Sunday, March 03, 2013

Festival Of Colours

I started my South American by sticking to the Caribbean coast, visiting first Cartagena and then Maracaibo, the major ports of Colombia and Venezuela respectively, though their histories and characters are quite dissimilar. Cartagena was, for over two centuries, the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean, with imposing sea walls and fortresses protecting a sheltered lagoon port (not that that stopped it from being sacked by Francis Drake in 1586). Long regarded as the Pearl of the Caribbean it enjoys its status as doyenne of Spanish colonial culture and is one of the most visited tourist sites in the region. Maracaibo, on the other hand, was long nothing but a provincial backwater. Quite literally as it sits on the shore of Lake Maracaibo, South America's largest lake. It wasn't until the late 19th century, when substantial petroleum deposits were discovered beneath the lake, that the town's fortunes changed overnight, turning Venezuela into one of the world's leading producers of the black stuff. The town has little to recommend itself to passing tourists who rarely stop, except to change buses for somewhere more enticing, where it is not so hot or humid.

Cartagenas old fortifications looking out across to the modern, upmarket Bocagrande neighbourhood.

Cartagena's (or Cartagena de Indias, to give its full name and to distinguish it from its Spanish namesake) historic centre is a pleasant maze of narrow, cobbled streets, tall houses, baroque churches and overhanging balconies dripping with bougainvilleas, all encircled by the remains of the old city walls (a word of caution though, for those of you whose first awareness of Cartagena came from the film romancing the Stone, those scenes were actually shot in Mexico and none of those buildings is to be found in the real Cartagena - I was sorely disappointed). Stretching off to the south, on a small spit of land is the plush, upscale neighbourhood of Bocagrande, replete with towering condominia and pricey hotels. They were doing a brisk trade whilst I was there thanks to the latest incarnation of the annual FICCI, Latin America's oldest continually running film festival.This year's big name draw was Harvey Keitel, who was probably happy to have an all-expenses paid winter holiday in the Caribbean.

Screaming fans converging around a convoy of vans ferrying VIPs to gala screenings. Given the age and gender of many of the fans I'm assuming that Harvey Keitel was not one of them.

The festival theme continued in Maracaibo where I stumbled across the Velada de Santa Lucia modern art festival. Better than that, I was lucky enough to be staying with Francisco, a local fashion designer, who was exhibiting at the show. The  festival itself was unique in that it was held in a quaint residential street or brightly painted hoses, where the peoples' homes were "borrowed" to be used as display spaces, becoming integral parts of the art itself (it felt a bit strange walking round looking at pieces of art and seeing the family sitting at dinner in the room next door). It being modern art, much of it was abstract and experimental in the extreme, difficult to appreciate or begin to understand, though I found there was a naive (in a positive way) belief in the art and its message, that is rare to see in the West, where art has become a business in itself.

The Vellada de Santa Lucia in Maracaibo, one of the most vibrant and energetic arts festivals I've seen, thanks to the enthusiastic participation of the community in which it is held.

Although I have just arrived in the region and want to wait before making any sweeping generalisations or assertions, it is obvious from the little time I've been here of the ponderous influence of the United States in the region. Although political relations rise and fall (Colombia is currently Washington's darling whereas Chavez's antagonism towards the US is well documented) the cultural and financial relations remain more constant. The large number of American holidaymakers in Cartagena, Venezuela's love of beisbol (something of an incongruity in football-mad South America), the hordes of giant, belching, inefficient American cars from the 70's and 80's, and the innumerable stands selling hamburguesas and perros calientes are all evidence of the attractions of the north. One thing not to have thankfully traversed the Caribbean is American race relations. Instead the faces you see on the street cover the entire spectrum from pale, blond European, to black-as-coal Afro-Caribbean with the majority inhabiting the brown, mestizo middle-ground. And there does not seem to be any hint of any sort of racism whatsoever. Groups of girls of all complexions huddle together sharing secrets, whereas old, wrinkled men of all races sit on park benches criticising all and sundry. If South America has something to teach us, this must surely be one of them.

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