Passing up Paradise in Colombia
By Luke Armstrong

Trying out the communal village fishing life on a sleepy beach in Colombia, a wandering writer contemplates settling into the simple life permanently.

Colombia beach

When they felt there were enough fish to justify pulling the nets in, someone would ring a bell hanging from a palm and close to fifty men, women, and children would rush to the ropes to pull the nets in as quickly as our strained arms could muster. Teeth clenched, veins popped, and grunts narrated the fight as we played tug-a-war against the sea.

Everyone yelled for everyone else to pull harder while our hands tried to grasp onto the slippery rope. Slowness meant more fish would escape to the open ocean, which to a fishing village like this would mean less of everything for everyone.

I was Northwest of Taganga, Colombia and was spending my days with fishermen, women, and children. My first day staying there in a hostel filled with Israelis, I bought fish from Luis as he sold them on the beach. I asked him some casual questions about where the fish had come from and how it was caught. After a while I invited him to a beer and he then invited me to fish with his family a short jaunt northeast of Taganga.


1) Cast nets. 2) Wait.
They caught fish the Caribbean way. They waited. Nets squared off two corners of pastel colored water out from the shore. The nets were positioned early in the morning using canoes hollowed out from palms. Once the nets were positioned there was nothing to do but to sit and wait. For hour-long stretches the Colombians and I sat underneath the lazy shade of palms. A communal guitar passed from hand to hand.

Luis was the unofficial leader of the group. While everyone else lounged lazily on the beach, he tended to pace barefoot on the sun warmed sands. He looked out at the sea as one would look at an alienated lover—as if he knew her intimately but was frustrated that there was some deeper mystery he could not access.

"Drink up," Luis would command everyone, "we need to make room in the cooler for all the fish we will catch." Every hour someone needed to snorkel behind the nets to see if there were enough fish to make it worthwhile to pull the nets in. I always volunteered. Someone was always sent with me—they did not fully trust that I knew how to properly count the fish. It was a good call on their part; I didn't have a clue what constituted enough fish.

When I asked Luis the name of his village, he frowned and told me that this was not really a village. It was just four families living together and fishing, living in huts off the beach.

Stumbling into Paradise
My days soon fell into a paradisiacal routine. With the rising sun I would go for a quick swim before hiking over the hills that overlooked the tourist beaches to the secluded fishing village that was not actually a village—just four families fishing. For my help, I was given a portion of the catch. This was always more than enough to feed me for a day. It's possible that the fish I was being provided with might have been more charity than worker's wage—something to keep the token-gringo around.

There's something about the sea. Something about the way its salt-scented breezes cause us to pause and stand staring out at the largest thing on the planet. For me, the sea was a vacation from another office life that I could have been leading. To the people I was with, the sea was their office.

Colombia paradise cove

I had stumbled into paradise. Or at least, a common representation of it. Beaches and palm trees mess with our minds. Most travelers, or at least lucky ones finding their trip just short of perfection, toy with the idea of never going home. Turning what was only ever meant to be a temporary escape from life into a life.

Fishing in paradise, I did the math. Living like I was living now, my moderate travel budget would stretch for years instead of months. Being surrounded by pristine beaches, bordered by rhythmic waves and the peace of mind of schedule-less days, pushed me further into wanting to cast my future plans into the Caribbean and stay.

Can a backpack be your home?
If it was not for the annoying and inevitable longing for loved ones and their affectionate familiarity. Then we could move through the world freely. I could do it, I thought, I could leave the world behind and stay here. This thought was accompanied by the simultaneous realization that I would not actually do it. It was the very fact that this would all soon end that was giving the thought of staying a wistful value. At some point we all long for home. Home not as a place, but as a state of affairs where we can find familiar comforts and the intersecting lives of loved ones.

Colombia shore

Everyone with a lot of time logged on the road has run into those travelers who went further than the mere contemplation of not going home. Travelers who turned month-long trips into lifetimes. I'm not talking about expats who made their homes somewhere abroad, but the people who spend years and decades on the road, never remaining in one place long enough to call it home. Home is wherever my feet are planted, their mantra rings out on beaches and in bars.

The younger ones always seem free, passionately living out idyllic dreams. But sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between an ideal and the ghost of an ideal. The travelers who have been on the road for so long that they no longer have homes to return to always seem lost. Lost not on the map, but in years stacked on top of years away from a home. They have stayed loyal to their youthful ideals, but when the party ends and everyone goes home they are left to wander dark streets flanked by windows where no one has left a light on for them.

On my last day fishing, I looked regretfully out to the waves and listened to their rhythmic crashing. The winds carried a seafood scent that caused me to breathe in as deeply as I could. The midday sun bathed me in its warmth. I soaked it up, saving it for dimmer days. The palm trees shuffled with the wind in a playful dance. Perhaps Luis felt humility as he looked longingly out towards the sea. Out towards the massive cradle that sparked life on Earth. Out towards something commensurate to his ability to dream.

It was hard to leave, but it was time to leave. When I settled the bill at the front desk, I watched as a new set of backpackers walked through the front door to replace the departing.

After setting off hitch-hiking post college from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong made it as far as Guatemala. There he directs the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados in a mission to "break the chains of poverty through education and formation. He is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About and co-editor of The Expeditioner's Guide to the World. His first novel, How One Guitar Will Save the World, is at large looking for a publisher. Follow him on Twitter: @lukespartacus.

Related stories:

Third World Tailors Make Suits, Third World Tailors Make Men by Luke Armstrong
Lost in the Mangroves of Belize by Steve McNutt
Message en una Botella by Lea Aschkenas
A Requiem for Bluefields, Nicaragua by Richard Arghiris

Other South America travel stories from the Archives

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