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Latin America Abeja Dispatch


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By Hook or by Crook, but NOT by Plane!

Patience and persistence; time and money; and a lot of luck. These are all the necessary qualities for getting around the Darien Gap without flying - and all things that seem to be in short supply for the Odyssey Team. Except perhaps, the luck.

Kevin and I left Panama City to go to Colon, a port town that is the northern entrance to the Panama Canal. Despite its reputation as dirty and dangerous, Colon has two things going for it in the eyes of a flightless traveler: the piers where commercial cargo vessels load and unload; and the yacht club where private sailboats from all over the world stop before or after going through the canal.

We got to the yacht club early in the morning, found the bulletin board where people looking for rides or looking for a crew put up notes, and added one of our own. Only a few people were up and about. They told us that later in the day we should stop by and "schmooze it up" with the "yachties" hanging out at the club.

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My school bus didn't look like this!
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So, in the meantime, we hopped on the bus out of town towards the cargo pier called Coco Solo. The bus let us off in front of a huge locked gate. We went up to the gate, spoke to the guard and eventually charmed our way in. The rest of the day, in the blazing Panamanian sun, we walked up and down the docks, from ship to ship. First, we found out from one of the men working on board where the ship was going and when. Some headed North, others to Aruba, and many said they were headed to Colombia. Hurray! "Is the Captain here?" I asked numerous times. If yes, we climbed on board, up rickety ladders, over guardrails, and onto the freighters. Definitely not luxury cruise liners, but not too bad for a few days. But, one by one, the Captains told me no. They all apologized nicely, suggesting we fly or try some other ship. "We're not a passenger vessel," they told us. "If we get caught with you on board, we will be slapped with a huge fine. And if the U.S. Coast Guard catches us with Americans on board, they'll think we're smuggling drugs, and they'll search the whole boat." Had we been 2 men from Panama or Colombia, we probably could have done it. But two gringos stick out like sore thumbs - even when we're not carrying huge backpacks and extra bags of computer equipment - so we would put the ships at too much risk.

During the next two days, we spent half the time at the yacht club, talking to people and getting the word out about what we needed - and half the time walking up and down the docks at Coco Solo, trying to charm our way to Colombia. What a contrast! Hanging out with rich foreigners - mostly Americans and Western Europeans - who were waiting to cross the canal, with all the time in the world to sit and chat over a beer. Then off to the docks, where merchant seamen from Central and South America shouted catcalls after me as I walked among the huge, dirty ships.

I sat in the hotel room, sad and rejected. What to do? Head back to Coco Solo again? It all seemed so hopeless. Kevin was trying to cheer me up, but I was not to be cheered that evening. I wanted out of Colon, but I sure didn't want to go back to Panama City, either. The boat that Kavitha, Monica, and Shawn will be taking out of Panama City next week seemed pretty sketchy, to say the least, but I was beginning to think it was our only hope.

And to top it all off, EVERYONE - from the guys at the shipyard, to the sailors at the yacht club - kept telling us how dangerous Colombia is, especially for Americans. All this work, just to get somewhere and be killed. Sitting in that scuzzy hotel room in Colon, I began to question the sanity of this whole Odyssey thing. HELLO? Are we crazy? Will the Odyssey Trek continue, or will we be stuck in Panama forever? All the way around the world without air travel. Do you know how far that is? How dangerous? How frustrating? Who's idea was this, anyway?

Suddenly, a knock on the door revealed a Panamanian man Kevin and I had met the night before, who called himself "Jerry" and claimed to be a travel agent. "I have boat for you to San Blas! From there, you can find boat to colombia or the Galapagos!" If you know where the Galapogos are, you would be a little worried that he thought we could get there from this island. You see, the Galapagos are all the way on the other side of the continent! But I was not to be scared off by this. "Really!?" I sprang up, once again infected with the joy of traveling. Jerry sent us to the small town of Palenque (Do you know Senor Bornel?) with the names of two men who would give us a place to stay for a night and a way to get to Porvenir, the capital of the San Blas Islands. He asked for a small fee for his services, then put us on a bus to Palenque.

I dont know if Jerry was just trying to make a quick buck, or if he was really trying to help us and just stretched the truth a little. But when we got to Palenque, only one of the two men existed, and he had no idea what we were talking about. Despite his lies, I harbor no resentment towards Jerry. After all, without him, I'd still be in Colon. Instead, I made it to the beautiful palm-lined beaches of the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The people of Palenque helped us find lodging and in the morning they sent us on our way to Porvenir.

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Kevin and Abeja think they've found the answer - a canoe
It was the heat of midday when we boarded the kayuko (a large wooden canoe with a motor on the back). Even though we stayed within sight of the coast, the ride was rough and wet. Someone had to be bailing water out almost the entire time with a little plastic bucket.

We had a great time on the three hour ride. The silliness started when I joked about "the three hour tour" and suddenly, Kevin and I, along with some German tourists, were singing the theme song from "Gilligan's Island"! Even Doris, a German, knew it. Then we moved in to the sea shanties, Bob Marley and the Beatles, gospel songs, and even a few bad show tunes. If it hadn't been too wet to take out the camera, you'd be able to see the amused looks on the Kuna men's faces as a boatload of soaking wet gringos kicked their feet to "New York, New York"! Instead, just try to imagine it.

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I'm going to get there, even if I have to canoe the whole way!
From behind, a boat full of men in bright orange life preservers came speeding towards us, motioning us to stop. It was the Panamanian Coast Guard. "Do you have lifejackets on board?" they asked the Kuna men, who responded with puzzled looks. Their Spanish was pretty limited, and the word "lifejacket" didn't seem to be in their vocabulary. The man pointed at his lifejacket. "Do you have these?" It was pretty obvious that this boat had no life preservers, or any other safety features required of a "passenger vessel." The Coast Guard checked all of our soaking wet passports, and sent us on our way, with a warning to the Kuna men that they had to buy life jackets for the boat. They nodded seriously, until we were well away from the other boat, and then we all smiled and laughed, relieved that they hadn't been fined. The Coast Guard did have a point, though. We were way out in the ocean on a glorified canoe. I tried not to think about it.

The boat pulled up to a tiny island with a few buildings, some open space, a dock, and some Coconut palm trees. They pointed to the sign in front of us, "Hotel Porvenir" and started to unload our stuff. "This is Porvenir?" I exclaimed in surprise. Porvenir (meaning "future" in Spanish) is the capital of the San Blas Islands. The islands are a province of Panama but are administered by the Kuna Indians who live there, with very little interference from the Panamanian government.

I could see the entire island from where we sat. Some capital! My high school building was bigger than Porvenir, but nowhere near as beautiful. I stepped out of the boat onto white sand and warm, crystal clear water. The island consists of a "landing strip" that runs the length of the island, several thatched huts (the largest being this bungalow-style hotel where we're staying), and two buildings: the town hall/police station/ phone company/main dock info/airport, and one other yet-to-be-identified structure. I'll keep you posted.

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I'm going to get there, even if I have to canoe the whole way!

So here we are waiting again, but I may not be as antsy here as I was in Panama City or Colon. In fact, I could wait here a long, long time! One of the men from the Coast Guard informed me that Colombian merchant ships pass by once in a while, and that they are allowed to take passengers. He thinks one is due in the next three days. We'll get there eventually, I'm sure. By hook or by crook - just not by plane. Until then, though, look forward to articles about beaches, coconuts, and Kuna Indians.

Abeja
 

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The Black Christ of Portobelo
Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I Love Ya, Tomorrow
Twenty Dollars to Leave
 
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