Mar 7, 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.
I spent most of the next day sitting on the dock, waiting for boats. It was boring. I used to think staring out at the sea was romantic, but I was already sick of it.
I had been right that the little huts out on stilts were bathrooms. They were made of rotting wood, with sheet metal walls. The floors opened up to the clear water below, and you could look down and see colorful fish swirling around. Then you shit on them.
Some boats came, and I always rushed up and asked if they were going to Obaldia. One, transporting a gringo and his motorcycle offered a ride for $150, and when I bartered for $60, he drove off. I had been expecting a counter offer at least. So I continued to wait.
On Yandup, a ship came in. It was larger, perhaps sixty feet (twenty meters) long. I crossed the bridge and waited as they tied up. Then I asked to speak to the captain. He was a dark-skinned fellow with a mustache. In fact, he resembled Gandhi. He wore a wifebeater, which he pulled up with one hand to expose a wrinkled paunch, which he rubbed. He walked around proudly, so it was obvious he was captain. We spoke briefly. They were Colombians, en route to Colombia, but they were going to stay here for a few days first. They also wouldn't stop in Obaldia, which I needed to do if I wanted to enter their country legally.
At one point, while watching for a boat on Akuanasutupu, one came, but was not going to Puerto Obaldia. I offered to help people get out, but they ignored me. There were some Kuna natives in their traditional dress on that boat, and I saw one of these women drop her sunglasses into the water between the boat and dock. She kneeled, looking into the water woefully. I told her I would look for her glasses. I took off my shirt and removed everything from my pockets. Then I jumped into the water and swam to where she indicated they had fallen.
I dived, and was surprised to find that it was very deep. The water was so clear that it didn't seem so from the dock, but I wasn't able to get to the bottom. Surfacing, I took a deep breath and dived again. It took many strokes to reach the mucky ground. I opened my eyes and felt around and, amazingly, found the glasses. I kicked off the bottom and came to the surface, holding the glasses up in one hand over my head, like superman.
The woman took them and I climbed out, which was difficult due to the height of the dock. I had to climb up one of the posts holding the dock up. The woman did not thank me, but kept looking woefully into the water. Now and then, she would glance back to me.
“What happens?” I asked a bystander. There were a few people watching the affair.
“She dropped her cell phone,” the man answered.
“Yes,” he said.
The woman kept glancing at me. I went up to her.
“Your cell phone?” I asked.
“Yes,” someone told me. Maybe she didn't speak Spanish.
“It's in the same place?”
“OK,” I said. “I will look for it.”
I jumped back in, took some deep breaths, and dived again. I couldn't find it. After several dives, I still couldn't find it, and my nose and eyes were burning from the salty water. When I came back up one time, somebody had a pair of goggles for me to use. They were leaky, but helped. Each time I came up, I saw the woman's hopeful face and didn't have the heart to give up. The seabed was full of trash and muck and I realized I might not be able to find it. Finally, I found the thing and grabbed it. I kicked off the bottom one last time, with the phone held overhead triumphantly. As soon as the woman got it, she turned and went out of sight.
I climbed out. The woman was crouched over the phone, trying to get it to work. Eventually, she took her bags and left. I couldn't believe she never said thank you, or even smile, or even look at me after I'd handed it to her. The bystander I'd talked to before pointed out that my feet were bleeding.
I thought I would never meet anyone ruder than the Africans along the coast. As it turns out, the natives of the islands take the cake!
Later in the day, as I was crossing the bridge, Gandhi saw me and called me over. He handed me a plastic plate of rice, beans, plantains, and a grilled fish. I thanked him and ate with the crew. They were a friendly relief from the natives I'd met earlier. I was excited to get out of Panama.
As I left, an old man sitting on a bench in the shade waved me over. He spoke broken English, and when I told him where I was from, he said proudly that he'd lived in Cincinatti. He was a bit senile and didn't seem to hear or understand any questions I asked, even if I asked in Spanish. So I didn't find out much about him.
“Hey, do you wanna soup?” he asked.
“Sure!” I replied.
He led me to his house, slowly. “I'm drunk!” he reported. “There is party all day!”
His house was cement, with open windows and doors. The inside was dark. A fan spun overhead. In a livingroom, a small TV showed a soccer game. There were framed photos on ledges, and some toys on the floor. An old dog glanced up at us as we came in.
The old man went up to a woman. “Get us soup!” he demanded. She simply left. So he poured two bowls of soup from a big pot and sat down across from me at a small table.
“Hey,” he said. “Where are you sleeping?”
“Oh, anywhere.” I told him. He didn't understand.
“But the rain!”
“There is no rain,” I said. “Or I sleep under some shelter I find.” He still didn't understand.
“You can sleep here,” he offered. “Do you want to sleep here, on the floor?”
“Sure!” I said. “Thank you very much.”
“It's five dollars,” he told me.
“But where will you sleep? A hotel is twenty dollars! Here you can sleep for only five!”
“I will sleep outside,” I said. “And it will cost nothing.”
I ate the soup. He also ate the soup, but much of it dribbled down his chin and spilled into his lap.
“One dollar,” he said. “For the soup.”
“What? No way!” I told him.
“Why no?” he asked.
“You didn't say it would cost anything!” I said.
“Nothing is free,” he told me. He ate some more soup.
He looked very tired. I watched as his chin nodded down and he fell asleep. I didn't wake him. Instead, I finished my soup and took the bowls to the counter. As I took his, he woke with a start. He seemed confused.
“Thanks for the soup,” I said, getting my hat. “I'll be going now.”
“I said I'm leaving!”
“But where will you sleep?” he kept asking as he followed me out the door and down the street. But he was much slower than me and I escaped easily.
I walked back toward the bridge. Near where I had met him, a big backpack was laying on a bench. A fellow traveller! I stood near it and waited for its owner. It was a tall guy about my age, with a white shirt, shorts, and hiking boots. He had a short beard and curly black hair. He grinned constantly.
His name was Pierre and he was from France. He was 24 and I told him I was too. (I actually forgot I was only 23 and misled people for most of the trip). “Ah, twenty-four,” Pierre said. “The best year of our lives!” I agreed.
Pierre offered me a cigarette and I accepted. He spoke good English. He had been working as an engineer when he decided to travel. He flew to the Canary Islands and then hitchhiked on a sailboat to Guadeloupe, an island nation in the Caribbean. It took 26 days, which is long for the trip, but they had been heavily loaded. I asked about what it was like to cross the Atlantic on a sailboat. It seemed boring. “When you're at sea for so long with only two other people, you end up either becoming best friends or worst enemies,” he said. “For me, it was a good experience.”
He had come to Yandup by another cargo ship which had just arrived. He had agreed to pay them $75 for the trip, but only had $25. They had said they would bring him to Yandup, and he could get money from the bank there. But now the bank was closed and would be until Monday (it was Saturday).
I saw the crew come up and ask to talk to him. They walked out of my earshot, and I heard them talking. They did not look happy, but Pierre smiled and seemed to reassure them. After all, what could he do? The bank was closed.
It was nice to hang out with a fellow gringo. We got beers at a nearby restaurant. I asked how long he planned to travel and he said ten years. When I was shocked, he told me he didn't know. He had worked for a few years and had enough money to support himself for a while. So he would simply stop travelling whenever he got bored of it.
Pierre had seen a map of the San Blas islands on the wall of a migrations office, and took a picture of it. We zoomed in on it on his camera's screen. We were disappointed to find that we were less than a third of the way to Puerto Obaldia.
We camped out that night under a half built house. It had no walls or floor, just a thatched roof. Some sort of party was going on on the main street, and they lit fireworks and played loud music all night. It was worse than in Portobelo. But we managed to get some sleep.