May 1, 2006
Isla Fuerte, Colombia
09º 23.194 North
076º 10.472 West
May 1, 2006

A Strong Island For Memory Making

By Bernadette Bernon

First impressions can be deceiving. We arrived at Isla Fuerte, and almost immediately decided this was an anchorage from which we’d flee as soon as we had the opportunity, perhaps even the next morning. Rolly and exposed to the prevailing northeasterly winds, we swayed back and forth like a metronome even as we looked for a place to plant the hook.

Local fishermen paddled by in their wooden canoes and, with grand gesticulations, indicated to us that we were looking in the wrong place. They pointed to a place farther up the island, behind a small headland, an anchorage we’d heard had a hard and foul bottom. They said no, no, no, it was good holding. We followed their advice, as did Que Linda, and Sand Dollar, puttered around the coral heads and sand bars, and dropped the hook in 12 feet. The three sailboats ended up quite close to each other as the bowl of an anchorage shallowed quickly around us on one side, and was littered with coral heads on the other. No matter, we thought. We’d only be here such a short time. The swells already had set my teeth on edge. Little did we know that one week later, we’d still be right here, with no intention of moving on.

On Isla Fuerte the roads are wide enough for a burro, which is the local version of the SUV.

On the face of it, the town didn’t seem like much to write home about. Scruffy and ramshackle, there were small paved footpaths with little concrete houses and bamboo shacks on either side. There was a church, three little tiendas, each selling the same assortment of tomato paste, rice, sugar, cooking oil, and cans of sardines. One had eggs; one had plantains; and the other had a few tomatoes and some local white cheese, which is pretty bland, but I bought all I could find and was thrilled. Some people rode around on burros, which were working animals used in the farms up the hill from town. As I walked back to the dinghy on that first day of exploration, a wizened old woman with no teeth, who was sitting on a decrepit rocker outside her house, called over to me, and asked me in Spanish if I wanted to buy shark oil -- aciete de tiberon. I asked her, politely, why I’d need such a thing. “Good for asthma and grippe,” she said, smiling with her gums. “Well, thanks,” I said. “But I don’t think I need any today, gracias a Dios.”

Safely snuggled together, these babies are safe while their parents work all day.

Near her house was the Hogar Infantil Renacer, a day-care for pobrecitos – little poor ones. I went inside the one-room concrete structure. Two babies slept in a makeshift hammock, and were being rocked by a child no more than five years old. There were eight half-naked children running around outside in the dirt, playing tag, being looked after by a child no more than 10, who also held a baby. Inside, a teenager of about 16 was making lunch of rice and beans. It was her day to be in charge, and everything seemed under control. The day-care is a critical service for poor families on Fuerte who need both parents to work in the farms all day. The cost per child, including lunch, is 5,000 pesos a month, about $2.50.

Over our days wandering around Fuerte, many little dramas unfolded. One day we came upon the school, went inside, and were welcomed warmly by the teacher, Señor Rodolfo Rodrigues, who spoke beautiful and very formal English. He gave us a tour of the public school, which handles all the students from the island. Rodolfo, one of six teachers, has been on Fuerte only one month, and he was ecstatic. Teaching jobs are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Cartagena, which is his home. When the Isla Fuerte offer came up, despite the fact that his wife Nancy had just given birth to their first child -- Rodolfo Jr, now one month old -- he took the job.

Seor Rodolfo Rodrigues, the local teacher who became our friend.

“It’s a miracle to work in this place,” he said. “But I miss my wife and baby very much.” For the time being, Rodolfo lives with a Fuerte family. He teaches tenth and eleventh grade philosophy, which the older kids take for two hours a day, twice a week. Rodolfo told us that it’s part of the standard Colombia curriculum throughout the country. In Colombia, eleventh grade is the last year of public school, unless the student goes on to college, which almost no one does from places like Fuerte because, although college tuition isn’t that much, room and board costs more money than most people can muster.

The Isla Fuerte school was rustic but well equipped, especially for such an isolated environment.

Rodolfo introduced us to Ronald Munoz, the teacher in charge of the school’s one computer, which could be connected via satellite dish to the Internet. I promised that when I wrote about Isla Fuerte for BoatUS, I’d include lots of photos of the town, the kids, and the local people, so that they could show the children. (This is that story.) Rodolfo and Ronald were excited about the idea that their classes would see their home and school online. From that day on, we ran into Rodolfo here and there in town, and he became a friend.

The Saturday Night Cockfight drew a large crowd from the entire island -- men, women and children. Despite my abhorrence, it was a major all-community event.

The big talk in town during our first week in Isla Fuerte was the upcoming cockfight on Saturday night. One morning, Lisa and I went to see the little “Coliseo de Pollos” – a makeshift coliseum of raggedy bleachers surrounding a death pit of an arena where the cocks would fight each other. Among our boats, the women all turned up our noses at the prospect of attending what we thought was a barbaric event. To make matter worst, when Linda, Lisa, and I found out that these cocks had razors taped to their legs so that they could cut up their opponents in more spectacular fashion, our jaws dropped in repulsion. The guys all couldn’t wait to go. At the end of the big night, they returned to the boats telling stories of the hoards of people who attended the fights – men, women, and children – the betting, the drama of the fights themselves and the carnival energy of it all. Normally never one to miss a party, I was happy to have given this one a pass. My husband, of course, loved it.

The cutting weapon is attached to the left leg of the cock.

Back on our second day, a man had rowed his dugout to the boats, asking us if we’d like his wife to cook us dinner ashore for a modest charge. The caretaker of one of the pretty beach houses along the northern edge of our anchorage, he offered us a meal of chicken or freshly-caught fish, plantains made into patacones, salad, French fries, and some kind of sweet for dessert – all served on the veranda of the house, overlooking our boats. The cost was $4.50 each. The promise of French fries cinched the deal. We dinghied ashore at 6:00 p.m., and when we went to the house, we found that some friends of the owner were staying there, and that we’d all be having dinner together. We met Margarita from Medellin, Angela and Yanno from Bonn, Germany, and their friends -- it had been their idea to invite us in -- and so began what would become our evening ritual of dinner at the house, followed by Latin dancing. Angela, a physical therapist in Bonn, was originally from Medellin before she married Yanno, a German engineer. She led the dancing, and taught us hip moves and shimmies we’d only dreamed about. That woman can dance.

Every morning Linda, Margarita, Angela and I danced and exercised together.

Every morning after that, Linda, Lisa, and I joined Angela and Margarita for Latin aerobics on the veranda, set to fabulous dance music. Margarita is a watercolor painter, of repute in Medellin, and one day we all painted together. Another day she taught us how to make patacones – those delicious flattened plantain patties that we’d come to love throughout Colombia. We hung out, chatted away in a mixture of Spanish and English, and all became friends.

We hiked around the island one day, over hills, through surf, across white beaches pounding with waves, through jungles of mangroves. Along the way, we came across rustic little getaway cottages on the beach, owned by Colombians from the mainland, mostly from Medellin, where word of the sleepy little paradise had spread from friend to friend. Angela and Yanno, too, had bought a small patch of land on the beach a couple of years before, and their dream is to one day build a little house there where they can spend their winter holidays away from snowy Bonn, and eventually spend half a year there in their retirement. Such quiet development – individuals building houses here and there on a small scale, rather than McMansions and hotels -- seems like it will be a good thing for Isla Fuerte.

Luis Ramon Lorente Petro made our stay on the island a considerably richer one.

Probably my most memorable experience during our stay was meeting a 16-year-old orphan named Luis Ramon Llorente Petro. Lisa and Cade knew some cruisers on a boat named Fifth Season, who’d visited Fuerte a couple of years before. Gail had befriended a boy named Arnold, whose mother was dead, and whose father had abandoned the family when the boy was small. Gail and Arnold had formed a bond, and he’d invited her to take the honored place of his late mother at his school graduation ceremony. Since then, the two had stayed in touch. Gail asked Lisa to stop by and say hello when we were in Fuerte. So Lisa and I asked around, but no one knew where Arnold was. We asked Rodolfo, but as he’d only been on the island a month, he didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t be of much help. Finally, Lisa and I found a child who knew the name, who brought us to a tiny house on the edge of town. We knocked on the door, and it was opened by a handsome boy. We asked him if he knew Arnold. “Yes,” he said, a worried look on his face. “He is my brother.”

Luis told us Arnold had joined the military the year before, and now was stationed in Cartagena. He invited us into his modest one-room house, showed us pictures of Arnold, whom he clearly adored, and pictures of his mother, who’d died of an asthma attack six years before. The news of how she’d died saddened me even more, as I have asthma, and know that such a problem can have a simple solution when the right medication is available – not likely on a remote island like Fuerte, where home remedies such as shark oil may be considered the solution.

Luis had no relatives on Fuerte, or anywhere else for that matter – other than his big brother. He was renting space in this house from a 25-year-old diesel mechanic who’d needed a roommate. It was clean, neat, and organized. Near Luis’s bed was a small bookcase filled with National Geographic magazines, and schoolbooks. There was a table with two chairs. There was no kitchen or bathroom; instead there was an outhouse built over the water nearby. There was no electricity; reading had to be done during the light of day. A Colombian flag was on one wall, a diver-down flag on another, and there was a diving poster over his bed – Luis proudly told us that he had a part-time job with a local diving company that takes tourists out to the reefs.

Throughout Colombia, regardless of town size, football is the sport the kids like best.

These two young brothers had lost their mother when they were 10 and 13, and were making their own way in the world. Now, the youngest, Luis, was alone. Looking at the bookcase, at the collection of National Geographics, and noticing on Luis’s bed an open copy of Robert Louis Stevenson in Spanish, I had an idea. This was an inquisitive-minded boy who clearly loved learning. I asked him if he knew the new teacher at school, Rodolfo Rodrigues. Yes, he said, Señor Rodrigues was his philosophy teacher, and he liked him very much.

Later on, Lisa and I traipsed around town until we found Rodolfo. We told him all about Luis. “He’s in the tenth grade, and very bright. He’s one of your students,” I said. “He has no one here who looks out for him. His mother is dead. His father is gone. His brother moved to Cartagena. He is alone here.”

“Just like I am,” Rodolfo smiled. He’d had no idea about Luis’s personal tragedy, about his living circumstances. “Don’t worry. I know who the boy is. I will seek him out, and look out for him. It sounds like we could both use a friend here.”

Although the saddle looks uncomfortable, it's ruggedly sturdy-as is the animal. Often we'd see two or three kids straddling a burro and happily clip-clopping along the island's paths.

Lisa and I went back to our boats, walking on air, and put together two packages. The first was for Rodolfo, and it included stacks of school supplies, pens, pencils, and notebooks. We also put in some new tee shirts, which we asked him to give to anyone who was in need, or to trade. The second package was for Luis. We packed in it new shirts, pants, bags of new underwear, tubes of toothpaste, soap, sunglasses, baseball hat, a book about dinosaurs, a fish-identification book, school supplies, and a big box of fish hooks he could use to barter whatever he needed from the Colombian traders who come through every few days. Of all these things, it was the book about dinosaurs that made him swoon in excitement. In the big scheme of things, these little gifts didn’t add up to much, of course. We knew that. But it was something, and we hoped it made Luis and Rodolfo feel special for a little while.

This is how our days in Fuerte unfolded – Latin aerobics, cock fights, visiting schools and day-care centers, water coloring, hiking, eating on the veranda of the beach house, and rocking back and forth on Ithaka as she rolled in the swells. As time goes on, perhaps most of these memories will fade. But the memory that will not fade is the look on a boy’s face when he discovered that two women he’d never met before cared enough about him to help him connect with a teacher he’d been too shy to approach. Such are the moments that make cruising worthwhile.