Archive for the 'Colombia' Category

11
Feb
09

Medellin – the Long and Shart of it… ah Forget it, Just the Shart

MedellinWell, what can I say about Medellin really?  Life was good, life was fabulous.  The truth is that I don’t really know what normal life is really like – there were the rebellious teenage years when all energy was devoted towards battling my parents, then there were the hazy drug-urchin days where it was all about finding the next high, and then there was crazed academic obsession coupled with workaholic tendencies – from six in the morning till midnight every day.  Oh, and of course, that somehow transitioned into a mad bicycle pilgrimage down through the Americas and back to the “fatherland”.  So yeah, I don’t think I really knew what a normal life felt like until I got to Medellin.

Alright, so given, perhaps being unemployed for a few months in an urban South American garden of Eden isn’t really reality, but hey, its not for lack of trying!  I’ll be honest with you, I spent almost every day out on the hunt – following employment leads, networking, extending visas, and desperately struggling with national work permit laws.  Yeah, you could actually say that trying to get hired in Colombia was like my full time job… ok, a little pathetic… but true.

Well anyway, I was living on the cheap – I had an apartment for $280 with meals included, laundry service (you mean I get to just throw it on the floor and it comes back clean…??), daily room cleaning, a pool and penthouse views.  I couldn’t really complain, thats for sure.  Add to that a kick-ass burger joint with the tops in cheapy burgers only a block away (and open 24/7!), a quick walk to the metro train station, and stumbling distance to some of the best watering holes in the city (which is important for me, since I like to do a bit of pre-gaming to stick within my budget… and then stumble to the bars.  Is that wierd?).

Nevado del RuizSo yeah, life was good.  Add to that my little friend Elkin, and the practical in-separation of the two of us for almost the entire of my stay in Medellin, and yeah, I kept pretty busy.  We had a lot of country to visit together as well, and although I didn’t know it at the time, not much time in which to do it (couldn’t have predicted the dry job market and consequent short stay).  So, over those sweet few months in Medellin, somehow we managed to climb the snowy Nevado del Ruiz, lounge around in the delicious coffee growing region of Eje Cafetero, collapse in exhaustion from excessive salsa in Cali, fiesta in Cartagena in honor of the national beauty queen, chill out in Santa Marta like Colombian tourists (ok, given, one of us was), and ruin ourselves while hiking through the jungle and back in Parque Tayrona on the Caribbean coast.

Hmm, so why exactly did I leave?  Oh thats right, I was still unemployed – after three months, had only distant prospects – my oil field was drying up, and my visa was about to expire (again).  So, after two previous visa extensions (yeah, its a really short stay in Colombia) and no dice, I wasn’t willing to shell out the extra cash and fill out the dreary paperwork to keep myself in the country and harboring false hopes for any longer.  It was time to go.

After all of the time, energy, and funds that I had invested into starting my new life in Medellin (temporarily, of course), it was a shame to go, but I knew that it was now or never if I still wanted to have even a prayed of paying my way back to Brazil.  I said goodbye to my wonderful new friends in Medellin – sweet little Elkin, crazy little Mary, and quirky little Kristen –  ok, I suppose thats a bit redundant, but when you’re as big as me, that’s generally how you see the world.  And then there was Marisol and Sonia as well – goodbye my sweets!

Colombian Coastal WipeoutIt was hard to pick up and go, even harder since I had pigeon-holed myself into virtually having to flee the country by bus just in order to escape before the expiration of my visa, but as the day of my departure grew nearer I found myself renewed, rejuvenated, and re-invigorated for the journey ahead.

I would miss Medellin and the wonderful people with whom I had shared my life – but it was time for family – and time to continue onward to the destination of which I had dreamed of my whole life – Brazil.  And so, as with most difficult decisions in life, I said goodbye to the wonderful things that I had managed to fill my life with while living happily in Medellin, and pushed forward to the divine light of the future, and hopefully the fulfillment of which I had eternally longed for.

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06
Feb
09

Bogota – I Think Not

CandelariaAfter all was said and done, and all of my hopes and aspirations for the city, I must say that Bogota and I were just a short but torrid affair.  I had gotten in touch with Mauricio several weeks before I was even near arriving in Bogota and so he had plenty of warning before the chaos that is Paul arrived.  But then again, I shouldn’t really say that as, although we did have some fun and debaucherous nights out on the town, we also had some pleasantly domestic and politely elegant experiences as well.

It all began with sophisticated lunch at the country club.  I’m not sure if I was really ready for all this – and my wardrobe most certainly wasn’t – but hey, who can resist an opportunity to play high society for a day after eating tasteless almuerzos and sleeping in dives for the past sixth months.  So I did my best to dress myself up and off we went, dining like celebrities out on the back patio and chain smoking with my new buddies as though I couldn’t remember the last time I had touched one of the things.

And no, the afternoon didn’t end with me diving into the pool in my leopard print thong in front of the entire wealthy geriatric community of Bogota (although I do know of someone who did that at four in the morning in front of every campesiño in Baños…), but instead making plans for  big dinner with the society law queens of the city for that evening.  So after dwindling away a few hours in-between lunch and the dinner party, Mauricio and I dressed to impress and headed out to search for just the right bottle of wine for the occasion.

The Night the Lights Went OutAfter a fifteen minute drive with my new conservative buddy Mauricio biting his fingernails at the stress of city driving the whole way, we finally made it to the wine shop and I found myself, oddly, thanking my lucky stars for seven years in the restaurant biz.  After out-witting the (clueless) wine store attendant on random vineyard trivia, we’d finally made our purchase, wrapped up our controversial debate on bullfighting (no comment), and were ready to booze it up with the prosecution.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand everything that was going on during our evening of catty, but deliciously scandalous, conversation, but I loved every minute of it nonetheless.  We passed the wine and whisky till none but the fierce remained and then it was time for Mau and I to hit the road.  Well, not exactly the road, but the bars – to be more exact.

That was when we magically found ourselves going from the semi-sophisticated company of opinionated older gentlemen to the refreshingly mindless chaos of Téatron.  Cavernous, massive, endlessly tunneling – that was Téatron.  Mau and I bounced around for a while, exploring the fifty (or whatever) rooms of the massive club and searching for our right vibe – but then ending up back in the main theater.  We drank – too much – and had a festive evening of it, but then finally it was time to go, and it was past my bedtime.  As with getting older (I know!  I’m not even that old yet, why has it already happened to me??), there’s a certain point when it just ain’t fun anymore, and that was when it was time to go home.

The AuthoritiesNevertheless, my first day in Bogota was a huge success in my eyes, and I was ready to head out and discover what other cosmopolitan delights awaited me.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much.  I shouldn’t get down on it so much, the truth is that it just wasn’t my type of city (not much walking, not much admirable architecture and city planning, and about a mile short on that “it” charm), but in comparison with the other shady metropolises of Latin America, perhaps it isn’t really so bad.

That said, the truth is that the most memorable times I had in Bogota were, in fact, outside of Bogota.  After muddling about and searching for a job for several while at the same time learning about the intricacies of Colombian immigration laws, I was ready for a break from the rain and gray or the city.  So Mauricio, his little buddy (that’s my way of saying I couldn’t remember his name even if someone held a $100 bill in front of my face) and I decided a day in the country might do us all some good.

The itinerary was Zipaquira – and whatever else might find us between the journey there and back.  Zipaquira was basically a salt mine for many years which was then declared to be a holy cite and transformed into a massive subterranean salt cathedral.  Now, thanks to the endless tourist attractions that I have inevitably met during the course of this little journey of mine, I headed to Zipaquira with the eye of skepticism, but I must say that, at least for me, it did not disappoint.

ZipaquiraAfter about an hour-long road trip, leaving the bustle of the city behind, we were quickly out in the picturesque green plains around Bogota, and soon thereafter disembarking the the salt mine.  A single red steel-braced  tunnel led us onwards deep into the belly of the mountain, and as we went along our guide pointed our attention to the striking white salt walls around us.  Again, thats about as far as I got with the guide, as since my Spanish was still a little rusty at the time, I didn’t waste much time in tuning him out.

But the sights that awaited us were well worth the pittance of an entrance fee.  Plus, for the first time (in either Southeast Asia or Latin America) everything was actually done in tasteful lighting! (not hideous fluorescent mosquito-bulbs)  We plodded along the stations of the cross searching for random photo ops for some time before descending down into the caverns of the true cathedral.  Various rooms and carvings and statues greeted us along the way and, adding significant authenticity to the whole event, there was even a mass in progress during our visit.

An hour and a half later we were all salt mined out though, and we made our way back out to the car.  Despite my insistence on going to Panaca (since our Zipaquira tickets included free or reduced admission there too) and getting a picture of my riding a goat, the other boys vetoed that idea.  Nevertheless, there was another sweet surprise just around the corner, and although in a way completely different, it was still somewhat along that same line of live-stock thinking.

Andre's Carne de ResA half an hour later we were pulling up in front of the mob-scened Andre’s Carne de Res steakhouse.  I never could have imagined just what exactly awaited me within those doors and just why exactly this place was such a hit – even way out here beyond the city.  But it struck me the second I entered the building.

The place was an absolute zoo of insanity.  Giant bugs buzzed into people, drunken sailors serenaded young Bogoteña girls, and rainbow colored Bjorks on roller-skates danced precariously on table tops.  I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d come for lunch or for the show, but I’ll tell you what, either way I was up for a bit of lunacy.  Fortunately the steaks were quite sumptuous as well.

We spent the next two hours there at Andre’s, enjoying the food, the fun, and the beer, and finally knew that it was time to bid adieu to the action and head back to the grind of the city.  Well, not quite directly, but after a stop-over at a mall to watch – hold your breath – Mamma Mia…  Yes, that’s right, we did it.  But, there was one redeeming quality to this visit, and that was seeing the smelly, unwashed Bogoteños who’d been living in a Mini-Cooper for the past several months, sitting in the middle of the mall plaza (strange eh?  Funny what these Colombians do for a bit of diversion).

Bad Omen for BogotaAnd so that was my visit to Bogota.  Yeah, alright, so I was there for a week – but that’s what stuck with me!  Ok, I had a few pleasant walks through the Candelaria neighborhood (the quaint little historical district of the city) and a wonderful hike up to the ethereal monastery on Montserrate, but that’s not enough to make me want to live in a city.  It was just a tad to year-round overcast misery and showers to really lure me in, and mixed with the endless Trans-Millenio commuting (no, not the sequel to Trans-America) that life in Bogota would surely entail, I could already feel myself drifting back to the sweet sunshine and happy birdsong of Medellin.

Of course, no week-long friendly visit would be complete without unnecessary ridiculous drama, and so Mauricio and I made sure not to part without the complete experience (hehe, nope, no details) – but nonetheless it was a wonderful week together.  And so I headed back to the bus terminal from whence I came (or at least arrived) and popped my jagged little sleeper pill to to prepare me for the long journey back to Medellin… hoping to start the dream just a little bit early.

25
Jan
09

Letting the World Slip Away in the Eternal Spring of Medellin

Old MedellinI’m not sure if it was all of the enticing descriptions that I had heard about the city, the deliciously sunny spring-like weather, the lush landscape and organized city-scape of Medellin, or if there really was just some indescribable magic about the place.  But as we descended gracefully through the green mountains of Northern Colombia and the city came into view, my heart raced with joyful anticipation.

Within our first few observations and interactions Justin and I were instantly struck by the place, the people, and the almost forgotten feeling of welcome.  After being dropped off on the third floor of the Northern bus terminal in Medellin, Justin helped me lug my bicycle and equipment down the flights of stairs to the taxi pickup area, my foot still throbbing malignantly with every step.  After finding a cab with a roof rack and strapping my baby on top, we stepped into the cab and were surprised to find a friendly and inquisitive face awaiting us.

Within twenty-four hours Justin and I had become completely enamored with Medellin.  After the chaos and less than friendly culture that we had endured throughout Central America, arriving here was like falling into a big warm hug.  We made new friends, laughed, explored and for the one of the first times in our journeys, felt absolutely no desire to hurry off to anywhere else.

Parque BolivarOn my third day in Medellin I met Elkin, my new little Antioquian “buddy”, while out on the town.  We quickly became quite fond of one another’s company and before I knew it, we were out exploring the Colombian countryside together.  We climbed el Peñol, a massive vertical rock formation surrounded by endlessly meandering lakes which stretch out across the horizon.  We journeyed out to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a quaint little colonial Colombian town that was almost perfectly preserved in its historic glory.  And we meandered around Medellin, getting to know one another, relaxing, and just enjoying the ride.

However, although the idea of settling down in Medellin and improving my Spanish had been bubbling around in my head for some time, I also wondered if perhaps I wasn’t a stone’s throw from some place that might perhaps be even more suited to me.  That was how, despite the wonderful time that I’d been having in Medellin, I soon found myself making plans to head to Colombian metropolis of Bogota.  So, only one week after arriving in Medellin, I found myself heading to the bus station and saying goodbye to Elkin and the city for the first time.  However, as I was soon to find out, it most certainly wouldn’t be the last.

23
Jan
09

Venturing Deeper into the Infamous Colombian Interior

Bags of Water?After almost two weeks of smoldering in the blazing Caribbean sunlight, Justin and I had grown restless to leave the coast behind and venture deeper into the unknown of Colombia. Normally, this would have been the part where we would say goodbye and go our separate ways – I on bicycle and he by bus – however as circumstance would have it, we instead found ourselves traveling high into the Andes together.

The main reason that we had lingered in Cartagena for quite so long was to investigate and ideally remedy the situation with my injured foot. The massive, swollen and incredibly painful lump had immediately bulged out on my foot after crashing against the hull of the Stahlratte during a rope swing accident in the San Blas Islands. Three days after the damage had been done we were finally pulling into port in Cartagena and my first order of business had been to find the local hospital.

Colombian PuebloAlthough I had sat waiting in the emergency room on several occasions, been thoroughly x-rayed, and prescribed topical ointment for the hideous aberration, even after two weeks the pain was unchanging and the welt as malignant as the day it was inflicted. However the doctor had assured me that there was in fact no reason to worry (although I nevertheless always did) and that the damage was simply muscular.

Well, I wasn’t going to wait around forever. So the day after my final visit to the hospital in Boca Grande Justin and I made our way to the bus terminal of Cartagena. Sadly, the bus terminal was nowhere near the old city and none of the small collective buses that made the journey appeared to be able to hold my bicycle. Instead I found myself meandering through the back slums of the city, completely lost and with the searing pain of my foot rotating atop the pedals, for the hour-long ride out to the edge of town (while Justin rode along in the bus…).

Sincelejo PlazaWe both agreed that our next major destination would be Medellin, the city formerly known as home to the infamous drug cartel of Pablo Escobar, yet always referred to as a modern Eden by everyone whom we encountered. Yet it seemed a shame to simply jump directly from the Northern coast to a point almost halfway down the country without getting to know some of the places along the way (plus I hate long bus rides). So, after referring to our maps and guidebooks, we eventually agreed that the next stop on the journey would be the small provincial city of Sincelejo in the Northwest of the nation.

Three warm but breezy hours later our bus was pulling into the station in Sincelejo and we were hopping out. We quickly situated ourselves in what was probably the smallest hotel room known to man, but hey, it was a steal. Although we hadn’t had a particularly strenuous day, sometimes even a lengthy bus ride can wear you out and so, as the room had television (which I hadn’t watched in many months) we melted into the mattress and vegged out for a few hours.

Sidewalk NotariesEventually we decided that we owed it to ourselves to go out and get to know the city. I remember how several months later while spending time in Colombia many Colombians would frequently refer to Sincelejo as a backwards and characterless city. But for some reason as Justin and I made our way through the quaint streets bustling with villagers, we couldn’t help but swoon with contentedness.

A delicious wind whipped through the town ruffling the leaves in the trees of the central square and refreshing us after our many months along lowland Caribbean and Pacific coasts after the past few months. Low rolling hills surrounded the town in every direction and exposed the burning amber sunset to us. Everything seemed close-by, the hand of corporate chains was almost nowhere to be seen, and the town could have served as a model of delightful efficiency and aesthetics in comparison with the towns and cinderblock cities of Central America of which we were accustomed.

Moto-CultureWe agreed to spend two nights there to give ourselves ample time to unwind and not spend all of our time packing and unpacking. Plus, the room was economic enough between the two of us that it offered a guilt-free opportunity to exist without paying rent. Seeking to further our familiarization with the region, we sought out locals with whom to spend our time and that was how Viviana came to us.

I found Viviana through CouchSurfing and by the evening of our second day we were hustling down the stairs of our hotel to hop into the SUV which had pulled up out front to pick us up. Three sweet and jovial young Sincelejan ladies awaited us and soon spirited us away towards one of their favorite restaurants. We chatted and joked well into the night and only decided that it was time to head back when I noticed that Justin’s eyes were quite nearly closed from the exhaustion of trying to understand the conversation (since at that time he wasn’t the Spanish whiz that he probably is by now).

Are You Serious?After being dropped off back at the hotel by the girls, we bid our farewells, got a full and restorative night of sleep and the following morning were jumping onto the next outbound bus to the North. We had questioned Viviana as to whether there was another point of interest worth visiting en route to Medellin and she had recommended the village of Santa Rosa de Osas, about six hours South of Sincelejo. Sadly, Justin and I had decided to go super cheap on our bus budget (since bus prices had taken a huge jump since Central America) and instantly found ourselves cursing the day that the bus driver was born after being tricked into boarding the most cramped, crowded, and superheated bus in the existence of motor vehicles.

As I sat there with my knees almost up against my chest I was felt livid towards the chauffeur and his assistant and spent almost the entire ride plotting of rampaging up to the front of the bus, giving him a piece of my mind and storming out – but then I remembered that my bicycle was jammed into the boot of the bus. So Justin and I just gritted our teeth and continued on.

Santa Rosa de OsasFortunately for us, about two hours into the bus-ride we reached a transfer bus station, jumped off and demanded the remainder of our bus fare back – we were over it! We would find another company to ride with. And so we did, a massive and comfortable bus, and once again we were back on board and bound for Santa Rosa de Osas.

Justin and I had left Sincelejo a little later than planned and the journey had taken quite a lot longer than we had been informed, however as we arrived in Santa Rosa we were in for the true rude awakening. It was already dark by the time our bus pulled alongside the highway by the town, and as we stepped down onto the pavement in shorts and t-shirts it was as if we were shot through the hearts with an icy arrow. It was truly bone chillingly frigid! Neither of us had experienced cold like this in months and the surprise took us completely without warning.

Little Town StreetsWe needed to find a place to stay (and change) and quick! Well, after one glance at the village up high on a hill, we decided that that would be too far and looked around us desperately for another option. Thar she was, a little truck-stop style hotel clustered in amongst the highway-side restaurants, and so we scrambled over with our overburdened loads of equipment.

Once we had checked in and gotten ourselves up to the room we were in for another little surprise. Apparently, places like this in the Andes, despite the bitter cold, often didn’t have heating or fireplaces! And of course this was the situation that awaited us in our icy bedroom (with an open and un-closable window). However the frosty shock had also jolted us into a jittery and high spirited delirium, and so, after finally discovering our cold weather gear (way down at the bottom of our packs), we layered up and headed out to explore.

Another Church?It was a steep and curving lane that headed up from the highway and into the town and as we ascended I found myself doing little cold jigs and hurriedly spitting out random jibes in a ridiculous attempt to keep my body temperature up. But finally we made it to the top, and although that first corner of the town appeared to be almost deserted, aside from a few meandering old campesiño men in cowboy hats and ponchos, as we approached the other side of the square things drastically changed.
Apparently we had stumbled upon the main street of the town and as we turned onto it and made our way forward it was as if we had stumbled into a chilly highland village somewhere in Spain. The quaint villagers hardly resembled any race which we had encountered previously within our travels in Latin America, but instead looked like a town which had been purely founded by colonists and completely forgotten by the world around it. Even the costume of the villagers was more like that of old world provincial Europe.

And somehow, despite perhaps its apparent relative insignificance, Justin and I found it absolutely wonderful and fascinating. We strolled the streets as though we were villagers past young girls in pleated schoolgirl skirts, old men in black felt hats, and mothers with their shoulders and heads wrapped in silken scarves. It was a delightfully pleasant stroll and after an hour and a half of meandering the winding town and feasting on street-side kabobs Justin and I headed back down towards our hotel both, both completely struck by the feeling that we had indeed entered a new and wondrous chapter in our voyage.

Soon thereafter we were back in our room, wrapped with our blankets up to our chins and nestling ourselves to sleep somewhat cold, but completely satisfied. The next day we were up early for a daytime stroll of the village and to find a light brunch before hitting the road again and heading for the fabled metropolis of Medellin only two short hours away. However, as we once again found ourselves back on the side of the highway loading our bags and bicycle up into a colectivo, little did I know that my arrival in Medellin would be no ordinary tourist visit, but that soon this misunderstood but magical city would quickly draw me in with its charms and I would find myself calling it home for the next chapter of my voyage.

19
Jan
09

Ahh, Paradoise – The Majesty of Cartagena de Indias & Serenity of Playa Blanca

The SteepleIt was a bittersweet arrival as we disembarked from the Stahlratte’s dinghy at the port of Cartagena. On the one hand it had been an incredible voyage by sea across the Caribbean from Panama and the San Blas Islands. However, on the other hand, we all felt somewhat rueful at the thought of saying goodbye to one another after the raucous events of the past few days and the wonderful memories that we had forged together. But hey, we were in Cartagena – and in South America! – and it wasn’t over just yet.

We soon found out that the majority of our crew would be lodging in Getsemani, the slightly shabbier portion of Cartagena’s old town, for the next few days. So it was time to live it up and make the best of what time we had left. After dispersing to our respective guest houses, I found myself on my way to Hotel Holiday by bicycle to meet up with Justin, my Kiwi buddy from the Stahlratte voyage, completely unaware that we would become quite close over the next month and soon find ourselves journeying almost halfway across Colombia together.

Las MurallasOnce Justin and I had settled into our new home for almost the next two weeks we headed out for a promenade around the magnificent walled city of Cartagena before rendez-vous-ing with some of our other shipwrecked pals. It was truly a glorious place this Cartagena. The sultry Caribbean air was refreshed by cool breezes floating in over the sea as we casually meandered the charming colonial architectural relics of long gone pirating generations and the once thriving capitol of South America’s gold exportation days. Majestic rotundas and spires rose picturesquely above the shady cobble-stoned streets and from time to time a group of children or plump Afro-Colombian women would erupt into hypnotically fascinating traditional dances in the many palm lined plazas and parks.

Once Justin and I had braved the afternoon heat for several hours of strolling about, we retired to our room in Getsemani to relax and refresh ourselves before heading out to meet the others for a night of merriment off of the boat and in this new Caribbean paradise. After reuniting we found ourselves at a lovely old plaza in Getsemani, flanked on one side by a quaint canary-yellow colonial church and filled with chattering locals and the sound of Colombia’s tropical cumbia music drifting in the air.

Los Jugos de CartagenaWe weren’t sure of just how we intended to pass the next few hours together, but after spotting a lone jugo kiosk (a fresh fruit smoothie blending operation often found on the streets in Latin America), I was suddenly struck by a magnificent burst of inspiration. That was how we soon found ourselves all blending in among the locals, sipping on rum cocktails of mixed fruit smoothies with mango, papaya, banana, and other sweet endemic coastal Colombian fruits. It was a deliciously simple evening in the company of wonderful friends and one that I’ll surely never forget.

Over the next several days different members of our ship’s old crew began to filter out of Cartagena one by one – but not before a few of us were able to find new and unusual adventures to get into. As a number of us had wanted to head to the nearby mud volcano of Totumo further up the coast, we decided that this would make for a terrific last hurrah field trip. That was how we found ourselves (Sinead and Aaron, the Irish couple, Lindi and Aaron, the American couple, and Justin and myself) all sitting on one another’s laps, with two Colombian campesiños (country-folk) and a driver, all crammed into a tiny four door taxi for a one hour trip down a muddy, pot-holed dirt track to the boonies.

TotumoAlthough it seemed improbable at the time, we did all survive the trip and eventually made it to Totumo in one piece. The mud volcano indeed did turn out to be an experience unlike any other that any of us had ever experienced before in our lives and moments after arriving we were down to our skivvies and climbing the rickety wooden staircase of the tiny brown “volcano”. Upon reaching the summit we discovered a shimmering crater of viscous brown mud with a small handful of Colombian tourists up to their ears in the fluid, and began lowering ourselves into it one by one.

It was a wild sensation – the buoyant mud-bath had no discernible bottom (apparently it went down hundreds of feet to the source of the unusual muddy sediment deep below the earth’s surface), yet refused to let us sink below the surface for more than but a moment. We soon found ourselves giggling and smearing one another’s faces with mud while doing frozen Han Solo impressions with our mud-slicked bodies floating on the surface as if coated in some strange alien material.

Han Solo... and Princess LeyaAlmost two hours later, once we had had our fill of mud (in our mouths and ears as well), we headed out and down the stairs and were greeted by local body-washers in the lagoon down below. We went running into the water, tackling one another and tossing about some of the pesky children which had recently appeared. But this didn’t last for long as the skin and bones Afro-Caribbean ladies got hold of us and began scrubbing us down. Before we knew what was happening, they had our bathing suits off and we were left in the lake in all our naked splendor, being scrubbed by smooth talking Costeñas.

As we recomposed and redressed ourselves, made our way out of the lagoon and scrambled for change to tip the “body-washers”, we suddenly realized that the last bus to Cartagena from the main road would be leaving in fifteen minutes! We had not time to waste, we had to get out to that bus stop. But we were way out along a dirt side road that would take us at least half an hour to walk. There was only one solution, and as we heard the rumbling engines roaring up, we knew we had better hurry.

Look - No Mud!Moments later we were mounting onto motorcycle taxis, each of us mounting onto a different taxi behind the respective moto’s driver, and throwing our helmet on for the fast and bumpy ride out to the highway. I saw everyone else’s taxi tear off out of the Totumo area in a cloud of dust ahead of us as my driver was just starting up his engine and next thing I knew we were off. However, my ride wasn’t destined to be quite as simple as for the rest. Only two hundred meters into the journey we were laboring up a steep hill through the thickets and our motorcycle began to tip backwards! I half fell and half jumped backwards off the rig, barely landing on my feet and slightly shaken up.

Apparently these moto-taxis weren’t built for big and tall gringos. But my driver told me to run up to the top of the hill to meet him from where we would continue the ride. I sprinted up the remaining several meters, launched myself back onto the rear seat behind him, and this time cinched up a little closer to my driver in a very intimate position, not in a hurry to find myself rolling in the dusty trail behind us. We raced back into action and flew forward, practically flying over the many bumps in the road and desperately trying to catch up with the rest of my motorcycle riding party.

Jewel of the CaribbeanLess than ten minutes later we emerged from the underbrush and joined back up with the highway. Our motorcycle lurched up onto the pavement, turned sharply to the left and then once again sprang forward, shooting towards the other buzzing swarm of motorcycles disappearing over a hill in the near distance. The wind warm wind whipped against my shirtless skin as we made our way along the smooth highway and it wasn’t long before we were catching up with and then passing the rear stragglers of the party. We fell back into pace and only a short while later were slowing to a stop and hopping off our moto-taxis along the roadside to await the bus.

Fortunately, on the way back we managed to catch a somewhat more comfortable bus than the taxi which had borne us to Totumo and we sat in pleasant exhaustion throughout the ride back to Cartagena. Over the next two days the remnants of our friends who had journeyed with us from Panama disappeared back into the ether that is the backpacker world and Justin and I were left alone in the jewel of the Caribbean. However, after our buddies were all gone we began to feel the pangs of the “party’s over” syndrome and felt we had to get out of town.

Playa BlancaThe following day our luggage was in storage and we were on a ferry boat back out into the sea and on the way to Playa Blanca. The peninsular beach of Playa Blanca had been recounted to us as being a white sand paradise only a few hours from the port of Cartagena and so we thought that a little camping excursion along the turquoise waters would be a pleasant getaway for a few days. After several hours at sea and a stop at a tiny aquarium island, our boat drifted towards the remote shores of Playa Blanca and our ship’s passengers were loaded up onto the floating platform which bore us to shore.

The next two nights and three days living on Playa Blanca were indeed delectably paradisiacal however, what we hadn’t anticipated was the complete and interminable isolation. Yes, I had brought a book, but this was no match for the deserted shores of Playa Blanca. During the height of the afternoons, boatloads of tourists would arrive at the white sands, lounge under the swinging palm trees that bent desirously over the lapping waves, and within several short hours would once again load up and disappear – leaving us almost completely alone once again.

Massage-GirlJustin and I made sporadic conversation over the course of each day, with the recurring sarcastic theme of “ahh, paradoise” (in a New Zealand accent, that is), but towards the end of day two we knew that we couldn’t take much more. We had spent the entirety of those few short days roasting on the beach, slathering on sunscreen, haplessly trying to defend ourselves against the sly Afro-Caribbean massage ladies which would mysteriously appear behind us with their slippery hands on our shoulders (and other parts of Justin…), sleeping in a sandy tent and smoking the sweet fruits of the Caribbean by night. But it was nay enough to keep us entertained.

Then finally, as Justin spent his last few hours bobbing in the sparkling blue waters (which he basically did all day every day while we were there), I began readying our equipment for departure and soon we were plodding back up the beach to await our transport. By late afternoon we were back on board the Alcatraz (nice name for a ship to and from paradise, eh? Oh the irony…) and navigating our way back along the Colombian coast towards Cartagena. The sun was setting behind the infinite high-rises of Boca Grande as we pulled into harbor that afternoon, and boy were we glad to be back.

Boca GrandeNevertheless, Justin and I soon found ourselves restless to move on and continue our voyage deeper into the Colombian interior. It was soon time to say goodbye to the languid pace of Costeño life, the jugo kiosks and street ceviche (which yes, was a real bad idea in the first place…) and make our way up into the Southern hills. Once again we were hit with that same familiar bittersweet feeling as back when we had arrived in Cartagena many days before. However this time it was the sadness of definitively closing the Caribbean chapters of our Latin American Adventures and the excitement of embarking into the mysterious and unknown allures of what was to come in the approaching months of our foray down the spine of the fabled Andes.

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

10
Jan
09

Goodbye Panama!!

Panama CityThree weeks.  Three God forsaken weeks I spent in that most despicable and wretched Panama City.  Although the plan had been to arrive, enjoy the flashy and cosmopolitan lifestyle of the urban metropolis, and then shortly thereafter hitch a ride on an economy class boat to Colombia, I soon discovered that my expectations were highly misplaced and that a different set of plans were in store for me.  However, karma was not without its reward and, after patiently enduring the drudgery of Panama City and genuinely pouring my heart and soul into the search for South American passage, I found myself embarking on a wondrous Caribbean dream.

Well, it appears that I had fallen for the Latin American illusion – that a string of pearly high-rises make a cosmopolitan city.  However, it was a rude awakening when upon arriving in Panama City I discovered that in fact the place was more of a big disorganized slum than a vibrant social mecca.  I had been warned by some few travelers that I should not get my hopes up, but the truth was even more depressing than I could have imagined.

Charm was a concept that was apparently unheard of in this part of the world, the city rife with characterless architectural nightmares from the latter 20th century.  Streets were barren concrete corridors, devoid of trees or aesthetic redemption, but in their place thick, greasy hordes of traffic oozed through the arteries of the city.  The hazy yellow-brown sky lapped up the foul black plumes of smoke that poured forth from the red devils (city buses) that fought repulsively for dominance in congested avenues.  And the string of pearly high rises turned out to be nothing more than a sad cluster of opulent cul-de-sac’ed American style suburbs for the avaricious latino bourgeois, masquerading as stylish downtown models from afar.

Casco ViejoI have to say that I wasn’t very impressed with the city from the beginning, as I rode my bicycle along the outskirts, trying doggedly to figure out just where I was going and how I would ever get to Hoswuals’ apartment.  However, when you’re attempting to navigate a bicycle through a large, congested city for the first time, you never really know just what broke-down part of town you might be in and so I always try to avoid hasty first impressions.

But once I had finally found my way to Hoswuals, settled into the apartment, and he began showing me around the city, I quickly went from enthusiastically optimistic to wretchedly disillusioned.  I suppose that this would have been a good time for me to have learned the lesson that large Latin American cities are almost always an absolute disgrace, but I suppose that after Mexico City I always harbored some glimmer of hope.

However, during my desperate attempt to fairly evaluate the city and experience all that it had to offer, I did manage to see a few pleasant aspects along the way.  One day was spent visiting Panama Viejo, the derelict stone remains of the original city that had been burnt to the ground by pirate Sir Henry Morgan in 1671, which was interesting, but nothing to write home about (although I guess that’s kinda what I’m doing right now, eh?).  I also spent several afternoons riding down to Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of Panama City which, after the sacking of the original city,  was constructed further up the coast on a small peninsula surrounded by reefs to protect it from further siege.  Although it was a tiny portion of the city, this was by far the most pleasant – it was only a shame that it was completely cut off from the rest of the city by dangerous urban slums.

The Panama CanalThen of course, there was the Canal, truly an engineering marvel.  Although I hadn’t been quite so enthused about seeing it before arriving in Panama City, when I finally went out to take a look with my new Colombian friend Carlos (from Medellin!), I found it to be quite impressive.  To watch thousands and thousands of gallons of water rapidly filling and draining narrow channels stuffed completely to the rim with massive cargo ships was most definitely something that you don’t see every day – and which explains all of the publicity surrounding the canal.  Apparently, they were also set to begin the widening of the canal to double its current size within the following months, and had already begun clearing away the jungle along its sides.

In actuality, although I was in Panama City for nearly three weeks looking for a boat, Hoswuals and I didn’t particularly spend much time together, as he had an extremely full work schedule.  And so, thats how I ended up spending those following three weeks in frustrated solitude.  I spent almost all day every day heading down to the Amador Causeway and the Balboa Yacht club posting flyers of my desire to act as a deckhand and searching for boat captains that were heading to Cartagena, Colombia, but after endless days on end of searching, I kept coming up without any leads.  As time wore on I began to grow more and more unhappy trapped in one of my least favorite cities, and looked to other options.

That was when I began making the journeys to the Caribbean coast.  It was about a two hour bus ride from Panama City to Colon, the city at the other end of the canal, and Colon was said to be one of the most dangerous cities in all of the Americas.  I’m not sure whether or not I could testify to this fact or not, as I decided to always err on the side of caution when I visited Colon and take taxis (which, thankfully, were dirt cheap) while avoiding bad parts of town, but it certainly did have the look of an edgy place – and you never saw anyone that even remotely resembled caucasian on the streets.

Colon HarborHowever, even after two day trips to the yacht clubs in Colon and much shmoozing on my part, things were still not looking good.  I even made a trip out to Portobello, another tiny port a few hours furth down the Caribbean coast from Colon which was rumored to occasionally have some outbound boats to Colombia, but again no dice.

Finally, after all of my failed attempts, I still remained trapped in Panama City.  After all of my struggles and investigation, the only thing that I had really learned was that I was apparently searching for a ride to Colombia during the wrong season, but if I wanted to stick around a few more months until the holiday season began, then I would certainly find something, as that is when the winds push Southeast and captains head to Cartagena for Christmas.  Absolutely not, I would rather brave the Darien Gap (the thin land-bridge between Panama and Colombia which is filled with smugglers, bandits, and impassible jungle) than stay in Panama City any longer.

That’s when I finally broke down and decided to kill my budget.  It was over three hundred dollars to buy a spot on one of the passenger sailboats to Colombia (or as I like to call them, the luxury backpacker cruises), but at this point if I wanted to continue my journey, there was no other choice.  I headed down to Luna’s Castle, the popular hostel in Casco Viejo, and asked them to make my reservation.

Three days later I was up at four in the morning, loading my panniers onto my bicycle in the darkened streets of northern Panama City, and bidding adieu to a very sleepy, but gracious, Hoswuals.  I rode the almost half an hour ride down towards Casco Viejo in sheer exhuberance, delighted to be finally leaving that last armpit of Central America, and dreaming longingly of not only finally arriving in South America, but also of the delicious Caribbean voyage which awaited me.  As I pulled up outside of the towering building of Luna’s Castle in the pale pre-dawn light and morning drizzle, the four by four vehicle to San Blas awaited me – and I knew that Panama City was imminently to become not only a part of world history, but a part of my own past history, and that it was time to say goodbye to North America.