The Isla Grande is the largest island in the small archipelago Nuestra Señora del Rosario, which lies roughly 40 km south-east of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Isla Grande is also the only one of the 28 little islands here that is not in private ownership and is therefore accessible to the public. The island is fringed by dense mangroves. The few little beaches between them are occupied by half-a-dozen resorts which are sealed off from the inner island by means of walls or fences – most likely because of the many dogs, hens and iguanas that scurry through the bushes here.
Those who book a day-trip to the Islas del Rosario are dropped off at one of these resorts by a large boat full of rust and rumba – and they are well taken care of here: splashing around in the pool, relaxing on the strand of the hotel, snorkelling or sunbathing on a float flaunting the name, «Roasting plant for young women». The pool has a bar that one can reach by swimming – coffee is on the house and at 1.30 pm the lunch buffet opens (its cost, along with that of an alcohol-free drink, is included in the excursion fare). For additional amusement there are six «official souvenir sellers» who go from guest to guest, proffering typical island produce such as coral chains, masks made of a local stone, shell necklaces and rosary beads. At 3 o ‘clock, it’s back on board for the sail back to Cartagena.
The offer is so configured that it immediately instils a sense of confinement in an anxious individual like me. In addition, there seems to be no way from the resort into the interior: every path ends before a toilet shack, or in an empty bar, or on a landing stage where a young couple take their hands out of pants and t-shirts in alarm. The stroll around the island that I had imagined I could do seems to be off. But then, I finally find a gap in the wall – and land promptly in a type of zone of relieving oneself, where bits of rotten toilet paper in varying stages of decay flutter before me like little flags in the wind. Probably I’ve stumbled into the staff toilet.
I cross the area on tiptoe, but I just come across the first unofficial souvenir seller of the island. I get rid of him, and the next one, and the next and also the next – then I give up and take one on as a guide, a friend. I ask «mi amigo» whether he can lead me to the village, which must lie in the middle of the island, because 300 persons reportedly live here: 50 have something of a job in one of the resorts, 50 eke out a living as unofficial souvenir sellers, and the rest «have no money», as my friend points out. I am not interested in the village, but then I need to have some destination. Actually, I wish simply to stare into the mangroves – to see whether I can discover some beauty in this scrub over slimy ground that appeared at first sight like a dirty coffee cup. But such peace is certainly nowhere to be found here, where there are 50 souvenir sellers per footloose tourist – I must want something for which my «grande amigo» can later extract some money out of me. And he is right, because this island is his living room – I have to behave myself.
And so we dash along our way, over the sole path that exists on the island. After about half an hour we come across a couple of huts and a dusty football field. In the centre of the village lies a cock-fight arena and alongside it a couple of men, beer can in hand, are sitting around a loudspeaker the size of a fridge – the champeta is so loud that I need to shut my ears. Right next to the men sits an old woman in front of her hut, threading a few pearls into a chain – no wonder the tradition of cumbia music, which generations of local islanders have sung into the ears of the next generation, is dying out.
There’s obviously no further destination that we can head for, so we return at the same pace in direction resort. The manner in which my guide conveys me over this island highway, with no sign at all that he is taking note of the surroundings, reminds me of the panther or tiger in zoos that paces up and down behind the bars as though it has totally blotted out its environment and perceives only itself in this movement. Ordinarily, movement also means that the landscape around us changes – but what happens when we blot out the surroundings? It’s hardly likely that we then move through a fantasy landscape – because we do that essentially when we register the surroundings. Perhaps then only temperatures and compression ratios play a role, and bodies, which we must sidestep.
I observe that this speed is increasingly causing a sad feeling to build up inside me. And in the end I simply stand still in my state of slight despair. I’ve seen an old couple lounging on comfortable wooden seats under a tree and looking at us. On the branches and twigs hang all sorts of clothes and tiny plastic bags holding some wet-looking stuff. In the background, through the leaves, glints the metal-sheet roof of a wooden hut. In front of the couple stands a stove in the sun. It has a wooden framework with a concrete basin below in which a fire burns and atop it a grill on which sits a pan in which a soup is bubbling. I greet the couple and station myself stubbornly before the kitchen. I gaze at the construction as if it is a work of art, a monument, an altar, the sole attraction of the entire archipelago. I try to memorise what I see: the art in which the wall debris is arranged in order to hold the pan, the large knife, the ladle made of a halved coconut shell, the potatoes and the cooking bananas that are lying ready to wander into the pan, a packet of maize flour, a little dish with fat, a dish with water. This cooking place has little in common with my own kitchen – but does that play a role here? I absorb the sounds, too: the crackling of the firewood, the bubble of the liquid, the chuckle of a hen, the soft and somewhat amused voices of the couple in the background, the music in the distance. And I register the smell of wood, of meat, herbs, sun and dust.
I ask the lady what she is cooking: chicken soup. I ask her about the ingredients. It is, accompanied as it is by all sorts of jokes, the most normal conversation in the world.
At some point I am roused from my reverie by the scrabbling of my guide. We turn again towards the island highway and race in the direction of the resort. The speed hurts my feet which are being pinched somewhat by the bands of my beach slippers. I know that my friend will fleece me, as much as he can. And I will allow it, as much as I can afford to. I feel fine – after all, I have discovered the secret of the island, I’ve hauled up its treasure.
First Publication: 2-3-2014