Sheep Shit, Gasoline, and Thunderstorms: Reaching Punta Gallinas
I stared at the dozen sheep lying in the boat.
Their thick fur matted down by water and their fore and hind legs bound together by ropes, they laid silently (presumably tranquilized) with lifeless eyes as if they had resigned to their fate, whatever it may be.
A group of men showed up with a large dump truck and began hauling them from the boat. As they cleared the sheep, I saw hundreds of little brown and black bean-sized objects floating around in the brine at the bottom of the hull. I put two and two together and came to the gut-wrenching realization that I would soon be sitting 2-3 hours in this boat, with sheep shit and urine sloshing around, all the while wearing flip flops.
Apparently tranquilizers don’t work on bowels and bladders. Fuckin’ South America…
– – –
The father and son duo who commandeered the boat were both presumably Wayuu, the local indigenous people with much darker skin and shorter stature than most other Colombians. Both had wrinkled features and weather-worn skin which revealed the years of labor under the sun. Their basketball shorts were accompanied by ragged t-shirts that should have been relegated to the donation pile long ago and each wore a faded, salty baseball cap. Yet despite their somewhat ragged appearances, they handled their boat with fast and deft hands.
In an effort to improve the hygiene in their boat, each grabbed a half-cut open bottle and began scooping the shit water out and fresh sea water in. This created the unpleasant side effect of sheep shit lapping up and collecting on the beach. Pretty much un-fazeable at this point, I calmly stepped out of the water and sought higher and drier ground.
But South America always has a way of surprising you. As I was about to get in, the guys who unloaded the sheep rolled two plastic barrels the size of large garbage cans off the truck and onto the sand. I stood back and watched them struggle the barrels into the boat.
“Que es esto?” I asked in my passable Spanish.
And so we left the tiny port: me, the father and son duo, two giant barrels of gasoline, and the remaining shit water sloshing back and forth on the floor.
– – –
The boat itself was about 15-20 feet long, uncovered, and powered by a single motor engine. Although not much, it was a speedy craft and we cut through the Caribbean Sea at a good pace.
While the guys were loading the goods, I had noticed a number of dark clouds rolling in from several directions. Now, twenty minutes into the trip, only a small patch of clear sky (which we managed to stay under) remained. Around us, dark, stormy clouds hovered. To my right, the craggy, shrubby coastline stretched on for miles while one solitary cargo ship far off in the distance chugged along to my left.
This desolation in the open ocean, on such a small craft left an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
No more than ten minutes later, the sky in front of me had turned a very dark and threatening shade of grey. I could no longer see the coastline and visibility quickly dropped off to a few hundred feet. I heard a yell from behind and turned around to see the father handing me a life jacket.
Since I was already wearing one, I sat there confused for a moment until he motioned it to shield his eyes. For what? I turned around and that’s when we hit the wall.
We had driven directly into the edge of a thunderstorm. Almost instantaneously, the falling rain transformed the calm ocean surface into a boiling cauldron. Raisin sized drops pelted us and made it nearly impossible to see without covering our eyes. This rain was much colder than the air or ocean and we were drenched within seconds. The only sounds I heard were the whir of the motor struggling against the churning ocean and the white noise of heavy rain. In every direction, walls of grey enveloped our boat. And then I saw a flash of light followed by a thunderous “BOOM” that reverberated through my entire body.
Being in the pouring rain in an open boat was bad enough but the lightning was what really freaked me out. I thought of the possibility of lightning hitting the boat, exploding the barrels of gasoline, and leaving us stranded, in the middle of this storm, floating in the Caribbean Sea. “Well the ocean is warm so hypothermia wouldn’t be an issue, but the burning gasoline could do some serious damage…”
The combination of pelting rain, open ocean, limited visibility, washed out audio clues, and proximity of lightning was something I had never experienced. This was something that unleashed some primal fear I had never felt. A wave of claustrophobia and disorientation washed over me. All I wanted to do was get out of it as fast as possible.
But it would get worse before it got better. The waves swelled and started noticeably rocking the boat. The rain intensified to the point where I felt like I was standing in front of a hose. We saw several other flashes and heard more thunder. Finally after another 20 or so minutes, the grey became fainter and I saw patches of clear skies up ahead. The son turned the boat out of the storm and the rain gradually faded to a soft drizzle.
The water calmed around us and the warming sun peeked through the clouds. Although soaked and rattled, a big smile slowly spread over my face.
We had made it through the storm in one piece and would soon be in Punta Gallinas.