “Is this a joke or something like that?” I said to myself. “This can not be a castle.” It was a big fortification made of bricks and concrete. My mother immediately recognized the expression of my eyes. I wrinkled my brow as a sign of displeasure. Rapidly, we got off the carriage and bought the entrance tickets. Then, we were told to wait for the tourist guide to arrive. And there I was, waiting to see at least the ruins of a royal palace, its rooms, its corridors and its ample dancing ballrooms. I never thought that what I was about to see was going to be even more exciting.
As I started exploring the ruins of what it used to be a castle, I realized that San Felipe de Barajas was not the type of palace people are used to seeing in travel catalogs or Walt Disney movies. On the contrary, it was a just a fortress built by the Spanish conquerors designed to protect their treasures from evil pirates and English warships.
The Castle had no rooms, but instead it had labyrinths, tunnels, and traps designed by Spanish warriors to confuse the enemies. Walking through the castle I found myself in front of big cannons located in the upper part of the castle, which faced the ocean.
I could not stop myself from running all over the place. I jumped up and down pretending to be a pirate. It was so much fun to see how people could hide behind the darkness of its caves without being noticed. It took me seconds to disappear from my mother’s sight. “Mom…can you see me?” She started looking around. “Andrea,” “where are you?” She looked confused and disoriented. “I’m here,” I replied. My father smiled at my mom, and then a small shadowy figure came out from the dark. It was me!
Suddenly, I started to realize that the walkways were getting deeper and narrower every time. I have to admit that for a moment I found it difficult to breathe. I played in the caves and interconnected passages for a little while until my mom decided it was enough for the day.
The next morning I went back to the beach. I was ready to play with my sand set again when I saw my mom approaching me with her hands full of plastic cups for me. “I thought you would need some,” she said. I smiled and thanked her for her kindness. But I denied her offer. I had enough tools already to build my own castle, with no towers, with no rooms, with no dancing ballrooms. I could try to build a fort like the one of San Felipe de Barajas.