Keith Irwin

Tikantiki and Playón Chico

Mar 10, 2014

Latin America 2014, Travel, Hitchhiking, 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 10

The next day was Monday. Pierre and I went to the bank to wait for it to open. Unfortunately, there was no ATM machine so he couldn't get money. It was no surprise that they didn't accept my checks either. Pierre had only $40 and I had only $90, so we were going to have a little trouble getting to Puerto Obaldia.

Pierre ate very little, but I was always hungry. I didn’t want to spend all our money on food. I could see fish swimming in the clear water, and wished I could eat them. After I found some fishing line in the trash, I decided it was worth a try. I made a hook with a soda can tab and cut the side of the can into a lure using my knife. Pierre said I was a true McGeever, but the fish didn't bite. Somebody saw me trying and gave me a hook. That was kind of him. Another boy saw me fishing and tried it with a line of his own. He let the hook sink under a school of fish. He held it loose in one hand and yanked it hard with the other. Once, the hook caught a fish and he pulled it up. I watched as he used it as bait and tried again. He was lucky and caught another fish with it! To kill it, he swung it over his head on the line and smacked it against the dock, over and over again. Some adults passed by and he showed them his catch. They were impressed. I was impressed too, and still hungry.

A boat finally came. They were going to Tikantiki. We looked at the map. It wasn't very far. We negotiated for a ride for $35. We still weren't sure, considering how little money we had. The boat from Capurgana to Turbo would cost $26 per person. But I was sick of these islands and Pierre was eager to get away from his creditors. So we took the opportunity.

A photo the author and a bearded Frenchman on a boat
Pierre and I on the boat, before launch

I sat in front of Pierre. We wore lifejackets and held plastic sheets over our laps. Everyone in one row shared a sheet. I found an extra jacket and put it under my butt. This was good because the ride was bumpy. Water splashed on us, but it wasn't as bad as the last motorboat. It took about 40 minutes to get to Tikantiki.

We arrived at a large concrete dock on Tikantiki. The motorboat left and we found ourselves in the same position as before, stranded and waiting for another boat.

Pierre took a look around the island and returned soon. He reported that it was very small. I walked around too, and found he was right. A friendly woman asked where I was from, and offered her spigot if we needed water. I thanked her and filled our bottle.

Later that morning, another cargo ship pulled up. They threw ropes onto the dock and I helped tie one to a bollard. A large man, whom I presumed was captain, jumped out and said “Where are the coconuts?”

Pierre spoke better Spanish so he asked them for a ride. They said they were going to stay and collect coconuts first but could take us to another island that afternoon. And they did.

A photo of the stern of a cargo ship, showing men sitting on the edge of the hull under an awning
Pierre and crew in the stern of the ship

Their ship was not in the same condition as Ghandi's. It was dark green and had no deck, only a hull. There was an awning held up by posts in the stern, and some hammocks hanging down below it. Three large engines hung off the back. Pierre sat up on the edge of the hull. I tried to find a comfortable place to lie down on the cargo, but it wasn't easy. Laying on my side, I remember watching the boards on the ship's sidewall shifting against each other. We were taking on water, and a pump in the bow had to run constantly to ensure we stayed afloat.

A photo of the bow of a cargo ship in rough seas, taken from the stern

The seas were rough and the boat tipped from side to side. I'd heard stories of tourists getting seasick on these boats, but Pierre and I didn't. During the trip, one of the engines stalled, and the pull-cord broke while someone tried to restart it. The captain called the designated mechanic over. He removed the engine's cover and retrieved the frayed end of the cord.  I watched, ready to help, but he didn't need me. I stayed back and watched, and held screws for him. He fed the cord into the handle, then tied a new knot in it. The entire repair was performed without stopping the boat.

A photo a man performing an engine repair off the edge of the ship, with water churning in the background

It took a few hours to arrive at the next island. It was called Playón Chico. Our ship wasn't leaving for a few days, so we were stranded again. I was always hungry, and had been since Pierre and I had been travelling together. The sailors, bless them, had been giving us meals. But I was thinking about food all the time, nonetheless.

Pierre borrowed my wallet to go buy some food. When he came back, he said “I bought cigarettes.”

“Damnit, Pierre. We are going to starve to death on these damn islands.”
“Yes, I'm sorry,” he said. “But they were only $1. You want one?”
“Yeah, OK. But we have to ration them. You might be a frenchman, able to survive on cigarettes alone, but as an American, I need food, and lots of it!”

We used his knife to cut the filter in half so they'd be stronger. Pierre told me about how he had quit smoking while he was sailing across the Atlantic. After arriving in Guadeloupe, he figured he'd had the habit kicked and bought a pack. So now he was back to smoking.

We sat around on the dock as another cargo ship came and unloaded crates of goods. I offered to help, but was declined. So I sat and smoked. I felt bad sitting while others were working. Maybe they wanted me to feel bad.

I explored around the island, and so did Pierre afterwards. Most of the houses were thatched, including the walls. The streets were not parallel and I had trouble finding my way back. “Did you see that part where there were no houses?” Pierre asked when he returned. “There was a big fire and many burned down. They are now starting to rebuild them.”

A photo of a dirt path lined with thatched houses
The houses on Playón Chico. The flags are for political parties in an upcoming election. 

There was a bridge to the mainland, and Pierre crossed it to look around. Returning, he said there wasn't anything there, except an airport.

That evening, I went for a swim. I'd might as well enjoy the caribbean while I was around. I dived off the bow of our ship. I swam around a little, and then just floated in the salty water, enjoying the sunset. Afterwards, I laid down on the deck at the ship's bow to dry. A boot with a hairy leg appeared next to me. I sat up. Pierre was standing over me, arms akimbo. He took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. The sun was still setting and the sky had a red-purplish glow. In the near distance we could see the jungled mountains of the mainland. “Not bad! he said. I agreed.

The pump whirred constantly and spat periodic sloshes of water over board. Suddenly, it made a bang noise and stopped abruptly. One of the crew came over and took it apart. I chatted with him. He asked what my job was. I told him I'd worked in an office, but had quit my job to travel. He found something lodged in the turbine and pulled it out.

“Why don't you go to university?” he asked.
“I did,” I told him. “For engineering. But I stopped.”
“Why?” he asked, scraping the pump's old gasket with a pocket knife.
“I wasn't sure if that's what I want to do with my life,” I told him. He said I'd made a bad decision.
“Well,” I said. “It's not so important what I do. We have it good in the states. I worked for one year to have enough money to travel for one year. I could clean toilets and still make more money than you do here.”
“Cleaning toilets is bad work,” he told me as he put the pump's housing back together. I think he was missing my point, so I changed the subject.

Meanwhile, a member of the crew cooked dinner. He used a little gas stove in the bow of the ship. We were kindly offered plates of rice, beans, plantains, and a grilled fish. Pierre was not hungry and gave me some of his. Or else he was very polite. I was too hungry to decline.

A photo of a man cooking at a gas stove in the hull of a ship
The ship's galley

As we were eating, a fisherman climbed on deck and presented a fish for sale. It was huge. He held it up by its eye sockets while the crew bartered for it.

Later, I talked to a man on the dock. He was thirty and had a 18-year-old son who was studying mathematics at the University in Panama city. “That's nice,” I said.

“Wait a minute.” I did the math.
“So you were twelve when you had your son?”
He nodded proudly.
“And your wife…?”
“She was also 12.”
I whistled. “I, uh, didn't even know that was possible.”

We spent the night there on Playón Chico. After dark, we sat on a picnic table. I wrote in my journal. Many children crowded around me and tried to read it. But I wrote in a secret alphabet I'd invented. Some phonemes are adopted from Cyrillic, but others I've made up. The children thought it was english. They were fascinated. More and more crowded around. Eventually, a military guy came by to get them out of my way. “Go to your houses!” he barked, and they left.

Afterwards, Pierre and I shared a cigarette with a fellow who lived there. They talked about soccer, a topic I know nothing about. So I went to bed. We spent that night on Gandhi's deck, as his ship had arrived that day too.


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