I first stepped off the plane at Cartagena’s Rafeael Nuñez International airport four years ago, and still remember the thick, humid heat hitting me in my heavy, black sweater. The plan was to stay for three months and study Spanish, but unexpectedly, months turned into years.
My pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and cringe-worthy Spanish had immediately cast me into a role; although one I didn’t pathom, yet. I was the typical ‘gringa’ and my experiences in those first few months never strayed far from the script.
My schoolmates and I never left the touristic parts of the city, which we navigated with our rudimentary Spanish. And we were loving every minute of it. One day, a friend invited me to check out a beach called La Boquilla, where I was introduced to the sport that would change my life: kitesurfing.
After my three months were up, I was offered a job as an administrator at the kitesurfing school, and I jumped at the opportunity. I went back to To- ronto, sold my car and my belongings, and headed back to Cartagena with a one way ticket. My future husband Deivis was an instructor at the kitesurfing school, and it was through him that I would learn what it really meant to be
Soon after we started dating, my living situation became unstable, and I decided to move into Deivis’ neighbourhood. When I first told my current roommate where I was going to live, she almost forbade me from leaving the apartment. ‘You’re moving where? San Pacho?’ Being the rebel that I am, her reluctance added to my intrigue.
If I was a gringa in Cartagena, in San Pacho I was the Gringa. I was the minority, a white girl in a black neigh- bourhood, and a sea of eyes followed me wherever I went. There were around fifteen of us living in our small alleyway of wooden houses. We all shared a bath- room and a front porch. The bathroom walls were made of sheet metal, covered in green algae. In the mornings, the water pressure never reached the bath- room, so we filled a bucket of water from the tap. The neighbours didn’t have a bathroom, which I discovered when the breeze shifted a certain direction and unpleasant smells wafted onto our patio. “What do they do when they get sick?” I asked. Deivis response was ob- vious, but for me it was a badly needly reality check – “You gotta do, what you gotta do.”
During the day the house is always full of friends and relatives. Music, gossip, laughter, and shouting always fill our small alleyway. Privacy is unheard of, and everyones business is always out in the open. When any sort of drama goes down, I can always count on waking up the next morning to voices outside the house, gossiping about what happened the day before.
Daily tasks are more difficult. Cooking, laundry, cleaning, showering, all requires more time and manual labour, with less space and resources. Many times I have gotten so frustrated in the middle of cooking or cleaning, that I’ve stopped, sat down, and just cried. And then I see the other women of the household, working all day in the hot sun, waking up at four in the morning to wash their children’s clothes by hand, and then coming home at night to cook everyone dinner. That usually shuts me up pretty quick.
One day, I was on my way home from grocery shopping when I felt a painful tug around my neck. Before I knew it, the strap on my purse had broken,and I saw it in the hands of a passenger getting off the bus. My first reaction was to grab the other end of the strap and pull as hard as I could, which only left me with my purse strap in my hands. The two guys who just robbed me walked down a narrow street, as I got off the bus and watched them leave, open-mouthed. I got home to find Deivis’ family sitting outside, chatting. The shock of my first robbery had passed and I immediately burst into tears, and through sobs told them I’d been robbed. All of them immediately got up and rushed to hug me, one got me a chair, the other shoved a phone into my hand and told me to call Deivis. While I wait- ed for him to get home from work, they sat with me and told me stories about the times they got robbed to make me laugh. I didn’t loose too much in my purse, but it was one of the first times that I genuinely felt loved and comfort- ed by Deivis’ family.
After two years of living in the neighbourhood, my presence has slowly become ‘last week’s’ news. I know the names and faces of everyone around the block, and can now greet everyone like a pro. I’ve danced champeta on the corner, learned to cook full meals with a hotplate, and shared unforgettable adventures, laughter, and tears with my new family. I’ve also witnessed racism against those I love, and Cartagena’s cruel tendency to unjustly exclude locals from experiencing the city like I did when I first arrived. I’m still a gringa – but now – I’m proud to be the gringa sanpachera.