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It was 6am in the morning and I was squashed into a 4WD with several other travellers all bound for Colombia. We bumped along the dirt roads to El Porvenir through the stunning mountains of the Darien before being dropped at a river bank and taken in long, thin, brightly painted row boats to the Stahlratte, a beautiful 40 metre sailboat.
I have to admit I was a little nervous about this part of my journey. I’m not a big fan of sailing, nor of large groups of people in contained spaces that you cannot escape from: boats, school, work, prisons, that type of scenario. Making polite conversation whilst trying not to be seasick would certainly not be my idea of fun. In fact making polite small talk full stop is not my strongpoint. But this was the best way to get to Colombia and I decided that a larger sailboat with more people could be better than one of the smaller ones on offer. There might be a few people I could communicate with out of 20 on The Stahlratte, if I was on a boat of six and they were all irritating Mr Thornberrys I would be putting my mental health in danger. So I braced and boarded the boat, wishing I’d had a pre-printed T-shirt made up stating my name, my travelling status (ie how many months I’d been on the road) and my plans for where I was going next, oh and a bullet pointed list of the top 5 highlights of my trip so far.
So with all 20 people on board and four crew we set off for the San Blaas islands, where we were to moor up for two nights before sailing on to Cartagena.
As the boat chugged out of El Porvenir (by motor, no wind for the sails) and into the San Blaas archipelago, it felt as though we had reached paradise and my earlier worries started to fade. The aqua blue ocean was dotted with hundreds of white sandy islands covered by palm trees. The region is owned by The Kuna people, who have autonomy over the Sand Blaas, which consists of hundreds of islands, one for every day of the year I was told. Despite the choice the Kuna live on only a handful of these islands as they hold strong community bonds and like to stay close to each other.
Our captain Ludwig, has been visiting the islands for years and knows the Kuna and their ways well. We had been moored for a while when a loud trumpet call came up from a neighbouring island and we could see some Kuna wrestling a huge fish out of the water and into one of their narrow rowboats. Some of our crew went over to investigate and our dinner soon appeared on the deck with a loud thump; the biggest fish I had ever seen, a huge Grouper, all for $30 and a couple of beers.
Ludwig started gutting the fish and at the same time told me about the boat: “It used to be like a commune on here, free love that sort of thing. But people got bored with that so now we’ve put the boat to different uses. We do this journey for a while and then later in the year we travel to Cuba.”
What a great life, I thought, providing you don’t get seasick as many of the passengers did the next day (unfortunately including myself).
Ludwig continued: I’ve been on this boat for 17 years it’s not only my home, it’s like I’m part of the boat, kind of like the keel or something.”
The Stahlratte has certainly had an interesting life, as well as being a commune and a tourist boat it has been chartered out to various environmental agencies, from 1996 – 1999 it was a Greenpeace vessel and has also been used by The World Wildlife Fund.
The two days we spent moored up consisted of swimming, eating and chatting (or avoiding chatting) to others onboard the boat. My journey seemed rather unadventurous compared to that of some on the ship: a couple who were cycling from Canada to Argentina, a Canadian on a motorbike doing the same, a couple from Sweden riding the Americas and a chap from Stoke-on-Trent.
My trip to follow in Paul Theroux’s footsteps seemed to pale into insignificance and as I muttered about trying to find trains and explain about The Old Patagonian Express, the people listening seemed mildly bemused, which rather annoyingly left me feeling bemused and I started pondering on how I could potentially make the whole affair slightly more radical or risky in order to compete with these tales of excitement.
After 28 hours at sea I awoke at 5.30am to see the cloudy skyline of Cartagena coming into view. Not quite what I was expecting, lines of skyscrapers on the horizon. New hotels and offices hiding ‘the jewel of Cartagena’ – its old town which was just visible behind the high rises as we rounded the corner into the harbour. It was an exciting way to first see a country and seemed so much more natural than stumbling out of an airport dazed and confused. Now all we had to do was wait for passport control to let us off the boat and I was certainly keen to disembark. I felt that one more travel tale around the dinner table might just finish me off.
After the third taxi driver had informed me he did not know where the train station was, I began to doubt myself. Luckily after explaining the exact location to the next driver, who still did not look convinced, I was on my way.
I arrived ready for the 7.15am Panama to Colón at 6.30am. The train was already there, its shiny red and yellow engine visible from behind the station building. An American family stood on the steps waiting for the doors to open. She worked in environmental science and was travelling to Colón for work with her husband and two children, both looked under ten. That’s fairly brave I thought, but this was only the half of it.
“Do you know if Colón is safe to walk around in during the day?” I asked the husband.
“Well everywhere has a bad reputation” he replied chirpily “We were just in Colombia that was great, really safe and the people were very friendly.”
He added: “There are quite a few things to do in Colón I’ve heard, I’m sure it’s fine.”
This new opinion threw me. So far the most common words used when discussing Colón were ‘dangerous, robbed and very dangerous.’ Everyone I had spoken to and all I’d read (see here for a fellow travellers take on the city) had warned me against going there, this newfound optimism made me think again; so I asked one more person before deciding whether to investigate for myself: “Very dangerous, you shouldn’t walk around there, you‘ll get robbed” confirmed the lady at the station office, so a single ticket it was.
The train was just as delightful as it would have been 30 years ago. Beautiful wooden panelled carriages, with green reading lights and matching green seats. Being a tourist I was ushered into the tourist carriage. It was taller with a dome-shaped glass ceiling and horrible floral carpet.
About four locals boarded the train and around 15 babbling tourists. As the train slid out of Panama I discovered the disadvantages to being in the tourist carriage. “SLOTH”…. “TOUCAN” …. “Did you see that one?” bellowed a Panamanian guide to an American couple. I started by trying to see some of these animals but the train was going quickly and the jungle was thick, not to mention the fact that I had an inkling he was inventing the animals to keep the tourists amused. I instead tried to concentrate on the vista to the other side – the Panama Canal, the sight of two huge container ships passing each other in the jungle was certainly surreal. The jungle closed in on either side for a while, bursting with colour from the many birds of paradise, then gave way to a golf course.
“It was built for a new resort that was never made” said the guide, now I knew he was fibbing, that golf course had been there over 30 years ago and was built for the Zonians.
The train glided along and I took a stroll to the other carriages as the air conditioning in the tourist car was ferocious. The Canal appeared again, this time alongside some excavations, work has already started to widen the canal and the Panamanians are hoping to have this finished by 2012. It’s an ambitious project, but if it runs to schedule, will be very lucrative for the country. The Canal is so busy at present it’s predicted it will reach saturation point by around 2012.
All too quickly the train arrived in Colón and the jaunt was over. It was time to return to Panama, this time via bus, as I did not want to risk my safety by spending the day in Colón.
If a city can be judged on the expressions of its inhabitants then I was pleased I was not stopping. People in the streets looked sad and forlorn, reflecting the state of the dirty tenement buildings around them. I got onto the bus and found myself sat in front of a hideous horror movie, featuring Dennis Quaid. I didn’t know where to look, out at the sad people or at the torture on the television. My earlier train elation had all but disappeared. I cheered myself up with thoughts of my onward journey. To get around the Darien Gap Paul Theroux had to take a plane. Now there is the option to take a sailing boat, and in my quest to keep this trip overland and out of the skies, I would soon be boarding the Stahlratte, a former Greenpeace ship, bound for Cartagena, Colombia.
I had never seen a windscreen adorned with a feather boa before. Nor had I seen a bus gearlever and steering wheel covered in matching pink sparkly tape. I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a bus with Hugo Chavez and Osama Bin Laden painted on the back of it either, but in Panama City they are not your average buses. Decorated with bright murals and each with its own theme, they are full of character. I’ve been on pimped up buses with spiky hub caps blasting out rap at ear bleeding volume, chintzy buses with floral-covered seats playing violin concertos and loud r ‘n’ b buses with teenagers at the wheel and their friends dancing in the isles. Getting around the city is good fun, certainly more fun than the 16 hour Tica Bus journey from San Jose to Panama City. The freezing air conditioning which gave way to what felt like a heat wave, did not make for a comfortable trip. Although when I wasn’t adding or taking off layers of clothing, the beautiful mountains and lush green countryside made for a good distraction. As did my book, A House for Mr Biswas.
I digress, it was the teenage party bus with the pink feather boas that dropped me a ten minute walk from the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal. A visitors centre and selection of viewing platforms were built next to the lock in 2000, the year that the Americans handed control of the Canal to Panama (31st December 1999 to be precise). I spent a sweaty couple of hours marvelling at this engineering feat, enjoying the exhibition and then an informational video, which was strangely accompanied by music that would have been better suited to a squat party in the East End of London.
As the London Express container ship passed through the lock I decided to leave and with no party buses in sight I hailed a cab. The taxi driver took me though what used to be The Zone, where The Zonians lived when Paul Theroux was here. Things have certainly changed since then with the Canal a success for the Panamanians and the planned extension of the locks underway.
The driver pointed out the old US houses, the airbase, which is now a national airport, and what was once Balboa High School, where Paul gave a talk to some rather disinterested students. It’s still a school but now for the children of the Panamanian families who work for the canal. I asked my driver how life had been since the canal had been handed over: “I used to drive the Americans everywhere, between bases, to meetings, back home. Since they left there is less business for me, but some people are happier, it depends who you ask.”
The next stop for me is the 7.15am ‘Balboa Bullet’ to Colon. Happily, the first train journey of my trip. I’ve chatted with a few people about spending the day in Colon, as the train, resurrected in 2001, runs at the same time as it did 30 years ago: one train a day departing Panama City at 7.15am and returning at 5.15pm. Most people have described Colon as: “Very dangerous with high unemployment” and made comments such as: “Please don’t go there, you’ll get robbed.”
The Lonely Planet guidebook does not fill me with enthusiasm either: “A sprawling slum of decaying colonial grandeur and desperate human existence.”
I’ll be getting on the Balboa Bullet, for certain, how much time I’ll spend in Colon remains to be seen.