In the series premiere of Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells, Will Conway confronts his mortality when he and a friend go kayaking and nearly drown in a mangrove lagoon in the Rosario Islands off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- People (myself included) forget to do this with podcasts: if you like the show, please share it.
- These are the episode show notes! You'll find interesting trivia (here), links to posts I've written about related topics (below), relevant articles by others, sound credits (further below), and a full show transcript of the entire episode (bottom).
- I wanted to include something about the Rosario Islands because they're truly a bizarre place for a number of reasons, but this episode already has the longest run-time of any episode. If you want to learn more, I wrote about it here.
- The number one question I get when I tell this story - and the question I most anticipate in response to this episode - is “how long were you treading water?” It’s hard to say. Neither of us had our phones with us, so we didn’t have a firm timestamp on any of this. We left our hostel in the late morning and kayaked outbound leisurely, and we hung on that sandbar for maybe half an hour. My sense is that it was about 4pm when we left the sandbar, and our boat capsized maybe twenty minutes later. It was gray in the lagoon when we were picked up, and it was after 8pm when we got back to the dock. Another way to get there is to note that I was flirting with complete muscle failure. Julia said she was maybe five minutes away herself. According to the internet, people can tread water for an average of two hours. I’m an altogether average swimmer, and I’d been kayaking all day so my arms were burned. I’d guess we were in the water for roughly ninety minutes - maybe more.
- Julia’s name is not really Julia, she’s not Irish and she's probably reading this along with you. But that's an important note: some names have been changed to protect friends and folks who didn't want to be mentioned. I do it in other places as a gut call, too. Everyone who is named outright in this show has been told it's coming and has confirmed they're good with it. Also, there aren't really any "bad guys" in this show. Some people are dicks sometimes, but it's not a show about animosity or negativity. In fact, it's a show about empathy, forgiveness and human connection.
- On that note, it's important to remember that this is a memoiristic podcast. This is an immersion in my sensory recollection. It's the best recollection of my memory, combined with literary intuition and storytelling. Take it seriously - nothing, like, didn't happen - but note that I didn't go around interviewing people for their takes on stories to get to some objective definition of truth. This podcast is subjective, through-and-through. If you come away with a negative perception of some character (other than me), please recall that you're like three degrees removed from facts, and your anger is directed at a fictional representation of a caricature of a human the storyteller likely hasn't seen in some time.
Things I wrote that you should read
- The Cadence of Danger
- The Split Personality of Colombia's Rosario Islands
- Three Lives To Live (member content - click here to learn more)
- Bonus Episode: On the Backs of Better (member content - click here to learn more)
Relevant articles and posts by smart people
- Paraiso Secreto Hostel: a ‘Secret’ Paradise in Colombia’s Caribbean by Chris Bell
- This Man Fought a Grizzly Bear with a Pocketknife by Colin Dowler and Jason Daley
I hear with my little ear
- Paddling a kayak
- Splish splash I was taking a bath
- Big person falls hard
- Bubbles under water
- Feet walking on a dock
- Sounds of the night from Florida
- Someone breathing really hard
[Sounds of waves lapping, boat rocking]
It’s a stunning day, barely a cloud in the sky, and we’re standing on a mirage. Waves are lapping gently at this little sandbar. The coast is in the distance, mangroves rising up in a tangled web of all shades of green.
I’m wearing a bathing suit, pair of knockoff aviators I bought for eight thousand Colombian pesos from a street vendor in Santa Marta. Cigarette hanging out the side of my mouth. Julia is standing beside me, paler than the sand and smirking.
I’m certainly not smirking. I’m terrified. We’re on a sandbar off the coast of Isla Grande, which is two hours by motorboat from Cartagena.
The sandbar is shrinking smaller every second, washing away in the incoming tide. We haven’t seen another human for hours, which would be a good thing, except that our two-person kayak is flooded on the beachhead. The shore isn’t too far to kayak - that’s how we got here - but it’s way too far to swim.
I’ve kayaked enough to know a little slosh in the bottom is normal. But this? This is way too much. Our seats are totally submerged. The boat’s on an angle on the shore and water is nearly spilling out the back.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” says Julia without a care in the world.
But there’s a bigger problem: we’re a couple hundred yards from the island, sure, but there’s no shore. There’s no beach to speak of. It’s just a mess of mangroves and a maze of interlocking lagoons. Even if we get it right in that maze - and even if we had an empty kayak, which we don’t - we’re more than two hours from our dock and I don’t trust this boat to make it that far. We’ve gotta move.
I wade knee-deep into the lukewarm Caribbean and lift the bow. Julia’s still standing there with her arms folded across her chest. My footprints, where I stood just a moment ago, melt into the ocean. Waves lapped at my ankles.
“Grab the other end,” I say, curt.
We raise the kayak a foot. Flip. Seawater hisses from the cockpit. I groan, drop the boat and dock it in the sand. Push the kayak into the water and turn it parallel to the shoreline. Hold it for Julia.
“Hop in,” I say. She does.
I hold the boat steady and stepped in behind her. My feet splash in an inch of new water.
“Let’s get on with it,” she says, flicking her cigarette in the sea. I purse my lips behind her, snub mine in the water and tuck it in my pocket.
We paddle as one inch turned to two at my feet.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is the very first episode of Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. I'm Will Conway. We'll get to know each other later. I'll give you context, we'll build it up. But, for now, we're starting right in the middle. Anyway, give this one a few minutes. It gets a little intense. Alright, let's roll.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sound of waves]
Mangrove heads sprout from the surface here and there, parting whitecaps and, at the island’s edge, grow into a dark tangled nest. But then we’re out of the ocean and in the maze of lagoons. Choppy seawater turns to a gentle river. Glaring sunlight turns to shade. We paddle on through the web of mangroves, their branches breaking through shallows from below and twisting and coiling like snakes in a canopy above. They’re so dense they submerge the very riverbank itself and there’s no true distinction between open water and the safety of shore.
“Let’s find a place to empty it again,” I say. “It’s getting really full.”
“There’s no shore,” says Julia.
“There’s no shore,” I mumble.
We paddle onward, trapped in a tunnel of mangroves, of clay water moccasin hissing and rattling their branches in a tropical breeze.
“It’s getting worse,” I say. “Take a look.”
She stops paddling and turns her head, and as she does, the kayak shifts just an inch to the left. Water screams downhill by my shins, submerging the hull and pulling the right side skyward.
I dug my paddle deep, looking for bottom but there’s none to be found. I thrash my paddle to no effect. Toss it. Try to crawl up the boat as its bow rises skyward.
“Shit shit shit!” Julia yells but not from my side. Behind me. I dare a glance and found her treading water, her thin blue sundress splayed in the ripples of her splash. She’s pouting. The kayak twists above me, toppling me from its hull.
[Splash, sounds underwater]
A moment underwater, eyes open. A shadowy blur above me. I swim left and breach beside the overturned boat, facing Julia. My cigarette butt floating, soggy.
I swim three strokes to the mangroves and pull. They’re not the firm branches I’m expecting. They’re slimy, feeble tubes and they rip as I pull them. I reach deeper, hoping for a stronger branch, and try to hoist with more leverage. Those rip, too. I tap my toes under water against anything they can find, searching for a foothold. There’s nothing but frail roots, cardboard garden hoses after a lifetime in marshland.
I kick, jump for a thicker branch above me and I catch one. For a moment. I try to pull my legs up before me but the branch snaps and I crash back into the water.
A shriek behind me.
“Something touched my leg,” she says.
“Julia, we need to stay calm.”
“There are crocodiles in here, Will,” she says. She points behind me, to the mouth of the tunnel, tiny and glistening. Blue sky, bluer ocean. “And that’s the Caribbean. There are sharks in here!”
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s try to flip the boat.”
She swims to the stern. I to the bow.
“Ready, turn!” she says.
We rotate together. For a minute, the kayak looks like a kayak again. Thank God. My legs are beginning to exhaust from treading water, from ill-advised attempts to climb mangroves. I wasn’t sure how much more my legs could take. I hold the boat steady as Julia tries to climb, but as she does, the boat springs free from my hands and rotates again. She slides into the water on the far side.
“Son of a bitch.”
“I’m getting tired, Will.”
“Me too, Julia.”
“What are the chances another boat comes through this way?” she asks. “Like really, what do you think?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen a boat since we left,” I say.
“But the tide’s coming in and the sun’s going down. Maybe someone will be going home.”
She’s right, but I don’t dare say what’s really on my mind: that I’m sure the tide coming in and the sun going down is far more likely to bring all kinds of Caribbean creatures I’d prefer never to meet than the slim chance of a wayward canoe in a maze of mangroves.
“Julia, look at me,” I say. And she does, but as she does and our eyes lock, her face reddens and her eyes burst.
“I’m terrified, Will.”
“I am too,” I say.
“Maybe the tide will push us in,” she offers, hopeful.
And we are drifting, but very slowly. Feet per hour. My cigarette butt is actually outpacing us. It’s drifted ahead, bobbing like a lure in the waves of our panic.
“Have you touched bottom?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
I raise my arms above my head and submerge as deep as I can. Deeper than I thought I could, and then deeper still. Nothing. Pull my hands to my side and kick. Return to the surface with solemn eyes.
“Fuck,” she whispers.
“What if we swim for it?” I wonder aloud, but I’m not confident.
“We can’t lose the boat,” she says. “It’s all we have to hold onto.”
She’s right. We could breaststroke inland and look for a clearing in the mangroves. But if we fail, we’d be stranded, treading water after expending what energy we have left, and without even the momentary relief offered by the bobbing kayak.
And so we tread water in place without a word, our legs failing us both, without daring to speak aloud that dreadful thing: that terrible truth that our arms and leg are already beyond fatigued, that pain had long turned to numbness, that the reality of their motion is already itself a miracle, and one on which we could not depend a moment longer. We take turns with the brief seconds of relief provided by the kayak, before it inevitably submerges under our weight and loses its utility for minutes at a time. And we recall that there is no respite. There is no rest. That the inevitable is soon to become all there is. And that this is to be our final day: our last hurrah, our inglorious, unceremonious, kind of ridiculous end at the bottom of a mangrove lagoon on a tropical, peaceful island somewhere north of Colombia.
The sun falls from the sky and our lagoon loses its color, from shady but tinged with blues and greens and browns to nothing but the grayscale, monochrome and dreary. My cigarette butt drifts around a bend and out of sight. The tangled branches above taunt us with their leaves, rustling in the wind like they did when our feet were firmly planted on solid ground.
And so we just… wait, though for what I don’t know.
Maybe we wait for some miracle, for some luxury liner to round the corner with fresh coffee and warm blankets. Or for the mangroves to part like the Red Sea did for Moses all those years ago or for the burning bush or for vision of God himself to strike us like they did St. Ignatius of Loyola, alone and trembling in a hospital bed but relieved in the knowledge that he was not yet destined to expire.
But really, because there were no miracles and no parting seas and no burning bushes or visions, I think we waited to die. For our limbs to resign themselves to their fate at the bottom of a lagoon on a Caribbean island, or for some nocturnal crocodile or shark to notice the plight of wriggling limbs in a muddy lagoon.
And then the time for waiting ends unceremoniously, as my legs and my arms feel as they have but my chin is different. It feels cold, like it’s in a different relationship with the air around it and I realized it’s wet now, bobbing below the water’s surface like the rest of me is sure to do.
“Julia,” I mumble, quieter than I intended, “push the kayak to me.”
She hears me and she complies. Or, she thinks she did. She turns her gaze to the kayak and she turns her might to the kayak and her arms seem to think they grabbed the kayak, but nothing moves but her gaze. Her eyes are shifting with all the might they have left to muster. But her arms stay still
“Julia!” I yell. “Julia!”
Her head convulses and I think for a moment she’s drowning but she still has her mouth above water. I realize she’s sobbing. Sobbing for me. For the man she only just met who she is going to watch die here and now, right now.
I let my legs quit their fight and my arms quit their fight and I let myself sink.
I drift down, still, the surface of the water shimmering above me.
But not to die.
Not to let it happen.
But to earn back every ounce of strength I have left. To wage war once more. And so I kick. I kick like warfare. I kicked like I’m going to die and I kick like I’m going to live. I kick like it’s all I have because it is. Because one day not so long ago I had a life and a fiance and a bastardized version of success and an apartment with a view of the Williamsburg Bridge, and then a few days later I had not those, but still a passport and a Patagonia cap and a black-and-gray backpack and a plane ticket, and then all I had was my fight, which I was sure to lose. So I would not surrender until it was gone. And I kick and kick and kick and my head thumps into tangled tubes of parchment paper. I reach overhead and I grab and I pull and my head breaches the surface and I gasp and I climb and I make progress. I make progress. My limbs refuse to quit and those feeble tubes refuse to break and I climb onward.
“Go, go!” she says, quiet.
But as though her voice sucked the strength from us both, my limbs and those tubes don’t so much snap as they simply cease to be. The tubes were once indignant and proud, slimy and feeble as they were. My arms were once persistent and brave, exhausted as they were. And then they were mush. There was no fight left, and I had nothing but the air in my lungs.
I fell. I fell for a long while, longer than I should have. I fell as though my early termination was a failure of my predetermined timeline, and the moment of my death was to be experienced for the full balance of the years and days and seconds I was intended to remain on this earth. I fell as though I’d fallen from a bridge and I had time to realize my death would be ruled a suicide though it wasn’t. I fell as though I had failed myself. As though I had failed Julia, a stranger I spent an afternoon on a sandbar with on the day we were both to die.
But something shimmered in my eye as I fell, like a droplet of water refracting in the sun. But there was no droplet to refract - there hadn’t been a splash. I was still falling, and the splash was still in the future. And I thought maybe there was hope as my shoulder broke the surface and then my chest and then my legs and then droplets did refract and there were bubbles everywhere, to infinity. And there was the surface, so far above. The shadowy blur of the kayak. And a second blur. Larger. The surface was so far but it was closer now and closer still, and then it was all there was like a frosty window on a school bus on a brisk February morning in my youth when I mashed my nose against the glass so I could feel something. But the surface didn’t resist, not like the school bus, and water rushed and there was air. I gasped.
“¿Qué pasa?” says a voice.
I turn and there’s something.
A canoe, wooden but for metal trim, shimmering. A man. He’s dark and muscular, standing as a god. Prominent cheeks and a bald scalp. Rippled arms dangling free, thick chest masked by a loose tank top. Wide smile. Bright, dazzling teeth. I’m complimenting this guy too much. He’s holding a fishing net in one hand, wispy and green, my soggy cigarette butt resting ugly and useless in its webbing.
From behind me, “¡Ayuda, ayuda!”
The man digs his oar in the water and the boat parks before us. He pulls Julia in first, her face blustering and speckled and her hair matted to her back like her thin blue sundress. And then he comes for me. And good thing, because I’m going down. His chocolate arm stretches out, veins pulsating in his wrist down to his pink palm, beckoning. I reach and kick and he pulls me up, over the metal trim digging into my stomach. I collapse on the floor before him, hacking and panting and shocked.
He ropes the stern of his canoe to the bow of our kayak and hands me an oar. I sit at the bow and paddle. Or, sit at the bow and pretend to paddle, my muscles far beyond failure. I sit silent while Julia yelps on and on in Spanish, throwing about words like cocodrilo and tiburónes.
“No, no,” he says, “Madusa.” And he speaks in a hushed murmur for a moment.
“Will,” Julia says. “He says crocodiles and sharks weren’t the worst of it.”
“Drowning was the worst of it,” I say.
“He says this time of year, jellyfish swarm the lagoons. We got lucky with the timing of the tides - they’re deeper inland right now. He says one won’t kill you, but there are loads of them.”
And I think, given everything, that the sting of a jellyfish would be nothing. But we paddled on for another hundred yards, and there they were. Little furry red orbs, just barely breaching the water’s surface like balls of yarn. They were few at first, every ten yards or so. But as we paddled, the distance between them shrunk and there were so many, so close that I could catch twenty in a net with a single pull if I wished. As we round a bend, the lagoon opens into a wide river, speckled blood red. Tens of thousands of little balls of yarn. There were two for every square yard, their tendrils drifting by their side, and each pair masking another dozen below.
Julia says what I’m thinking.
“We would have died if we swam.”
Our guardian and I paddle us back for another hour, the submerged kayak choking our stern like an anchor. With dead arms, we round the final riverbend. A man in a red polo stood at the end of our hostel’s rickety dock, hands on his hips and hostel logo emblazoned on his breast pocket.
“What took you so long?” he says.
Our guardian pulls the kayak to the dock. We unpacked our soggy corpses and our blood-drained faces with shaky legs. I wobble back to our dorm room, dig out a 50,000 Colombian Peso note and come back, forcing it in his hand.
The man in the red shirt pulls the kayak from the water. Flips the boat on its side, water rushing on the shore. A long, thin slice down the right side of the hull, nearly too thin to see.
[Sounds of footsteps on a dock, sounds of crickets]
The next night, long after the sunset, crickets chirp and waves lap at a new dock. Julia jumps into another river running through our little jungle island. I stand by, goggles mounted to my face, as the black silhouette of her falling body erupted in a blur of bioluminescence.
“You have to try this, Will!” she shouts. “It’s even better underwater.”
“Jump, Will. C’mon.”
[Single note on an electric guitar.]
[Theme Music Begins]
Yeah, so uh. This is Baggage Claim. Look, this is a show about discovery. About empathy for fellow humans. And yeah, it's travel stories. They're often weird and awkward and funny. But this show's going to explore life and death. This is the only episode out of chronological order. In episode 2, we'll start from the beginning. Light, easy. Maybe a few laughs.
If you like the show, text POD to (332) 877-9540. Check out the show notes below [here] for more information.
Anyway, see you next time.
[Theme Music Ends]