Mar 6, 2014
Latin America 2014, Hitchhiking, Travel, Panama
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.
On Thursday, I woke up while it was still dark out and packed my things quickly. I took all the remaining driftwood too, leaving the pavilion as I had found it. I got to the docks early, while it was still dark, but there was no boat leaving at 7:30. Maybe the guy had meant 7:30 in the evening? But it seemed like a long trip to make overnight.
I was frustrated. I had waited in this shithole for days and met almost only rude people. I vowed to stay at the docks all day, no exceptions, and ask every damn boat I saw. For the most part, I met more rude people. But finally, in the afternoon, I asked a broad African with a wide nose if he was going to Puerto Obaldia. He wasn't going to Puerto Obaldia, but offered to take me to San Blas. I figured one of the islands had a city on it, called San Blas, and if he took me there, I could find a boat to Puerto Obaldia.
He offered to take me along for $30, which seemed like a reasonable price. I put my watch and clothes into my backpack, which I sealed in a trash bag. I now only wore my hat, shorts, and a t-shirt. I was offered a life jacket, which I took. I thanked him and settled into his twelve-foot boat. It was loaded with ten blue plastic barrels of gasoline, which lowered the vessel to a hand's width of the waterline. As we slowly motored away from the dock, the captain asked where I was from. He then said I was crazy. To be honest, I didn't know what I was getting into. But I was sure relieved to be away from Miramar!
Out of the bay, the boat picked up speed. We seemed to be heading straight towards a thunderstorm, but rain wouldn't have made any difference. I got completely soaked within a minute. The entire trip was a constant cold shower of salty water. I put my hat down to shield my face from the spray, which stung horribly when it got into my eyes.
The ride took about an hour, in my memory, which felt like an eternity. But then we pulled off into an inlet through tall reeds. Here, there were no waves, and I could finally lift my head. The storm had passed us by, and the sun came out.
We returned to open water, but it was not as choppy as before. Before long, we arrived at a small island with only a few cinderblock buildings on it. I later learned this was El Porvenir. It was beautiful as a postcard, with palm trees, white sand, and clear water. I followed the captain into one of the buildings, labeled as a border military post. Inside was a small office with some Panamanian soldiers. They checked his documents and he showed me off (“Look at this crazy American I picked up!”). They took a look at my passport and then we returned to the dock.
“Here is San Blas,” the captain said. “I can take you to another island, but it will cost another $30,”
This was a problem, because there didn't seem to be much on this island. “Is there a market here?” I asked him.
“And on the other island?”
I thought about it. I could stay here and wait days for another boat, who might ask for more money. In the meantime, I would have to go hungry. I didn't see any choice in the matter. So I paid another $30 and got back in the boat.
We pushed off and motored through the paradisiacal waters. We passed many beautiful islands, all of which were flat and sandy. Some were as small as a large car, with only a handful of palm trees on them, others relatively large, maybe as big as a soccer field, and housing small palm forests. There were also sailboats and yachts anchored by several of them. It must be nice to be able to sail to a desolate island, and claim it for a few days.
As we approached a thin canoe, a man stood up in it and held a fish over his head. I thought he was showing off his catch. But we slowed down and pulled up next to him. He also had two boys with him, and they held our boats together while the two captains bartered. Our captain produced two large coolers, and the other captain started slapping fish of all kinds into it. Many were still alive and flopped around on top of each other. “More, more,” our captain said. “Fill it up,”
I leaned back to take a photo of the scene and noticed how clear the water was. I could even see sharp granite formations on the sandy sea floor. There was no way to tell, but it appeared to be maybe thirty or forty feet below us.
After filling the coolers, we set off again. It wasn't long before we approached what appeared to be a floating city. It was an island, to be sure, but stripped of its trees and full of buildings. The buildings came right up to the water's edge, creating the illusion. As we got closer, I saw corrugated tin huts built on stilts over the water, connected by planks to the island. I presumed these to be outhouses. Closer still, details appeared. There were some trees and sandy roads between the houses, and people walking around. Along the water, sloppily painted signs advertised Gasoline for Sale. I could see boats docked to the shore, but no cars anywhere.
As we came around the island, a second island appeared, connected to the first by a white bridge with a red roof.
We pulled up to a dock and I hopped out. I got my watch and backpack out of the trash bag and thanked my asshole captain, shaking his gigantic hand. He informed me that there would be boats leaving from this dock to Puerto Obaldia, though he didn't know when. So I waited there for a bit. I was beginning to look as tan as a sailor, sitting in the sun. When I got too hot, I sat down on a bench under a roof's overhang. Then I laid back to rest.
I woke up to a loud banging sound, and saw some men taking apart the motor from a boat. Something was stuck and they couldn't get it off. I came over to see if I could help, but it was clear that I couldn't be of any use.
I checked my watch. It was getting late. I could sit at the dock and wait a little longer, but I didn't think there would be any more boats by this time. Plus, I was hungry and wanted to explore around a little. I asked some locals where I could find a supermarket. Most people were unwilling to help, or maybe they didn't know Spanish. I crossed a basketball court and little plaza with a sculpture of the virgin mary in the center. It was like any latin American village in most ways.
I got some bread at a wooden market. There was a TV inside where an action film was playing. The protagonist was jumping out of a helicopter into a bay to intercept a motorboat and save some pretty woman.
I then walked across the bridge to the other island. I passed children in uniform coming back from school. The sun was setting and cast a pleasant hue around the islands. Out in the water, a few sailboats were anchored peacefully, with flags from various countries and windmill generators waving overhead. Not far behind them was the mountainous coastline.
The larger island was named Yandup and the smaller, where I had arrived, was Akuanusadup. On Yandup I discovered a bank and a school, as well as several small shops. I was reminded of Invisible Cities, Calvino's masterpiece, though he may never have written of island cities.
I slept that night on the edge of the basketball court, but when it started to rain lightly, I moved into the building next to it, which was under construction, and slept under a staircase.