Archive for the 'Panama' Category

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.

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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

11
Jan
09

Huge Flickr Update & Panama City Post Disclaimer

Here Ye, Here Ye!Here ye here ye!  That’s right, hundreds of new photos are up and ready in my Flickr gallery and it looks like on that end I’m finally starting to get caught up!  For those of you who haven’t visited the gallery before, the link is in the right-hand navigation bar – let me know if you have any feedback or comments while you’re there (you can leave comments underneath individual photos in the comments box).

Also, a quick apology if the last update on Panama is a little sketchy and disorganized – only have access to WiFi and electrical outlets in the common area of the guesthouse where I’m staying right now, and last night it was like trying to focus and write while sitting in an Irish Pub.  Will try to avoid similar situations in the future… although for now, that post will just have to do, as the goal at this point is onward and upward (not revision and re-writing), plus it wasn’t a particularly exciting period to write about.

Am hard at work on the next post and should have it up by tomorrow, if not tonight.  Again, look forward to your comments either here (by clicking on the little comments bubble under an entry title) or on Flickr, and for now, back to work!

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.

16
Dec
08

Battling Feverish Nightmares en Route to Panama City

PenonomeI hardly exaggerate when I say that I could barely move upon waking up after my seventy-five mile ride through the mountains of central Panama.  It was quite a wretched feeling, and although I longingly clung to my bed, hoping that perhaps a few more hours of sleep might magically cure me, it was already quite late and there was no time to be lost.  Thus, with the arrival in Penonome and Fatima’s welcome twinkling in my future, I was soon all set and back out in the blazing Panamanian heat-wave once again.

Deliciously, I quickly found that this time the terrain before me was indeed “flat as a pancake” and although I had started off nice and easy, wanting to give my stiff joints time to unlock, that soon all changed.  Without the demoralizing impediment of looming mountain ranges scarring the horizon, I whipped along happily and was anxious to reach my destination, where I had told myself I would have at least one or two days of rest and recovery before carrying on to Panama City.  As my limbs kicked back into full swing I even found myself soaring easily forward, almost oblivious of the rising temperature of the countryside.

However, although the former part of the day passed by swiftly and uneventfully, the latter was quite another story.  I had been riding for about three hours when as if for no reason the oscillating whooshing sound of a flat tire shattered my good vibes.  Oh bugger, fixing a flat was never a fun or exciting experience.  Nonetheless, I pulled to the side of the road, rolled my bicycle off the shoulder and a few yards into the reedy grass, then propped the old girl against an overgrown fence.  Yet it was just one of those days, and regardless of how meticulously I checked my tube and tire or how firmly I applied them, just one patch appeared to be far from enough – although the root of the problem was a far worse surprise.

Tire KarmaAs I stepped behind the bicycle and reached down to release the tire, I saw that there was an orange strip along the surface of it.  Hmm, what’s this?  Well, not only was there orange, but there was another material in between the orange.  Oh sweet heavens, this tire was all worn out!  Not only was it worn out, but the rubber had been completely scraped away and the insides were completely exposed, leaving me to ride along on simply a layer of fabric!

Well this just certainly wouldn’t do, but the problem was that I had not another replacement tire and the only possible fix was to patch the tube up, put the old dead-beat tire back on, and pray that it would hold up until I reached the big city.  Sadistically, this was only the half of my problems, and five patches and a world of exasperation later I had hit a wall.  The problem was that the tube had, rather sadly, ruptured right along its raised seam, and therefore the patches refused to stick to the non-flat surface, air hissing out each time that it was pumped in.  My heart sank, I had no more tubes and had no idea what to do – and something told me that it wouldn’t be easy to hitch a ride in this part of the world.

Yet, astonishingly, just as I had almost given up hope, I went to place the sixth (and my final) patch on the tire, and miraculously it held.  Oh happy days, we were back in business!  I refitted the tube into the ravaged tire and then mounted it onto the bike, ready to set sail.  However, much to my chagrin I was not given the satisfaction of being able to just coast right back into the pace that I had started.

Almost instantly, I could feel that the ride was nowhere near as smoth as before, and additionally, with each rotation of the tire came a rhythmic bumping.  I stopped to inspect my work and see if there was any solution to the unfortunate surprise, but alas, there was not.  When I had put all of the patches onto the same point on the tube, it had left a significantly raised ridge and had also warped the shape of the tube so that it no longer bowed into a perfect arc.  It looked like me and my new problem were stuck together.

My progress was severely inhibited, and as I rode along now at about two thirds of the speed at which I had been going earlier that day, I soon discovered that more misfortune was headed my way.  The now exposed tire insulation proved to be a greater problem than I had hoped.  Less than an hour after my first stop to patch, I was met with another flat, and then after fixing it and continuing, another.  Oh sweet mother of mercy, where does it end!

Long, Hot HorizonWell, after wasting an exorbitant amount of my day on the infuriating task of tube repair and battling the rough riding conditions, my moral had been seriously degraded.  I carried on more slowly and patiently, hoping that if my tire did not hit any sharp objects in the road at a high velocity, then they would not become embedded in the tire and exacerbate the issue.  Fortunately, this held to be a plausible hypothesis, however, a new and ruthless factor had begun to develop throughout the course of my frustration.

The sun seemed to roast my skin as I rode along the completely unsheltered highway, forcing me to stop every several miles to seek shade and fight the heat exhaustion that was beginning to set in.  So many times did I find myself ducking into the little covered concrete bus stops along the roadside that I wondered if I would indeed ever make it to Penonome.  Several times, I put my hand to my back to feel my skin and it felt as though putting my hand onto a hot stove.  This surely couldn’t be healthy – I hoped that I did not have long left to go.

A few hours later, I finally found myself pedaling into the rolling green outer limits of the city.  My ass was sore from sitting on the seat all day, my body was burning from the relentless late afternoon sun, and my patience had almost completely worn away any good humor.  Add to that that I was very hungry.  A few minutes later I had reached an intersection which appeared to be somewhat situated in the center of town and decided that it was time to call upon Fatima.

Princess LeyaWhen my cell phone finally put me through to her, she told me that she was on her way back from the beach with another friend from CouchSurfing and would be there shortly.  Not long after, when she stepped from the bus and walked toward me, I could have cried and hugged her in exasperated joy, but I wasn’t really in any hygienic state to be sharing bodily contact with anyone.  Nonetheless, that didn’t prevent me from joining them as we stepped next door from the bus terminal to chow down on some Chinese cuisine.

Over our meal, I got to know Fatima and her daughter better, and both turned out to be sweet and energetic characters, one playing of the other frequently, like Laurel and Hardy, but without the physical similarities.  I almost met Evan, an American from the Northeast who had majored in Spanish and was now out to get some practice while traveling through latin America.  Although he turned out to be a very friendly and sociable character as well, I was still somewhat appalled by the gargantuan load of luggage that he was lugging around the Americas – highly reminiscent of the Princess Leya character from Spaceballs (although perhaps his suitcases didn’t consist of giant hair-driers).

I was thoroughly enjoying the company of my new friends, but it didn’t take long after eating for my energy to start fading fast, and once we were back at Fatima’s sweet little countryside-like house, I very quickly dismissed myself from conversation and did a nosedive into the top bunk of her daughter’s bed.  When I awoke the next day, they had both already hopped out of bed and were in the living room watching morning novelas intently.  Then once they had pried themselves away from the television and we were all bathed and ready to go, we headed out to explore the town.

Panamanian FashionShockingly, only a short few hours later, after having lunched, visited a museum, and met Fatima’s friend for a drink, I almost fell down unconscious at the table of the open air restaurant.  My energy was completely sapped, I could barely think, was incapable of making any conversation, and had to prop myself up on the table and keep repeating that I thought I was fine.  However, I could only try to put on this front for so long and then, although feeling horribly rude, I informed our small group that I absolutely must go.  Equipped with the house keys, I bid everyone farewell and fell into a cab, and prayed that relief would come soon.

When the cab finally arrived at the door, I could barely walk from the car to the front door, and once I had gotten in I barely made it to the bed before collapsing.  Yet relief was not to be had, and although I thought that upon lying down I would surely find instant satisfaction in sleep, I instead lay in bed turning agonizingly, my brain and body feeling completely wretched.  Strangely, after what felt like an eternity of this (and was probably almost two hours), I realized that the one recurring theme that kept running through my mind was the persistent desire for something sweet.  How strange, here I was barely able to move and all I could think about was desert.

But once I finally drove myself crazy by lying there lifelessly in misery, I was able to muster up just enough energy to head to the kitchen and satisfy my craving.  Although the kitchen turned out to be a culinary wasteland, having almost none of anything edible, I did manage to discover a small bag of sugar in an empty cupboard, and seeing no other choice but to indulge myself, I had at it.  A few spoonfuls later I had succumbed to gravity once again and was back in the bed, however within only a short time I could feel the veil of agony lifting away from my body and my energy returning.  Well, it looked like I had just had my first hypoglycemic attack.

Bridge of the AmericasAfter this little scare, and the rough physical state that I found myself in the next day, I decided that I might need a little time before returning to my rigorous cycling schedule.  However, I had also found the stifling heat of Fatima’s un-air-conditioned home in Penonome to be a bit much for me at the time, and so found myself in a great hurry to depart.  The day after my attack, I found myself back on my bicycle, but this time only to the nearby bus terminal.  In light of not only the physical aspect, but also the sorry state of my tire’s physical health, the only prudent thing to do was hop in a bus and head to Panama City.

Consolingly, the city was very near, and less than two hours later we were driving high over the Bridge of the Americas which spanned the mouth of the Panama Canal and entering the chaotic metropolis.  Although my plans had been to arrive in the city, take a few days to absorb the sites, and then hop on a slow-boat headed for Cartagena, Colombia, little did I know at the time that this mire of a city was soon to become my home for the next three weeks.  And if it had been relief from the blistering tropical sunshine that I had been looking for, then I had most certainly come to the wrong place.  It appeared that Central America was more than happy to wreak its final wretched curse upon me, and that it wasn’t ready to part with me quite just yet.

16
Dec
08

Departure from Popayan & Twitterizing

img_2917So tomorrow I leave Popayan to head towards the city of Pasto, near the Ecuadorian border.  I don’t have many days left before my Colombian visa expires, so hopefully I can high-tail it out there and still have enough time to see the gothic cathedral of Las Lajas near the border town of Ipiales before I have to flee the country.

Also, you may have noticed the new little “ipedaler news” header on the navigation sidebar.  That’s my Twitter feed, which I think that I could have quite a lot of fun with ;).  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Twitter, its basically allows me to give you real time status updates of my journey from my cell phone or computer – although there is one catch.  It appears that my US SIM card has, sadly, died, and with my Colombian pre-paid plan I can’t send the text message updates to Twitter.  However I am working on getting a new SIM card and should hopefully have it in the next week or two.  Then I can send roadside updates of me grumbling and moaning while riding uphill in the rain through the Andes, send instant updates from amazing archeological sites and remote indigenous villages (yeah, most of ’em get cell reception these days… wild eh?), and so much more lol.  So anyway, I’ll keep you posted as to how that all shapes up, and until then I’ll do quick updates from online more frequently.

Am currently working on the next installation of the journey through Panama and should have it up later this evening or tomorrow morning, and that will put me pretty darn close to the end of North America and the beginning of the tall-ship journey through the Caribbean to Colombia.  Ok, back to work!

Oh yeah, and tons of new photos in the gallery to check out!

15
Dec
08

Dispelling the Myth of Panama’s “Pancake” in the Mountains to Santiago

Uphill AheadAs the pale rays of early dawn cascaded in through the screen of my tent, I found myself listening to the gurgling river nearby while laying languorously within and watching sunlit particles drift dreamily through the still air above the tall-grass outside.  Sometimes on mornings like this one, the physical desire had not quite provoked me to rise and prepare for the day’s journey, but the wisdom of many other such mornings reminded me that there would be no going back to sleep now and that within less than an hour the stifling heat would swell to an overwhelming level and envelope my small encampment in a blaze of humid jungle calefaction.  I was also set to meet my new friend Fatima in the town of Penonome the following day and was therefore determined to reach the halfway point today, a large town called Santiago in the Southern bend of the narrow country, and knew that I had many miles ahead of me if I was still to follow through on this goal.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Panama was not in fact “flat as a pancake,” as one gentleman had tried to inform me whilst in Costa Rica, but that I was on the brink of embarking on one of the most egregiously planned legs of my journey, traveling almost seventy-five miles through relentless tropical mountains of the sweltering Panamanian interior – and all in just one day.

Nonetheless, I had no idea what was in store for me as I began packing my bags and preparing to say bon voyage to my steamy riverside campground.  Despite the nagging soreness throughout my legs, I whistled a little tune, pushed my bike out towards the main road, waved goodbye to the friendly staff of the restaurant as I passed, and began making my way  Eastward.  Fortunately that first stretch of road was well sheltered beneath the leafy canopy of the leafy foliage high above, and I found myself quite pleased to be making my steady progress through such lush surroundings.  I had been at it long before, no more than an hour, when I encountered a military checkpoint, and although they normally found no reason to hassle me, I knew that it was really all just a question of luck.  A few moments later, there I was unpacking half of the contents of my bag alongside the Panamericana.  Yet the check proved uneventful, and I could see that the inspection officer was in fact just lonely and bored and more than happy to interrogate me with a series of questions unrelated to national security, but more so to break up the monotony of the torrid morning heat.

After finally shaking free from the clutches of my entertainment custody, I pedaled onward, however the landscape took a very sudden turn.  As the dense jungle fronds began to gave way to vibrant lime green fields and pasturelands, I realized that my pace had slowed significantly and that I was now on a steady ascent out of the jungle and into a set of rolling hills.  As was the case with that one first day after crossing the Costa Rican border into Panama, I felt an insipid weakness tugging at me and my leaden legs seemed to refuse to propel me higher at any rate faster than a crawl.  As I had not had breakfast that morning, and had only had a light meal in the late afternoon of the day before, I rationalized that it must be fuel related and told myself that I would stop for breakfast at the next roadside comedor (usually a small, shack-like restaurant) that I passed.  About fifteen minutes later, at the turn-off for a tiny indigenous village called Tole, I spotted the only building which I had seen in miles – and thankfully, it just happened to serve food.

Ridge-Top VistaAs luck would have it though, things weren’t going in my favor, and as I sat at the counter, completely drenched and dripping from sweat, mentally pleading for a tall, cold beverage, the insolent young lady who was working that day took great pleasure in instead ignoring my requests and thus tormenting me.  Literally fifteen minutes passed by in this manner, and finally, when I could take no more and was fuming now both on the inside as well as the outside, I decided that no matter how wretched I felt I was still a gentleman of principles and refused to patronize such an establishment.  So I took my tired ass back on the road and prayed that I would indeed find something else soon, preferably before I collapsed from heatstroke and undernourishment beneath the tormenting sun which grew ever higher into the sky.

My prayers were jubilantly answered when I spotted a truck stop not more than twenty minutes up the road and pulled in with the expectations of a big healthy plate of grub.  Ok, so honestly, the food was real crap, but at least after putting something into my system and replenishing my stock of water, I was ready to make progress again, and hopefully this time to pick up the pace.  About an hour later you could say I was in full swing again, however the only irony was that I was plugging away on steep uphills and consistently averaging less than ten miles per hour.  Yet to make matters somewhat tolerable, each uphill segment would only last anywhere from fifteen minutes to forty minutes and was always met with a soaring downhill reprieve.  Then again, I should also mention that this continued onwards for the next four hours or so, and I remember at one point looking out across the horizon from the crest of one such mountaintop and thinking to myself that there was indeed no end in sight.

So you’d think that I’d be used to this type of situation, this kind of intimidating feeling by now, right?  Well, tell that to my poor, aching legs, because they still don’t seem to understand.  Its also somewhat funny the way that the human mind works in that, before the crest of every hill, as I sit there plodding away and pushing with all my might, I’m always dreaming that there’s the town just over yonder, that I’ll reach the peak and look down upon my day’s destination just waiting for me with open shower and a loving meal – often even when I know I’m not yet halfway there.  But that doesn’t mean that I enjoy it any less!  No matter how difficult the journey, living symbiotically beside the pain and torture and anguish is hope and desperation… oh and the miraculous places to where I travel and people with whom I meet.  Perhaps even more precious to my memory as well are the unforgettable events that come to pass with almost every day on the road.

Its a Steep One...Well, after several hours of trudging up hills and flying back down, I felt that I was reaching my limit (both in terms of nourishment and stamina) and decided to stop for a quick bite to eat, to let my muscles relax, and to see if I couldn’t wrangle some information on the remaining distance out of the shop-keep.  I sat in the only chair in the little open sided tienda, watching the hundreds of flies swarm lazily around a heap of old bananas and talking to the candid woman who owned the store about the social and political crises of the nation and life in the countryside.  Aside from chatting about the fact that Panama was still a U.S. colony (yeah, welcome to the club Panama), she also told me about the recent skyrocket in food prices, the severe unemployment levels (who publishes those national statistics, anyway…?), disparagingly high poverty levels, and the governments lack of support or interest in rural Panama (meanwhile investing in multimillion dollar ocean-front parks and roadways along the wealthy coastal strip of Panama City).  It was quite a sobering discussion, and, helped me to remember that were it not for cycling, I would never be given these windows into the non-urban and non-touristic perspectives that form the true opinions of exploited and manipulated nations the world over, and which most others never know exist and often never care to see.

After half an hour of insight into the politics of which most television news never sheds its light, I thanked the woman and left in a somber yet pensive mood.  This, however, was not only due to the conversation that we had had, but also to the knowledge that I had just gained of the massive mesa climb which was to greet me less than a kilometer up the road.  I felt that my endurance was completely depleted, but I also had no other choice but to put myself through the brutal torture of heading onward, as I had made a commitment to Fatima to arrive the next day and my midpoint of Santiago was only another fifteen miles away.  After my break my knees felt like rusty hinges and thighs seared in pain, but I pointed my bicycle towards the base of the mesa, which was now growing nearer in the distance, and just reminded myself that there would be a cold shower and a warm bed waiting for me when I arrived.

Finally, I had covered the half mile to the beginning of the ascent.  I took a deep breath, prayed (whimpered pitifully) for the strength to carry on, and next thing I knew was on my way up.  It was a dreadfully slow, almost motionless climb, but as I heard the hazy yellow horizon shatter with the sound of thunder I turned to look behind me and saw the inky clouds closing in on me.  This was the last straw, I had been through enough today and I refused to let this storm beat me.  As the blinding flashes of lightning blasted through the sky and bleached out all color for an ephemeral moment, it was as though the starting gunshot of a race had been fired and my heart leapt into throbbing action.  The burst of adrenaline pulsed through my body, breathing my limps to life, and my energy instantly returned.  I put all of my weight down into the resistant uphill inhibited pedals and quickly doubled my speed.  Within fifteen minutes I realized that I was nearing the plateau of the mesa and I inhaled sharply in exhilaration.

The Dark StormBut the race was not over.  I swung my head around with a fire in my eyes, looking to the storm like a winged Dracula blotting out the sky and chasing after my chariot in the fading twilight, and I knew that it was time for action.  From some unknown reserve I had pulled the fullest force of my body to the forefront and my beast leapt forward along the road, the sighing brush and feigning grass whizzing by at my sides.  I could feel the roaring thunder licking at the back of my neck as I flew along the flat mesa-top, squinting my eyes against the strobing lightning flashes.  I was going to beat this – and I was going to make it to Santiago faster than I could have ever gone before.

The first sporadic drops of rainfall pattered menacingly upon the bare skin of my arms and face, but only thrust me forward with yet more vigor.  Onward and onward, seconds turned into minutes, and minutes into a fleeting eternity.  I know not for how long this carried on, but after what must have been almost an hour of this frenzied drive through the low scrubby mesa lands, I ventured to look behind me yet again and realized that the storm had disappeared far behind me in the somber late afternoon sky.  A wry grin crept across my lips as I turned my vision back towards the road ahead, a feeling of triumph and satisfaction coursing through my veins.  Then, as if to reward me, the signs of civilization began to appear – there I was, Santiago.

I pedaled forward along the sides of the now somewhat busier streets, not sure of exactly where I would be spending the night, but nevertheless prudent as to searching for the most economic option, regardless of the creeping exhaustion that had begun to sink back into my limbs.  Although it did take me a few turns and several street-side consultations, I soon found the nondescript pensión along the main street leading into town.  It was a low, one story structure, looking like an old office building, and amazingly even more nondescript within.  However, it had exactly what I needed: running water and a mattress, and so I settled my things down on the floor and sat down for a moment.  Twenty minutes later the force of gravity had molded my body firmly into the mattress and although I could barely think or move, I did know that I could not let myself go to sleep just quite yet.  I was still covered in a sticky slime of sweat from the fantastic voyage of the day and I also couldn’t let myself slippity slide into slumber without eating something to replenish my now completely depleted body (did I mention that the only real meal of the day was the late truck-stop breakfast?).

I mustered up the remainder of my long waned strength, stumbled to my feet, and made my way to the showers before heading out on the town.  When I had repaired the aesthetic damage and rinsed away the olfactory reminders of the day’s ride, I decided to step out and see what I could see.  Aside from the instant realization that the town was the filthiest which I had ever encountered, trash almost completely carpeting every side street (which I later found out was because there had been the largest festival in Panama there two days prior), I also managed to duck into an internet kiosk to check my e’s as well as find one of the only nearby budget restaurants… which sadly, was a Pio Pio, specializing in old fashioned, deep fried chicken.  Oh well, it was low quality, but it was sustenance, and fortunately they also had a grill.  Now washed, fed, and reconnected with the outside world, I slowly made my way back towards the pensión for the final key to fulfilling my immediate satisfaction – sleep.

As I hobbled slowly, very slowly, back, I thought of how nice it would be to arrive in Penonome the following day, into the welcoming arms (ok, perhaps a bit dramatic, since I’d never met her before) of Fatima, and end my week and a half long hiatus from all familiar social interaction.  I had spent my time in Boquete so lost in my thoughts and reflection that it wasn’t until I was back on my bicycle again that I realized that a one sided existence such as that was one which I could only bear for so long before searching for social stimulus and the opportunity to laugh with others.  However, my body felt severely depleted, and even after my meal I still wondered whether my night of sleep would be enough to replenish me, but also longed that perhaps tomorrow fate would go easy on me and that what little energy I had left within me would be enough to carry me through.