Tuesday, June 22, 2010

lifejackets in paradise

When we tore ourselves from rest at 6 am-still dark by the way-we had no way of knowing that it was not to be a barely sea worthy handmade wooden fishing boat that we would be boarding at dawn as we had surmised. No, sadly, our trusted local friends whom we’d met two nights prior at Club Havana and professed to have such a hookup, led us right down to the main marina where we waited in line with all the other backpacker chumps to board various sturdy fiberglass vessels and don mandatory life jackets whilst motoring along at a tame 12 knots or so. I could deal with the tourists, the fact that the boat seemed more than up to the task didn’t bother me too much, it was those damn lifejackets that put me over the edge-Nick too. And so, there we were, still shrouded in a heavy fog of exhaustion from the late night-early morning combo sitting idly in our comfortable seats with life preserves two sizes too big that stretched from the groin region up to the chin where the foam blanketed the neck like an unusually stiff scarf or ascot. But hey, we were guests in a foreign land and if this is how they travel to remote coastal areas, so be it.

I did battle with my eyelids as our watercraft lazily drifted along, out the backwaters that led into Cartagena’s port-which could have been easily mistaken for Southwest Florida. I watched the wake work its way over to the mangrove lined shore, and there found small shacks sparely punctuating the continuous line of dense foliage. Not ten minutes into the voyage, a fishing village emerged from the folds of the wild landscape. Dozens of ramshackle dwellings each with a precarious dock and a boat of sorts crowded the waterfront. Fishing villages like this are all but extinct back in the States-such a population center would now have quaint storefronts hawking chic nautical d├ęcor and gourmet sea fare.

This, of course, was Colombia though; and down there they still have fishing villages where every last resident lives and dies by the sea and its bounty, or lack thereof.

Our vessel had paused before a headland at the harbor mouth just past the village where a Spanish fort kept watch over the open ocean as it had presumably done for hundreds of years. My attention wandered as I couldn’t understand the tour guide anyway, and I noticed a small wooden rowing craft off the starboard side, maybe two hundred yards out. I rubbed my eyes and strained to make out the rogue canoe and its captains. The most striking feature of the spectacle was the urgency with which the men were rowing-now close enough to discern that their number was two. It was clear after observing them for a few

minutes that this was not their first time commanding such a ship. These guys were hauling ass! I glanced around at the other passengers to see if anyone was watching-aside from Nick and myself everyone was fixed on the tour guide and her droning monologue. Meanwhile, the

local seafarers had gained significantly upon our position and were paddling along as furiously as when I first noticed. There was no doubting their destination-they were headed right at us, and as they neared the boat, I noticed that the two guys were roughly the same age as Nick and myself. This of course set my mind to wandering and wondering (as it’s generally doing anyway but especially now) about what a far cry apart our lives are. We had spent hundreds of dollars to travel several thousand miles from home, only to cross paths with these two lads who I speculate have travelled only as far as their vessel would carry them (quite an assumption I know), and who were now grasping the rail of our boat hands stretched out for spare pesos. Their canoe was battered and the oars looked as though they’d spent many seasons at sea-as did the two men.

They retrieved what they could before our captain sent us into motion once again. Looking on at us with piercing stares as we drifted off, they stood for a few moments longer before settling back down into the bowels of the rowboat; their backs slumped over, arms thick from paddling at rest, eyes now just staring

blankly a thousand yards out. We motored on to the beach-which resembled one of those private beaches that Carnival Cruise Lines probably takes their legion of pasty passengers to in the Bahamas. We had a fine time of course anyway-Nick and I are good for that if nothing else. In hindsight though, absolutely nothing stands out about that day. Nothing out of the ordinary or raw did we experience as we’d hoped at 6 am-as I sit here in front of Nick’s computer typing now, only the fate of our Colombian counterparts sticks out in my poor memory. And I can’t help but think-next time, I’ll be damned if we end up on one of those tour boats-no, next time we’ll find a couple fishermen to row us around in a wooden boat held together by some exotic tree sap and luck and dig on the wild coast without even wearing lifejackets.

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