Rain. Thunder. Rain. Lightning. Thunder. Thunder. Rain.
That was our last night in San Blas islands – Gidget was curled up next to me and looking quite nervous; she was never a fan of loud noises. Squall after squall passed in a never ending precession of wind, rain, lightning and thunder. Next to us was the small baking pan I used to catch the water dripping from the improperly-sealed windows. Towels were laid out as well but our bunks were still damp none the less. The rain continued into morning; however we learned from other sailboats at anchor that the weather forecast was favorable for the trip to Cartagena. We donned our foul-weather jackets, prepared the boat and left Tortuga (BBQ) island around 10.oo.
This trip turned out to be the one where I almost decided to quit, which is somewhat bizarre considering the trip itself wasn’t so bad – about 200 miles covered in 2 days. From Tortuga island we were sailing on a beam reach with a speed of 5-6 knots. The wind shifted to the east at nightfall, however, and Jerrad had to tack upwind several times that first night with more of the same the second night, resulting in exhaustion from lack of sleep. This was not a perilous trip or even a dangerous one; fear had nothing to do with my desire to quit. But somehow all the little discomfort and annoyance associated with long-term sailing on a 28-ft sailboat began to get the better of me – the absence of a shower, the cramped space, the wet cushions, the lack of the support system I was used to back in California and the fact that I missed talking to other people. I was overwhelmed and was getting worn out with this journey, especially now that the deadline was approaching fast and we felt the pressure of being rushed to reach the Virgin Islands before the hurricane season started. So in this state of mixed, high emotions (always a good state of making important decisions, right?!) I shamelessly declared that I “don’t wanna do this anymore.”
Then there was the mouse.
We have always been careful to not bring unwanted critters onto our boat. But this uninvited guest found its way somewhere in Panama, most likely from the tires and lines we had to rent to transit the canal. At first I would hear odd noises at nighttime. Then we found half-eaten bread and dog food with holes in their plastic bag. I kept hoping it was really Gidget and not a mouse, but then I saw the one undeniable evidence: mouse droppings. Damn we have a mouse in the house. Oh, but we have a dog that loves to catch other animals, I thought. I told Gidget to catch the mouse numerous times. But while she is always excited to catch flies, bees and squirrels, she apparently had no interest whatsoever in locating and/or catching this mouse. And while she would wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of people walking on the street outside our house in Bakersfield, she would slept through the ruckus the mouse was making inside the cabin. It was becoming apparent that Gidget was not going to kill the mouse so our first solution was to buy mouse glue – non toxic, harmless and safe for Gidget to be around. Didn’t work. The mouse ate the cheese and Gidget tried to eat the glue that perhaps now smelled like cheese. Then we bought four small mouse traps. Still didn’t work. The mouse stopped eating our food and started chewing empty plastic bottles instead; it kept me awake at night.
Finally Jerrad bought some heavy-duty mouse traps a few days after we arrived in Cartagena. “Be careful,” he warned me. “These ones can do some real damage. We’ll definitely get the mouse this time”. He was right and it only took one try. The loud snap woke us up. We turned on the light and there it was… except it wasn’t a mouse, it was a small rat. Its neck was broken, its eyes were wide open staring lifelessly at me that I had to look away for a second. It then twitched a couple of times before it stopped moving for good. We won, we got the rat! The rest of that night we slept in peace.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, the mouse was but one of many minor annoyances of living onboard Vento Dea at the time. So in an effort to re-energize and rejuvenate our spirit to continue sailing, right after we dropped anchor in Cartagena near Club Nautico, we decided to take a short, quick break from the boat and stayed in a hotel. We looked online for a decent and cheap hotel that also allows pets. After a short search we found Hotel Casa Andrea. The website listed indoor fan, wifi, parking and laundry as amenities. Air conditioning wasn’t listed, but for $30/night we were more than happy to have shower, dry bed and wifi access. We were shown to our room after checking in, and lo and behold: it not only came with one bed, but it had TWO queen beds AND air conditioning! And massive closet space lining the walls that looked odd enough to be in a hotel room. We were in for a treat! After 2 days of basking in this “luxury” as well as exploring the city, I felt much better and we were back to our normal selves. I thought of how silly it was that I wanted to quit over a damp bed when we have come this far and our destination was drawing ever closer. We were ready to get to work, tackle the leaking problem and finish our journey. After checking out from our hotel in Bocagrande, we walked the 3 miles back to Club Nautico.
We came back to the Club Nautico dinghy dock only to find our yellow dinghy, bought used merely 3 weeks ago, was not there. Vanished without a trace. Was it stolen? We didn’t think it would’ve been stolen, considering there were plenty of better looking, more expensive, less conspicuous dinghies that were as easily accessible as our vividly yellow one. So we went to the Club Nautico’s office and the staff said somebody had taken it to our boat. We got a ride in the marina’s patrol/service boat back to Vento Dea. We didn’t see it tied to the boat and we started getting nervous. It wasn’t until we were within a few feet that we finally saw it: a messy, deflated, yellow blob all over our cockpit floor. Oh my god, I thought, where is the outboard motor? Jerrad had to dig through the mess to find it laid on it’s side at the bottom of the pile. Phew, it wasn’t stolen. Later on a fellow sailor from Australia dropped by saying he brought the dinghy back because he had found it completely deflated and completely sunk (including the outboard). Jerrad eventually figured out why: the dinghy seemed to have literally exploded from the expanding air inside it while under the hot Cartagena sun. He patched the torn seams together, remembered to deflate it a little if we were going to leave it for a while, and we haven’t had a problem since.
The rest of our stay in Cartagena was spent to work on the boat and exploring the city. Cartagena De Indias, a large colonial city on the northern Colombian coast founded by the Spanish in 1533, served a major role as a port city for the expansion of the empire. The city, due to its strategic location and economic importance, had been the target of many attacks and raids by pirates. Today the historical past of Cartagena is well and alive in its architecture. The most famous historical colonial district is the Walled City – a large area of colorful colonial-style buildings surrounded by a fortress wall – which is the most popular tourist attraction. You can easily spend hours inside the Walled City exploring the blocks, enjoying the architecture, the statues and the food. The one-way streets were crowded mostly with taxis. The streets were packed with not only tourists but locals going about their daily business, selling merchandise, running errands or going to school.
There are other smaller colonial districts as well such as San Pedro and Getsemani, which seemed less well-maintained than the Walled City, but still charming nevertheless. Getsemani was the area where all the hostels seemed to be located. It was also the area where we unexpectedly found a restaurant that served Indonesian food! It was quite disappointing however. Seeing as I was born and raised in Indonesia my expectations may have been unfairly high for a Dutch chef cooking Indonesian food in Colombia.
One of our favorite places in the city was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: a massive stone castle overlooking the entire city and bay of Cartagena. This impressive fortress demonstrated a wide entrance, a system of artillery batteries and a complex maze of underground tunnels that you are free to explore. It was surprisingly well-preserved and, like the Walled City, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If colonial and historical architecture aren’t your thing, you can still very well enjoy Cartagena. The Bocagrande area is refreshingly hip and modern, where the skyscrapers, hotels, cafes, museums, bars, and nightclubs are located. There were also daytrips to nearby islands and beaches offered daily: Playa Blanca on Isla Baru seemed to be a very popular destination.
The weird thing about Cartagena was the fact of how little English is spoken here, considering how large and metropolitan the city is. I’m sure if you go to a five-star hotel resort and restaurant, the case would be different but most taxi drivers, receptionists in regular hotels and simple eateries don’t speak English at all. And this brings me to another point: the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean is nearly a language of its own. Living in California we were constantly exposed to Spanish and after being in Mexico and Central America for almost 5 months our Spanish was consistently improving. But once we got to Cartagena it was like starting over again from the beginning. Different words are used, different phrases, lots of slang, many words are shortened and it is spoken very quickly. The accent and emphasis work to throw you off even more. As time went on it became easier but still took considerable effort and concentration to hold even basic conversations.
Despite this difficulty in communication, we still managed to taste some very delicious Colombian food, such as their empanadas (fried dough filled with meat or cheese), and their typical meal called comida corriente – soup, rice, beans, fries/potato/fried plantain, salad and choice of meat dish. The eatery next to our hotel offered a fulfilling comida corriente for about $4. They were much more flavorful than similar plates in Costa Rica and Panama.
Finally after 10 days, we were ready to move on to our next destination: the island of Bonaire. The boat was clean and organized, the cushions were dried, laundry was done and we were well-provisioned for the next leg of the journey. We checked wind and weather reports daily and waited for the best window to head up the notoriously windy Colombian coast. As we left we knew one day we would like to return, but little did we know we were not going to have much choice in the matter.
More photos here