Today, I took a break from lesson plans and meandered down to the pier. The 4 pm sun was strong as I stopped by the vegetable store to inquire about avocados (I’m gaining something of a reputation as an avocado eater). Lucky for me, they not only had ripe avocados but also fresh spinach! I think I confuse the vegetable men with my enthusiasm for green things, but they cheerfully bagged my purchases and said, “see you later, my queen!”
I took the quickest route–in front of the catedral–then cut to the back street to avoid the tourist hunters in the main plaza. Today, I just wasn’t in the mood to explain that a) I live here and b) I’m too poor for your chicken dinner this month. On the back street, I heard the waves as I passed behind the restaurant row. Between the plastic tables, I caught a glimpse of the old muelle. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the muelle used to be the longest, busiest pier in South America; today, it’s four stubborn slabs of broken concrete and steel, a shadow of the glorious railroad days and tourists’ pocketbooks that used to come from all over to witness the bustle. Now a days, the old men call it “the four piers of Puerto Colombia,” a sad joke before they take another pull on their frosty Aguila Lights.
I made a beeline for Amelia’s jewelry stand of woven bracelets and shell necklaces that tinkle in the gusty breeze. She’s always here, clenching a needle in her teeth as she threads shells onto fishing wire. I met Amelia a few weeks ago when I decided I was going to introduce myself to all the artisans on the pier so that they’d stop trying to sell me stuff. This afternoon, she lit up when she saw me, laying out a piece of heavy cloth for me to sit on. We tried to exchange New Year’s stories, but the vallenato music at the adjacent restaurant was too loud and she had customers. I left my avocado with her and headed for the muelle.
December is the month of breezes and “cooler” temperatures (around 80-85 degrees), and the strong winds almost blew me over as I walked out over the waves. On the right side, the open sea was choppy and high as it crashed into the cement; on the left side, the leftover wave fragments are still for a moment before recollecting themselves and rushing towards the rocky beach. In this still spot, Ramiro was fishing.
Apparently, Ramiro and I are neighbors, but I didn’t recognize him when I started chatting with him about the wind conditions. He recognized me, though. He started to tell me stories about when the muelle was whole and an island guarded the puerto. He used to work the international ships that came to Puerto Colombia and to the mouth of the Magdalena River–English, Spanish and American liners. Nowadays, he’s pensioned and fishes for fun, although I can’t imagine any exercise in patience to be enjoyable. He laughed when I said I had bad luck for fishing–then handed me the line. “Just for a minute, while I rig the other one!” he promised.
I got into proper fishing position: back to the wind, eyes squinting at the setting sun. Every passerby stopped to look at me, look at the fishing line, and look at the dying fish next to me.
“La gringa pescadera! The white girl fisherman!” they murmured.
“His name is ‘Lunch’,” I shrugged back, deciding not to tell anyone that it wasn’t my catch to claim.
I watched the light turn pink on the foaming waves and Ramiro sang in a sweet baritone voice, a ballad he wrote to the muelle for its 100th birthday. He sang about the view from the island; the tourists who used to come; the storms that broke it and its abandonment by the rest of Colombia.
For some reason, Ramiro decided that I’m a “beautiful artist”, and he talked about the music and the art and the beauty of the death of the muelle. He marveled at my travels and I realized that right here, on this hard piece of history, even those who stay in one place can understand the heart of a gypsy.
And then I went home and wrote a little poem, but it’s kind of in two languages, or Spanglish, or something:
El mar es mi hogar
pero falto las aletas o alas
para escapar de las olas
y me quedo en el muelle
contra el viento con ellas
The waves argue amongst themselves
against the wind
I lack feathers or fins to
fly over or under them
so I stay at the surface,
fighting the wind together with the waves.