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.

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