B for blue, and boys with guns
The days leading up to our departure from Santa Marta seem to go slowly. There is just so much to do and not much time to do it in.
Axel is busy from dawn to dusk each day, slowly ticking off tasks on his todo list: fix engine, get wood for cock-pit table/bed, secure water cans to deck, check rigging, check sails, clean bilge, fix GPS…
I watch as he struggles each day through his list of tasks, unable to help much due to my lack of any idea (or interest) in anything even remotely related to boats. Aside from the time I spend working on my book (a few hours a day) and taking naps (omg, I loooove naps!), I find myself settling easily into the role of boat-wife.
I prepare the meals, plan and organize food supplies, do the washing, sew together curtains and mosquito nets, and fetch Axel a snack and a cold beer at the correct moment – for example, right when he finds out that he doesn’t have the right parts for his current task, and has to make another hot trek to the market.
Our natural tendencies in this relationship are clear: Axel is blue, and I am pink; and it’s an uphill struggle for me not to slip quietly into those comforting roles (and resulting dependency).
So, I’ve learnt to refill the water tanks, and change the water filter, and winch the dinghy up and down, and to tie my own sailory knots…baby-steps, I know, but steps nonetheless. Axel, on the other hand, does the washing sometimes, despite the sarcastic comments he gets from the macho Colombian men in the marina, and always pitches in with cooking and cleaning.
The Thursday before we leave, Axel goes to the market to buy gaskets for the engine; but instead of the usual hub of commerce, bustling with people and activity, he finds a ghost-town. Friends later tell us that one of the guerilla organizations active in Colombia had issued a threat that they would kill anyone going to work, so everyone was laying low for a few days.
Up until now I’d become used to the military presence in Santa Marta – the armed guard at the Marina entrance, or the police who come out on Saturday evenings to watch the christmas crowds.
Since New Year, however, more soldiers have started to dot the landscape of the town. Many of them look like boys, with their faces looking young and sweet under their oversized hats; their hands too soft and fresh as they rest lightly on their guns. So I am somewhat glad on Monday, as I bake bread and banana loaf in preparation of our trip to the San Blas Islands, to think that we will finally be leaving Colombia, our home-base for the last seven months.
We wake at 6:30am on Tuesday, the day we will leave, and everything seems to go too fast. There is still a lot to do – fill the water tanks, have a last warm shower, clear away the dishes, and put everything into lockers or behind netting so that nothing will fly around once we get underway.
The forecast is windy, supposedly, but Axel says it will be ok. It might be weeks before the winds die down, and we are already a little delayed in our schedule for crossing the Panama Canal, so now is as good a time to leave as any.
Axel goes to the Marina office to pay our bill. I climb the ladder into the salon to double check that all my stuff is stored away, but leave Axels things for him to clear up when he gets back.
Once I’m done, I sit reading my book “It’s your boat too – a Woman’s Guide to Enjoyment on the Water.”
Soon my forehead furrows with anxiety as I learn for the first time about thru-hulls and sea-cocks and those little corks that you are supposed to have attached to lanyards in case of an emergency leak.
I mean, I guess I’d always known that there were holes in the boat – how else could the toilet work? But, I had never actually thought about it before.
Do we have any little corks? I ask myself, a little panicked. I don’t know! What if we spring a leak on the crossing and we don’t have a cork? What will we DO!?
I write ‘Cork plugs’ down in my notebook with a check box next to it, along with a growing list of other items that I should discuss with Axel as I become more familiar with the our boat, Gudrun.
Axel comes back, then, and smiles at me as he clambors back over the railing. I smile back. Then, after taking a look about the deck, he claps his hands together and says “So, we might as we well go now then, huh?” before bending down to turn on the engine.
I look up in surprise, my head filling with thoughts that I am unable to put into words.
What!? But…don’t you want to go below and stow your stuff away? I think, looking down the companionway with a worried glance.
Or, perhaps we should take the time to talk about whether we have any little corky things?
Or, maybe we should go over to see our friends in the other boats one more time, just to say goodbye
A friendly Marinero comes up to help loosen the lines from the dock, and I catch them as he throws them over the railing. Axel puts the gear in reverse and Gudrun slowly put-put-put’s her way out of the slip where she’d been sitting since July.
But Axel, I think, didn’t you want to clean under the floorboards before we left? And…don’t you want to double check that everything is ok. Maybe we could sit down together and review our list of preparations? And have you cleaned your teeth? And maybe I should use the bathroom one last time before we go…
I stand in the cock-pit, feeling a little lost as I watch the familiar shapes of the boats on the dock shift around me. One of the guys cleaning the boat next to us gives a little wave goodbye, and I wave back, realizing that although I’d exchanged nods with the man almost every day the past few months, I didn’t even know his name.
I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to actually leave, like…right now.
But it’s too late. We are already out of our slip and sliding over the water.
“Off we go again!” says Axel, with excitement, and feel a kind of excitement too as Axel puts the boat into forward gear.
“Goodbye Santa Marta!” I speak out into the air, and immediately feel that sad little melancholy that I always feel when we leave a place that has been a kind of home.
Not long after we leave the shelter of the Marina, waves start rocking the boat.
Despite all my morning efforts, things below start rolling about. I wince at the banging noises made by various objects as they hit the floor, and my eyes open wide as I stare down the companionway and see Axel’s camera sliding across the navigation table below deck.
I jump down the ladder to do damage control, already disliking the chaos that the trip has started in. Bracing myself against the rocking of the boat, I pick up the camera from the table, and scoop some sunscreen and sunglasses from the floor, along with a pile of hats which had tumbled down from where they had been wedged on their shelf.
Just as I’m trying to decide what to do with the garbage bin, which is flapping open and closed with the rolling waves, a cupboard at the back of the salon comes flying open, spilling clothes, umbrellas, envelopes, and various other odds and ends out onto the floor.
I scramble to the front, grab the duct tape we store there, and then make my way back again. Picking up the items on the floor, I shove them messily back into the cupboard, before taping the door shut. I then belatedly remember all the other cupboards, which also have a tendency to fly open while sailing, so I stagger about the rocking cabin, taping them shut as well.
I’m starting to feel sea-sick now. My head is spinning, and there is a wobbly feeling in the pit of my stomach. I climb out into the cockpit and look at Axel who is smiling.
“Well done,” he says, and I can only smile weakly in response.
“I’m going to put the sail up,” he says, squinting upwards, and I nod in agreement.
Looking back down into the salon, however, I see that our precious containers full of fruit and veges have started shifting from where we’d wedged them under the table. I jump down the ladder again, and duct tape them firmly to the table legs, this time giving up on trying to keep my balance in the unpredictable waves, and simply sprawling ungracefully on the floor as I work.
“Liz!” Axel yells, needing me up top.
But I look around the cabin and see all the other things lying around; just waiting for me to climb back above into the fresh air, before they come falling down to the floor with a crash and a bang and all sorts of uncomfortable sounds and feelings.
I grab Axels toiletry bag and shove it in a cupboard, and a pencil case, which I shove into a gap between some books, and I grab a little gray bag that Axel has left sitting on the seat…and feel a sharp pain in my hand.
I look down then and see blood, and I get so incredibly pissed.
What kind of stupid, annoying, leaving-things-about-before-we-go-sailing stupid, douchbag would leave a bag lying there with something sharp in it for anyone to cut themselves on?
“Liz!” Axel shouts from the cockpit. I stay below for just a few seconds more, pouting angrily as I spray the small wound in my hand with antiseptic, and, feeling incredibly sorry for myself, woozily climb the ladder.
Axel is standing at the helm: “Can you help me with the winch…”
“Yes,” I say. And I turn the winch to tighten the fore-sail, feeling sad, hurt, annoyed, and somehow incredibly lonely. I’m sweating all over, and my arms feel weak. I know I am winching slowly, but I don’t feel that I can go any faster.
“You have to pull it harder,” says Axel.
“Ok” I say, continuing to winch slowly.
“No, pull it the other way,” he says, pointing out that it’s a 2-speed winch, and by pulling in the other direction I would pull the sail in faster.
“I can’t,” I snap. And just to show him how much I can’t, I pull it the other way and cannot get it all the way around…even though, if I were really honest with myself, I might have been able to pull it around once…if I had tried with all my might.
“Ok, ok,” he says apologetically as I finish pulling the sail tight.
I sit there in the cockpit, not thinking any thoughts, but simply feeling…pressed on. Feeling surrounded by chaos, disorder – up in the air and about to fall over with a crash of sound.
I look behind me, beyond the rolling waves, and see the familiar sight of the lighthouse in front of Santa Marta. Behind the lighthouse, I see the mountains, which I had looked out across each morning while we were in Colombia. In my minds eye our friendly café Lulo, where we would drink delicious smoothies and chat about our day with the owners, David and Melissa. I see the Marina staff, who were always so full of smiles. I imagine walking along the dock – my hallway corridor – on my way to take a shower or out into the city to run errands, nodding hello to the people on the other boats as I passed. I see the beautiful landscape slowly falling away from me, and feel a great loss.
We will never come back, I find myself thinking, and I feel an empty space in my chest, where before there had been a sense comfort, security, and familiarity.
And without my consent, my chest starts to heave. I start to sob, harder than I ever have before, gulping in air as my eyes fill with tears.
We are leaving again. Goodbye Santa Marta…
Ode to Santa Marta:
Good bye Santa Marta! Our home for seven months, kind of, in a way.
Goodbye to the street vendors with your Chiclets and cut-up mango, and beer and lollipops and individually wrapped candies for sale.
Goodbye to the kitchy xmas lights which sprouted up all over the city in December, in all their towering, green, glowing glory.
Goodbye to the girls taking photos on the beach-front, flicking your hair back to strike a sexy pose, even though you are only six years old.
Goodbye Ceviche stand! Oh-my-goodness you are so tasty, with your lime and onions and mayonnaise, all mixed up with a little ketchup.
Good-bye to the store mannequins with your oversized breasts.
Goodbye to the sleazy old men who stare at all the girls as they walk, and to the immigration officers who tell Axel how I look Japanese and good on him for finding an asian-looking girl and ignoring me even though I’m standing RIGHT THERE.
Goodbye to the Vallenato music, sounding beautifully half-drunken as your accordion-laced rhythm wafts harshly out of doorways, and the people sit there, listlessly on the steps.
Goodbye café Lulo, who has the best Arepa in South America, and smoothies that will bring you back to earth on a steaming hot day.
Goodbye taxi drivers who drive between lanes, and go the wrong way around roundabouts, and yes, that’s right, beep all you want! Beep at pedestrians 30 meters ahead, and at other cars who cut you off, and at other cars as you cut them off! Beep when you coming up to an intersection too, or around a blind corner, because only gringos slow down. ‘Show no weakness!’ I here you cry! ‘Don’t stop until you can see the whites of their eyes!’ I will, perhaps miss you most of all.
Goodbye to the Marineros at Santa Marta Marina with your helpful smiles and happy hearts, and the one guy who told me three times now about how one of his sons has a birthday today, but he doesn’t have any money to throw a party…
Goodbye to the military with your assault rifles, and curious assortment of guns and equipment, and faces that look much too young.
Goodbye to the barred windows and doors, and protected locks, and to the stray cats and dogs lying about with a little animal smiles on their haggard faces.
Goodbye to Ben and Josep’s with your awesome steak and overly friendly waiting staff.
Goodbye to the tropical fruits, which I stare at quizzically while at the supermarket: the lulo, the guanábana, the borojó, the mamoncillo, the zapote! All so tart, and tangy, and sweet.
Goodbye to the people in the supermarket who always lean on my cart at the checkout and look at me sullenly and don’t seem to care that it’s MY cart goddammit.
Goodbye to the reliably unreliable craftsmen who might show up at 11am tomorrow as discussed, or may show up at 9am the next day instead.
Goodbye to the ever-helpful service-people, who will tell you ‘Yes! Anything is possible!’ ‘Yes! I can get you whatever you need!’ Just as long as you don’t mind waiting 2 hours, or 2 days, or 2 weeks…
Goodbye to the druggies, who show no mercy in hounding tourists for money, and who you can find lying about on the streets in various states of dissarray as the sun comes up each morning.
Goodbye to the cockroaches, who seem just a little stupider than the cockroaches I’ve met elsewhere, perhaps because the pickings are so good.
Goodbye to the crappy sewage system, which fills up and bursts over, exuding it’s warm steamy smell over the city after a good rain.
Goodbye to the people in the market shouting ‘Alle orden! Alle orden!’ I know you are there for me, if I should ever need some limes, or avocado, for example, of perhaps a nice piece of fish.
Goodbye to the buxom women who walk about in packs, dressed up with 5 inch heels and boobs up to their eyebrows, and that little strut in their walk that warns ‘If anyone ever falls in love with me, I’m gonna make their lives hell.’
Goodbye to the little toddlers who walk next to their mothers and fathers like little adults. You are amazing. You don’t need a pram, or a stroller, or dangly toys, or a blankie, or wet wipes, or anything except the clothes on your back. You are confident in yourself, and I envy you for that.
And finally, a goodbye to the beautiful people of Santa Marta, who make me feel like I’m in the eighties again because of the simplicity of your faces, and your clothes and approach to life. I know that you want to leave your home town, to find another, better life, perhaps. But believe me, it’s not that bad right here, either.