High Tides, Caribbean Strikes (Part III)

And so you’re on a boat, crossing a national border.  Not that you notice it, there aren’t many border checks in the Caribbean. “The easiest border crossing you’ll ever do!” Captain Dave said in his spontaneous optimistic smile. This premonition was not going to fulfill itself, unfortunately.  My Colombia stamp was a hard earned bureaucratic prize shining on my passport. We did stop in an immigration spot in Panama but even the always vigilant bureaucracy must have its New Year’s break.

This way, we had to sail into Sapzurro illegally, for all means. Twenty four hours of blissful illegal sunbathing and siestas in Colombia. Of course we had to sort this situation out. In the back of your mind always laid the slightly uncomfortable feeling of the machine gun armed cops asking for your papeles. After several rounds of negotiation, we managed to hire Fernando, a goofy looking self entitled capitan, that seemed to have his dreams of grandeur as a sea wolf. If Fernando’s air didn’t really inspire that much confidence, I almost lost all my color when I saw the noble vessel that was to take us back to Panama. It was this narrow, wood made skiff, that shook even with the shy bay waves that petted our sailboat. “La Nina” was the name, maybe an ironic tribute to Colombus ship.  I just had to ride it for 30 minutes, and the perspective didn’t look that exciting.

All on board, 9 people plus the capitan. Fernando was directing everyone to their places, with a fantastic ability for weight estimating and I was immediately promoted to honorary translator. Everybody had their lifejackets on, hoping we were not gonna need them and the passports were well tucked in to your pockets. And off we go! The first waves are easily crossed and only after we got into open waters the good fun started. “El mar esta muy picado!” Fernando warned us, letting us know something that we can easily perceive. He was actually laughing, not able to hide his excitement, showing his toothless grin everywhere he went. Long story short, the skiff almost flipped quite a few times. It was like a radical watersport, except I didn’t choose it. Every time we climbed a wave, Fernando’s fantastic mathematical skills were put into practice. “Amigo, go to the left, left I said! Hey, stick together you two, in the middle!!” As we passed Cabo Tiburon (Shark Cape), he also tried to enrich our knowledge about the local fauna assuring there were sharks while he did the sign of the cross – “Dios Mio!!” The idea of sharks passing by was not the most reassuring one, let’s put it like this.

Panamian bureaucracy was quite a proud one. It seemed almost like if the officials were somehow excited about it.Well, not overly excited, a dense tranquility played the cards in Puerto Obaldia. Stress? I could never get stressed here. Tranquilo!
First thing to do is to go to the police to register. Then, you’d have to go have your boat permit validated. Then you’d have to the “real” Immigration office to get your precious stamp. Then back at the Maritime office to pick up the neat paper permit. Of course, like any good protocol office, the official is absent. Rumor was that the blessed state official was out stamping some VIP plane passengers. Bless him for that.  After a while waiting, this old, hunch backed lady pops out of the office and informs us that we need our passport copies in order to get the stamp. Bless her for that. An exit stamp, and they need to have a souvenir from me? A copy? No problem. See the thing is, our impatient clerk from the maritime bureau was really impatient to go home and watch TV. “Cierro a las quatro!” he said in an austere, civil service tone.  So this means that we were being timed. In the end, no Immigration clerk came, we all ended up being stamped by a random guy that until then, was totally unable to give us the stamp. His words, not mine. And don’t mind me telling you, bureaucracy in Spanish is not easy. My diplomatic self was really put to the test. I almost like Jimmy Carter and his Israel-Egypt peace treaty success, when I convinced the maritime official to stay until 4h15. Mission accomplished, I’m legal again. Stress? Not really, it was all very tranquilo…

The ride back was another epic tale of maritime skill, with Fernando shouting orders and avoiding flipping over the boat. The spectacular landscape of the Darien did smooth the ride, at least when I wasn’t blind by the salty waters that splashed my face every ten seconds. Safe harbor was reached, passport slightly wet and the thrilling promise to see Fernando the following day. Capurgana here we go, for another Maritime, bureaucratic tale. That one was way less interesting, the sea was less choppy. The highlight was actually getting off the boat, when all the other boatman bursted into laughter after Fernando screamed “respectame, yo soy Capitan!!”

Central America From a Bus Window: A Flashback

And so I left Mexico City behind. Great memories of friends, tacos and traffic, combined in fond times I’ll always remember with delight. Ahead of me laid the vast Central American continent. The goal was to cross it, powering through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and finally reach Panama. Dear Central America, we’ll be back in good terms. It’s just a matter of time. This time, our encounter was brief, but passionate. And made me want to walk you even more. From a bus window I watched you pass by, and border checks were my good friends. With moneychangers all around me, the occasional “pupusa”, taco, or beans with rice as pit stop snack, I even started enjoying this bureaucratic pause. After 5 days of travel, 73 hours combined in bus time, 7 passport stamps, 2 nights spent in roadside (cockroach filled) hotels, to finally see the skyline of Panama City on the rainy horizon was bliss, I have to confess. I expect to find a new love, and that love’s name is South America. Wait for me, I’m getting closer. If the winds are favorable, I’ll soon be in your arms.