What do you do to prepare for a hurricane if your house is ten feet from the sea?
This is the question on my mind as Josh and I row our dinghy to the shores of Isla Pardito, the smallest inhabited island I have ever seen. It is less than two hundred meters wide, and the structures are all packed onto the steep western slope of the island. The east side is a crumbly black cliff. One big wave looks like it could wash the whole island away.
We anchored in the swirling tidal waters in the channel between Pardito and Isla San Francisco. As we row to the pebbled shore, a man steps out from behind one of the concrete cinderblock houses, with window frames but no glass, on the tiny beach. We step out of the boat, and he puts his big hand under the gunwales to help us carry the boat away from the shore.
The man grins and offers his hand. He’s Roberto, and he’s been in Isla Pardito for sixty-eight years!
“You’re joking. You’re sixty-eight?” I say. He doesn’t look a day older than fifty.
He lifts his shirt to pat his big, brown belly while he chats with me, a funny habit I’ve seen before and since among the fishermen in the hot summer. He’s calm, friendly, and relaxed. He has been a fisherman living on this island his whole life.
“What’s different these days?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s so much easier!” he says. This surprises me, and he continues, “We used to have to row, and we used sails. Now, with the motor, it’s much easier.” Even into the seventies, we used sails, he says.
I show him where we can put a mast to turn it into a sailboat. I wonder if he thinks we are ridiculous, moving slowly and laboriously through the sea with our big sailboat and our little dinghy. But he leans his head back a little and compliments our dinghy with the genuine appraiser’s eye of a man who lives by the sea.
An older man peers at us from the porch above the shore, and he motions us to walk up the steep hillside. We make our way to his shaded porch, a cool relief of thatch over a concrete pad. He offered us his hammock and the view to brilliant blue. His name was Pablo, and he firmly shook our hands. His wife Juanita emerged from the dark interior of their home, whose back wall was the steep island side.
Juanita wears glasses, and her skin is deeply wrinkled. Although shy at first, when I start asking her about her life and her time at the island, she smiles and tells me she had been there thirty-nine years. She talks with pride about her daughter in La Paz, and she beamed when she talked about her son, who with two other young men from the island, formed a band called Los Grandes del Pardito. (You can hear them here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWFlI9CT7B8)
When I ask Juanita if things are different, she says it’s much harder now. There are so few fish, they have to go so much further just to find smaller fish, she says. She shakes her head and looks out at the sea, worried. I buy a bracelet from her, and we walk the few steps to the top of the island.
The top is barren except for a little blooming Mammilaria cactus, and a tiny, disused church. The doorway is less than five feet tall, and rebar and crumbled concrete cover the floor. Around the island, million-dollar motor yachts zip between Isla San Jose to our northeast, and Isla San Francisco to the south. “They’re out there every day, and even more on the weekend,” Roberto tells me when I ask about the high dollar traffic.
Back down on the shore, I turn to Roberto. “What do you do during a hurricane?” I ask.
“We put the boats up high,” he answered immediately. He shows us the places where they tuck away the pangas. But do the houses survive? I ask.
Well, they get quite damaged, he says with a laugh, but they survive. Everything just gets covered in water.
And I finally realize that the things I think of as having value on a coast, like structures and houses, don’t have the same meaning here. Without pause, when I asked about a storm, Roberto said that they protect the boats. The boats are their livelihoods and their transportation. The houses are just structures with minimal belongings.
But the most valuable thing on the island became clear as we left. A clean, bright white panga, with seats and shade, pulled up onto the beach. A young man was at the motor. Pablo came down from his house above, his steps and face filled with joy. Roberto walked over to the panga, and the men helped secure it on the beach. It was Pablo and Juanita’s son, the guitar player for Los Grandes. I could see a parent’s affection as Pablo gazed at his son. His son smiled at me as both Pablo and Roberto admired the dinghy (it’s an anomaly for a sailboat dinghy, since we have a hard fiberglass dinghy with no motor, while most sailors have an inflatable with a motor.) We started to row away before I realized I hadn’t gotten a picture of anyone, and Josh rowed back so I could capture los hombres del Pardito.
The same families have been on this island for four or five generations. Hurricanes, even as they grow stronger, are temporary and typical events for a group of people who live only a few feet from the sea and are bound by its rhythms in work and family. The sustaining tie for this community is not the physical structures on land, but the family in their hearts.
I realized that the island isn’t much different from a country ranch – it required a little more effort to reach, but the ocean is their dirt road, and their ranch extends in every direction as far as the eye can see. The family gathers at the center to share stories of life and work.
And it made the island seem like just the right size.