Tag Archives: South America

Hammer time!

In retrospect, I feel like I didn’t give Ecuador enough time. It’s such a geographically diverse country for its size. There were so many places I didn’t get to.

And I could have stayed longer if I wanted to. I turned down a ‘job’ offer teaching English on the Galapagos Islands. Essentially volunteering in exchange for accommodation & a bit of lunch money. I would have had to get a 2nd job to make ends meet, let alone make the most of everything the Islands had to offer.

I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t take it. But put it this way: I was focusing more on the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea rather than the reasons why it was. So I went with my intuition. I’m sure the reasons will reveal themselves in time.

So, exactly 12 months after leaving Aus, I booked my flight home. I admit to having troubles hitting the ‘Confirmation’ button. There was such a big part of me that felt like I wasn’t done. So much more to see. Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina. But it felt like time. I was missing my mama’s cooking, my friends, babies I haven’t met yet, and our beautiful beaches. And besides, I needed to get a job, pull some more savings together and try & be a proper grown up. Enough of this gallivanting around the world with just a backpack to my name & no real plans to speak of.

It was Mother’s Day back home, so I called Ma to let her know. She burst out into tears, she was so happy. Bless.

There was one more thing I had to do before I felt I could leave the Galapagos. I had been chasing hammerheads since Nicaragua in November. The only issue was the next available dive was on Sunday. Same day as my flight out to Guayaquil. Everyone reassured me that getting on another flight on Monday wouldn’t be a problem.

I decided to go on the dive. I had to see these dang sharks. I’ve racked up 44 dives in the past 12 months. This was a pretty hectic dive. For starters, the water was cold. Maybe 18 degrees at depth. We were fitted with 7m wetties which make you feel like the Michelin Man. There was a lot of surge. And the visibility in some places wasn’t all that great.

We came up from the first dive. No hammerheads. And of course the other group came up chattering excitedly like schoolkids. I couldn’t help but be quietly petulant. We had seen some amazing things on our 1st dive. But it wasn’t what I had come here for. I looked down at my wrist: “Gratitud”. Mmmm.

We went down for our 2nd immersion and then my DM started pointing his fist very deliberately. I scanned the deep blue waters & saw what looked like pretty much your run-of-the-mill shark. But then I saw his head. I could not believe my fucking eyes. Shaped just like a big flattened hammer (I’m gunna say his head was close to a metre in width) and with big bulbous eyes on the ends! What a peculiar looking beast. I was spellbound. Then into my peripheral vision swam two more. I looked up and around and saw we were floating in amongst a school of maybe 12 of them. Unlike most sharks, hammerheads usually swim in schools during the day, and become solitary hunters at night.

Up there with one of the most amazing dive moments of my life. I came up from that dive happy as Veruca Salt when she thinks she’s going to get her golden egg-laying geese.

The “next day, ‘nother flight, no worries” actually turned out to be quite the opposite. The only flight with my carrier on Monday was full, and so I had to wait another day. This meant I would be really pushing it to meet my dear old friend Michelle in Peru on time. Shell was coming over from Aus so we could do Machu Pichuu together.

Flights from Guayaquil to Lima were nearly $500 one way, so that was out of the question. I spent a bit of time hunting around & found a cheap flight from a little town just south of the border. I could catch a bus to there and be in Lima on Wednesday morning. Michelle could get a good night’s sleep from her long haul over & we could get on with it.

Well, 4 buses, 2 planes, 2 taxis, 1 boat, 1 tuk-tuk, 1 lost Kindle (GUTTED), 1 scary motherfucker wearing army fatigues, a balaclava & waving a machine gun around, plus another night-time border crossing but this time UTTERLY on my own –

And 26 hours later I was having a good old giggle with one of my besties in the foyer of her fancy hotel in Lima.

Hello Peruuuuu!

Within you, without you

On the evening of Thursday 15 March, I was fortunate enough to participate in an ancient Amazonian ceremony called Ayahuasca (pronounced “aha-waska”). Aya means ‘spirit’, while huasca means ‘vine’. It was an event which will leave an indelible mark on my life.

Missionaries from Spain first came across the Indigenous people of South America using the ‘vine of the dead’ in the 16th Century.

In essence, Ayahuasca is a ritual intended to cleanse the body, mind & spirit. However, some gringos approach it solely as a means to get high – which I feel is doing this time-honoured custom a serious disservice. It’s a great deal more complex than that.

Some people report giving up drinking, drugs, meat, etc. Some people resolve long-standing personal issues. Others say they have become a better spouse, parent or child as a result of partaking in a program of Ayahuasca.

I was fascinated. I decided to approach this with an open mind. If nothing else, I was keen to at least observe the ritual.

One of the key elements of the ritual is drinking a decoction which is prepared by a Shaman. It consists primarily of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi (this is what is considered to actually be Ayahuasca) and is mixed with the leaves of hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing shrubs (which are simply agents).

Traditionally participants fast for three days before the ceremony to assist the purification process. It is recommended that one abstains from alcohol, caffeine, meats (especially pork), excess fats, salt, sugars, spicy foods, acidic foods, as well as sex before and after the ceremony. Except for the booze, spicy foods & sex – probably just good practice anyways.

Jon (the owner of La Serrana) organised for the Shaman he regularly works with to come to us at his other property just up the dirt road. It’s a lovely farmhouse with a large living room with floor-to-ceiling windows offering vast views of the sweeping valley which surrounds us. It was the perfect place to wrap ourselves up in the warmth of a fireplace, and yet be able to get a clear read on nature & her spirits.

Eleven of us convened around 11pm. The Shaman was there with his two assistants, a woman who would assist with female cleansings, and a group of four musicians. They were all dressed in white smocks & white pants with traditional woven finishes on the cuffs.

On a small table there laid a neat spread of various jugs holding different brews, a stack of wooden cups, and some bunches of dried leaves. There was also a discreet head-dress, and some incense. Underneath the table was a bucket of dirty looking liquid.

They lit a fire and turned the lights out. We all took a place on a sofa or on the floor. I found a yoga mat and an extra blanket. It had been raining earlier and there were still lots of clouds. Despite this it was a really cold night. Every now & then, a shard of lightning snapped across the sky.

At midnight, we were welcomed by Señor Carlos (or Titan, as Jon called him) and then he came around to talk to us individually (in Spanish). He asked us if we were on medication, had consumed any drugs, and also about our diet that day. Finally he asked us what we hoped to get out of the night.

One of the girls couldn’t participate as she was menstruating. A woman’s energy is not considered optimal for cleansing during this time, and the consumption of Ayahuasca has been known to cause excessive blood flow. She was very young & didn’t seem to grasp this concept. She left very upset.

The musicians started playing softly and barely ceased throughout the night. They played several instruments including a guitar, a mandolina, pan pipes, some Colombian drums, and a harmonica. They really used the music to steer the group’s state of consciousness & mood. Sometimes the music would be deep & tribal, sometimes soft & meditative, sometimes trance-like & uplifting. My old hippy friend Gavin would have been beside himself over the music.

The Shaman came around with the bucket of dirty looking liquid which I learned later is ‘flower water’ and we each washed our head, face, arms and ankles. We then sat down to listen to the music while the Shaman cleansed the room.

After a while, the Shaman spoke with Jon and asked if we were ready to start. Jon took the first drink. We then took it in turns to drink the brew.

It was intensely earthy and woody and barky. Which makes it sound somewhat pleasant. It wasn’t. It was also thick, gritty and bitter.

The drink is said to affect the human consciousness for anywhere between ½ an hour – 6 hours after consumption. The effects of Ayahuasca include psychedelic visual & auditory stimulation. They say the tea has the power to take you on a psychological excursion that may lead to illumination or even enlightenment. The Amazonians believe the drink can empower our soul to ascend from the physical.  Most drinkers will need the guidance of an experienced drinker in order to successfully achieve this mental state.

After our first drink we all sat around listening to the music and more or less just waiting for something to happen. I fought an overwhelming sense of tiredness for a while, not wanting to sleep in case I missed out on something. Eventually it got to the point where I needed just ‘rest my eyes’ for a bit. I was so so drowsy. The music gently closed the deal. I drifted off.

When I awoke, one of the girls was standing in front of the Shaman with her eyes closed and he was in the process of performing another component of the ritual on her: the cleansing.

He took a mouthful of a drink from a thermos and sprayed it from his mouth in her face and on different parts of her body. He then took a deep breath and exhaled forcibly with a loud whooshing noise. Symbolic perhaps of expelling a toxin, a dark element, or maybe an evil spirit. Simultaneously he brushed her down with his fragrant sage leaves.

Other people in the room were in various states of sleep and awakeness and it appeared that strange space that lies in between. I kept drifting in & out of a light sleep… dreams & reality began to merge & I started to confuse the two. Every time I ‘came to’ – the music resonated with me on a different level…

The night sky began to take on shapes and somewhere around 4 in the morning, we took our second drink. The girls were given theirs in a more egg-shaped cup. It was stronger this time. The smell more pungent, the taste more sharp. It was difficult to consume. I took mine in several sips.

Shortly after laying down, I snapped back up in a sitting position. I felt an overwhelming desire to throw up. The purgative (‘la purga’) properties of the drink are important. The intense vomiting and occasional diarrhoea the drink induces cleanses the body both on a physical and metaphorical level.

I stood up and nearly lost my balance. I felt fine for a fleeting moment and considered sitting back down. But my stomach started gurgling uncontrollably. I went to the bathroom and vomited several times. It was very much a simple purge as opposed to being violently ill. All that earthy, woody, barky stuff was awful coming up. It reminded me of the Chinese herbal teas my mother used to give me whenever I was ill. Immediately after flushing the toilet, I had to sit down for what was a rather intense session of diarrhoea. That, fortunately, was all over fairly quickly and I soon returned to my space on the floor, feeling quite flushed and a lot less nauseous.

This component is known as ‘balancing’ – where the participant starts to feel more at one with nature. I remember looking up at the night sky through the windows. I felt incredibly alert and in tune with all of my senses but particularly my auditory senses. I listened to the sound of the fire crackling loudly in an otherwise almost silent room. I observed a bird crowing off in the distance. And I heard the measured rise & fall of my one of my companion’s breath as she slept.

I sat listening to the music and soon I felt compelled to get up and have a little boogie to the beat of the drums. I was ensconced in a big blue blanket and imagined I looked a little like a dancing monk. I remember feeling a bit self-conscious as I was dancing on my own in a living room where everyone else was not. When I was able to switch off the self-conscious talk, I had a lovely time. I closed my eyes and went into a little trance consumed by the sound of the drums.

I suddenly felt a wet spray on my face, and opened my eyes to see the Shaman circling me. Part of me felt I should keep my eyes closed and focus on what I was thinking and feeling. My more curious self wanted to see what he was doing. I alternated between the two.

He performed the cleansing on me for maybe ten minutes… hard to be precise. I kept slipping into a vague space which I can only compare to that time when you’re just starting to wake from a good night’s sleep, and you’re remembering your dreams as you become more aware of your physical surroundings.

When he was done, I felt little euphoric. I sat down on my yoga mat to absorb that feeling.

Then, I had two very clear visions in rapid succession. Not all drinkers experience visions the first time. I guess it’s a matter of when the time is right.

My first vision was an old man’s face in the clouds. He was an ancient man. He seemed (Australian) Aboriginal in appearance. He smiled at me kindly. I sighed deeply and felt comforted by what I saw. I feel like I have seen this man a couple of times before. Both in conscious and subconscious states. I closed & opened my eyes and shook my head to check if I was definitely awake. I was. In fact, I felt incredibly lucid.

My second vision came minutes after. In the reflection of the window, I saw the woman who was assisting the Shaman pass him a baby wrapped in a white cloth. My first instinct was that it was my baby. I felt a sense of relief, and elation. It was such a fleeting moment. Then my conscious mind started questioning whether the baby was alive or dead. I wrestled with this and my first more positive thought for a few moments. I decided to fall into the positive realm. I’m not sure if this was my mind creating something I want. Or if it was me tapping into some sort of private line into the universe. I choose to believe the latter.

I drifted off into a peaceful, deep kind of sleep soon after this.

When I awoke a new day was dawning and the Shaman was in the midst of summoning the other women in the room. Three chairs were set up in a row by the fireplace. The Shaman and his female assistant began their cleansings. I was the only female who wasn’t included. Which was fine. I figured it was because I had already had my time. And besides, I was interested to observe. It was fascinating to me that they spent a lot more time on one particular girl. Having already had some intimate conversations with the girl, I knew she had a lot of stuff going on in her life. She was in need of some healing. And they knew this.

The cleansings went on for quite some time and around 7 in the morning, the while process seem to come to a natural conclusion. Some of us wandered outside to just sit in nature while the Shaman sat and rested momentarily.

We each took a turn to go sit with him and thank him for his time. He wanted to know how we were feeling, if we had any visions. He spoke only Spanish. And the nuances of what I wanted to discuss with him required very specific words. I had one of my friends translate for us.

As I told him what I had seen, I started to cry. But they weren’t tears of sadness. More tears of truth. He told me that the man I saw in the clouds was my spiritual guide. He was always looking out for me and I could turn to him whenever I needed. With regards to my second vision, he reassured me I had seen the future. We hugged and I felt warm for the first time that night.

I watched as the others went up to him. The Shaman seemed so serene. For a man who had been dedicating so much energy to others, I couldn’t get over how un-exhausted he seemed to be.

He and his colleagues had been working so hard all night. The musicians had barely stopped all night. The woman had played an integral part in the healing of the women in our group. The Shaman’s two protégés had taken turns to help out with the ritualistic components of the evening.

We all started to dissipate…wandering the fields, talking quietly in pairs, making moves to go back to La Serrana. I said my goodbyes and wandered off in a bit of a daze. I spent the rest of the day going over the night’s events in my mind, trying to find words to put to them, dozing off into a deep sleep, eating well and just enjoying an overwhelming sense of what i can only describe as calm euphoria.

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.” Aldous Huxley

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.

Power to the people

Apparently, Mexico’s drug cartels have expanded ops into this and the other countries that lie between it and South America. Makes sense. The drugs have gotta get through somehow.

So there’s allegations of under the table payments to political candidates, to protect said business interests. That results in unregulated political campaign spending (there’s supposedly a US$6 million cap that each party can spend on elections) And of course then, there’s the issue of vote-buying.

Today the people of Guatemala will vote for their new president. Well, an estimated 40% of them will. This only the 4th election since the civil war ended in 1996. A civil war that lasted more than 35 years, took an estimated 200,000 lives and left more than a million refugees.

It’s interesting watching another country go to the polls. Campaigning here is a lot more colorful and a helluva lot noisier than back home. There’s a lot of firecrackers. Protests. Campaigning rallies. Cars with loudspeakers affixed to the roofed. We’re currently in the midst of a 48 hour alcohol sales ban (It’s okay, folks. No need to be alarmed. I stocked up.)

One of the two main contenders is a retired army general. Who evidently had nothing to do with anything except of course the peace negotations. He looks a little too much like Malcolm Turnbull for my liking. And his logo is a closed fist. Where’s he gunna put that if he gets in, I wonder? Although apparently he is tipped as the favorite.

The other candidate is my preferred choice only because he looks a bit like Buddy Holly. At 41, he’s the youngest candidate and only just qualifies to run for office. His logo is a much happier thumbs up. Apparently, all the youngns like him. Problem is, he doesn’t necessarily look like he’s got what it takes to do what’s needed in just 4 years (no subsequent terms allowed.)

I don’t want to be too flippant about this. It’s important that whoever gets in is going to get stuck into rectifying this country’s two most prevalent problems: poverty and crime.

Evidently some 43% of children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. And the murder rate last year was 40 per 100,000 people. One of the highest in the world. Those figures are staggering.

Guatemala is a ridiculously gorgeous country. And the people here seem, for the most part, happy. They’re very family orientated. It seems to me, to be a very united nation. What they need is a leader with balls to stand up to the leaders of criminal gangs, and the ability to make real headway in redressing poverty. Easier said than done, I suppose.

May the better man win.

(Oh, and as a postscript … that woman i mentioned in a previous post. The only female candidate. The one who got divorced so she could qualify to run. Two things: she is, well was, married to the current President. And a month ago, the Supreme Court upheld a sentence preventing her from continuing to run.)

11 Sept

My thoughts are also with those impacted by the tragic events in the US, a decade ago.