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at sea

Miramar, a tiny ragged port town, is even smaller and more tawdry than Portobello. I make straight for the dock where I am immediately accosted by a man who hurries me to meet Angel, the captain of a cargo boat heading for Colombia. Angel names his price and the deal is done. We leave early tomorrow.

Or that’s the promise.

Miramar is probably even smaller than Santa Catalina. A collection of weather beaten houses with a rough dock-side feel.

Peeling paint and an air of abandon.

It turns out there is plenty of waiting to be done in Miramar. Our cargo of half a ton of chicken doesn't turn up on schedule and so our departure is delayed by a day.

Sleeping dogs wait for the rain to pass. Elsewhere in town a large contingent of young and well armed policemen, whose Sisyphean task is to control the transit of cocaine from Colombia, while away idle hours playing football.

Leaving Miramar, the scene is something like this:

The truck load of chicken that has been delaying our departure finally shows up. Angel, Alfredo and Evelin, Alfredo’s child wife, are counting and weighing out the birds and then storing them on the deck of the boat in large polystyrene containers packed with ice.

Meanwhile a unholy screaming rises on the shore. Two men are wrestling live pigs out of the back of a truck. One man seizes the poor creature’s hind legs, the other, its ears and they bear the trashing animal to the water’s edge where they throw it into an open launch. The pig collects itself and the noise ceases but suddenly starts up again at the truck as the men grab another doomed beast.

A wheelbarrow of processed meat sits unattended. A dog slinks by.

pigs

...

...

The pigs make no attempt to escape from the open boat...

... but I worry about their future.

A large launch with two big engines is being loaded to the brim with beer while a group of scantily clad young girls stand by encasing their mobile phones in condoms as protection against the elements while they wait to leave.

All the vessels gradually sink lower and lower in the water under the weight of their loads. The beer boat people sport gangster bling.

The wind is rising. Black clouds out to sea. I load my bike onto the tiny boat filed with all kinds of misgivings. The boat’s name is El Inesparado - the unexpected, the unhoped for.

A sudden influx of people on the wharf as rain starts to bucket down. Angel yells for my passport and I make my way back to shore to the policeman seated on a beer crate at his post under the rickety iron roof. A large ornate coffin now shares his space. Around us crowds of young people enter launches in the pouring rain somberly dressed, black garbage bags an incongruous part of their funeral attire.  A shooting. Another story I’ll never know. More broken hearts.

The boats are loaded. We set off into the rain.

The boat has little grace. Fibre glass and plywood. A shambles of frayed ropes and plastic containers. Buckets and jerry cans – holding water, oil, petrol, diesel. Life jackets serve as seating or get stuffed into the gaps sawn out to provide windows in the plywood box that is the cabin. All the surfaces are sticky, oily, greasy. Poorly cured fibre glass, wet paint, split fuels.

The cabin of El Inesparado. The engine sits in a hole in floor where Alfredo, the boat's owner and the mechanic, struggles contiually to coax it into some form of life.

Lucena and Poli sit in back section of boat. Most of the floor space is taken up by one of the polystyrene containers filled with chicken.

Poli's full name, fittingly, is Apollinaire - he is Alfredo's father and, at over 75 years old, serves as the voice of experience.

Rain, wind, waves. A narrow passage through the breakers out of port. The boat wallows. It’s a bare 30 foot, loaded down with half a ton of chicken, slabs of beer and soft drinks, three crew, six passengers and their luggage.

The hot engine spews oily white smoke into the cabin. A constant roar.

A monologue in toothless mumbled Spanish of the Colombian docks and maritime world. Apollinaire, Poli, the old man is calm, smiling, garrulous. So unintelligible I can’t tell if he is somewhere on the path to dementia or simply old enough to have freed himself from any need to adhere to the social constraints of normal conversation. Stories emerge but not clearly. Seven years in a North Carolina jail. A boat load of cocaine intercepted off the Yucatan Peninsula by the US coast guard. This must have been 35 years ago or more. The wife and five children left behind in Cartagena.

The effrontery of heading out to sea in a listing, pitching, crumbling shell of fibre glass and rotting wood. The motor rumbles, splutters, roars. A smoking monster. Coughs. Dies. The boat adrift. The sway and slap of water now a real menace.

The engine sits in its greasy pit, hot and smoking. Alfredo stands in the bowels of the boat, a hellish underworld. Torch in mouth, a series of tools, black smears of oil and dirty grease on his gleaming brown skin. Exchanges between him and Angel are urgent and terse. The engine splutters into life and dies again.  More terse instructions and requests.

On board the passengers lie in various poses of despair roused only by the need to vomit before subsiding again. People are afraid. The boat bobs purposelessly. The sun behind rushing nimbus is sinking leaving us in a deep grey gloom.

The ship at anchor rocks and heaves in complete blackness. Sickening lurches and sudden drops. The constant hiss spray slap a hostile force. The lucky passengers huddle in heaps on oily dirty pieces of foam that serve as mattresses. I lie directly on the a plywood bunk too short to stretch out on by at least a foot. The shivering spewing Mexican is outside on the deck in the rain wrapped in a tarpaulin.

As darkness covers the boat the binders on terror loosen and fray. Images, unbidden, rise and take an unwelcome hold. The plywood box suddenly resembles a coffin. The ill fitting home-made sliding doors imprison us. The wind rises. Lightening offers stark moments of illumination, unearthly mauve light, ozone crackle and zing. A sudden lunge and thud has Alfredo, Angel and me on our feet and on deck. Are we adrift in the seething writhing night?

But the beauty. Don’t forget the beauty of it all. The dolphin in the morning. The sea still choppy, wild and uncertain. Sudden gusts of wind.

Alfredo and Poli working on the engine when we get to Carti, the first of the Kuna communities we visit after our night at sea.

The tools and spares are rudimentary.

Village structures.

The weather continues to be inclement...

... but in sunny breaks chicken business is enacted...

... as Kuna women shop for their Christmas dinner.

The second night moored at a dock in Carti we spread out motley collection of mattresses across the concrete wharf. Our sleep is disturbed by drunks and squalls but contains less sheer terror than the night before. No unbidden images of thrashing desperately inside a wooden box filling with water. No warding off the idea of what that first lungful of water will feel like. Or more abstract horrors. Imagining myself a prisoner incarcerated with these eight people in that small space for a period of months or years and what our lives would become.

We are a fractious group. Mostly Colombians: Alfredo, the owner of the boat, Poli, the old man, his father, Angel the reluctant captain, with his shifty eyes. The passengers are Lucerna, a 58 year old woman returning home to Colombia after a visit to her daughter. She talks constantly, spreading discontent and malice. She delights in the misfortunes of others. She has two hefty suitcases filled with cosmetics that may not have made it through customs without question at an airport. Carti and Nino are a couple, young, good-looking, both with lazy eyes. Carti is dressed in shorts and a brief top with a purple shawl draped about her shoulders. She is sea sick almost as soon as we leave the port at Miramar and shivering with cold. Nino’s name is Jorge but his nickname suits him better – he is childish. The Mexican is in a state of paralytic terror and confusion. His is on his way to Colombia to meet his ‘wife’. It is unclear where he actually lives. He spent four years in the States – a sojourn interrupted when he attracted the attention of the law drink driving on New Year’s Day – an incident that revealed his lack of papers. He encountered the Colombiana in the States. Gabriel, another Colombian swaggers around the boat spouting his well-practiced machismo. He, like Lucerna, has a hefty bag full of goods – cheap shoes – to sell back home.

Morning dawns and we wait for business to be finalised before setting sail again.

Kuna kids at play.

The archipelago is strung along the coast. Tiny castaway islands, waving coconut palms. The women wear traditional costume. Red headscarves with yellow and orange designs, bright tops with hand sewn appliqué of fantastic creatures, black sarongs with coloured motifs – mostly marine animals but some verging into abstraction and the occasional incongruous squirrel. Legs and arms ornamented with intricate rainbow beads. Gold through the septum. Black painted or tattooed design down the bridge of the nose, cheeks rouged high red. They studiously ignore outsiders with whom they have no business.

None of the islands have a source of water except that which comes directly from the sky. Plastic tanks line the edges of roofs catching precious raindrops.

Garbage everywhere. Plastic bags drift just under the surface of the water.

These ancient communities, exposed to all the elements, existing in a wash of wind water light. A shimmering inscrutable world. Listing fragile huts, palm fronds and bamboo. Other more ambitious structures of concrete and block seem all to stand half finished, abandoned, a jumble of cracking crumbling cement, a tangle of spikey exposed steel reo. Perhaps only the fragile can endure in this shifting mutable inchoate world. That and the plastic. What the boats are bringing these people is sugar, soft drinks, tinned food, disposable nappies.

A man paddles up to the boat. “What are you selling?” “Chicken.” “No water? No biscuits?” “No. Chicken. Soda.” He tries again. Asks Angel. “Water? Biscuits?” “No.” He paddles away.

My own supply of water is dwindling.

...

We dock at a pair islands linked by a ‘friendship’ bridge. Half the chicken gets wheel-barrowed to the freezer of the village shop and restaurant.

The village square sports a spectral Christmas tree...

...and a deeply disturbing nativity scene. The baby Jesus is attended only by a solitary dog and cat - all the figures cut from one inch polystyrene sheet. Joseph sports what appears to be a pork-pie hat.

A large wooden cargo boat is moored on the other side of the wharf from El Inespardo and the crew greet Poli and Alfredo warmly. We bed down for the night on its more stable decks. In the darkness night rain lashes down again, the wind howls, and the boat pulls restlessly at its mooring. Morning brings no abatement to the storm and Alfredo tells us that there is no way we are going to set sail today. The passengers sit despondent and complaining. Everybody wants to be home in time for Christmas with their families.

Alfredo is proud of his boat. I asked him why he called it El Inespardo and he said because he never thought that he would be able to buy something like that. It cost him $3000.

Lucerna, despite the smile for the camera, spends the day inciting ill will.

Carti and Nino relax on the wharf.

...

El Mexicano.

It is hard to make eye contact with Angel.

Poli, always serene and smiling.

Late in the afternoon Nino, with something like desperation, flags down a fast launch with an out board motor. Angel and Alfredo negotiate a deal to get us all to Obaldia that day but the captain refuses to take my bike and so I end up the sole remaining passenger of the good ship Inesparado.

I have ample time to explore the twin islands. Ten minutes is all it takes.

...

...

Christmas Eve spent on the concrete wharf of another small Kuna isle. We emerge from El Inesperado after a long day – blessedly free of engine trouble – on the ocean. As we stagger onto the wharf, sailors from the large cargo boats we moor against hand us plates of food. Not spare food, but the rest of the food on the plates they are eating from, their own food. We must have looked hungry.

The cargo trade of the San Blas archipelago is dominated by Colombians. They form a tight knit community on the San Blas docks.

Alfredo.

Chugging away from the island in the morning.

Christmas day. Set sail.

Have I done anything yet to describe the beauty and the grandeur of the scene? The mainland wreathed in cloud, the serried ranks of mountain receding, each ridge fringed by rising mist. Storm clouds sweep overhead. A sudden down pour – fat drops fall hissing through sunlight into emerald green sea, snatches of diffracted sunlight, patches of rainbow.

Dugout canoes with small sails swift and sure running far out to sea between islands. Sunlight bursts through cloud. Wind and wave, slap and sway. Reefs and shoals. Breakers along a long offshore reef. Who know how to navigate all this?

Poli hands me coffee and than later a plate of rice and patacones left over from yesterday’s donated food. I sit against the cabin, Alfredo standing on the bow looking out for rocks and shallows. Still grey water. Dull silver in early morning light.

The engine coughs and dies again. Alfredo enters the pit in the cabin that I am starting to think of as the Mouth of the Inferno. The boat bobs gently and it is peaceful without the throb of the engine. Time passes. The men snap at each other in the cabin as I admire the grey, silver, monochrome world.

Water, oil, tools. Angel emerges. “Candela,” he tells me and shrugs. I don’t know which part of the engine this is but I don’t doubt from his demeanour its vital function. Alfredo is still invisible in the pit hammering at something.

Eventually the engine revives enough to limp to the nearest island.

Tears? Were they tears in Alfredo’s eyes when he said, “Anna, give me the money to fix my boat!” If only all gringos were as rich as the people here believe.

A cargo boat moored at the island wharf offers to tow us to Obaldia but El Inesparado under tow wallows and flounders unable to find her own way safely over the waves. The rope pulls the prow down and water washes over the deck as the boat lists perilously threatening to capsize, loose items sliding overboard. I cling to a rope to keep on my feet. Alfredo shouts – “Seulta lo! Seulta lo!*” He looks defeated. Angel says, “Put Anna on the other boat!”

So… a change of ship at sea. Bike and bags urgently passed up to people standing at the rails of the steel hull looming above us. A hurried scramble, a foot hold, one hand on a rail, back pack hooked over the other shoulder. Then Alfredo, Poli and Angel are far below me, looking up. Angel nods. Alfredo looks away. I am heart-broken. It is too sudden this sundering. Where is Poli?

I will never know how the story ends.

And it is like coming up for air after a long held breath underwater. I break the surface and enter a different world.

What do I find so beautiful and intelligible about sheer need. I loved those people: Poli, and his son, Alfredo. After five days aboard a leaky failing boat. Their patience and persistence, their courage, their pride, their humility. Their good humour and their resignation. The way they can make do, make the best of things. Their capacity to be joyful and laugh. Their faith.

Here on a boat with electricity and water tanks, kitchen, bathroom people are kind but distant. They give me food but I will not love them for it.**

This is the money side of the cargo business.

The Kuna women wait for their goods.

...

...

I keep coming back to the sheer beauty of it. The surface of the sea a mirror now. Canoes on the water, a man standing placidly, casting a line, patiently, over and over. This could be any morning in eternity, any time in history. We are here. I have seen it.

The morning grey soft calm, as if wind were a thing unimaginable. The clouds gently unravelling as the sun rises. Clouds casting shadows upwards into the sky. A patch of light refracted into an oily smear of iridescence – colours I’ve never seen in the  sky before – verdigris, violet, vermillion.

...

...

...

...

*Suetla lo = I guess something like ‘let it go’ or ‘loosen it’

**When I regain a little more of my customary cynicism it occurs to me that some of my feelings – or the strength of them – might have been vaguely akin to Stockholm’s Syndrome. An interesting thought, really, and one that is still occupying me.

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Julie begg | January 3, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Anna this is wonderful writing. You paint such a vivid picture of the people that they nearly leap out of the page, and the desperation of that boat trip is palpable. Despite the horrors of the perilous journey you are still able to revel in the beauty around you and appreciate the human dignity of the crew. Your description is incredibly moving! I await the next episode with great interest!
    Happy New Year and lots of love. Xx

  2. jack | January 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    So did you marry the captain of the boat to columbia? If not I will marry you. hope you are doing well enjoyed talking with you on the dock. that was one rough and wet trip.

  3. anna | January 5, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Alfredo, the owner, not the captain…. Ummmm, no, i didn’t. But in an affliction that might have been something approaching Stockholm’s Syndrome, i think i did consider it at one stage. I declined a few different proposals from Alfredo (marriage being the most respectable), in fact, and I’m sorry but I think I’m going to have to decline yours, as well. i hope the fishing was good.

  4. Alan | January 7, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Nice to see you’re on the move again. Your doing well with the camera.

    Stockholm syndrome, I suspect that you weren’t in the correct situation, it normally relates to victims of perpetrated terror by a captor, as I’m sure you’re aware. In your case, even though you imagined you were going to die for sure, in a leaky boat miles from shore, in a location that meant you’d never be found, you had entered the situation ‘willingly’ Part of the risk in ‘Adventure’ :)

    Your feelings may be connected to other factors, compassion, loneliness, point in life. :)

    What will the new title be……. ‘My Bicycle and I…’ :)
    Mine is ‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea…at the time…’

    Enjoy Columbia, keep the photos rolling.

    Al

  5. Alan | January 7, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Oops, I came in via an old bookmark and read the older stories first. After my last comment I hit ‘Home’ and immediatly noticed you’ve changed the name!

    Don’t stress, I’ll catch up…..

    Al

  6. anna | January 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alan,

    Yes, I know Stockholm’s Syndrome relates to kidnap victims – I was not being entirely literal. But at times, however, it did feel that I was some kind of prisoner amd the guys on the boat certainly had more control in the situation than I did.

    Cheers,

    Anna

  7. jack | January 7, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Im taking a break at work and checking your progress. Looks like you are rolling along ,minus the spoke situation. I figured as much on the proposal. The fishing was as bad as the 6.5 hr boat ride. I have never drank that much saltwater in my life. I told the others to check out your site you may be hearing from them as well. Let me know if you need anything id like to see my company name on your sponset list . Looking forward to your next post

  8. Scott | August 29, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your story. Sounds like an incredible, frightening adventure. My girlfriend and I will eventually need to make it from Panama to Colombia. I’d love to do it in an interesting way. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks

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