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.

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