An American Abroad

Archives for May 2015

Cartagena 2008: Inside/Outside

Concepts like inside and outside tend to blur in Cartagena — indeed, in many tropical countries. Houses and other buildings in the old city are built around courtyards. Whether the courtyard counts as inside or outside is an issue I don’t really want to address. Same with rooftops.

The Hotel Agua had both a courtyard and a rooftop garden and pool. The views of the old city were striking, affording glimpses of both the beautiful facades of the city and the less beautiful inner and upper aspects of nearby residences.





Other much larger hotels had grand courtyards with enormous verandas, perfect for hanging out for a drink with friends. Those places were decorated in contemporary Colombian style, a look that combines Scandinavian elegance with South American colors and heat.




I preferred the smaller bars and cafés. The one below was my favorite. “Gabby comes here,” the barkeep told me, referring proudly to Cartagena’s native son, Gabriel García Márquez. I wondered how many bars in the US would so proudly announce their patronage by a then-living writer?





The cathedral was, of course, designed to over-awe and connect the congregation to the eternal. It was more restrained in its decoration than many South- and Central American churches I’ve seen, and to good effect.



Numerous alleyways were cut into the city’s buildings, resembling the medinas of Arabic nations. These further conflated the concepts of inside and outside.


This painting in a local gallery or museum caught my eye. I saw in it an ambiguous combination of gaiety and menace.

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Perhaps that was similar to the ambiguity of place I felt in Cartagena. Inside or outside? Public display or walled-off secrets? Devils or angels?

Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: The Dancers in Parque de Bolívar

It was a hot night. I heard music — Wild Afro-Caribbean beats. I followed the sound to Parque de Bolívar, in the center of the old city. There was rhythm, sweat, dancing, music, costumes, and a monkey. I turned my camera flash off and started shooting. The photos that resulted were more true to the actual sensation of being there than sharp, well-lit images would have been.












Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: At Night

As much as I seek to dispel stereotypes by traveling, there are some that are hard not to fall prey to. In Cartagena, I was all in on the notion that the city was every bit the magical, romantic place that its native son, Gabriel García Márquez, immortalized in Love in the Time of Cholera

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As Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times a few years ago,

Truth can be stranger than fiction in Cartagena, the Colombian city whose real-life blend of seediness and charm has been an important inspiration for one of the most imaginative writers of the modern era, Gabriel García Márquez. It is a city so pregnant with the near magical that, when Mr. García Márquez took a visiting Spaniard on a tour one day that included a Creole lunch and a stroll through the old city, it lowered his opinion of Mr. García Márquez’s talents. The Spaniard told Mr. García Márquez, as he would later record in an essay, “You’re just a notary without imagination.”

I’d never dismiss García Márquez as a mere note-taker. At night there I saw deep shadows, beautiful women, desolate wallscapes, and ancient archways all lit by soft yellow streetlamps. If you don’t feel something romantic in that, there’s no emotional Cialis that’ll help you.


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Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: Street Scenes 3

These are more daytime photos of Cartagena, Colombia, which I visited in 2008. As Lonely Planet puts it,

Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across plazas.









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Note: some of the photos above were taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: Street Scenes 2

Unlike the uniform blue and white of Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia or the monochromatic blues of Chefchaouen, Morocco, the colors of Cartagena vary, reflecting the many ethnic and cultural influences on the city.

This is a place where whose residents vary in hue from Afro-Caribbean black to northern Italian white and every shade in between. It has long been seen as standing somewhat apart from the rest of Colombia. Even during the height of the drug wars twenty years ago, Cartagena remained a relatively peaceful place. Even the country’s drug lords were reluctant to bring to Cartagena the violence and terror that ravaged Medellín and Cali. When I was there, the tourist authorities were deliberately playing up the city’s relative safety with a tag line that read “The only danger is that you’ll want to stay.”





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Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: Street Scenes 1

In the fall of 2008, I traveled to Cartagena, Colombia. I found a city that was a delightful mix of Caribbean, Spanish colonial, and South American architecture. There was a riot of vivid colors in the old city, which has been wisely protected from modern development by the establishment of a modern city, Boca Grande, several miles out of town.

I recently dug out the photos I took on that trip; I hope Cartagena still looks like it did seven years ago.




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I was here:

Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Toledo, Ohio: My Hometown

When I was growing up here, I couldn’t wait to leave. At seventeen, I lit out for the territories and swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles that I would never ever ever return to Toledo. I managed to stay away for nineteen years before returning. When I came back, I planned to stay just a little while. But inertia, the low cost of living, and the excellent school system in the suburb where I lived kept me and my family here.

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But I wasn’t happy about it.

One day while I was driving around town with my son Spencer, I started talking smack about Toledo. To my surprise, my son didn’t share my sentiment. “Dad,” he insisted, “Toledo’s got soul!”

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked.

“People here keep getting kicked in the mouth,” he said. “Layoffs. Downsizing. Factories closing. Stores gone out of business. Crappy political leadership.”

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“But,” he continued, “Toledoans get up every morning and go to work, go to school, do their thing, and by and large they do it with a good attitude. They have every right to be bitter, but generally they’re not. They’ve got soul.”

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With that conversation, I began to make peace with my hometown.

I’ve been away from Toledo again for the better part of two years, traveling through other countries. Now that I’m back in town for a while, I’m determined to explore the city in the same way that I explored cities on the other side of the planet. And so this evening when the sunlight was golden, I went out and shot the kind of photos I’ve taken in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Chicago.

As I’ve done in those cities, I focused initially on public art: the authorized, the unauthorized, and the unintended.

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3rd Friday Open Studios at Bridgeport Art Center, Chicago

I’m back in Chicago and venturing further outside Hyde Park. On a warm clear spring evening, I went to the Bridgeport neighborhood, where a big old warehouse has been converted to studio space for dozens of artists. On the third Friday of every month, the center opens its doors to the public to come look. And so I did.

The Bridgeport Art Center is housed in the old Spiegel Catalog warehouse on West 35th Street. It’s a fabulous space with hundreds of tall windows, exposed brick walls, enormous industrial sliding doors, beautifully distressed hardwood floors, capacious elevators, and soaring skylights. The interior has been built out into studio spaces of varying sizes, ranging from spaces that are only slightly larger than office cubicles to large rooms containing fully-equipped carpentry workshops. Many of the artists’ studios were works of art themselves.

I wandered into room 4011, Tamara Wasserman’s studio. Tamara was born in Riga, emigrated to Jerusalem in her teens, and moved to Chicago in her adult years. Her speech is crisp and melodic, with charming notes of Latvian, Hebrew, and Chicagoese. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she derives most of her income as a simultaneous translator — that is, when she isn’t working as a puppeteer. I loved her work, especially a painting with a Gauginesque central figure, mysterious open empty boxes, and scrawled Cyrillic lettering. It was, of course, the one canvas in her studio that was not for sale.

Here are the tools of her trade:

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I’m always reluctant to photograph the creations of working artists. I make an exception for Unauthorized Public Art, since I reckon that the artists who create it offer it for free to the public at large. So although I was invited to, I didn’t photograph the works in Tamara’s studio or anyone else’s. The photo below was not taken by me, however, and is posted on Tamara’s website. The painting above and behind Tamara is the one I was so taken by.


Between the old warehouse and a stagnant riverway, next to a bridge pier, a big man in a dirty kilt had started a fire fueled by discards from his woodshop. The small blaze drew people like moths.

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The studio building’s fire escape loomed above us. The sky at the moment where dusk slides into night was impossibly blue. I looked up and felt a touch of vertigo.

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Rolls of razor wire were spun next to the bridge above us, presumably to prevent people from getting to the very place where we sat.

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There was a forbidding steel door in the pier that supported the bridge. I tried it out of habit and, to my surprise, found that it was unlocked. Inside, under the roadway, there was evidence that someone had recently (with apologies to W.S. Mewrwin) “there established his bad castle.”

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One of the people sitting by the fire saw a river rat saunter by. I stayed a little while longer enjoying the first warm night of the year and, as I have done in so many other places, vowed to return someday.


Last month, I took some photos of unauthorized public art around Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One of them featured this work:

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I took this photo because I was attracted to the Betty Boop vibe the original artist painted in. The girl’s missing mouth creates ambiguity in her expression — is it pride? happiness? thoughtfulness? strength? sorrow? The chips and cracks of age actually seem to improve the image and give it it an enduring quality, like the city itself.

A partner in one of Chicago’s larger law firms saw my original blog post and wanted this pic blown up and framed. I was thrilled. And so here it is, ready to move to its new home downtown.

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Having someone like my photos enough to want to reproduce them, as happened here and happened with my photos of the Hanoi Hilton, is immensely gratifying. If any of my readers want to purchase any of the photos on my blog, please contact me. I would be honored.