I was backpacking around the Colombian caribbean coast when I found myself in Cabo de la Vela, the northern most point of South America, deep in the Guajira region. Desert meets ocean, nothing but bright yellow sand and turquoise ocean as far as the eye can see. It just so happens to be one of the windiest spots in the world. 30 knots of wind, all day, nearly every day of the year. So of course, I had come to kitesurf. I just so happened to get on quite well with the owner of one of the schools there, and before I knew it I had committed myself to staying and running his school and guest house for 3 months while he was away (oh, the joy of living spontaneously!) I hadn’t really thought it all through, and the experience turned out to be an enormous challenge (although, an incredible one). Here are some of the reasons why…
I hadn’t anticipated that this small fundamental would end up taking up most of my time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. Literally. I will never again take for granted the pure miracle of being able to nonchalantly plug something into charge at any hour of the day. Totally off grid – Cabo de la Vela has no mains electricity to connect in to. Every house is out for itself, so to speak. The majority of the village uses nasty generators to power themselves through the evening – a hangover from the ludicrously cheap gasoline they could bring over the border from Venezuela. However, (for better or for worse) this was no longer the case when I arrived in October 2015, and with the border closed it was extortionate for us to power our place like this. Awash with solar and wind energy potential, there shouldn’t have been any issues with power here in the desert. We had a super efficient solar panel, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the extent at which the elements will eat away at anything electrical. The salt, heat, wind and sand destroy everything in their wake. Cables, batteries, inverters, appliances, and even the back up generator. Countless evenings we found ourselves huddled together eating around the one remaining flickering lightbulb. On the occasions when we did have power up and running we had to manage having half the village round queuing up to charge their phones.
2. Working with the Wayuu
It had always been on my bucket list to live within an indigenous community, and there I was all of a sudden, utterly unprepared. I knew that managing the local Wayuu kite instructors would be a challenge because of the language barrier and my still much-to-be-desired Spanish, but I had not anticipated quite the gap in our culture of work. The Wayuu community have never had to work for anybody. They all just work for themselves in some way or another to keep their families eating. Tourism has arrived and increased year on year, not due to anything the Wayuu have done. In some ways they have slowed down tourism development by being fairly unwelcoming, reluctant to change, and grudging to provide a business for the flow of backpackers. The Wayuu work under their own terms. Even to their employer, they are doing them a favour by coming to work. If I spoke to any of my instructors with a hint of authority, they would simply not turn up for work, regardless of the commitment they had made, or the unprecedented rate of pay. In fact, they wouldn’t come to work a lot of the time – if they didn’t feel well, were too tired, having girlfriend problems or simply didn’t feel like it. I had to develop a careful balance between being their friend, taking on a parental role, welcoming them into the house, feeding them and lending them money, in order to earn their trust. It was a lesson in people and humanity, much less than a lesson in managing a kite school.
It was a fairly normal sight to see me standing on the middle of the road screaming and waving my arms frantically after the water truck that had driven past and point blank ignored us, yet again. Fresh water is like gold dust here. Carefully rationed. One small bucket of water per person for a shower, once a day (by the end of our stay we were showering once a week.) Water for washing your clothes was a rarity, a luxury. Salt water was used for washing dishes in the really difficult times. It’s not so much that water was too expensive, just that it was difficult to acquire. A popularity system, that works around who you know, or whether you have a brother-in-law who lives in Uribia and knows someone at the water company. Bizarrely enough, this didn’t seem to deter the guests coming to stay with us. On Christmas day we actually had a line down the road of desperate backpackers begging us to let them sleep on the floor, showers being the least of their worries. After all, we did have the ocean right on our doorstep! You get used to being constantly salty.
There are no ATM’s in Cabo de la Vela. That’s okay you might say, that’s true of a lot of places. Unfortunately though, lots of our students didn’t get the memo to BRING CASH*!!&$*! And so begrudgingly, we accepted their little piece of plastic. But that meant that we often found ourselves with no cash to pay the water man, the veg man, the meat man, the empanada man, the juice man, and Tony who lives next door. It transpired that this is how everybody lives in Cabo de la Vela. On complicated levels of debt with everybody else in the town. Nobody has any cash. They just spend most of their time bickering with one other about who owes who what. And so we obligingly followed local protocols and tried not to make too many enemies in the process.
Really? I was so worried about being lonely when I took this job, and in reality it was the last of my problems. With guests in the guesthouse every moment of every day, I was literally married to my job. I would have killed for some solitude. We didn’t have a day off in 3 months. And when there weren’t many guests around, there were the hoards of kids that liked to hang out in the house, or the local artisan sellers, or the guys from next door who came round to play dominos, or someone who had come because they heard we made good coffee. In the rare occasions that we did find ourselves with a moment of peace and quiet, you could always rely on our burly pot bellied driver friend, El Baristo, to come and plonk himself down with a big friendly grin. I was a part of the biggest and most bizarre family that I had ever known, and they were all in my house! Much of the time it was like living in a really peculiar dream.
I had come to Cabo de la Vela to be a kitesurf instructor and school manager. I ended up leaving a seasoned electrician, mechanic, village intermediary, chef, barmaid, house maid, tour guide, makeshift mother, personal banker, and friend to many in this small, strange, little town.
N.B. I want to thank Kite Addict Colombia for believing in me and for what turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.