Keith Irwin

Akuanasutupu and Yandup

Mar 8, 2014

Travel, Hitchhiking, Panama, Latin America 2014


This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

March 8

The next morning, we crossed the bridge to Akuanasutupu and sat by the dock to wait for a boat. Pierre and I agreed to buy some water and food from the store. I sent him off and waited for him to return. He came back and offered me a cigarette.

“How much is a gallon?” he asked.
“3.8 liters,” I told him.
“I think we should buy a gallon of water,” he said.
“How much is it?” I asked.

We compared the prices and determined that a gallon was a worthy investment. Then we could refill the bottle if we ever found a spigot.

“And what's this worth?” he asked, holding up a Balboa quarter. In Panama, the official currency is the Balboa, which is set equal to U.S. dollars by definition. There are Balboa coins but no Balboa bills: instead U.S. bills are used. The coins are the same size and shape as U.S. coins, but with Vasco Núñez de Balboa's head in profile instead of a U.S. president. When you buy something in Panama, you get a mix of American and Panamanian coins back. 

“That's twenty-five cents,” I replied.
“Why don't you put the value on your coins?” he asked. I never even realized it.
“I don't know. I'm not in charge. Write a letter to President Obama.”
“And this one?” He held up a dime.
“Ten cents.”
“And this?”
“That's five. And we call it a ‘nickel’.” I wondered if other languages had names for the different coins.
“Wait. This one is bigger than that one…” he compared the nickel and dime. “But is worth less?”
“Yeah, I told him.”
“It doesn't make sense!”
I shrugged. “I thought that too... in kindergarten. You get used to it.”

When he came back from the store, he told me he'd found a well. We went to it. It was just a square hole in the ground with a bucket nearby. It wasn't too deep, and I could see coral growing at the bottom.

We ate some breakfast. The well water had a milky taste.

“Maybe we can mask the taste by making it into coffee,” I suggested.
“Sure,” he replied. “You have coffee?”
“Yeah… but we'll have to make a fire.”

I got out the coffee from Guatemala and gave it to him. He used a rock to grind some beans up in a pot. Meanwhile, I collected newspaper from a trash pile and driftwood from a beach. I didn't find much tinder so it didn't start up at first. Some locals were watching.

Pierre came over with the ground coffee. “One of those guys offered to let us use his stove.”
“Oh yeah?”
“For money, of course.” He grinned.
“Fuck that!” I said. Now I had to start this fire.

And I did get it going. I propped two rebars against a cinderblock to hold the pot over the flames. “You are McGyver!” Pierre said. I didn't understand him at first because he pronounced it ‘Mcgeever’.

Soon the water boiled and I poured the coffee in and stirred it with a stick. “This is cowboy coffee,” I explained. “You cook it over a fire like a cowboy. Then you don't filter it. You just spit the grinds out like a cowboy!” I was proud to introduce our culture to the Frenchman.

We sat near the dock and drank coffee. The milky taste of the well water was bitter and overpowered the black coffee. We chased it with cigarettes.




We spent most of the day waiting. Pierre had less patience than me. He often wandered off exploring. Once, he said he was going to the store, but was gone a long time. Meanwhile, a boat came. It was going to an island in the direction of Puerto Obaldia. I didn't know how far it was because I didn't have the map Pierre had photographed. And they wouldn't wait for him to come back.

A photo of a motorboat with an awning and passengers
A typical passenger boat

I was mad when he finally returned. “What took you so long? We missed a boat! That was our chance to get off this stupid rock!”

“I met the mayor,” he told me. “He was drunk. And very proud. He show me the three houses are his.”

The sun was setting and the sky threatened to rain. I explained to Pierre that we should maybe look for an abandoned building to sleep in, since the rain might come through our thatch shelter. So we went off looking for one. As we crossed the bridge to Yandup, Ghandi called us over and gave each of us a plate of food. We thanked him.

We spent the evening hanging out with the crew of that ship. Everyone liked talking to Pierre, who was more sociable than I. I spent a lot of time writing. That night, we were invited to sleep on the deck. The crew slept on wooden bunks in a small room. The rest of the deck was sheltered by an awning: a black tarp pulled across a bamboo beam in an A-shaped. We slept on the large doors to the hold, which contained coconuts.




I awoke to a downpour. Lightning flashed, thunder crashed. I could see water pouring down in the light of orange streetlights. It was also streaming off the tarp. One of the crew members got up and moved a bucket to collect the rainwater. I used our gallon bottle to collect some too. Then I helped him with the buckets. The rain was strong but it only lasted a little while.

March 9

The next day, I was invited to take a shower in the bathroom on the boat, which was just a little closet hanging out next to the hull. There was a hole in the floor and I stood next to the hole and poured buckets of cold water over my soapy body until I was clean.

The sailor I'd helped the night before saw me drinking from my water bottle and said “Hey, you can't drink that! It's dirty!” I told him it was rainwater, like what he was collecting. He said that was for washing only. Whatever.

We spent the day waiting for boats, again. 

Later that day, I swam out to the sailboats anchored there to ask if anyone was going towards Colombia, but didn't see anyone. After that, I went for a walk to look for a quieter place to sleep. A plump man sitting in a plastic chair called me over. He sat with three other guys, drinking beer.

“I am the boss of this island,” he told me first. “Why do you have no shirt on? Don't you know it's impolite? Where are you from?” He was smiling. Maybe he was trying to get my goat. He wasn't wearing a shirt either. But he was the boss.

“I was swimming,” I explained. “And my pants are wet. So if I wear a shirt, it will be also wet.”

He accepted my explanation. We talked a little while. He asked if I liked his island. Pierre was right: he was very proud.

We spent that night on the deck of Ghandi's ship too. 


Yandup Tikantiki and PlayĆ³n Chico