Taxi drivers crowded around, looking for custom. A man had his hand on my suitcase and forcibly dragged it towards a car. I followed closely while others clammered in Spanish that I should go with them. The case in the boot of a car, my other hand luggage hugged closely in the back of this low taxi, I realised that the man who had moved my case was not the driver but another. He asked for money; all I had were a few pesos from a friend of mine who had visited some months before and a few straggly US Dollars left over from my time in Zimbabwe. I gave him a ragged dollar, to which he was supremely insulted. I tried to say “no change” in Spanish but fortunately my taxi driver sped me away.
I had half expected there to be some sort of crowd outside the airport looking for my business (nowhere near as bad as I got), so I had prepared a Spanish speech about where I wanted to go. I had a travel book on South America and had picked a hotel from it near the airport. I had to get back for the 9 o’clock flight to Bogota next morning, so did not want to go too far away. I announced this to the driver who turned the car towards the beach and the old town of Cartegena and we sped on. Even in the late evening and with my tiredness, the low stone walls of the old town along the coast looked wonderful. The Bellavista Hotel I was looking for was along this road into town and the taxi driver asked me to wait while he checked on availability. In my state I never thought of disbelieving him, but accepted that the hotel was full when he came back out. He said in broken English not to worry, he knew of another hotel in town. Part relieved that I had an alternative, part terrified by the fact I was driving into the unknown of a city in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, I had no options to take that would give me anything better, so we drove on. We passed by the still floodlit centre of the city and along a narrow causeway. We entered another part of town with modern skyscrapers everywhere. The main street was neon-lit from restaurants and bars, and we stopped in the centre of this. Wedged between two restaurants was an open reception area. I was brought in by the driver and given a room. I paid the taxi man and asked him to pick me up early next morning to get me back to the airport. I went into my room which was small and dark. There were no outside windows, only a glass panel above the door which meant the hall lights came glaring into the room all night. There was simply a bed and a few bits of ill-made furniture. At one end of the room was a brick lip that led into a shower and toilet area. The shower dribbled freezing water. The air conditioning unit shuddered above the bed.
I went out and across the road to a restaurant where I finally started to relax a little, had a beer and a little food. I could not work this area out. The driver had said something about being in Boca Grande. With the traffic coming up and down the road, I wrongly assumed that this was the main road out of town. In fact I was in the grand holiday area of Cartegena where hundreds of modern hotels had sprung up over the previous twenty years. Boca Grande was merely a peninsula protecting the lagoons behind the city – it was a dead end, but the amount of activity made it feel more like the centre of the city than the old town itself.
I carefully crossed back over the road to the hotel and tried to get some rest. It was past 11 o clock local time and five hours behind UK time. I had to be back at the airport by 8 so there was not much time. But that night seemed like an eternity. Firstly the noise of the air conditioning kept me awake. The thought of being in the middle of the journey, stranded between family and friends, was not conducive to restful sleep. And the bed itself was remarkably uncomfortable, the smell of fifty other people on the blankets and the slight grease mark on the sheet where others had lain was unsanitary. I tried to rest without the air conditioning but my feeble temperate body could not control the sweating in that claustrophobic room. So back it went on and I seemed to listen for hour after hour of its range of motor noises. The light through the gap in the window above me was never extinguished and there was no way I could get up there to block it out. So I lay there miserable counting every second that went by. Just when I started to doze, a noise in the corner of the room made me start. Thinking it might be a rat, I reached for my small torch that I had on top of my hand luggage and shone it in the corner. The creature seemed almost as large as a rat as it cowered against the skirting board but in fact was my first (and still the largest) cockroach that I had come across. Browny red and glistening, its ugly features were immediately repulsive. It continued to cower for a moment and then scuttled behind the bedside cabinet.
All thoughts of sleep were lost from my head by this stage and I was so glad when six o clock came around and I could do something constructive like have a shower. Drip, drip, drip. It was too early for breakfast when I woke up, so I waited parched and hungry in the lobby for my taxi man (the room was too depressing to stay in any longer).
The taxi was on time and we sped through the streets in the bright early morning. Seeing the city pass by made me look forward to the end of my holiday when I planned to spend more time here, as long as I found a better hotel. The airport was completely transformed from the clambering hell hole of the previous night, now it was a quiet provincial terminal, open on one side for departures. I walked up to the desk, no queue in the way, and asked the girl there whether she had my tickets. Mauro had promised to arrange this for me. But they were not there and there was no record that I was meant to be travelling anywhere.