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Cartagena: Islas del Rosario



"Fuck!" Pain shoots through my ankle. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."


I was heading downstairs to go running with my Airbnb host's cousin when I missed a step and landed hard on my right foot, which gave out from under me.


As I groan and curse, a little girl across the street stares at me.

"Caíste?" She asks. Did you fall?

But she drops the "s" in her accent so what I hear is "Cállate," which means shut up.

When I realize she's asking if I fell, I reply, "Sí, cállate!" The pain renders me incapable of using the correct grammar or the right word.


Here is the exchange as I intend it:

Girl: Did you fall?

Me: What? Oh, wait no, okay... Yes, I fell!


Here is the exchange as she probably experienced it:

Niña: Did you fall?

Gringa Loca: ...(shaking from adrenaline) Yes! Shut up!


She backs away slowly.

 

On the flight to Cartagena, my mother reminisced about our annual trips to South Korea.

"I don't know how I did that every summer with two young kids." She shook her head, in awe of her past self. "Thankfully, I had you to watch the luggage while I went to the bathroom to change your brother."

Record scratch.

"Uh... How old was I?"

"He was still an infant so... maybe five or six?"

"You left a six-year-old alone in an international airport to watch the bags? ...Who was watching me!"

She laughed. "It was different in the old days. The eldest was expected to help take care of their younger siblings."


I think about this anecdote a lot as I ice my ankle and hobble around the apartment feeling sorry for myself. Every time I get up to refill my water bottle or cook lunch, I grow more resentful that my mother and brother seem not to notice or care.

 

Everyone in Cartagena has been telling me I need to visit Las Islas del Rosario, an archipelago located about an hour away by boat.

"Que linda," they sigh as they describe the white sand and clear water of the Caribbean Sea.

Rather than booking a day pass that would have us return before sunset, I opt for an overnight stay at a hotel with a private beach, away from the thumping party scene and the incessant hawkers.


By the time Thursday rolls around, the pain in my ankle has subsided. I can mostly walk without limping. It's as if my body has healed itself through sheer force of will. I pre-booked, dammit.


"Is this the boat to Islabela?" I ask in Spanish at the port.

"Yes, welcome! Please fill out these forms, and I need to see your IDs."

Good thing I took photos of all of our passports and vaccine cards before we left.

"I can fill them out for everyone."


The last two weeks have been like a language acquisition video game. I advance through the level until I hit an obstacle and my little avatar blips away. I have to start over, but the level gets easier each time. I am able to get through this interaction so far because I've struggled through all of these words before.

When I hand back the completed forms, she says, "you speak Spanish well."

My avatar has reached the golden star at the end of the level. The jangly success music plays in my head.

"Thank you!" I reply, brimming with pride.

She says something I do not understand at all. Shit. I've reached the next level and died immediately. Womp womp wahhhh.


Still, though, I do feel like I've advanced from my first days. Each time I am able to communicate what I intend to communicate, my confidence grows. Words are magic. You need conviction that the spell will work in order to cast it.


The boat speeds out of the city's murky green bay and away from the high-rise buildings. Large, black seabirds hover and glide like kites. Most of the forty or so passengers whip out their phones and pose for selfies or capture the sparkling water rushing below us.

After we dock, we are escorted directly to reserved canopy beds on the beach. The clear water laps at the sand then recedes into aquamarine and on to the royal blue of the horizon. Mangroves, star apple trees, and towering palms flank the infinite sea.


We lay out on loungers and lunch on grilled fish while our rooms are prepared for check-in. When they are ready, our host leads us to our cabana which faces the sea on a secluded strip of beach. This shaded little nook feels like an island of our own.

My mother heads inside to avoid her enemy, the sun. My brother claims the hammock. I opt for the large chaise overlooking the water. A cat sneaks up and trots to my feet where it yawns, licks its paw, then saunters off. A rambunctious dog hops up and squirms its demanding belly toward me.

We fall asleep. I wake an hour later and hop into the water. My toes squelch into the seaweed as I wade out. Then I float without another person in sight.


When I return to shore, I notice that my ankle has swollen to the size of a golf ball.

"It doesn't hurt," I insist. But I do request a bag of ice, which I keep strapped to my ankle with my shirt.

 

It was building for a long time, but I don't remember the trigger.


Maybe a comment about how she thought there would be air conditioning in the rooms. The cabana is mostly solar powered and only has fans to reduce their environmental impact.

"Are you serious?" My voice rises in spite of myself.

I have spent a not-insignificant amount of money and made all of the arrangements while hobbling around on a bum ankle and, somehow, my mother finds a way to complain about paradise.

"Why did you come if you're not even going to enjoy it?"

Neither my mother nor brother has shown any appreciation for the fresh-caught fish or the ripe-to-bursting tropical fruit we ate for every meal. Nothing about the white sand or the clarity of the warm, placid water. At sunset, they sat on a bench looking bored while I kept pointing out how incredible the sky looked.

"When you said hotel, I assumed it would be a room with air conditioning."

"You want to stay in some generic hotel instead of on a private beach directly overlooking the sea?"

What a fucking waste.

"I know you like this kind of natural thing, so I've been trying to not say anything," she says. "Never mind. We're leaving tomorrow. I can just get through it."

"Get through it?" I hear a shrill siren in my head, and I want to scream to drown it out.



My parents fought during every family vacation I can remember. As a child, I didn't register my mother's stream of criticisms.

In her words: "How can you see something wrong and not say anything? That makes me feel like I'm going to suffocate."

On the other hand, I very much registered my dad's loud, violent reactions. The times he slammed on the brakes to shout at us, filling the car with a dangerous rage. The lamps he's broken. The bruises he's left.


As an adult, I feel how much it rankles to have my effort to do something nice for my family so utterly unappreciated. How having someone constantly picking out flaws starts to feel like a personal attack because it ruins my enjoyment.

"I can't believe this. I actually understand dad for the first time."

I try to calm myself.


"I am feeling hurt because I feel like my effort isn't appreciated and it feels like no one cares that I'm injured."

"What do you mean I don't care?" She responds. "I've been worried sick, but you kept saying you're fine so I assumed you were fine. I was shocked when I saw how swollen your ankle was, but I kept my mouth shut because I'm scared I'll say the wrong thing and you'll blow up at me."

"You're scared?"

"Think about how I feel. You get mad at every little thing I say. You tell me I shouldn't say that, or that I'm criticizing, or that you're not a baby so you don't need my help. I feel like I can't say anything."

"Can you acknowledge how I feel before we jump to how you feel? I'm hurt. No one is helping me. It feels like no one cares."

"I didn't say anything because I'm so afraid you're going to bite my head off!"


"You're both saying the same thing over and over again," my brother chimes in after some time of this.

"Don't you start! You're part of the problem too." I bark.

"What did I do?" He asks.

"You see me limping around, and you can't even offer to carry my bag?"

He swallows my anger.

My brother is an incredible peacemaker because he never counters conflict. He simply accepts criticism or ignores it. I'm not sure if this is a skill or a curse, but he's the only one in our family with this quality.



My mother is already outside when I wake for sunrise. She photographs the light shifting from pale blue to streaky orange to shimmering gold on her phone while my camera clicks alongside her.


When I got my first DSLR, she told me she always wanted to learn photography. I tried to teach her, but she shook her head.

"It's too complicated."


Eventually, it's time for breakfast. Neither of us acknowledges anything we said last night. We muster an unofficial ceasefire. Maybe it's in our genes-- we are Korean, after all.


 

Because of the late-afternoon swell, the boat ride home resembles an hourlong rollercoaster full of stomach-turning lifts and teeth-shaking drops. My mother sits across the aisle from me. She can't keep herself upright so she clings to the boy sitting next to her.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She mutters.

He gestures it's okay with an understanding smile.


The woman I grew up with was always exhausted or sick or in pain. She rarely wanted to leave the house, and when she did, she beelined for the nearest place to sit. She collapsed into the couch after working all day then dragging us to sports practice, music lessons, or tutoring. Yet she had seemed unyielding-- an ancient fortress through which I had to sneak or batter my way.

I regard my mother's greying hair and the softness creeping into the folds of her skin. She looks so frail I worry she will fly off the boat. She came to Colombia because that was where I was going. She was white knuckling her way through this boat ride because I had arranged it. When I told her I was going to drive around the US for ten months, she lent me her car and said wistfully, "I wish I could do something like that."

It is a marvel she has come so far.


We disembark, and I hug her thin shoulders.

"수고합니다," I say. Well done.

We get our bearings on solid ground. Then I go to hail a taxi while my brother quietly carries my bag.