Keith Irwin


Mar 12, 2014

Hitchhiking, Colombia, Panama, Travel, 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 12

The next day, we set off. We only travelled about 35 minutes to the next island, Achutupu.

A photo of an island, probably Ailigandi, taken from a ship
Leaving Ailigandí

Another ship was there unloading crates of soda and I helped a local carry them to his shop. He thanked me by giving me one. Not all the natives were assholes. I shared it with Pierre.

I went for a swim, and afterwards, a military man asked to see Pierre and me in his office. He studied our passports and checked that they were stamped. Then he took out a blank sheet of paper and wrote our names and birthdays down in neat cursive. I felt good to make my mark in the island's records. Someday a historian could come to the island village of Achutupu and see that I had been there on March 12, 2014.

That afternoon, the other ship came to dock there too. We said hello to them. I then sat in the shade on deck and read The Picture of Dorian Grey.  Suddenly, I heard someone behind me holler “Hey! Gringos!” I turned. A crew member from the other ship pointed down. There was a motorboat floating below. “To Puerto Obaldia?” asked the helmsman.

I called for Pierre. Fortunately he wasn't far. We'd already agreed on what to do in this situation. Pierre clambered across the ship and down into the motorboat and showed the helmsman his watch. “It's Swiss,” Pierre explained. The man seemed to like it.

We obviously didn't have much money left over. The captain said, “OK, the watch is nice. What else?” We offered $20, but he asked for $30. We discussed it a moment and decided to go for it. Maybe there would be an ATM at Capurgana.

We collected our things and climbed down into the boat. The crew of both ships leaned overboard to wave as we pulled off. “Goodbye!” We yelled. “Thanks for everything!”

There were some Germans on the boat, from Greifswald, a city near Rostock, where I used to live. I spoke German with them briefly, but it was hard with Spanish on the brain. One of them spoke excellent Spanish. There was also an Ecuadorian on board, who sat in the stern and talked with Pierre. They were cheerful, despite having been on the boat for eight hours. 

We would arrive too late to visit the migrations office in Puerto Obaldia. Our new captain, who lived in Capurgana, said we would go there for the night, and then he'd take us to Puerto Obaldia the next morning. I was very particular about making sure he agreed to take us there and back the next day. I didn't want another situation like in El Porvenir.

We started to run out of gas and had to stop at another island town. Our captain drove around, hollering to everyone he saw, asking where he could buy gasoline. He was watching the shore so intently that we would have run over some people in a canoe if I hadn't yelled “Watch out!” Finally we found a place to fuel up. Pierre jumped out to smoke a cigarette. Nobody told him not to smoke next to the barrels of fuel.

The trip took a few hours. The islands thinned out. The captain pointed out Obaldia. “Capurgana is just around this mountain,” he informed us.

We finally arrived. My watch, which I had left on, was wet and ruined. We docked and stretched.

“Hey, Keith,” Pierre said.
“What?” I asked.
“We are in Colombia!” He was grinning wider than usual.

We carried our bags into town. The Ecuadorian knew a hostel we could stay at. We wearily walked down the cobblestone streets. We were shirtless and wet, wearing backpacks and carrying luggage. Pierre and I shared a cigarette. I felt like we were soldiers returning from a long battle.

At the hostel, the Ecuadorian made a deal with the owner, whom he knew, to stay there at a reduced price. She was reluctant, and we were very thankful. This was good, since Pierre and I were almost out of money. He told me not to worry, but I was always worrying.

The hostel had a big grassy yard. In the middle was a brick grill. I started a fire there and cooked a bit of pasta while Pierre made friends with some Frenchmen. There were two French girls staying in the room above us. At one point, a girl tried to invite me into the conversation by asking something in Spanish. She spoke quickly and I didn't understand, and I told her so.

“Where are you from?” she asked in English. I told her.
“Oh, he's American!” she said to the others, in French. “He doesn't speak any languages.”

I wanted to reply in French, but the words came to my brain very slowly. Pierre knew I knew some French and probably saw my furled eyebrows. He defended me before I could remember any curses. “Non, non. He speaks good Spanish. You must only speak slower.”

That night, we all got a bottle of rum and sat around a fire on the beach. Pierre flirted with one of the french girls. I talked to the Ecuadorian for a while. Then I went over and talked to the other french girl. Her name was Sophie.

Sophie's father was a diplomat and she wanted to be one too. Studying to be a diplomat involved traveling, discovering other cultures, and learning languages. That's what brought her to Colombia. I thought that was interesting. Wanting to know more about her studies, I asked if she had to do some sort of final project to graduate.

She did. The assignment was to do research on drone technology and review its pros and cons. Her professor was going to take one of the reviews and present it to a committee he was in. “It's bad that he uses his students to do his work,” she said. “But I don't have a choice, because I am a student.”

She was excited about her report though. “I think a lot of the other students write about the danger of collisions with airplanes. I am writing this too, but I say also about the radio signals. I read that the drones use radio frequencies, which can disrupt the signals for emergency services, and is very dangerous also.”

She seemed proud of her work, and I had a sense to compliment her. Flattery would probably be an effective way to flirt with her. But the fact is that I strongly disagreed with her. And I was too honest not to say something.

“That's all well and good,” I started. “But there is an agency who is responsible for allocating radio frequencies. In the U.S. it's called the F.C.C., the Federal Communications Commission. There is probably something similar in France. Their job is to give frequencies to emergency services and drones and broadcasts, so that there is no interference. So the problem is not with the drones themselves, it's just that it's a new technology and it lacks regulation.”
“Well, I read that that's not true,” she replied. “The drones are a great risk.”
“I think that's hysteria,” I said. “You can't fight a technology just because you don't understand it. And drones in particular are very useful to society.”
“No they aren't,” she told me. “They are completely unnecessary!”
“Yeah, they could do lots of things. Obviously, they have uses for photography and surveying. But they can improve people's lives by performing manual labor.”

She was skeptical so I tried to think of an example. “You see, Pierre and I have been traveling along the San Blas islands.”

Pierre overheard me. “Keith!” he said. “McGeever! Do you want a cigarette?”
“Sure,” I said. I took it and held it instead of sparking it, in case it bothered Sophie.

“So… we've been visiting these islands. And the natives there work by collecting coconuts in their canoes and selling them to cargo ships.  So maybe... there could be a drone to collect the coconuts, and then the natives wouldn't need to work.”
“And then they wouldn't have jobs!” she argued.
“Sure,” I said. “But they wouldn't need jobs. They can still make money by selling the coconuts. They just wouldn't need to do the hard and dangerous work. I think in the future, robots will free humans from labor. We are slaves because we have to work. But if robots did the work for us, we would have the same products and services, but without the cost of manual labor.”

She disagreed with me. “People need jobs. Even if a robot can do the work, people need to do something with their lives to feel fulfilled.”

I thought about how it felt to be denied when I offered to help unload cargo ships. But I stood by my opinion. “Well, people could use the time for other things. They could educate themselves, or travel, or have a hobby. They could make art. I would skateboard and travel, and feel completely fulfilled. I would also go back to uni, if I had the time and money to. And there are lots of artists who are passionate about what they do, but don't earn enough money to do what they love. Think about the windmill as an example. When the windmill was invented, nobody complained that it was taking the miller's job. It made agriculture easier. And as technology made agriculture easier, people had more time for other exploits, like art.”

Sophie continued to disagree with me. And we argued for a long time. My opinions are radical so I don't really expect others to see things my way. And it was clear to me that I'd lost her favor. But, to be honest, arguing was much more fun than flirting anyway. If I hadn't disagreed, I'd probably still be stumbling for things to talk about. But now I was talking about something I believed in passionately: an economy that supports automation.

After a while, we put the fire out and walked back to the hostel. The other French girl and Pierre brushed their teeth, and I found myself standing on the lawn, looking up at Sophie on the balcony.

“It's a nice balcony you have there,” I told her.
“It isn't bad,” she replied.

Pierre joined me.  “Cigarette?” I accepted one.

“You are always smoking cigarettes,” Sophie said. “You don't want to know what I think about cigarettes.”
Pierre and I looked at each other. “Tell us,” I said.
“Yeah,” Pierre agreed. “We want to know.”

“You shouldn't smoke! You think it makes you look cool, but you're just addicted to it! And it's really bad for your health, such that it can kill you. But you don't even care because you think it's cool. Or you can't stop because it is so addictive. I don't think it's cool. I think it's stupid.” She went into her room. Pierre wasn't smiling. I stood there looking at the cigarette. Then I handed it back to him. He laughed.

“I know why you don't want it,” he said, smiling.
“Because...” He lowered his voice. “You want to fuck Sophie!” He grinned.
“No! I mean… yes. I mean…” I thought about it. “She's right.”

Ailigandí Puerto Obaldia