Monday, January 28, 2008

Bocas del Toro

Waterfront housing

A cluster of islands floating in the Caribbean Sea, where everyone talks like they stepped off the set of Cool Runnings, and travel is largely an aquatic affair.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Visiting a town named after me was an exciting prospect. David is the third largest city in Panama, but disappointingly, resembles nothing more than a slightly larger Braidwood, hell-hole of my childhood. Apparently, over one hundred thousand people live in David, but I’ve got no idea where they all live, or what they might do, or why they are there.

We stayed in a hostel coloured entirely purple, run by an authoritarian American with a deep love of rules. The walls were plastered with signs describing the proper procedures for living at the Casa Morada (Purple House), even decreeing the correct method for making the coffee from the urn weaker (add water). We went bowling one night, but the alley was a super-modern, highly polished and computerised affair with none of the charm or unpredictability of Twin Lanes in La Paz. I may just be bitter because I lost so convincingly.

Even the horrendously overweight dog had been purple-ised, and seemed suitably depressed about it


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Panama City- The Lure of The Known

The Unknown is generally what draws people toward travel (the embarrassing legions of Australians on drinking tours of the capital cites are an exception), the conquering of the Unknown being exciting, frightening, confusing but, above all, rewarding. But after ten months of dealing with The South American Unknown, to come across the most basic of previously missing familiarities (i.e. the Known) is like discovering a whole new world.

I’m referring to what we found in Panama City. Some of the simplest ingredients of living in Oz are rarities in South America (and many of them simply don’t exist). Panama City was a territory of the United States up until eight years ago, which means many of these fundamentals occur ‘naturally’ in this corner of the world. Drinking water from the tap was something we hadn’t done for a while, and there was a vast, seemingly inexhaustible selection of peanut butters on display in the huge, American style supermarket. Most exciting of all was the discovery of fresh milk. All the milk in South America is super processed to give it a longer shelf-life and a horrible plastic taste, but in Panama it’s packed fresh into cartons and is sold from the fridge! There were other exciting foods as well; a selection of proper cheeses (cheddar, camembert AND cottage), Cadbury chocolate, and the hostel was situated right next door to a New York bagel shop.

Trying to explain the hedonistic significance of eating a bowl of cereal for dinner, or being able to choose between smooth or crunch sounded ridiculous even to my ears as I spoke with people back home- even as I type this I realise most people will just be thinking ‘So?’. But after so long, these little missing pieces of our old lives (which we didn’t even realise were going to be missing in South America- I still clearly remember the shock of discovering that not everyone in the world eats peanut butter) meant a lot. And that’s the reason we stayed in Panama City for almost a week, without doing any tourist stuff or even going out partying. It was the simple pleasures of familiarity that kept us there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Day 7- Back to Reality

With not enough room available on the first plane, Emma and Marc had to catch the next one

Another small plane

As per usual, we were up with the sun, this time to catch our plane out of the Kuna world and into modern civilisation. Not all of us were really sure if we were ready to go back to modern culture (the Kuna live in paradise and seem unwaveringly happy), but strings had been pulled and the flights had been arranged. As our little plane climbed it became more evident just how lucky we had been to come aground where we did. We’d been told that there were over 300 uninhabited islands along this coast, so for us to come aground an easy hour’s walk from a mainland village was incredible. What people didn’t mention were the countless shallow reefs that lay scattered from the shore to a couple of kilometres out to sea. From the air, we could see random waves breaking in the middle of nowhere; if we’d rammed into one of those rock shelves we would have been in really serious trouble. It was staggering to think that we had silently and unknowingly threaded our way through a minefield of islands and rock outcrops; I’m sure if we tried we could not have crashed anywhere more ideal.

There were plenty of chances for much worse outcomes

Uncrashed ships

We hopped up the coast, at one point picking up the Japanese couple that had elected to fly rather than take an un-air-conditioned yacht where high-heels were forbidden. They were understandably stunned to hear our story, and quite relieved to have flown over the Gap. We passed over the San Blas Islands, where we saw little flocks of successful yachts moored peacefully in bays and inlets- no doubt full of happy people and adept captains. Then overland and into Panama City, where Western Civilisation is in glittering full swing. We had taken off over towns of stick-walled huts and dirt paths, and as we came into land we passed over geometric housing estates and generic clusters of seaside highrises, freeways and shopping malls.


The airport that we left from was a strip of concrete running through a grassy field. The airport we landed in was disturbingly clean and right-angled, with coffee-shops, uniforms, shiny tiles and huge panes of glass. It was a spectacle that I felt a little strange to be thrust into so suddenly. This final leg of our journey linked the two most contrasting places I’ve been to. The background music and fluorescent lights felt incredibly confronting, and the Kuna ladies scattered about the airport in their traditional clothes added to the weirdness of the whole scene.

We gulped coffee and muffins while we waited for the hostel car to come pick us up; we were back in the real world. Sending un unlicensed driver to somewhere heavily traffic-policed (like an airport pickup point) was not a good move on the part of our hostel, and added another good chunk of waiting time. While the driver was copping it, we jumped into taxis and went to the hostel. With a moderately warm shower and mass submission to the siren song of the TV, the adventure was over.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Day 6- Human Playground Equipment

Farewell party in Mansucum

Yet more boating

The boat

We boarded our canoe early in the morning. The trip to the next town took only an hour, but it was long enough to deduce that eight hours of this kind of travel would be unbearable at best. In an open longboat, any bump in the water seems huge, and the swell today had us rollercoasting through the sea. I spent the best part of the trip on coconut duty, bailing water out of the bottom of the boat using a half-shell, while those in the front were thoroughly soaked by the spray off the bow. At Ustupu, it was discovered that if we pooled the money from el Capitaine, we could take a plane directly to Panama City, and it would only cost us a few more dollars each. Our flight was organised for the next day.

When you pull a camera out, the children strangle each other and then make hand gestures

The locals in Ustupu were incredibly welcoming. We had our passports checked, and then sat down for coffee and soft drinks with some of the local leaders. We had been in a constant state of exhaustion since the shipwreck, which wasn’t helped through living by the Kuna bodyclock, and we were quickly set up with accommodations so we could rest some more. We slept the afternoon away, before being given lunch by our minder for our stay, Toyo. After eating, Toyo took us on a tour of Ustupu, which was quite bit bigger than Mansucum, and more used to gringos. The children were utterly fearless, and used us as human jungle gyms and punching bags for as long as we could stand it. For the entire afternoon, at least one of us had at least one child hanging from our arms or necks as we wandered around town.

These ladies represent three generations of Kuna. The women wear traditional dress, but the men wear western clothes

These are the beads they wear on their legs

(Click to continue: Back to Reality)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Day 5- Legal Battles

Sunrise on incompetence

We awoke to the dulcet tones of J2 expressing how well he thought he’d handled the rodent crisis of the previous evening. Awakening the entire village, he thought, was a perfectly rational, understandable reaction to a mouse attack (well apparently those teeth were F**KING HUGE!!). He went so far as to say that any of us would have done the same thing, adding ‘I think I handled it very calmly’, and we would have probably screamed a lot louder for a lot longer…

We learnt that a trip to our stricken vessel had been planned; apparently 100 of the locals were on their way there to try and pull the boat closer to shore. Nobody knew why the boat needed to be closer, but we decided to join in the effort anyway. We travelled to Ground Zero, where a camp had been set up and ropes were being busily attached to the boat and palm trees. The pair of strings hooked onto the boat looked laughably insufficient to haul the vessel across the sandfloor, but the enthusiasm of the locals had the potential to move anything. Every time a wave would crash into the boat, everyone would start screaming ‘Hale! Hale! Hale!’ (Pulll, pull, pull!), not together, but forming one continuous melange of bubbling voices. Nothing was going to move though, even after a pulley system was set up and an hour was spent bailing knee-deep water out of the cabin.


Local salvage crew

When the police turned up, things got a little worrisome. They offered us help, but it was a one-time deal, if we didn’t take it now, we were on our own. Thus began another guessing game surrounding the motives of our passport-holding captain. Was he coming back? Was he going to sell the documents on the black market ($3000 a pop)? Was he still in Panama? Should we just go now to Panama City and get new passports? (which would mean losing some fantastic collections of stamps). How many tins of baked beans were left in the shop? The locals showed their fiercely independent side, surrounding the Policemen and having a long, loud, disorderly argument with these representatives of the government they had kicked out eighty years ago. With shakes of fingers and heads, they advised us heavily against going with the cops, thus adding to our confusion. When word came that the police actually suspected us of being a cartel of (seriously inept- seriously ragtag) cocaine smugglers, things got tense. They dropped those suspicions quickly though, and we were free to go.

We quickly marched back to the village, eager to see if Le Capitaine had returned with our precious documents. As our canoe floated back to town, a small red plane appeared in the big blue sky, circled our boat and came into land. In the passenger window we saw the bearded dial of the Cap’n. The boat turned around, and our fearless leader climbed aboard, to be met with a short series of sharp questions. Did he have our passports? Yes. Did he have the promised plane tickets out of here? ‘We will sort it out in the village’ came the unconvincing reply.


When our boat into town, there was, as usual, a large welcoming committee awaiting us. We were ushered directly into the town hall, a basketball court sized hut with rows of pews radiating from a central area. Our group was shown to one bench seat in the front row, with le Capitaine and some of the village elders seated opposite us. Apparently, a mediation session had been pre-planned, and we were about to negotiate a way out of here. Le Capitaine's arrogance and pronounced conceit kicked into top gear as he put forward his case for washing his hands of us completely. According to him, we were now in the San Blas, he had stamped our passports and that was the fulfilment of our agreement. Such blatant contempt of his responsibilities left us quite speechless; it became obvious that we were dealing with the psyche of spoilt child trapped in the body of wretched old man. As he mocked our stunned reactions to his unfathomable statements, loathing burned inside me. This man was purely despicable- not a scrap of decency was left inside that wrinkled grey head.

This is how a coconut palm starts life

We could do nothing other than go through the motions of simply trying to extract as much money as was possible from our new Enemy Number One. On cue, J2 arrived, and seeing the huge crowd that had gathered in the hall, felt another surge of Hollywood course through his veins and pool somewhere at the base of his muscled skull. ‘Well, everyone’s here!!’ he exclaimed, throwing his arms around for effect and parading himself through the middle of the hall, in front of the elders, completely disrespecting these people who had helped us without expecting anything in return. ‘Oh, wow!!’ he hammed, a million courtroom dramas replaying inside that undersize head of his. After some more posturing, he formally disconnected himself from our group, which was fine by us, and he took a seat in the back to watch the proceedings, planning some vicious means to get his money back. He explained to us more of his past, relating stories in which he had done two years for stabbing someone (‘..and I was laughing while I did it!’) and how he wasn’t afraid of doing two more in a Panamanian prison (‘I’ll stab the whole f**ken village, too!’). We were glad to distanced from someone so viciously off-balance.

Parking lot

Following some frustrating arguments in which the captain sent hate levels skyrocketing, we agreed on him paying for us to take an outboard powered canoe to Porvenir, a mean distance from our final destination, but the best we were going to get, at least without resorting to physical violence. Which is exactly what J2 threatened soon after the decision was handed down. As le Capitaine tried to leave, the hulk of J2’s body managed to completely surround the quivering sea-bastard. Children were ushered from the hall, and a group of locals surrounded the pair. A hushed conversation went on between the two, the captain a reluctant participant, trying to squirm away but always under the control of J2’s meaty arm. They soon retired to a lockable room, where J2 had his money handed back. It’s frustrating when violence wins so effectively over reason.

Note the lack of clearance

The temptation to follow J2’s lead was strong (not the stabbing of the whole town, just the physical extraction of our cash), but it would mean dealing out a massive dose of disrespect to our wonderful hosts, who had gone far beyond their duties to help us out of this jam. We confronted the captain, but there was no change. J2 skipped town quickly, having pre-planned a ride on a boat out of there to the next village.

Dejected and depressed by the conflict we’d brought to town, we retired to our room and spent the rest of the day trying to forget about the morning. On the upside, we had our ticket out, and we would begin the trip back to reality tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Day 4- Life in the Village

Poop straight into the sea!

The Kuna rise at the unconventional and impractical hour of four. Sleeping in until eight o’clock felt like a guilty indulgence against the backdrop of people up and about cleaning and working well before the sun breaks. So we arose and made a further dent in the shop’s supply of baked beans, drank coffee and laid out our meagre supplies hastily souvenired from the boat when we abandoned ship. Things were grim if not heavily salted. What we had grabbed consisted mainly of snackfoods and noodles, the supplemental goodies we had brought on this trip ourselves in case of unsatisfying included fare. Laid out on the table, our supplies resembled the ragged contents of a student pantry; odd noodles, coffee, chips and peanuts and loose-end spices along with other scraps of gastronomic flotsam.

With nothing else to occupy us, our bellies became hot topic number one. It was decided to send a party back to the boat to recover some of the more substantial ingredients we’d seen airborne in the cabin on the first night. The major hurdle we faced in getting back to the nautical pantry was crossing the bay on which Mansucum sat. To do this we tried to enlist the help of the locals, but it seemed suspiciously like they were under strict orders not to let us back near the scene of the crime. We were given a litany of reasons as to why we could not return; the walk was too long; the boat is broken into lots of little pieces; the boat isn’t there anymore; there’s nothing on the boat anymore. Our host relayed such a list to us as he was unloading his canoe of cans of tinned food and dozens of eggs, remarkably similar to what we had seen aboard our ship previously. So we were stuck in Mansucum without food and very little money and no way of accessing either. We asked our host if we could maybe have some of the booty he’d found and his wife was now cooking up. And so began a rather sticky affair in which we were cast as the ungrateful visitors and the bane of the elderly woman who lived with our host. Old people muttering to express dissatisfaction with someone or something are a phenomenon so universal it has even shown up here, I thought as we guiltily pleaded for something to cook for dinner.

The tiny huts on stilts over the water are the toilets

After negotiations we came away with some supplies (I think they only gave us the cabbage because they had no idea what it was for). Later in the day the rest of the treasure turned up in town. It seemed that the villagers had spent all morning cleaning out the ship- virtually the entire contents of the boat were now being unloaded from canoes and causing considerable excitement among the populace. Everything was stored behind one of the only locakable doors in town in the room below our bedroom. We salvaged some damp mattresses and pillows so that we could give our hosts back the use of their living room.

As I was watching the unloading of the booty, I heard a blood-curdling miniature scream from below me. Looking down, I realised I had inadvertently surprised a wandering toddler, who had only spotted me when I was far too close for comfort. The nappied child ran in two complete circles, arms flailing above his head as his eyes filled with tears of pure horror. He saw his mother, and sprinted as fast as his stumpy legs and developing sense of balance would allow, darting behind her skirt, where he jumped onto her legs and latched upon them like a koala, still wailing in pure terror. Of course this created quite a spectacle, of which I was a main, and unwilling player. It seemed that not all the locals were used to our presence yet.

We often had an audience of brave kids at the door, even when we were asleep photo:Char

Angie and Charlotte managed to construct a curry for dinner, which we greedily inhaled before getting started on the other bottle of rum rescued from certain premature oblivion. The night passed in this fashion, and we were joined by some of the local teenagers, so there was an impromptu guitar concert before bed.

Deep in the night, we were awoken by a series of girlish screams. ‘Holy F**K! F**K F**K F**K!!! Fuck ME!! Holy JESUS!! Oh my God- F**K!!!’

Everyone freaked out at this, wondering what could elicit such an outrageous response from the ever-uber-excitable J2.

‘A f**ken SPIDER, man!! Right in my armpit!!! F**ken JESUS!!!’ Those sleeping on the floor, rather in hammocks, were a little put out by the possibillty of a “F**ken MASSIVE, man’ tarantula curiously exploring these strange new smelling beasts in what was usually an empty room. Grabbing for torches, we drowsily scouted the edges of the room. A dark flash scooted between some old paint tins. It was obviously a mouse, not nearly as worrisome as hairy arachnids. J2, worked up and still yelling about his ordeal a full five minutes later, had parked himself on a pair of plastic chairs, and now that he had made sure everyone was awake, was preparing to sleep safely suspended off the floor. ‘A mouse? A MOUSE? But did you see the size of TEETH on that mouse?!? F**king HUGE!!!’

Monday, January 14, 2008

Day 3- Sacré Bleu! That Continent Came out of Nowhere!

It was around 2am, and Hell was now breaking loose. Panicked screams and shouts came from everywhere. J2 was constantly squealing, sleepy heads appeared from the cabin wondering what the hell was happening, I was peaking out and wondering if it could just be an extraordinarily lucid dream, and le Capitaine seemed the least able to understand what was going on. A little part of me reflected happily that my previous night’s sail tearing incident had now paled into utter significance against J2’s feat of steering us directly into a rocky beach. Exactly what happened next is hard to put into order, but I do remember at one point le Capitaine gunning the engine until the smell of diesel filled the air while the boat continued to lay sideways, rotating on the side of the hull. He ran up and down the side of the boat trying to get a handle on the situation. For the entirety of the trip I’d been keenly cataloguing his collection of curses, and was now ready for what was going to be the ultimate swear. After all, nothing could be worse than this.

‘Oh… is terribleh!’ was the disappointingly unimaginative phrase le Capitaine used to sum up our dire situation as we watched whitewash tumble into the bottom of his boat. ‘The sailing is over!’ he clipped. ‘The boat is finished!’

‘The life-jackets! - In the white box next to the mast!’ he bellowed at me. I found a white box, but it was marked ‘LIFERAFT’. Fearing an embarrassing airbag type inflation of a huge orange boat if I opened that box (that really would not help now), I continued searching. Another white box was nowhere to be found- the captain, although inconceivably distracted, still managed to convey his disappoint in me. ‘The white box!!’ he foamed, rabidly ripping open the liferaft box to reveal a stack of lifejackets. Rather than take him up on the issue of a possible missing liferaft, I went below and handed out jackets to a sodden crew. The floor was covered in water, which was flowing in through the engine bay. Wide-eyed people were frantically packing essentials into daypacks. I surprised myself by electing to leave behind the camera and just take my laptop and notebook (I soon after decided to take the camera), but at the time the situation felt unquestionably grave, and any extra weight had the potential to be of mortal consequence.

As we whittled our earthly possessions down to the bare minimum, waves continued to pound into the boat, jolting us from side to side, the accompanying screams of wood on stone an abominable soundtrack. All of us gathered on deck, where the captain was in a states alternating between competent leadership and thinly disguised girlish panic. At one stage he pointed into the inky wash of the rock shelf we had perched ourselves on. ‘Can you see the high land?’ he queried. ‘Can you walk to it?’ A simplistic plan at best. Looking into the frothing black mass that lay between safety and us I wondered how deep it was and what was on the sea floor. Even in the darkness, the movement of the foam could be seen to indicate competing currents and rocky outcrops that periodically drained and were then powerfully re-covered. It was at this point it became clear that unless we were really careful, we could easily lose someone to that dark, angry soup.

Rather than take that risk, the captain instead ordered the dingy be released from the deck and lowered into the water. Thanks to the flailing sail ropes, the effort was futile. And just what he planned to do with a decrepit four person dingy in those seas without a motor (the outboard was mounted in its storage spot at the back of the boat) was unclear, if not disgusting. Soon a large wave thumped into the boat, spinning us on the undercarriage, which then acted as a fulcrum as the vessel was lifted and tipped onto its opposite side. The dingy was now perched uselessly on the ocean side of our crippled ship, 3 metres above the relentless waves.

With the dingy plan now thankfully scrapped, we reconvened at the helm. We were being gradually pushed closer and closer the beach, and were in fact off the rock shelf and limping sideways into a small, sandy bay. Although we were still being rudely shoved about, it was starting to seem that we had made it through the worst of this ordeal. The boom made one last murderous sweep across the deck, covering J2 and Dan in torn sail, and then the boat was still. We found ourselves practically on the beach, the boat nosing in leaving just a couple steps to dry sand. The ship seemed to have stabilised where we were, and it was decided by le Capitaine that we were relatively safe and would remain on the boat until dawn.

Waiting below

As a final insult, it started to rain. Even though we were all soaked, we decided to wait downstairs, where we sat in the slanted chaos telling riddles and jokes to distract from the situation while le Capitaine busied himself fixing the engine so that we could access our supply of drinking water. The mood inside a wrecked ship is not as subdued as you might think. With enough distraction, it was almost possible to forget about the madness we were in the middle of, but the episodic thumping of waves and the fact that everything was 30 degrees off plum disallowed complete denial.

First light

The sun eventually came up, along with the tide. We were now about 25 metres from the beach, waist deep water swishing toward land. Stretched out in front of us was a flat coastline of small bays and high palm trees, uninterrupted by any sign of human interference. Now it really kicked in. We were shipwrecked. Nobody knew we were here. We didn’t know where we were. We had finite supplies. Worse still, we had to do something about it.

Now came the Survivor Moment. It’s that point when people find themselves in a situation and leaders emerge from the pack and the camera pauses and cuts to black and white zooms and there’s low bass playing along with the odd alarmist synthesiser chord. We’ve seen it a billion times on TV and now I was watching it for real, minus cheesy visual effects and editing clichés. Basically, the captain had checked his maps, deducted that we were 120 miles from our intended destination, but there was a village thirty-five miles along the coast. After a display of incompetence on a scale such as this, I was loathed to trust le Capitaine’s map reading skills, and was prepared for some careful deliberation regarding our next move.

Not J2, though. In one of many straight-from-Hollywood performances he extolled the virtue of jumping headlong into this situation without any thought or serious consideration as to its consequences whatsoever.

Pacing the skewed deck with the kind of pure ham that would make Jerry Bruckheimer cast him as the lead if this ever made it to the cinema, he began a powerfully ridiculous soliloquy. I could hear the cheez-whiz orchestra playing in his head. ‘Nobody knows we’re here’ (ominous bass) ‘So we can just sit here and wait around until some comes find us, man’ (cue strings working themselves into triumphant crescendo) ‘or we can DO something, man!’ (cymbals clashing) ‘well I’m not gonna wait here, I’m gonna DO something!’ (orchestral orgasm) ‘MAAAAAN!!!!’ Any attempt to convince him just to take stock for a mere five minutes was met with contemptuous laughter and a look of incredulity that you would oppose such admirable American Can-Do, soldier.

We tried to calm him down, but his melodramatic enthusiasm could not be subdued. The fact that the thirty-five mile measurement was a straight line, not taking into consideration the fact that he would be walking on sand around semi-circular bays did not worry him. ‘We’ll do it in a day, man!’ The fact that this village was there only according to the el Capitaine, who had recently navigated us right into a continent, did not deter him. ‘He’s the Captain!’ J2 recruited Paul into his quest. The slapdash plan was to eat a handful of vitamin pills, have a drink of fruit juice and then take a bottle of water on an ‘easy’ hike along the beach.

As they were preparing to leave, three figures appeared on the beach. They waved for us to come onto the beach. There was general reluctance aboard the ship to leave, this being, potentially, the Darien Gap, a hive of Colombian guerrilla activity. Suspicion had us indecisive. The people on the beach were looking puzzled that a boatful of people who were obviously in serious trouble were not making any moves to move toward help. I decided to go and at least say hello, and Paul was preparing to come with me. J2, noticing the machete one of the men was holding (which didn’t seem weird at all after travelling through farming regions of South America) felt a surge of his signature paranoia and urged me to take along a fishing knife. Just exactly he was expecting me to use the knife for I could only guess, and I found it simply insane that he thought a situation would arise where I would need to use a knife against our best hope of surviving this situation. While I was yelling at him about stupidity and irrational violence and he was giving me the rundown on how ‘things work where I’m from’, our captain had jumped ship and was discussing our plight with the locals.

While we waited on the boat, he negotiated a meal and a bed for us. J2 passed the time by giving Paul and Dan a rather unwanted lesson in self defense: “Stab ‘em right in the heart, man. Dead. If they stab you, you won’t even feel it”. El Capitaine indicated for us to remove everything we owned from the boat and prepare for short hike to the closest village, which was only an hour’s walk from our current position, in the opposite direction to which we were about to send out the search party. Another big black disturbing mark against le Capitaine’s map reading abilities. We gathered our bags on the beach, and I revelled in the feeling of solid ground, while J2 fingered the fishing knife in his pocket.

Our admirable captain spoke to us, saying that now was not the time for apologies, that we should just get to help first, and then deal with the consequences of what had just happened. We naively took this to mean that he was going to apologise, but that never eventuated. Apparently, he felt no guilt whatsoever about all this, and in fact he was expecting us to apologise to him for crashing the ship. J2, still on a paranoia trip, decided he would take the machete from the elderly man who was leading us to help. His suspicions were piqued by the fact that the man tried to hold onto the tool as J2 literally ripped it from his grasp.

We walked along a track cutting through groves of coconut palms and low green succulents radiating intense heat. At this point we still didn’t even know where we were- it could have been the mid-coast of Panama, we could have been in the Colombian stretch of the Darien Gap. Crashing into Cuba would not have surprised me after le Capitaine’s dismal exhibition of navigation. As it turned out, we were in Panama, around 100km from the Colombian border, and very far from our intended destination. After a harsh march through scrubby foreshore, we came upon an airfield, and then a collection of dugout canoes. The canoes were there to transport us along the final leg of the journey to village, which lay on the opposite side of a picturesque inlet. The canoes were overloaded with us and our possessions, and for half an hour I cradled my camera and computer on my chest, as water lapped over the front of the canoe and ran down my back as I lay in the front (by keeping low, I doubled as ballast).

Waiting on the shore of the village was half the population. This was Mansucum, an isolated hamlet made up of stick huts with thatched roofs. It’s a place where white people generally don’t come, because they have competent captains steering their vessels. So we were quite an oddity. As we moved through the crowd, people stared and children reached out to touch our bizarre skin. Many of the kids were overcome by fear, and raced away (some in tears) as we walked down the paths, and sets of eyes could be seen peering through the gaps in the stick-walled houses. When we arrived at our host’s home, a huge crowd had gathered near the door and were keenly observing the behaviour of the visitors. Paul tried to break the ice with some of the kids by kicking a soccer ball to them, but this only sent them scrambling for cover, screaming as though he was brandishing a weapon of some sort.

Mansucum is a village in the province of Comarca Kuna Yala, which is a semi-autonomous zone of Panama that extends from Colombia to El Porvenir. The people are known as Kuna, and they are of an independent psyche, having overthrown Panamanian rule in their region in the 1920’s. They govern the region, and impose taxes on all visitors (the proceeds of which they use to build infrastructure), and they also prohibit the sale or rental of any Kuna land to non-Kuna people. They don’t pay taxes to Panama, and have a social hierarchy that is completely dependant on age. We learnt all this during our stay, and it was heartening to see an indigenous people so in control of their destiny, especially coming from South America, where every history lesson seems to include some reference to the destruction or enslavement of a group of natives.

They cooked us lunch and set up hammocks in the living room for us, and we ate, finally feeling safe and even approaching a state of restfulness. We decided to talk to el Capitaine regarding the terms of our agreement, and negotiate a way to settle the matter of us being so far from where he promised to take us. Really, we wanted some hep to get out of there and a partial refund. El Capitaine apparently was unable to see that he had any responsibility to assist, and he reacted to our queries with brutally stunning arrogance. His popularity among the crew had been on a steady decline since the incident involving the rocks and the bottom of the boat, but the act of effectively stranding us here without money or supplies saw his approval rating plummet ferociously. A large argument ensued, the stresses of the ordeal releasing themselves all over the main thoroughfare of town. There was ugly yelling and pointing and the captain suddenly lost his ability to understand English or women, and would only respond to French spoken by males. I don’t think the locals had seen anything like it before, and they did their best not to look like they were looking (we were unknowingly committing a nasty social faux pas- Kuna custom dictates that anyone older than you deserves complete and utter respect- even if they are an idiot). To complicate things, a representative of the Panamanian Civil Protection Authority turned up, and we were now faced with the dilemma of trusting an ununiformed, unidentifiable but seemingly sane stranger, or leaving our unreliable and erratic captain to sort us out. While we were running around town, calling consulates on the village’s only phone and trying to make sense of the whole state of affairs, he boarded the lobster delivery plane, taking our passports to be stamped in the nearest large town (not getting them stamped would have landed him, and us, in even more of a quandary). He promised to return the next day, even though there was no plane scheduled to arrive that day.

Mansucum photo: Mary

Once the Captain was gone, we found ourselves with little to do (apart from indulging in wild speculation about how this situation would develop) so we slept the deep sleep of survivors. Half our party was moved to a larger space, the top floor of the only double story building in town. It was here that we spent our evening, dining on cold baked beans and soft drink, purchased from the surprised shopkeeper, while we thought of our supplies patiently awaiting cooking on the stricken boat. We had salvaged a two-litre bottle of rum from the disaster, and used it to put ourselves back to sleep.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Day 2- LIfe on the Moderate Seas

Cap'n Angie

When we awoke, the only sign of the previous night’s chaos was the fruit and vegetables scattered throughout the boat and my recently acquired nervous disposition. Charlotte woke to find she was sharing her bed with a cabbage, and there were potatoes rolling about all over the deck. The sun was out, and the sea was subdued. Over a breakfast of papaya and coffee we talked about the experience of last night. More than one of our group had been sure that it was the end, but le Capitaine assured us that ten metres swells made for a dangerous sea, and the mere four to five of last night were nothing to worry about.

The day continued calmly- a smooth ocean, a hot sun and nothing to do but enjoy the sense of supreme isolation that comes with not seeing land for a full day. Around lunchtime, le Capitaine hoisted another sail and cut the engine. This sail proceeded to develop small tears, the kind that last night led to the complete destruction of the other sail. ‘Shot!’ cried the captain, as he rehung the sail to avoid destroying it entirely.

Cap'n Dave photo:Charlotte

The sun set, and the boat continued calmly and silently on into the moonlight. The silence of the night seemed amplified by our situation- emptiness around us, no noise except the splashing of waves and creaking of the wooden boat. I tried to sleep, but the knowledge that my shift at the wheel would be soon upon me prevented me from getting any real rest. When finally I did fall asleep, I was awoken fifteen minutes later to take control. It was the last snippet of proper sleep I would get until the following afternoon.

Cap'n Char

I sat at the wheel, the seas calm enough for me to steer with my foot, keeping Orion’s Belt behind the mast- a soothing contrast to the dramatic anxiety of last night. Nothing happened. I watched the stars, listened to Ocean Songs by Dirty Three (surely the best ocean themed album I’ve ever heard) on the iPod and felt genuinely grateful that I could relax. Near to the end of my shift, J2 appeared on deck. He was having coughing fits, and was convinced he had somehow contracted bronchitis thanks to being out in the weather last night. To prove it, he summoned up a theatrical cough and let it loose, leaning into me as he barked, his rasping mouth not half a foot from my ear as he wheezily and purposefully exhaled. A little put out by this, I nominated him to take over from me so I could sleep.

Below deck, I crawled into bed to be rocked to sleep by the gentle sea. The constant alternation between feeling weightless and then being pressed into the mattress sent me into a blissful state between consciousness and deep sleep.

What ripped me from this supreme relaxation, jut as I was settling into a proper coma, were two sickening sounds somewhere between bangs and scrapes, along with a sloping sensation in which the boat tipped sideways and remained at an unnatural angle. There was some shouting from above, J2 yelling something about an island. I ran upstairs and saw whitewash rolling into the side of the lame boat. On the other side of the ship the fuzzy silhouette of palm trees could be seen not too far off through the moonless darkness. Welcome to Central America…