I am going to Cartagena. Can you believe it! I am going to Cartagena!! Yes, THAT Cartagena, the magical place on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Don’t ask me, I can hardly believe it myself. I only wish my grandfather Redzo was alive so I could tell him. I would call him, he’d pick up and shout with the might of a 93-yeard old deafness.
“Who is it?? What do you want??”
“It is me, dide, Refik!! Do you hear me??”
“Sure I hear you, why the hell are you shouting like that? What do you want?”
“I am going to Cartagena, dide!!”
“Why? What have you done now?”
“No, dide, this is a good thing. You know Cartagena, Garcia Marquez lived there, Caribbean…”
“Is that in Mexico?”
“No, dide, this is Colombia. You know Garcia Marq…”
“I had bean soup today and emptied by bowels for the first time in five days. What do you say to that?”
“Dide, Cartagena, what are you talking about your bowels for?”
“That dog, the black one, jumped the fence today and ate Dusanka’s rooster. He didn’t really eat him, but sort of killed him and tossed him around for a bit. I don’t think there was any meat torn off.”
“Now the bitch wants me to give her one of my roosters. And not just any rooster, but the red one, with the shiny tail. Or two of those big white hens. Fucking snag! What is a dog supposed to do, play chess with a rooster?”
“I have to go, dide, I am sorry I called.”
“Fuck you then. Give my best to Florentino Ariza, we got drunk together once.”
Modulated voice announcing boarding for the Avianca flight 9544 from Bogota Eldorado to Cartagena des Indes rudely interrupts and my grandfather goes back to being dead.
How I want to be able to speak Spanish. I tried once and it didn’t work out, my daughter’s teacher stole the Rosetta Stone activation code and in return gave me the excuse for not doing the necessary work and learning this beloved language. Instead, I am straining to understand what the announcement says, as if the bursting of the largest vein on my forehead will lead me to Spanish enlightenment.
SomethingsomethingochosomethingAviancasomethingsomethingCartagenasomething… I am relieved when people around me start getting up and forming a line to board. With considerable glee I pull out my Silver Miles and More Card and cut in to join business class immortals in the priority boarding lane.
The attendant smiles as she take the boarding pass. I smile back as much as my face will allow without spasming. She scans the pass, but nothing happens. Again, nothing. No beep, no green light.
“I check,” says Carolina Perez.
“Is something wrong?” It was going too smoothly. It never goes smoothly. Carolina Perez types my name into the computer. Frowns. Types something else. Frowns more.
“Sir, you are booked for this flight, but tomorrow.”
“What? That can’t be, I am here now. Look, look, I have the boarding pass, they took my luggage and everything, there must be some mistake!”
“Sir, I am sorry, it says 27th November on the boarding pass.” Carolina Perez’s eyes start to glisten with impatience. I realize she is even more stunning when serious. “I don’t know how you got this far, but today is today, and you should not be here today. You are for tomorrow. Please stand aside so today’s passengers can go to Cartagena.”
I step aside and a short guy in a dark blue suit and white shirt triumphantly scans his boarding pass throwing me a superior glance of a winner who never has to step aside.
A blow, yes, but I am not defeated. Yet. Determined to be in Cartagena today, and not tomorrow, I run down the line of gates from 86 to 72 where my eyes feast on the sight of an Avianca help desk. Out of breath, I zero in on one free teller.
“Hi, do you speak English?”
“No, senor,” says Aurelia Flores. I desperately turn around with a pleading look, hoping to locate a friendly bilingual face. Nothing but blank, slightly annoyed stares.
“Ahhhhhmmm, I HAVE A TICKET FOR TOMORROW, OK?” (Why do I have to shout every time I suspect people don’t understand what I am saying? What the fuck is that all about?) Aurelia’s pained face a clear indication I should take it down a notch or two. “Manana, you know?”
“Si, manana,” nods Aurelia. My god, she is gorgeous with her raven hair and piercing blue eyes of that Afghani girl from the cover of National Geographic.
“But I want to travel today, ok? Is there a flight you can get me on today, please? Can I change my ticket?”
“Yes, please cambio my ticket for today. Please.”
“No, senor. I can’t change your ticket. You have to go to the passenger office and change the ticket there. The office is on the first floor, to the left of the exit,” explains Ms. Flores in perfect Spanish of which I did not understand a word. The exchange happened in broken sentences of two incompatible languages and plenty of desperate nodding, head shaking, gesticulation, shouting and sighing. We got there at the end, Aurelia and I.
Running through empty corridors, looking for the exit, with a dreadful feeling that I should not be there. Finally I see the baggage claim area, and the safety of a salida at its end. I am out, back in the throng of people greeting new arrivals, looking for checking counters, the especially sad congregating around the “lost baggage” office. Beside it, the passenger office.
“Do you speak English?” I am already soaked with sweat.
“No, senor,” counters Maria Vargas, surely former Miss Colombia.
“I need to cambio the ticket, not manana, today, I just want to go to Cartagena today, please.”
Maria’s divine blank stare impales my heart, and just as I am ready to start crying, a Tom Jones lookalike from the next line shouts: “You need help there?”
Without waiting for my response he crosses over, gathers all the relevant information, speaks to Maria, she retorts that yes, she can change the ticket but it will cost me 50 dollars (at this point I would gladly give blood for a ticket) and that I have to go and get my bag, otherwise she can’t change it. But how, where, can’t she just reroute my baggage to another flight? I am heading towards the baggage tracking office before the last consonant of “No, senor” leaves her Aphrodite-red, juicy lips.
A glass wall greets me, no contact is possible, just speak through the ball of mash wire pretending to be a microphone. This constrains the communication between Catalina Moreno and me even more. My fellow sufferers looking for their estranged bags join in trying to explain my predicament, gravitating around the “microphone” like fish around a hole in ice. Some 15 minutes later I paste the piece of paper with the information about my bag to the glass window, she writes it down, walks over to her computer, opens Google Translate and types the following message: “I will now look for your bag. It will take some time. It has gone to a special place, waiting for tomorrow.”
“I will wait here,” I slump to the ground, “I will not move until you come back from that special place, Catalina.”
Eons pass. I stopped looking into the glass window long ago. Phone battery is dead. I have no hope left.
A knock on the glass. It is not Catalina, she is gone. A young, well-groomed man with a mop of dark hair on his forehead is speaking to me in English.
“Sir, we looked everywhere for your bag, yes?”
“And we could not find it, yes?”
“It has gone to Cartagena, your bag, yes?”
“Why do you want your bag here?”
“I wanted to go to Cartagena with my bag but couldn’t, because I am tomorrow, and my bag is today.”
“I will help you, sir, yes?”
“Yes, oh God, yes.”
Fabian Vives comes around from behind the glass, takes my boarding pass, walks me over to the Avianca counter, says something brief and passionate to the teller and comes back with a new boarding pass.
“Here, sir. Go to Cartagena, your flight leaves in 10 minutes. Your bag will wait for you.”
I hug him. I run. I pass the same security check. The same gate. Carolina Perez smiles a smile of thousand pearly sunrises. Scans my pass. Green light illuminates the world. I am on the plane. Typing this. I land. Humid Caribbean air fills my lungs. My faithful bag greets me at the lost baggage office.
I am in Cartagena. The place where Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, and Love and Other Demons. This was the only right way to get here.
“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paris Review, 1981.