Wednesday, 30 May 2012

DOWN TO THE DARIEN

It´s been some time since my last update from Panama City, but don´t be fooled because Leana and I haven´t moved very far since then. On our initial visit to the city, we got a few things done while staying in the “slummy” affordable Santa Ana district. But the Darien jungle province of Panama was still haunting us because of the stretch we had to bypass by boat, and the inaccessable Jungle with the indigenous Embera people was another part of the magnet. So, we left Panama City heading in the wrong direction. After a few days we were in the legendary Darien province, doing a lot of waiting while police at numerous check points struggled with our passports and ensured that we were not drug smugglers (smuggling cocaine TO Columbia?!!). As planned we cycled to the “end of the road” at the town of Yavisa, beyond which lies only jungle. The road was mostly paved, not too busy, and there were some interesting small towns along the way. We also met Singh, an Indian running a pizza place, who previously lived in South Africa for 5 years. After the road ended we had to find alternative means of travel once again, so we took a river boat to La Palma – the isolated capital of the Darien province. It is amazing that there is hardly any tidal variation on the Atlantic/Carribean side of this narrow country, but on the Pacific side the difference is huge. At low tide the stilted buildings of La Palma tower over the shoreline, and way up the Sambu River our ship leaned sideways on the mud when the tide was out. From La Palma we took an open speedboat for about 2 hours along the Gulf of San Miguel and then way upriver to the Embero village of Sambu. After a couple of days there we secured a bunk on the rust bucket boat “Dona Dora” all the way back to Panama City. In the city Leana bought a new tent, and I rejuvenated my old tent with the leftover poles and other parts from her discarded tent. She also had her old camera repaired, so now I gratefully have the use of that camera. However, my bank troubles are not yet sorted out as they can´t help me via e-mail (thanks again to my sister for the continuous finances, and thanks to Leana as well). It was time to do some cycling again, and we left Panama City for the second time in the right direction, crossing the Puente Inter-Americana over the Pacific entrance to the Panama canal. Moving West since then the road has been nice, although sometimes hilly (with one or 2 stretches of the road needing some attention). We met a number of other touring cyclists going the other way (including 2 English guys, and then a German couple – all of them about to finish their trip in Panama city). Now we´re in David, the second largest city in the country. The border of Costa Rica is not far from here, so hopefully the crossing is smooth. Daily distances cycled since my previous report were:- Chepo 73 km; Qbda. Cali 64 km; Torti 38 km; Meteti 76 km; Yavisa 56 km; Meteti 54 km; La Palma 21 km (plus boat); Sambu by boat; return to Panama City by boat (plus 7 km); Capira 56 km; Anton 79 km; Aguadulce 73 km; Santiago 58 km; Los Ruices 63 km; San Felix 61 km; and David 84 km. The total distance which I´ve now cycled on this trip in more than 5 years is 94 035 km.

Friday, 4 May 2012

BRIDGING THE GAP

The “GAP” which this title refers to is the Darien Gap, the section of jungle between Columbia and Panama where there is no road. So, from Turbo in Columbia where the road ended Leana and I took a speed boat to Capurgana, close to the Panama border (that´s where I happily ended my last report). Since then things have become a bit warped, but not without a certain amount of excitement! We took a small boat for the short while up the coast to Puerto Obaldia (the first town in Panama). The place is a miserable little military outpost, and the immigration office is well suited to the place. Our introduction to Panama was not good – we arrived on an open boat in the pouring rain, and we were sent back to Columbia on the next available boat because we apparently required a special visa only obtainable in our home country (an extensive internet search had revealed that we required no visa for Panama). On arrival back in Capurgana the Columbians could not accept us back in their country because we had been away for 2 days – so effectively we were nowhere. The last money we were able to draw was in Turbo, as there was no ATM in either Capurgana (Columbia) or Puerto Obaldia (Panama). The back-and-forth boat trips are expensive, so we were fast running out of cash. However, after some e-mails we had a letter from the Panama consulate in South Africa, stating that we didn´t need a visa. Columbia was then able to give us a newer exit stamp, and off we went with almost our last money to Panama. This time the letter did the job, but it still took more than a day before they could manage to stamp our passports (were they waiting to be bribed?). Anyway, after camping on the verandah of the ex community centre with some other stranded travelers, we managed to arrange onward passage. There was a smallish wooden cargo boat anchored in the bay, and we found the captain drinking in the local cantina. This was apparently a good time to negotiate as he agreed on a reasonable price, and we could pay at the end of the trip (ATM about 1 hr from where he docked at the start of the road). The captain was making a killing, as there were 6 of us paying passengers (including Italian Simon, travelling by 50cc motorbike S-N, and he has already broken the record). This short boat trip took 6 days through the spectacular San Blas Islands, stopping at every sizable thatch-and-reed village to pick up empty gas cylinders and cooldrink crates. Meals were not part of the deal, so we were surprised to be offered food, starting from lunch on the first day which consisted of chicken feet on rice. There was not much difference between the 3 daily meals, and the stock meal was salted pork fat with boiled green banana. We had bought some tins of "Pork and Beans in Tomato Sauce" before the trip. Opening the tins in the hope of some sort of meal, we discovered that the contents were simply good old baked beans. Some of the crew trawled for fish, and a number of good barracuda were hauled in (the culinary highlight of the trip was the fried fish). At times the ocean was protected by the islands, and sailing was smooth. The open ocean, however, tended to be incredibly wild, and fellow passengers were puking (fortunately nobody was flung overboard, although there were a few close calls). The toilet protrudes over the back of the boat, and consists of a hole in the floor too small for a human to fall through. Don´t be concerned, we all made it to the end. Simon gave me a lift to the ATM on his record-breaking 50cc, and we settled our account with the boat captain. Now we are in Panama City, after cycling here via charming Porto Belo yacht haven, and slummy free trade zone Colon city. In only a couple of days I have had some bad luck financially (ATM in Colon did not give me cash but it was deducted anyway, and now someone has hacked into my account). Panama city is quite an interesting place, and we´ve been here a few days. Leana has bought a fancy new camera, and she has also taken her bike to a fancy bike shop to be taken care of (oh, that reminds me I should take a look at my poor bike, Old Saartjie –all that sea spray is not healthy). Now I have to give the embarrassing cycling distances. Well, after Columbia we didn´t cycle for 2 weeks, but at least now we have done 3 or 4 days on the bike. Oh yes, I´ve briefly seen the canal before being chased away by the security, and thanks to Leana for going back there on the tourist bus and getting some pics (there´s an entry fee). Daily distances cycled since we landed on a road in Panama have been:- Portobelo 44 km; Colon 48 km; Panama City 84 km; and The Canal 25 km. The total distance cycled so far on this journey is 93 172 km.