Mar. 08, 2006 - Issue #542: Crowds/Conversations/Confessions
3 DOLLAR BILL
Homosexuals go on winter vacation, too
We ducked around the corner to check out Cartagena’s only other gay bar, Lincoln Road, then walked back towards the Old Town’s city gates via the Plaza de Bolivar where, at this late hour, just two old men sat quietly puffing on cigarettes on a park bench. Nearby two drivers stood alongside their horse-drawn carriages.
There were no cars to be seen anywhere.
When three other carriages approached us in the darkness—their horses’ hooves echoed down the street while a few lit streetlamps glowed like lanterns—I turned to Bicente and said, “My God, this could be the 17th century!”
I was momentarily transported through time, except that back then, of course, the Spanish tortured and executed gay people like me, like they did Colombian Indians, African slaves and people accused of sorcery.
That was mainly why I wanted to visit Cartagena de Indias, founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. I wanted to see with my own eyes the gateway city to South America where millions of African slaves were auctioned and sold.
Today the Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But nearly five centuries ago, the Spanish stored plundered treasure in Cartagena until galleons shipped the gold back to Spain. French and British pirates repeatedly sacked the city, most notably Sir Francis Drake, who successfully held the city for ransom for 10 million pesos in 1580.
So Spain built 300 forts and fortresses in Colombia, erecting by 1657 Cartagena’s Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest and strongest fortress the Spaniards ever constructed in their colonies.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas overlooks the Old City that sits at the foot of San Lazaro Hill, a town that—when the plundered gold ran dry—Spain granted a royal monopoly as a slave-trading port. Over a million African slaves died in Cartegena before slavery was abolished in 1852, and Bicente and I made sure to visit Plaza de los Coches, the triangular square that used to house Cartagena’s slave market.
At the height of the Spanish Inquisition, many slaves and rebels were tried, tortured and executed at the Palacio de la Inquisicion, or Palace of the Inquisition, located at Plaza de Bolivar. It was the seat of the Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office from 1610 until independence in 1821. There, visitors can visit room after room filled with tools used by Spaniards to torture their subjects. The place gave me the chills.
Today, Cartagena still has a race problem. One can’t help but notice that the lighter-skinned Colombians hold mostly white-collar management jobs while black and darker-skinned Colombians work low-paying hospitality and service-sector jobs. Blacks also uniformly make up the corps of street vendors who hustle tourists on the public beaches along Cartagena’s hotel strip in Bocagrande.
Still, Cartagena, unlike much of Colombia (which goes to the polls for congressional elections on Mar 12), is fairly safe. Security experts say the number of hostage takings in Haiti now dwarfs those in Colombia, long considered the undisputed world champ in kidnappings, where some 2 200 abductions were reported in 2003. That’s down from a record 4 000 kidnappings in Colombia in 1995.
Foreign Affairs Canada states on its website, “You are advised against all travel to Colombia until further notice, with the exception of the city of Cartagena.”
And you’ll see why: There are police officers everywhere maintaining calm in a city that’s undergoing a tourism and condo boom. Cartagena is also the hometown of onetime Montreal Expos superstar infielder Orlando Cabrera, now playing for the LA Angels, and it is the home of Los Tigres de Cartagena—the New York Yankees of Colombia, if you will—who won Colombia’s 2005/2006 baseball title.
What you won’t see parading on the streets of Cartagena are gays and lesbians, who remain mostly invisible to the untrained eye. I, on the other hand, stood out like the fabulous queen that I am: the week I was there I was surely the only hombre in all of Colombia with bottle-blonde hair.
So I flirted a whole lot.
While there are reportedly dozens of gay bars scattered throughout the capitol city of Bogota, I found only two in Cartagena—the above-mentioned Lincoln Road and Via Libre, which is housed in the defunct Gran Via restaurant in front of the University of Cartagena on Calle de la Soledad.
And it was here at Via Libre I witnessed the kind of diva worship local fags usually reserve for the pride of Colombia, superstar Shakira. It was nice to see a diva is a diva in every land and every language. When the deejay played the deep grooves of Donna Summer, Diana Ross, RuPaul and Madonna, the hands went up right across the dancefloor.
“Viva las divas!” I told Bicente, and then I shook my booty. V
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