Keith Irwin

Portobelo

Mar 3, 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 3

It took one day to hitch from Panama City to Portobelo. As my last driver pulled into the main plaza, I could see carnival festivities still going on. Reggaeton was playing too loudly from huge speakers, and half-naked africans were dancing wildly in the square. A guy standing on a water truck hosed everyone down. I avoided the commotion and walked to the bay.

First I checked out the fortress, which is a world heritage site. It had a few walls and some cannons. There were a few holes in the ground which lead to a series of underground storage rooms. The other tourists weren't checking them out, but I did. All I discovered was an unidentifiable bad smell.

There were plenty of sailboats out on the bay, but no way to communicate with them. Inspired by the modern nomad, I decided that the best thing to do was to swim out alongside the vessels and ask if they were going my way.

First, I had to find a place to hide my stuff. I wandered the thin cobblestoned streets and glanced at abandoned buildings. One had a door which was poorly boarded up with two planks in an X shape. When nobody was looking, I ducked inside. The place was empty and dusty. I went upstairs. A lot of the roof was missing, but one room seemed well-protected. I put my pack and clothes in a corner and cautiously went back outside.

I waded through some mud and algae and was relieved when the water was deep enough to swim. I made my way out to the boats. If I saw people on deck, I swam up close and then hollered to to get their attention. Seamen hardly expect to be addressed from below, so it took a while for some of them to look down. I met a German, Swedes, Australians, and three boats of Frenchmen. Only one French couple had trouble with English, but I remembered enough French to say “I want... to Colombia… hitchhiking.” They were rude, but the other sailors were friendly. I learned that the winds were unfavorable during this season to be sailing in that direction. Only a boat full of Frenchmen were going my way, but in no less than two weeks. I didn't want to wait that long.

I wearily returned to shore, dressed, and went into town. I found a supermarket, run by some Chinese people, and bought a meal of bread, cheese slices, hot dogs, some fruits, and a beer. I sat on the shady steps outside, across from the church, and ate. When I was full, I put the rest of the food in my pack.

I decided to go ask some sailors I'd seen drinking by the shore. I figured I could go to Captain Jack's at night, when people usually go to bars.

It was easy to identify who was a sailor. The locals were all black. The land-loving tourists were all white. The sailors were all bronze. In one restaurant, I met a few Germans who owned the place. They were sailors too, but had bought the restaurant to earn some money for a few years before they'd continue their trip. I talked to one owner, saying I was looking for a lift to Colombia. We spoke partially in German and partially in English, because neither of us spoke perfect Spanish. The woman said Captain Jack could probably help me. The electricity had been out for a few hours, but she called him up on a CB radio, saying “I have another passenger for you.”

I didn't like the sound of that, but I thanked her and left. The sun was setting and I was ready for a beer. Captain Jack's was a pub and hotel up the hill, overlooking the town. I had to climb up some stairs to get to the bar on the second floor. It was a lovely wooden building, with a corrugated tin roof covered in thatch. Jack was the owner, an American expat who'd built the inn several years ago. I sat down next to a guy reading a novel and got a beer.  I found Jack tending the bar and told him I was looking for a boat to Colombia.

“Ah, so you're the one!” he said. “Well here's what I got for ya. It's $350 to go straight to Puerto Obaldia. But for $500, you can get a nice tour of the San Blas islands too. That's a bit more relaxing: it takes a few days and you get to see the all islands, which are absolutely beautiful.”
“I'm not really interested in seeing the islands,” I told him. “And for $350 I could have flown. I wasn't expecting a free ride. But my general plan is to hitchhike to Argentina.”
“Well,” Jack replied patiently. “What were you expecting to pay?”
“Gee, I don't know.” I said. “A hundred?”
The guy next to me made a noise.
“Oh, no.” Jack said. “You can't get that here.” He thought for a moment. “You know what you could do? They have boats going to Puerto Obaldia from Miramar for $110. It's about an hour up the road.”
“That sounds a lot better!” I said. “How often do the boats leave?”
“Don't know. Maybe every day. Maybe every few days.”
“OK,” I said. “But it wouldn't be, say, a week?”
“Don't know. Might be.”
“A week. OK.” I thought about it. “But it wouldn't be two weeks, would it?”
“What'd he just say?” The man next to me blurted. “He says he don't know.”
“OK, OK,” I backpedaled. I considered my options. “I guess it's worth a try.”
“Sure,” Jack said. “The bus is cheap; a few bucks. Heck, you could even try to thumb it.”
“I was planning to,” I told him.

I settled in and drank my beer. Some sailors came in and were greeted as if they'd been gone for years. And maybe they had! My preconceptions of Captain Jack's, based in pirate books and movies, were being fulfilled.

I had a quick chat with the guy next to me. He was reading a novel by Dean Koontz, an author I was unfamiliar with. He was from Canton, Tennessee, a town I happened to pass through once on my way to Asheville. It's a nice area, I told him. It's alright, he told me. I wanted to know what brought him here, but he didn't give much of an answer. Maybe he just wanted to read his book, I figured, so I let it go. Him and Jack had a brief exchange about Crimea. Apparently Russia had invaded it. I inquired about it.

“Well, you see, Crimea is a peninsula south of Ukraine,” he said to me.
“I know,” I said. “I've been there.”
“Well Russia invaded it,” he replied curtly.

It was only eight, but dark out. I wasn't ready to pay for another beer so I said goodbye and thanked Jack for the advice. I walked down the hill and snuck back into my home for the night. There, I ate some more of my food.

I heard a noise behind me and turned to see a mangy dog. He seemed scared of me. “Hey, buddy,” I said. “Did I invade your home?” He looked at me fearfully. “I'm sorry. We can be roommates though.” I gave him my last hot dogs. But he didn't want to be friends. He took the meat and left.

I unrolled my blankets, and laid on them. But I wasn't tired. I started The Picture of Dorian Gray. I felt restless. I put my shoes back on and went back out.

I walked to a little corner store and I went in. There was only one chinese guy trying to help a mob of black people who wanted food and drinks. The Chinese guy seemed to have four arms, grabbing wares, putting cash in the register, counting change. There was no line. He just nodded to whoever he thought was next. When he nodded at me, I asked for a small tube of toothpaste and a pack of Marlboros.

Back at my home, I sat on the balcony overlooking the bay and smoked. Dark clouds roll in. Three vultures sat perched on a nearby rooftop, like statues. Then I went to bed.

A photo of the bay at Portobello, with storm clouds rolling in
The view of the bay from the balcony
A photo of three vultures on a rooftop, against dark clouds
Vultures looming before the storm



I heard voices. A guy and a girl were coming up the stairs. I sat up and they came in. I looked at them. They looked at me. The girl was scared, but the guy was only surprised. Great, I thought. I'm going to get kicked out. The guy started to address me in poor Spanish.

“You can speak English,” I told him.
“Oh!” He said. “Good.” He had a thick French accent. “Zis ees my propairtee. Hwat are you doang heah?”

I didn't believe him, but what was I going to say?

“I'm traveling. I don't have a lot of money. I'll only be here one night.”
“OK,” he said. “It ees OK. You may stay heah. But uh, I am letang you sleep heah, no? Do you, uh, have somezang... you can give to me?”
“I don't have much,” I told him. “You can have a cigarette.” Take this cigarette, you French prick. 
“Ah... yes, zat ees OK. You have only sig-a-ret? Ah OK, ees OK.” He went on showing the girl his shithole. “And look at ze view from ze balconie! I will make great sings weeth zis propairtee.”

After they left, I laid back down. There was a thunderstorm and fireworks, but eventually I slept.


Panama City Miramar