Here I am, in Cartagena, Colombia, being interviewed for a local TV news show. I’m sitting with Manuela, the host of the show, in a confession box in the old Santa Clara nunnery. Tell the truth or get thrown to the fiery flames!
I came here to talk and play at the Hay Festival of the Americas – an incredible lineup of Nobel Prize-winning novelists, award-winning journalists and a handful of musicians in the gorgeous plazas of the old walled city. I came a couple of days early and stayed in a cheap hotel on a busy road where men with microphones stood in shop doorways trying to lure in passers-by, while salsa music blared in the background. I moved into the expensive boutique hotel the festival had booked for its guests, but I have to confess that I missed the old place!
My first morning I was up early to do a seminar in a state school 45 minutes outside Cartagena for extremely underprivileged kids aged 16 plus. The neighbourhood was run down and very poor, and some of the classrooms were prefabricated pods, while others were being built. But the kids and the staff were amazing. At the end, the music teacher asked if I would sing a song on my ukulele, so I sang Suzanne. None of them had heard of Leonard Cohen but they all seemed to like his “canciones tristes”.
The festival gave me one of the headline slots for my event – an interview onstage, conducted by a Colombian journalist, Jacobo Celnik – so that I could tag on an extra half hour to sing some songs. Brian Eno was on an hour before me in an ornate, colonial theatre. If I weren’t in a confession box I would brag about headlining over Eno! I rushed from there to my gig at the University, which was sold-out. Walking past the long line to get in, I did my best to look as superstarry as you can if your hair’s been turned into a tumbleweed by the wind and humidity, and half your body’s polka-dotted with huge bites. The evening I arrived in the city I was bitten by two mosquitos and killed them both, and since that moment the mosquitos have been taking revenge!
My gig went great, I’m happy to say. A lovely response. Afterwards, a man came onstage and knelt and kissed my hand (not something that happens on a regular basis!) and another man was crying as he talked about my songs.Yes, that’s me, misery wherever I go!
Afterwards, a festival aide insisted I see a doctor that she’d called about my bites. It felt pretty embarrassing, sitting there surrounded by white coats and stethoscopes for bloody mosquito bites, but the anti-histamines and cream they gave me are doing a far better job than the gallon of repellant I’ve been spraying myself with.
More later – I have a party to go to!