48. 11-1-13: Life on the High Seas

Panama City

A month in the states went a long way to my ultimate recovery from dengue. I was a few pounds heavier from my mom’s cooking, and my soul was satisfied with nights of jazz bars and the New York Philharmonic. I flew back to my Costa Rican family, fixed the clutch cable and hit the road to Panama.

Costa Rica would save some of the most beautiful riding for my last days just to make sure I knew well what I was leaving. Giant, almost unbelievably colorful, parrots flew over me whenever I would pull over along the coastal road. Rolling hills, interspersed with mountains to the east, and gorgeous bays of the pacific coast to the west. I never knew there were so many shades of green!  Tiny strips of beach, not yet victim to development, lined the coast, with palms throwing a cooling shade over ceviche vendors, inviting me to stop and pitch my tent at every turn. The peace and simplicity were so inviting, the hope of a reprieve from the scorching heat kept loosening the throttle, but I had a boat to catch to Colombia, and missing it would mean having to pay $500 more for another one.

Norm welcomed me to Panama and his home – my first time staying with someone I met through motorcycle clubs (I met a MCY gang on a ferry in Nicaragua, and they put us in touch). His home was a tiny paradise of fruit trees and flowers and monkeys and tropical birds – all there by choice, but who knew as well as I the rarity of such a place. It was a short stay, but filled with proper cups of tea and stories from the road. The following morning I was on my way to the disappointment of Panama City.

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I ‘ve always had an image in my head of what Panama City would be – linen suits, panama hats, cigars, business done in cafés with handshakes. What I found was a mostly abandoned old city, filled with tourists and surrounded by dangerous slums. There were still some intact remnants of the French and Spanish colonial buildings, and some lovely Art Deco ones as well, but they quickly receded into hurricane and time damaged ruins, and eventually slums. I decided to at least see that part of Panama City, but was accosted on every corner by police and soldiers who would tell me to turn around and not enter the slum. My friend and I persevered and entered the periphery, but were eventually forced to leave by the soldiers armed with dual pistols and machine guns.

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The Panama Canal was of course the highlight. Watching a ship the size of a large village rising and falling right before my eyes left quite an impression. The locks at Miraflores are not to be missed! As impressive and formidable as nature is, every once in a while man manages to control it – and that is always a sight to see.

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After a couple of days in the city I rode to my last point in Central America, Porto Bello, to catch my boat to Colombia.

Portobello

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In Portobello I met the 5 other riders who would share in my illegal crossing into South America – my second continent.

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500 year old canons point out to the bay at sailboats floating on the crystal clear and lake calm water of the Caribbean. 300 years ago they were pointing at hundreds of Spanish galleons waiting to be filled with silver and gold which had to be stored outside in giant heaps for it could not all fit inside the customs house. And as many years ago they were firing on countless pirate and buccaneer ships sacking the city.

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The night before sailing we loaded 6 motorcycles onto the Canadian ship, flying a U.S flag, commanded by a Dutch sailor (of sorts). 3 KLR’s, 2 DR’s and an F800GS. Loading the bikes was easy but nerve-wrecking. Loading them first into little dingys was scary as the little boats moved and swayed from even a wink, then came the ride to the Mother Ship, and finally hand pulling the boom to get them onto the boat. We worked with bated breath knowing that a mistake would mean an inglorious end to a journey. But all 6 steeds made it on board, were sprayed with oil to keep off the rust, covered in tarps to keep off the spray, and winched down to keep them from diving overboard. All was left was to load the food and ourselves, find a flat surface on which to sleep  (as there were enough bunks for only 2), and wait for the sunrise.

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3 Australians, a Canadian, an American and myself, along with the Dutch captain and his Slovak lesbian ex-girlfriend – quite a crew! We were an interesting collection of characters, with wildly diverse, and often illicit, histories. Our reasons for being on the road also varied greatly. One other was a veritable gypsy like myself, others just seeking the thrill of the road and the embraces of Latina beauties. However we all shared the joy of the ride, the wind, and the inevitable lessons we learn about ourselves.  We all got along instantly and the following days passed pleasantly in the company of new friends. We passed the time telling stories, playing cards, watching movies, but mostly lounging on deck – in a hammock or in the bird’s nest – enthralled by beauty and immensity of the sea.

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Life on the High Seas

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Our boat sighed and swayed with the indifferent swells of the Caribbean. I climbed the mast to look over miles of water – in the distance the ocean looked calm, almost glassy. But as my eye was drawn closer the water began to take on more character: occasional white caps from breaking swells; the apparent chasm between the swells as the ship dropped from one and faced the wall of another; the countless ripples covering every inch of the water’s surface. The day too played its hand upon the ocean and changed the bright, silvery shimmer of the morning, to a deep denim at midday, then a slow return to the mercury of evening and the final, inky black of night.

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Dolphins raced against us, darting right in front of our bow, leaping in the happy knowledge that they were faster and more agile. And then, as unlikely as it was beautiful, a hawk came to perch on our mast, 100 miles from the nearest land. He came and inspected us and scared away the sea gulls who, just as unlikely, came right before him.

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Our boat and her passengers had their lives in my hands 4 times as I took my place behind the wheel in the pilot house and attempted to hold a true course towards Cartagena, despite the wind’s and current’s best efforts to drive us into the Darien. Because the boat has no real crew it was up to us to rotate every four hours and take the helm – day and night.

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Of course I had a cold, was seasick for 2 of the 3 days, and barely managed to string together a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep.

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We stopped by the San Blas islands for a quick dip and some snorkeling in the crystal clear waters which surround the idyllic palm and white sandy beaches of the Kuna people. We then left the calm waters of the bay and embarked on a slightly nerve wrecking, and painfully slow, cruise towards Colombia.

 

We were fortunate enough to avoid the storms which we saw passing all around us, and only twice felt the drops of relatively light rain. The six steeds stood firm and true throughout the journey and were not the worse for wear, unlike some of their riders. Really only two of us, including yours truly, were sea sick. Even the questionably cooked lobsters we bought off some Kuna divers, minutes after they were brought to the surface, failed to induce the rest of the crew to rush towards the rails.

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I was feeling the effects of 4 days without a shower, after constant sweat, and the remnants of our salt water dip. We were all feeling it I suppose, but as we are all bikers, and are accustomed to grime and sweat, no one complained – though quietly and anxiously we all awaited or first shower in Cartagena.

3 days later we were safely in the bay looking longingly at the shores of Cartagena. Because we were not on an official passenger carrier we could not dock and had to wait for some more dingys to come bring our steeds to land. I’m not sure I can describe the sensation of sitting atop of Georgia, my feet keeping her steady on the sides of what is little more than a canoe with a motor, praying that the waves from passing boats would not topple us into the bay and put a sad end to my journey. But all 6 of us landed safely in Colombia and began the next phase of our journeys through the wonders of South America.

 

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47. 8-1-13: Nicaragua/Costa Rica
49. The Crash - Peru

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