Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bloods of the Seas: Sailing Panama to Colombia

Lola is succesfully delivered in port, and we catch a taxi to the quiet coastal town of Portobello. From Portobello the game plan is to board a 45' sail boat, and spend five days cruising down the Caribbean, hopping around the beautiful San Blas Islands for a bit, before arriving in the small town of Capurgana, Colombia. The taxi drops us off at pretty much the only accommodation in town, Captain Jacks Hostal. The reality that we are backpackers for two weeks sets in as this place is everything you would expect of a cheap hostal: bathrooms in poor condition, drugged out girl sleeping in the bunk next to you at all hours of the day, overpriced gringo food, crap wifi, and a mattress that you definitely don't want the sheet slipping off in the night whilst praying that bedbugs wont be feasting on your body. We are promptly told that we have to spend an extra night at Captain Jacks because the boat is delayed by rough weather. There isn't much to do in this small town, so we make the best of it and get to know our shipmates. There are nine of us total, and after a handful of beverages, it was decided that we needed a name, and a solid gameplan. Instantly, Bloods of the Seas was chosen, a name sure to strike fear into our enemies and victims as we plundered the Carribbean, showing no mercy. Of course we needed the vessel to ourselves, so a mutiny was planned and the captains were to be kicked off the boat when they arrived in port. Grandiose plans and a stellar group of shipmates.... Colombia here we come!

Derelict Spanish fort at Portobello

The Bloods of the Seas minus the photographer.
Finally getting ferried to our sailboat.

Eager to finally get the hell out of Panama, we boarded our new home and left port for the open seas. The captains seemed legit, and fun to have around so we spared them from walking the plank and meeting their watery end in Davy Jones' Locker, for now. With 11 people and 2 cats, the small boat was cramped but cozy, and it was a good thing that backpackers and overlanders are a very flexible group of people who can assimilate to any situation. We were given the two beds in the bow of the ship, our "room" complete with porthole windows giving us a nice ocean breeze. The first night was filled with a fresh fish dinner, lots of laughs, plently of rum drinks, and a making of a "Blood Cees" music playlist. Life was good. We were bobbing around on a boat, the temperature was perfect, our stock of booze was fresh, and the music and company was fun.

Our beds in the bow
The captains actually trusted Mallary at the helm!

The next few days were spent in a sort of rhythm of waking up early to grey skies, sailing for a while on the open seas, and stopping at various islands. The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of 350+ islands (give or take depending on the tide) 60 or so of which are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna tribal people, some of the larger isalnds with a whole functioning community and some with just a couple families. The Kuna are a matriarchal society of island dwelling natives that until recently, did not even wear clothes. They exercise a form of self governance and for the most part, choose to be isolated from Panamanian life in a semiautonomous region. On a visit to one of the larger islands, our captains set us up with a rare English speaking Kuna man named Cannabis. Cannabis is a very happy and upbeat guy who makes jewlery, is passionate about the Kuna people and lifestyle, and believes in all things good and natural... including mermaids and smoking lots and lots of weed. We took a tour of the island, it was complete with bamboo houses with thatched roofs and satellite dishes, a school, convienince store and bakery. The Kuna people are unusual because although they have been exposed to modern day life and amenities, they still choose to live fairly simply and have their own unique style of clothing and body jewelry that is stunning. Unlike many other indigenous people groups, they have stood up for themselves in the face of tourism, and make it very clear that visitors need to respect their land. A person can be imprisoned for taking/stealing a coconut, even from an uninhabited island, because each coconut is a wage brought into a family. If you would like to take a picture of a Kuna person, they have made it known that you must first ask and also pay them a fee of a dollar per photo. It seems that some Kuna families like the tourism that brings them a bit more money through selling fish, lobster, coconuts, and even cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs! Others seem quite annoyed at our presence.

Urban San Blas, uninhabited San Blas, and rural San Blas
Kuna neighborhood
Kuna out for floaters!
Chris and Adam on a beer run primitive style - dugout canoe.


The sailing trip was originally supposed to be 4 nights and 5 days, mostly which were to be spent island hopping since our end destination was in Capurgana rather than all the way to Cartagena. Those first few days were bliss. We constantly laughed, appreciated boat life, caught a Dogtoothed Tuna off the side of the boat, layed around on deck, watched the dolphins race with the boat, ate fresh lobster on a picture perfect white sand island, snorkled around, played volleyball, and soaked up the sun that peeked through the clouds every once in a while. The captains taught us a bit about sailing, had us help with certain takses like working the ropes and the anchor, and even steering! The captains started off thrilled to have such a chill and happy group onboard, and they would hang out with us all, telling stories of life on the lawless sea. Real life pirate stories that involved shipwrecks, attempted and successful murders, floating marked bags of drugs, Coast Guard searches, and various gossip about all the rest of the crazy captains. All was good even though each night we would get hit by some pretty fierce rain, causing the three people sleeping up on deck to have quite the uncomfortable time. (The boat was obviously overbooked, and one passenger and both captains did not have beds, but slept on deck in the rain... probably one cause for the crankiness of the captians as the days went on!) But still, each morning we would all awaken and be pumped about a new day at sea, sailing around the San Blas Islands, and each evening consisted of more laughs and more good music, even as the captains seemed less and less thrilled about this hodge podge group of travelers living on their boat!

The cat knows what's up
Where my girls at?!?

We approached the last day of the trip, when our captain told us that we would spend one extra day and night at sea. It seemed like an ok idea at first, but as we awoke the next morning, the reality sunk in that we would be trapped on this floating prison for another day. All of a sudden the boat felt a little bit smaller. The guys sleeping on the floor next to the litter box grew tired of their lot, the water was running low, the deck was filled with clothes and towels that got soaked each night in the rain, the cabin was starting to smell like perma-fart, the quality and quantity of the meals was lacking, and we were all weary of the daily "breakfast" of dry off-brand corn flakes. On top of that, it seemed like the captains were partying just as much as us passengers at this point, and although the two of us never had issue with them, our wonderful Turkish smartass of a captain managed to severly offend half the passengers on board after a few too many drinks. The tension in the air was suffocating, and all the sudden it was not the same blissful sailboat trip it started out as! Not to mention, we were low on pirate juice... RUM!

Life on the boat
Trying to expedite the Turkish meatballs

As the boat grew smaller and smaller by the minute, we all decided an adventure was due, and we suited up to take an epic swim out to "One Tree Island" which we all had set our eyes on the evening before. An actual island with only one tree, not even half an acre in size! The swim looked long, but with all nine of us in, we put our cameras in dry bags and kicked our way to the island for a romantic getaway and a chance to gripe about the annoyances of life on the boat! We discussed how the mutany could still happen and came up with elaborate plans of this takeover. The boat was clearly driving us all nuts, but hey it was just one more night... knowing that we were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively, eased the pain. Satisfied with being off the boat we stayed in the water until the last minute, when we were due to depart the islands and sail towards land overnight. We all got back on the boat, ready to hit the seas, only to hear news that we would be delayed yet another night, due to a bad weather forecast of storms! We groaned about it, but in the end had no choice. It almost felt like the captains were punishing us by keeping us hostage on the boat for one more day, again!!

Is it farther than it looks, or closer... You must swim to find out!
Our island out in the distance
A successful island takeover by Bloods of the Seas
1 Tree Island

Lucky for us another boat showed up and anchored close by for the evening. This boat was a little more luxurious than our ride, and at this point jealousy was setting in. We all looked over at the big catamaran longingly, and wondered what it must be like. That night we joined the other boat for a bonfire party on the beach. Thankfully, their boat (unlike ours) came equipped with a working dingy and amiable captain who gave us all a ride to the island. It only took a few hours on the island with the other boat for us all to realize that although our boat was smaller and less equipped, we had it going on as far as passengers went! We took in their braggy stories about their fresh baked bread each morning, excessive food, private cabins, sufficient snorkle gear, and on and on. Like a middle school dance we slowly but surely divided into two distinct groups at the bonfire, them and us. Turns out even the girl crazy single Ozzie guys would rather hang out with the Bloods of the Seas than the other boat people! ;) We all seemed to come to a great conclusion that night. We realized that the nine of us were not the kind of people who wanted that fancy boat trip... We were pirates, who valued the camaraderie that brought us together through our experiences on the overcrowded sail boat and all the comical miseries. We were getting the real pirate sailing experience...

The next day we took a very curious detour to another island to eat a Kuna lunch, and 5 hours later passed by our little One Tree Island again, leaving us all scratching our heads at to what in the heck was going on here. Why were we not in Colombia yet?!? The atmosphere on the boat was tense, but the sails were up and we were finally headed in the right direction, towards mainland! The plan was to sail through thle night and arrive in Colombia by early morning. That last night was particuarly funny because it was totally clear that we all wanted to be off the boat, and soon! The helm was too small for us all to sit, the seas were a bit rough and the boat was head on into some big swells, none of us could stand straight, a few were feeling seasick, and there was no place to go! The icing on the cake was that tonight, in the tiny kitchen, on the rocking seas, it was "cook your own damn dinner" night! We each took turns struggling to remain upright and not upchuck all over the cabin, while cooking ourselves a hamburger on a sizzling pan precariously tied down to the stove to prevent it from careening across the galley and sending scalding grease everywhere as we hit the waves!

That last night on the boat we all took an extra dose of dramamine and let the wild waves rock us to sleep. We awoke the next morning to smooth sailing alongside the impenetrable Darien Gap. That mysterious chunck of jungle that has dictated the last few weeks of our trip was right there in front of our faces. It is a rare piece of land that is still as wild as it has been for centuries, yet harbors many mysterious animals, indigenous peoples, and drug smugglers. We may be 3 days late and questioning our choosen route to Colombia, but we couldn't wait to set foot on Colombian soil and start the new adventure of South America!
The perfect book for a jaunt out to sea.
The Darien Gap in the background


Friday, August 21, 2015

Panama: The Bad and The Ugly

We have all had them... days or weeks where the world seems to be against you, and where something or other just keeps going wrong. It may be the most minor things, but all clumped together, you are just flat out having a bad day! Well, that was the majority of Panama for us. To be very honest, Panama has been our least favorite country thus far. It was full of hassles, traffic, crazy drivers, poor service, swindlers, and rude people. Not just ordinary rude, this was next level rude that almost pushes you to the breaking point. Part of this definitely has to do with the fact that we were forced to spend some time in cities just waiting around for paperwork or the right time to process something or other with our vehicle. Nevertheless, this time deserves a chapter for recollection in our travel diary. (Caution, this post may be boring if you are not an overlander interested in the Darien Gap shipping process. Also, if you ever thought that this travel thing was all beautiful beaches and big adventures and fun, then here is a little look into the small things that we do day to day to make it happen. Little things like the stuff we talk about in this post, go wrong and unmentioned all the time, but in Panama they were back to back and relentless!) To clarify why we must ship the car, there is a large area of land at the Panama/Colombia border called the Darien Gap. This mountainous area of impassable thick jungle, armed rebels, and threatened indigenous groups is dangerous and has no roads connecting the two countries, matter of fact this is the only broken section of the PanAmerican Highway from Alaska to the tip of South America. Both governments have agreed to keep it this way as a disease, immigration and drug smuggling barrier. For those of us with vehicles, we must ship it from the Carribean port of Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.

First off, we left out something in the last blog, merely because it is better suited here... The part where after we left Boquete we went back to the border to have our temporary vehicle import permit revised. When we entered the country, we were given a handwritten Temporary Import Permit (TIP) that was lacking a VIN, motor number, and port of exit. We had a bad feeling that it was insufficient, but they insisted to us that it was okay. A few days later we verified that it was indeed crap, and would not be accepted to ship the car. We decided that taking a one hour detour back to the border would be easier than finding the Aduana (Customs) in Panama City. WRONG! Very wrong. Although it was clearly their fault for giving us an unaccaptable document, they refused to fix it without us leaving the country. That meant exiting Panama, going back in and out of Costa Rica, and then entering Panama to create a new TIP. Here we go again, they must know that border crossings are our favorite thing! ;) (To save on fees we only had Chris do it, and we never actually took the car out and back in, we just hid it, since they only needed a new entry stamp in Chris' passport to begin the process). This go around, EVERYTHING took a little longer and there were at least 4 or 5 additional hassles and steps included that somehow we dodged last time. This included being harrassed because our license plate is all letters, not having $500 cash on us, and dealing with lazy inefficient personal. After nearly three hours of this, we are finaly back in Panama with the correct version of paperwork! Whew! Chris now has an entire page of his passport stamped out as a lovely reminder of the ordeal.

Waiting, waiting, and waiting
Welcome to Panama, again!
Panama Customs Office. Lady with our papers digging in her purse to find her phone and send a text, man in the back straight up watching a movie... That is how they roll.

We need a police inspection done on the vehicle within a week of shipping, so we set our bearings towards Panama City. On the way we took a detour in search of an elusive waterfall campsite using some vague directions from our Lonely Planet. We made loops around the area only to end up at a dump, literally! We gave up on the waterfall and continued on while trying constantly for a bit a wifi to check our email because we are still trying to find the best way to get ourselves to Colombia! Wifi is hard to get and we found ourselves sitting in a booth at McDonalds (a place we would never be found at home) one too many times trying desperately for email updates!! That night we show up at what we thought was a RV campground, that would have been perfect for the next two nights, but of course, the campground is closed with a "For Sale" sign posted. No surprise, this happens sometimes... so we end up in a parking lot on the beach for the night... in the pouring rain! The next day we are in the same predicament. Need wifi, have no place to go, and not willing to shell out the money for a hotel for the next week. For some reason we decide going to the biggest mall in Central America will be the cure to our problems. But of course Panama conspired against us. We tried over a dozen coffee shops, diners, and other miscellaneous food joints asking for the wifi password if we bought food or drinks. Two outcomes would occur: either told "no wifi" even though there would be a half dozen people sitting around on their laptops, or the staff would not even look at us or speak to us (so much so we felt like we were in our own episode of the Twilight Zone - the Invisible Shoppers). On top of that, the mall advertised free wifi...which did not work. Sadly, when stuck in a city with nothing to do we improvised by spending our day by harnessing our inner senior citizens and basically did laps around the nice cool airconditioned mall for exercise for the rest of the day, then treated ourselves to a "fancy" dinner at TGIFridays (funny how the idea of fancy changes when you havent gotten a paycheck in 5 months)! Being a mall rat was a certainly a low point.

Not the waterfall we were hoping for!
Thankful for our awning!
The nicest guy in the mall

Throughout the country we had continually bumped into Michael and Veronika, and they had told us about a road that overlanders have been camping on for the past few decades within the city limits. Before there was internet to arrange all our shipping needs, overlanders would converge near the Balboa Yacht Club to arrange such details. Til this day it remains one of the only options for car camping in Panama City, so we were there! We spent a good chunk of the next day going back and forth from the police station for two seperate apointments, car inspection in the morning, and return again in the afternoon to pick up the paperwork. The inspection went smoothly, however driving in this abysmal city was painstaking, and to make matters worse we took a wrong turn end ended up on a toll road. We approached the toll booth and found that all three lanes required an electronic pass leaving no cash option. We awkwardly stopped in front of one of the gates and hollared into one of the booth windows, trying to get the point across that we did not have a pass. An older toll booth operator stepped out and asked to see Chris' license, so we handed him what he wanted. He looked it over, then lifted the gate and told us to pull over just past the booth, success! The toll operator walked up and demanded $10 otherwise he would not give back the liscense, wait WHAT!! Hell no, the toll was only $2, which we argued. He was stuck on $10, so Mallary flipped into her relentless persuasion mode and after ten minutes of debate he gave back the license and let us go with a "warning." A demand for a bribe and a warning from a toll booth operator was a first for both of us which til this day we still laugh about. Good try Panama, but we beat you this time.

Balboa Yacht Club street camping
The projects across from the police station.
Lets hang out here for a while to get an inspection

While at the Yacht Club we managed to take a nice bike ride over the causeway to some little island, which was cool except for the fact that the amazing view to the city scape was constantly blocked by a construction fence! Lame.

The view we should've had... :(

To be fair we had some good times in Panama City also... We had one great day at the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks, watching huge boats sqeeze through the tiny canal and touring the very cheesey museum. Watching the ships go up and down in the locks, assisted by little side cars was very cool, and we appreciated the man made wonder in front of us. It was a good time and even more than that it was very symbolic in our trip, seeing the Panama Canal was a "holy crap look how far we've come!" We also had a nice outing to the Casco Viejo neighborhood with Michael and Veronika. It was cute and worth a walk around a historic part of the city with our overlanding amigos.

Enjoying Casco Viejo with our buddies


Although we had plenty of good company to share the time with near the Yacht Club, this spot is not the most ideal for us. After waking up first thing in the morning and running down to the docks looking for a bathroom, having to get a key to the dirty little bathroom from a guard, and be eyed rather suspiciously by the dock bums two mornings in a row... we were over it! We ditched the pee smelling hot road near the Yacht Club for what we thought was a unique little Airbnb type hotel/house for a night. We got stuck in traffic for hours, and finally arrived to a weird and creepy house with a controling and rude expat owner from Brooklyn. We needed just one more night in Panama City before heading to the port city of Colon, which carries the worst reputation in Panama. We venture out trying to finish up a few shipping errands like sending emails, printing our all important Bill Of Lading, and depositing the payment into a bank account to rid ourselves of the $1,010 cash we had ready to pay for the car. It is getting late and we made one wrong turn in traffic that set us back another hour, and Chris was at his wits end! Seriously, have you ever missed a turn and it taken you an hour to come back to it?? It is hot as hell, traffic is stop and go- mostly stop, and we are cruising along some rough parts of town with vendors trying to stick their various products in our windows every few minutes! Fuming and all patience exhausted, Chris declares "we are stopping at the next hotel we come across no matter what the cost." Sure enough, the next hotel turns out to be quite fancy....the price can be classified as "way the heck over our budget" but we chuck it up to costs affiliated to the shipping process and live it up in style for a night! :)

So. Much. Fun.
It was finally time to go to Colon! We were so ready to just get this whole Darien Gap shipping business done with, as it felt like it was drawn out enough by now. We show up to a cool campground/hotel/farm place called La Granja y Adventura and are greeted by our SCLine shipping pals Michael & Veronika and Guntor & Sissi. Thank goodness for a bit of comradery for this process, because where nothing was difficult, much of it required patience and time. We all hung out at the farm preparing for shipping. For us that meant fitting everything we have under the sleeping platform so we could board it up at the port. The weather was perfect, and the company couldn't have been better. We all caravan to the port and get started on trying to decipher our shipping agent's instructions. A very sweet Uruguayan overlanding family joins us, and we all stick together, going from one office to the next. Three hours later the paperwork is done, car has been inspected, the sleeping platform is boarded up, and we hand over the key to a young guy who jumped in, slowly turned to look at us, smiled with a sinister mouth of gold teeth and sped away. Just like that we watch Lola disappear into the sea of cars parked at the port.
So. Much. Fun.
Our sail boat booking is finally confirmed, the car is finally on its way to Colombia, and we are feeling good! We adventure around the farm a bit, hang out with our awesome overlanding buddies, and officially become backpackers for the next 2 weeks. A whole new adventure is on the horizon.
So. Much. Fun.
Nothing but smiles from here on out