“There’s nothing to do when you’re locked in a vacancy.” – John Bender, The Breakfast Club
“Okay, now give me your shoes. I’ll give them back to you in Colombia.” Staring at me, demanding my Birkenstocks, is Francia. She’s an olive-skinned, curly-haired, half-French half-Laos, take-no-bullshit kind of woman – and the only English-speaking crew member on the 42″ catamaran taking me to Cartagena.
“We don’t wear them on the boat.”
“But, my toes are broken?” I explain in meek protest, but it’s already too late. My beloved sturdy sandals are in a pile with a half dozen others and I’m ushered onto a bench to make way for other passengers. This was still a good idea, right?
Two days before I was lying in bed, foot elevated, at my hostel in Panama City – slowly losing my mind. Thanks to my broken toes, I had been forced to cancel my original cruise booking on the Jacqueline. I was on my 6th day of rest and I knew the responsible thing would be to continue waiting until my toes healed, but when your choice is between responsible and miserable or irresponsible and happy – always choose happy. So I called the tour agency and re-booked the next possible cruise.
Which led to this moment, sitting with 10 strangers on the Nacar II – our home for the next 5 days – and having no idea what to expect.
To say I have an irrational love of the The Breakfast Club would be an understatement. I stumbled upon on it in seventh grade, edited-for-TV and playing on TBS, and to this day I can recite it line for line in its entirety. Aside from all of the obvious things that make it amazing, (soundtrack, fashion, Emilio Estevez) it’s biggest triumph is making being stuck in a finite space with a handful strangers seem like the most fun, romantic and interesting thing that could ever happen to you.
In reality, the odds that any group of strangers forced together – let alone ones from different countries and cultures – will get along, connect, laugh, and actually become friends is rare, it’s practically a unicorn. It’s more likely people will get annoyed, be offended, and be itching to get the hell away from each other once back on dry land.
This was going to go one of two ways: Either it would be a total disaster or it would be The Breakfast Club.
I’ve had a handful of moments on this trip where something so perfect is happening and it hits me: Whatever choices you made to get yourself here, they were definitely the right ones. Right now that moment is making my mouth water. I’m staring an enormous pile of lobsters, about to settle into an amazing meal at a table on the beach lit only by the moon and a bonfire, with warmth in my chest thanks to some Caribbean rum. This is the life.
There’s something about a meal that brings people together, especially when it happens three times a day and is cooked by a passionate Parisian woman. One person can set the tone for everyone, and for us that was Francia. She was our pace car, our cook, our tour guide – and our boat mom. You could taste the care and pride she put into each meal – and as corny as it sounds – Francia’s food spread the love around.
With each meal we became more of a makeshift family. Simple gestures of passing the salt, pouring more sides on each other’s plates, and collecting each other’s dishes quickly spread to all hours of the day. From three girls meticulously picking tangled seaweed out of Emily’s hair and painstakingly combing it all out again, reading aloud to each other when someone was too seasick to look down, and encouraging people who couldn’t swim well (that would be me) to try snorkelling and them having the time of their lives (I’ll never forget it, thanks Simon!)
However getting along should be easy when you’re on a boat in paradise, right? Little did we know shit was about to hit the proverbial fan.
“We have to turn back. We have to head back towards San Blas.”
After three incredible days in the San Blas islands, we were six hours into our first day of ocean crossing towards Colombia and we were caught in the middle of a huge storm. Our hearts collectively sank at the news. We had all been on the brink of puking our guts out for hours, and now it was all for nothing. The captain had decided to cut our losses, head six hours back to San Blas and wait it out until the next morning.
I watched as anything that wasn’t held down flew across the back of the boat – water bottles, books, sunglasses. The water cooler was thrown off the bench and all of its drinkable water spilled across the floor. I was laying horizontal trying not to fly off the daybed, watching the scene around me bounce around, except I wasn’t on a trampoline. My stomach felt like I was back on some horrible children’s ride at an amusement park – except now it wasn’t fun.
With the exception of Sebastian and Nico (who in their own way decided to tell Mother Nature to go F herself by heading to the front of the boat and letting themselves get pummeled by the oncoming waves), the rest of us were hanging on, staring blankly at each other, and trying to take comfort in the fact that at least we were all in it together. Here our default altruism took hold; between making room for each other in the limited covered deck space, sharing the wealth of seasickness pills, and somehow convincing Katrina that even though she only had 3 days to see her boyfriend (who she hadn’t seen in 5 months, who was now waiting for her in Cartagena), it wasn’t a big deal that she was stranded in the ocean for an extra day with no way to tell him.
Once we arrived back at the same spot we were anchored 12 hours earlier, we all started to see the light. What we paid for in nausea was an extra day in these gorgeous islands. We all jumped back into the water for one last swim and were rewarded with a technicolour sunset and ice cold beers. We collectively agreed to believe that the past half day was just a horrible dream and everything would work out from here on in.
Surprisingly, it did. Our second attempt at the ocean crossing was flawless with clear skies and calm oceans. We filled the days with conversations, endless hours of the chain game, and Name the 50 States. Once we saw the land in Cartagena two days later, we were all ecstatic – we had made it.
We were all in the same boat, and had ridden through the storm together – literally. The following three days in Cartagena were filled with dinners, $3 all-you-can-drink open bars, walking tours, and shake downs by the cops (Sorry Christian and Matty!)
Knowing we could get away from each other anytime we wanted, but still choosing to see each other was the true test of how much we’d bonded. Finding that kind of peace of mind – especially when travelling solo – is something special. And from a selfish point of view, I got to have helpful hands (when I hit a bump in the sidewalk with my toes, or when my sea legs got a little too intense on land) for a few more days.
But adventure waits for no one and our little boat family had to split and go its separate ways. Detention has to end sometime. It is, after all, the stuff 80’s classics are made of.
Don’t you forget about me. Fist pump. Cue Credits.