People often ask me what I miss most living on the coast of Colombia. Drinkable tap water? Reliable wifi? Wearing trackie bottoms and hoodies? For me, my biggest withdrawals came from spending six months without strapping my feet to a board. So when I finally got a long weekend off work I decided to skip the coffee tours and island getaways and head into the desert to learn to kitesurf.
Kitesurfing has always seemed like a practical choice financially (no need for a fancy boat, unlike wakeboarding) however there was one slight problem that had always put me off. The kite. Which turns out to be a pretty big part of it.
While I’m generally quite good at fancy book learnin’, I struggle with practical, logic-based tasks. There’s something about explanations involving directions and god forbid, diagrams, that just goes straight over my head. I failed my driving test 3 times. I even managed to fail my license for my moped which as my brother so kindly pointed out, isn’t even a bloody test.
So yeah, I was a bit wary.
Luckily I fully researched the kite school to make sure I had an English speaking instructor and learned some of the theory beforehand.
Ummm, just kidding, that would have made far too much sense. My evening of Youtubing kite videos taught me that a) Kitesurfers are disproportionately attractive, b) Watching people jump Brighton Pier or accidentally end up in a tree is way more entertaining than watching instructional videos, and thus c) I was now legitimately afraid that I was going to blow away…
I was in for an interesting weekend.
Getting to the La Guajira peninsula was an experience in itself. After spending the night in Riohacha we got a collectivo to Uribe, before jumping in a pickup for the rest of the journey.
The length of the trip compared to the land covered makes it seem like you’re entering a different world. At every new stage of the journey, a layer of the chaos I’ve grown so accustomed to in Colombia seemed to slip away. As our taxi sped away from the coast along one of the best pieces of road I’ve encountered in Colombia we joked that there must be an oil company involved somewhere.
Surely enough the road soon turned to a dirt track before trailing off into the desert sand. White figures of the Wayuu tribes started appearing across the plains (Wayuu walking in this heat?!) and we finally saw the shacks of Cabo de la Vela rising in the distance.
Arriving in Cabo de la Vela
Although I’d prepared myself for the lack of comforts in Cabo, it’s hard to fully grasp how isolated it feels. It’s like the end of the world, but in a peaceful, I’ve-come-to -terms-with-it kind of way.
The air is dry and heavy, but it feels more peaceful than oppressive.The slow pace that infuriated me in Santa Marta soothes me here. The wind rises, but there are no trees to be swayed and the sea remains dead.
The steady wind and the shallow sea shielded by the peninsula make Cabo one of the best places in Colombia to learn to kitesurf. A handful of kite schools have popped up over the last few years, along with an impressive number of hostels and restaurants considering the lack of infrastructure.
Eoletta Kite School is a twenty-minute walk from the town. It looks almost like a film set against an artificial background or like a mirage of a bar appearing in the middle of the desert. Our accommodation consists of a small shelter on the beach with rows of hand-woven chimbas and wicker lockers.
On the other side of a trench marking the parameter, there is another shack housing a local family. Juan-Davide, the ringleader of a little band of toddlers, comes running over to introduce himself and to demand some galletas.
We drop our bags off in our little enclosure and rush back to the beach-bar-reception to get started on our lessons. Our instructions to the owner, Paola, are very specific. ‘Quiero que me matas,’ – I want you to kill me, explains my friend Joe. We want to spend as much on the water as we are physically capable of.
However, in typical Colombian style, we have to wait a few hours despite having booked ahead. By the time we are finally kitted out, I am raring to go. Blinded by my enthusiasm I brush off the minor hiccup that my instructor doesn’t speak any English, nodding away confidently to everything he says. Claro que si.
Off to a flying start
We set up the kite uneventfully, pumping it up, unravelling the wires and attaching them. So far so good. After a little demonstration which includes the dreaded diagram drawn in the sand I am as ready as I will ever be to fly the kite.
Watching kite surfers frolicking in the waves, you could be forgiven for thinking that the kite is some magical extension of your self that floats around harmoniously, pulling you around when you need it, rather than something that is literally tied to your waist and trying with all its might to fly you away.
That realization hits me pretty hard when the slightest movement of my wrist sends the kite soaring, dragging me half running along the beach. Juan, my instructor, is very calm and patient, but as a native Wayuu speaker, we have a double language barrier to cross.
We spend two hours practising the figure eight movements, and I learn that keeping the kite overhead by holding the bar in a neutral 12 o’clock position without pulling it is the kite equivalent of putting your car in neutral.
Los movimientos, he explains, are from 12 to 10 to go left, and 12 to 2 to go right. So far so good. After a surprisingly short amount of time he deems me ready to go in the water, where we practice the body drag, which is exactly what it sounds like.
I splash around for a few hours while he shouts “Doce-dos ! Doce-dos!” realizing that with a quick motion I can rip myself out of the water and even fly for a few meters before dropping the kite and having Juan drag me back to dry land.
I’m itching to get on the board and beg Juan to let me try once before we call it a day. Luckily this part is second nature to me, and I manage to get straight up and glide over to the other end of the beach before realizing that I don’t really know what to do next. Dropping the kite, I slow down before sinking gracefully into the water, fist in the air, feeling like an absolute boss.
The next day I wake up when the sun hits the shack and go for a pre-breakfast swim. I float there, meditating, marvelling at how calm it is, before it slowly sinks in that this is definitely not a good thing. There isn’t a breath of air.
When our hosts finally surface (I guess no wind is like a snow day for them) we wait around for the instructors to arrive before resigning ourselves to the fact that we won’t be able to board until the wind picks up in the afternoon. We head into ‘town’ for a spot of lunch and stock up on snacks and water.
After my little spurt of beginners luck the day before, finally getting back on the board is a bit of a struggle. I nail going to the right pretty quickly, but no matter how much Juan screams doce-diez at me, I’m unable to go both ways. Ironically.
As well as getting frustrated at my own personal failings, I start to take serious issue with Juan’s methods. Namely that instead of letting me practice going left after having gone to the right (i.e going up and down the beach) he makes me walk nearly all the way back, while he goes for a little spin on the board. One for me, one for him.
What makes this even worse is that by the time I’ve walked back to our starting point, he makes me go to the left, which is where the other beginners are practising. I keep panicking and dropping the kite when they come too near and end up hitting the other instructor not once but three times. Actually, the third time I manage to miss him by whipping the kite down where it splits in half on impact with the water.
After a break, no pun intended, things get worse rather than better. The wind starts to pick up erratically, and while I’m waiting about 10 metres away from the shore for Juan to come and drag me out, a gust of wind comes and wrenches me out to sea. I pull the lever to release the kite, which initially drops it, but instead of disconnecting it leaves it hanging further away from my reach, still at the mercy of the gusts that are propelling me towards the horizon.
Now there is something extra terrifying about being dragged out to sea when you are on the northernmost point of South America, and the nearest coast guard is over 150 kilometres away.
This occurs to me as I’m screaming for help and struggling to hear Juan shouting over my splashing. It also occurs to me that figuring things out from context is a great language exercise when your life doesn’t depend on your ability to do so.
Ok so maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. Juan drags me out, telling me that I should have released the kite, (“But I did!!!”) and I try to explain to him that if I hadn’t been a sitting duck waiting for the wind to take me, this would never have happened. Once my panic fades I concede that I wasn’t really that far out, and as the wind is dropping it’s probably best for me to go find solace in the form of some beer and lobster.
Third time lucky?
When the same thing happens the next day, however, I lose my shit. This time I’m genuinely more afraid than I’ve been in my entire life. Screaming for help, choking on seawater, and so far out that I can’t touch the floor.
Every gust of wind takes me further and further away, and when Juan finally gets to me he is hit with a stream of every Spanish swear word in my vocabulary, with a couple of fucks thrown in for good measure.
He starts shouting back at me “ Why didn’t you release the kite” “I’ve FUCKING RELEASED THE KITE” He pulls another cable that’s hanging around my waist that I have genuinely never seen before, releasing the kite, and drags me fuming back to shore.
By this point, I’m crying. Angry, angry tears. I get to the shore and sit in the breaking waves, sobbing. I’m angry with Juan, and even more so with myself. I look over and see Joe gliding along and this makes me cry more. Why can’t I do it? Am I really crying because I can’t do something right now? I wonder if I should just give up but I can’t let myself.
Juan finally comes back with the kite. “Are we finished then?” His hostility riles me up again. I’m determined not to be weak. “ No, vamos.”
We start again, but the singsong tone has gone from his “doce-dos.” He’s pissed off. And to be fair he has a right to be. He’s convinced he told me how to release the kite, and I’m convinced he did no such thing. My mind isn’t in the game and I keep dropping the kite. As he is untangling it for the umpteenth time my anger starts to ebb away and I get the creeping feeling that I’ve behaved pretty badly. I realise that we metaphorically and literally have our wires crossed.
When Juan comes back I apologize for losing my temper and explain that maybe language is the problem. He thaws a bit and things improve until I drop the kite and the bastard tries to fly me away again.
This time I know what to do and pull both levers sending the kite soaring off towards the horizon. It feels satisfying. See you in hell motherfucker. I head to the bar and watch them speed off in a boat to rescue it.
My final attempt is anticlimactic by comparison. I make some progress, eventually managing to go left and right, even turning a few times without dropping the kite. The lack of wind is the main problem by now, and we call it a day when the kite strings go slack and the kite slowly sinks from the sky.
Sitting at the bar later on, we analyzed our progress. I decided that I’d done better than I’d expected, but not as well as I’d hoped. It seems unlikely that I’ll ever pirouette through the air, or even jump a wave, never mind a pier. There are just too many things to think about.
Despite the communication issues I’m glad we chose Eoletta. It’s refreshing to see a company using native instructors instead of the usual dreadlocked Australians. It was also a great excuse to disconnect a bit from the outside world. With no phone signal and precarious Wifi in the bar, I enjoyed having nothing more to do than lie in my hammock reading.
When the power failed in the village on our last night and we were left at the mercy of a few generators, I marvelled at how precarious life out there felt. I became hyper-aware of all the open space around me, and the open sea ahead of me. I witnessed the milky way brighter than I’d ever seen it and realized that I’d never been anywhere remotely like this. Pun intended. Even without the kitesurfing, Cabo de la Vela is one of my favourite places in Colombia, if not the world.