Two Tales of One City

Street art in Getsemani, an old district just outside the city wallsStreet art in Getsemani, an old district just outside the city walls

It’s that South American time of the year again. Arrived a week and half earlier than usual in Cartagena, Colombia to the predictably exquisite weather of January and February. In fact, so exquisite, with hardly a cloud in the sky, that street shooting time almost regulates itself, to an hour and some at both ends of the day. Except that for the first time, this year, I’m placing more faith in the early morning than in the late afternoon.

My second city is changing, and from a photographer’s point of view not really for the better. I’d had a hint of this in an article published a coupe of weeks ago in El Tiempo, one of the two old national broadsheets. This lovely colonial city, for so long well off the tourist map because of Colombia’s long-running interwoven guerrilla and drug problems, is now the continent’s great success story. — and becoming distinctly less lovely as a result. What prompted it, of course, was peace, or what passes for that right now. And the new push is tourism, which is rapidly successful. Cartagena is Colombia’s top tourist destination, and we (I count myself as an honorary Cartageneran, not least because three years ago the mayor gave me the key to the city) have mixed feelings about it. The economy improves, buildings are restored, but the price is a city increasingly taken over by tourism.

On the New Year weekend five cruise liners docked here, bringing 11,000 visitors into the city. Imagine that, and this is into a walled city that measures just one kilometre by 500 metres. Villages are larger than this! And those are just the weekend visitors. To borrow Henri Cartier-Bresson’s analogy of hunting wildlife, the local variety, the Cartagenerans with their unique way of street life, are becoming an endangered species.

Strange that water melons here are so plentiful and cheap — but not cheap enough for many families in Rafael Núñez. Quite a few of the children either don’t like them or don’t know how to eat themStrange that water melons here are so plentiful and cheap — but not cheap enough for many families in Rafael Núñez. Quite a few of the children either don’t like them or don’t know how to eat them

Not too many years ago the streets at night were empty and there wasn’t a single hotel within the city walls. Now there are hundreds, vying with restaurants and shops for tourist money that is pouring in. That’s manageable, but what’s veering out of control is the stuff on the street. Cartagena is a tropical city, and life is very much out in the open, which has made it such a great street photography location. But what has also poured onto the street is a specific Latin American phenomenon — the vendedores ambulantes, street vendors — except that here they’re not at all ambulant. These are not a few people walking around with baskets of fruit. We’re talking about a mini-shop selling beads, jewellery, Panama hats, woven bags, and so on, all spread out over the pavement, of which few inches are left to walk on. As my old friend Eduardo Camacho, an architect here, told me yesterday, the latest count is three and a half thousand of them, so it’s a disaster for photography, and only the early mornings are free.

Yes, you’d be quite right to point out that Cartagena and its economy doesn’t exist for photographers, and there are bigger issues at stake. It depends on how you judge success. From the point of view of a hotelier or restaurant owner, it’s all good, but that’s short term. In the longer view, the specialness of this traditional city is at risk of disappearing — the very thing that drew tourists here in the first place. Can it be managed? In principle, always, but while I thought if you can count the vendors you can surely find a way to move them on, that’s not the way it works here, and the new mayor doesn’t see it a priority.

Five kilometres across town, behind La Popa, the hill topped by an old convent that arriving airline passengers see at eye level just before landing, is a very different picture. On the shores of the evocatively named Ciénaga de la Virgen (Swamp of the Virgin) is a part of the city that no tourist in their right mind would visit. As in most of South America, the drift to the cities means that they steadily accrete, as squatters settle on the outskirts. The sector Rafael Núñez is now far from the outskirts and its streets are paved, and it has a sort of infrastructure, but it remains in poverty. A few days after picking my way over assorted hats, bags and trinkets in the old city, I’m driving out here with another old friend, Elena Mogollon, who has created a different kind of success story from Cartagena the hot tourist destination. Her charitable foundation Granitos de Paz, which began with infant schooling, is now one of the country’s respected models for bringing education to the tugurios (slums).

19731_46m+GranitosScenes from school life, including soccer practice demonstrating that you don’t really need shiny new footballs

It’s two years since I’ve visited, and Elena’s highly organised foundation has gone from success to success. The school, pictured here, is now only a part of the operation, which extends to helping families to grow vegetables and herbs in their backyards (which the Foundation then collects and sells in the city), training women in income-generating skills like beauty services (it then gives them professional kits), to building houses and handing them over to families. This last one is new, made possible because Granitos de Paz now attracts donations from abroad.

Granitos de Paz school, Barrio Rafael Nuñez, Cartagena, ColombiaAs we arrived last week, this horse’s cart was being loaded with building materials

From the narrow perspective of photography, it’s places like this that for me have more of a story to tell. But it goes deeper than this. There’s a basic link between tourism and the Foundation that might not be immediately obvious. The backyard planting project is successful because the Foundation has a ready, discriminating market — the new restaurant and hotels in the city. And a major part of the training programme is in the service industry, — the very same places that are driving the tourist boom. So it depends on how you define success.

Next event is the Emirates Airline Literary Festival in Dubai, where I’ll be from the 6th to the 12th of March.