It’s a small boat with no ladder and so we board by wading into the water, grabbing hold of the edge and pulling ourselves up. Passengers help each other heave themselves forward; a couple older women get lifted like children. Unlike the boat that brought us here, there is no manifest, no recording of passport numbers, no printed tickets—but there is space—kind of—and life jackets, and the men who work on this boat have agreed to take us back to the main port for a reasonable price. The other boats—the one that brought us here and the larger, shinier ones that look more like the ones that brought us here—are full, and it is three thirty, a half hour past the time we have been told all of the boats will be gone.
My girlfriend and I, along with a crowd of tourists, have spent the day at a white-sanded beach on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a little less than an hour’s boat ride away from the walled city of Cartagena, where we are staying for the last few nights of a three-week trip to Colombia. We have spent much of the trip in motion, and now, after five cities, three long bus rides, one short plane ride, and a four-day hike into the jungle, we have blocked out a few days to do nothing but sit still.
The water here is the clear turquoise blue of the beach scenes on birthday cards and screensavers, warm salt-rich water that makes it easy to float. Thatch-roofed drink stands sell beer and passion fruit mojitos; vacationers relax under large rented umbrellas. The beach looks exactly like every image of vacation paradise I have ever seen, except that it also looks like paradise mismanaged by a slumlord. Young men buzz along the shore all day on speedboats, leaving a trail of gasoline fumes behind them, offering rides to tourists; shelves of coral lie damaged and calcified; and all along the shore, a commotion of vendors circle with jewelry, oysters, massages. I leave the day with a vague, Sunday-evening sense of regret, disappointed that I’ve squandered something but embarrassed by my own expectations.
We find two seats toward the back and listen to a young man’s announcements in Spanish, following just enough to know that he is warning of a bumpy ride and telling us to sit still. If we are prone to sea-sickness, we should move to aisle and sit on a raised ledge between two rows of seats.
“It’s the best,” he says. “The most dry. The best.”
The middle-aged man in front of us asks his mother if she will sit in the aisle and instructs her to hold on to the stainless steel pole in front of me and my girlfriend. She is a small woman, maybe in her 60s.
“It’s okay?” he says to us.
“Of course,” I say, eager to be spoken to, grateful that I understand. “No problem.”
The boat pulls out of the harbor slowly at first and then, all of a sudden we are bouncing through the ocean, water sloshing against us, the boat tilted back with its nose in the air. On the largest waves, we lift up, airborne, hanging on tight, until the boat slaps back down. People scream; the woman beside us clutches onto the railing with both hands. At the front of the boat, the young man stands lookout, pointing for us to turn one way or the other, crouching down and then standing up again to indicate a very large wave that will require the driver to cut the engine and let the boat fly up into the air, and it occurs to me that the driver at the back of the boat cannot see for himself where we are going.
We have been told to fear many things in this country. Pickpockets and identity thieves, taxi drivers who will take us for a “millionaire’s ride,” stopping at one ATM and another, forcing us to withdraw money. Men who steal smartphones in broad daylight, a drug called “the devil’s breath” that can pass through the air as powder, rendering its victims docile and childlike. Scorpions, poisonous snakes, mosquitos that carry yellow fever, dengue fever, or chikungunya, for which there is no cure. We have been told to fear night buses, kidnapping, cars that will not stop for pedestrians, corrupt police officers, political bombings, and large swaths of the country controlled by guerrillas and drug lords. Most likely, we will be safe, certainly much safer than we would have been just a decade ago, we are told, but even so, this is a country in the midst of a half-century of civil war, and we cannot be surprised when what appears to be familiar simmers with danger.
Maybe this is why, flying through the water, clothes soaked, eyes burning with salt, bracing myself for each leap through the water, I’m surprised to notice that most people are not afraid. A handful of European and Americans look genuinely terrified but the Colombia tourists scream out in delight, cresting each wave with the giddy suspense of a rollercoaster. They are laughing, happy, expectant, disappointed when the boat slows.
Perhaps, I am seeing only the difference between having an adventure in a foreign country and one at home, or maybe the Colombians have simply taken these boat rides before. Maybe, too, I am wrong about who is Colombian and who has traveled here from far away. Or maybe there is something that happens when a person grows up surrounded by violence and barricaded against it. Maybe after years of police checks and failed peace talks, neighborhoods cloaked in razor wire and electric fences, street corners swimming with military guards cradling machine guns, you understand the thrill of a moment when it is possible not to give in to panic, the thrill of being able to lean in to the ride and let go.
Marian Crotty is an Assistant Editor for The Common.