Keith Irwin


Mar 4, 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. 

March 4

The next morning was cloudy and dewy. I packed up my things and was on the road by seven.

My first ride was with a porky African in a blue Nissan. His car was in very poor condition and I didn't understand a word of his accent. He tried to tell me something about the door as I tried to close it. I understood that it the latch didn't work and I'd have to hold it. This proved difficult as he went around left turns because my seat was not very well secured to the floor. His carpet was torn and his dashboard was in pieces. The engine made unhealthy noises. I wasn't surprised when we broke down after less than ten miles.

It's been a fantasy of mine to have a car break down while hitchhiking, and pay back the driver's kindness by fixing it. When I think about it, there's not much that could go wrong with a car to completely disable it, and yet, be fixable by the road. A disconnected fuel line is the only thing that came to mind.

So when I asked what was wrong, I was disappointed when the guy said we were out of gasoline. Still, I was eager to help. Maybe we could put something else flammable in the tank, to get us to a gas station? No, that wouldn't work. Nearby was a house with some cars in the driveway. But I couldn't steal their gas. I could always knock on their door and ask nicely. But I didn't want to.

The driver seemed just as hopeless as he cursed and chocked his wheels with rocks. He said it was three hours by foot to where he was trying to go. I said I would try to get another ride, but he said it wouldn't work. He sat in the shade and complained.

In Panama, instead of using a thumbs-up gesture, most hitchhikers point in the direction they were going. So I was pointing up. Drivers often gave a confused look anyway, so I tried both gestures as cars approached. But my motions only seemed to confuse drivers more. And every car that passed us started a new round of pessimism from my companion.

“Nobody will stop! You're wasting your time.”
“You stopped,” I reminded him.
“Yes, but that's different. This is Panama. People don't do this here.”

A car approached. “They aren't going to stop!” he said. The car passed. “See? Nobody will stop.”
“Sometimes people stop,” I told him. “I came here from New York like this.” 

After about a half hour of this, a van stopped, just as he was saying it wouldn't. I went to the window and started to explain that I was going to Miramar. The driver had some trouble understanding me. Fortunately, my companion jogged over and, panting, started explaining the situation. I didn't understand much of what he said, but the van took us along. They dropped him off at the next place he could buy gas, and took me as far as they were going, a village called La Fria.

Hitchhiking was slow after that. There wasn't a lot of traffic, so when I saw a bus coming, I flagged it down. It only cost sixty cents to get to Miramar. Sometimes, hitchhiking just isn't worth it.

In Miramar, I first went down to the docks and saw several boats, each about sixty feet long. One was tied to the dock port-side, and the others were moored to it. I went to each of them and asked to speak to the captain. Nobody was going to Colombia, and nobody was very friendly.

I went to a nearby restaurant and asked the people there if there would be any boats going to Colombia.

“Colombia?” one said. “$250!”
“No, no,” I said. “It's too much.”

They talked amongst themselves. I couldn't understand them through the thick african drawl. After a while, I realized they weren't discussing other options to get to Puerto Obaldia. They were just talking amongst themselves, ignoring me. So I walked off.

Going down the street, I met some people taking a motor off a boat. I came up behind them and offered to help. They ignored me with cold shoulders.

Further down a man caught up to me. He spoke good English, and I explained my situation. It was the first nice person I had met in this whole region. He said there was a boat leaving Thursday at 7:30, which might be able to take me. I said I would be there. I asked him where I could find a grocery store, and he directed me around a corner to a little shop. I thanked him.

The store was run by the only Chinese people in town, as usual. I bought an array of cold cuts, pasta, powdered soup, peanut butter, and some beers. Then I walked up the road to look for a place to camp.

I found a sort of bus shelter on a little slope above the road. The floor was hard concrete, but the roof was sturdy. It had no walls. I set up camp here and built a fire pit out of cinderblocks I'd found nearby. Down on the beach, there was plenty of driftwood which I lugged across the road to my new home.

A photo of my camp under the concrete pavillion

I went swimming. There was a shallow lagoon across the road, which was warm and salty. The mouth of the cove broke the waves so they rolled in calmly. I went back to my fire and dried off, smoking a cigarette. I cooked a pot of pasta and ate it. Then I smoked another cigarette. I went to sleep early that night.

I awoke to find water lapping up against my campsite. The tide! I grabbed what I could from my belongings and ran up the hill. I found myself in a thick forest. There was a large turtle, who had a horn above its head, so it looked like it had two heads. I was mesmerized, but I had to get the rest of my stuff. I ran back down the hill to find my belongings, including my passport, floating in knee-high waves. I panicked and gathered them up as best I could. As I did so, a dream-like sense of unreality came over me. I pulled myself back to the real world.

I sat up and looked around. The sea was in the lagoon where it belonged. I saw the palm trees swaying in the light of the half moon. The waves crashed on the beach soothingly. I laid down and went back to sleep.

March 5

I spent some of the next day by the docks, looking for boats, but it was boring. Plus, I knew there was a boat coming on Thursday. So I took some time to relax, reading, writing, swimming, and smoking cigarettes. I could never relate to people who talked about having only one more cigarette, until now. I decided not to buy any more; better to nip the habit in the bud.

I was sure to set my watch's alarm for 6 AM before I went to bed. If the boat left early, I wanted to be there for it.

Portobelo Akuanusadup