The first time the armed contingent of Colombian soldiers ordered us to stop our motorcycle at the barricade in the forest, on the isolated road west of town, we were a little worried. Dressed in fatigues, cradling machine guns, and hidden in dark sunglasses and somber expressions, they blocked the one road circling the island, and we lurched to a halt.
"Más despacio!" one of them barked. "Mas despacio, señor." Slower! Slower, sir! And then they said something else in rapid-fire Spanish that neither of us grasped. On this pock-marked road, with potholes big enough to swallow our little 100-cc bikeplus the weight of the two of us on itwe were already pretty much creeping along.
"Cmon, Evel," Bernadette urged into my ear as the soldiers stood aside to let us pass. "Lets get out of here." We carried on.
It was only a half mile later, as we rounded a corner overlooking the turquoise sea, that we understood what theyd been trying to tell us. Tens of thousands of crabs were marching up from the beach, crossing the road, then climbing up into the hills. We stopped the bike, awestruck, as all around us covering the road a mammoth, moving carpet of crabs scurried past us on their tiptoes.
Another biker rounded the bend, then came to a quick stop to watch the show with us. An islander (here, everyone pronounces it "i-LAN-der"), he explained that this amazing phenomenon occurs for a couple of weeks once a year. "De crabs, dey awl go down togedder to wet their eggs off," he explained. "Den dey awl climb back up to dem hills wid awl de liddle ones." And what about the army? "Dey watches out forem," he said. "Makin sure de crabs doan get molested."
The Colombian military hasnt proven too effective at stopping their countrys world-wide drug trade, but here in the Sea Flower Biosphere Reserve of Providencia, theyve got different priorities. These buff, handsome young soldiers are dedicated to preventing crabicide and answering the age-old conundrum: "Why did the crab cross the road?" On National Childrens Day here, we also saw the same soldiers organizing face-painting sessions with the kids in town. You could say that its a sleepy place.
Providencia, as most local people are quick to tell you, is very different from continental Colombia. This is a fly-speck of a volcanic island, with lush peaks that reach up to 1,500 feet. Surrounded by reefs on the north, east and south, the whole island is only 4.5 miles from top to bottom and, at its widest, a little over two miles. It offers cruisers a magnificent, crescent-shaped harbor with perfect protection from the prevailing east-northeast winds, and the most gorgeous mud in 6 to 14 feet of clear water. Despite a week of 20-25 knot easterlies, theres been almost no swell, and Ithaka is riding comfortably.
Providencia is connected by a walking bridge to the much smaller Isla Santa Catalina, where a mountaintop Madonna overlooks the harbor and with her arms outstretched offers providential blessings. This connected pair of islands is part of the San Andres Archipelago, which also includes Cayos Bolivar, Albuquerque, Serrana, Roncador, Quitasueño, and Serranilla. With its crystal-clear waters, large reef system, thriving wildlife and marine life, in 2000 UNESCO declared this archipelago to be a protected biosphere reserve. What this means is that many of the local craftsmen working in black coral are finding new media. In the past few hundred years, the English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Nicaraguans, and Colombians all have claimed ownership, with Bogotá currently holding the deed. Locals tell us that, as recently as 20 years ago, most people rode horses, not motor bikes, and paddled to the weekly market in their cayucos.
With an ancestry of African, Spanish, and English blood, Providencia is the comfortable home for a full-spectrum, multicolored society in which most families speak Creole at home, English in school, and Spanish when they leave the island for further education. The children, in all hues, are gorgeous, and their successful integration is a constant reminder that racial enmity in the United States is, to my mind, the colossal, hideous failure of the American culture. Here, theres a large, child-painted mural on a "downtown" wall in which children of all colors are smiling and holding hands. The slogan above it reads "Every one smiles in the same language."
One of the smilingest people here is Bernardo B. Bush, the one-man Agencia Maritima, who serves as a multifaceted, ubiquitous middleman between the yachties and the universe. He greets each vessel in the harbor, arranging paper work, shepherding the customs and immigration officials back and forth to the boats, inspecting zarpes, and of course collecting fees. No one has the slightest idea what the entry fee here really is, per person or per boat; everyone pays Mr. Bush the flat fee of $50, and he pays customs and immigration out of that. Drus, a Spanish catamaran with Pedro and Angel arrived a couple of days ago. A former Spanish naval officer, Pedro argued with Mr. Bush about the fee, which he thought was exorbitant, and then insisted he was going to leave.
Maritime law, Pedro saidand not too politelypermits him to remain in any port for 48 hours, for free. The crab-protectors/face-painters were called in by Mr. Bush. Nobody knew the answer. Pedro got away with it, and pulled out yesterday, the $50 still safe in his pocket. I guess if your Spanish is fluent and your confidence high, you pay a lower tax on all things. We try to be philosophical; regardless of the "official cost," Mr. Bush makes life easier for everyone.
The Man can take care of "binness." With a smile, he arranges laundry pickup and delivery, water collection, mail delivery, and just about any other service someone might need on an island where fresh vegetables and supplies come in once a week by a rusting hulk of a boat called the Miss Raziman; the internet café has two computers; theres only one road; and everyone takes siestas between 12 and 2. Heres how he helped our friends Derek and Beryl on Rotuma, a Contest 43. Their generator was dead. Cause unknown. Derek asked Mr. Bush if there was a good mechanic in town, and Mr. Bush arranged for a man named Bing to come out to the boat and take a look. Bing brought with him his sons Benjamin and Barnaby. While Derek and Beryl watched, the collection of Bush, Bing, Barnaby, and Benjamin diagnosed a burnt bearing. They took the entire kit and caboodle ashore and had a replacement bearing flown from Cartagena to San Andres and then shipped to Providencia. Then "B, B, & B" (sin Bush) installed the bearing, built a new steel holding frame for the generator, glassed it over, bench-tested their work at home, returned it to the boat, reinstalled and retested it there, and charged Derek only $185. Receipts are unheard of here, so we dont know Mr. Bushs middleman markup. But the work was excellent, the price was cheap, and Mr. Bush made it happen. A local expression here is: "Ojo con los serruchos." Its a phase Bernadette brought back to the boat one day from her Spanish teacher, and it means: watch out for the little pieces that get sawed off!
For us, so far, Providencia has been a place of quiet tranquility, our first good view of the Southern Cross in the evening sky, a place of welcome relief after my disequilibrium as we snaked through the reefs to get here. Weve done simple maintenance projectsnothing majormuch reading, and debated seriously about where to go next and when. We finally said a wistful hasta luego to Derek and Beryl, who sailed on to Bocas del Toro, Panama, to put Rotuma to bed for the season while they return to family in Britain. And now were enjoying a sweet reunion with our friends Frank and Lynda on Simba, who arrived here the other day, and whom we hadnt seen in a year.
None of our projects or maintenance, so far, has been very demanding. Bernadette gave me my monthly haircut. Shes become quite skilled at this and modestly informs me that I look much better after one of her trims than when I return from a local cut. (So for this I should argue?) We ran wires and installed an exterior VHF speaker so we finally can hear the radio in the cockpit when were under way. We fixed the shorts in the compass lights, and rejiggered the fittings for the little electric push-tiller we now sometimes use on the Monitor as an autopilot when going downwind.
Our main computer finally succumbed to its yearlong death rattle, and we decided to retire it before I hurled it overboard in frustration. Its been living at the nav station for two years now, subjected to the salt air, which I guess is part of its problem. But its supposed to be marinized, so I have a hard time feeling kindly. The floppy drive began crashing on whim the day we left the U.S., and lately it goes on strike every several hours. The hinges for the screen broke, and the chassis is held together with duct tape and small, black clamps. Weve been only moderately well behaved about backing up stuff on discs, so, while I switched all our files and programs over to a different computer, Bernadette rearranged a number of lockers on the boat so she could store the old computer, as well as all our other dead and useless gear that for unfathomable reasons havent dropped fathoms. Naturally, this required her to inventory and clean the bowels of the boat.
Weve also been rearranging scores of books, moving the "read-and-therefore-tradable-group" to less valuable real estate and bringing forward those that beckon. Bernadette baked bread and recoated the bimini with waterproofing. I changed filters, adjusted belts, loaded up with water, diesel, and gasoline. These are how normal days go on a cruising boat.
Bernadettes also been dinghying ashore every morning and taking Spanish lessons from 9 a.m. to noon with a woman named Carmeni, and thoroughly enjoying herself. Weve rented motorcycles and circled the island, stopping for chocolate cake and delicacies at Marys Studio Café, and for crab patrol. We swim off the boat every day and hike around the hills, watching zillions of blue lizards with green back-stripes skitter everywhere. And were checking out the local cuisine every chance we can. Miss Oneidas restaurant, just over the footbridge, makes a wonderful garlic shrimp dish, and were adding this recipe to our collection.
There are only a few sailboats here and precious little to do, both of which I like. Its the kind of place where you can stretch out many afternoons with a book. And we have. Yesterday I finished Jane Hamiltons The Map of the Worlda stunning portrait of the enduring power of friendship and the horrors of guilt in the face of fatal negligence. What a treat to sit around and savor a great novel! This comment may offend the hardcore sailors who read this, but the luxury of endless reading and living outdoorsgetting to go diving and huntingare my favorite parts of cruising. The actual sailing, even on a vessel that sails as sweetly as Ithaka, takes a backseat.
Providencia! What a perfectly named spot to anchor for a decision point, to prepare, provision, and receive guidance. Weve been working hard to get here, and since arriving have been footloose and easy, but now the crabs are coming home to roost, and weve got to make some decisions.
Which way to go next? Cartagena first and then to the San Blas? The San Blas first and then beat furiously to get to Cartagena? Bag Cartagena all together? Do we join friends going this way, or that, or say goodbye again and go a different way? There are a jumble of considerations: prevailing winds, stronger-than-usual trade winds at the moment, wind angles to each distance, rainy seasons, currents, and of course, terrorists! Not that this is a complaint, just a musing over the fact that cruising probably demands more decisions per day than life at home, where obligations and routine were ruthless dictators of how we spent time.
As I writeperhaps in part to help clarify the situationhere are what seem to be our two basic options. From here to Cartagena is roughly 385 miles on a course of 121 degrees. The wind this time of year is east-northeast, so to sail there puts you closer to the wind and slightly on your ear. But its not that far, and at the end of that rainbow is golden: 500-year-old Cartagena, which many people insist is the most beautiful European city in the Americas. We could stay there awhile, then ride the easterlies to the San Blas afterwards, hang there for a couple of months, then on to Colón and maybe Bocas del Toro, where we could safely leave Ithaka to make a visit home later in the year.
Or, we could skip Cartagena, and go from here directly to the San Blas islands, home of the Kuna Indians, and what lots of folks consider the last of the still-primitive islands in the Atlantic. From here its about 310 miles on a course of 146, a more comfortable sail with the prevailing trades. Our inclination is to go to Cartagena. But theres a fly in the ointment. In the past few weeks las guerrillas have been blowing things up there, and while the city is often extolled as the safe bastion in Colombia, a number of yachts high-tailed it quickly when a fuel station only a few hundred meters from the marina went up in flames and smoke. The conventional wisdomrarely to be relied upon on most topics is that las guerrillas are trying to make a point before the June elections. While this may be so, Im not sure what the point is, but its certainly an impressive one.
So what to do? Ive never given up the wish for good and clear answers to the questions that vex me. But as Jane Hamilton wrote, "we are shaped, time and time again, by luck and the prevailing winds." The next time we write to you, the winds will have spoken, and well have made up our minds.