The Exit Lounge

Cartagena, Colombia, 10o 24.946’ North 75o 32.693’ West

January 28, 2003

Exactly as the January and February pilot charts for the southwest Caribbean predict, winds have been building steadily here. Every day now, after 2 p.m., they pick up from a dead calm to 20 to 30 knots and stay there, sometimes gusting higher, till the next morning just before dawn, when they die again to zephyrs. Douglas and I have been looking at the wind a bit differently these past few days, as these are our last two weeks in Cartagena. We’re planning our exit, imagining sailing out of here, and dealing with this region’s windiest season.

| | The pretty porches of Cartagena, overhang every street in the Old Town.* * *| We’re also trying to absorb Cartagena into our bones, the way you do when you think you may never return to a place. The other night we went to Cartagena’s magnificent little opera house, the Teatro de Heredia, with its painted cherub ceilings, and wedding-cake-round layers of balconies. With Frank and Linda from _Simba_, and Beryl and Derrick from _Rotuma_, in our own private box, we foot-stomped to the big-band Latin sounds of mambos, rumbas, and salsa, and went wild along with the packed house of _Cartageneros_ when the Kalamary Band broke into the infamous Mambo #5. Fabulous music is everywhere in Cartagena. We even listen to it at our favorite internet cafe, which sells CDs, and allows us to select the ones we want to hear while we check our e-mail. We’ve come to love Groupo Niche, a popular Colombian salsa group, who’s now often on _Ithaka_’s CD player.

With Jim and Katie from Asylum, and Lee Miles, who lives here, Douglas went to the Plaza del Toro to see the bullfights—not an event for me. On the hard sand where the Grammy-award-winning Carlos Vives packed the same stadium a few nights before, and not far from where Shakira rocked the countryside, Caesar Rancon, one of Colombia’s most beloved matadors, dressed in sequined yellow pants, bolero jacket, pink stockings, and black hat, made his much-anticipated-and triumphant-comeback after a year of illness. Douglas excitedly reported to me that Rancon had thrilled the crowd (which I will never understand), was awarded two ears for his kills, and had been carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of admirers.


As the bulls were meeting their maker, I was over in Boca Grande, the uptown residential area outside the walls of the Old Town, with a wonderful seamstress who’s been making a few things for me. My favorite sundresses have literally worn out from so much washing and rough use over the past two years, so I bought some pretty fabric in town, and for a few dollars Rosa has made new ones based on the old ones, each tailored exactly to my size. She and I also came up with elegant designs for placemats and pillows made from molas Douglas and I collected in the San Blas. For me, this has been a wonderful diversion from boat work and much preferable to watching guys in tights stabbing bulls to death.

| | The annual bullfights at Cartagena’s Plaza del Toro attracted thousands of people to watch the return of one of their matador heroes.* * *| Every day Douglas and I are making new lists, and trying to finish more projects than could ever get done before we leave. In between running back and forth to hardware and grocery stores to provision for the season (_compro, luego existo_: I shop, therefore I am) we get together with folks for farewell dinners, and we test all the boat’s systems, discovering new projects we hadn’t expected—for example, our pricey Inmarsat C transceiver, which we depend upon for e-mail when we’re underway, has stopped working. It’s only a little less than three years old—putting it beyond warranty (naturally)—and needs to go back to the States to be fixed for, the company said, about $1,000. Well, that’s not going to happen. Through all the complications, _Ithaka_ is beginning to look pretty spiffy. Her polished hardware and waxed hull gleam, and her waterline is going steadily deeper as we load her ample lockers.

Tomorrow, we’ll meet some local friends for breakfast at Narco Boyos. The name of this local eatery changed, from Boyos, several years ago after the police busted the place for suspected drug trafficking. The restaurant is known for serving a delicious fresh, thick cream with their eggs and beans, and locals line up every morning to buy plastic bags of the cream. An old lady who lived across the street was suspicious about all these people exiting with their small white bags. She alerted police, and with sirens blaring and lights flashing, they arrived and aimed their big guns at the shocked breakfasters, whose bags of cocaine proved to be nothing more than cream. The story hit the papers, the brothers who own the place promptly changed the name of their cafe to Narco Boyos, and the restaurant has since become famous.


| | Not surprisingly, you can get a great cup of coffee in Colombia, and the locals claim there really is a Juan Valdez.* * *| I’ll miss Colombia, and her fine people, and how so many of them at the Club de Pesca went out of their way to welcome us, especially over the holidays, and thank us for “coming to Colombia.” Getting to know these people has been a treat. In the midst of their civil war, they maintain an optimism. They’re proud people, especially when it comes to their inspirational new president, Alvaro Uribe, his extraordinary get-tough-with-narco-traffickers policy, and his personal courage. On the threshold of so many changes, they’re daring to hope. I’ll miss this energy and will be sorry to leave here.

Before we cast off though, we’d like to answer some of our mail from readers, most of it picked up right here, in the Discos Internet Cafe—where we’ve enjoyed so much great music—a couple of blocks down the street from Club de Pesca and Club Nautico, and just beyond the modern air-conditioned Carulla’s grocery store, where Douglas and I are stopping every day to stock up, and enjoy our favorite treat—a couple of ice-cold tropical-fruit smoothies, made to order, for 25 cents. What a country.

| | The entrance of Club de Pesca is built into the walls of an old Spanish fort.* * *|


Medical Concerns

Cathy P. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, wrote “how easy is it to get good medical care when cruising some of the remote places in the Caribbean?”

Fortunately, the Caribbean is not all that remote. You can get excellent medical and dental care in all the larger cities. Even from the San Blas, you can get to the mainland of Panama relatively easily, and because the US military trained special-forces soldiers in that region, and built numerous small airstrips; there are daily flights into Panama City even from obscure places. For some cruisers recently, this proved to be a life-saver. While hiking near the Kuna village of Sidra, our friend was bitten by a venomous fer-de-lance snake, also called a “three-step.” He was flown to a major hospital in Panama City, and remained there a week, treated by four specialists, and administered 30 vials of anti-venom intravenously. It was touch-and-go, but fortunately, he received excellent care and recovered.


| | A typical Cartagena funeral announcement, pasted on the wall in Old Town* * *| Cruising Guides

Ricardo F. of Vera Cruz, Mexico, wrote “Cruising guides are sometimes out of date. How do you know what to rely on?”

Once you’re close to an area, the best information always comes from other cruisers who’ve just left there. There’s a constant passing along of waypoints, names of people to contact, and places to avoid. Another precious resource is the monthly bulletin published by the Seven Seas Cruising Association. Written entirely by cruisers who are actively cruising, it provides specific and up-to-date information.

| | Colorful doorways lead into private homes in the Old Town* * *| Safety Harnesses

Carl L., from Chicago, who sails the Hylas 45 Demitasse, e-mailed us, asking “Do you guys wear harnesses, and if so when?”

Actually, we’re religious about them. When we’re making passages, harnesses go on before nightfall. We wear them whether we’re on deck or in the cockpit, until it’s light again, and we also wear them during the day if the wind strengthens too much. Sometimes, this is a pain, but once you’re cruising, you listen to the local Single Side Band nets, and the stories of overboard deaths give quick resolve. Just the other day, we heard on the SSB Panama Connection Net about the tragedy of a Danish boat traveling from the ABC islands in the Eastern Caribbean to Panama. They suffered a knockdown, and the unharnessed man was swept overboard. His wife tried to start the engine and reverse course, but the ignition key had fallen out during the knockdown, and she had to go below to find a replacement. She never found her husband. Just before Christmas, the skipper of a boat sailing from the San Blas to Colon, Panama, fell overboard, and his girlfriend, who was an inexperienced sailor, couldn’t retrieve him. He, too, was lost. Last year, the sailing vessel Wanderer was found in the mangroves at Punta Gorda, Belize, her dinghy still tied to the stern, her skipper Robert O’Neil believed to have fallen over the side. Yes, we wear harnesses.

| | Signs throughout Cartagena’s Old Town are made from hand-painted tiles.* * *| Any Regrets?

Arlene H. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, writes that she and her husband are in the exit lounge, getting ready to quit their jobs and set off next summer on their Bavaria 47 for long-term cruising. She writes: “We’re getting a lot of advice from people as we get closer to our cruising date. Did you get any bad advice before you left home? Any regrets?”

Well, we wish we’d sold our home closer to the top of the real estate market, and we sure wish we’d held fewer NASDAQ stocks. But otherwise, we have no regrets of much importance. There is one piece of advice I got, or read, over and over again, which I followed, and that I now regret a little. Lots of cruisers told us to rid ourselves of our possessions before going cruising. So, we saved a few special pieces of family furniture, some favorite artwork, and many boxes of photos and mementos, but by and large we sold everything else. Funnily enough, now that I’m out here, I realize I’m a little more sentimental about some of the items we let go than I thought I’d be. Ultimately, though, they’re all just things, and things can be replaced. But if you have any second thoughts about anything you have, and you have a place to store it, just keep it for the future. Someday, you’ll be back home and might like to have it again. One thing we don’t regret, however, is quitting our jobs, and setting off when we did. Perhaps, if we’d waited, we would’ve had a bigger financial cushion, and that would have been nice. But, now that we’re out here, we’ve learned that we like getting by on less, the cruising life is relatively cheap, and that the most important thing (and sometimes the most difficult) is putting one foot in front of the other and moving out of the old and into the new. It feels great to have done that.

| | The view down into the Santa Teresa courtyard* * *| Good Books

Many readers have written asking us to name more of our favorite books, as we did in a log about a year ago. Good books are a hot topic among cruisers, and we’re happy to share with you what we’ve liked.

Because we’ve chosen not to have a television or VCR aboard, reading has been especially important, as entertainment and private time, as well as a way to gain some perspective on the countries we’re traveling through. The Long Night of White Chickens, by Francisco Goldman, for example, is a compelling love story that did more to explain the human side of recent Guatemalan history—during and after the war—than anything we’ve read. It gave us another view of the tensions in the country, and the forces that led to accusations of baby stealing (los robos niños). Two other good books on Guatemala are Forbidden Fruit, describing the behind-the-scenes role of the American-owned United Fruit Company and the US government in the Guatemalan civil war, and Searching For Everardo by American attorney Jennifer Harbury, about her struggle to find her Guatemalan guerilla husband after he was taken prisoner and murdered.

In Colombia, it was eye-opening to read Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden, a real-life thriller chronicling the joint manhunt, by the Colombian government and American Special Forces, for drug czar and mass murderer Pablo Escobar, at one time the most wanted man on earth. This book taught us a lot about the Colombian drug cartels, the American demand for drugs, and how Colombia got into the mess it’s in.

| | Looking out over the city from the Santa Teresa rooftop* * *| Friends have recommended some of our favorite books. Peter and Robin encouraged us to read _Bel Canto_, by Ann Patchett, because they know we share their love of music. It’s the beautifully written story of disparate lives thrown together in a botched hostage-taking fiasco involving one of the finest opera singers in the world.

Erwin on Dutchess gave us Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, everything we never wanted to know about the American food, farming, and slaughtering industries, and how their standards and practices are essentially steered by the big fast-food chains. (After this, as a palate restorative, do yourself a favor and read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a top chef’s hilarious behind-the-scenes look at a rock-star life spent working in New York’s best restaurants. Fellow “foodies” will like this.)

Our friend Paul came to visit Ithaka in Belize last year, bringing with him Genome, by Matt Ridely, and I liked it so much I gave it to Erwin. He loved it and passed it along to David on Zia Lucia, and it became a hot topic in the anchorage. It’s the page-turning story of cracking the human chromosome chain, and what science can now tell us about why we are the way we are, why we get the diseases we do, and what can and can’t be done about it. I know, it doesn’t sound like a page-turner, but it’s terrific.

| | The terra-cotta rooftops of Cartagena* * *| Barry came to visit in the San Blas, bringing with him _Empire Falls_, by Richard Russo, the story of small-town life set around a diner and the man who runs it. The book forces you to consider the choices you make in life, the people in whom you place your trust and love, and paths not taken.

Stu gave us A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Halperin. Both Douglas and I had loved Halperin’s Memoirs from Antproof Case, and we couldn’t wait for the other to finish this one, so we could talk about it together. Alessandro Giuliani, an old soldier, unfolds his life story to a young man on their walk across Italy. It’s a sometimes horrifying and always fascinating tale about the horrors of World War I, the agonies of grief in an absurd world, and the madness of a dwarf scribe whose capricious and vindictive rewriting of orders lets him control the Italian army.

Tommy and Barbara on Reverie gave us Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Charbon, one of the best books we’ve read in years. It’s a wonderful romp into the great history of comic books in the United States, in which two young Jewish cousins, one American, one Hungarian (the latter escaping from the Nazis), join forces in America to fight their various personal evils by creating the sensational comic book The Escapist.

| | Murals are a vibrant part of civic life in Cartagena. We always pass this one on our walk into town from Club de Pesca* * *| Tim gave us _The Tidewater Tales_, by John Barth, a late-in-the-season cruise through the Chesapeake, taken by a long-married couple as they await the imminent birth of their first child. It’s fun to be a voyeur, watching the complexities of someone else’s marriage and extended family, and best of all the book plays off Homer’s Odyssey, which Douglas was reading as I read this one. We loved reading bits aloud to each other from each book.

Harold and Diane on Sea Camp introduced us to Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the story of two couples, from vastly different social strata, who begin their careers together in the world of academia, and the complexities of how they grow and intertwine over several decades.

When we were home last, we spent happy hours in a few bookstores, and bought back to Ithaka books that have been wonderful surprises. Frida, by Barbara Mujaca, is the fictionalized biography of Frida Kahlo, the outrageous Mexican artist and wife of infamous muralist Diego Rivera. It was better than any soap opera, and offered wonderful insight into Mexico in the first quarter of the 20th century.

A Fine Balance, by Robinson Mistry, is set in India, and tells the pitiful story of two young tailors who lose their jobs and are forced to become beggars during Indira Gandhi’s torturous reign. Both of us wept with them.

The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields, is an elegant mystery based on a husband and wife’s separate but parallel investigations of the murder of a young Viennese woman at the end of the 19th century. Sumptuous in its details and descriptions, it returned to me sweet memories I had of a trip to Vienna with my friend Margo, many years ago.

| | A giant tile work mural celebrates the shape of womanhood* * *| Jane Hamilton’s _The Map of the World_ was a book neither Douglas nor I could put down. A woman is accused of child sexual abuse, and ends up being jailed while awaiting trial. Hamilton offers the most graceful depiction of the enduring power of friendship and the horrors of guilt in the face of fatal negligence. She also provides a trenchant insight into witch-hunting, an unattractive thread in the American fabric.

Lindberg, by A. Scott Berg, is biography at its most brilliant. He serves up an even-handed discussion of this controversial figure who thrilled the world with his solo flight across the Atlantic, who captured the heart of the world when his baby son was kidnapped and murdered and infuriated many Americans, both by accepting a medal from the Nazis and by leading the opposition to America’s entry into WWII. Drawing on Lindberg’s private papers and also those of his wife, Anne Morrow, Berg presents an inside view of the aviator, the father, the husband, the politico, and incidentally, the man who developed the first artificial heart.

| | The distinctive spires of the Cartagena skyline* * *| _Ithaka_’s bookshelves are brimming again with the promise of great stories to be read this next season. I see all the new titles shining out at me, replacing the old familiar favorites above, which are now packed onto the bookshelves of other boats here in the exit lounge – _Asylum_, _Lisa_, _Salt Whistle_, _Lulu_, _Feisty_, _Walkabout_, _Rotuma_, and others. It’s time for us to move on from Cartagena, despite how much we’ve enjoyed it here, and head into the new year.

As usual, I have butterflies about getting back in the sailing groove after being stationary for a while—the umbilical cord of land is a tough connection to break. And I’m worried a little, too— as always—that I’ll have to relearn how all the systems work aboard. But I’m also itching to get the new season started, get back to a life of freedom on the anchor, get back to more self-sufficiency, to diving and spending part of every day in the water, to evenings spent reading, and to mornings looking out to a fresh horizon.

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]


More Destinations