Caribbean Paradise

Panamanian Goodness and Life As A Stowaway

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Where is this voyage taking me in the end? Most of the time, I keep the idea of arriving in Chile in my mind. To tell you the truth, I’m more interested in seeing certain parts of Asia than continuing south, but my geographical and cultural desires do not take precedence over my desire to learn language and see old friends. But the question really does remain regardless of where I’m going. Where am I ending? What is the end? Will it come to me in the form of a “settling down”? I can’t say I hope not, but I won’t say I’m looking forward to it either, if that will indeed be the case. It is clear that we change our minds about things that before, we were sure we wanted. We change as people, and our identity is affected by each decision we and others make. I wanted to study mechanics when I was in high school, I was the better welder. Then I wanted to live in a cabin alone in a pine forest somewhere in the mountains. Then I wanted to do the Peace Corps. Then I didn’t. If a man closes himself to change, he will forever be haunted by the wants that one day he wants no more.

 


 

Casco Viejo Panama

Casco Viejo Panama. Source.

Panama City. I woke up, I washed my shirt in the fire station parking lot sink and then I went out to the waterfront and drew the Panama skyline. Then I cut off my beard with Swiss Army knife scissors. I’d decided to spend a few more nights in Panama City, as I felt awkwardly normal there. It was big, it was really big, or at least it felt really big, with it’s towering white buildings and almost endless Pacific drive.

I strolled over to Casco Antigua, the old part of the city. Here I was thrust back in time to when there were no… well there were no skyscrapers. Suddenly the big city was gone, and I was walking on lightly populated and narrow streets that were sandwiched between two story wooden buildings transported directly from old western flicks. The tall handsome balconies were so close that if neighbors across the street desired, they could kiss at altitude.

Old Panama City Sketch

Before Panama City was relocated to Casco Antigua, it had been to the north of the modern center. Pirate destroyed it. This is a sketch of the remains of old Panama.

 

It was a town apart, out on a peninsula, cobble stone alleyways making up the majority of the main avenues. Henry Morgan was the English pirate who attacked and destroyed Panama City in the 1700s, which was then moved to its peninsular location for defensive purposes (which worked). I skipped rocks at the point before picking up my pack and walking on.

A view of Panama City's skyline from Casco Viejo.

A view of Panama City’s skyline from Casco Viejo. Source.

My walk took me to a bus which eventually took me far out of the city to Miraflores, where the famed locks of Panama lift and drop behemoth tankers. In Casco Antigua I’d met an old man who said he had dual American citizenship because he was born in the canal. I didn’t understand at first but then understood that the entire canal zone was once owned by the US, up until 1999. I didn’t pay the five bucks to get to the top of the museum to see the locks. Instead I just walked around the fence and sat next to them. The workers never asked me to leave since they seemed distracted watching me draw.

Panama Canal Locks

These are the Miraflore locks of the Panama Canal. It cost 5 dollars to enter teh tourist center, so I opted to sit at the fence to make this travel drawing.

 

I hitched back to the city, and back at the fire station again I met Jorge, the new night watchmen at the parking lot who also let me crash there for the night.

In the morning, after accidentally eating apparently raw liver for breakfast (can’t waste food), I walked to Panama Viejo, the old location that Henry Morgan attacked. Lots of moldy stones of crumbling churches. Then I walked to the trendy part of town called El Cangrejo where I would meet a CS named Gert, who would put me up for my last two nights there. I waited on swings in a park. There, I felt elation after my roughly 15 kilometers of walking with my pack.

A boat going through the Panama Canal.

A boat going through the Panama Canal. Source.

Gert was a wonderfully friendly gay Norwegian. He had a stylish air-conditioned apartment with a view of the glowing towers, which he shared with a wonderfully friendly Argentinian. I hadn’t eaten for hours, and he fixed me three hot dogs. We sat on the couch, I on the end scarfing my hot dogs, him and his ‘friend’ cuddling in the corner, and the TV showing Queer as Folk’s sex scenes and trivial drama. It’s funny how different my nights are, one from the other.

I busied myself my last day in the city by walking the most yet, roughly 20 kilometers through the roughest part of town that a woman had run out of a cafe to warn me not to walk through. Chorrillo ended where the canal zone began.

Panama City Causeway Signs

From downtown, Panama City stretches out along the causeway to a pair of islands where sailboats anchor. In 2010 I visited these marinas to cleave information on boat hitchhiking.

The contrast is obvious. The scene changed from crumbling complexes and children begging a dollar to open green spaces and quaint simple white buildings. I walked to the main marina and found out some information about hitching boats across the Pacific. Then I walked out on a causeway to some islands where I did the same at their marina. The walk was not boring; huge ships were lumbering by, on their way to more exotic places.

When the next morning came I left early. I walked to a major intersection, where a big road went east. In Central America you don’t have route numbers, you just have the names of the places the buses are going. I was going to Tocumen, a city outside of Panama City. Unfortunately after 45 minutes of driving, and continually reminding the driver to drop me at the road that would take me back to the Pan American highway, he dropped me 5 kilometers too far. Why do bus drivers always screw me up?

A map of the Darrien Gap

A map of the Darrien Gap.

I asked a woman for directions to the highway, and when I started to walk away she insisted I take the bus and let her pay the 25 cents. It might be absurd, but I let her. 20 minutes later I was walking down the Pan American once more. My destination was a dirt road that would head north to the Atlantic coast from about an hour and a half down the Pan Am. In case you are unaware, there is no passage between Panama and Colombia by land. At least, not for most people. The region is called the Darien Gap, a skinny yet densely forested strip of land, and it is the only place where the Intercontinental American Highway is interrupted. There is supposedly a trail. Actually, there is supposedly a rough dirt road too. The only problem is that the route is used by the Colombian rebels called the FARC and by narcotics traffickers and the police don’t let just anyone through. I didn’t even bother heading down. My plan was to get to a beach where cargo is loaded onto long wooden speedboats and taken out to the San Blas islands. I’d have to pay 6 bucks to get into the Kuna Yala national park, but it was better than a 200 dollar flight from Panama City to Bogota or a 500 dollar sailing cruise. The plan was to hitch speedboats to Colombia.

 


 

The heat in Panama is suffocating at times, but I was feeling fresh and ready for the day. Perhaps that has something to do with the luck that came my way, as I hadn’t had my thumb out for even a minute when a gutted-out 4×4 pulled over and I met my Salvadoran driver. I left him 50 kilometers down the road with a thanks and a candy bar.

Wow, that was the fastest I’d yet been picked up in Panama, but rightly so, the man was from El Salvador. I dropped my pack at my feet back on the side of the road, ready to wait an hour. I waited three seconds. Irony seemed to be on my side this time around. Louis and his son Enrique were waiting in the pick-up for me. I chucked my pack in the bed and hopped in.

The irony was that Louis was not only Panamanian, he was REALLY Panamanian. After he’d finished his cell phone conversation, he turned around and gleamed at me with eyes as round as the world and a smile as bright as day.

“I’m a Panamanian, this is Panama, and we treat visitors well. You’ve met yourself a Panamanian who is going to treat you well.”

Louis had traveled to the US but never made it past the border. However, on his voyage he was treated extremely well, and he believes in paying it forward. His energy was contagious, and his gladness was enhanced by the traditional flat brimmed hat he wore bent upward in the front.

“What are you doing anyway?”

“Just traveling around, learning Spanish.”

“That’s great, that’s really really great. Hey did you eat yet?”

“No, I just..”

“We’re gonna treat you well.”

We drove into a town called Chepo, where Louis led the way into a store where he treated me to donuts and a creamy corn drink. His 15 year-old, heavy machine operator son was equally friendly, clearly taught the ways of his father’s hospitality, even extending his arm around my back and motioning to the donuts. The power of touch is important in getting to know people, because it creates a connection that you otherwise cannot sense. I give Enrique my maps and he gives me some bubblegum.

When we were back in the car Louis turned around and looked at me, his happy face lighting up.

“We’re going you’re way. But why don’t you stay, come live with us for a while, you teach me English and I’ll pay you.”

“Thanks a lot Louis, but I feel like I gotta keep moving for now. Get to that dirt road.”

“You know you can’t walk that road, it’s 40 kilometers. It’ll take you..”

“Two days. I know, I’m planning two days to make it there.”

“No, we’ll take you half way up, that way you should get to the beach by tonight.”

So it was that Louis and Enrique were content to take me not only to where I had planned to be dropped off, but they would save me a day of walking by driving me 20 kilometers further.

An hour and a half later I was standing on the beach at the end of the road, the Atlantic spread out before me, the two days of walking cut to one, cut to none.

Beautiful green of humid rural Panama.

Beautiful green of humid rural Panama. Source.

It turns out the dirt road had recently been paved, and after taking me halfway, and after insisting on paying my 6 dollar entrance fee into the park in addition to the 8 dollars he had to pay to get his truck in, he and Enrique just smiled and shut me up when I tried to protest “I can walk!” “No! You’re in Panama and we’re going to treat you right!”

We drove for an additional hour over rolling hills on ridiculous roads that curved and climbed into the clouds. In the distance behind we watched the Pacific rise and fall each time we sumitted a hill. At one point we stopped at the top of the tallest hill and admired the view. Behind, the Pacific was carving at the shoreline, but onward, we saw the glorious Atlantic. Two oceans from one vantage point.

The Pacific disappeared as we descended toward the Atlantic. The islands of the San Blas (of which there are over 300) dotted the blue and looked almost… unlikely. My imagination choked up momentarily as I considered the journey.

We turned onto an old airport landing strip that led to a single hut on the beach. Louis turned off the car and we got out. I said goodbye to Enrique, and he surprised me with a mature handshake. Louis and I walked to the hut.

Inside was a small office and a few people sitting behind the rotting wood counter. Louis began talking without hesitation.

“Hello! I’m here with this gringo, I never knew him, I just got him from the side of the road like that and I wanted to show him good Panamanian hospitality. His destination is this beach and now here he is, and I wanted to let you know that he is a good person and I didn’t want to leave him alone without at least trying to vouch for him, vouch for a stranger otherwise, to anyone who would be open to lending him a helping hand.”

It was almost theatrical for the two behind the counter as Louis and I hugged goodbye and I told him I’d call to wish him a merry Christmas. With that, my new friend was gone.

 


 

Outside the hut I took in the fresh air with a squinted glance around the area. I was on a Caribbean beach where the forest yielded only feet to the sand. There were other people around, but no other buildings besides the hut. I saw a few boats, a small pier, and at the islands across the water I could make out houses.

The beach at the end of the road in Kuna Yala National Park.

The beach at the end of the road in Kuna Yala National Park.

I tried to convince a few of the passenger speedboats to take me to an island, “The main island where all the boats from Colombia have to register”, but to no avail. My idea was to do this as though I was still hitching, and thus I had to explain that I was traveling without using money for transport. I did not feel bad because this is the way I am traveling, and at the time all I had with me was 10 dollars. I found out that to get to the main island would cost 20 dollars ‘for me.’ From there, a boat to the Colombian border town (a small village in the middle of the Darien gap jungle) would cost a further 50 dollars. And finally, from that small village to Turbo, a town with a road that could connect me with all of Colombia, would cost yet another 30 dollars. I wasn’t preoccupied with these numbers, because, well, I was just going to wait for someone willing to ‘pick me up,’ or until I could find work on a boat heading my way.

I decided to try my luck at the dock. First thing was first: I had to get to the main island. I walked up to a guy sitting next to a pile of taped-up cardboard boxes.

“Hey, I have a question.”

“Ask.”

“Well I’m trying to get to whatever island it is where the Colombian boats have to stop. But I don’t have enough money to get there, so I was looking to work for a ride. Can I help you load this stuff for a ride?”

“You’ll have to ask the owner of the boat when it gets here.”

30 minutes later that boat showed up. It was about the length of 2 and a half cars, and no wider than a rickshaw. A small red and yellow flag with a black backwards swastika flapped in the wind (this was the flag of the San Blas). 5 men climbed out of the wooden monster and began unloading empty gas tanks. I didn’t even bother asking if they needed help, I just put myself in line and started unloading gas tanks.

When the work was done I explained my situation and they agreed to take me to Carti Sugdub, an island where boats to Colombia would have to stop. I should mention that the only reason I chose to come this way is because I know of another hitcher who made it to Colombia hitching speedboats. His story is important because having read his experience at this part in his journey, I had the knowledge to know that when we arrived in Carti Sugdub, I was not on the island I wanted to be.

We arrived there 4 hours after I had begun to help them. We ended up loading 100 pound bags of sugar, full gas tanks, and packages of soda pop. Strangely, my lanky self was the bull of the group, as I stood a full foot higher than the others. They were an indigenous people who lived on the islands, and they were called the Kuna. They were short and dark, had almost Asiatic features,and spoke a language whose utterances arrived in short bursts of rapidity that I could not for the life of me differentiate.

Sketching Kuna Indian

The Kuna Indians are the inhabitants of the autonomous community that comprises the San Blas Islands. I sketched one of the Kuna men who brought me to his island afterward.

 

A thirty minute ride in a dangerously overloaded boat later and we were in Carti Sugdub. I said goodbye to my ride from the rickety dock we parked at and began to make my way to the main dock on the other side of the island, a 2 minute walk away.

A Kuna woman on Carti Sugdub.

A Kuna woman on Carti Sugdub. Source.

This was the most culture shock I have ever experienced, albeit I don’t really get shocked thanks to the dumbing-down that a globalized and technology-crazed news-media culture offers. However this was something different. You immediately notice that the houses are no more than two feet apart as you walk the dirt paths, the thatch roofs falling as low as your shoulders. Some of the tight corridors end in waist-height wooden shutters that are hard to tell if you can pass through. Two girls decided to guide me to the main road, which is a stretch of dirt that offers only a little more space than the others. People abound. The Kuna men dress in pants or shorts with shirts, no different from other men in this part of the world. But the women are the visual representatives of a different culture. (I was to learn later that it’s a matriarchal society, for example, newlyweds will live in the house of the wife’s mother). They have bright, almost neon blouses of red, green, pink or orange, and with black geometrical designs from the neck to shoulders to waist. They wear skirts to their knees, and the skin of their wrists and calves are covered by bracelets made of small orange and black beads. The blouse and skirt meet tightly in the middle with a thick waistband. Woman wear their hair short, and many cover their jet black hair with richly decorated bandanas.

The island of Carti Sugdub in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

The island of Carti Sugdub in the San Blas Islands of Panama. Source.

I was the only white person. I was the only non-Kuna on this island. I walked to the main dock, which was a sloppy concrete slab that appeared lazy from age. Everyone glanced at me, but no one stared. As strange as it was to me to be there, I was not a new sight to them. There are plenty of tourists in the San Blas islands, but this island usually doesn’t have to deal with them.

I decided to look for the police station. My comrade in travel had written that the police on his island helped him out to get a ride to Colombia. I learned that his island was called El Porvenir. However, I was told that all boats to Colombia had to stop here in Carti Sugdub as well, so I wasn’t worried, yet.

As I was walking toward where I was told the police station was, I came across a policeman (dressed more like a Green Beret than a cop). He was laughing with some locals, but when he saw me his face became stern as he stood up and came right toward me demanding “Where are you going? What is your name? What are you doing?”

“I’m going to the police station.”

“It’s that way. Don’t go anywhere else.”

This guy was a goddamn rock, but I walked on.

The homes, structures built of thatch, of the Kuna.

The homes, structures built of thatch, of the Kuna. Source.

I found the police station, a stilted island of concrete on the point. I met the one other cop, a man without emotion in his face, which was pock-marked from acne he must have had as a kid. He was also a large man. Two large men among a population of people half their size.

“Passport.” I handed him my passport.

“How long have you been in Panama?”

“About a week.”

“Where are you going?”

“Colombia.”

“How did you get here?”

“I helped load a boat at the beach.”

At this point the other cop showed up at the station, probably interested in my being there since I doubt that much happens on the island. He chirped in too:

“There are no more boats to Colombia today, where are you going to stay?”

“That’s why I’m here. I have only 10 dollars. And I’m trying to work on a boat to get to Colombia. I was thinking of camping but there’s no space.”

The other cop was leafing through my passport. “Where’s your entry stamp to Panama?”

I took the passport and leafed through myself. No stamp. What. The. Fuck. Where was the damn stamp?

“Did you come in at Canoas?”

“Yes. Yes, and the guy gave me a stamp I’m sure!”

I couldn’t find the stamp. The acne cop snatched the passport, flipped through once or twice. He found the stamp. Whoa, that was close.

“So. You arrive here with almost no money. You want to go to Colombia. For free.”

“No, I want to work on a boat to get there.”

“You have to work, you know, you have to haul loads.”

“Yea that’s what I’m looking to do.”

The cops both disappeared behind a door for a few minutes discussing my fate. I had read from the other traveler that the cops helped him immediately, and even found for him the boat that took him to Colombia free of charge. These cops were not passing me that helpful vibe. They reemerged.

“You can sleep here. Have you eaten?”It was 6 in the evening, and I hadn’t eaten since the donuts. The cop gave me a small plate of rice and tuna, which I scarfed down without mercy.

The two acted strange. They each had a bit too much testosterone, but they weren’t able to express it toward a smiling traveler with all his affairs in order. They helped me with a place to sleep, a bathroom (kind of) and a small plate of food, but all this help felt almost forced. In any case, it didn’t seem like they were going to deport me from the island, but it sure as hell felt like that’s what they wanted to do.

 


 

I woke at 6, before the cops. I packed my sleeping bag and walked back to the dock. The day was about to start, a day that would include repeating the explanation of my travel over and over again, something that hopefully would result in a 4 hour boat ride to the Colombian border town in the Darien, and maybe even all the way to Turbo.

I put my pack down next to me and I sat on a bench. Next to the dock was a small restaurant. It was the only restaurant on the island. Actually it was the only anything that wasn’t also a private residence (or was it also that?).

The dock at Carti Sugdub where I met boat captains.

The dock at Carti Sugdub where I met boat captains. Source.

The day began slowly. There were one or two boats but they weren’t moving. It was clear which boats were not about to make the 4 hour journey as they would come from one of the other islands that were no more than a football field away, also packed to the brim with houses made of sticks. The sun broke the cloudy barrier and would shine with a vengeance at midday, but not before a few light showers fell first.

It seemed that every boat had a leak. The Kuna have traditionally always used dugout canoes that would take a month to carve out to get from one island to the other, but the motion of paddling was accompanied by the motion of bailing out the trespassing water with water jugs cut in half.

There were two things happening in the Kuna world while I was on the island. There was a cultural congress on my island, and a soccer tournament on the mainland. One boat loaded by a soccer team on the way to the opening ceremonies stopped over in Carti, and the 30 players got out, lined the dock shoulder to shoulder and pissed into the water. Funny.

I met many people during the day. I met two guys from the cultural congress who were going to take me to their island if I was still there when the congress finished (I actually hoped not, since I didn’t want to be on that island for 2 more days). I met random Kuna who were just interested in why I was there. I met lots of kids, too. I taught them “church, steeple, people,” I juggled, and I gave them the chewing gum Enrique had gifted me.

The only concrete buildings on the San Blas island of Carti Sugdub.

The only concrete buildings on the San Blas island of Carti Sugdub. Source.

At midday, I met an authority from El Porvenir who gave me hope that he’d take me there. I gave a huge speech about how I was not the dirty vagabond that he thought I was, that I would not hurt the reputation of the “touristic island.” I thought the speech had worked, but no, it had not. He then crushed the hope, and even crushed the idea of going to El Porvenir because he had called the police there, who said that they would not help me if I made it to that island. That pissed me off. It put me in a sour mood. Suddenly my situation looked gloomy. Several speed boats showed up that were headed to the border, but would not take on a passenger for free. Where were the boats I could work on? I had no idea.

The cops would come by and check on the dock from now again, but treated me as thought I wasn’t there. It was clear that they just wanted me gone from there, but thought it ridiculous that I was trying to hitch boats. Sometimes I think it’s unfair too. But what I have is time. Time, and patience… or so I thought.

The only rewarding part of the day, other than convincing the restaurant owner to feed me for a dollar instead of two fifty, was convincing the restaurant owner to let me help unload a boat for a meal. I got to play the bull again,not to mention the coke and the watermelon they gave me too.. (I have to take advantage of playing bull because anywhere else I’m a weakling!)

I couldn’t swim to cool off because the island was surrounded by dirty water. The Kuna toilets were stilted outhouses built over the water and walled with palm leafs. All the dirty water and poop went right into the break.

 


 

A Kuna girl in the Panamanian islands.

A Kuna girl in the Panamanian islands. Source.

The day was so long is was painful. I realized that I might have to do this for several days. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to pay for some speedboats either, and couldn’t even if I wanted to since we’d be headed to where there were no atms (only had 10 bucks). I felt stuck. I heard the stories that the Colombian boats I could work on could possibly take weeks to get to Colombia, as they may stop in places for extended periods. I didn’t like being on this crowded island, as different as the experience was. I didn’t like the cops, and I was going to have to go back to their station and sleep there when night came.

And of all the things to begin thinking about, I began considering the type of relationship that money can influence. I thought, “which is worse: me not talking with someone because I assume they just want money, or someone ceasing talking to me because I tell them I have none to spend?” From this I began to consider the situation of the Kuna here in San Blas. They are very protective of their culture, and simply being on the islands is extremely restricted. Things are expensive for tourists, and there is very little room for travelers like me. The Kuna depend greatly on tourism today, but here I am not contributing a damn thing. Here I sit on their dock trying to get a free ride where they pay daily. I felt conflicted and ashamed as I waited hours more until the last hint of dusk faded away with the arrival of a tall white mast.

 


 

It was a surreal image to see a 40 foot catamaran sailing boat docking on this slouching concrete block. But alas, thus was the scene. Little Kuna children cheered and laughed as the big thing pulled close. There were two people on board, waving to the houses nearby.

When the boat was anchored and steady, a man jumped to the dock with a hose which he attached to a faucet to fill the boat’s compartments with fresh water. I strolled casually up to him, studying him and the boat.

“So, why do you have a German flag?”

“Oh, hey. Cause it’s from Germany.” He spoke English but with a Hispanic accent. He was not Kuna, but he was not German.

“So I got a question… any chance you’re headed to Colombia?”

“Headed there tomorrow. Cartagena.”

I felt a shiver fly across my spine, “hey listen, I’m trying to get to Colombia, but I travel without so much money. I was hoping to find work on a boat for passage, or even trade a drawing and work for passage.”

The guy stopped what he was doing and looked at me. I was taller than him but he was scruffier than I. He said in a serious tone:

“I already have a worker, I don’t think that would be fair to him.”

“You wouldn’t consider just helping me out with a ride? I was considering trying to cross the Darien by land but they wouldn’t let me I’m sure.”

“Forgive my French but that would just be fucking stupid. Your best bet is to go back to Panama City call daddy to give you some money for a plane and fly to Bogota.”

At that, it was getting clearer who this guy thought I was.

“Don’t get me wrong, I can afford a plane ticket if I want, but that’s not what this trip is about.”

“Well, I’m sorry man, but you guys just can’t get everything for free. I can’t stand this new thing, this wave of travelers who come from rich countries and act poor in poor countries. Why don’t you go home and work? I know lots of travelers, they go home, work, have money to travel, and then bam they’re traveling and they’re good.”

“What’s your name?”

“Freddy.”

“Hey Freddy, I’m Chael, and I’m not poor, I just don’t use so much money. I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t feign poverty, I realize that I have the capacity to go home and work and save and travel. I know that. I’m not stupid. And I realize that a lot of people do pretend to be poor who are from rich countries, but I’m not that person. Yea I try to find the cheapest food but I pay for it. If people want to show goodwill to a traveler in the form of food, money, or a place to stay, I let them. I don’t go to hotels I always camp or stay with firemen or whatever. I hitchhike because it brings me closer to people, and also to more authentic experiences. Yea, I save money too, but it’s not about saving money. What’s so bad about my way of traveling? Other than not bringing tourist income to a country, what is bad about it?”

“What are you trying to get at here kid? What do you want from me?”

“I want you to understand that hitchers aren’t what you think they are. We aren’t all bums, we’re travelers, we’re adventurers.”

“Ok, yeah, I’m sorry. Look I gotta go pick up 8 people and take em to Cartagena on a 6 day tour, and if you wanna go you have to pay the 450 dollars they did.”

Freddy said this last thing but his tone had clearly lightened up. He stood and watched his young worker, Jose-Luis, fill water jugs. It was night now, and the moon was out. The cops didn’t want me back at the station until the dock closed at 10, so I didn’t want to go back until 10 either. So I stayed and started chatting with Freddy. After he told me that it was a 6-day tour that he was doing to Cartagena, I stopped asking for a ride, because that’s a completely different thing than if he were just “going to Colombia” like I’d thought.

As it turns out, Freddy lived in Florida, which is also where he learned how to sail. He has sailed solo to Europe, and now rents the catamaran to do these tours. Turns out also that he’s really very friendly. His assumptions about me placed me in a category of people to which I do not belong. That category is a type of person whose lifestyle I do not hold against them like Freddy does, or at least did, before I tried to make sense of something he didn’t understand. In fact I feel like a vagabond’s friend and a Freddy friend, I feel like a bridge or something, something in between an all-out vagabond and a Freddy.

By the time 8 o’clock rolled around we were friends, and he had bought me a big meal at the restaurant before it closed. We talked about all sorts of things, about sailing and the time I hitched a catamaran from La Paz across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan in Mexico, about Colombia and Colombian girls, about his tour. He was excited about his work. He takes people on a 6-day tour through the picture-perfect San Blas islands, feeds them lobster, fish, takes them snorkeling and kayaking, basically an all-inclusive price for a week of bliss. I saluted him.

Then I thought about my circumstances at the dock. I didn’t like waiting around all-day. However, the simple fact of the matter is that if I had patience, I would make it to Colombia without spending a dime. That’s the way it is: things are going to work out. But what exactly is my goal here? Since when was my ultimate goal to not spend money? That doesn’t seem like a very productive goal, suddenly.

“Damn Freddy, I wish I could just go with you.”

He looked at me squarely.

“Look, Chael… I can give you a break.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wouldn’t feel right if you worked on the boat, I already got Jose Luis. You understand that 450 bucks is cheap for something like this?”

“I don’t know anything about it Freddy but I’m not gonna spend…”

“Yea, yea, yea. Look, just tell me how much you could pay me when we get to Cartagena where there are atms if I let you come along.”

The room was dark and the other people were figures on the periphery of the light radiating from the single bulb hovering above our heads. It gave an eerie feeling to what had just become a negotiation. The negotiation was short. I looked at Freddy closely and then said, without tone:

“Fuck it. It’s my birthday.”

 


 

I’m not going to tell you how much we decided on because it might be insulting to your intelligence, but suffice it to know that it was less than 200 but more than 40. The combination of not wanting to wait at that dock with shifty cops, the fact that I almost never spend more than 3 dollars a day, my recent reflection on trying to hitch in Kuna territory, the truly ridiculous deal my new friend was offering me, and the most important fact of that it was my 24th birthday in three days was enough to bring me to the decision to cut loose a little and enjoy a slow ride to the southern continent.

And what a good choice that was. I would be on the cruise as though I’d paid full price. I slept on the boat that night, sweating profusely on a mat on the floor of one of the cabins. In the morning we motored back to the beach where I first got a boat ride, here to pick up 8 passengers, other travelers making the jump to the next continent.

Sailing Across the Darrien Gap.

Sailing Across the Darrien Gap.

Jose-Luis is Fabian’s nephew, and the only mate on-board. He’s 16 and shy, but our personalities clicked as we prepared the boat for the new arrivals. An hour later they climbed aboard. There are Helena and her mother Francesca from Mexico, but who also are Italian, large man Clay from Texas, Anders from Norway, an Australian girl named Tara, Fadzilla is a lovely girl from Singapore, Robin from Oregon with his fiancé Aubrey from Florida, and later we would pick up Alfonso from Rome.

The day began with a cruise to a certain island I had dealings with before, Carti. From there we bounced on to El Porvenir, and I was frustrated briefly that I hadn’t made it this far before deciding to dish out, but I’ll not dwell on that point The boat had two kayaks, plenty of snorkeling gear, and Robin brought some cards.

Porvenir, San Blas Islands.

Porvenir, San Blas Islands.

We passed 6 nights on the African Beauty catamaran. Freddy took us through the sea, surrounded by postcard islands dense with palm trees and sporting perfectly crystal white sand beaches. It was the quintessential image that comes to mind when someone hears the word “paradise.” The breeze was soft, the water warm and buoyant and turquoise. I swam each day, and snorkeled above mountains of reef and fluorescent blue fish below. Fear held me back from dropping off the edge, much unlike Nemo from his movie. I enjoy flapping my finned feet and moving fast like a spear thrown straight, but I’m afraid when I peer off into the hazy depths, unsure of what is looking back.

On the beaches I built sand castles with Tara, and played volleyball with Clay and Anders. We all took a small fleet of kayaks and the dingy to a miniscule island with three palm trees, whose area was no bigger than that of a two-car garage. The sun had free reign in the sky, and was not about to treat us mercifully. For the Italians it was heaven. I sang Christmas songs.

Travel Sketch of the San Blas Islands

A travel sketch of a San Blas Islands These were Corona commercial islands for the consumer.

 

At an island couple called Chichime, the Kuna arrived in their dugout canoes to sell freshly-caught food. In the mornings we munched on granola and toast, and in the evenings we devoured fish, lobster, ribs, carbonara and octopus. The sunsets were either red, or they were blotted out by approaching thunderstorms which always dissipated after a light sprinkle.

Sailing with Dolphins somewhere in the San Blas.

Sailing with Dolphins somewhere in the San Blas.

On my birthday everyone sang and we clapped and cheered our iced teas. Freddy told funny stories of drunk people on his boat, and Robin dazzled us with his knowledge of music and film. I was glad to be somewhere with friends for my birthday.

I slept comfortably outside while all the others sweated in their cabins. The morning after a storm passed we relocated to in between two deserted isles, and I juggled coconuts. I drew. Helena is a chiseled beauty. She is thirsty for knowledge and is constantly snapping photos of the rest of us. Freddy plays the boss-man and is strict with Jose Luis. I even got into it with him about coconuts, a fight everyone else heard from the beach. I won’t bore you with the details.

Drawing of Sailing the Darien Gap

Here’s Helena, lazing in a hammock in the San Blas Islands on our sailing trip to bypass the Darien Gap.

 

On one island I met two Colombians who had hitched to Panama via some speedboats from Turbo. They had been been stuck here, however, for over ten days, waited for a cruiser to let them work. I felt little jealousy, because although those islands are beautiful, I could not spend a great deal of time there (I also turned down an opportunity to watch after a gringo friend of Freddy’s boat over the Christmas season).

In open sea things calmed down. It was two nights to arrive in Cartagena. The waves were light but pushed the boat with amicable nudges from side to side. The strange wind made it look like the boat was moving backward, or not at all, as though we were stuck in the moment. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for the tranquility of the sea, that you are trapped in oneness, in sameness, until there is land on the horizon.

A sunset in the San Blas Islands.

A sunset in the San Blas Islands.

 

The second day at sea, after a night of taking shifts at watch, I slept. I slept all day, and didn’t wake up until dinner. I played gin rummy with Robin, Clay, and Anders, and laughed about silly things from Hollywood. The moon was full and lit the ocean surface as though it was day. The waves were larger now, and dominated the boat. Some people were feeling queasy.

I sweated half the night on a mat in one of the cabins, but eventually reemerged to the deck to sleep with the breeze. On the horizon the clouds glowed over the port city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

From the Kuna Yala Park I arrived to Carti Sugdub, a crowded Kuna island. From there, I found a sailboat to go from Panama to Colombia, and made travel sketches along the way.

 

Welcome to South America. We silently eased into the harbor of Cartagena in the middle of the night. The engine hummed and our wake was ripples in the otherwise flat water. The lights of the city were orange. To our left the old town churches climbed into the night air and to our right were the towering cranes loading the cargo ships with freight.

Freddy and Jose Luis went to sleep and I sat on the back of the boat, sniffing.

The morning was a haze. Everyone woke up to their new surrounds. This was to be the 6th and final morning we would share biscuits together. Freddy surprised us with eggs a la coque (hard-boiled). Everyone packed their things. We loaded the dingy, and departed the African Beauty for the final time. The others went off to their hostels, and Freddy pointed at a dingy at the dock. It was more like a child’s water play-thing.

“That’s yours.”

Freddy and I had decided that he would also set me up with a place to sleep for 3 or 4 nights. That place would be a small 25 foot sailing boat out in the harbor. And my transportation was this floppy leaking dingy. I said goodbye to everyone, and Jose Luis towered me to the little sailing boat, where I attached the oars to the dingy and began playing around in the choppy harbor. Man, it was tough! My hands were charred by the time I arrived back at the dock to go exploring in the city. I would see Jose Luis and Freddy later, as they owed me a passport still.

 


 

So here I am in Cartagena. It’s a pearl. It is surrounded by domineering defensive walls. It’s not unlike Casco Antigua in Panama City, but the spaces you find in Cartagena are much more splendid. The avenues are narrow and the people walking them seem to radiate confidence and generosity. There really are some very beautiful girls here. I’m going to have to be careful…

A few days from now the adventure continues. I don’t know where I want to go. I don’t know what I want to see. I don’t know if my consideration to work off this small boat voyage is going to manifest now or later. I don’t know, I don’t know… and I love that.

Take a gander at some photos from the cruise, all are Helena’s:

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  • Patrick

    The San Blas Islands and the Panamà – Colombia Carribean border are some of the most beautiful and, as you said, ‘quintessentially paradise’ places of the world.

    I have mixed feelings about the road to the beach being paved; it’s good because it eases the travel of goods to the Kuna-Yala (their only point of access for much-neened supplies) but I rather enjoyed the rustic-feeling of the old dirt road. Did they build a bridge across the river fifteen or so clicks from the beach, or do you still have to rumble on thorugh it with a 4X4?

    The Kuna-Yala are indeed protective of their culture and islands; I was chastized for plucking a coconut from a tree and sipping the sweet milk (apparently every coconut of the island is accounted for). Despite this, they are ususally very friendly people.

    I’m sorry the police weren’t as friendly to you as they were to me; perhaps your mistake was letting out that you were counting on their help. When I arrived I simply said I was looking for a sailboat that would help me out, and even spent an afternoon asking for lifts to Colombia by swimming to every boat in the harbour on two different islands (I swam from one island to the other across a rather heavily traffiked straight, which made the locals and police a little more convinced at how determined I was, I think). I was only in the San Blas…less than 24 hours before a speedboat zipped me over to Puerto Obaldìa (Panamà) and Caperganà, the Colombian border town. The ride was much quicker than your lovely sailboat cruise, no doubt, but nine months later my ass is still sore from that escapade.

    However, I ran into real issues crossing the Gap in Capurganà, almost being deported back to Puerto Obladìa for not having any money. Don’t ever let Colombia authorities know you’re broke, because that disqualifies you for a ‘tourist visa.’

    Carribean boaters are a very steryotypical group of people, in general. Usually European, they are very buisiness-oriented (meaning they like money a lot), have a rough exterior, but deep down will still be able to compare your sense of adventure with their own. You will hear stories of inter-ocean hitchhikers, murder on the high seas, and real-life pirates of the Carribean, (don’t worry, usually only half of them are true).

    Freddy seems to me like the kind of guy you either love or hate; his haste to judge others coupled with his obvious deep down friendliness makes him a handful to process, I’m sure.

    A note about his comments: People from rich countries aren’t always rich, in the sense. They don’t always have the oppertunity to go home and get a job that earns them enough money to travel, especially at a young age; they don’t have a Daddy with deep pockets.

    Does Freddy know how hard the American economy is today for people in their twenties? You are lucky to even have a job that makes you enough so you can eat and barely slip by on rent; but a job that allows you to travel in your twenties, the prime traveling age when your curiosity coupled with your sense of adventure makes the world an incomprehensibly facinating place? Good luck Chuck, you can travel when you’re fifty and bitter, because to people like Freddy, that’s just the way life is.

    Freddy is wrong.

    Even rich countries have the poor, and why should the oppertunity to see the beautiful Planet on which we live be reserved for those who spend their lives as slaves working for little bits of paper? Sure, everything ain’t free, but there is always work to be done to help you achieve your goals.

    If Freddy wouldn’t have taken you on his cruise for cheap and you would have waited longer in the San Blas, I guaruntee you would have eventually made it to Colombia for nothing but a little elbow grease; or, if you were lucky, nothing at all. It would have maybe been hard, exhausting, even unpleasent, but it wouldn’t be an adventure if everything was nice and fluffy and came in a neatly wrapped package with a little pink bow.

    If everything was EASY, it would be called a VACATION, and any suit can fork over a few grand so he can float along the Carribean on a mammoth cruiser and gorge himself on fried flounder and champagne while thinking about his TPS reports.

    Sometimes you gotta take shit, man, but it’s nothing compared to a wasted life working at a job you hate, or becoming a brainwashed machine of society the lives only to make it’s one and only obsession in life: money.

    That said, it seemed like Freddy came through and treated you to a nice cruise for cheap, and even followed up with lodgings once you got to Cartegena. Like I said, Carribean boaters always love an adventurer, despite what they may say.

    Happy travels, Chael, and I’ll see you somewhere someday.