When I was 28 years old, I met a guy on a bus in Cartagena and the encounter changed the course of my life forever.
At the time, I was living and working in Ireland, and on a foggy Monday morning in Dublin, during a strategic meeting, I was asked to travel to Colombia to recruit bankers for the annual banking conference our company organized in Miami.
My eyes lit up – I was going to return to Pedro Heredia’s jewel in the Caribbean, where the Spaniards extended their colony, and where I spent many happy moments as a child.
My flights were booked; my mission was clear. After spending some days in Bogotá visiting presidents of local and foreign banks, it was time to fly to Cartagena and attend the annual bankers’ convention.
When the doors of the plane opened at Rafael Nuñez, the unforgettable Caribbean warm, sultry heat enwrapped me, and my adventure began. I began to experience the mixture of sounds and smells which characterize Cartagena — the cacophony produced by the hustle and bustle in the streets, the music, the Maria Mulatas’ distinct sharp chirp and the wails of the fruit sellers.
Cartagena’s walls, rooftops and streets set against the shimmering Caribbean, mesmerize me. The Hotel Caribe, just as I remembered it as a child, would be my base for a couple of nights. At 28, my life was uncomplicated and trouble free. Yes, I had lost my father four years before, but dealt with his loss by doing what he loved most — traveling.
I had lived, studied and worked in different countries, including Spain, Belgium, England, Italy and Cyprus. I had learned several languages. I had friends and admirers and regularly fell in and out of love.
It was perhaps one of the best chapters of my life.
I attended the conference, networked, smiled and conquered the stiff business world. At lunchtime, delegates would be transported to the Naval Museum, and a series of buses lined up in front of the Convention Center ready to take over 1,000 delegates to the lunch venue.
As I waited under the hot sun for the next available bus, I was tempted to skip the corporate event and return to my hotel and lounge by the pool, but I surprised myself by getting onto the next bus, continuing with my public relations exercise.
As I was boarding, a voice from behind commented on the high temperatures, I turned around and encountered a man whose smile captivated me. We both entered the bus and sat together. He invited me to join him for lunch, and afterwards he suggested not to return to the afternoon session but invited me to explore Cartagena’s old haunts.
We visited old colonial houses with their interior cool gardens and patios, we viewed the walled city from different rooftops, stopped for the occasional rums, leading onto a night of dancing to son cubano and salsa.
The next day, after a late lunch of seafood and wine in a corner tavern facing the ramparts, I caught my plane back to Bogotá and onward flight to London. Back in Dublin, the following Monday morning, an e-mail came through.
“I love New York in June, how about you?”
A month later we sealed our love in New York and eight months after our Upper East Side tryst, got married in a castle in Ireland surrounded by friends and family, returning to Colombia to set up our home.
Twenty years later, we are still together. The girl on the bus has since had two wonderful children, has lost a child, has matured, has conquered, has laughed, cried, made mistakes and has aged.
The girl on the bus has learned that without love, without being loved, our journey through life is worthless. Circumstance and serendipity shape our journeys. Accumulate love, accumulate experiences, express your feelings and your fears, let accidental encounters inspire you.
When it comes to Cartagena, city that first declared independence against its Spanish colonizers on November 11, 1811, there is but one rule: Always jump on that bus!