Thursday, 27 December 2012

Paradise lost and found

Paradise Found?



A typical decision in my life circa 2009 -
Mr Jones is complaining of abdominal pain, should I rush him to theatre for an appendisectomy?

A typical decision circa 2012 -
If I buy some mayonnaise today, will it last until Tuesday?

For a time escaping the shackles of meaningful decision making was a cosy spin-off to life on the road though eventually it's becomes nice to have a proper quandary to mull over, and one that doesn't involve dairy produce. Whilst choosing the right boat and captain for the sea crossing from Colombia to Panama may not be on par with deciding the fate of Mr Jones' intestinal system, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. An Australian girl I ran into in Lima had a tale of woe which went something like:

Incompetent, drunk captain = irreparably damaged boat = Titanic-like emergency in open ocean = evacuation into a life raft and loss of all possessions.

Rumour had it that El Capitan had sabotaged the crossing for an insurance pay out on the sunken vessel making 'Disreputable Sea Dogs' another on my evolving list of 'Crazy Shit To Worry About' right below hurricanes, tsunamis, pirates and shark attack. An even more common difficulty on the grapevine was that of boats running out of food mid-crossing, I added this to the top of my mental list, above tsunami, and wondered whether an enforced hunger strike would drive me first to suicide or to mutiny and cannibalism. Just in case I decided that choosing a boat with a chubby captain and tender looking first mate would be a sensible insurance policy.

After a year biking through Africa the name of one craft though steals my attention - The African Queen, a forty foot Catamaran. Tentatively I sign up and arrive early at the harbour, swiftly followed by my fellow sea farers, and after quick meet and greets we head to the supermarket for the much more important booze run. We return to stash our main luggage in the hold and each of us carry a small rucksack for the voyage, mine is 50% beer, 25 % rum and 25% stuff I probably don't need. Our motley posse includes a lanky Dutchman, a Finnish honeymooning couple, a Swizz couple and a duo of hard drinking Aussie lads. Our captain is Rudy, a veteran sailor in his late 40's with blond curly neck length locks and bronzed skin who is donning a black bandanna, Oakley's and surf shorts - my first impression is somewhere between Garth from Wayne's World and a beach bum with more than a touch of pirate thrown in. He's quadriligual, although swears only in window-shatteringly loud Italian, and an incredible chef, a fact that comes to light as he serves up our first meal, Octopus Risotto and I make a mental note - always sail with an Italian Captain. The only other member of crew is Rudy's Colombian totty - a curvaceous, spicy mamacita twenty years his junior who sports inch long bright pink nails, a host of bracelets, Gucci sunglasses (one of around twenty pairs hanging up inside the cabin) and has a penchant for marijuana. She is as ocean savvy as your average agoraphobic. All this makes her in my view simultaneously both the absolute best and absolute worst First Mate for an ocean voyage. Rudy, I'm guessing, senses no such dichotomy.



There's something reassuring about the Darien Gap, the hunk of wild, indomitable territory that divides Panama and Colombia. In a world where people have driven cars to the North Pole, have jumped to earth from space and have cycled across the surface of frozen lakes, the Darien is still sin careterra and whilst there are rough trails, most consider the region impassible, at least for the rational of mind. It seems that if I did completely abandoned my senses and began an unsupported swim from Colombia to Panama I might have a slightly better time of it than a land crossing across the same frontier. People might even raise a glass and call me brave at my funeral instead of shaking their heads and muttering "What an idiot!", the only label that could be sensibly ascribed to anyone who takes on the guerrilla-controlled, mosquito-ridden tract of dense jungle frequented only by the ruling drug cartels and the occasional loping jaguar. Unless a local drugs lord has your back, the Darien is the reserve of the careless and the insane. To get around the problem you could fly but for the more inspired there's a better option - for years chartered yachts have made the crossing, ferrying tourists from Cartagena to the coast of Panama and stopping en route at the San Blas Islands, an autonomous region partly inhabited by the Kuna Indians (foreigners having been kicked off years ago) and, this is true, a place in which until relatively recently the primary unit of currency was the coconut. Which is just brilliant.

We haul up the anchor, set sail and stand out on the deck watching the modern stone henge of Cartagena's high rise apartments glide by, like the gappy grin of a madman smiling us off. The send off party soon join us, a school of bottle nosed dolphins that slice through the surf and make brief loops into the salty air. Our enthusiasm for sea life though is soon quashed by the choppy ocean which renders most of us landlubbers aboard unable to walk, converse or move much at all. The Dutchman can't eat fearing a post-prandial spraying of lunch over the ship's side, back from whence it came. It's like standing on top of a prone epileptic, which incidentally there is no good reason to do and is not comfortable, safe or fair on the epileptic.

That night we rotate through 90 minute shifts to watch for ships whilst rolling waves strike the boat at tangents as we wobble through the Caribbean propelled by a sail that puffs and whips and drives us at ten knots into the night. A phosphorescent algae lights up the churning wake of the Catamaran like a disco ball - it's a spooky, surreal time where I hallucinate ghost ships.


Towards dusk on the second day I spot them first - a small grey bump on the horizon and then, like fresh mosquito bites, more and more segue into view. The sun spills it's shine onto the ocean creating a linear blaze of cherry-red, like a celebrity carpet, the African Queen our limousine. The island we pass first is the anticipated vision of paradise - it appears we've been consumed by a computer and are in fact sailing through Windows wallpaper. The San Blas archipelago are so often assigned throw away and cliched labels - idyllic, picture-perfect, breath-taking - but then the islands are cliched by nature representing for many the archetypal tropical paradise. Yes there's white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees, coconuts, yarda yarda, but I yearn for more than just the postcard imagery. Like friends, lovers, nature and travel itself, it's the imperfections that can thrill and seduce the most, and so secretly I yearn for a serpent in Eden.

We are not alone here. Our first guest is a turtle breezing through the turquoise and stretching it's neck to breach the tops of the waves and take the odd gasp of air. Minutes later a manta ray breaks the surface and dives back beneath the gentle ripples whilst a lone pelican inspects us from above, circling and dodging palm fronds. A communal dive and swim to shore ends in a quandary - to admire or to explore? I leave the others gazing longingly into the lustrous sheen of the sun-drenched Caribbean tide and head instead along the shoreline like a castaway exploring a new home. Visually the metaphor works as well.

The Finnish couple have disappeared to a more secluded part of the island, if I was one half of a loved-up couple in paradise I'd be off to do the same, one for the bucket list, despite sand in places you'd rather it wasn't. As I meander insouciently around the island a host of white conch shells appear, semi-submerged in sand like skulls in a mass grave. I move inwards to explore beyond the limits of this beach and my heart drops - behind the first row of palms resides a huge pile of litter and accompanying swarm of sand flies. They are as out of place as a punk in a yoga class.

We anchor up and sail to another island of the San Blas, it's the size of a football pitch, the shape of an arrow head and hosts showy tourists on big budgets in expensive huts who are fiercely busy relishing the sloth of island life by doing exactly nada. There are 378 islands in the San Blas and somebody reminds me of the common dictum "one for every day of the year" which sounds to me like a tag line concocted by a tourist agency and makes me think two things - First, somebody can't count, and second, wow, I wonder if anyone has tried that? The islands vary greatly in size, some precarious mounds of sand with room enough for just a couple of palms, the front line in climate change and centimetres away from extinction. Others, around fifty, are larger and inhabited by the Kuna Indians.

In the evening with settled bellies and surer legs the group bonding can begin, but the sun dashes for cover under cloud and an abrupt tropical storm unleashes it's fury, so we rush out onto the deck to wash off the salt. "Is Raining!" Screams Rudy "Is Emotional!" and he dances around the African Queen babbling incoherently. Afterwards we sit shivering until someone suggests a cup of tea but is swiftly trumped by a call for rum for which we all assent. Rudy declines the mixer on the grounds that Coca Cola is bad for you.

The days progress - Cuba Libre for breakfast, Yellow Snapper (harpooned) and king crab for lunch, Italian cuisine for dinner with beer aperitifs and rum chasers. "Thanks for the food" we all chirp after another gourmet garlic-heavy delight, but meet Rudy's retort "no no no. Thanks for the eat. I'm happy when you are happy". Filling our bellies and the game of endlessly getting tipsy is punctuated by snorkeling and siestas and by now we are all sporting the rosy hue of England's Away From Home Shirt. Exertion? Well yes, some, but here it's relative - snapping coconuts, back flips off the deck, the tiresome chore of switching hammocks.

Relishing a tropical storm on deck
For our third night we anchor down and spend the evening on an island amongst a gaggle of ageing American hippies who's diction is dominated by "heavy" and "far-out". They've been mooching around the San Blas for more than six years, occasionally chartering boats for tourists, and there's something cheesy and reactionary about them, or perhaps that's just my instant distrust of those who openly market themselves with romantic tags. "Hey we're wanderers man" insists one when  I ask where he's from. "Yeah, we're, like, nomads" pipes up another. They are fine musicians though and keep us entertained with Bob Dylan and the rest, but it still feels like a Beach Boys reunion so we head back to the boat and have our own party which fairly predictably culminates in drunken skinny dipping, which is predictably initiated by the Finns. Rudy wears a huge African mask for most of the night and howls with laughter. The group are completely enamoured by his antics - its not that his jokes are belly-clutchingly, foam-at-the-mouth funny, usually in fact he makes no sense at all, but his reaction to everything is an infectious explosion of histrionics so ridiculous and cheering that you can't help but join him.

On the last night Rudy announces that the Kuna Indians are having their monthly knee's up on an island close by. We sail off and soon encounter a very different San Blas, these postcards wouldn't sell as well. There are hundreds of thatched huts jammed into every inch of bustling land where women wash their children, men load and unload boats and children carry out their chores whilst wooden dug-outs ease through the surrounding sea - people living lives rather than escaping them. The Kuna are tiny in stature, spiritual in nature and the women are attired in traditional dress - a vivid concoction of bracelets and colours that scream and bellow and with a nose ring that completes the ensemble. We take the launch to shore, the scene that greets us is the result of one furious moonshine named chicha fuerte. 'Totalled' may not be a proper adjective worthy of the Oxford English dictionary, but its the best one. Sloshed, leathered, blind drunk - they don't come close. Everybody over the age of 8 and not pregnant is off their head, neck and body. They can't talk. Many are comatose. Women are being carried by friends whilst screaming and babbling drunk-speak and kids sway like slow motion boxers in the first round, but with a stagger and a bellowed drawl. There's a religious component to this drunken orgy that I admit I know little about but even so the curious tableau is a touch menacing, a touch sad, a touch hilarious and more than a touch understandable. London at 7pm on any given Friday is much the same, add suits and boozers, though the British can evidently handle their grog better than the Kuna.




On the final day we sail towards the coast of Panama which assaults the sea scape I've grown accustomed to and the montaine spine of Central America protrudes like the fins of a fish, the mountain tops though are lost in the ashen smudge of distant rain. Behind us the freckles of the San Blas fade from view as the blue face of the Caribbean winks us a sly goodbye.

Paradise Lost?

Amongst those who know me well, it's my manifest lack of any sense of direction that is the most illustrious and conspicuous target for mockery. The list of places and spaces I have managed to completely lose my bearings is infinite and tedious so I won't recount it here, but it includes the hospital I worked in for three years, several supermarkets and department stores, most of London and every campsite and festival I have ever made my temporary home. Things are worse than bad - I once slept rough in a field in Argentina when I tried for hours and failed to find my hostel. When people remark "Don't worry, it's impossible to get lost" I sigh, for with that one-liner they have sealed my fate. In my early teens losing my house was a particular favourite pastime and brought much angst to the parents of my friends who drove me around in circles through Oxford and who must have been convinced I was having them on. "How can anyone not remember where they live!" The enduring words of one despairing father. It's a disability, like colour blindness, club foot and Welsh-ness. A miracle then I have made it this far on my bicycle and were it not for that ingenious convenience of The Map, I would still be negotiating my way through Surrey muttering to myself "Now I'm sure I've seen that bridge before. No, wait... was it that bridge?"

So to Panama City, the world's most losable-in city and me, the world's most heinous of all lost wanderers who even St Jude can't save. I set out with a simple mandate - to find a camping shop. And I walked. And I guessed. And I gorped, and I walked some more. And hours slid by, and continents drifted apart. My flip flops pounded the street for so long that erythematous streaks criss-crossed the dorsum of each foot. The oh so familiar feeling of lostness descended as the city segued into a oneness that jeered at my incompetence and repeated it's garbled song. A trio of Kuna women (the same trio?) gabbing by a corner shop (the same shop?). An old lady sold single cigarettes and there were fat people, lots of them, and lots of MacDonalds too. And lots of fat people queueing up to eat at MacDonalds. Complicated maths, I know.

Then for while my misadventure took a more sinister twist - people thinned out, saucer-eyed men marked me out with an ireful stare and scanned the surrounds (for witnesses?). Toddlers sat in heaps of rubbish whilst drunks shambled by using drain pipes for support and houses became rubble-strewn gutted shells, unlivable in at first glance and then - not quite. A couple of drawn and haggard prostitutes slumped by the door of a brothel, one black eye a piece. The city's stink was an overpowering layered assault on my nostrils with wafting excrement, fish, something musty, cooking oil and smog all making fleeting passes. Then back into the drama of a busier part where shouting hawkers out-screamed the taxi drivers who out-honked the roar of engines and a cacophony of Latin infused rhythms from Panasonic shops trumped everything. By now if you had traced my journey on a map you would come up with something similar to the creative stylings of a crackhead on an etch-a-sketch.

It's a little known fact that the ability to give good directions when asked by a stranger in the street is carried by a single gene, located on chromosome 7, and resident in the cell nucleus of around 28% of the population. It is often inherited alongside the ability to find car keys (chromosome 13) and the tendency to wear odd socks (chromosome 8). In Panama though, by some fluke of genomic spread only 0.0000001% of the population possess the gene to give good directions, and he didn't live in this part of town. Thus my task of getting unlost became even harder. Call it a Colombian hangover, but I was not instantly taken by Panama City, a sprawling competition of smells and sounds and clutter. Getting lost though can give you a fresh perspective and there's beauty in the dark underbelly and the cogs of any city if you look hard enough. After hours trudging and mooning through her weird maze, she hadn't won my heart but she somehow made more sense. There was a satisfaction to making the transition from skimming the surface to full body dunk, involuntary though it was, and as I have found many times, having no internal compass can be a blessing in disguise.

Eventually a land mark I recognised for certain this time and soon enough I was back in my hostel. After all that calorie-consuming vagabonding I was tired and hungry so after a quick rest I went out for food. I kid you not, within 15 minutes I was utterly lost once again.

Two weeks of contrast, from the vice-ridden slums of a central American capital to an equally vice-ridden island 'paradise'. Next up is Costa Rica for New's Year Eve with my friend Jess who's coming out to visit me from the UK. And then north once again, always north.

New friends in Panama

9 comments:

  1. I'm jealous;) Greetings from Jack;)

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  2. Great read Steve. Completely agree with your statement about not trusting "those who openly market themselves with romantic tags". You meet plenty of those travelling.

    Reading through your website is helping me prepare and get excited for my trip in Feb 2013. I will be cycling the length of South America. Incidentally im an SHO at the Royal Liverpool so seeing what your doing is inspirational.

    Andreas

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    1. Cheers Andreas. Good luck planning your trip. Happy to help with any route advice if you need it. All the best

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  3. I daresay that if it'd come to cannibalism, that mamacita First Mate would've served up JUST FINE.

    We continue to howl at your travelogues--and rejoice in your continued continuations.

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    1. Cheers Jocelyn! Have a great New Years

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  4. Good read Steve. Wishing you a great NYE; what an amazing year! Howard & all from team incognito anti-mosquito

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  5. Happy New Year Steve. This is a great read: I have learnt so much from you. I know your wonderful mom is very proud of you though justafiably nervous on occasions. Take care, Angela

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  6. Amazing! Not only the the things you ve lived trough but also i admire your writing...

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  7. See I told you I was really reading. Well done for the coming publications, you've really inspired me to have a crack myself Sketchmeister. Keep em coming. x

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