Setting sail

Tuesday 31 January

After my girlfriend dumps me by phone, my parents pass away and I put my dog down, I reckon that today is a very strong contender for one of the most horrible experiences of my life.  Actually I’ll put it a close fifth behind wetting my pants at a friends birthday party when I was nine.  Apparently he still has the picture, which he has thankfully been unable to find.

I’m throwing my toys out of the pram and spitting the dummy.  I’ve not closed my eyes and I’m feeling less than my usual happy-go-lucky, positive, full-of-beans self.  If you believe that you’ll believe anything.  However with the dark dawn comes a new day filled with possibilities, and at last I am making my way to Colombia.  The Promised land.  What, dear readers, could possibly go wrong?

The taxi arrives on cue and it appears that for all of my lack of sleep, I seem to be one of the few operating on any useful capacity.  Most of the girls are hungover, or tired from the various assortment of frivolities of last night.  I heave most of the bags down to the waiting vehicles in the dark, and try to remain upbeat as if nothing has happened and nothing can phase me.  I throw a few dollars on the counter to cover my stay and a beer I had around 3am, and we pile into our rides to the dock.

It’s a silent journey and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one awake.  Apart from the driver.  Which would be useful.  It takes longer than expected, but soon enough we’re pulling into the quay side, depositing bags under a palm tree and waiting for the launch to take us to our new home.  It doesn’t arrive on time.  I crack the usual gag about how these situations would make a wonderful start to a horror movie.  I’m told to pack it in and be positive.  I don’t think my companions are on the same wavelength.  This could be a long five days.

Carson decides to wander off and find the right boat, which in all credit to him he does, jetting in from the other side of the bay like a German James Bond.  We are soon boarding the Maluko, a six berth sail boat that will whisk us to the Colombian coast.  It’s a beautiful vessel, and it’s captain and his partner, John and Irene, are both very accommodating and lovely people.  They hail from Venezuela, and have a wealth of experience in these waters.  With a bit of luck I won’t be writing any shipwreck blog posts in the next few days, growing a massive beard, screaming “I have made fire” while talking to a ball called Wilson.

The smiles are broad and the spirits upbeat as we set sail for the open water.  It doesn’t last long.  Now I thought I had my sea legs.  That said the longest I was “at sea” was a ferry from Dover to Calais.  Still, I survived the “vomit comet” to Utila, so I figured I was pretty sorted.  Being the proud Brit I am, I reckoned the fact that I was from an Island with a staunch history of sea conquest made it my god given right to sea legs.  Nelson had them, surely I’ll have them as well.  Within a matter of minutes I was proved very wrong indeed.

I try to lie down as the nausea kicks in.  Unfortunately John needs to access the hatch I’ve collapsed on, and as soon as he moves me, I empty my stomach into a bucket attached to a string.  The only good thing about this was we’d just eaten some lovely fresh fruit, so it was the sweetest puke that I ever did eject.  The waves are enormous, apparently the worst our hosts have seen, and this does not bode well.  I wish I had the capacity to take some pictures, but I simply couldn’t move.  Added to this, I was still on one hours sleep, so all I wanted was to lie down and close my eyes.  Eventually I was heaving and retching with nothing coming up, the boat being tossed around like a tiny cork, and nowhere to put my head.  To say I was uncomfortable would be a gross understatement.

Yet it was to get worse.  With no end in sight, I manage to lie down on one of the benches at the aft of the boat.  Sleep comes and goes, as does a lot of nausea, and frequent attempts at vomiting.  Around the time I actually do manage to pass out, it starts to rain heavily and I’m totally soaked.  The clouds pass, I’m whipped dry by the wind, and then a wave ensures I remain damp for the next hour.  “Blanket?!”  I manage the strenght to stammer.  Eventually, shivering, I recognise a towel being draped over me.  And so it goes, dry, soaked, sick, hot, cold and, eventually, after twelve hours of this monotony, I discover I’m burnt.  Pretty badly.  In my embarrassing fetal position on deck, my left leg has taken the full force of the sun and is now red raw.

At some point during this nightmare, John taps me on the foot and points.  “Dolphins” he smiles.  I raise my head and stare over the swirling waters, just long enough to finally see that unmistakeable shape break the surface.  As much as I’ve always wanted to see one in the wild, it’s only a second before I’ve lowered my green face back down to attempt sleep.

It’s dark when we make it to calmer waters.  I then discover my laptop screen has somehow shattered.  I’m guessing this was from the excessive force used in throwing the bags on board by the launch boat crew.  As I start to recognise a fever setting in…fever mind, not man flu…I shakily take myself off below decks to crash out in my little box for the night.  I’ve been on one roller coaster in my life.  Twelve hours on one has not put me in the best of moods, and It is safe to say that the past couple of days have been pretty shit.  Except for the Dolphin.  That was the waters saving grace.

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“I have of late…lost all my mirth”

Monday 30 January

I’m awake at 2.30am in Captain Jacks hostel, Portobelo.  Our boat leaves at 6am, but we need to be on our way at 4.  Having attempted to go to sleep just before 12, I was drummed awake by the party happening in the rest of the hostel.  Now this affords me an opportunity to really keep on top of my writing, and at the same time muse over the coming days ahead.  The main focus being the result of the car crash that is already happening, before we’ve even weighed anchor.

Initially I tried to promise myself that I would use the five or six days on the boat to detox and eat well.  At some point I desperately need to treat myself better, both for the sake of my physical health, and the head and heart.  Mostly heart.  Once again I have allowed two bottles of rum, a carton of cigarettes and a girl to get the better of me.

I wasn’t really in the party from the start.  Remember the alpha males?  There is a bar full of them, washed with booze and vying for the attention of pretty much everyone else. Loud, brash and boisterous, a word doesn’t go in anyways.  Still waters apparently run deep.  Unfortunately here it appears the rapids have more success.

And success they have.  With the girl I like.  Which is what wakes me up.  “Why the fuck are you in bed?”  he lears.  Because I have to be up at 4am to catch a boat to Colombia I presume?  After this rude awakening, returning to the land of nod is pretty much impossible, particularly as I have to listen to him canoodling with the object of my affections.  He’s actually on the other boat, and now I have six days on board with this girl and people who are clearly in a different frame of mind to me.  That awkward moment when…

The truth is dear reader, unless this situation improves, I’m giving serious consideration to leaving this part of the world.  I wouldn’t stretch to going home, but the thought has crossed my mind.  It would be a shame for the continuation of my bad fortune with the fairer sex to cut my adventures short.  Yet the fact of the matter remains; it is important to me, and here it’s just not working.  I witness everyone else getting what I want every day, and I’m left to punch keys in frustration at silly o’clock in the morning.

I confide in a friend about the potentially fruit full situation previous, a weeks sailing with four attractive girls.  He advises me to step back, have fun and DON’T do anything while on the boat.  Six day’s sailing and being aloof will apparently only serve to increase a girls interest.  The problem is that this ‘waiting game’ clearly doesn’t work.  It’s a dog eat dog world, and if you’re not fast, you’re last.  So when do you utilise such seemingly good advice?  I just can’t fathom it, and it’s forcing me to edge closer to a breakdown.

I always said I have two contradicting desires battling for my attentions.  One is to see the world, the other is to find a special girl.  The unstoppable force hitting the immovable object.  It’s a real struggle at the moment.  Some would say, and have said, that I shouldn’t be concerned with that yet, and just use this opportunity to concentrate on myself and travel.  I wish I could heed these wise words of wisdom, but it’s in my very make up to find her.  Everyone else my age seems to have done it, with aplomb.

When you hit a downward spiral, you start to question everything.  I don’t care what anyone says about plenty more fish, get back on the horse, etc, etc, but when you’re rejected once, you chalk it up and move on, when it happens again, and again, and again, it becomes a pattern.  My conversation is generally good, my banter and wit is pretty decent for most of the time, my social skills have always been apt, and I like to think I’m a pretty nice guy.  So what, excuse me, the fuck, is going wrong?

Is it purely down to aesthetics?  Am I that bad looking?  In a room by myself perhaps not.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with these guys then maybe.  Yet this week, the exceptions to the rule have been, well, ruling.  So it must be something else.

Incidentally the only other girl I was interested in is now pulling one
of the alphas in the dark somewhere in front of me.  This is probably
not a bad thing, since the Irish lass looks exactly like my ex.  That’s a
whole other story, and one that given the recent spate of events, truly
beggars belief.

“Where is the fun loving, relaxed, life of the party Stu I met in Leon?” A friend comments; with no shortage of exceptional observation.  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.  “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” to quote The Dane.  I’d better find it again pretty soon, otherwise this could be a very short trip.

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Becoming an expert

Sunday 29 January

A few months ago I would have totally baulked at the idea I could travel alone in this part of the world without any grasp of the language.  Now I’m rapidly becoming an expert.  That’s because I take taxi’s.

Actually I’m not being entirely fair on myself.  I’m racing a little against time as I realise I’ve not seen the canal yet, and I need to be in Portobelo this evening.  The canal is outside the city and costs around $6 in a cab.  I decide it’s best not to return to the hostel, check out, and pile all my belongings into the first yellow, black and white checked car I see.  As ever it’s not that straightforward.

I’ve noticed that customer service in the public transport industry isn’t cutting edge.  I’ve been on buses where the driver has stopped for an ice cream and a natter to mates.  I’ve been in a pick up truck racing to make a last boat, and the driver has been flirting with someone out the window.  Here I’m treated to an impromptu journey around the Casco Viejo old town, while my driver goes about his errands.  It’s also very disconcerting when he pulls into a side street, turns and utters; “un momento” then disappears into a dark ally, leaving me in the back of his cab, with all my worldly possessions on full display on my lap.
I make it to the canal and bundle myself into the visitor centre doors.  I have the option of paying $8 for the full tour with video presentations, or $5 to the observation deck.  I opt for the latter and bolt with alarming ease through security, carrying a massive ruck sack, a bag attached to my front and a guitar.  I guess the guitar convinced them I wasn’t a terrorist.

So.  The famous Panama Canal.  They have a little viewing deck, with a cafe and bleachers to watch the ships descend to sea level.  Just to let you all know, in case you were under any disillusions; it’s a canal.  We have them at home.  It’s a canal, with very large locks, for very large ships.  We have them at home as well.  In Fort Augustus.  Granted they are slightly smaller, and maybe for not quite the same sized sea craft, but nonetheless it’s still a canal.  Perhaps I should have done the full tour to appreciate it a little more.  They did do a nice burger though.

I snap a few shots, then boost back to the bus terminal, where someone screaming “Colon” helps me find my transport.  Unfortunately I need to get a connecting bus to Portobelo, but I’ll cross that bridge when come to it.

And come to it I do.  After a sleepy couple of hours I arrive in Colon.  Now here is perhaps where I should have done some research.  Colon doesn’t look at all gringo friendly.  It’s a dirty city with nothing to redeem it on the surface, and I can’t find the right bus with as much ease as I did in Panama City.  Again, seemingly for their own amusement, locals at the bus stop feed me the wrong information, or they claim to simply not know where the connection leaves from.  Some kind soul comes to my rescue and I make it to a chicken bus, which doesn’t set off for another half an hour.

It’s getting dark as we finally pull into Portobello.  Over the miles previous, I have been convinced I wasn’t on the right bus.  I’ve tried to ask passengers to confirm if I’m going the correct way, but I’ve not received anything concrete.  I’m getting significantly more nervous as the light gets lower, but the sign I was craving finally looms out of the darkness.  I’m dropped in what appears to be a town centre.  Filthy with rubbish, apparently from a big party they had last night.

Now it starts to get sketchy.  There stand I, surrounded by a few pockets of locals, staring at the amount of stuff I’ve heaved onto my back, just as the sun drops totally away.  I have no idea where I’m going, or how to ask for it.  I give it a go anyway, and as usual I’m sent on a wild goose chase, before a broken English speaker leads an uneasy me to another welcome sign.  “Captain Jack’s, 80 metres”.

Clambouring up the stairs to a raucous cheer from the by now very drunk punters in the bar usually would make me turn around and walk out.  As it stands, this is where I need to be, I find my friends, and collapse in a heap of success and ice cold beer.  The boat is booked, my bed confirmed and I have had another successful day of traveling alone.  I’m getting pretty damn good at this.  Travel is taken out of my hands for the next few days and that’s very welcome.  I wonder how I’ll fare in Colombia…

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Missing the boat

Saturday 28 January

Considering I went to bed around 12 midday, it’s no surprise that I wake up at night.  I soon discover the Irish, Aussies and German have moved on, leaving me in my pit of despair.  We are due to sail tomorrow, but it looks like I’m going to literally miss the boat.  It’s a damn good job I find out the boat is would have been a disaster, I can leave tomorrow, and we don’t sail until the 31st.  Crime pays.

I don’t move from the hostel couch until 6.30 am, Sunday morning.  Chess Grandmaster status is surely not far off.

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Egg on face

Friday 27 January

I feel a little foolish after my drunken rant last night.  I may have forgot to mention that.  I sat back down at our table with a handful of folk left and proceeded to discuss how upset and angry I was.  Now it’s all very well and good when you’re sitting pretty on your high horse with a girl next to you, but when you’ve been shat on by a mate, then feel free to vent a little.  This I did.  With gusto.  Of course when you wake up and the same people are still hanging around, it might get a little embarrassing.

My two friends Lotte and Veronika whisk me away from the car crash and into a mall.  A mall for goodness sake.  Yet it’s just what I need.  I suddenly feel normal again.  Traveling has it’s ups and downs, but sometimes you need something to ground you, to make you feel like you’re a human being.  I was surprised how easy that was accomplished by wandering around an enormous shopping centre.  I even managed to buy some travel hair straighteners, and stuff myself with a chocolate frappe smoothie thing.  By the time I made it back to the hostel laden with bags, I feel that the balance has been restored.  As you would expect, I push the self destruct button.

We’re looking for three extra people for the boat, and as luck would have it, they appear in the form of two Irish girls and a German guy.  Naturally drinks are in order and we make our way to a local bar that plays some quality tunes, coupled with fire breathing shenanigans and a wee boogie into the early hours. Now it would be OK if that had been that, but as ever things spiral out of control and myself and the two Aussies find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of town, at an after party with a load of Panamanians.

This could have been a total disaster, but it turns out to be a great night, finally interacting with the locals.  Most speak English very well, and it was nice to (kind of) step off the gringo trail here.  They are very hospitable and welcoming.  It was just a shame when the sun started to peek in through the grilled windows.

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