Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Salento, Colombia

Valleys surrounding Salento
A quick flight and we arrived in Bogota with a short layover. Chantal and I were hungry and wanted something to eat. We searched the airport and found a taco stand. We had 20 minutes before we ha to be through security and at our gate. Tacos are fast and we should be able to eat one in 20 minutes. Or so I had thought! We sat waiting...and waiting for our tacos. After 18 minutes Chantal got hers while I was still waiting. Finally, mine was ready. We had to get through security so we asked for them to go and ran towards the security checkpoint. At that moment nothing made me happier than the fact that I just had to put my bag on the conveyor belt and walk on through. I hate taking everything out at security and have realized it is really crazy. I felt perfectly safe when countries let me keep my shoes on and leave my computer in my backpack. Call me crazy but all of that just gives people a false sense of security. I turned and looked and saw Chantal walking through eating her burrito! That didn't even have to go through the x-ray! I laughed and lived Colombia more for that! Wish I had a photo! We sat and giggled about it as we ate our burritos. We finished them off before boarding our flight to Pereira. It was a quick flight, then we took a taxi to Salento. When we were dropped off at our hotel, Posada Martha Tolimo, we noticed how much cooler it was here. Brrr! But the area was beautiful! I swear they have 12 shades of green.

We checked into our room. Both of us were exhausted! We dropped our bags and fell onto our beds. I was cold and crawled under the fantastic thick blankets. I could stay here the rest of the day. I knew we should go explore but I was cold and tired. Then, I heard run hitting the roof. Yes! A perfect afternoon to curl up in bed and read...until the rain stopped. That is what we did! 

As we both were reading our books and listening to the rain storm, we heard a child screaming. We looked at each other hoping it would stop. It didn't. I got up and went to see what was going on. It was this guy. 
Mombocho sounded like a child. Martha took a sheet and covered him to get him to stop. She warned us to keep our hands away from his mouth- he was a biter! 

When the rain stopped we went to explore Salento. Well, we actually wanted something to eat too! Salento is a paradise suspended in time. As we walked to the main square, we passed cowboys on horses, men wearing ponchos and homes and businesses with doors and windows painted colorfully. I fell in love with this quaint town immediately. It was peaceful and the surroundings were breathtaking. I mean literally! I was not use to the altitude and the hills were quickly taking my breath away. We walked up the steep hill to the main square and had dinner. Then we walked the Main Street past the artisan shops. Ponchos were for sale at each place and Chantal was in heaven. She had been looking for one since I met her in Nicaragua. Finally!
Now she had to choose one! Oops! Silly me! Why stop at one when there are so many beautiful ones! (Needless to say, there was a significant amount of shopping that happened in Salento!) We didn't buy anything but went back to our hotel to think about it over night.
We had planned to stay in Salento for 3 days, then added another night each day until we were here for a week. Martha laughed each time I went to tell her I was staying one more night. She told me I could stay forever. Then I realized this was a perfect town to settle in for a month and started asking around about an apartment to rent. We happened to be at Brunch (owned by a guy, Jeff, from Bend, OR) who has a fantastic western menu with homemade peanut butter. Mmmm! Brunch staff are fantastic at giving you things to do in Salento and the surrounding area. We became frequent customers, the free movie library was great after a morning of hiking and during the afternoon rainstorm! One day, we were asking about things to do and I mentioned I would like to stay for a month. Jeff arranged for me to meet another American couple that had rented a place and were leaving soon. Within 2 hours Art and Lynne introduced me to a Spanish teacher and she contacted their landlord to assist me with renting the place. I found a fantastic 2 bedroom/2 bathroom cabin with a kitchen and washing machine for $250/month! I was ecstatic. We made arrangements for me to take ownership on the 20th when I returned from Medellin.
The remainder of our days were spent hiking and enjoying the culture and locals in Salento. The guys at Brunch had recommended a trip to Valle De Cocora, a coffee farm tour and a hike on the Camino National. I will write separately about the Valle De Cocora and the coffee farm.
One morning we got up early and walked to Brunch for breakfast. We decided to hike the Camino National to the waterfall and old bullfighting ring. We asked for a packed lunch to take with us on our walk. Then we were off to explore the countryside. We walked uphill along the dirt road past farm. It was all uphill which I prefer at the beginning of my day...that meant it was downhill on our way back! The countryside was beautiful and we were excited to have a picnic overlooking the beautiful valleys and the town of Salento. We hiked and looked for a spot to enjoy the day. No luck. There was barbed wire fences and bulls roaming the fields. We kept looking. Eventually, we found the Las Mercedes Finca with an old bullring.
We walked up to the gate and the calves walked over to look at us. I think they thought we were going to feed them. So cute! I love cows. Brings back happy memories of my grandparents farms. I use to love bottle feeding calves.

Las Mercedes Finca

We met a cowboy that worked on the farm and we asked if we could go in and see the bullfighting ring and eat our picnic lunch. No, it was not allowed. We thanked him for talking to us and he waved goodbye as he rode away on his horse. We both watched as he rode away, we loved this ranching and farming community. I also noticed he was the first farmer I had seen that was not wearing his poncho. Well, it was wrapped around his neck.
We continued our hike up the hill and found the waterfall. We looked at it from the distance and continued up the hill. We walked another hour uphill and finally realized all of the fields were fenced off and no place to sit and have a picnic. We turned and walked back. On the return, we stopped at the waterfall.
Then we continued walking until we found a small patch of grass along the side of the road. This was going to be our picnic spot.
I must admit, it was the first time I had ever sat by a barbed wire fence overlooking a beautiful valley for a picnic lunch. We walked back towards town and it started to rain. We decided to go back to Brunch and watch a movie. Unfortunately, so did all of the other travelers! We decided to have iced coffee and a competitive game of Battleship.

Our last day in Salento was spent shopping. We met a sweet woman that knits and Chantal bought half her store. Beautiful hand knit items that she loved to show the different ways they could be worn. I told her that I would be returning to Salento to live and asked if she would give me knitting lessons. Of course, she would love to teach me and let me practice my Spanish.
We returned to our guesthouse and took a small nap during the afternoon rain storm. Then it was dinner time and we both wanted an arepa (flatbread made of ground maize dough and topped with butter and cheese) for dinner. We walked to the corner to our favorite stall. Mmm!
Our last stop of the night was las Almas Bar for tejo, a traditional Colombian sport. I was fascinated when I was told about this game that involved gunpowder explosions. It is free as long as you drink beer. A metal disk (tejo) is thrown 20 meters towards a board covered with clay and set at a 45 degree angle. A metal ring is set in the clay and triangle shaped envelopes of gunpowder (mechas) are placed on the edges of the ring. When the tejo comes in contact with the mechas, an explosion occurs that sounds like a gun firing. 
I jumped each time they exploded followed by laughing. It was fun and enjoyable to watch. I wondered why we don't have this at home. it's like horseshoes only more exciting and explosive! I am going to talk my brother-in-law or uncle into building one of these. It would be fun on a weekend with some beers. Chantal and I both tried our hand at it...yes, I suck. I kept hitting the back board and making the wrong kind of noise. We left that evening after a fun round of tejo. We had experienced a great deal Salento had to offer and we both loved this quaint town. I was happy to be returning to live here for a month.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Cartagena, Colombia

I stepped on the dock and was happy to be on dry land! No rocking of a boat after the past 51 hours. Yaaaayyyyyyy!!! If I wasn't so hot and tired, I would have bent down and kissed the dry land. I just wanted a shower, 7 days without showering was my limit. Chantal and I waked the 3 blocks to the bank and got cash before hailing a cab for a hotel in the Getsemani area of Cartagena.

We did not have anything booked and we wanted a private with air conditioning. Not much to ask for..right? We gave the taxi driver a hotel recommended in Lonely Planet. When we arrived, we were told the hotel was booked but they had a sister hotel around the corner and a block down. The gentleman called to verify a room was available within our price range. Yes! We were splurging ($30 each/night) but it was worth every cent. We turned the corner and were greeted by lovely women standing on the corner selling love. Ha, ha! It was a fantastic neighborhood with LOTS of character! We did not care. What can you expect when you choose to stay in the backpacker area. I have seen these woman working around the world, it is the oldest profession and there is a consumer demand. C'est la vie!

Hotel Villa Colonial was fantastic. We were greeted by a beautiful Colombian woman that was sweet and inviting. We gave her our names and she asked for our passports. Uh-oh! We explained they were with customs and she smiled and said we needed showers and rest. Nothing to worry about. She understood how we felt after the long sailing trip. "You can pay when you leave the hotel." I wanted to hug her. It meant I just had to walk up the stairs to the room and we were within minutes of showers. I laughed when we both dropped our bags and looked at each other and said "You can shower first, I am hungry!" As usual, food won!! I opened my backpack and removed the cookies, nuts and fruit we had picked up. A light snack before a shower and dinner. It felt good to eat after so many days of no appetite. And a hot was fantastic! I could have stayed in there for an hour but knew Chantal was waiting to get the stench off of her also. I felt 150% better!  I laid on the bed thinking about dinner while Chantal showered. I wanted an indulgent meal... like a vegetarian pizza. When she emerged from the bathroom, she looked at me and said "I really want pizza." Me too! We laughed because in the weeks we had met we both wanted pizza after long travel days. Today was no different. We walked to the lobby and I heard the voices before I saw them. No!!!! The 5 Swiss had checked into our hotel. Really? What was the chance of this? There are more than 200 hotels in this city and we could not ditch them!! Ugh! We smiled nodded our heads and walked by them. I didn't have the energy to be nice and did not feel the need. The woman at the desk saw us and came out to give us hugs and tell us how beautiful we looked. Really? A shower and clean clothes made that much of a difference? Wow! We must have looked REALLY awful! She gave us directions to a pizza restaurant and we went to eat our hearts out! We returned to the hotel full and tired. I was ready for a peaceful evening. I laid on my bed and opened my book but fell asleep in minutes.

I awoke in the morning feeling fantastic! We spent the next few days exploring the city and catching up on sleep. 
Cartagena is a beautiful old city. We stayed in Getsemani but walked towards the old town. I was taken in by the street art of the city.
It was bold, bright and colorful -just as I found the Colombians! The homes were beautifully painted in bright primary shades.
I loved the colors and realized how bland and boring the homes are in the USA. Why do we paint everything white or shades of beige? Does that say something about us or the need to blend and follow expected norms. I found myself thinking about returning to the USA and going with the bright beautiful colors of Central and South America. Ha, ha! Yes, I am ruined. I don't want to be beige any longer!
As Chantal and I walked around the city, we noticed a distinct difference between the Colombians and the Panamanians. I loved the warmth and friendliness. The Colombians were polite and welcoming. They wanted the tourists in their country and wanted to meet the tourists. We met these young boys while we were waiting to cross the road. They smiled and greeted us. All around the city, we met people that were excited that we attempted Spanish...even though it was not grammatically correct. They were sweet and helped us learn a few new words.
As we walked the city, we saw a Juan Valdez CafĂ©. It was hot and Sintry had insisted we try the malteadas. Oh my goodness! It was pure coffee heaven! 
It was a coffee with ice cream. Smooth and delicious! The cold tasted fantastic in the hot 90F weather. I was addicted to these at first taste. How was I going to limit my consumption of the deliciousness?!? At the end of our stay in Colombia, the guard at the door smiled and laughed each time he saw us entering...malteada time! I splurged and bought a personal size French press and coffee so I could enjoy a cup of Joe in my room. I loved lounging in bed and just enjoying the goodness. Chantal did the same. We must be the only 2 backpackers traveling with our own French presses!
We continued on to the old city and were charmed by the beautiful sights. We walked through the entrance and into the walled city. We were greeted with the stunning architecture and carriages awaiting tourists.
As we walked along the shops we noticed these beautiful girls playing at a table. The little one in the white dress was adorable.
As we continued walking we explored the plazas, shops and churches. I was more intrigued by the Colombians. They were friendly and intrigued with the tourists. I felt welcomed to their city when this man waved to us!
We spent the days wandering the cobblestone streets, shopping and eating our way through the city. Yes, that included a daily malteada! Ha, ha! We lingered in book stores, drinking coffee and just enjoying the colonial architecture.
The old city is beautiful but expensive. We were happy to be staying in he less expensive area of the city. But the shopping was best in the old city. Chantal was enthralled with the colorful bags that were hand made. We had seen them in Panama City also but they wanted $90 for one! Ridiculous! We found them in Cartagena for $30. They had every color imaginable and with a variety of designs.
Hats were also for sell around the city. As we walked along the streets there were multiple vendors with their goods lined up along the sides of the churches.
At sunset, we walked towards the sea and watched the sun slowly set over the water. Everyone sat enjoying a cocktail as the day ended. Salud to another relaxing and beautiful day!
My days in Cartagena were relaxing and beautiful. We had to move on as Chantal was leaving in 12 days and wanted to see other regions of Colombia. We decided to travel south to Medellin and the coffee region and Salento. As we started to look at transportation, the woman at our hotel suggested we fly rather than by bus as the prices are the same. I looked on line and she was right. We decided to fly from Cartagena to Pereira (with a layover in Bogota). It was a bargain for $65 and less then 5 hours to our hotel in Salento. We packed our bags and prepared for our morning adventure.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sailing the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia

I recommend people do this trip only if they truly understand what they are signing up for. It is not a luxury cruise. It is sailing. Go open to experience everything and take three times the sea sickness pills you think you will need.
We stood on the dock looking out at Ave Maria. She is a beautiful sailboat! Captain Paul was held up at passport control and we were waiting on his arrival. Our bags were loaded on the penga and we just needed the captain to arrive with our passports before boarding. I was excited! I had been dreaming of this trip since I was in Turkey. I was nervous too! I hoped these sea sickness pills would work and I wouldn't melt into a blubbering, crying mess of sea sick misery. I kept telling myself to be strong.
When we boarded Ave Maria, Paul stored the bags and took our shoes. Then bunks were assigned. Chantal and I were left with the bunks in the front of the boat. We knew we had greatest chance of seasickness sleeping in the cabin at the front of the boat. But we were not going to complain and pout like the Swiss girls. They sat complaining about their bunks and how there was no space. Seriously? They had windows and light. The rocking would be significantly less. Chantal and I were not impressed. Obviously, they had they not read the material that explained this was a backpackers sailing, like camping at sea. No showers. No amenities of a cruise. Chantal and I were determined to go with it and enjoy the experience. We had realistic plans for the trip. We could do this! We were sharing the 4 bunk beds with the 2 Swiss guys, who I have nicknamed Ego and Dick. I was not impressed with them either. They were obnoxious 20 something's that thought they knew everything and wanted to be the center of attention. Ego jumped on us when Chantal picked up our beer to put it in the cooler. He swore it was theirs. It didn't matter because all the alcohol was going in the same cooler. We took it and put it on ice and he continued yammering about his beer. Ugh! He later found his beer and had to admit he was a jerk. A few minutes later, Ego wanted to play his music and put on some explicit rap music. After a few songs Paul said it had to go. He did not have patience or tolerance for violent music. He politely requested we play chill music to keep everyone in a relaxed and happy mood. This caused Ego and Dick to start challenging his preference in music. It was downright rude. He couldn't accept Paul's explanation and continued to fight about this for the next 2 hours. Ugh! Ego is the type of guy I can not tolerate, always knows everything and has to be right all the time. My first impressions were correct. I just have to tolerate 5 days in a small space...or push him overboard. Each time he opened his mouth, I wished he would fall overboard, Paul explained there is only a 17% chance of survival and I had no plans of saving him.

We sat and got use to the rocking of the ocean. Captain Paul explained it was going to be a rough 12 hours sailing overnight to San Blas. I decided to take another sea sickness pill before dinner. After dinner and cleanup, we set sail into the evening. We all decided to go to bed. I laid in bed and rocked...up and down as the nose of the boat hit each wave. I willed myself to sleep. Suddenly, I awoke. I could feel my dinner slosh in my stomach with each rock of the boat. I was hot and sweaty. I was engulfed in a wave of seasickness. No! I sat upright in my bunk bed and hit my head on the bunk above me. Ugh! I moved towards the deck but knew I would not make it when I saw the bags laying in the corridor and the boat rocking. I could barely walk without slamming into the walls. 
I wobbled into the bathroom and puked. Afterwards, Sintry gave me a bag and told us we can not vomit in the bathroom. I apologized over and over again. I knew I would never make it to the back of the boat. She said it was ok. And suggested I take another seasickness pill. I did. Sintry gave me a few plastic bags if I needed them. She was very sweet. I remember apologizing again. I was sick. I laid back down hoping to fall asleep with the rocking of the ocean. I started to worry. If I was having trouble now, how would I survive the open ocean sailing to Cartagena? Fear set in and I contemplated staying in the San Blas Islands. I didn't know how I would survive the sailing to Cartagena if it was worse than this. Luckily, I dozed off the sleep. I  continued taking pills every couple hours through the night. I lay in my bunk cuddling a pillow and holding 2 plastic bags to puke in, if needed. Chantal woke up each time she heard the bags crinkle and looked to see if I was ok. (We later laughed about the image of me with the crinkling plastic puke bags!) As the boat rocked, the Swiss guys stuff fell onto mine and Chantal's heads. Seriously? I remember seeing deodorant, clothes, a computer and fishing gear fall onto the floor. Slobs! I forgot that 20 something boys can be such pigs. I turned in my bunk and went back to sleep. By morning, we had arrived at the first San Blas Island. The sea was calm and I had a sea sickness medicated hangover. I was slow and lethargic. I lifted my head and could see the Swiss girls in their swimsuits as the applied layers of makeup. Who puts on eye shadow, eye liner and mascara to go snorkeling? Really? I wished they would get their makeup on so I could use the bathroom. I was drugged and looked at Chantal. She looked like I felt. We decided to lay in our beds until everyone was out of the bathroom area. I sat thinking that I was medicated enough that I could care less if we sailed another 12 hours. Ahh ha!Maybe that was the secret to arriving in Cartagena. Maybe I could do this.  My fear of the open ocean sailing was gone. I had survived 12 hours. I felt empowered.

As I walked through the boat to the deck, everyone asked how Chantal and I had survived at the front of the boat. They all got sick when they went to the bathroom and told us how bad they felt in their beds. The Swiss guys slept in the corridor because the rocking was so severe last night. That is right, we were strong. I explained we followed Paul's and Sindry's advice and took additional sea sickness medicine. Duh!  Paul told us we did well. The sea had been rough and was a 5 on a scale of 1-10. He expected the sailing to Cartagena to be similar. I knew at that point the open sailing would be rough but I was determined to do it. It was a test of my drive and strength. I wanted to challenge myself.

I looked out at the view. Wow! Stunningly gorgeous! This was worth a night of sea sickness.
After a light breakfast and a couple cups of coffee, Chantal and I changed into our swimsuits and dove into the beautiful sea. It was refreshing. It felt great after the night we had endured. We snorkeled along the reef and walked around the island. This is living! Wow! My island paradise for the next 24 hours.  
On shore, we saw many Panamanians that had taken speed boats to the island for the day (Sunday). They sat in the water drinking beer. Great idea! But we were in no condition to have alcohol. We spent a few hours on the island enjoying the beautiful crystal clear water and surroundings. It was nice to be on land after the night we had experienced. We laughed about the night and realized we had survived what we had feared.
Small island in distance with a handful of palm trees.
After a few hours, we swam back to the boat. We relaxed and watched our first sunset over the islands.  Another beautiful view of the San Blas Islands.  
In the evening, I moved my mattress outside to the bow of the boat. I was sleeping under the stars. I was surprised to be the only person that wanted to do this. It was beautiful and quiet. Captain Paul had reminded me to make sure I grabbed my mattress and sheets if it started to rain.(We were in the tropics and rain was common at night.) I looked at the sky and wondered if it was a good idea. It was clear and the stars were beautiful.  I slept soundly with the cool breezes of the Caribbean and the twinkling stars overhead. In the middle of the night, I heard a noise and woke up. I looked around and it was still dark, no rain clouds. I laid under the stars looking up when a red light flashed in my eyes. I sucked in my breath and yelped a small scream. Ahhh!! It was Chantal with her head lamp and mattress. She had decided to join me on the deck. The guys were snoring and she could not sleep. I went back to sleep until the sun lit up the sky. I looked to my left and Chantal was asleep in this beautiful setting.
The islands were abandoned except for a few Kuna Indians that lived on them. They were cleaning the beaches and going about their daily lives. There were only a handful of other boats anchored around our boat. It was stunningly beautiful. We had time for a morning swim before breakfast, a nice sea spa experience to freshen up for the day. 
After breakfast, we sailed a couple hours to a second set of islands. As we sailed across the sea, I sat on the bow looking out at the sea. Dolphins swam to greet our boat and followed along the side of Ave Maria. I love seeing dolphins in the wild. It makes me appreciate their freedom and beauty. In the distance, we could see 4 small islands. 
As we sailed to the islands, I was stunned by the beauty. The closer we got, the more beautiful the islands became. This is the San Blas I had seen in pictures. Kuna Indians were floating in a hallowed tree trunk canoe.
Captain Paul maneuvered the Ave Maria between two of the islands. This was going to be our home for the night. Wow! I was in paradise!
 I sat on the deck reading my book and enjoying my time in this special place. Obviously, I had to get a photo of myself in paradise.
The sun was hot and the water was calling. I grabbed my snorkel and went for a swim. Chantal and I swam over to the island and walked around. We laughed as we realized we were the only people on the island. Wow! We had grabbed two beers and sat in the sand enjoying the peace and tranquility. Life is good!
Swimming and exploring the islands was relaxing and beautiful. Along the shore, the water was crystal clear with huge, colorful starfish. The water sparkled and was refreshing in the hot morning sun. 
We returned to the boat and Sindry was buying fresh langostinos from the Kuna's. Mmmm! Will that be dinner? She cooks delicious food in a tiny kitchen on the boat. I appreciated the fact that she used lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. But the treat to beat was when she chopped up fresh fruit and passed it around in the afternoon. Mmmm! So refreshing in the hot afternoon sun.
Captain Paul and Victor (Swedish guy) spent time on the other island collecting wood for a bonfire. After dinner we all sprawled around the deck of the boat drinking and relaxing to chill music. It had been a beautiful day and now there was talk of an evening bonfire. Everyone was interested but they were concerned how to get alcohol to the island. Victor put on his headlamp and grabbed two bottles of alcohol in his hands demonstrating how we could swim to the island with alcohol. He lifted his head and did a cute little dog paddle. We all laughed and agreed to go. It took us an hour to change clothes and put together the wet bags of supplies. Seriously, it was a beach bonfire. All we needed were a few cocktails and matches. People were loading up the bags with towels, bug spray, brushes, cameras, lip gloss, cigarettes and bottles and bottles of alcohol. It looked like we were going for a week party on the beach. We had so many supplies we had to take an air mattress to transfer everything. Well, and Dick was afraid of fish so he wanted to ride on the mattress! Ha ha! The guys went first to light the fire so the girls could see our way. The fire was nice and it was good everyone went but once again, it was the Swiss speaking amongst themselves in German while nobody else understood. The Swedish girl suggested we play a drinking game. Everyone agreed and the rules were explained. Unfortunately, our attention span was short and it ended after two rounds. Ha ha! I was tired and a few of us decided to swim back to the boat. That turned into another event when all the girls decided to return. It  turned into another 30 minute preparation to go back to the boat. Drunks....everything takes longer. I was happy everyone had a life jacket. We walked around the island to catch the current and float back to the boat. Captain Paul had suggested this was the easiest and we insisted everyone do it for safety. We all got back to the boat safely and everyone fell asleep. I wanted to sleep outside but decided to sleep in my bunk because the guys were still partying hard and I was sure it would be noisy on deck. I got a great nights sleep and woke refreshed and happy in the morning.  
Captain Paul sailed us to Green Island for our last day and night in the San Blas. As we looked out, all we saw were green seas and coconut trees. The coconuts and every tree are owned by a Kuna Indian. It is illegal to take a coconut on any of the islands. Paul bought everyone a coconut to enjoy when we arrived. Opening one is hard work. Most of us gave up and left them on the bow of the boat to roll around.
The water at Green Island was a mirror. It was calm, like swimming in a pool.
Chantal and I decided to take the kick boards around the island. We were getting ready to jump in when the Swiss Sourpuss walked up and demanded one because she needed it to get her camera to shore. What?!? No please? Not even asking. I wanted to backhand the spoiled little brat but realizing we all had to live together on a boat for the opens sea crossing, I refrained. Once again I felt like a mother. I told her she could use it to get to shore but I was taking it back once she was there. And I did just that. I walked up and took it as she yelled out that she needed it when she was ready to go back to the boat. Yeah, right! She swam 2 km with her camera over her head to an island to get photos of herself the day before. She can swim back the same way. I did not care. I was done with the Swiss group. They were the most narcissistic people I have met in my travels. I was tired of all their crap. Chantal and I decided to keep our distance. We enjoyed talking and spending time with the couples from Holland and Sweden. They were sweet and easy going couples. We realized how you have to be prepared for anything on this type of sailing. The other passenger's can impact your trip. It is hard when they are not easy going and require a significant amount of attention and pampering.   
At the end of the day, we watched our last sunset over the islands and started to prepare ourselves for the 36 hour sailing. Everyone was asking about the weather. Paul reminded everyone his first priority was keeping the boat and passengers safe. He was planning to take the safest route and most comfortable for the passengers. But we all had to be realistic. It was going to be rough seas. The last 10 miles to Cartagena would be the worst. He could not guarantee how long it was going to take to sail to Cartagena. I was mixed with emotions. I was sad to be leaving the paradise of the San Blas Islands. It was a magical, beautiful place which I enjoyed. I have never seen such stunningly beautiful islands. It felt like we were castaways in our own paradise. I am happy that the Kuna Indians will not allow foreigners to build on the islands and are maintaining their culture and lifestyle.  The world does not need any more all-inclusive resorts and large western hotels. It would ruin paradise.
I moved my mattress to the deck for the last night. I knew the following night I would be in the small cabin at the front of the boat. I laid on deck looking up at the stars and milky way. It was breathtaking. I felt so small in the universe and humbled to be surrounded by all of this natural beauty. A shooting star fell to earth and I made a wish ( for a safe journey to Cartagena). I figured I needed all of the help I could get! I slept soundly under the night sky with the gently rocking of the boat.
We awoke in the morning and switched to the higher dose sea sick medicines. For the next leg of this journey, I was fine sleeping my days and nights away. After breakfast, we took a swim in the cool sea. It felt good and it was the last "shower" until I arrived at a hotel in Cartagena. I floated in the water for an hour. Then sat on the deck looking at the beauty. Suddenly, I saw a huge shadow appear on the sea. Up popped a sea turtle! I watched in amazement. Paul told me he had put out carrots and always saw sea turtles when he threw carrots into the sea. I decided to go for a swim to look for the sea turtle. I could not see him but as soon as I was back on the boat he surfaced again. Paul told me he always considers sightings of dolphins and turtles to be good luck. Yes! Need all we can get on this crossing. Paul started preparing the boat for our journey and we left the calm harbor at 11:30 AM. As we sailed out of the harbor, I sat on the bow of the boat watching the islands disappear from sight.
As we sailed out to sea, the waves increased in size. I leaned against the windows and watched as the boat softly rolled over the large waves. I stared out to sea watching the waves and contemplating the last few days. I had lived in the most beautiful surroundings and was tested daily by the unhappiness and selfishness of the Swiss travelers. I don't understand why they were traveling. I know I am old enough to be their mother. I am more experienced and grateful for anything that I experience. Isn't that what life is about? I have a difficult time being around people that are so negative and unhappy. They acted like spoiled brats. I have lived the last 11 months surrounded by positive energies and I was irritated to be confined in a small space with so much negativity. I hope they grow up some day and realize others live in this world and it is not all about themselves. I praised Chantal for being the same age but not falling victim to that lifestyle. She seemed much more mature. I refused to let them ruin my trip. I looked at all of their antics and realized they are unhappy. There are always people you don't like but good manners teach you to be polite and walk away when needed. When that does not work, I use humor and laugh. There was a lot of humor and laughing to cope with them.
I tried meditating again. I am not good at it. I find it difficult to quiet my mind. As I was looking out to sea and thinking, I saw a huge fish jump out of the sea. Simba (Holland) and I both said "WOW!" What was that? Then I saw the most beautiful thing of the day. A large wave was headed toward the boat and riding the crest were 5 dolphins. It was beautiful. I wish I had my camera but it is an image I will always remember. The pod of dolphins swam along the side of the boat. They jumped into the air and gave us a little show. It was amazing! As Paul said, this was a good omen. I accepted the sign as good things to come. The next 36 hours were going to be difficult but an amazing part of my journey.
We all moved to the back of the boat to eat lunch. It was tight but we managed. This was life until we arrived in Cartagena. I had a little to eat but did not trust my delicate stomach...I was a little worried about sea sickness. I looked at Chantal and she was not feeling well. After lunch she laid down on one of the beds near the stern of the boat. She felt awful. I checked on her throughout the day to make sure she was well. She was sea sick and could not move. I took her water and sea sick pills. She did not look good.
Sea sick Chantal
I was lucky and felt fine. I had no appetite but I could sit on the deck enjoying the view of the ocean. Most of the passengers were sick and went in a slept the afternoon away. I sat outside with Simba (Holland), Paul and Sindry. I could see a storm had passed and looked ahead and noticed we were sailing under a beautiful rainbow. It was a beautiful sight. I took this as a good luck sign too! It was weird to not see land. Paul took the opportunity to teach Simba to sail the boat. I sat and listened and tried to understand everything that was going on. I was happy when Paul explained that due to the type of steering and how physically strong you had to be that he did not teach the women. I really did not want to be responsible for the well being of any of us. I was happy I had not fallen overboard in the rocking sea!  
As the sun set over the ocean, I decided to double up my sea sick pills and sleep the night away. I fell to sleep quickly with the rocking of the sea. It was no worse than the first night. I was sleeping well until I was doused with a huge wave. I woke up and looked around the cabin. What the....? I looked up and noticed the window on the deck had been opened. I was laying on a wet mattress. I got up and tried to close the window. It was stuck and I asked Sindry to help. The Swiss guys were angry because that meant it was hot in the cabin. Hot or wet? Seriously? Sindry explained we needed to keep the window closed and we also needed to wipe up the water and pick up the clothes and bags lying on the floor. I wiped up the mess and wrung the water out of their clothes. Then I hung them in the bathroom to dry. I rearranged my bed and fell back to sleep. At least the wet mattress kept me cool the rest of the night.
I awoke in the morning and was surprised I was feeling well. I had no appetite but I was fine. I sat on the deck and enjoyed a coffee with Paul and Simba as we sailed. It was calmer than the previous night. I enjoyed the peace before everyone was awake.  
Captain Paul
The day passed slowly. Everyone was sick and sleeping. Chantal had barely moved in the last 24 hours. I was worried but she was fine. Most of us spent the second day sleeping or sitting outside getting fresh air. As evening fell on the second night at sea we were all asking how much longer until we arrived in Cartagena. We had set sail 31 hours ago and everyone was getting tired of being confined to the boat and the rocking. Paul said we would arrive in the morning. I did an inventory of our remaining sea sickness medicine. Chantal and I decided to double the dose for night and hopefully have a good nights sleep. She had not moved from the bed at the stern of the boat. Since I was feeling fine, I went and laid down in my bunk. I put on my headphones and listened to music. I heard Captain Paul yell out to one of the guys that we were changing course from 75 degrees to 20 degrees. Whoa! That was a drastic change. The boat shifted and shortly we were sailing into some huge waves. It was incredibly rough! I had to brace myself on the bunk with my foot pushing against the bunk above me and holding on with my arm. I wished there was a seat belt. I was tossed across the bunk and finally gave up. I wobbled as I tried to walk to the stern of the boat and sat on the step. This was incredibly rough. Each wave felt like we were hitting a wall. We were thrown from side to side. Everyone was quiet and you could see fear in the eyes of several passengers. A half hour later, the sea settled down and I was able to go back to my cabin. I laid down, listened to music and fell asleep. Once again I was awoken when two huge waves came in through the window and doused me and my bed. Ugh! Dick had opened the window. Simba was sleeping above me and was wet also. Dick told us to leave the window open because he was hot. Right! Safety came first and it was flooding the cabin floor and his personal items that were lying on the floor. Paul came and shut the window and was irritated that Dick had opened it. I offered to clean up the floor. Dick pretended to be asleep. I giggled a little when I found his camera lying in a puddle of water. Ooops! He wasn't going to like that. I trew it up on the pile of other crap he had. What a pig! The boat was rocking violently. I moved to Chantal's bed and slept until I heard the motor turn off on the boat. Had we arrived in Cartagena? Yes!! We were still at sea. The boat swayed with huge waves. I heard what sounded like water filling the boat. I lay quietly. What was going on? I did not want to bother anyone and knew it was best to stay where I was and stay calm. I trusted Captain Paul. I could hear him moving around the boat and adjusting the sails. We were obviously still at sea. The boat rocked and I was hanging on tightly to stay in my bunk. Simba came back to the bunk and said we were low on fuel so we were sailing through the night without the motoe. Ok. I was fine. I was not sea sick and the medication was working. I was wet but fine. I just had to make it through the night. As the boat crashed into the waves and rocked I found myself thinking how lucky I was. I was only on a boat in the ocean for 2 days. I would be on land soon. I had sea sickness pills and food to eat. I thought of my ancestors coming to America from Sweden and Denmark. That trip had taken several months. How did they do it? I obviously would not have survived sailing across the Atlantic. As I realized all of this, it made my situation seem miniscule. I was fine. I realized then that I had complete control over my mental state. This was an adventure and I had roughed it. I was the only girl that had slept in the bunks at the bow of the boat. I had not been sea sick. I was not complaining. This was an adventure and I was being tested. Slightly on the physical side but more so mentally. It was clear. I could do this. No problem. I was stronger than I originally thought. I laid on the bed being tossed by the ocean but smiling. I had faced my fear and realized I was stronger than the fear. It was all in my head. Just like so many other things in life. I realized we are raised with fear our whole lives. We are controlled by fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of not being loved. Fear of being good to yourself. Fear of worthiness. Fear of not succeeding. Fear of being different. Fear of being alone. Fear of not belonging. Fear of change. Fear of new adventures. Fear controls us. It is taught to us and reinforced by society over and over again. I remember the fear when I decided to take this adventure. The fear of the future. As I was being tossed around in the boat, I realized most of the fear gnawing at my insides was all in my head. I had spent months traveling the world and taking risks. Change had become my friend. I was thriving on the road in an environment where I never knew what was around the corner. Fear was my mind telling me I could not do it. It was not real. I could do it and was doing it. I had pushed past my comfort zones and was fine. I had stopped trying to survive and had started living life to the fullest. This trip was where I realized it all. I had come full circle and faced my fear. I was having an epiphany about my strength and my life. As I realized this, I also realized there was nothing wrong. I was safe and fine. I was tired and going to sleep. I drifted to sleep. I felt Dick's belongings falling on me. I just pushed them to the floor. He was going to have to deal with it in the morning. I was done picking up after him.
I awoke in the morning and Paul was the only person on deck. I went up and sat with him. The sun was rising and the sea was calm. We were sailing quietly and peacefully on the ocean.  Paul told me it had been a really rough night and we had almost gone sub-zero, he almost pulled out and took us somewhere other than Cartagena. But Simba and Victor had done amazing duty helping him and we would arrive in Cartagena in  another 6-8 hours. He explained he had turned off the motors to conserve gas and would turn them on after everyone was awake. He asked how I was doing and we talked about my realization of my ancestors crossing the Atlantic and how I was actually enjoying the 2 days of open water. I felt this was a test of my strength and overcoming fear. I felt connected with him as we talked about the fears that are ingrained in us by society. I felt like we booth knew something that others had not realized. I sat smiling out at the beautiful sea. I have a new found respect for Mother Nature and the ocean also. Wow! Two days in a small cabin and I had realized so much about life and how I was living my life from now on. Paul went and pulled off the ships flag and gave it to me. It was tattered and half of it was shredded and lost at sea last night. Wow! I thanked him for it and told him I was happy I was experiencing this trip. I told him I would do it again, probably in October but it was worth every minute of the adventure.
Everyone woke up and seemed disappointed that we were still at sea and had several hours of sailing ahead of us. Several of the passengers were mumbling and grumpy. Everyone was talking about getting a nice hotel room in Cartagena. We could all agree that we needed it and deserved a little splurge. It was calm and I went to sit on the deck at the bow. At noon, Chantal and I looked at each other. We saw land. The motor stopped. No! We had ran our of gas and were going to have to sail into the port. We got excited as we could see the skyline in the distance. It was Cartagena!
 We eventually sailed past a fort. Yes! it was closer. Land was in sight.
Another hour and a boat arrived with gas for our final approach to Cartagena. As we entered the harbor we all giggled with delight. Paul dropped the anchor and we got our bags and transferred to the smaller boat. Everyone said goodbye. I said goodbye and thanked Paul and Sindry. I had an amazing journey and learned so much about myself. I was happy I had taken the 7 day trip. I will never forget this experience. I could not have done it without the support and trust in Paul in Sindry. Most of the passengers said they would never do it again. I would repeat it. As I learned from a young girl in China, you have to go through a lot of shit to see and experience beauty. I did and it was a fantastic adventure. Paul reminded everyone we needed to go tomorrow to pick up our passports at Blue Sailing and handed us a number to call. It was strange to enter a country without going through passport control or even having my passport. Oh well. I will get it tomorrow.
As we stood on shore, I looked out to the Ave Maria one last time. Then I turned and started walking to the ATM to get cash and a taxi to Getsamani for a hotel room. I was excited for a shower and some peace and quiet.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Portobelo, Panama

Portobelo, Panama
Imagine the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean surrounded by a different island for every day of the Yes, 365 islands. No resorts. The islands are owned by the indigenous Kuna Indians. Each island is covered in coconut trees and surrounded by pristine shades of blue water and beautiful beaches. It isn't a dream, it is the San Blas Islands in Panama. They stretch for 60 miles along the Caribbean side of Panama towards Colombia. I had dreamed of sailing the San Blas islands for the last 2 years. I had read a travel article about the islands and imagined doing the trip. I never knew it would become reality this year. I was scared to death and facing a real fear of the ocean. The trip is typically 5 days with 3 days spent sailing San Blas Islands and then 36-48 hours of open ocean sailing to Cartagena, Colombia. I was fine with the island sailing but I was terrified of 2 days in a 50 foot sailboat crossing the rough sea.

Ave Maria Sailboat
You would think I would wait and go during the calm season. No, I was going on an adventure in the rough season.  Would I survive? How bad is the sea sickness? Do I have enough seasick medicine? Oh my, was this a stupid idea?!?!?! There are no roads between Colombia and Panama so, the only option is to fly or sail. I have always had dreams of sailing and loved sailing the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. The cost of flying and sailing were the same. So, I made a reservation on the Ave Maria with Captain Paul an Sindry. They had excellent reviews and were recommended by Steph at I Travel by Boat ( I was more excited when Chantal decided to extend her trip and make this sailing journey with me.

We left Panama City early on the morning of January 24. As we sat waiting for the bus to leave, a man entered and handed out religious magazines and bookmarks. Then he started talking about Jesus and some clapping started. I was not sure if I was on a bus to a bible camp or what but I was slightly concerned. Chantal and I looked at each other and smiled. Guess God was going with us to Sabinitas. It should be safe, I heard religious people were safe!  We looked out the window and saw a Jesus bus. Maybe this was all an omen.

Chicken bus in Panama City

The bus stopped outside a supermarket in Sabinitas and we got off. We asked how to get the bus to Portobelo and were pointed around the corner. We sat and waited in the supermarket parking lot of a colorful Chicken Bus to arrive. Chantal and I were hoping for the infamous El Diablo Rojo bus to take us to Portobelo. When I mentioned it to a local he said "Oh no!" as he crossed himself and said a prayer. They are pretty serious about religion in Panama. After 30 minutes, a chicken bus rolled to a stop. The sign said Portobelo. That bus was a classic! It pulled up and was painted with the bright colors of Mario Brothers, Jesus and village scenes...a little of everything. We looked at the boy at the front and asked about our backpacks. He heaved them into the back of the bus and then we squeezed into the crowded bus with the locals. I was standing beside the driver with 6 people between myself and the door. This was my favorite bus. It had feathers around the mirrors and windows and a movie was playing. We stopped every few feet to pick up or let out more people. I was pushed towards the back of the bus.
Nothing like going down the road with no seat belt or a seat. An hour and a half later the bus stopped on the highway and everyone got off. I asked if we were in Portobelo? I was told "No, blah blah blah walk Portobelo." Huh?!? Chantal and I grabbed our bags and followed everyone down the road towards town. Cars were lined up and parked on the side of the road. A mile from the bus we came upon a roadblock. We walked through and on to town as we looked for Captain Jack's Hostel. We eventually found out there was a strike that shut down the road until the mayor was delivered a sum of money to pay road workers. What an idea! Just shut down the road. It seemed to work because the road was opened later in the day. 

Portobelo is a small fishing village that was founded in 1502 by Columbus on his 4th voyage to the New World. It became one of the greatest Spanish ports in Central America until it was destroyed by the British. A portion of the fortress still remains overlooking the bay.

Portobelo Fort
We walked on to Captain Jack's and were greeted by the drunkest man I have met in a long time. It was 11:00am and he had multiple glasses of alcohol sitting in front of him. He was wearing a sleep mask over his forehead, I guessed this was his version of a eye patch? He slurred his words and stared at us each time we asked a question. We asked for 2 beds and he cursed at us. Then he took us down to pick out our beds. I walked in and dreaded the next 24 hours. The dorm was a disaster! Not the type of hostel I would ever pick. There were 12 bunk beds and backpacks had exploded around the room. It was a wet, moldy room. Only 3 fans. I looked at Chantal and said "I am too old for this crap!" She smiled and laughed and said "Me too!" We chose our beds and dropped our bags.
I needed a beer if I was going to tolerate this. As I sat at the bar drinking, I realized 8 of these slobs are going to be on a boat with me for 5 days. Crap! Chantal an I looked around trying to decide who we wanted and who we did not want on the boat. It did not help that Captain Jack's was a dump and got away with it because it is the only place to sleep in town. This made the situation worse. The partying and obnoxious staff were on our nerves and we had just arrived. We had to get out of here. After lunch, we left to explore the town.

As we walked through town, Chantal and I both felt a heavy dread. Had we gotten ourselves into something awful? Was this an indication of what the boat would be like? The drunk/high guy at the bar had told us he was a personal friend of Captain Paul's. Was Paul going to be out of it like that guy at Captain Jack's? We both panicked that we had made a bad and unsafe decision. We walked to the main dock and out to look at the boats. I was turning every decision over in my head. We had time to abort the trip and go back to Panama City and fly to Colombia. I walked down the dock thinking. What is the right choice? Safety is my number one concern with sailing.

I cleared my head and thought through all of my decisions. I trusted Steph's recommendations on the Ave Maria. I had double checked for reviews of Ave Maria online. Everyone recommended this boat and Captain Paul had good safety records. We had talked to a woman that sails the San Blas and she highly recommended Ave Maria. I had time to breathe and I was confident the Ave Maria would be safe. I talked through all of this with Chantal. We decided to met Captain Paul and Sindry in the evening and go with our guts. I think Captain Jack's Hostel was just a dump and we had not been prepared for that shocker.

We stopped at the local Panderia and ordered fresh fruit juices and relaxed. There were four Swiss sitting talking and we overheard them mention sailing on Ave Maria. We introduced ourselves and found out they were 4 of the people on the sailing trip. Afterwards, we walked through the fortresses and past the church with the Black Jesus Christ (Portobelo's claim to fame). We saw everything in town in 20 minutes. 
Afterwards, we walked back to Captain Jack's and looked around the dorm. We found 2 other rooms and decided to move to a 4 person room. It was still a dump but not messy because we were the only 2 sleeping there. Yes!

At 7:00PM we met Captain Paul and Sindry and the other passengers. This journey had 5 Swiss, 2 Swedes and 2 Dutch with us. The Swiss were going to be obnoxious. Our first impression was not positive, time would tell if I was right. Paul asked us to provide our passports and pay him for the journey. He explained we would meet tomorrow at 3:30pm on the dock. Our backpacks would be stored underneath and we would not have access to them during the trip. We could each bring a small daypack for the week. We would spend 3 nights on the islands and then leave for Cartagena. He reminded each of us that this is a backpacker sailing, not a luxury cruise with breakfast in bed. The guys would each be asked to help with the sailing. It is small quarters and we needed to be mentally prepared for the sea sickness and rough seas to Colombia. He highly recommended everyone take the sea sick medications starting at noon the next day and throughout the entire trip. Chantal and I looked at each other and wondered if we had enough medication. We later sat and counted the pills and came up with a plan. We had enough for 7 days each. As we talked with Paul and he explained the trip, all of our concerns were put to rest. We were ready for the adventure. Tomorrow we set sail for the San Blas Islands. Bon Voyage!