Scavenging Angel

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1997

Scavenging Angel

Following in the wake of drug lords, one maritime salvager attempts to make good from bad
By Randy Wayne White

On the drive southeast from the old conquistador city of Cartagena to the broad Magdalena River, my new friend Alvaro Sierra explained to me how he happened to get into the marine salvage business and why he was willing to brave guerrillas, kidnappers, cocaine caballeros, poisonous snakes, and God knows what else to probe Colombia's numerous ports and blackwater rivers in search of the rusting old behemoths he called "marimba ships."

"I hunt for these derelict freighters," he told me as he steered his Mitsubishi four-by-four through the traffic-snarled outskirts of the city. "And when I find one, I buy it. Then I break it down. I cut out all the portholes, the helms, the lights, the ship's phones, the bells. On an old ship, you know, everything's brass, brass bright as gold once my workers sandblast all the paint off. Then we make these things into beautiful nautical furniture. It's my business. It's what I do."

Sierra stores his interesting quarry at a little compound set off from a narrow dirt road in an industrial park southeast of Cartagena. The place is practically a maritime museum. Name anything nautical — anything — and Alvaro has it stashed somewhere on his palm-shaded property. There are carved bowsprits and deck lanterns and teak booms. There are ship's binnacles and captain's tables and whole bridges taken off freighters. In a little lot beyond a stand of banana trees are big stacks of 80-millimeter shell casings from warships and a mountain of portholes. There are shortwave radios from World War II, cannon from Spanish wrecks, and an entire conning tower off a submarine.

It is from this briny junkyard that Sierra's small company, CoMarca (Compa˜ìa Marìtima del Caribe), produces its magnificent beds and bookshelves and porthole coffee tables. Sierra designs the furniture, his workmen build it, and they sell it a few pieces at a time at prices that would be considered steep for most Colombians but quite cheap by U.S. standards, especially considering that each piece is as solid and durable as the ship from which it came.

"It's my business," Sierra said, amending his former statement. "But it is also my love. Ever since I was a little boy, I have loved things that came from the sea."

Sierra was wearing the standard uniform of the Colombian businessman: guayabera shirt and dark slacks. Soupy air rushed through his open truck window, and he steered nonchalantly with one hand draped over the wheel, freeing up his other hand for elaborate, tale-enhancing gestures.

Sierra is an excellent example of an ordinary Colombian because he is an extraordinary man. In a country so rich in mountains, rainforests, and seacoast, one doesn't expect to discover that its most compelling resource is its people.

Colombians? Hollywood's goofy caricature has superceded reality: swarthy little pock-faced geeks with Ricky Ricardo hair carrying automatic weapons and black attache cases neatly stuffed with plastic bags of cocaine.

Not that those swarthy little geeks don't exist. No doubt about it, Colombia can be an extremely dicey country, and few foreigners rally the cojones to tour the place. On the other hand, it's largely because of this that Colombia remains a thoroughly unpasteurized destination, which is one of the reasons it's among my favorite countries in the world.

Another reason is that Colombia is well stocked with fun, industrious, Latino — elegant people like Alvaro Sierra. "Something we've got to watch out for," Sierra told me, "are roadblocks. If we see something pulled out in the road to stop us — like giant logs, say, or maybe a couple of trucks — you hang onto your pinga, because I'm going to spin us around fast! It's embarrassing to admit this, but the roads of my country are not always safe to travel. I'm no coward, but those bastard kidnappers like to shoot."

I had to laugh. Not because I found the prospect of being shot amusing. No, it was just that nearly everything he said made me laugh, or at least smile. The reason was nonsensical but true: Sierra looks and carries himself almost exactly like Sonny Bono. Sierra has the same toothy, squinty-eyed grin, the same good-natured, all-embracing "I Got You Babe" style, plus a flair for storytelling that Bono and anyone else would love to have.

Listen to Sonny Bono warning you in a thick Spanish accent to prepare to grab your tallywhacker because guerrillas just might open fire at any time, you'd laugh, too. "I say this to you now," Sierra explained, "because it's always good to have a plan."

A plan? Never once on a visit to Colombia had I ever stooped to assembling a plan. It had never been necessary, because the people I met were so unfailingly generous with their time and so dependable in their love of adventure. It's a philosophy that suits Colombian sensibilities: Get out on the streets, out in the countryside, out on the water, and allow good luck and God to arrange the itinerary.

This trip was a fine example. I had arrived in Cartagena unannounced to old friends, without transportation and without a place to stay. Within an hour I was at a little cruiser's marina, Club Nautico, in the suburb of Manga, trading jokes and stories with Norm Bennett, the Aussie expatriate who owns the place. Nope, Norm said, he had no rooms to rent, but he did have an old sailboat I could sleep on if I wanted. The boat was dirty, and it had no power or running water, but there was a shower beside the outdoor bar, and I was welcome to use that.

So for the better part of a week, Club Nautico was my home — and what a wonderful home it was. Each morning I awoke to the singsong wail of women selling fruit. They'd roam the docks in bright skirts, baskets on their heads, crying, "Mangoes! Baaa — NANAS! Pi˜as! Aguacadoes y limoncitos!" It's a fine thing to sit in the cockpit of a sailboat and gaze out over the Bay of Cartagena while breakfasting on ripe fruit, fresh bread, and black, black Colombian coffee.

Through the foliage, Sierra spotted the superstructure of a rusty drug-running ship. "When I buy one of these," he said, "I usually buy it from a widow."

After that, the day was my own. Some mornings I would hang around the marina, talking to The Turk or Raymond the Irish Rummy. In the afternoons, I would set off on foot across the bridge into the old walled city of Cartagena. At night, I'd sit beneath the thatch roof of the Club Nautico bar, drinking Polar beer over ice and talking to whoever might wander in. This is how I met Norm's old friend, Alvaro Sierra: He just washed up one night in need of a drink and an audience with whom he might share his finely-spun stories.

Later, Norm took me aside and told me, "Alvaro's an amazing guy — a classic Colombian. No matter what kind of shitty hand he's been dealt, he always comes up smiling. But before you let him talk you into any half-assed search for marimba ships, get him to tell you how he got into the salvage business. It's not my story to tell — it's his."

Which is how I ended up driving southeast out of Cartagena in Sierra's truck, absentmindedly watching the power poles and drab slums of gray plywood flash by, and then whole sections of agricultural country fringed by dense rainforest, listening to the man who looked and sounded exactly like Sonny Bono tell me what we were going to do if kidnappers tried to stop us.

Sierra was clearly avoiding my original question. So I asked it again: "Tell me, Alvaro — how did you get into the marine salvage business?"

"The salvage business?" Sierra replied. "I got into it for the reasons I said. I love ships, and I needed a way to make money."

That was no answer.

"I will show you," he added. "I will explain to you about the marimba ships, and then I will show you. That's the thing about you Yankees. You have no patience. Everything is rush, rush, rush. Be patient and you will see."

So I sat patiently and waited.

We were driving on a narrow macadam that passed through the little artisan villages of Arjona and Malagana and crossed a waterway called the Canal del Dique before carrying us into rolling foothills of equatorial greens and blues. We flew past grinning, barefoot children and wobbling oxcarts and a long, dolorous procession of Japanese clunkers with smoke-spluttering mufflers.

Then we turned north past Barranca Nueva, where the air suddenly grew cooler — a little cooler, anyway — because we were driving along the Magdalena River, the main watercourse into the interior of northern Colombia. The Magdalena was wide and deep and stained black by jungle tannins.

It was through a clearing in the dense foliage along the river that I saw the rust-streaked superstructure of a freighter that had to weigh at least several hundred tons and draw more than 12 feet of water.

"That," said Sierra, "is what we call a marimba ship."

Marimba, he explained, as in the xylophone-like Latin American musical instrument that's played with padded sticks. Because a marimba is commonly hauled out and played during village fiestas, the instrument is associated with happy occasions.

"Times of good harvests and wealth," Sierra said. "For the hill people and the very poorest people of Colombia, the late 1960s and early seventies were a period of great excitement, a time that seemed to promise great wealth, because that is when these nasty, bearded hippies began arriving from the United States, telling us that if we planted the bags of seeds they gave us, and if we harvested the crop, they would pay us more money than we had ever dreamed of. And they did pay. Thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands of dollars. A million — money meant absolutely nothing to them. But can you imagine what all that money meant to a poor Colombian village? That is why those days were known as the Marimba Time, and the ships used to carry those crops are still known as marimba ships."

Sierra stared off into the jungle for a while and then said, "Everyone thought those were very happy days. But they weren't, not really. It was as if a deadly disease had come to this country. Many of the people who went to work for those hippies are now wrecked or dead — dead as the old ships they once used. That's what I do now. I hunt along the rivers and the harbors looking for abandoned marimba ships. When I buy one, I almost always buy it off a woman who has been widowed."

"Everyone in Colombia thought those were happy times," Sierra said, recalling the 1970s. "But they weren't. A disease had come to this country."

Was I still smiling as Sierra told this dark, sad tale? Yes, I was. I was charmed by his great gift as a raconteur, his love of creative profanity, his bawdy screw-the-world asides.

Besides, Sierra was happy now: He'd found another marimba ship that he might be able to purchase, cut to pieces, and reconstitute as beautiful furniture and nautical decorations — something constructive out of waste, art out of darkness.

Sierra hopped out of the truck and began neatly jotting figures in a notebook, making estimates of the ship's value. Yes, the portholes were intact. Yes, there were many brass lights. Why wouldn't he be happy?

After he'd made his assessments, we climbed back into the truck. He had a cooler of Polar beer in the back of his vehicle. We opened bottles and toasted — "To lost loves!"

Then Sierra's monologue abruptly shifted directions, and he assumed a grave tone. "I should tell you," he said, "that I, too, was involved in the Marimba Time. Of course I was involved."

Alvaro sierra was born in a medellìn slum in 1949. He ran away from home when he was 13, living a meagre existence on the streets for a few years before deciding to join the Colombian navy in 1964. After 18 months of service, he entered the Merchant Marine and spent the next several years working his way through the world's seaports.

"A very good experience," Sierra said, "The only trouble I had was down in Darwin, Australia. One night, my shipmates took me out and got me very, very drunk and, when I awoke, I was still in Darwin and my ship wasn't. The cabrnes! What kind of joke is that to play?"

Sierra had no money, no visa — nothing. To survive, he took a job hunting kangaroos (this was back in the days when ranchers considered kangaroos to be nothing but pests). "We'd spend two weeks at a time in the bush," Sierra said. "We were provided rifles and given five free rounds — after that, ammunition was subtracted from our pay. But I was a damn good shot. Some hunts, I'd make as much as $1,600."

Eventually Sierra decided to get an education. "I was accepted at the University of Toronto in 1969," he explained. "I worked hard. But then I was notified that I could no longer attend classes. Someone had checked my application and discovered that I'd purchased a false high school diploma for a thousand pesos. It had seemed like a bargain to me at the time — how else was I to get a university education?"

Back in Colombia, Sierra passed a high school equivalency test and studied anthropology at the Universidad de Antioquia. He occupied what little free time he had learning to fly a small plane — with an entrepreneurial eye toward capitalizing in some way on the burgeoning drug trade.

This was in the mid- and late-1970s, the free-wheeling era before drug cartels and organized crime took control of Colombia's cocaine production, before narcoterrorists plunged much of the country in fear. For a man who had been running from the slums since the age of 13, it was a time of great temptation.

"I was arrested on my first solo flight to the United States," Sierra told me. "I flew from Cartagena north, and it was dark by the time I reached southern Florida. I was supposed to land at a little place near Miami — but all those damn lights! Who could tell where anything was? It was a terrible feeling. So I just flew around and around and around, and then I was out of fuel! I had to force-land on this big, busy highway-441 — at just after seven in the evening. I'll tell you what, land a private plane on a highway during Miami's rush hour, and you'll draw all sorts of attention. The DEA was waiting for me, blocking traffic when I got out of the plane."

You didn't try to run?

"Man," Sierra said, "it is very hard to run when you've got 50 kilos of cocaine strapped to your back. Trust my word on it! That night, I was on the Channel Five news in Miami — very famous. They had a TV blaring there in the jail, and when I saw myself on the screen, I thought, What a handsome bastard that fellow is! He could be a television star!"

Sierra spent five years in maximum security prisons in Alabama and Florida. When he was released in 1987, he returned to Colombia without money or prospects. At 38, most people would have considered their lives ruined.

"Ruined?" Alvaro asked. "In what way was my life ruined?"

He was smiling — why was this man always smiling?

"True," he admitted. "I had made a colossal mistake. I'd tried to get rich by doing something terribly destructive. But if I hadn't gotten caught, if I hadn't spent all those years in American prisons, I really do believe my circumstances would be very, very different now. Would I now have my beautiful wife and my wonderful children? Would I now be a respected businessman? No. My life would be as empty as one of these old shipwrecks. But I returned to my country with a great idea in my head. And this is why I enjoy what I do so much: I take the wreckage of the Marimba Time and make something beautiful out of it."

As Sierra spoke, his eyes seldom left the derelict freighter — a listing hulk slumbering in the black water. He was looking beneath the dirt and blistered paint. He was seeing gold.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!