Sunday, March 11, 2012

A pirate’s life is not the life for us

What we discovered after 5 days and 5 nights crossing the Caribbean from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia is that we are land lubbers. Let me explain. Portobelo is a small, breezy port town with nothing more than a few old forts and one backpacker hostel where we met our boat crew and fellow voyagers for our trip. We boarded the ship late in the afternoon for an all night ride out to the San Blas Islands off the northeast coast of Panama. As George Kastanza would have said, “The sea was angry that day my friends.” Within hours of departing and despite taking several seasickness pills, the huge rolling waves whipped up by brutal wind sent me spewing my lunch and dinner over the side of our brigantine schooner. I wasn’t the only one. During the course of the night, almost everyone on board was sick, even Nolan who normally has a stomach of steel. We had the roomiest “double suite” which was no more than a slim triangular bed tucked in a corner of the bow that was hot, stuffy and uncomfortable, but so much better than the layered bunk beds. Laying down provided the only relief from sickness, but being below deck was the last place one wanted to be.

View of Portobelo from the mountain lookout
Remnants of the Portobelo fort
Our boat (a 64 ft brigantine schooner) is the one to the right behind the front boat
Our cabin
Waking up to smooth seas and an eyeful of palm tree encrusted islets was a wholly uplifting event. With the boat anchored, we had time to do some snorkeling and swimming, as well as explore the nearby uninhabited islands. The smooth water made for easier sleeping and eating. Despite the cloudiness, there was no rain and we enjoyed relaxing on deck, chatting with our fellow travelers. There were 11 of us in total including a couple from Canada, a German woman, a guy from Sweden, a married man from China, and of course four motley Australian lads. We all shared a love of travel, most of us having either left or just finished jobs/school. It was a pretty picture all of us sitting around the keel, able to communicate in English, sharing stories about crazy bus rides, amazing cultural experiences and future plans. Our captain and crew fit right in, having their own plethora of interesting backgrounds.

One of the San Blas islands
Happy to be on smooth waters
We were anchored in two spots over three days and two nights, with plenty of downtime to get our sea legs and soak up the intermittent sun. One night we were able to go ashore in groups in the dingy and Nolan built a huge bonfire on the windy beach that we cherished under a full moon. It was absolutely beautiful and serene. We were expecting to meet and interact with some local Kuna Yala people who inhabit the San Blas islands, but the closest we got were watching them paddle out fishing boats for their morning catch. One came aboard to sell us some lobsters which became our dinner. The Kuna have autonomy from the Panamanian government and inhabit the islands of which there are 365 as well as a piece of the mainland. They have a distinctly traditional dress, language and style of living based on subsistence fishing and harvesting coconuts. It is in fact illegal to touch, take or use any coconut found in the vicinity under risk of punishment. They also sew interesting fabric designs to adorn their clothing, which we were hoping to buy to turn into pillows, but no one came to sell us any.
Kuna Yala fisherman off the port bow
The last stretch of our trip was a 42 hour sea passage across open ocean, the part we most dreaded. Feeling sticky from salty air and not truly showering for 3 days, we hunkered down in our cabin and upped the dosage of Dramamine. To my surprise, I didn’t get sick and neither did Nolan! We had become one with the sea! I skipped the first dinner and breakfast, but then ate lunch and dinner while the waves were minimal before heading back to bed for the last 12 hour stretch. I was able to make it to and from the bathroom with no problems (which before was a living nightmare) and even came up top a few times to admire the land-less views and moonlit night sky. The immensity of the ocean, especially at night, is inexplicable. It’s both scary and invigorating to realize that it’s just you in a tiny boat and all that water.

Us aboard the boat
After all that, we woke up this morning as we were pulling into the Cartagena harbor. The city was misty in the morning haze as we said goodbye to the boat and crew and piled in the dingy headed for the dock. Now, more than 12 hours later, I still have the sensation that I’m aboard the boat, rocking and bobbing in a way that makes me want to pass out. Figures – just as I got my sea legs, I lost my land ones. Hopefully a good night’s sleep will cure me of that. After the first day, I really thought we had made a bad choice in taking the boat. But the whole experience was quite unique and in addition to meeting some great people and having fun island hopping, we learned to really appreciate the water and the challenges and beauty that it can bring. I think Jack Sparrow says it best, “It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is…is freedom.”

P.S. We are happy to recommend our boat tour through One World Sailing. Feel free to leave us a message if you have questions about the trip logistics. We'd be happy to help.

1 comment:

  1. You should have gone with Viva and Captain Bob...catamarans are much roomier and less bouncy.;)