Far, Far Away

For this family of liveaboard sailors, "home" proves to be a fluid concept. Under Way from our November 2012 issue.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cruising boats can dodge hurricane season in the harbor at Cartagena, Colombia. Beyond, the high-rises of the city’s Bocagrande business and tourism center contrast with the Old City’s colorful Spanish colonial charms.Ben Zartman

Several nights ago, my youngest daughter, Damaris, and I were cooling off before bedtime in the welcome breeze that washed over the cockpit of Ganymede, our Cape George 31. It was just becoming dark, and the brighter stars were beginning to appear. "See that star?" I said, pointing.

“Yeah!” Her reply to anything, unless she knows that it’s something definitely, totally bad, is always a small but enthusiastic “Yeah!”

“Under that star is a faraway and exciting place that we’ll go to soon,” I said. “Isn’t that neat to think about?”

“Yeah!”

Because she’s only 2 years old, I suspect that she didn’t fully understand what I was talking about, but the attention was nice. It didn’t hit me until later, when everyone else was asleep, that we already were in a faraway and exciting place. After all, this was Cartagena, Colombia, a city several thousand miles removed from the central California port where our cruise had begun. Still, we’d arrived in November, and here it was early April—the interim represented a far longer time than we’d spent in any other place. For all its uniqueness, Cartagena was beginning to feel very home-like: We were known at the grocery store, the Internet café, and the currency exchange. I knew the proper taxi fares to any of a dozen places. I even knew some of the taxi drivers to chat with.

| |Antigone Zartman proves popular with the pigeons. The colonial Spanish built eight miles of fortifying walls around the central city, including the cathedral.|

Even a two-month trip Stateside to visit family hadn’t made Cartagena seem unfamiliar. Stepping off the long airplane ride into the chill of a California winter, I’d expected a sensation of returning home, but although nothing and nobody there had changed one iota during our 14-month absence, it felt completely different. I suppose the problem really lay with us and our not fully knowing that we didn’t belong there anymore. We drove borrowed cars, stayed in guest rooms, and lived out of suitcases while our boat sat at “home” in a South American storage yard. We even inadvertently referred to it that way, as “home,” though it earned funny looks from the relations. In spite of all we tell them, they still think of our cruising as a temporary and passing fad—like a camping trip—from which one inevitably returns to real life. And real life, after all, isn’t so bad. What a treat to have supermarkets bursting with fresh meat and good produce! And how wonderful to buy good clothes at good prices at any of a dozen thrift stores—a thing we’ve rarely found elsewhere—and to purchase cameras, USB drives, and other necessary electronics without paying extra import duties or wondering if they’re knockoffs or have had vital parts removed. It’s relaxing, not having to be constantly and carefully street-wise, as one must in Colombia, and I’m sure we could get used to California life again. But for now, we live elsewhere, and whenever someone asked, “How was your sailboat trip?,” it took a conscious effort not to say, “What do you mean, ‘was’? It’s not done yet.”

It almost seemed as though things should somehow have been different in Colombia when we returned—not because we were returning from being gone so long, but simply because we’d been away in a place so different. But everything was as we’d left it: The one-legged beggar man still had his spot on the sidewalk, “our” waitress at the restaurant remembered what we liked, my favorite coffee man had his cart at the park where the girls feed the pigeons; nothing about it felt foreign at all. We’d planned to stay around another month or so before taking off, but we hadn’t been back a week before I was digging charts out of the locker, calculating distances, and checking the weather.

For the Zartmans—here, Antigone, Emily, Damaris, and Danielle visit the city’s 17th-century fortress, then Spain’s finest in the New World—Cartagena seems as familiar as a home, if only for the moment.

There isn’t much here that we haven’t done, but out there, under one of the evening stars, awaits a place to which we haven’t been; a place with other streets to explore, new sights to see, different beaches to comb; a place as uniquely different from Cartagena as Cartagena is from California. And farther along, under a star of its own, lies another, and there are more beyond that. Not many places have captivated our hearts like Cartagena, and under the right circumstances, I could be perfectly content to make a home here. But for now, there’s someplace else that we haven’t been, someplace far away and exciting, and I can’t resist the urge to go and check it out.

Far, far from Cartagena, Colombia, in Newport, Rhode Island, the Zartmans are working and outfitting for a cruise farther north next spring.