Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Panama City, a Well-Earned Dinner, and Fighting Sea Sickness in the San Blas

Here I am in Cartagena, Colombia as I write this (actually that's a lie, I started writing this in Cartagena but got lazy and never finished until now, so I will continue to write as if it were 2 weeks ago) still recovering from a very physically exhausting boat ride across the Caribbean, but extremely happy to be standing on a solid, non-moving surface.  It was the experience of a lifetime, but will definitely be a one time thing.  I'll fill in more on the boat trip later, but now back to where I left off at the end of my last posting.

I spent 4 or 5 days in big, bustling Panama City, which actually somewhat resembles Miami as it is the only city in Central America to contain high rises and sky scrapers.  From what I understand, this is because it is located in an area with less risk of severe seismic activity compared to other areas in Central America.  Socioeconomically, Panama City is quite diverse, with many very wealthy areas as well as some very impoverished ones.  I found a cheap hotel somewhere in the middle of the city, which provided a good base from which to go exploring in other areas.  My first full day there it rained non-stop and I was therefore confined to my hotel most of the day, but the following few days I was rewarded with beautiful, sunny weather and almost no rain.

The highlights of Panama City were the Casco Antiguo (Old Town), Parque Metropolitana, and, of course, the Panama Canal.  The Casco Antiguo is the original part of the city and includes most of the city's main tourist attractions including museums and historical monuments.  I spent a full morning wandering around, visiting some of the museums, and refueling with traditional Panamanian food sold by the many local street vendors.

Catedral in the Casco Antiguo

It was fun and interesting to see that part of the city, but the following day was much better.  I took a bus from the city center to the enormous Albrook mall/bus terminal, and from there hopped on another bus to go visit the Miraflores Locks, which is one of the three systems of locks in the Panama Canal.   On the bus, I met two Israeli girls who were doing the same thing so the three of us toured the locks together.  It ended up being a favorable situation because not only were they really fun and nice (Ayelet I know you´ll be reading this so of course I needed to put that bit in :) but also because for some reason there were bees flying around everywhere and they all seemed to be attracted to Ayelet.  So Ayelet, thank you for being our insect repellent for the day!

 Me, Ayelet, Tal

We walked through the Canal Museum, which provided a good historical background of its construction, starting with the French in 1880 and ending with the Americans in 1914.  After the French lost over 20,000 workers due to disease, landslides, and other accidents and became bankrupt, they gave up on the project in 1893.  The Americans then did what they do best, which was to step in and take over control.  Once techniques were developed to prevent the infection and spread of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, the Americans were able to successfully complete the project in 10 years.  It was and is still one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, so as an engineer I can definitely appreciate it!

After walking through the museum, we went outside to the viewing area where we were able to see a large cargo ship pass through the locks.  It was incredible to see such a massive amount of water be moved in order to lower the ship a total of 16 meters from the top level to the bottom.  The pictures below show the ship before and after being lowered.

It was definitely an amazing thing to watch.  After the canal, we met up with two friends of the Israeli girls and went to the Parque Metropolitano, which is a large natural reserve sitting just outside of Panama City.  We hiked on an upward sloping trail for about 45 minutes until we arrived at the mirador, where we were able to enjoy an amazing view of the city.

The park was really beautiful and full of wildlife.  And the fact that it sits literally right next to giant Panama City makes it that much more interesting!  How many other places in the world can you go shopping in a giant mall and do a multi-hour hike all in the same morning?

After a long day of touring the Canal and hiking, we were exhausted and hungry so we took a cab back to the hostel where the Israeli girls were staying.  We stopped at the grocery store a couple blocks away to pick up some rice, beans, tortillas, and vegetables, the usual ingredients that make up most backpacker dinners (pasta is the alternative).  The hostel kitchen was small and there were some other people cooking, so we elected Ayelet to start chopping vegetables to make our Israeli salad (which is basically just a normal salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatos, and onions but diced instead of cut in large pieces, and then dressed in salt and olive oil).  She did a wonderful job chopping and then combined all the vegetables together to form a beautiful salad, more than enough for the five of us, which she placed on top of the refrigerator to wait until we had finished preparing the rice and beans.  No more than a minute after placing the salad up there, the friendly Canadian woman who was also staying at the hostel and had just finished eating herself, entered the already very crowded kitchen.  She reached for the refrigerator door, didn't see the salad, and you can guess what happened.  I was focusing on preparing the rice at the time and therefore did not see the action, but I knew exactly what had happened upon hearing the distinct and completely disheartening sound of a bowl crashing on the floor followed by a large gasp.  I slowly turned around to face the reality of the situation for which I already had a clear image in my head: a colorful, oily mess on the floor and the Canadian woman standing over it with her hands on her head.  We all stared in silence for a few moments, absorbing the blow.  Once we had all reached acceptance we assured the Canadian lady that it was not the end of the world.  When I looked at her face I actually felt more bad for her than I did about the loss of our salad.  Since the girls were under a time crunch as they needed to catch a night bus to David, we needed to quickly formulate a plan about what to do to make up for our lost meal.  The choice was between going to the restaurant down the block or going back to the store to get more vegetables to make a new salad.  Before giving anyone the chance to think about it, I was out the door running back to the grocery store.  After all, it was a nice night for a jog and I had been sweating all day anyway.  I made it to the store and back with a fresh bag of vegetables in less than 10 minutes, which to the girls was apparently a very impressive feat.  Ayelet got back to chopping while Tal and I prepared the rice and beans.  Since the pots and pans were all deformed and the stove was small, we had at least two more near spills, but we were on our toes after the inital disaster and our reaction times had increased enough to allow us to save the rest of our food from sharing a similar fate as the salad.  After about an hour of chopping, floor mopping, and running around the neighborhood we had a beautiful, delicious, and well earned meal sitting on the table in front of us.

The extra work required to feed our hungry bodies made the meal that much better.  And the Canadian woman gave us a few dollars to cover the cost of our new salad so in the end we suffered no loss!  After an eventful evening, we said our goodbyes and the girls hopped in a cab to the bus terminal and I caught one back to my hostel.

I spent a couple more days in Panama City and ended up meeting up with a Panamanian guy named Roy who I had met in Boquete.  He was nice enough to pick me up from my hostel and give me a mini tour driving around the city.  He lived in a nice apartment building with a gym and pool, so I was able to get in a little workout which was very welcoming.  For dinner we got sushi (my first time in the whole trip) so the night couldn't have been any better.  The rest of my time in Panama City I used to figure out how I was going to get to Colombia.  I had already decided to entirely modify my trip plans and scrap Brazil altogether and finish my adventure in Colombia and Ecuador.  I had no idea how expensive flights to Brazil were, which was the main reason for the change in itinerary.  Anyway, it turns out that it's not easy to get from Panama to Colombia.  Essentially, there are three options: by boat, by air, or by land.  Crossing the border by land involves trekking through the Darien Province which is almost entirely made up by undeveloped tropical forest.  The Pan American Highway ends at the entrance into the Darien, so travelling by car becomes extremely difficult at that point.  I'm not even sure if any buses go through.  If one can manage to make it through the Darien jungle without getting bitten by any poisonous animals, it is probable to be abducted by one of the many drug cartels who have made the region their base due to the absence of any federal authority or police officers.  So I crossed that idea off the list.  That left the options of travelling by air or by water.  Both options cost at least $350, but the sea route involves sailing through the beautiful San Blas Islands for two to three days on an all inclusive cruise.  It has become a very popular method of travelling between Colombia and Panama in recent years and there are many boat captains that have made it their full time jobs to transport backpackers between the two countries.  It's not a cruise as you would normally think of though; these boats are all small sailboats, usually no bigger than 60 feet.  The boats generally have room for 10-20 people, but the quarters are tight so it's best to get to know your travel mates beforehand since you'll be in very close proximity for 5 to 6 days.  The biggest problem with these sailboat voyages are that some boat captains are unexperienced or irresponsible.  Some boats are not equipped to transport the number of passengers that sign up for the trip or may not have proper safety equipment.  Therefore, it is necessary to do some research beforehand in order to find a safe and reputable boat captain.  You can find several stories online by people that didn't look into any of these things before signing up and wound up with major problems.

I ultimately decided to do the boat trip because I really wanted to see the San Blas Islands and because everyone who had done the trip said it was the experience of a lifetime.  Of course, after reading some of the stories, I was sure to do my research and find a reputable boat captain.  On Wednesday I took a bus to Col√≥n, the city at which the Panamal Canal opens into the Atlantic Ocean, and from there another bus to Portobelo, a small coastal town where I was to meet the boat captain.  I met one of my fellow passengers on the way there, a nice girl from Arizona named Sammi.  She and I had no idea who our other fellow passengers would be.  Upon arriving in Portobelo, our Kiwi boat captain, John, had some exciting news for us - Sammi and I were to be the only passengers because another group who had signed up apparently bailed at the last minute.  Since John had already scheduled a return trip from Colombia, he had to make the trip regardless of the number of passengers, so Sammi and I had the whole 60 foot boat to ourselves.  In fact, were were even outnumbered by the crew members, of whom there were 3: John, Tom, and Mary.  Tom, who was from Belgium, had been sailing with John for the past year or so.  Mary, an Irish girl a bit younger than Sammi and I, had been backpacking and had joined John's crew to make some extra cash to support her trip.  Since there was only Sammi and me to take care of, Mary had barely any work to do and basically got a free trip through the San Blas.  Too bad I hadn't thought to do the same.

The five of us grabbed a bite to eat in Portobelo before setting sail.  John, Tom, and Mary were all really nice so I knew off the bat we wouldn't have any problems.  Even if we did get sick of each other, we had a 60 foot boat between the five of us to space ourselves out.  After eating, we hopped in a dingy and zipped over to John's boat.

The sea was pretty calm so I wasn't worried about seasickness, from which I have definitely suffered before, so I was still sure to bring motion sickness pills.  Since it was calm, however, I decided not to take a pill before getting on the boat.  Mistake.  Within the first hour of sailing the swells increased and I started to feel queasy.  I took a pill at that point but it was too late.  20 minutes later I was at the back of the boat watching everything I had eaten that day go back out the same way it came in until there was nothing left.  I sat back there for two hours, taking deep breaths and trying to concentrate on the horizon even in the darkness.  Tom came back to ask me if I wanted any dinner, but there was no way I could hold anything down so I passed on the meal.  Eventually I started feeling a little better so I decided to try to go below deck to get ready for bed and attempt to sleep.  However, with no stationary reference, the seasickness rushed back as soon as I stepped inside.  I spent the rest of the night in my cabin with a plastic bag until I somehow managed to fall asleep.  It wasn't exactly the greatest way to begin the five day trip, but the following two days definitely made up for the first 12 hours.

I woke up the next morning feeling much better and quickly realized that the boat wasn't moving, which made me hopeful that my troubles from the night before had ended.  I walked up to the deck and was confronted with a surreal view - scattered around us were tiny islands with white sand beaches and palm trees immersed in a deep blue-green water.  A handful of the indiginous Kuna Yala people in their typical brightly colored clothing were paddling around in wooden canoes.  My first thought was that this is what I would expect to see as a computer monitor background.

And of course the pictures don't even do it justice.  We spent the next two days hopping around the islands, snorkeling, reading, relaxing, and taking in sun.  With the boat no longer mimicing the motion of a pendulum, my appetite returned so I was able to enjoy the delicious meals cooked by Capitan John, including fresh fish, lobster, crab, chicken, and pasta.
On one of our snorkeling excursions, Tom brought his spear fishing gear, so we followed him around as he hunted down our dinner.  It was my first time seeing spear fishing in action, and I found it to be a much more entertaining form of catching fish than sitting on a boat with a line in the water.

On the second day we made our way over to an island where John had a Kuna friend from whom he usually bought lobster and crab.  While their, we gathered wood to use for a bonfire that evening.  After a delicious dinner on the boat, we assembled a cooler and took the dingy back to the island to make the bonfire and enjoy some cold rum cocktails, known as Cuba Libres.  No more than a minute after we had the fire going, we were greeted by 3 of the local Kuna who were looking to make some friends, and more likely, enjoy some of our drinks.  Considering the population of the island was eight, a bonfire with drinks and gringos was a wild party for them.  All of the Kuna speak Spanish in addition to their native language so we spent the night with them, conversing in Spanish while learning a few words in Kuna.  I would guess they don't get treated to Cuba Libres very often because laughs were increasing and words were beginning to slurr after about 2 drinks.  I think they ended up having even a better time than we did!

When it started to get late we had to insist that our Kuna friends not throw any more wood on the fire and that we had to get back to the boat.  I think they were a bit disappointed and probably could have stayed up all night drinking our rum, but we needed to start the 40 hour voyage over open water to Cartagena.  Those 40 hours were a bit rough, but apparently my body had adapted enough to keep me from getting sick like I did the first day.  I definitely kept up a steady intake of motion sickness pills just to be safe.  We arrived in Cartagena early on Sunday morning, all very happy to return to a permanent situation on solid ground while at the same time dissappointed that the trip was over.  Same as everyone who had done the trip told me, it was the experience of a lifetime, but one that I most likely will never repeat.  That is, at least until I conquer my susceptibility to sea sickness!