When we last left off, I had just arrived for a brief stay in the walled city of Cartagena. I made the most of my day there, walking around the castle, and different parts of the city, after befriending yet another policeman who helped me get my bearings. It was so hot though. I was had by a very smooth talking Morgan Freeman look-alike who offered me a walking tour. Well we did walk, but he really didn’t tell me much (e,g. “that’s a church”). He would also walk me into places to shop where he clearly already had agreements in place, but after awhile he got the message that I wasn’t buying. He really had only one thing in his mind, and that was to see how much money he could extract from me. The whole experience was disappointing and I found him to be disingenuous and insincere, although he was very, very good at reading people.
I headed to the marina for about 5:30 pm to board the Gitano del Mar, a 47-foot catamaran, for five-day trip to Panama. Captain David, a Frenchman, briefly went over some rules, introduced the crew Janeiro (first mate), and Luis (cook). Fourteen passengers in all including me, all
early twenties to early thirties from Sweden, Great Britain, Holland, and a bunch from Australia. More on them later. Oh…and Mystico, the boxer, who lives on the boat.
All our shoes were taken as we boarded because no one wears shoes on the boat, which makes sense. I did not realize then that my feet would not be dry again until five days later. There is no ice on board, or anywhere in San Blas as it turned out, so all drinks would be luke warm at best from now on. Then our main bags were stowed for the trip (we all packed and kept only a day pack for the trip), dinner was served, and we were shown our very modest quarters. I had a small space on the port side, about 2×6 feet, in a small corridor connecting to small rooms. This will be like camping on a boat, I thought. It also felt a little like being on Survivor. Part of me was also panicking, wondering how I would ever survive five days on this relatively small boat, with all these people that I have very, very little in common with.
The boat gently pulled away, all of us perched on different parts of the deck admiring the night view of Cartagena behind us, and the spectacular lightning show ahead of us, way in the distance. Then I helped the crew hoist the main sail, and we were off on our sailing voyage! I sat over the edge of the bow and noticed a bunch of glowing dots in the churning water. It was some kind of plankton apparently that glows when it’s disturbed. Really cool.
Then it started to rain a little, so we all moved to the seating/dining area in the stern. Then it rained harder and the sea got a little rougher, so we battened down the hatches. Hmm…not quite so cool now, but just another part of the adventure. I really should have taken their advice and picked up some sea sickness pills, I thought.
Then everyone started disappearing to bed, most not looking so good. I tried to go to bed as well, but could not sleep for hours. Not because I was in a tiny little bunk. Not because there was some water dripping on me. Mostly because we had sailed directly into the eye of this storm. Thunder and lightning crashed around us. The boat was rolling front to back and side to side, and crashing into huge waves. With every heave and crash, I could hear and feel the entire structure groaning, and I was sure the boat would break apart. I could hear the captain and crew screaming instructions to each other through the wind and the rain. I could also hear alarms going off every few seconds. This can’t be normal. It all felt like a movie. It was a long, scary night, but I finally drifted off, sometime in the wee hours of Thursday morning, thinking “please Jesus take the wheel.” And he did.
Things were still rough, but not so stormy the next morning. We had, in fact, sailed through a severe storm, and there were some equipment malfunctions that the crew had to cope with. The 30 knot winds were much more that the usual 5-10 on crossings over the last several months. “Like a lake,” was how our captain described the crossings of the past several months. Not today though. Everyone on board spent the second day napping, sitting quietly, and/or vomiting. But I felt some level of group cohesion kick in. Check out this clip.
I spotted flying fish off the bow all day long. And out of nowhere, many miles from shore, a bird landed on our boat, sat in our hands for a few minutes, and then flew off.
I still found it quite bumpy and it took time to adjust to the constant rocking and lurching of the boat. I bumped my head and fell a few times over the first day or two, but eventually started to find my sea legs. I was fortunate that I never got sick though. And once I made it through that first night, I thought I had probably weathered the worst. Another very stuffy night in the cabin, but the seas were not as rough as the first night, and I slept quite well.
Before we left, the captain had explained the “gypsy toilet,” which essentially involves hanging off the back of the boat and urinating…while the boat is moving! The toilets were not very nice places to be–tiny, basic, and smelly, but I thought there is no way in hell I will be hanging off the back of this boat! But by about day 3, I had found my balance, and was really enjoying the whole gypsy toilet experience. And also by day 3, I had figured out everyone’s name, and had connected at some level with everyone. By day 3, I could really feel a relaxed, nautical groove kicking in. Check out this clip.
We were supposed to hit the San Blas islands early on day 3 (Friday), but the crossing took us much longer than expected with a heavy head wind the entire trip. In fact, we set a record for the longest crossing in this boat…about 44 hours. We finally spotted a few birds, and then land in the early afternoon, which was so exciting. I now have a glimpse of how it must have been for sailors hundreds of years ago, who were at sea for months at a time, to finally spot land. Around 4 pm we pulled in between three small islands and dropped anchor. The clouds finally parted and the sun came out as the day wound down. And boy did we need the sun by then!
Everyone jumped off the boat, basking in the stunning surroundings and warm sunshine. We swam to one of the islands, drank some fresh coconut milk, bought a bunch of fresh lobster, and Luis, our chef, cooked a delicious dinner. The party was going strong, but I was exhausted, so I moved to the front of the boat, away from the noise, and drifted off to sleep lying on the net between both hulls, watching the sky, a few shooting stars, and listening to the water lap gently against the boat. Magic.
We woke up to a beautiful sunny day on Saturday, and after breakfast and a quick swim, we headed off for a leisurely ride to a few more islands where we dropped anchor, swam, snorkelled around the stunning reef…all kinds of fish, even a stingray, and visited a few more islands. There are almost 400 islands that make up San Blas which run along much of the Caribbean side of the Panamanian coast. They are owned and inhabited by the Kuna Indonesian people, part of Panama, but with some cultural independence, and very different from mainland Panamanians. Some islands are small enough to fit a single coconut tree, others might take you 5 or 10 minutes to walk the perimeter.
Some of our gang swam over to a nearby island and spent the day there. I had proposed to our captain and passengers that we give the entire crew the evening off, and that we eat “out” at one of the nearby islands. Everyone loved the idea, so off we went for a traditional Kuna dinner of lobster and tuna. We ate, drank, toasted the crew, and enjoyed each other’s company. And the crew were thrilled with some time off, with Luis saying at one point that he didn’t know what to do with himself.
A side note again about coconuts (yes I know I seem to be quite obsessed with them). I have mentioned that I have often wondered how many people die every year from falling coconuts. Well, walking around that Kuna island today, a big heavy coconut fell from a tree only about 10 feet away from me! Definitely not the way I want to go!
Everyone since day 1 had been putting on their music at different times…some really good stuff I had never heard before which was fun. I hadn’t bothered putting any of my own stuff on. But I did have a few ideas brewing as we headed back to the boat on that 4th night, and a few people had learned of my musical background and asked me to play that night. So I came out of DJ retirement for a few hours Saturday night, and I rocked the boat! A wild party ensued with everyone screaming, dancing, and laughing, well into the wee hours. I felt another groove kick in as passengers and crew saw a different side of me that perhaps they had not imagined. And it was fun for me to let that side of me run wild for awhile. Got my MoJo workin’ now.
One side note about Australians…I had heard how they like to party, but this bunch of Ozzie blokes were wild, wild men. I had no idea. It reminded me of some of my younger days. I can’t and don’t want to run like that anymore, but it was very interesting to observe, and “gently” partake.
The trip was supposed to end Sunday afternoon, but because the crossing had taken so long, the captain offered to extend it to Monday morning which was very kind. Sunday morning the weather was looking threatening again, and we were moving early while everyone slept. Well, mostly everyone. We dropped anchor next to a small island with a tiny landing strip that serves as a Panamanian immigration for San Blas. Our bleary-eyed, rag-tag crew all marched in, got our passports stamped, and swam or dinghied back to the boat where we continued out magical mystery tour of San Blas. We dropped anchor between two new islands surrounded by reef, went snorkelling (with small sharks!), swam, and relaxed for the rest of the day, with many of our group napping and nursing very sore heads. The crew worked for hours to put on a special final dinner for us: seafood ceviche appetizer, followed by fish tacos and sushi made with fresh caught tuna! Captain David spun a few very cool tunes, the crew picked up their percussion instruments and started to groove, and Luis and I had an impromptu little jam session.
For the final night of the trip, we had made arrangements to have a bonfire on the island next to us and meet up with passengers and crew from another boat, as well as the local Kuna inhabitants. Check out this clip of captain David showing off his great balls of fire!
I was hoping for a quiet night to try to catch up on sleep and be ready for a big travel day on Monday, but it was not to be. The Ozzies had arranged a rum run to restock, and had every intention of going out with a bang. So I stopped resisting the flow and just went with it. And I was very, very touched when back on board they had all got together and decided I was “Best On Vessel,” and made a big show of announcing it. And then it felt like the generation gap narrowed a whole bunch. I heard lots of “Good on ya, John-o!” This was followed many shaking of hands, slaps on shoulders, hugging, more music and singing, and general all around merriment until the wee hours, as the lightning rumbled around the night sky.
Another thing I noticed repeatedly about the Ozzies, or at least this group of lads anyway…they laugh easily, whole heartedly, and often. I loved their sense of humour and would spend hours enjoying their banter. Often very crude, but always very sharp, witty, and very clever. I found it to be quite entertaining, and really enjoyed listening to the banter.
Overall the experience was very challenging (mentally and physically), cramped, stuffy, hot, smelly, basic, loud, wet, and potentially dangerous if you do not have your wits about you, particularly during the 30-45 hour crossing. It is not a trip for everyone. But it was also awe inspiring, exciting, expansive, and peaceful. I loved all of it, on so many levels, and it is without a doubt a trip I will never forget. I did not completely click or connect with everybody, but I did with many, at different points on the journey. With some the connection happened early in the trip, some right at the end. And some not really in any meaningful way. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But the intention and the effort was there. The trip forced me wide open, perhaps more open and flexible than I have ever been.
The whole island hopping part of the trip was fun and beautiful, and they are certainly quite unique. Many people have referred to San Blas as paradise on earth. I would not characterize them this way, although I’m not sure I would recognize paradise if I found it. Lots more soul searching to do on this clearly.
A final note regarding our crew. Although I have nothing to compare them to, I have heard horror stories about bad and incompetent captains and/or crew on other crossings. Captain David, Janeiro, and Luis were superb. Flexible and professional and always looking for ways to improve the experience for the passengers. I was really, really impressed with these guys and am very grateful for everything they did. I am also grateful to all the passengers who shared their week with me and made it such a memorable trip. Check out this clip from Captain David.
Monday morning we packed up quickly, said out goodbyes to the crew, and were picked up by another boat to the mainland where we were met by a few SUVs for the hilly and quite spectacular 3-hour drive to Panama City, where we all dispersed to various hostels. In my case, I continued on to the bus station, in a bit of a daze, where I continued on another 5 hours to the Azuero peninsula in South Panama, finally stopping in Las Tablas. I started my day on the Caribbean and ended my day on the Pacific Ocean, or very close to it. But I felt really tired and travel weary on this day.
Woke up Tuesday morning in Las Tablas feeling like death warmed over and still had wobbly sea legs. What the hell am I doing here, I thought, a feeling that comes over me every few days since I have been on the road. I did not feel good about this place, and I felt like a fish out of water, and that people were looking at me funny. But I suspect it had little to do with the town, and everything to do with me. As I am, so is the world. That lesson is becoming clear.
After a shave and shower, I felt a little more human and decided to continue South to Pedasi to get closer to the ocean. With the help of a few locals, I found a “collectivo” (mini bus) nearby. I know I must have looked like I needed help at that point, and the Canada flag on my bag didn’t hurt. I crammed into the hot bus with all my stuff and about 15 other locals and after about 20 minutes, off we went. I tried to wait outside the bus until we were ready to leave, but I was able to somehow figure out from the driver that it doesn’t work like that. You have to be in your seat or risk losing it if someone else takes it. A little strange. It was only a short trip to Pedasi, and I am happy to say, after five weeks, I have finally landed in a quaint little chill beach town of only about 2,000 people! I stayed at Dim’s, a really nice, clean hostel opposite a grocery store and a tourism agency. Perfect! There are many quality restaurants and shops, and quite a large Canadian and American community here.
After quickly settling in at Dim’s, I popped into Smiley’s, a decent looking restaurant right next door for a quick bite. They had a full musical set up, and an older dude was fiddling with the sound board, so I asked him if he was leader of the band. “Do you play,” he asked. “No…but I sing,” I replied. Then he asked me to sing with the band, who just happened to be playing that very night. And that’s exactly what I did! We performed a couple of songs together, including the slinkiest, coolest, most laid back versions of Honky Tonk Woman I have ever done. And zero rehearsal time with these guys. I just dropped right into their groove, and let it rip. A very talented bunch of guys who play so loosely, yet are so tight! It was a pleasure to share a stage with them, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity. From feeling crappy in the morning, to singing with a bunch of locals in Pedasi…I certainly could not have predicted this day. You never know what’s around the corner.
‘Til next week,