12
Jan
09

The Caribbean “Luxury Backpacker’s Cruise”: The Long & Shart of It

San BlasThe four by four lurched and pounced forward ceaselessly as we picked our way through the thick Panamanian jungle en route to the fabled San Blas Islands.  Although the departure time had been set for five, it had been almost six in the morning by the time everything was finally tied down onto the roof of the vehicle and we were bouncing over the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo on our way out of Panama City.  And yet, regardless of how disdainfully early in the morning it was or how loathsomely exhausted I was, my mind could do nothing other but to moan softly in a state of ecstasy at the epicurean days that were to come.

I must admit that during those three long, drudging weeks that I spent in Panama City I had begun to go through not only social withdrawal, but also was reaching the point of depression.  I had grown quite resentful of my increasing feeling of being trapped and not being able to continue my journey, and I believe that that emotion was also causing me to isolate myself.  However, as I sat in the back of the four by four, sitting snugly beside three other passengers and facing directly at four others, it looked like my period of loneliness has finally ended.

However, at this point, little did I know that I would not only begin to grow comfortable around these other strangers, but I would actually begin to grow quite fond of them.  And between the eight of us, we made quite an entertaining and international little crew.

One couple was from the United States.  Aaron and Lindi had actually met in Texas, lived there together for some time, and then decided to head off traveling together indefinitely – basically taking the same route as I, but like most others, opting for buses instead.  They were a bubbly and talkative couple, always with some new and random story that consisted of them batting words back and forth between the two about how it really happened.

ShipmatesThen there were the four “Oirish” characters, who, between them managed to bring the feel of the pub just about anywhere that they went.  I had always been amazed at the social adeptness of travelers from the U.K., and how their pub-culture had trained them so well to be intriguing and festive talkers.

The Irish couple, Aaron and Sinead, were also on a long term voyage, but a bit of a different on than the rest of us.  They were on a year-long world tour, and so, on a much faster schedule than all of the rest of us.  However, our little excursion to the San Blas had been a welcome break for them, since it rendered them completely powerless of being able to rush forward, and instead completely relax and enjoy the journey.  And I must say, that I for one was very glad of this, as their wit and sense of humor were a lovely combination to our journey.

Then there were Linda and Dion, two of the most hysterical birds that I’ve actually encountered in my entire journey.  I think it was truly the two of them that pulled me out of my shell at first, and, to tell you the truth, kept me laughing continuously for the next week solid.  The two of them had begun in Mexico and were also headed down along the length of the Americas, but were apparently soon to part, as Dion had made plans to stay on living in Buenos Aires upon arriving, while Linda would keep on traveling.  And, although Linda had that sweet, lovable comic style that was completely endearing, Dion always managed to maintain the satyre and sarcasm that makes life that more interesting – they were both precious.

Now, that’s not to say that this was everyone that was on the journey, there was another whole four-by-four full.  But to be quite honest with you, I’m not sure if it was those few extra hours of getting to know one another right at the beginning or if it was something else, but it felt like we instantly bonded into a tight and happy little group.

Needless to say, it turned out to be a fantastic ride out to San Blas.  And although we were constantly jarred from one side to the other, mercilessly bumping back and forth into one another on the dirt track that led through the thick tropical vegetation, the two and a half hours passed by in the blink of an eye.  Before we knew it, our four-by-four lunged rapidly up a steep slope onto a small hill and we were piling out of the back into a muddy clearing.  The drivers climbed up top, began pulling down our packs and handing them to us, and instructed us to follow a small path through the woods.

View from the StahlratteIt was a soggy and slippery trail down to the river, but once we had managed to drag ourselves and all of our heavy equipment down with us (not to mention my unwieldy bicycle), two long, narrow river boats awaited us.  We began loading up, and were soon crammed into the boats, two by two, ready to set off towards the ocean (but not before they informed us that there was an extra “bicycle charge,” of course).  As we motored along the placid, snaking stream, we passed crocodiles, thatched rooved villages, and of course, the occasional Kuna indian industriously pining away at some chore along the riverbank.

Then finally, we turned a bend in the woods and before us the open sea mystically presented itself.  It was glorious, the gentle ripples of the Caribbean sparkled infinitely as it stretched out before us, interrupted only by tiny islands covered in lazily swaying palm trees and tiny thatched huts.  As we ventured further out to sea, we also began to catch sight of several beautiful sailboats gently rocking to the languid tropical rhythm, one of which we knew must be the Stahlratte.

The Stahlratte was, as we had all been informed, the largest of the fleet of passenger sailboats which made the journey between Panama and Cartagena, and upon sighting her, we also saw it to be quite a majestic vessel.  It was an ancient steel hulled ship, a remnant from the early 20th century, and remarkably well refitted and maintained to survive the test of time.  However, we only had a few minutes to stare approvingly at the beast before we had pulled upon beside her and were climbing up out of the longboat and into our new home at sea for the next five days.

Little did I know before leaving Panama City that there would be quite so many Irishmen (or women) on board, and that this loveboat was about to turn into one big drunken slosh through San Blas.  But I must say that as far as liquored up romps go, this had to be one of the best – that is, except for one small detail…

Sails of the StahlratteAfter we had set sail that afternoon, we made our way onward through the briney deep, passing by secluded island paradises along the way.  We were headed to our own “private” island where we would then drop anchor and spend the next two and a half days relaxing, luxuriating and, of course, drinking ourselves silly.  Only a few hours later we had arrived, and it was spectacular.  Not only was there one paradisical island at our disposal, but in fact a pair.  A few other small sailboats were also moored in the vicinity, but as far as we were concerned, we had the place all to ourselves.

Once we were anchored and settling in, we lounged about the boat chatting, enjoying the scenery, and generally getting to know one another.  But as the evening wore on, the bottles began to open, and it wasn’t long before Pandora’s Box had been thrown wide open.  Dinner was prepared (by me) and we all sat down to the long captain’s table on the top deck of the boat, laughing and enjoying one another’s company.  As dinner gave way to desert, we opted for bottles of rum instead which, of course, made things just a bit more interesting.

Its difficult to recall exactly what went on that evening, but I do seem to believe that it involved a stow-away paddling over from one of the other ships with a bottle of wine, some kind of a drunken competition involving ceaselessly pounding on the grand table for over an hour, and then shameless barefoot dancing on the table-top amidst paparrazi-like photo shoots.  No one really knows how the night actually ended, we just know that when we heard the loud splash in the morning, our stow-away, Felix, had abandoned ship.  Apparently after his shameless charades of the evening before he had quite nearly died of shame upon awaking in a drunken heap on the deck of our ship and decided that it was better to walk the plank and then skulk stealthily back to his own ship in the paddle boat which had originally bore him.

That day we all nursed out hangovers and, by the time breakfast was over were all beginning to feel right as rain again.  We were all desperately excited to get off the boat and into the crystal clear turquoise waters, so once we had suited up, off we went.  Diving one by one from the deck, we began swimming ourselves out towards the nearest island.  We knew not with what goal we went, but nevertheless were completely incapable of resisting the seductive allure that the palm strewn promised land had over us, as though sirens were perched there drawing us towards them.

Comarca de Kuna YalaThe sweetly tepid waters lapped against us softly as we came in near enough to the island to sink our feet into the smooth, grainy white sands.  All around us on the shallow ocean-bed giant starfish nestled under the shimmering water, as though they had just fallen from the heavens.  And as the fronds of the palms swayed soothingly in the gentle sea breezes, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was indeed paradise.  For some time we just floated there, existing there amidst the tranquil serenity of the scene and occasionally almost drowning ourselves from laughter as we reflected on the previous night’s debauchery.  At one point or another each of us also pulled ourselves from the waters and up onto the little island to walk its periphery and relish in its postcard-like perfection.

Several hours later, shriveled like little prunes from our glorious day basking in the Caribbean salt waters, we found ourselves back on the Stahlratte and ready for another night of wild and unbridled fun.  By that point we’d also begun to develop our own social structure, as though existing in our own isolated village, and of course, the gossiping began.  Somewhere along the way Dion and I had also forged a strong bond through our wicked and remorseless senses  of humor.  And of course as dinner progressed that evening we could hardly manage to feed ourselves between mad fits of stifled giggling, often instigated just through a simple look at one another, and often at the expense of one of our hapless shipmates.

And so passed by those first two glorious days at sea.  But there was trouble on the horizon, and of a sort that no one could have ever predicted.  Day three in paradise dawned sallow and overcast.  Although the early morning was still and a feeling of dead stillness resounded in the air, as the day wore on the winds began to pick up.  Yet we had ought else to do, so of course once we had finished digesting our breakfasts a small band of us decided to swim out towards a nearby coral reef for some brief diversion.

Of course, my diversion came more so in the form of instigation, as I swam deep down into the ocean behind Linda and Dion from twenty yards behind then up below.  I reached up through the waters, grabbed Linda’s leg and wrenched her down below the surface.  Having no idea that I was behind them she instantly panicked and began kicking and desperately struggling for the surface.  Alright, and although this wasn’t the tragic and unpredictable event of the afternoon, it was great fun to see Dion’s look of shock and indignation once we had both surfaced a few moments later and could hardly continue treading water between the laughter that ensued.

The Not-So-Perfect-ly Timed StormDion, Linda, Aaron, Lindi and myself all arrived at the reef shortly thereafter and swam up into the shallows where we positioned ourselves atop the sandy jagged stones just below the surface.  For some time we chatted and passed away the time, but after a good hour or so of silly banter, I felt that it was once again time to retire to the ship.  As I pulled myself up the ladder alongside the Stahlratte, a brilliant idea burst into my head – the rope swing!

From high atop one of the guidewires which secured the mast a rope swing had been installed on the ship and, at that moment, was just dangling there uselessly.  I decided to take the thing for a whirl and headed over to unhook its end from the side of the deck-wall.  Moments later I was standing atop the precipe of the edge of the boat and plunging all of my weight and momentum forward onto the rope, then soaring gracefully several meters until letting myself loose into the turquoise sea.

I headed back up top once again for another try and although it was again quite fun, round two had lost just a little bit of the exhiliration of the first jump.  So as I pulled myself out a third time, I thought, how can I spice things up a little bit?  I decided to swing from one point on the ship, out across the water to the other end of the ship, then jump against the side of the boat back out into the water.  It was really quite an ingenious plan, and I’d seen it done other times in similar such set-ups – there was just one flaw.

A moment after swinging out on the rope over the waters, I intently focused my attention on the part of the ship where my feet would land and watched it as I drew neared.  Then suddenly someone screeched “GAAAAAHHHHHHH” in a high pitched German accent.  I panicked and my attention was instantly drawn up towards the deck of the boat from where the scream had originated… and that’s when I smashed into the boat’s hull.

After the initial impact I dropped raggedly into the waters below me and then still somewhat uncertain of what had just happened, swam over to the rope ladder and began making my way up it.  However, I was instantly hit with a searing pain in my right foot.  Eventually I was able to painfully drag myself up onto the boat’s deck, but the sight awaiting me was even more horrifying than I could have known.

Kuna CatchWithin a space of less than five minutes the top of the bridge of my foot had swollen into a massive tangerine sized lump.  The same German crewman who had been the one screeching moments earlier stood before me yelling at me as to how I could possibly have done such a thing and how foolish it was.  Then he proceeded to take over the role of medical examiner in a distressed and panicked manner, immediately exclaiming “Oh my God, its broken! Its broken!”  Well, you could imagine that this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, two days into our paradisical Caribbean adventure and stranded in the middle of the sea with no hospital anywhere nearby.

It was quite a harrowing affair, and I believe that for the next few hours I was in a complete state of shock as all that passed through my mind was the throbbing pain of the blood that was welling up in my foot and what the hell I was going to do.  Of course, there wasn’t much that I could really do, and so I sat in the rear salon of the boat in my wet bathing suit, unable to think or respond to anyone as my mind raced along.

But, after several more hours I began to come to grips with what had passed and knew that all I could do was wait, pray, and hope that everything would turn out ok.  After all, it is just a foot, I mean even if they had to amputate, I’ve seen people ride bicycles with their hands.  On second thought, no, that doesn’t sound very realistic to me while riding through Latin America, which is probably why I was in such a bad state.  I knew that if this thing turned sour, that would be the end of my entire journey.

The day began to wane and Plastic Paul (aptly named by Linda for the plastic bag which I had tied around my leg to keep the dressing from wetting from the sea) and his previous headline news soon began to fade back onto page two.  Everyone else was still on holiday, there was booze to be drank, and that night was the night of the big bonfire cookout on the island.  And so, off we went just before dusk, motoring out to the island on the Stahlratte’s little dingy and preparing to have ourselves a barbecue.

After a few cups of rum, some fresh grilled shishkabobs, the golden Caribbean sunset, and the crackling of the night bonfire, my trials and cares began to melt away.  We sad there amidst the sands in the light of the dancing flames and soon began to fall back into our cheery and boisterous selves.  Tales were told amidst chortling and snickering and hysterics, and all in all the entire affair turned out to be one to remember.  There was even a sloppily drunken blonde haired old woman from Trinidad who tried shamelessly to seduce almost every male member of our ship, insisting that she pour shots into our mouths and then we squeeze our faces inbetween her breasts to bite the lime which she had wedged there.  Yes, it most certainly was an unforgettable night…

The RiggingBut, as all good things do, the evening finally came to an end and we were back on our dinghy to the mothership.  Also, I’m not sure if I had mentioned this before, but I had been blessed with the two rankest, stankiest, most intolerably smelling bunkmates which ever there were (names need not be mentioned!) and so had not slept in my bunk since arriving on the Stahlratte.  Instead, each night I had found a new, interesting, and generally, equally uncomfortable little corner of the boat in which to sleep.  This night was no exception.  As I had already slept in a chair in the rear salon of the boat and on a hammock on the upper deck of the boat, and both had shown me little respect, I decided to sleep on the a cushioned open balcony on the very back of the boat that night instead.

Although this particular spot turned out to be reasonably comfortable after all, it turned out that I had picked just the wrong night to set up my camp there.  At four o’clock in the morning there was suddenly a deafening clunking railing sound of steel against steel and I realized that this was apparently the sand of the anchor being drawn up out of the ocean – and only a few feet from my head.  This lasted for some time, during which the ancient thumping motor was then turned on and shook through the boat as though its own roaring heartbeat.  It just seemed that fate did not wish me to find any reprieve, yet I was too sleep deprived to do anything but cover my head and have another go at slumber, and so I did.

It was a wretched, torturous kind of half sleep that I endured for some hours until all of a sudden I heard wild running across the deck and yelling.  Before I knew what was going on someone had jumped up onto the pillowed platform on which I was sleeping and was standing over me yelling.  ALthough I soon realized that it was Aaron the Irishman, I still had no idea what in the world was going on.  He was leaning over the back railing and looking into the sea.  He seemed to be struggling with something though, and moments later he threw his weight backwards and in his arms was a massive, thrashing fish, over half his size.  The second it popped into my vision I screeched back into lucidity and rolled backwards off of the platform and onto my feet.

Well, this certainly was a rude awakening, and although I was still worn out and desirous of rest, I finally realized that this was destiny’s way of saying – NO!  So I got up and wandered about the boat with the rest of them.  But it was a strange day, a strange day indeed.  That day we were to be at sea, motoring along from dawn until dawn the next morning.  We had long since left behind our little Island cove in the San Blas and now our ship groaned from side to side relentlessly, unpleasantly churning our stomaches and plunging us all into a state of blah.  It was a bit like being a passenger in a twenty-four hour drive and having horrible motion sickness, and more than one of my fellow shipmates soon succumbed to the torturous effects of the ocean’s curse.

There wasn’t particularly much that we could do during those long drawn hours.  You couldn’t sit still for long without losing your mind – and your lunch – and then again, you couldn’t walk around for long either, as the boat would continually challenge your ability to balance and rend you again incapable (or at least undesirable) or milling about.  At one point I even wondered just how exactly I would be able to endure it for much longer, but that’s when I discovered the secret.  During one of my many mindless relocations from one point in the boat to another, I finally crawled up onto the netted rigging that was suspended from the bowsprit on the front of the ship and hung over the frothy sea like a web.  I nestled down into it and within fifteen minutes my mind was at ease and my stomach relented.

Cartagena Ho!I soon realized that this was indeed the solution, and that on this point in the boat the rigging was absorbing the tossing of the waves and was now instead rocking me gently back and forth as though swaying gently in a hammock.  Eventually a few of the others also came out and clambered up onto the netting with me and through our conversation and laughter we managed to weather through our day at sea.

That evening I had considered sleeping out there on the rigging, but with the wind that swept across the bow as our vessel forged forward, I thought that it might turn sour as the temperature dropped later that night.  So instead I rigged up one of the hammocks on the half sheltered main deck of the boat, snuggled up under my blanket, and was soon snoozing away under the Caribbean moonlight.

When I awoke the sun was already beginning to climb up into the sky and some of my shipmates were already to be seen wandering around the boat.  I noticed that a few of them were up towards the bow and looking off over the horizon, talking excitedly about something.  I rolled out of the hammock and onto my feet once again and went over to join them and see what all the commotion was about.

Then there it was, after all those months, all those thousands of miles, and all of my hopes and dreams – Cartagena, Colombia, and the first sighting of South America.  The pain in my foot and impending hospital visit were instantly forgotten.  After all of my pining, my pedaling, my dreaming, I had finally made it.  Even though I knew that it was still months away, as I stood there leaning over the ship’s railing and staring off at the mysterious coastline, I was one step closer to Brazil once again after over twenty years.  The passion and joy welled up from deep within my soul, reminded me that I could indeed do this, and I felt that one day in the not too distant future, I would once again be coming home – to a home that I had almost never known but couldn’t wait to finally discover.

In Another Life

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