Monthly Archives: February 2012

The times they are a changing

Tuesday 7 February: It was a grey kind of morning, and a dense Darien jungle inundated the teeny fishing village of Sapzurro (pop. 1000) where we dropped anchor in South American waters for the first time. I was absolutely hankering to get on land.

Deb arranged a ‘launch’ (panga / speedboat) with one of the locals to transport us from Ilean to Capurgana (pop. 2000). Both of these villages, because of their proximity to the border – are rich with sailing legends: stories of pirates from Panama, criminals from Colombia, and the wine & wenches who drained them all of their wealth.

Passports stamped, we checked in as a group into the Hotel Los Delphines – rather fitting, given our welcome to country by the beautiful critters. We were all desperate for showers, cold beers & food in varying orders and so went our separate ways for a bit. For the rest of the day we ambled about, bumping into each other by street food vendors, in the pool hall, and down by the sea.

Capurgana is a sweet lil place that reminded me a bit of Little Corn: no cars, no ATM, and town power for only ½ the day – if that. And subsequently, very unreliable WiFi connection.

It’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on the internet. I remember travelling through Europe in ‘98 and carrying traveller’s cheques – now I do my banking electronically. I made arrangements to meet new friends by the Trevi Fountain at a specific time – now I Facebook them. I wrote old-fashioned letters (and faxes!) to communicate with loved ones – now I email them (although I still send postcards!) I collected mail at the next town’s ‘poste restante’ – now I have no idea where I’m going to be from one day to the next. And I made reverse charge calls to my folks from public phone booths (using coins!) – whereas now I Skype them. Oh, the times they are a changing.

I would have stayed longer in Capurgena, along with Pinky & Shannon, except I really needed cash. I needed to touch base with Scott – who was on his way! And I had promised to let my poor old Pa know I had made the crossing safely. I needed to get back to civilisation.

So at 7 the next morning, I was standing on one very disorganised dock, an unwilling participant in yet another brilliant Latin American System. This is how best practice for a Latin American System goes: The more useless paperwork – the better. The more power the bossman thinks they wield – the better. The more other ‘officials’ standing around watching the bossman – the better. And last but not least the more waiting you (as the paying customer) have to do – the better.

It was another back-breaking, tongue-biting, teeth-smashing ride of about 2.5 hrs to Turbo. I didn’t think too much of it when the engine kept cutting out. Men over here can fix anything. But when we ran out of gas in the middle of fucking nowhere, I started to feel a little uneasy. But Whaddya Know! – out of nowhere, a boat with extra fuel appears and topped us up. Like John, the owner of the bar on Little Corn said to me, once – they know how to make you feel grateful for small things.

Turbo was just as the LP described it: a place to get the hell out of, as quickly as possible. It’s a hectic, noisy, filthy place that smelt absolutely putrid and was teeming with touts, sleazes, conmen and beggars. The people from our sailing trip (sans Pinky & Shannon) split into two parties at this point. The lads & Constance were headed for Medellin. While I was headed for Cartagena – along with the delightfully kooky German, Nils and the sour Swiss fellow, who was getting on my nerves.

We got herded to an expensive collectivo where we joined some travellers we had met on the San Blas islands. I chatted with a young Californian girl who looked just like Buffy. The bus took us to a place called Monterria where we ate shit food & got herded into another expensive collectivo, destined for Cartagena.

After midnight, we arrived into Getsemani – the red light district in the old part of town – where a fuck-off street party was in full flight. I checked into the nearest available hostel with Buffy & her crew, right outside where all the action was. An hour later, I literally fell into my bed – which was smack bang in the middle of an awful crowded dorm room on the street-side of the hostel. I dreamt I was trapped inside a sound system that night.

The next day, I moved to the much more resort-y style Media Luna right next door. Into a lovely uncrowded back room. I had a personal admin day by the pool and got an early night.

Shannon came found me the following morning. She & Pinky had arrived late the night before. He had bailed to hook up with a girl he’d arranged to meet here. Shannon was leaving on the 13th, so she & I spent the next 3 days hanging out, having heart-to-hearts, eating lots of g-o-o-d food, chatting with locals, and having lots of great big belly laughs.

Shannon’s a bit of a rarity. She’s only just 25 but such an old soul in many ways. She’s a bit of a dag, which I think makes her incredibly cool. She’s well-travelled and well-read and as such, has lots of interesting things to say. But she’s also a very good listener. Those who she chooses to shine her light on, light right back up at her. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

She reminds me a bit of an amazing woman I used to know called Annie. An angel sent to save my stupid teenage ass, and who ended up having a massive influence on the person I became.

That night we partied with Buffy & her crew. We sampled some of the *local fare* and did a bit of bar hopping, winding up at a cool lil dig with live music & lots of dancing. Next day, we ate a delicious 3-course meal in a beautiful European bistro. I flirted with the cute waiter with gorgeous skin, and a big shiny smile.

We also took a tour to the volcanic mud baths … the whole experience was a bit “different” to what we had both been anticipating (ie, how many tourists can you fit into 5 square metres & sketchy masseurs trying to cop a feel). I got mud in my punani. As my mate Dave would declare, “Now, you don’t get to say that everyday.”

We topped it all off with a wonderful last night of wine & cheese (blue & swiss!) night in the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages) and a chat with a talented Brazilian artisan whose work we had both fallen in love with. I just kinda moped about the day she left, and then cheered myself up by researching a plan of sorts for when Scott comes. Not long now!

I met a sweet man from San Diego and made plans to go to Playa Blanca with him. It’s supposed to be the best beach near Cartagena and is the weekend playground of many Colombians. And it was just lovely (not quite San Blas, but lovely all the same) … more pristine white sands, more turquoise waters.

We met up with a couple of other solo travellers, and scored ourselves hammocks for $3 / nite. The only downsides to Playa Blanca were getting harassed by hawkers, and the exorbitant prices of meals. But there is nothing like the sound of waves to put you to sleep, and waking up right on the beach will never lose its charm for me.

I ran into Guy and Marcus (the sound English brothers who were on our yacht) and we hung out on the beach for the day, which was a bit of a bonus!

I had started coming down with an intense sore throat thing and was feeling a bit achy in my glands, and didn’t really fancy sleeping out in the open for another night. So I cut my trip short to come back to Cartagena.

I’ve been back two days now and have just been chilling out, drinking lots of water and getting some rest. Re-charging for the Carnival in Barranquilla. Apparently it’s the second biggest in the world, after Rio de Janiero in Brasil.

I’ve decided to go for just one night. I don’t have accommodation sorted (standard). So I’m going to pull an all-nighter. The first in a long time. I’m a bit scared. But also super excited. Plus I have sparkly blue nails! All I need now is some feathers, and I’m good to go.

Closer to fine

Captain Debbie and her husband / First Mate Wayne were a blonde haired, blue-eyed easygoing couple in their early 50s. They met when they were just 23 and had backpacked the world together. In 2004 they bought a boat called Sunshine, packed up their comfortable home in South Africa and set off towards Brazil with the idea of sailing throughout the Caribbean for a year. They haven’t been home since. Together they have clocked up more than 10 years experience and 35,000 sea miles.

Ilean (pronounced Eileen) is a hardened 54-foot racing yacht that’s been around the block a few times. She’s a very simple boat with no bells & whistles. There were enough beds and hanging cots to sleep up to 12 people. No shower: Just a whoofy marine toilet & an out-of-action washbasin.

She also had no autopilot, which means someone always needed to be at the helm. While this is a romantic notion, it can be impractical. It meant we would need to take turns at hand-steering so Deb could get some rest. Most of us saw this as less of a problem and more of a wicked opportunity!

The galley was small and lacked a lot of basic cooking utensils but it did have a well-stocked pantry. Although it was clear the shopping had been done by an aging white man. There were lots of white bread, pasta and 2 minute noodles.

We spent our first night on the boat in Portabello harbour. We had a few drinks and I, as one of the self-appointed cooks, made us a big tomato sauce pasta for dinner. We got a ‘relatively’ early night with the aim of setting sail early in the morning.

“Trade winds” are strong & consistent winds which blow in a north easterly direction in this part of the world. It makes for favourable conditions if you’re sailing downwind, which in heading south to Colombia, we were.

However, the seas were really rough & choppy that day, and so we stopped after only a couple of hours in Puerto Lindo – essentially to wait for calmer conditions. We also took the opportunity to have lunch and a swim at one of the nearby islands.

As the sun was sinking into the sea, we set off again. Our Captain’s thinking being that if we were going to be motoring in rough seas – best to do it at night when we could, in theory, sleep and then – when we woke up, we would do so in paradise.

The wind and the sea were behind us but neither were in a good mood. The nor’easterly was picking up and messy swells were mounting under a stormy kind of sky. It was not shaping up to be a good night.

The motion of the boat started to make me feel a little queasy after a few hours and so I climbed down the tiny set of stairs & found myself a bed. After a few hours of sleep, I came up for some air.

Conditions had worsened: we were getting a battering with 15 -20 knots of wind & up to 10ft of swell coming in at us from all directions. It was rough out on deck. The lucky few who were less prone to sea-sickness were valiantly drinking rum and singing songs to keep up morale. But most had passed out downstairs – the effects of the Dramamine kicking in.

After a while, I went back downstairs myself. It was almost impossible to stand up inside the cabin without bouncing from side to side like a pinball. And it was carnage inside.

The solid wooden island bench (which evidently wasn’t attached to the floor!) had slid across the width of the cabin finding a new home in the closest bed. Anything that that wasn’t tied down or stown away had gone flying. Wayne and Guy were valiantly trying to restore order, while people were puking into buckets and clinging to the edges of their beds lest they get thrown to the floor. I felt so nauseas at this point, it was all I could do to send a bucket sliding in Nial’s direction.

I popped another pill, laid down, stuck my headphones in, closed my eyes, breathed deeply and instantly felt better.

I woke up again another few hours later, and saw Marcus had taken the helm, and was swigging away at a bottle of rum, while keeping a close eye on the red-lit compass. Everyone else was asleep. Our Captain was laying on the floor beside him ensuring he was on course from the position of the moon behind him. She later told me Marcus had done a great job, never once straying off course. It was still very rough & black & stormy & ugly, so I fell back into bed until daybreak.

As day broke the next day, we sailed into the simply stunning Archipelago de San Blas. 365 islands. One for every day of the year.

Most are deserted but approximately 50 of them are inhabited by some 55,000 Indigenous Kuna Indians. While technically part of Panama, the Kuna Yala is an autonomous province managed by these proud & fiercely independent people. It is thought that the Kunas may be the last of the full-blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquistadors. They have managed to maintain their culture with their customs, language and dress and have also managed to deter mainstream tourism. Theirs is a very simple existence. And a truly rich life.

As we arrived, we were treated to a warm welcome by some of the other locals – a pod of (what I believe were) short-snouted spinner dolphins which are a lot blacker than others I’ve seen before. They played in our wake until we dropped anchor.

The sun was shining down on the Cocos Banderos cays (Tidal, Dupwala, Olosicuidup and Guariadup). They were decorated with coconut trees and lots of rich green foliage. Beautiful crystal clear waters, a few different shades of blue lapped at shimmering white sands.

That picture of paradise on your screensaver in the office? It’s real. I had to rub my fists into my eyes and pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. As many Caribbean islands as I have visited on this trip, I will never tire of seeing new ones. I’m not sure how it’s possible but they just get better & better. I have wondered if I was doing the trip in reverse, if I’d feel the same.

We all jumped in the water, which I put at around 24 degrees, and splashed around like excited little kids. Some people wasted no time in getting their snorkel gear on. I cooked us up a big brekky. And we spent the rest of the day exploring the various islands – all within swimming and dinghy distance.

We set up camp at the island nearest to us that afternoon, taking across supplies & music. The boys got a fire going and cooked up sandy hot dogs in a very amusing manner. We had a wild rum-fuelled eve that night. Lots of whooping. Lots of running around. Lots of laughs.

A few people strung up hammocks. I had a most uncomfortable night on the ground, fighting with my sleeping bag, wedged between two of the Dutchies. Stretching out my crickety ole back, I decided the next morning I would opt for a more comfortable (and peaceful) night on the boat’s deck for the rest of our stay. Must be getting old.

The next day was more of the same: Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. One of the things that I’m most grateful for in taking this year off, is just having time to really enjoy life. I think I’ve really slowed down. I think I’ve become a better listener. I think I’ve become more observant. And I think I’ve become better at sitting still. Ish.

Late afternoon, Deb took Shannon & I across in the dinghy to the island to meet her Kuna friends, Rosalinda and Mr G. They were a gorgeous brown-skinned, wrinkly old couple with big beautiful smiles (missing teeth not withstanding) who welcomed us with open arms. We wanted to buy some jewellery and molas from Rosalinda & the women in her family. Molas are a traditional art form – colourful cotton appliqués of two or more panels, featuring geometric designs and sometimes images of things, such as animals in their environs. Many years ago, they used to paint these patterns and images on their body. Now, the molas form part of their traditional dress. Ironically, they look to me alot like modern art.

We made arrangements with Mr G to come back with our crew and have a big seafood dinner with them the next night.

Most of our crew spent that night on the deserted island we had set up camp in. Guy, Marcus & I stayed on Ilean with Debbie & Wayne. We had a lot of wine and good banter and slept on the deck of the gently rocking boat, under a brightly lit sky. I went diving in my dreams that night.

Day 3 was exactly the same as the previous day. Swim. Snorkel. Eat. Read. Sleep. Repeat. It’s amazing how this stuff never gets boring.

The crazy assed Dutchies just kept partying the whole time. I must admit, I distanced myself a little as I didn’t feel the need to get wasted in paradise. I sought solitude. And quiet chats with a select few. I spent a lot of time reading & writing. And just lying about enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back.

Mid afternoon, Deb took us over in shifts in the dinghy to the Kuna island for our dinner party. Mr G had organised a shipment of ice & beer for us. He & his men were cooking up a storm. Deb had made up a big garden salad with a lovely caper based dressing, and a garlic butter for the freshly caught langoustines. We also had pan-friend yellowtail with coconut rice. It was, in a word, divine! We played with the island kids and had a bit of a drunken singalong. I snuck off for a quick full-moon skinny dip on my own around the other side of the island.

Much later that eve, while the rest of the crew were running amok on their island, Guy & I kicked back on the deck of Ilean. He had a heart to heart with Wayne, while Debbie slept and I just gazed up at that big fat full moon. I reflected back on my trip. How far I had come. In all senses of the phrase.

Closer to fine started playing on my iPod. Gotta love a bit of shuffle synchronicity.

By mid-morning the next day, we were off again. We sailed all day. I slept for most of the arvo, which enabled me to stay awake for most of the night.

At one point in the night, Shannon was at the helm and it was just she, Deb and I out on deck. Three women sharing stories and laughs. After an hour or so the soft swells sang their sweet song to Shannon, and lulled her to sleep.

I took over the helm for a shift and wondered at the expanse. I’ve never been that far out to sea. The sky & the sea stretched on forever and ever. The bright night sky was calm & clear. The dark blue ocean was a big animal breathing in its sleep.

I was awake when the new day broke and a new continent & a new country came into sight. Again, incredibly, we were welcomed by a pod of playful dolphins. We had travelled 175 nautical miles (324kms) over the last 5 days. I couldn’t believe I was nearly in South America. After all this time.

I took a moment to thank Deb. I wondered aloud what adventures life had in store for me. She asked me if I was scared. I could honestly say I wasn’t. Quite the opposite: I was absolutely brimming with excitement.

Panama

Shannon arrived later that afternoon from Honduras, and her, Pinky & I spent the rest of the day giggling like a gaggle of teenagers. I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hang out with these two beau’ful people again.

We’d only met two months ago in Ometepe, but you form strangely close bonds with some people you meet on the road. You’ll piss yourself laughing with them like you’ve known each other forever. You’ll share your history with them as though they were your new best friend. You’ll heap shit on each other as though you were family. Both Pinky & Shannon were my kind of people. Gregarious, interested, and good humoured.

___

We were staying in Casco Viejo, the old falling down part of town which clashes synergistically with the shiny skyscrapers uptown … we spent many hours walking around on uneven streets, poking around in dilapidated buildings, and photographing cool & quirky graf. I really liked Panama City. It’s a very visually stimulating city. And the people are a truly interesting blend of many different cultures. I loved standing in line at the supermarket wedged between little Kuna ladies in their traditional dress and a giant Caribbean man.

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One morning, the three of us visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which is small but definitely worthwhile if you have a couple of spare hours on your hand. Afterwards Shannon & I went and saw the Canal. I’m not sure what I was expecting but to perfectly honest I wasn’t all that impressed.

Look, it was big. And I can see how it’s an ‘engineering marvel’. But watching the Queen Elizabeth (the cruise liner, not the monarch) move through it was a little bit like watching paint dry. We watched the toy tug trains guide the massive cruise liner along the canal. We watched the water drain rapidly from an upper section of the canal into a lower section of the canal. And then we watched the cruise liner ‘sink’ into it.

Riveting. Stuff.

Fortunately there was a little bit of comical relief. We watched from the grandstand and every so often, after some particularly ‘inspiring’ commentary about the Canal and its history – the largely large American crowd would erupt spontaneously into applause. Sending Shannon & I into fits of giggles. Had it not been for her, I think I would have been scraping out the inside of my eyeballs with a toothpick.

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Though English and American respectively – Pinky  and Shannon, inspired by this brilliant piece of YouTube satire, decided to get their bogan on & help me celebrate Australia Day on Wednesday night with lots of drinking & shouting.

Shannon came up with the great idea of modifying a piñata so it resembled a VB can. I diligently went about reproducing the famous logo whilst consuming ½ a dozen of Panama’s finest local brew, the Balboa. Shannon hauled that thing around all night, god bless her.

On the ill-advice of a couple of other Aussies we had met – we found ourselves in a completely empty Irish bar that didn’t sell Guinness or Jamesons: Go figure. We had a shot of tequila and left.

We got lost on our way out & found ourselves in a cinema complex where I spotted a ‘los Muppets’ poster that I simply had to have. The only problem was I didn’t spot a Little Security Guard who was skulking around waiting for his moment of glory. He scampered off to get the Big Security Guard – who would presumably deal with me appropriately. Poor Little Security Guard looked absolutely crestfallen when the Big Security Guard took an instant liking to me, and ended up posing for a photograph with said poster & me. ManananUp.

At the end of the night, we eventually found a place which would let us hang up the piñata for a good old whack. There is a great photo of me doing my best Lucy Lui in Kill Bill impersonation but I think it was Pinky who took out the honours in the end. Happy Straya Day.

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We spent a lot of time trying to organise a boat to take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands which was a lot harder than it needed to be. There are a lot of uninformed, disorganised and just generally useless ‘travel agents’ representing the various boats / captains who take travellers on this route. Definitely a business opportunity there for someone willing to act as a go-between and aggregate all the information on one user friendly website.

We had somehow managed to get ourselves invited to the re-launch of a sweet lil artsy bistro where musicians and free hors d’oeuvres were circling all night. We did a bit of bar hopping that night and ended up losing each other in a cool pop-up bar underneath an old stone archway. We all got very left-handed that night. Lots of thigh-slapping. Lots of silly photos. Lots of fun.

We eventually booked a boat that was due to depart on the 1st of February. But we had also met a petit lil Austrian by the name of Constance and agreed to try & change our plans so we could join her on a boat she was organising due out on the 29th.

So we spent the 28th legging it (complete with regulation hangovers) to Portabello via Colon. Poor old Pinky was in a right state. Chicken buses are not your friend when you’re feeling unwell.

We arrived into Portabello as the sun was setting. We checked into a cool lil dig with views of the harbour, a place called Captain Jack’s – the namesake of a salty ole seadog. Jack was maybe in his 60s and wore his long greying hair in a ponytail & somehow managed to get away with it. He had a weathered but gentle face and an easygoing nature. I liked the man instantly. He had literally travelled the seven seas and had a trove of tall tales to share. Jack told me about a place called the Cocos Keeling islands which has now been added to my Travel Wish List.

Constance’s boat fell through, so she and a pair of really sound English brothers by the name of Marcus and Guy decided they would hop on ours. We would be joining a group of four crazy assed Dutch boys. One kooky German (are there any other type?) and a serious looking Swiss would complete our crew.

There was very little to do or see in Portabello (apart from some expensive excursions to surrounding islands). So we spent the next 3 days getting to know our fellow passengers. Everyone apart from the German & the Swiss blokes were in their early – mid 20s. And they all liked to party. Hard. It seemed unlikely I was going to sleep until we got to Colombia. (And in all likelihood probably not then, either.)

Pinky, Shannon and I, while preparing in Panama, had acquired ourselves alter egos and more critically, boating attire.

Captain Pinky Pants would be wearing his pretty little hotpants and a Captain’s cap I insisted he buy. Seaman Scartits and my good self (First Mate Vaginamite) would be wearing some fetching wigs in a nuclear orange and a ladyboy purple, with some glittery Elton John-esque sunnies in the shape of cocktail glasses, topped off with some truly sexy Panamanian souvenir fans.

Over the course of the next few days, we bonded with and gave our fellow passengers names also: Longstance Silver (Constance), Stickygangwanker (Guy), Roger the Cabin Boy (Marcus), Major Hornypants (Rick), Swaffel-buster (Jim), Rapey Kiss (Michiel), iPhone (Melvin), Gayscale (Nials) and Bendover (Benjamin).

At the eleventh hour, the original captain of our boat fell so ill, she decided she couldn’t do the job. Captain Jack went on a manic mission to find us another crew in under a day, which is no mean feat. Another female Captain and her husband who was her First Mate came to our rescue.

We met Debbie and Wayne on the afternoon of the 31st and our hearts sank a little when they informed us our departure would be postponed until the 2nd. She needed to take Ilean out for a test drive. She wanted to get to know the boat and any little quirks she might have. It seemed fair enough, but we were all now super keen to get south. I had originally thought I might get to Colombia by the end of July!

We saw Debbie and Wayne mid-morning the next day, and they said they were happy to get the boat packed up & have us stay on board that night for an early morning start the next day.

Colombia, here I come!

 

Up until Thursday 2 Feb