The alarm awakes me at 5 o'clock in the morning. The first trip is about to begin. I'm excited. The last few days I have done well. I caught up when it comes to sleeping and gave myself as much alone time as possible. The alone time took to me in such an extent that I`m even eager to meet new people and socialize again. Jean (the assistant) and Dave (the guide) are still deep in their dreams. I moved into the ‘crew apartment` stationed opposite the port of Capurgana and above the Italian restaurant owned by Marco, one of the other guides and good friend of the owner, Fabio. There are three bedrooms and once you come back from a trip to Capurgana you pick a bedroom that is free and you make it your own for the next five days. It did not take long to figure out that my bedroom is my only form of privacy (if you barricade the door well enough from the dogs that roam the apartment for food). The rest of the apartment is gratefully used by the restaurant staff, plus friends, as a TV room and private place to share the necessary `gifts` Colombia has to offer, out of sight of the police. From the hammock on the balcony there is a view of the harbor of Capurgana where every day the boat brings in a new load of tourists and takes the ones who are continuing their travels.
On Friday the cargo brings in fresh fruits and vegetables and on Sat, Mon and Thu other goods are delivered (well at least, that`s how it should be). The boat is old, looking like a big primary school project made of woo, that didn`t entirely work out well. It desperately tries to keep floating on the crystal clear waters. The pier is not in much better shape and the men and boys hopping agile with their bare, muscular torsos from one plank to the other while the load is balancing on their back or head. The more they unload, the higher their salary. The daughters of the harbormaster keep a close eye on things while shouting, with long lists in their hands, instructions to the carriers to ensure that the cargo is carried to the right cart. The horses and mules stand patiently waiting in a queue in front of their improvised cars. Their heads lowered, dozing in the shade, until the cart is loaded and a slap on the bottom tells them it`s time to get on the move. There are no cars in Capurgana. Jose is the only proud owner of a tractor and there are a couple of mopeds/motorcycles in the village. On Monday and Friday there will be a small charter plane which brings you to Medellin, then the horses again neatly await in a queue in front of their improvised carts until it`s fully loaded with parcels from the plane. The workers of the plane walk into the police station to submit the required payment, while the horses bring the parcels to the harbor or into the mountains. Questions are not asked, no one knows about it and at the same time everyone knows what's going on.
Capurgana is a popular holiday destination among Colombians. The beaches are beautiful, the village is surrounded by mountains covered with deep green rainforest and the blue sea is so clear that you easily can see the bottom of the ocean. Life is relaxed in Capurgana, there is fishing, the shops open once the owners wake up and they close when they are tired. Dominos are played on every corner of the street. `Mammasitas` sell homemade snacks and on weekends there is a real ghetto blaster war between the various cafes around the football field. Each cafe plays its own music as loud as possible to rise above the beats of the competitor. The whole village, from 1 years old to a 100, drinks beer together, dancing salsa or show their twerking moves on one of the spare tables or chairs. Everyone knows each other by name and on the street you greet each other and then engage in a brief chat.
It is early morning and time for the next trip. I quickly finish my shower. It's pitch dark. At night the whole village is without electricity and often during the day the electricity cuts off as well. My hands feel around the bathroom to look for my towel, I dry myself off. I jump into the clothes that I had neatly prepared on my chair the night before and put my last stuff in my backpack. Jean and Dave have already started carrying the boxes to the dock. The guests, some half asleep, are putting their backpacks in large trash bags to make them somewhat waterproof. We load everything into the boats and set off for the islands.
The San Blas Islands (now called Guna Yala) are 365 breathtaking islands in the Caribbean sea. Most are inhabited and seems copy-pasted from a travel brochure. During the trips we always sleep one night in one of the 47 villages in the Guna Yala to show the guests the daily life of the Guna. The other nights are spent on uninhabited islands where we drink out of a coconut, toast marshmallows over a campfire and the last night enjoy an unlimited lobster dinner.
Dave introduces me to the owners of the accommodations (ie, huts with hammocks) and the captains and sailors of the boats. All of them are Guna and all 1.5 foot shorter than me. It is a happy folk, no internet, no phone reception. The women still wear traditional clothing and the men modern clothing, often inspired by one of their reggeaton heroes. Daytimes are spend fishing in a wooden canoe, sometimes a tarp acting as a sail to make paddling easier.
The idea of the tour is simple, make sure everyone has a memorable four days on the islands. In practice, this means getting up early, prepare breakfast, wash the dishes, put your captains to work, make sure the bills are paid, make sure everyone is packing, pack your own belongings, check if everybody is on the boat, no one forgot something, next island, prepare lunch, etc. It is a great job, demanding, but I enjoy it. Each trip a new group of friends, the different roles that have to be performed; manager, chef, phycologist, party starter, game supervisor, cleaner..... and all of this with stunning islands in the background.
My first trip with Dave flew by and before I knew it we arrived in Panama City. Dave showed me the survey results; 'Sanne did an amazing job, just a bit more confidence and she'll be the best guide San Blas had ever known." I smile and Dave gives me a pat on the back. "Confidence, something I'm going to work hard on from now on." I promise myself.
My first group
My training is over. Dave went to Germany for a Eurotrip. Now it's up to me and Jean. We prepared the next trip up to every detail. The group is great, after the first day, everyone is already best friends and time flies. Before we know it, the last night has already begun. I give the group the necessary instructions for tomorrow and then open the `20-kilo-of-lobster buffet`. Todd, one of the boys in the group, raises his hand in the air with some doubt. "Todd, what’s up" I say with a smile. “Sanne, we had a good chat this afternoon and we decided we do not want to go to Panama yet. We want to stay an extra night on this island." I chuckle, it did not take me a lot of time to figure out that Todd was the clown of the group and soon I parked this question in the category `jokes` "Well Todd, there are two single Guna ladies on this island, if you marry one of them, you stay here the rest of your life." I say with a wink. The group was silent. "We mean it Sanne," Jess says with a smile. "We would like to stay another night." “In that case I'll have to excuse me. I need to make a couple of phone calls.” and quickly I walk off to look for my phone.
"What?!" shouts Renee, the coordinator from Panama. "That's never happened before!” After 10 laps around the island, I finally found some phone reception. “Yet it is true, they want to stay. I need to know if we can do it logistically and how much it costs per person.” “Ok Sanne, I`ll arrange everything with Fabio and see if I can arrange the necessary food supplies, you talk to the captains and ask them to stay another night.”
Two hours later it was all arranged. The group no longer had their last night, which we now celebrate tomorrow. I throw some more wood on the fire. It's time for a party.
One night later, the final night had inevitably arrived. I get up early to prepare breakfast. Ravi, a boy from Israel is the only one who is awake. I walk up to him and give him a piece of mango. “This is the best day of my life.” he says with a smile. “Well that's quite an early conclusion to make at 6:30 in the morning” I chuckle. “I saw dolphins, very close. About three meters away from me.” On that point I had to agree with him, in that case nothing would stop me from having an awesome day. We laughed and I go back to the table to continue to prepare breakfast.
The group slowly starts rising from their hammocks. Enjoying breakfast together Jack suddenly calls; “Dolphins, I see the dolphins!” Quickly, we pack our snorkels and jump into the water. Jess shouts instructions from the beach “To the left, straight boys ow, ow they are on the right now!” Swimming as quick as we can we follow her instructions. Then it's quiet. Suddenly I see a shadow coming at me in the distance. The shadow is becoming clearer and then I see a mother with her young slowly swimming past. She looks at me briefly, while she swims by. Unfortunately I cannot take pictures, but this moment is burned into my brain. This, I will never forget.
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto