A small group of us had been to San Andres, Barranquilla and Santa Marta before ending our Colombian experience in Cartagena de Indias, where we’d been invited to cover the FCCA (Florida Caribbean Cruise Association), hosted by PROEXPORT COLOMBIA, a tourism, foreign investment and exports promotion company.
We crammed in a few of the city’s highlights — the 16th century fort on the hill of San lazaro, and the gigantic pair of old shoes, a monument to Cartagena poet, Luis Carlos Lopez — before being transported to our first-class accommodations at the historic Hotel Caribe.
After a quick registration (Alejandro the concierge took excellent care of guests), we were bussed to the Cartagena Convention Center, one of the most important centers in South America, located at Animas Bay near the Old Town, a UNESCO site.
Dinner was a buffet of indigenous foods — lots of local vegetables, potatoes, salads, chicken and meats, all of which were delicious. It was a happy occasion of meeting cruise members and public relations representatives.
After an excursion to the Foundation of Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar, a private organization that prepares indigent women for the future by teaching them skills in various fields of the tourism industry, we stopped for lunch and then walked through the 16th century walled Old Town, a UNESCO site. Behind the clock tower and walls, 80% of which are original, the wide square leads to courtyards, narrow lanes, restaurants and cafes. We didn’t linger. It was time to return to our hotel and dress for the evening’s events.
Security was tight when we arrived back at the convention center, where we were checked and X-rayed at the door and were ushered to the spacious second floor auditorium. We took seats reserved for press, but were asked to sit in the front row, in front of the podium (stage right). Dignitaries had begun filing in –Latin American and Caribbean representatives and the president and principals of FCCA.
The president of Colombia, His Excellency Juan Manuel Sandos entered the room, shook hands with the dignitaries and then advanced across the front row, shaking hands and greeting each person individually.
Not expecting the President would make it to our section of the room, I was stunned when he approached. I was about to meet the president of one of the oldest democracies in Latin America and our (the U.S.) largest trading partner.
Suddenly he was warmly greeting me, saying “Good evening.” And all I could think of responding was, “Mucho gusto, Senior Presidente,” (Very pleased, Mr. President).
Perhaps it was because I addressed him in Spanish that I thought I saw an imperceptible double-take. Still, being greeted by a president, the leader of a vast country was an unforgettable honor.
He addressed the audience from our side of the room, no more than 20 feet away, spoke passionately and received a standing ovation upon his conclusion. I was among the entire auditorium applauding him.
Photographs by Denise Mattia