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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sailing in the Caribbean Sea on the Stahlratte from Panama to Colombia

Warning: This is a rather long post, so get your reading glasses on. 

At 4:30AM, my alarm went off. The 4WD was supposed to pick me up sometime between 5 and 6AM. When the car arrived, there were already two other folks in there, David from NYC and Sonya from Amsterdam. We went and picked up five others who were only going to the San Blas islands. With everyone on board, we drove for about 30 minutes to a shopping center where Lam tours had an office. Since the captain of the boat had arranged the ground transportation for us, this was the first time I had heard of Lam tours.  We were greeted by an extremely energetic woman who gave us a quick overview of what was about to happen. We paid her thirty bucks for the transport to the Caribbean side of Panama, as well as $10 for the Kuna tax. 

The Kuna people are the indigenous population of Panama. Autonomous from Panama, the Kunas have their own laws. The woman from Lam tours advised us not to argue with the Kunas since we won't win and the minimum fine is $500. If we can't pay the $500, we would have to pay via labor. It was unclear whether she was joking or not, but she also mentioned that the Israeli tourists have a tendency to argue with the Kunas. Finally, should we need help, we were informed to mention Lam tours or "Los Chinos" since her family is apparently well appreciated amongst the Kunas.
We all then hopped back into the 4WD on our way to Carti, from which we would then take a motorized canoe to our ship. As we drove, we passed by regular buses, micro buses, and chicken buses decked out like a party bus with Christmas lights, pompoms, and all that jazz. We passed through what appeared to be the more industrial part of Panama, where a mixture of the heat and car exhaust combined to create a thin haze masquerading as fog. Or maybe it was just fog. 

Eventually we started circling up the mountains, putting us in the middle of rolling hills and lush green tops covering the rainforest around us. Patches of fog hovered over the area at eye level. The only eye sore was our encounter with a construction site in the middle of it all. 

As we continued upwards, the temperature cooled down, with help from the fog covering the sun. The ride wasn't as smooth as it could had been as there were a lot of rain-filled potholes at the bottom of each hill. It was like riding in a slow motion roller coaster as the car rocked sideways, backward, and forward. 

Nearly there, we stopped to pay what appeared to be another small tax and to show our passports since we were entering Kuna territory. When we finally reached the port, the eight of us hopped out. There was about a dozen or so people already there, either just returning or preparing to head out. With our gears out of the car, the driver finally decided to tell Sonya, David, and me that the three of us were going to a different port since we were heading to Colombia. The current port was only for those visiting the San Blas islands. 

Back in the 4WD we went. Another few minutes' drive brought us onto a former airstrip that's now totally defunct. We parked at the pier, where no one knew where the three of us were supposed to go next. We knew that six other travelers were supposed to meet us there, so the driver told us to wait and then drove off. In the meantime, we were asked to pay another $2 for the right to be there. Hmm. 

Ten minutes later, another 4WD came by with the other six passengers - Toby, Thomas, Andre, and Adrian from Germany; and Sandro and Carolyn from Switzerland. After a brief exchange with the Kunas, the driver of the new arrivals took off for a different port. The three of us, however, remained. Our driver then came back, but not before two crew members from the Stahlratte, our sailing ship, came by. Apparently we were at the right port. We followed them in one of the canoes and was relieved to finally find our ship. 

The Stahlratte is a 110 year old Holland-built sailing ship. At 235 tons and 40 meters long, the Stahlratte is operated completely by volunteers on a 3-6 month rotation. That is except for Ludwig, who has been the captain of the ship for the last two decades. 

Handing over our passports to the crew, we then headed down to claim our beds. It was stuffy down there, with ~10 sets of bunk beds, each with its own headlamp. Down there we also met six others who had arrived at the ship the night before - Tony of Ohio, Jay and Connor - father and son of Minnesota, Steve and Judy of Pennsylvania, and Dave of Texas. All six had arrived early in order to load their motorcycles onto the ship. 

When we headed up for our breakfast, though it was technically lunch time, the sound of another motorized canoe came within earshot. In it were the other six passengers who had driven off from the port earlier. At last, everyone was on board. 

After finishing breakfast - family style servings of a fruit salad, meats, cheeses, coffee, tea, bread, and condiments (Nutella!) - we started off. The engines of the ship cranked us forward, making a cyclic noise not unlike the chuga-chuga-chuga-chuga rhythm of a train. For two hours we went forward into the Caribbean Sea. Meanwhile, we got acquainted with one another, as well as with the ship. 

The bow of the ship had a netting strung in front, allowing up to 8 or so people to lie there, with the ocean waters flowing by directly underneath. Just in front of that was enough space to strung up a hammock. Back at the dining area stood the giant wooden helm that the captain used to steer the ship. In front of the control room at the stern of the ship were two beach chairs. Underneath all that was the kitchen and pantry, where we found crates of food all for grabs. 

Near the end of our two hour ride we started to see a couple of the San Blas islands dotting the horizon. As we approached closer, the island that would be ours, and ours alone, for the next two days came into view. Around the size of a football field, the island was centered with coconut trees, bounded around the perimeter by white sand, and surrounded by water as clear as glass. All the pictures were taken with my camera (for fear of dropping my phone into the ocean) so you'll have to take my word for it until I return to the States.

Despite the prevalence of coconut trees, we weren't allowed to crack open any of the coconuts. Since the islands were owned by the Kunas and coconuts are their primary trading goods, it would had been akin to theft had we taken any. 

For the rest of the day, we swam, snorkeled, and jumped off the ship via the swing rope that was creatively installed.

As the evening approached, the crew set up a BBQ on the beach. With skewers and a hefty amount of bacon, beef, bell peppers, onions, pineapples, and potatoes, we were all set. 

By the time we had finished dinner, the sun had set and it was pitch black. That is, until we started the campfire. Using the fire leftover from the coal used for the BBQ, we piled on pieces of wood until a fire blazed its way upwards. After awhile I found myself lying in a hammock strung between two coconut trees with a cool breeze blowing from the sea and the sound of the Caribbean waves splashing onto the shore. 

With the passing of time, the group dwindled down to about six of us. Slightly inebriated, the Germans diligently kept the fire going, fanning it with leftover paper plates and running in circles chanting "We make fire!"

And then it started pouring rain. The remainder of the group scrambled onto the dinghy making its way back to the ship. However, Dave, Tony, and I were still on the island. Tony had his tent and was going to stay on the island, but Dave and I had nothing. Of course, no man or woman is ever left on their own when on the Stahlratte. Ten minutes later, the dinghy came back and we hopped in. 

After a stuffy night in the cabin, we woke up to another wonderful breakfast. Three others and I were on kitchen duty. So, after breakfast we cleared off the table and did the dishes. Afterwards, a couple of us hopped into a canoe for a twenty minute ride to one of the Kuna inhabited islands. 

We spent about an hour on the island walking around. The children followed us around, and we started kicking around a soccer ball with them. They were in absolute awe when Tony handed them his point and shoot camera. While we had been taking pictures of them playing soccer, it was now their turn to do so. 

I started wandering around and ended up in a gentleman's backyard. He called me over and asked me to take a picture of him. Then, two girls who may had been his grandchildren came up and he asked me to take a picture of them all together. How I'll get those pictures to him I'm not quite sure. 

The heat was starting to get to us. With that, we headed back into the canoe hoping to quickly get back to the ship and into the Caribbean water. There was no way we were going for a swim anywhere near the Kuna inhabited islands. The bathrooms consisted of a small hut with a hole into bottom that opened directly into the ocean. 

By the time we reached the Stahlratte, it was time for lunch, which consisted of bruschetta with and without cheese. Afterwards, it was another day out in the water or on the island. All that hard work meant we needed a bountiful dinner to re-energized. That came in the form of freshly caught lobster served with garlic mayo and butter.

When we woke up the next morning, it was to the sound of the engine chugging along and to the movement of the ship up and down with each oncoming wave. Although there was little wind and hence few big waves, the ship swayed in all manners, putting the non-crew members in constant fumble as we tried to find our sea legs. I was glad I had signed up for kitchen duty for the previous day as I would not had wanted to be stuck in the smothering hot kitchen while the ship was rocking every which way. 

After breakfast (eggs, fruit salad, bread, coffee, tea, etc.), most of us remained either seated or laid down somewhere until lunch time (sausage stew). After lunch, it was back to lying down until dinner (pasta with a tomato or blue cheese based sauce). Meanwhile, the crew had raised the sails as we were finally getting enough wind. 

At night time, the sky was completely clear, making it possible for us to catch sight of dozens upon dozens of stars lighting up the endless sea before us.

Slowly, the need for sleep crept up upon us. I was reluctant to head downstairs as it was hot and stuffy, and my bed was near the bow of the ship. With every rise and fall of the ship, my body felt like it was on a cycle of a feeling of weightlessness. It was similar to the feeling you get when the roller coaster drops, except it was on repeat. Despite that, I quickly fell asleep. In the middle of the night, however, the ship encountered much larger waves that made the walk to the kitchen felt like I had been put in a box that someone was shaking madly. 

By the time we woke up in the morning the ship was only about an hour from Cartagena, Colombia. Half an hour from the harbor we started seeing the cityscape. High rises lined the shore, which surprised me as I had not been expecting Cartagena to be as developed as it is. Once we got to the harbor, groups of us got into the dinghy to head to shore. Once there, we got into a taxi for a ~7 minute drive to the immigration office, where we waited for about twenty minutes. When we all got our stamped passports returned, it was back into the taxi, onto the dinghy, and up on the ship to gather up our stuff.

And that, was how we got from Panama to Colombia. 


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