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  • Between two seashores

      ·  Vladimir & Michael —

    It’s a big article about different ways of getting to Colombia from Panamá, about our journey on a small yacht and about days, we spent on the islands of the Caribbean sea.

    A jump in a yacht

    The only place, where the road through the Pan-American continent (people, living here, don’t divide the continent into parts, like Russians do) intermit on its way from Alaska to Patagonia, is a border between Panama and Colombia. Here, on a narrow neck of land, uniting the two countries, the National Park Darién is situated. People say, this place’s a dangerous one, populated with armies of mosquitos, wild beasts and drug traffickers.

    There’re a lot of versions about the lack of any road here, beginning with malaria mosquitos, that are dangerous for workers (hardly believable), possibility of extinction of rare species in case of building a highway, and ending with powerful lobbying, done by numerous airlines, that earn good money for transferring people and freights between these two (as it is accepted in Russia) continents.

    The easiest and the fastest way is to fly on an aircraft, but this is absolutely not interesting. That’s why travellers from all over the world discuss the theme of “jumping the Darién gap” on different forums in the Internet.

    It’s possible to hire a guide to get over the gap on foot, but it costs a lot and takes about a week (actually, there’s no guarantee in that), in addition a traveller will have to bear a bike during the passage. It wasn’t acceptable for us.

    Not counting a flight (costs $400 per person), the only way remains — to sail the seas. There’re a few options here depending on one’s fantasy, time and money all the way from surfing a couch on a cargo boat, row across the sea from one island to another in small boats with Indians, to yacht-hiking or travelling on a rented yacht. A voyage could take from 4 to 10 days and costs from $0 to $600. It’s clear that the less one pays, the longer one’s journey is (it could depend on a duration of a voyage or on time, that will be wasted to find a boat). By the way, a year ago there was a possibility of creating a permanent official ferry carrier (like the one, operating between Finland and Sweden), but, as people say, airlines meddled in again.

    Because of the pittance of time and the lack of money we decided to look for a proper yacht, that carries travellers from Panama to Colombia for a pecuniary reward. In most cases such yacht could be found in Portobello village or on San Blas islands, but in order to reach them we would have to treadle the way for a few days. Locals also not recommended us to go to the city of Colón, where theoretically it was possible to hire a yacht. They told us about a high crime rate and a 90 percents unemployment rate. It was only 108 km to Portobello, the capital of Panama, and we decided to go to this village.

    In the small city of Portobello, founded by Christopher Columbus, we stayed in “Capitan Jack” hostel, which, as it seemed, became a center of this village. There was an opportunity to book a place on a yacht using hostel’s website, and Jack himself, as people say, is acquainted practically with all captains, who run their boats between the countries. We didn’t like offers we found on the website, because rates varied from $490 to $550 per person, plus $50 for a bike. We went to search for a yacht.

    But every person we asked, told us to go to Captain Jack. In the end we found a grey-headed man on a small landing stage and asked him to give us a piece of advice.

    “There’s a yacht, that’ll go to Cartagena in 4 days”, — he answered, — “but you won’t find it on my site. I could phone the captain, if you want to. It’ll cost $480 per person with a bike”.

    Captain Jack called Juan-David, the owner of a yacht “Ametist”. We came to an agreement to meet on the main square in 5 minutes. After a short talk we were already heading to the yacht and listening with a dreamy look to the stories of our captain Juan-David about beautiful islands and abundance of seafood for breakfast, dinner and supper.

    We tried to look for a cheaper yacht, while riding 20 km along the coast and asking people, but we had the bad luck. All offers looked the same.


    In the sea, Day 1.

    Portobello — San-Blas islands.

    At 3 pm on March, 28 we met with familiar and new crew members on the pier. There were 9 of us, though only 8 people had to come, not counting the captain and his girlfriend. Jeff from Chicago had to leave in the morning. The rest of the crew: Hungarian Gabor; Mexican Esteban, who jacked up his bakery business in Mexico for the sake of a long-term journey through Latin America; Slovene Erica, who were going to Cartagena to teach English; South-African surfers Michael and Channel; and familiar to you Russian travellers Vladimir, Egor and Misha. There were also captain Juan-David from Colombia and his girlfriend Pauline from France.

    Tattoo on a Channel’s hip (Channel is a girl from South Africa)

    Considering the fact that all our baggage was loaded earlier, only briefing and choosing beds separated us from the beginning of the voyage.
    — Erica, what about sharing a bed with a Mexican guy?

    Juan-David — our captain.

    For most of us this voyage on a yacht was the first one and that’s why it all began strikingly and optimistically.

    It was my first voyage and I didn’t know what to expect. Be honest, I knew and I was afraid of it. Just after we went out the harbour, I came to the ship’s bow to enjoy unreal (as it seemed to me) waves, which lifted the yacht very high and then bring us down. I thought the illusion of me, making our yacht moving, will deceive my vestibular apparatus. Sometimes the ship’s bow went down too much and waves throw splashes of water over me! It was a real fun but I started feeling cold quite quickly. I wanted to descend to change my clothes, but the captain said that it’s restricted to go in there because I was still wet. I sat as far as I could from the ship’s bow and started talking to Jeff. He told me stories about Colombians who transfer cocaine by the sea. By this moment I “feed the fishes” for the first time. I didn’t even noticed how it happened but I remember I felt good after that. Thought it lasted just for a short while. The rest of the time until the sunrise I spent inside the boat, preliminarily throwing up once again.

    Misha and Jeff.

    In an hour after departure most of us were lying because of feeling of seasickness. People became to smile less. The Caribbean sea was choppy. Juan-David and Pauline were driving the yacht. Except them there were Jeff, Esteban (who spent most of the time outside) and Vova on the upper deck.

    I have already had experience in travelling on a big ship, I went once on a small boat near Buenos-Aires. Therefore there was a strong wish to know what it is to be on a small ship in the open sea for a few days — I’ve been nurturing an idea of having a voyage from Argentina to Europe for a while together with my fellow from Buenos-Aires. After the departure almost everyone felt sick, most of the crew were lying, someone was vomiting off the board. I held my own and, having descended inside the boat to catch my jacket, even said to Egor, who was laid up, that I’m pretty pleased with my organism. In two hours we were offered sandwiches. Bread, cheese, ham and mayonnaise...probably, it was a mistake. After I had supper I got sick. It took a long time while sitting with Esteban near yacht sideboards fighting with vomiting reflex without result. The only thing that made me happy was a full moon light track we followed. At 4 am, after 12 hours we spent in the sea, the boat moored near San Blas islands. I descend to my cabin and went out like a light.

    In the sea, Day 2.

    San-Blas Islands.

    After the first hard day, spent in the sea, a stopover for the whole day in a quiet bay near beautiful islands was a real joy. Snorkeling between the cays, being in the vicinity of yachts from different countries of the world, landing and in the end — big international evening party on an island in honour of leaving one of the yachts from routes of the Caribbean sea. But before that we had to go by boat a bit more to another island. There was no mobile network connection already.

    I woke up in the morning, understood that the boat wasn’t rolling and pitching anymore and came out on the deck. The Sun was just starting shining. Africans woke up pretty early, managed to get out through the porthole in the ship’s bow, which was called “The Secret Escape Plan”. On the whole, their accent was brilliant, thought a bit feigned, as they themselves were at first. First of all they left the boat, jumping in the sea like a fish. After they came back on the deck and dried out, they took flippers, masks and jumped in the water again. This time they offered to swim with them. Though I’ve never done snorkeling before, I was amazingly interested. All in all when I sorted out how to breath through the snorkel and overcome my fear and feeling of abnormality of this action, I spent in the water about an hour. It was the first time in my life when I saw living cays. It presented a wonderful view, though a bit scary, because I didn’t know, what to expect from these small fries and algae. It seemed that a murena of something else filthy could suddenly leap out of cay!

    After breakfast Juan-David and Pauline taught us to wash dishes using sea water (during our voyage they always cooked while the travellers washed dishes), and then they offered to make a transfer to the yacht of Juan-David’s uncle. That was the yacht Jeff has to make a transfer to, but by the moment we were heading to the party. Egor, Erica and Gabor went away. Captains clewed up and were heading their yachts towards the waves of the Caribbean sea and this way organized a true regatta.

    She's not sinking.

    As soon as we drop an anchor, some of us went to the seashore: some under own power, some on a pulling boat. The rest of us were exploring the seabed with a help of masks and flippers, totally forgetting about advantages of sunblock creams

    Guess who?

    In the evening we gathered on the island. Food and hammocks were delivered from the yacht, we brought a bottle of rum, Misha took his trumpet. Lively preparations were already began, fires were kindled. Two Indians earned a dollar for each photo with them, and were looking after travellers, so that no one could throw a fresh coconut in a fire

    Panamanian aborigins don't pose for free.

    I crossed the island and came out to the other seashore to practice music alone. Ominous crashes of waves breaking against the cays were heard to the left, there was another island to the right and a bit to the left from it I saw a shipwreck. I wish I was there at the moment! But my whole attention was absorbed by the sound of crashing waves — there was something frightful and eternal in it, but at the same time it sounded soothing.

    At night people from all over the world gathered on the island, the same wanderers as we are: travellers, boats owners and those who work for them. A woman from Ireland took a seat next to us. She told us with incredible liveliness how she feels herself during rolling and pitching, and that she has to look after mistress’s kids and also to prepare food. She was literally emitting the sound of her vomiting by the way. It was like a sound of a tennis-player, a woman, who performs her stroke. Later she asked Misha to play his trumpet, and began to pretend to be dancing, it was a real fun. After all she ran away to the main fire.

    Michael and Cahnnel draw with a light.

    A big group of people from different countries gathered around the main fire, there was also live music there. Misha continued to study to play trumpet near our fire. Vova was knocking at a big log with a stone, trying to get “food” for our fire. At this moment “Ireland” came back and, having said a few words about how great Vova is, assured Misha, that no one cares that he’s been playing trumpet only for a week, that “they want to hear you playing” and led him away to the crowd

    As soon as I got there, a girl exclaimed, “Trumpet?! Just can’t believe I actually see that! Wanna hear it!” She sang a tune, I roughly repeat it, and she sang a song. Tell the truth, she sang a tune only for a verse, not for a refrain. On the whole I liked it, though I would like it more, if I could play better.

    This night some of us decided not to come back to the yacht. Only Jeff, Erica, Michael, Channel and Vova stayed on the island.

    I’ve never slept on a small island in the Caribbean sea in my life, that’s why there couldn’t be any question about coming back. We got three hammocks: the first one was occupied by South Africans, the other two I decided to give to Jeff and Erica. The flooring, that I made of palm leaves by myself, became my couch. It was a big surprise for me that this “couch” was very comfortable, but I didn’t fall asleep immediately. I threw more dry coconuts on the fire and thought, — What if a coconut will fall on me from this palm tree at night? I fell asleep when the Moon ascended. It became light on the island, and it was possible not only hear but even see the sea with yachts rocked by its waves. Light rain didn’t change my mood this evening. It was unforgettable!

    «What if a coconut suddenly falls on you at night?»

    In the sea, Day 3.

    San-Blas Islands.

    Next day began as usual, we were snorkeling. Africans, having taken their outfit, went to examine the remote edge of the island. Though they called us to go as well, we weren’t going to hurry, therefore they swam alone. Nature is pretty monotonous there and we were really bored with it. Therewith, we understood, that we got sunburned and had to came back to our yacht.

    A group photo just before Jeff's leaving.

    Jeff is a very open, kind and communicative person! He’s not like most people in Russia think about a typical American and like I thought myself. It was very easy to get along with him, understand his humour and stories he told us — understand their actual meaning and laugh out loud, but not to keep silent, saying in a puzzled way “eh, cool, man”.

    We got soon to the other stop, absolutely different from a previous one. We dropped the anchor near the island, which dimensions were less than a small football field in a neighbourhood. It consisted of a white sand and fenced in reefs into the perimeter. These reefs were so closed to the surface of the water, that it was impossible to swim under, without touching them by stomach — therefore in order to get to the island we had to look for holes. All the bottom of the sea was studded with starfishes, cockleshells, near to the island, where coral reefs spread, there was a bunch of living creatures.

    We didn’t notice promised abundance of seafood on our table, that’s why right after having diner, Vladimir decided to remember his childhood (when he was fishing a lot), he took his fishing tackle, put on his Berghaus jacket, which supposed to protect him from the burning Sun, sat in a pulling boat and headed to reefs thus to try to catch anything. This plan was quickly destroyed, because, without having any anchor, his rubber boat was dragged away with a strong wind in the open sea.

    I tried to throw a fishing line and row up simultaneously, thus to stay at the same place, but it didn’t work out. When I realized that my boat was being dragged away even faster, I reeled a fishing line off and started to move towards the yacht, but the thing was that I stayed at the same place. Pauline came to help me out and swam to my boat with flippers put on. We started to row together and succeeded to come back with much ado. We had to forget about red tuna and other seafood.

    The rest of the day we spent on the yacht. Someone read a book, someone expressed indignation at the fact, that the previous island was much better. Our captain and his girlfriend were sleeping on a ship’s bow, resting before a 50 hours voyage in the open sea.

    Vova's sleeping on the deck hiding from the sun.

    By the end of the day I took a pulling boat and headed to the island with Africans. The fact, that a strong wind was dragging our boat away to the open sea, made the task to get to the loop between the reefs even harder. When we got to the island, we set a fire and were talking for a few hours. The island was practically empty, and everything we could find wasn’t a good fuel for our fire, because of the high moisture. But the fire was built and we enjoyed the last hours before the sunset.

    As soon as darkness fell, phosphorites lighted up. Little pools of a green light flashed out near every side the yacht many hundreds of times. It was wonderful! We couldn’t even imagine such a symphony.

    After supper the anchor was hauled, Juan-David and Pauline headed the yacht to the open sea, which, by their words, was too lumpy. We hurried to go to sleep. Just in case.

    In the sea, Das 4 and 5.

    In the open sea.

    Inspite of the briefing, given before the departure, someone managed to clogged up the toilet with a toilet paper in the beginning of our two days voyage, and this fact, of course, increased our “exciting” experience. From now on everybody had to visit lulu outboard. It was easy to wee for guys, the most interesting came with a bigger need. Girls had also a hard time there.

    It actually allowed me to enjoy phosphorites in the open sea! When the yacht sailed, I tried to pee from the side that was submerged in the water, holding a weakened (because of the wind) rigging, and phosphorites were shining in splashes of waves, cut by the yacht. Unforgettable sight! Be honest, I have never thought that a 360 degrees view of the sea could be so boring. Without dolphins, who followed us for a few hours and gave us a lot of magic moments, I could be bored to death!

    By the evening of the second day, when we were hoping to get to Cartagena, but captain said, that, because of the bad weather, we will be there only in the morning and that we should wait in a quiet harbour. Most of us were upset, but we had nothing to do and, having the anchor dropped, we started to prepare ourselves to sleep and to have supper. The harbour was so quiet, that my organism tried to create a feeling of rolling and pitching. Africans laid in a store a bottle of red wine, which they shared with everybody. Gabor in a complete darkness swam to a nearby island. Vova was talking to Erica and Esteban about the meaning of journeys. Someone asked, “It’s interesting, is there anything happened during the last five days, while we don’t have any connection with a outer world?”

    Juan-David and Pauline were sleeping on the ship’s bow again, almost everybody descended inside the boat, except Vova, who stayed on the upper desk.

    The previous night, when we still were in the open sea, I spent on the deck, struggling with a feeling of seasickness. I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but headache and giddiness kept me in the open air. I took a good look at the stars and enjoyed the view of the big waves in which our little boat plunged down again and again. We were so tiny in comparison with a strong and immense sea. Thousand of thoughts passed by quickly. Brain cleared itself of routine, I haven’t had useless mobile phone and Internet. I was far away from everything, but I knew I became closer to myself. I wanted to stand on a solid Earth, but at the same time I wanted to move this moment as far as it was possible. This night I stayed at the upper deck alone and looked up in the sky again. I remembered a movie “Contact” and a line of text from it: “...I guess I'd say if it is just us, an awful lot of space is going to waste”.

    In the sea, Day 6.

    Cartagena, Colombia.

    We woke up in the morning because of the noise of the yacht’s engine. She slowly moved towards the continent. The water now was turbid and not so beautiful. There were a cargo port, freighters and dry cargo ships to the right. The view of these ships remembered me about Panama and Panama Canal. In an hour our yacht moored to the inner side of the Bocagrande peninsula.

    We disembarked from the ship with difficulty and fixed up a meeting with our captain in two hours, so that to go altogether to the migratory center to put a stamp in our passports. After that we went to look for a hostel.

    My brain resisted for a few days after, trying to swing the visual environment. But we were in Colombia, South America. It was the eighth country for Vladimir in this journey, and the second for Misha and Egor. There were other great changes awaiting us in the future, but we’ll talk about it another time.

    Translated by Erik Maker.

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