From Costa Rica and beyond

Monday, November 28, 2011

Leaving North America

One could debate where, geographically, North America ends and South America begins.  Politically, the Colombian-Panamanian border is the clear demarcation. Geophysically, one could argue it is at the narrowest point of the isthmus (wherever that is). Human activity has cut a pretty clear line with the Panama Canal which was first traversed by a two lane, permanent bridge in the early 60s, called La Puente de las Americas - the bridge of the Americas. By any measure, I am now writing from South America. I awoke to Cartagena, Colombia this morning aboard Fritz-the-Cat, a 15 meter catamaran. We were anchored in the harbor as all the slips were occupied. Andre, Kevin, Kerman and I left our bikes and the boat and taxied to a recommended hotel (with room for bikes) where we met our good friend, Marc, and a bunch of other bikers who had just crossed on the Stahlratte. Soon we will spread out again and just see each other upon occasion. It´s great to be a part of this brotherhood though and to get their advice for going through customs tomorrow when we unload our bikes from Fritz.

My ride from the mountains and Boquete to Panama City was pretty unremarkable except for a couple things. I was struck by how few people there are between David and the capital. Aside from a couple modestly sized cities, the Panamerican Highway cuts through rural territory, much of it hilly, all of it green. My map noted several points on rivers I crossed where primarily British privateers had raided Spanish settlements. Today, it wouldn´t be worth the effort.  The other noteworthy part of my ride was rain. For a short while, the skies let loose a torrent, complete with thunder and lightning and of course minimal visibility. I sped on though and soon left it behind.  After six hours of riding, I finally arrived at the Bridge of the Americas, crossed over the canal and got my first glimpses of Panama City and its remarkable skyline. I had sized up a map of the city in my Lonely Planet guide and knew about what I would have to do to find my hostel. It´s great to have such an unmistakable landmark like a shoreline. I found my way there, rode to a cross street and then headed north.  As usual, I stopped a couple times to check my progress. A local man stopped his pickup and got out to help me. Frequently, locals do not know maps - they know their cities intuitively (maybe it´s no different in the US). So in fact I determined on my own that I was just blocks away and figured out how to get there. The hostel was clean and welcoming, but appeared to be in a dicey neighborhood. Before going out to get some food, I asked about how safe it was and was told not to worry. Upon my return, there were police cars in front of the hostel and a crowd of onlookers. I had been gone about 30 minutes, but in that time there had been a shootout and one man was killed - a local. Good thing I asked.

The next day I set out to explore the big city. Just before heading out, a woman of Lebanese and Danish citizenship arrived at the hostel. Marianna joined me. While lots of people had told me that Panama City is an unpleasant town, I found a lot to like. The old part of town, Casco Viejo, is absolutely charming. Old homes that surely belonged to the propertied classes still retain their elegance and class. The old cathedral is a simple and cool refuge from the heat and anchors a plaza that is more quaint than grand. The tip of this mini-peninsula is dedicated to the French, who lost over 20,000 workers in the first effort to construct the canal (albeit, most of those French were black workers from Caribbean colonies). The streets in between are marked by their colorful homes and inviting balconies. As hunger pangs set in, Marianna and I concocted a plan to get Ceviche at the Fisherman`s Market, then to visit the Canal Museum (by the Cathedral) and then to get gelato at a French-owned etablissement. The Ceviche was great! This is raw fish, served up in a lime and onion based juice. We bought small cups with prawns, conch, and some other fish sorts. Hot sauce is available for everything in Latin America and adds a real punch. The museum was a cool retreat from the heat and very informative. In addition to addressing the construction and the politics surrounding the canal, there was a special exhibit on pirates. I found it interesting that pirates of the 17th century, such as Henry Morgan, are called "filibusteros" in Spanish. It would be interesting to know who took that word and applied it to stalling American senators. I was also surprised to learn that the French, under the leadership of De Lesseps (builder of the Suez Canal) had planned on a sea level canal. It was the US that decided to employ locks. After the museum came gelato. Ice cream throughout Latin America had left me very unimpressed. Even in a city like elegant and affluent Morelia, Mexico, ice cream seemed an afterthought. Well, gelato in Panama City is taken to new heights with flavors like basil, ginger, lavender, etc. I tried the lavender and as I guessed, it tasted like soap...but good soap.

I visited the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal with fellow riders, Kerman, Kevin, and Andre. Having visited the Soo Locks in Michigan, these did not seem terribly impressive. To be sure, these locks are bigger, but the Panama Canal is only impressive when one considers its totality, the history of its construction, the volume of traffic, and the geopolitical significance of the waterway. So while I was a bit underwhelmed by the locks I saw, I still feel very lucky to have visited such a human marvel. By 2014, new, larger locks will be dedicated, capable of handling supertankers.

The next day, the four of us arose early and headed north to Portobello, east of Colon, to catch our ride to South America aboard Fritz-the-Cat. The coast there is green and peaceful. Portobello is a small town with a small bay and a tiny dock. We wondered how we would get our bikes on board. The answer was simple, but scary: ride them up a ramp. The ramp was a 2x6 plank of wood that climbed probably 4 feet over its 10 feet length. Yikes!! I was first in the line. Four trained hands grabbed my bike. I gave gas and trusted they knew what they are doing as my feet left the ground. Up on deck, I rode my bike to the far side where others helped me shift it around so it could be securely fastened. By about 3pm, twelve paying guests, four bikes, Fritz (an Austrian), Duli (his Kurdish partner), and Jose (their do everything man) were motoring across gently rolling blue waters to the San Blas islands. We arrived at the islands in the dark. Fritz apparently had a little scare about being too close to a reef. He cursed and cursed and barked orders, but we were soon safely anchored. In the morning, we awoke to a Caribbean paradise. Three little islands surrounded us. One had just one palm tree on it. Kevin swam out to it and claimed it for Ireland (although I doubt his claim´s validity). We twice changed locations amidst these islands to give us new reefs to snorkel through. For just the second time in my life, I was snorkeling. We saw lots of fish and corral. Aside from a stingray, I didn´t see anything super exciting, but it was all peaceful and beautiful. Just the thrill of peering into another world and of testing one´s body and lungs in increasingly deep dives made the trip very worthwhile. Some of the others tested their skills at hunting with a spear gun. They provided us with dinners including stingray, lobster, crab, etc. We also enjoyed shark that we caught aboard Fritz while cruising. Some we ate cooked, some raw.  It was all delicious.

After two full days of rest and snorkeling, it was time to push to Cartagena. Rain had held off just long enough for us to enjoy all our outdoor activities, but when the motor fired, it was time to seek shelter. Already on our first day´s cruise, I had felt a bit odd, but now I was clearly getting seasick. I did not turn shades of pale or green, I did not break out in a cold sweat or vomit, but neither did I feel like eating or doing much of anything really. And so it was until we arrived in Cartagena harbor.

Now for part II of my great journey.  Thank you for reading!!

No comments:

Post a Comment