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Paradise Found

January 19, 2012

Over Christmas, a group of volunteers and I set sail through the San Blas Islands of the Comarca Kuna Yala for five days before arriving in Cartagena, Colombia and flying to Medellin to spend Christmas and New Year’s. The trip was definitely memorable to say the very least. We arrived in Portobelo, Panama to leave for the trip, and Captain Paul warned us that he was going to have to add 100 miles onto the trip in order to avoid bad weather further out to sea, effectively deciding to hug the coast east across Panama (pertaining to the Kuna indigenous group) and then northeast to the port of Cartagena.

Here’s how 8 Peace Corps volunteers on a boat for five days in the middle of the Caribbean pans out, nicely summarized with bullet points on a timeline:
– Preparation: Pirate costume gear and floatation devices were purchased.
– First hour: After realizing how many sailing colloquialisms exist in English (drunk as a Sailor, run a tight ship, captain’s order, etc.), we take to writing them down. We got to 60 before getting tired of it.
– First night: Poseidon welcomes us to the sea with rough waters and huge swells. Four out of eight of us got sea sick. Yours truly was NOT among them. We realize that we are not going to drink any of that damn beer we bought.
– Day 2: Land on beautiful islands used in screen savers. Meditate, snorkel, contemplate the tragedy of trash, use floaties, philosophize.

– Day 3: Refill on freshwater and food at a nearby island inhabited by Kuna people. Buy bananas and chat about different varieties. Shocked that the island has electricity and funnels freshwater in through an aqueduct on the seafloor. Every last square inch of the island is developed. Buildings jut right up against the sea. No wonder the Kuna are the most respected indigenous group: they know how to get what they want.
– Night 3: Engine fails. However, we’ve got ‘the wind at our back,’ and don’t lose too much time.
– Day 4: The ocean is so blue. Captain Paul warns us that we might not make to Cartagena in time for our light to Medellin. We start to hope for a Christmas miracle. We take shifts ‘at the helm’ and are advised how to ‘stay on course’ while taking 1.5 hour shifts each. Captain tells me that I get a gold star since I hit the speed record for the group (a rocking 8.6 nauts). The biggest crime against humanity occurs when a passenger (who shall remain nameless) decides he does not want to eat his egg sandwich and tosses it overboard without any consultation. Four us watch helplessly as it sinks into the sea.

– Day 5: We hang out, analyze our work and our communities, people in our communities, our role here, how the hell are we going to make a difference once we return, what the hell are we going to do once we return. Best summarized by the quote: “After spending two years trying to teach people the negative consequences of shitting in the river, if I go back to the same job in the US, I might as well have been shitting in the river with them these two years.” Sustainable change is not at our finger tips, but that is part of the brilliance of it all. Perhaps amused by our insights, perhaps impressed that we are not just a bunch of bums, Captain Paul suggests that we write a book. That was a dangerous idea, cap.

The engine fails again and we ‘are in the doldrums,’ spinning, like our heads, in circles accepting that we will sleep on the airport floor that evening. The Argentine cook requests a single hair from each of us to make an offering (along with beer, rice, and olive oil) to the ocean. Once we get going again, we are interrupted by an entire school of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. One of the most beautiful things of my life. Yet all the good omens in the world can’t make this boat go any faster.
– Night 5: Roll into the port of Cartagena at almost the exact hour that our flight was supposed to leave. As planned, we sleep at the airport until the airline kiosk opens in the morning. Although we missed the flight, we still consider it a Christmas miracle because we were not charged a change fee and all eight of us were able to get on the 6 pm flight.
– Day 6: We decide to get some real sleep at a hotel. However, I knew I would not forgive myself if I didn’t walk around Cartagena a little bit. So I headed to the colonial district to meander, get some coffee, and learn a little more about the city. While there, I made the best souvenir purchase of my life. I haggled with a street vendor to sell me a FIRST EDITION Gabriel Garcia Marquez of “The General and his Labyrinth” for $15. I still get giddy when I think about how stellar that was.

We make the flight and we rage on in Medellin, a city that deserves its own blogpost. Conclusion for the first part: sailing is badass, thank God I did it with 7 other people who I love listening to.

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