Latin America Taboo Travel

Don’t cry for me, Cartagena: Jewish James Bond

This won’t be your ordinary Cartagena travel blog. Yes, I did the ordinary Cartagena travel blog things. Wandered the streets of Old Cartagena.

They mostly involved cannons.

Lots of thick, old, walls.

Colonial buildings and museums wherein I learned that from its New World headquarters in Cartagena, Colombia – the Spanish Inquisition stretched as far across USAmerica as Chicago. 

UNESCO World Heritage sites are usually reminiscent of Disneyland and old Cartagena is no exception. Overrun with tourists and touts and costumes and dangers trying to make a buck.

It’s all a bit gross, though certainly made better by the occasional rum drink with a ridiculous hipster ice cube and a burning cigar in it.

I went outside mainstream tourism things, I did new Cartagena as well as old Cartagena. Rode the buses at night that race each other for customers at up to eighty mph on bigger roads. No photos of that because I was hanging on for dear life, but the barker/ticket seller was still hanging out the door of the bus, whooping and hollering at the other guy on the other bus or yelling out destinations to people near the stops. Amazed at their balance. Jobs not for Zoe.

This even more impressive due to Cartagena still being solidly at the moto level of development. The streets a sea of motorbikes that remind me for their rhythm of cities in Southeast Asia more than they do other cities in Latin America.

Soaked myself in the local culture as well as the beaches. Did the coconut encased drink while sitting in a lounge chair in the shade on the white sand staring at cyan turquoise waters. 

Walked the streets and went to the markets. I like the color and the vibe of new Cartagena far better than the touched up testimony to ugly colonial history: the gated, overcrowded amusement park of old Cartagena.

Though I will say I had the best coffee of my life there at the shop for the single origin Cafe San Alberto. Colombia wins for coffee and cacao.

Definitely not for cocaine, Bolivia wins for cocaine, but that’s another story…. Or two. Not part of the Cartagena travel blog.

No, this Cartagena travel blog isn’t about the colorful culture, music, food, or forts. It’s about the people I met while I was there.

Scouring Couchsurfing before I arrive in town I know it will be a long shot. Cartagena, Colombia is a hotspot for tourism and the competition for hosts is steep in these places. At the time I’m looking there are very few profiles and they all seem sketchy or not quite real in some way, including the one of my would be host.

His profile is filled out well, it’s his photo that throws me off. It’s turned sideways and very blurry, you can’t really make out a face. That combination seems odd to me, especially against the information contained in the profile. Later I learned why he would want to hide out on social media.

He was born in France but married to a Colombian, so said his profile. He doesn’t speak any English.

I note his profile includes references to klezmer music and another nod to having been to Israel, and I play the Jew card to get a place to stay. I figure between my ancient French and my rusty street Spanish we’ll be able to communicate just fine. This ends up being true, though I frequently speak one language while thinking I’m speaking the other.

The Jew card lands of course, especially alongside the admission that I am at the time using Brooklyn as a home base, and that my dad is from there. At this, he responds positively, promises to take me to the Grand Shul of Cartagena, and welcomes me from him, his wife Maria, his fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year old kids Rachel, Shira, and Isaac, his four cats, two rabbits, a pair of doves, and a pair of lovebirds, one of whom is also named Zoe.

It sounds like a lot, and reminds me of the Jewish tale “Could Anything Be Worse?” that my parents read me as a kid about appreciating the simplicity you have by introducing complexity by way of houseguests: animals, relatives. I’ve always felt the family vibe as overwhelming, I’m used to space and most families seem like alien networks. This, though, is an exception, of which there are some. It’s familiar, and seems like a good vibe, so I’m in.

I arrive midday. Colombian sun beating down. Sweaty tropics.

It’s a small house on a side street. There are no addresses so it takes a little while to find, but once I do I’m welcomed warmly.

My host, in his sixties, is naked except for a pair of black bikini underwear, a pair of dog tags which rest on his large belly overhanging said underwear, and an eyepatch over his left eye. He sports a brown bowl cut and a big, gravely laugh.

He’s almost a head shorter than I am, and reminds me instantly of both a cartoon character and a long lost uncle. Even in Spanish and sometimes French his cadence reminds me of every older Jewish relative I have.

My host gives me a tour, which includes introducing me to his wife and children. I chuckle at the Spanish pronunciation of Isaac. The kids are whip smart and his wife is salt of the earth Colombian with a very dry sense of humor, and about twenty years younger than he is. 

The tour also includes an explanation of the bathroom, and the piece of frosted glass shower door that doubles as the actual door to the bathroom, and then also as the shower door. One moves it to the most decent place depending on one’s use of the bathroom.

He calls this the “Puerto Automatico.”

The jokes are so rapid fire that I can’t get them all with my paltry language skills, but I’m laughing from the minute we meet. One of the constant jokes is his cry of “La Gripa” any time anyone including himself sneezes or coughs.

I learn what my host does for a living. He is a ballistics engineer. He blew his eye up back in college when he was experimenting with some bullets. He has made tech used in various USAmerican and European warfare. He shops contracts out to some shady characters. Currently he’s made new drone technology and also the anti-drone technology. Shopped the first out to some people on a side. The other now shopping out to some other people on the other side.

This is why he lays low in Cartagena, Colombia. His contracts are mostly in Europe and Africa so he’s pretty off limits over on a separate continent. 

I tie this back to the horrible colonial history that has always been headquartered in Cartagena, Colombia since there were Europeans there and even before. Colonial hotspots are always safe havens for those doing dirty deeds in the olde worlde.

Even so, it doesn’t tarnish our relationship. We are already like family. The first day I sit across from his daughter Rachel who asks me immediately on introduction, in Spanish:

“Are you Jewish?” she shoots at me, twirling a lock of hair around her finger as she slides into the seat across the picnic table from me. We’re in the room with the animals, and the homemade enclosures made of chicken wire and old fans that intersect the birdcage with the rabbit hutch. The tweeting of the birds makes a lovely background to this interrogation.

“Yes, but only by blood.” I say.

“Same with us. We’re Jewish, and we keep the traditions because they’re an important part of our identity, but none of us actually believe in G-d.” she says, shrugging. She’s sixteen years old and reminds me of a Jewish girl from Long Island, yet Colombian at the same time. She came out with mocha skin and curly blonde hair which she usually pulls back in a tight ponytail.

On Friday night we celebrate our shared Jewish heritage at the Grand Shul of Cartagena, which turns out to be just a room, really. Definitely not the subject of any letters home, let alone a Cartagena travel blog.

The women and men are separated. It’s a Sephardic Orthodox ceremony, which is interesting as both me and my host are of Ashkenazi heritage. 

But as I learned at the Museum of the Inquisition – Sephardic Jews when persecuted by the Spanish State would often intermarry and interbreed and hide their Jewishness. They’ve done blood tests on Colombians in some regions and found that there’s a very high prevalence of Jewish blood among old Catholic families. Makes sense to me, I’d hide with a posh husband before I’d run or fight, probably.

And, the first thing I noticed in Medellin was that everyone seemed to have a Jewish nose. 

But we are not in Medellin, we are in Cartagena. The women at the Grand Shul of Cartagena marvel at me when they find out I hail from Brooklyn. They want to know what synagogue I go to. I tell them I just moved there and haven’t found the one for me yet. One of them clutches my hands and tells me it would be her DREAM to see a Synagogue in Brooklyn.

I feel bad for how hard these people have worked to keep a religion that my people worked maybe not quite so hard to throw away.

After being cooked for by my host’s wife a few times I have gone to the store, purchased what turned out to be altogether too many ingredients, and cooked five different salads, all in giant bowls. Egg salad, bean salad, root veggie salad, fruit salad, and a green salad with cheese and olives and nuts. It takes me all day.

I expect at any point to be interrupted by any of the family, but no one comes home. I message my host, but there is no answer. Not much else to do, so fretting a bit I go to sleep. The next day I explore the neighborhood and try to make a plan of who to call and what to do about my disappearing hosts.

It could be anything from European mercenary terrorists to Colombian gang lords to random traffic accidents. He is, after all, the Jewish James Bond. I try not to think about it.

Around noon, the whole family arrives home at once.

It turns out to be “La Gripa”.

My host felt ill and was admitted to the hospital for testing, then released when they found nothing. His health woes are a frequent topic of conversation throughout the weeklong stay in Cartagena. They could make up their own Cartagena travel blog.

Luckily this time they are unfounded, and the family returns home after not having eaten for twenty-four hours. I pull out five salads. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and the timing is wonderful. Even with the five of them and me, we still have salads for the next two days. I smile when I see Isaac snacking on them in private. He has given up his bed for me, the bottom of a bunk bed in a mostly sealed room with a curtain for a door.

The two girls stay in bunk beds in the next room. Isaac sleeps on the couch while I’m in town so I’m glad he at least gets extra helpings of salad in return.

The host and I have many talks of morality throughout the week wherein he does not at all defend his Jewish James bond status, and doesn’t accept my defense of my work in advertising. We argue and debate and laugh. He warns me not to, but I connect with him on LinkedIn anyway. I can’t believe the Jewish James Bond has a LinkedIn profile.

I tell him of the story of dine and dashing the resort restaurant in Uruguay and he calls his wife into the room to tell her solemnly “we have a bandita staying with us”, cautioning her to lock up the silver and hide her valuables. She plays the perfect straight woman.

“What valuables?” she asks him.

The night goes on and we share stories of travels past. His tales of living in castles and fancy cars and stories of rebels and warlords I dare not repeat and my stories of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. He has had a long and colorful life. My host isn’t the biggest fan of Colombians in Cartagena, hence his frequent use of Couchsurfing to get some diversity. 

The kids seem happy enough though. On the way home from our night at the Grand Shul of Cartagena I see them hanging all over their friends there, laughing and having a good time. They all share a taxi home and we share another. I try to pay, but they won’t have it.

The next day when I ready myself to leave it’s a tearful goodbye. The kids all stand together waving. His wife packs food for me in to-go containers. The Jewish James Bond chokes up hugging me. 

It’s like leaving my family.

Another story of Colombia:

More about Colombians, in Brazil:

Another, naughtier story about a Couchsurfing host:


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