LOS ROQUES, Venezuela -- I have always had a soft spot for pelicans.
The birds make an art of nonchalance, in the blink of an eye veering from glide to attack mode to pierce the ocean's surface with the muffled ZZZUMP of a wingless missile. Then, with chins tucked in, it's back to the business of looking self-important and disengaged.
But as I sit frustrated on this knoll overlooking a corner of Caribbean paradise known as Los Roques, I conclude I need some insight. From pelicans.
Los Roques is an archipelago of 52 mostly uninhabited islands in a national park in the Caribbean's outer orbit of tourism , about 80 miles north of Caracas , Venezuela's capital. I had come here to learn how to kiteboard, an extreme sport that allows a kite-powered rider to skim across the ocean's surface on something akin to a snowboard.
An international kiteboarding school with an outlet here had assured me this was THE place to learn the sport. But two days into my week long mission, I have concluded that the particular island used by the school is far from ideal for novices. Pedestrian beach traffic and an offshore reef provide precious little room for error. In a fit of anger this afternoon that had scared even me, I verbally unloaded on a kiteboarding instructor who had had nothing to do with recommending the long trip here.
So here I sit, ashamed and feeling a bit like a pensive Rodin statue as I stare at pelicans doing something quite bizarre. Shedding individualism for pack mentality, they are harvesting the fish-rich waters by flying in a great clump that barrel- rolls into a synchronized attack. The birds hit the ocean like a spray of buckshot. The fish don't stand a chance.
The pelicans have adapted well. And I conclude that I need to adapt, too.
It should not be hard in a place so pristine and remote, where the daily rhythms of life reverberate from an earlier time. I did not realize such places still existed in this hemisphere. It's time to alter course. Thank you, pelicans.
The English translation of Los Roques is ``The Rocks," but it's a misnomer. The archipelago is mainly sand and reef. Pirates once hid among the islands, and survivors of a wrecked Dutch slave ship established a village in the mid-17th century. The only rocky island is the only inhabited island -- El Roque -- home to 1,100 people today. Because development is tightly controlled in the national park, El Roque's demeanor changes little. It has a bumpy airstrip, two trucks (for water delivery and garbage pick up), a school, and five small grocery stores; it has no cars, no scooters, no paved streets. Regulations prohibit razing original structures for new hotels.
It does, however, have perhaps 100 outboard motorboats that cater to the park's economic life blood, a host of barefooted tourists -- mostly from Europe -- who come to fish and explore the white sands of seemingly countless beaches under a broiling sun. The guests stay in any of 75 posadas (inns ), 10 times the number that were here 10 years ago. Each morning, the posada managers schedule boat drivers to take visitors to remote islands throughout the park. Each afternoon, those boats return. The migrations are daily, as if the islands inhale and exhale on their own.
My accommodations at Posada Eva are clean but simple, but the nightly meals, made from the daily catch sold on the beach, are to die for. Tuna, barracuda, snapper, and lobster, all buried under rich sauces, are the island staples.
My fellow guests include two Italians, two Poles , and four French tourists. There are no Americans, and seldom are. Maybe it's the anti-American chest thumping of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, maybe it's the rustic nature of the place. I am pretty much the only gringo.
And I am one of the only guests in my posada who has not come to fish. Armed mostly with fly rods, they quest for fishing's grand slam in these parts: a bone fish, a tarpon, and a permit, all caught in one day. That's about 200 pounds of game fish caught and released with tackle that could fit in a match box.
The next day I have decided to take my kiteboarding equipment out to a small, nameless island just to practice flying the contraption. ``My" island is the size of a vacant urban lot -- small, but at least there are no pedestrians for me to threaten, or reefs to threaten me. To my delight, an Italian couple arrives with kites. Massimo Bonanno and his companion , Lucia Di Domenico , are members of the mounted police in Rome.
Bonanno is an expert kiter, and spends the better part of the morning carving through water with colors that alternate between the blueberry and lime of daiquiris. There is something delightfully simple about this sport that requires little more than a small bag of equipment and a swatch of sand. I spend the day with these sun-bronzed, thirtysomething Romans who wear Australian bush hats -- and not much else. They help me with kiting basics, but more importantly, they help me slow down. By 4 p.m. the wind has died. There's no place to go, no activity to pursue, and so we just sit and talk (in English), sifting sand between our toes and waiting until close to sunset for our boat ride home. I am adapting.
The evening begins with buying provisions for tomorrow's lunch -- bread and tomatoes if the morning air transport has brought fresh produce. I have taken to shopping at Quincallerias, a market near my posada, where an ambidextrous manager can pull goods from a shelf and make change while never dislodging the infant suckling at her breast.
As the days pass, I adopt a routine of climbing one of the three 400-foot- high hills on the island to watch the moon rise. Then I return through a village where open windows and doors offer the wholeness and inclusiveness of a community that mixes tourists and natives so easily. (A murder, basically unknown here, shocked the community late last month, when an Italian honeymooner was killed, apparently in a case of mistaken identity, according to the Associated Press. As of last week, police reportedly had named three suspects, but had made no arrests.)
One day I go scuba diving, joining seven companions for a boat ride to Cayo Sol, where we swim among colorful soft corals, barracuda, grouper , and moray eels. Another day I join new Polish friends for a day long boat trip to the islands of Dos Mosquises, where a park hatchery raises loggerhead, green, and hawksbill turtles.
On yet another day, I travel to Cayo de Agua, some two miles long and a half-mile wide. My yellow umbrella basically stakes a one-day claim to the island. No one contests it because no one else arrives.
Toward the end of my stay on Los Roques I meet another Italian, Norman Weiss, 43, an aspiring kiteboarder and , similar to me, trying to figure out how to get a hazard-free ride friendly to novices. We hatch a plan that includes Rudolfo, one of the myriad boat drivers. After he drops off his morning load of tourists on one of the islands, would he take us upwind to a sandy dry perch that would allow us to launch? He would have to follow along should we need assistance.
No destination, no time limit, no direction except that of the wind.
Rudolfo explains he has never had such a request, but for $20 he is willing to play along.
We study a chart and the wind, then pick an island where the downwind line offers nothing but clear passage. In no time we land, get the kites up, and start cruising (I am catching on to the basics of this sport) as we dance and occasionally fall into seas the cobalt blue of a Colorado sky. I reach the slightly smug conclusion that we have beaten ``the system," no doubt thanks to hand signals and a few Spanish nouns and verbs -- in the present tense, of course.
At one point during our zig zag crossings downwind, Weiss yells between hoots of joy, ``I'm dreaming!"
Yes, and I'm adapting.
Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, at firstname.lastname@example.org .