February 15, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 24.388 North
075° 31.576 West

The English-Speaking Ladies Club

By Bernadette Bernon

Sometimes, all it takes is one chance encounter to turn the wheels of change. And then everything afterward is different than it would have been. This is what happened in Cartagena recently, when my friend Lisa went out shopping for one of those wax rings that fits underneath toilets, a typical shopping excursion when you live aboard a boat - endless searches for the arcane. She and Cade had heard that applying that wax to the prop would retard barnacle growth, and they wanted to try it, as the Cartagena water is a breeding ground for barnacles.

Lisa from the sailboat Sand Dollar is the consummate cruiser organizer. She manages it all with a light touch, a sense of humor, and good grace.

She tried a couple of different stores, and quickly realized that her Spanish wasn't up to the task of describing such a wax ring. Frustrated, as she left one store called Home Mart - a combination mini-Home-Depot and Pier 1 Imports -- she noticed in the parking lot "a couple who looked like cruisers," and they were talking to someone else in Spanish. Lisa asked them if they'd help her translate to the clerk inside the store, and they were happy to step in. Turns out they weren't cruisers, though; they were Americans living and working in Cartagena.

Well, Home Mart didn't have the wax ring, but the Kings were friendly sorts, and told Lisa to hop in their truck. They said they knew of a couple of other ferreterias (hardware stores), and offered to help her find the ring. They drove all over Cartagena for the next two hours on the usual wild-goose chase of trying to find odd things in foreign towns, and during the afternoon, they got to know each other. Like Lisa, Janie is an avid card player. Like Lisa, she'd adopted a street dog - her Rusty had come from Argentina, while Lisa's Teka had come from Cartagena. Like Lisa, Janie's husband is an engineer; he works in the coal-mining industry on the border between Venezuela and Colombia. Lisa invited the Kings to stop by Club Nautico later on for a cold drink at Happy Hour, and show up they did.

Over a round of cold beers, Janie told Lisa and Cade about the English-Speaking Ladies Club, a group of women living in Cartagena who meet at each other's homes every other week to organize community projects. The Club supports different groups of social workers working in old-age homes, hospitals, barrios, and crisis centers. All of the projects are focused on the poor. Janie invited Lisa to join the next meeting. In fact, she said, "Invite any of your cruising friends. We love meeting other women, and we can always use the help."

From left to right: Bianca's mother Emily, who was visiting from Germany; Bianca; 14-year-old Kelsey from Arclyd; Lisa from Sand Dollar; Berrett; and Teresa: (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

Lisa took it from there, and made an announcement on the morning cruisers' net that any cruising women were welcome to attend the next meeting of The English-Speaking Ladies Club. Nine women volunteered to come to the meeting; and three times as many as that got involved over the next few weeks by donating food, money, clothing, and other needed items to the various efforts.

The first meeting was just before the holidays, at the home of a woman named Berrett, an American living with her family and teaching in the Cartagena barrios. At that meeting the cruisers met Evi, a native Colombian and retired physician who worked in Chicago with her husband, also a retired doctor. They met Pat Fisher, who works at the consulate. They met Bianca, from Germany, who's living in Cartagena while her husband is working in Colombia; and many others. Most of the women in the club had husbands who worked for the government. The cruisers doubled the number of women in The Club in the first meeting. That night, Lisa told the group, "We're cruisers, and most of us don't have a lot of extra money right now. But what we do have is time, and we really want is to give back to the community. While we're here, our time is yours." The women all decided together, that with all this vigor and help, they'd begin to meet every week.

Cartageneros in their retirement home (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

Gift bags full of toiletries for the residents of the retirement home. (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)
The first event on the agenda was a Christmas party at a retirement home for elderly poor people who live four to a room, and who have no family and no place else to go. Marianne on Sunday's Child volunteered to be in charge of that project. She made an announcement on the morning cruisers' net asking everyone who came into Club Nautico for the cruisers' Thanksgiving Day party to please bring something to donate -- cans of food, money, ornaments, whatever they could. She raised 500,000 pesos, which is about $250, and with that money The Club was able to buy each resident a pair of shoes, a pillow and pillow case - which none of them had - as well as a Christmas tree, and all the requested food for the Christmas meal, plus three months supply of food for the home.

One afternoon, the Club had a tree-decorating party at the home. Meanwhile, the Cartagena ladies had previously instructed their husbands to bring back from every business trip all the little freebies they had in their hotel rooms. Over the year they'd collected hundreds of soaps, shampoos, creams, sewing kits, and so on. Liz from the sailboat Lisa sewed a canvas tote bag for each resident of the home, which were then filled with the goodies; Ann on Orion paid for the material to make the bags; and Nancy on Texas Reb painted the names of each resident on their bag. The residents of the home were stunned by the event, thrilled with the shoes, the personal toiletry bags, the food, and the pillows. Everyone - The Club members and the residents - were high with the excitement of such a grand success.

School children from the barrio (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

The next project on which the ladies focused their attentions was on a safe house for abused girls, where they're nurtured and taught working skills. Trudy, an aerobics instructor who spends half her year in Canada, and half in Cartagena, was in charge of this one, assisted primarily by Michelle and her 14-year-old daughter Kelsey from the sailboat Arclyd. Kelsey and her mom went to the safe house, took photos of every girl, and found out from each of them what kind of Christmas present they/d like.

Back at Club Nautico, Kelsey made a poster of all the girls' pictures, each attached to the girl's wish list. All the cruisers strolling through Club Nautico, on their way to the dinghy dock, had to pass by the poster, which entreated them to select one of the pictures, and to buy that girl the gift she wished for - normally some simple item of clothing. After you purchased the gift, the poster invited you to wrap it, put the photo of the girl on the front, along with your photo on it too. Well before the event, every photo on the poster was taken.

Girls in the safe house pose with their presents (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

A glitch occurred when a cruiser didn't show up with the promised present for one little girl. The error wasn't realized until the Big Day, when the child ended up in tears, after receiving what was obviously a quick substitute provided by Michelle. The girls put on a play for the members of The Club, as a surprise gesture of thanks, and acted out their lives in dance. Meanwhile, Michelle got on the radio, asking for the cruiser who'd chosen the girl. No one answered. David, a single-hander on a boat named Necessity, heard Michelle's call, came on the VHF and offered to rush out that very minute to buy whatever the child had asked for. Thanks to David, all ended well.

The girls from the safe house acted out a play and dance depicting aspects of their lives, and performed it as a gift of thanks to The Club (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

By the time Douglas and I got to Cartagena, the English Speaking Ladies Club, now bulging with cruisers, was a roaring success, and immersed in its next mission: helping kids in two particularly poor barrios (neighborhoods) just outside Cartagena that were full of children who, with their families, had been displaced from their small farms in the mountains of interior Colombia because of guerilla activity. They'd fled for their safety, leaving what little they'd owned, and were now starting all over again, with nothing, in a city they didn't know. Berrett was in charge, and asked The Club if they'd all go out and gather toys, school supplies, and as much used clothing as possible. These items had to be inventoried, so they could be distributed fairly among the school children. With the cruisers involved, donations tripled, and the project was expanded to become a once-every-two-months visit to the schools.

Always there's pleasure in cookies - a little boy in the children's ward of the city hospital (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

Inspiration was in the air, and similar philanthropic projects sprang up among the cruisers. A couple of blocks down the street at Club De Pesca, the other yacht club in Cartagena, Linda and Doug on the sailboat Que Linda raised 500,000 pesos, involved 20 of their cruising friends, and organized Christmas gifts for all the sick children at Casa De Los Ninos, the inner-city hospital. Meanwhile, George on Pyewacket spent a week teaching the teenaged son of one of the local tour guides how to set up a wi-fi connection. And there were more cruisers getting involved, too - from Midnight Watch, and Constance, and Sylvester, and Starlight Dancer, and Miss P, and others. It seemed like everyone was getting involved and giving something back to the community that we were all enjoying so much.

One night, Cade and Lisa were sitting at dinner, and struck up a conversation with the couple next to them - he was American and she was Colombian. Lisa mentioned The Club to Teresa, who didn't know anything about it. "It was so cool," said Lisa. "She immediately joined the group, and came to the next meeting."

When this child awakens in her hospital bed, she will have the happy surprise of a Christmas gift (Photo courtesy of SV Arclyd)

Cruisers who like to get involved in the local community should know that, when they arrive in a place, that there are always opportunities. You just have to look around and ask some questions. When we were in Guatemala, for instance, the local orphanage was completely rebuilt by cruisers George and Mecca from Sailabout who were spending hurricane season up the Rio Dulce. Several teachers we know always offer to go into local island schools in the San Blas and teach songs to the children - "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," sung in a round, is a favorite. Friends on Xtazy, Queen Mary, Sea Camp, and Fifth Season - all musicians -- like to bring their instruments into villages and entertain the locals. Our friend Tom on Mesque Ukee once spent all day helping a group of Kuna men chop down a tall tree that was up a mountainside, haul it down, and saw it up for a roof - all by hand. Cade recently helped the village men and women to haul concrete for their new airstrip in Mamitupu. Being willing to roll up your sleeves and get involved not only helps others, it also enriches your own cruising life, opening you to new friendships, to new possibilities.

"You just have to open up a little and let something happen," said Lisa. "Often, getting involved with projects like this becomes the highlight of your whole cruise. It has for Cade and me."

Over the past few months in Cartagena, we've seen so many cruisers rise to the occasion, get involved together, get to know each other better, work together for a common cause, make friends with wonderful local people living in Cartagena, and make a difference in so many lives - in many cases because Lisa happened to walk up to two complete strangers outside a Home Mart, and ask for help. Sometimes, getting something big started can be just as serendipitous, and yet just as simple, as that.

How To Get Involved in Cartagena

If you are in Cartagena, or planning to go there, you can contact The English-Speaking Ladies Club by emailing Bianca Rimbach. Her email address is TheRimbachs@yahoo.com. New members are always welcome, even if it's for a short time.

Otherwise, you can ask John, the manager of Club Nautico, if he knows of any community projects that need volunteers. He's very knowledgeable and involved in everything going on in Cartagena.