Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Island Paradise

Meet Captain Ron!

Well, that was actually Captain Bruno, but he did remind me of Captain Ron quite a bit... I suppose, I should hope that none of us reminded Bruno of Martin Short. So, after 10 days in Cartagena, I was finally set to depart for Panama, via the San Blas archipelago, on board the good ship Invicta, flying a Canary Islands flag(!) - Bruno and Ingrid, our crew, hail from Tenerife. The passengers were seven other backpacker types and me.

The Invicta (actually registered in Florida, as Bruno had just recently purchased it), sitting in the Cartagena harbor

My last sunset in South America... If I ever needed any extra motivation to want to come back...

The eight passengers were an eclectic group: Sam, from Sydney, Australia. Irina and I had met him a few days ago in Playa Blanca. 1st language: English. Flo, Antoine, Cedric, and Hugo - all French, first language: French. Except for Flo, who also speaks perfectly accentless German and English... well, if you can consider the version of the language spoken in London to be accentless anyway. Cedric's girlfriend, Carolina, was from Bogota, Colombia, so Spanish, and Bruno and Ingrid were from Spain's Canary Islands - Spanish. So, lingua franca on board? Well, everyone spoke some Spanish and some English. And you got to hear plenty of French and German. Most of your random backpacking groups end up comprised of mostly English speakers - Brits, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians... Or the Dutch, Swedes and Israelis, who speak English better than the Brits... we were a weird group indeed!

We got off to a somewhat ominous start - around 7 o'clock, all the supplies were on board and we set off. And sailed for all of 15 minutes before a police patrol boat came up to us and announced that the channel was closed at the moment - they'd let us know when it was open again in an hour or so. Something about the President passing through at the time. So, we settled down to have dinner and watch the electrical storm rage on in a distance (Spanish word for storm? Tormenta! I kinda like it). Soon enough, we were done, and the channel was open to traffic again and ... we weren't going anywhere still - Cedric and Carolina were feeling ill, presumably from something eaten the night before, and Ingrid volunteered to perform rijki, or something along those lines. Some sort of an energy transfer healing technique, that I viewed with a bit of skepticism, while it was keeping us at bay. To Ingrid's credit, Cedric and Carolina did seem to feel somewhat better, while Ingrid herself seemed to experience some sort of a stomach discomfort over the next two days, so maybe she did succeed in transferring whatever was bothering them... We set off well after 10, finally departing Cartagena harbor, and the lines of underwater walls guarding it, around midnight, at which point I promptly went to sleep.

Day 2: fish... dolphins are hereby classified as fish!
The following morning, I was up fairly early - 10 people onboard a sailboat for a comfortable sleep does not make. Coming outside I found neither Bruno nor Ingrid nowhere near the steering or any of the controls... right, we've got an auto-pilot system. Bruno and Ingrid were hanging further upfront, directing us at the bunch of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Dolphins are carefree and entertaining little creatures, who apparently find boats fairly interesting, so they tend to swim along for a while... just hanging out. I was reminded of paying for a dolphin cruise on the North Island of New Zealand, where we saw exactly one dolphin... from a distance.

They will just leap out of the water fairly frequently. If only they'd give a warning, so we could get a better shot...

After the dolphins had left, it was time to settle in for a day's worth of open seas. Shower? Sure, Bruno will pour a bucket of Caribbean water over your head any time you want it! Quite refreshing, actually. Around lunch time, boredom was starting to set it - I wasn't feeling outright sick, like, say, in the Drake Passage... but I was feeling sick enough where I didn't want to read my books, or have very much of my lunch. Fortunately, the seas chose to provide some excitement, when the line that Bruno had been trailing every since we had left Cartagena, suddenly started to make a racket, announcing that we had caught a fish. The fish turned out to be a perfect tuna, meat, appropriately enough, the nice purple color of the freshest tuna sushi I had had in Japan. This was my signal to give in to better living through chemistry (as per the doctor aboard the Akademik Ioffe in Antarctica), take one of Bruno's sea-sickness pills, and 20 minutes later enjoy the tuna - sashimi first, then lightly grilled. Andres, professionally, is a chef, so no complaints about this tuna!

Bruno, reeling in the catch

Hugo enjoying the evening on board

Day 3: Land ahoy!
Day Three started off much the same as Day 2 - dolphins and auto pilot. The dolphins would, in fact, come back twice more during the day, enjoying our company long enough at one point to have Bruno comment that he'd never seen the passengers get bored watching the dolphins before the dolphins got bored of the boat! Being in the open sea, you barely ever so much as see another boat, so auto pilot had very much become an every day fact of life... of course, that evening we met the other sailboat that had left Cartagena the same day as us - they had been running on autopilot the night before... and had run right into the side of a bigger boat. Losing some scaffolding and an anchor in the process. Their captain hadn't woken up even on impact... Bruno and Ingrid were taking shifts staying awake through the night on the Invicta - I silently patted myself on the back for picking the right boat for the voyage.

Later the same day, we snagged another fish - a marlin, larger than the tuna this time, but sadly he managed to get away just as Bruno was pulling him in. Adding to the excitement, around noon we started to see land in the distance! I have to admit a fair bit of excitement at the site after just over 36 hours on board, so I did have to wonder what it must've been like to spot land for the first time on the maiden voyages across the Atlantic... how about the Pacific!? Or what it would be like, if I were to catch a sailboat from Panama City to the Galapagos (~7-10 days at sea). Philospohizing aside, in the late afternoon, we got up to the first of the San Blas islands!

Most of the islands aren't any more than 100 meters in diameter and are the idyllic combination of palm trees and perfect strips of white sand.

Some islands are even smaller yet!

Life in the archipelago - boats and islands dotting the horizon

To add a bit of sobering reality to the scene - a wreck of a container ship on a nearby reef. It's been there for five years, I don't think anybody's in a hurry to move it

Diving in! We were pretty excited to get in the water. And to swim to dry land for a bit!

Flo on the beach - lots of starfish in the water

Day 4: officialdom
I had been hoping we might get to camp on the island overnight (there were tents aboard), but we arrived rather late, and by the time we had had dinner, it was pitch black, so setting up camp seemed impractical. Besides, Bruno warned we'd have to leave the island before 7 before the locals showed up and asked us to pay. So, we instead settled in with a few drinks on the Invicta.

The morning rolled around, and we summarily proceeded to the little island next to us. The plan for the day was something a little bit vague about going to the immigration office to get all of our Panama entry stamps, but nobody seemed to know when we were set to leave, so instead we settled into a comfortable routine of sitting under the palm trees, snorkeling, and taking an occasional trip across the island (~15 minutes to circle the entire spec of land and sand on foot). Shortly after 2, Ingrid finally came by to shake us out of the tropical paradise trance, so we could head to Porvenir - the island with the immigration office.

Andres at the wheel... Bruno trusts us!

The rest of the day wasn't particularly exciting.

Day 5: departures
Tuesday started earlier for some than others - Flo and Antoine were up before 7 to catch a motor boat to the mainland and board a 4x4 for the ride to Panama City - they had a flight to catch the following day. The rest of us slept in, in the relative comfort that a 40ft sailboat can offer 10 people. Around noon, Cedric and Carolina also departed, to be met on the mainland by Carolina's cousins, the rest of us set off further along the coast to yet another beautiful island.

These islands were actually inhabited - I've read that nobody actually lives on the islands full time, however the Kuna (the indigenous people of the autonomous San Blas region) harvest the coconuts as a primary business enterprise (the books warn you - each and every coconut you see on the islands, on a tree or on the ground, has an owner! An owner who does not appreciate your taking of the said coconut!), so people come to live on the islands for about three months at a time to collect the coconuts and generally keep an eye on things. They also sell things to the tourists, so as soon as we arrived, we started getting local canoes pulling up to the Invicta, first offering souvenirs - bracelets, embroided blankets, other trinkets. The moving on to fresh (still alive actually) seafood. The fish, crab, and lobster seemed awfully exciting, what especially with a professional chef amongst us. The seafood prices are nothing short of astounding as well: small lobster - $1 each; larger lobster - $2, large king crab - $2. Fish - negligible. And these are all literally alive when you buy then, mind you! So, we stocked up and prepared for a seafood feast to last the entire afternoon and evening

King Crab

Well, I'd never killed my own food before - first time for everything. Lobsters put up a bit of a fight, btw.

Canoe construction going on onshore

We weren't the only ones in the mood for king crab - watched a plane land in Porvenir that morning just to pick up some crabs and take them back to the mainland

Bruno spent the better part of the afternoon sleeping in his hammock on the island - we slowly cycled through the seafood that we had spent a grand total of $15 acquiring. At some point, Bruno came back aboard in an apparently foul mood - our guesses varied between just fatigue from lack of sleep on the way here and some strange feeling of usurping his authority in that we were cooking ourselves. Not being overly concerned (paying passengers and all), we simply proceeded ashore, along with Bernald (or el Presidente as we took to calling him) to enjoy the rest of our seafood, along with a few beverages that the islanders were more than happy to provide (read: sell - a beer is also $1, same as a whole live lobster, albeit a smallish one...).

Celebrating into the night with El Presidente. He didn't want any of our seafood. Now, if we only had some pork... Life on the islands makes for some different delicacies

Hugo and Andres ended up camping on the island; I caught a ride back to our boat with El Presidente. Sam hung around ashore for a couple more hours, then swam back to the boat in the middle of the night. The Australians are insane. With only four of us onboard that night, it was the most comfortable sleep I had had since leaving Cartagena.

Day 6 - let's get civilized
The night before, after a few drinks, we were discussing with Bernald spending another day on the islands - he was offering free food and accommodation, and you can catch a boat to the mainland relatively cheaply. Considering our surroundings, the idea sounded pretty appealing. However, the following morning greeted us with sobriety and this view outside:

It had rained a little every day since Cartagena, but this was the strongest, longest lasting downpour we had experienced yet

Combining the unmistakable signs the weather was sending our way and an intense desire for a real, fresh-water shower and a decent bed, we quickly packed up and sailed off towards Miramar - another 6 hours away by boat. The town of Miramar is remarkably unremarkable. And tiny. Really, it's only distinction is being the farthest point along the coast that's connected with the rest of Panama by bus, so that was where Bruno was dropping us off.

Around three in the afternoon, we arrived, sailed through the gorgeous natural harbor that surrounds Miramar, said our thank you's and good bye's to Bruno and Ingrid and headed off to town. Naturally, the last bus had left around 2. A kind, slightly bearded lady ran a hotel in town, where she was willing to give us a deal - $8 each, to sleep in some creaky beds, two to a bed. We had a drink to plan and caught a ride out of Miramar with four of us stuffed into the back of a pickup truck for about the same price. Minus the creaky beds.

I reflected that over 18+ months of traveling, this was only the second time I had traveled in the back of a pickup truck. The first being Cambodia some 16 months ago...

Andres and Hugo decided to spend the night in the next town - Portobelo (yes, just like the mushroom), waiting for the morning bus onwards, while Sam and I caught a taxi to the main road for Panama City, getting on a bus there and arriving in the lights, civilization, and ATM's(!) of Panama's capital around 9 that night. At which point I promptly moved on to seeing the Panama Canal and planning my escape from Latin America, while Sam moved on to Bocas del Toro - another set of beautiful islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. I hear it was raining there too...

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