Panama City seems like a hundred years ago and the adventures we’ve had over the past few days started off so quietly as we met some fellow motorcycle riders and prepared to sail from Panama to Colombia.
January 2nd Nathaniel and I sat in the front office of Panama House Hostel waiting for the proprietor to scan some documents for us as someone motioned outside telling us another motorcyclist had arrived. Jesse swaggered off his Suzuki 650 and immediately lit a cigarette already wearing sunglasses – we’d spend the next week with each other so we exchanged polite greetings and started feeling each other out. He had a very strange accent (Ottowa Valley Twang) but he seemed like the sort of person you could easily spend a few days on a boat with.
Later in the morning (it was still quite early) Nathaniel, Jesse and I were relaxing in the back patio when a friendly Canadian voice called out “Oh these look like some motorcycle riders here!” and in strolled Ken. At just over 50 years old with grey hair, a serious tan and standing over 6’4” in his motorcycle boots he was not the most likely person we expected to join our party. His wife was out front and at barely 5 feet tall they make quite the pair riding two up on his 1200GS BMW motorcycle.
Eventually Taylor (of Seattle Washington) would arrive on his 650GS and our interesting mix of motorcycle riders was almost complete; Jesse informed us that “Nico” would meet us the next morning. The rest of the night was spent on pre-trip chores like doing laundry and charging camera batteries before we all headed to bed early preparing ourselves to ride out at 6am the next morning.
Somehow we were all out of bed packing before 5:30 am and as I rolled my bike to the front of the hostel I saw a thin guy with dreads sitting in front next to a Honda cruiser. It was Nico, a Chilean who is now in the process of riding his bike to Chile from Delaware before he goes back to work in Bakersfield California (don’t ask).
After squaring away some leisurely last minute details we started the bikes up and headed out of Panama City with Ken at the front (he had the best GPS) and me at the back (I prefer to ride slowly). Our trip to meet the Stahlratte was mostly uneventful, we got turned around a few times and wasted perhaps 10 minutes going down a gravel road (we called it the goat trail) before we turned around, and finally arrived to a national park entrance within two hours of leaving the hostel that was the last leg of the journey to the docks.
At the park entrance we paid our entry fees and then rode another twenty minutes to the beach where we could load the bikes (and ourselves) onto the ship that would take us to Colombia. The ride through that park — I don’t even know the name — of was intense.
The road was mostly well paved but full of blind hair pin turns, steep hills, and washouts. It was a gorgeous ride, but I was so stressed out about you know- not dying that I couldn’t enjoy it very much.
We arrived to a cement dock, rolled up onto it one by one and parked. All of us: Ken, Diana, Nico, Taylor, Jesse, Nathaniel and I were grinning ear to ear standing out on that dock as the 105 year old Stahlratte floated just out of reach in the warm blue salty water.
Captain Ludwig (wearing pants for the only time during our three day trip) told us to take the Panniers off our bikes as an army of locals began tying ropes to our motorcycles so that they could be hoisted onto the ship. The Stahlratte approached and we all held our breaths as each bike was lifted into the air and over the edge of the boat. It is a scary sight to watch a 1200GS BMW lifted over salt water by a few ropes even if it isn’t yours.
A few bikers were already on the ship as the bikes started going into the air and Jesse monitored the proceedings already shirtless from the bow of the ship gesturing with his beer can to punctuate his remarks.
The cruise to the San Blas Islands was about three hours and we spent the next day and a half swimming, swinging into the ocean on a rope, exploring the tiny islands near us and eating good food. There was also the serious business of sun tanning and beer drinking to be handled while we were there and by the end of our first day on the island Jesse had managed to pass out in perhaps the most picturesque place a person could safely pass out in.
It would be easy to make this trip sound glamorous, however most of it was actually pretty unpleasant and in the words of Jesse “a bunch of fucking bullshit eh?” The boat ride to Colombia was essentially a perfect three day metaphor for travel as a whole.
Our first day on the boat was actually perfect. The adventure of riding a few hours through a foreign country to winch our motorcycles onto an antique sailing vessel was rewarded by motoring through calm waters to a beautiful chain of islands with every comfort you could reasonably require (wifi not being a reasonable request).
We dropped anchor next to one of the many tiny San Blas Islands and spent the day doing every postcard worthy time wasting activity possible. It was seriously gorgeous and perfect and we capped the day off with bbq beef and chicken skewers on a tiny island with good conversation around a bonfire as the sun sunk out of the sky.
After the bbq on the beach Nathaniel and I easily fell asleep below deck with the fan running on the most comfortable bed we’d had in over a week, it felt like paradise but the feeling was short lived. At some point in the night I woke up choking – the air was thick and humid and it was completely dark. I could feel sweat sliding off my arms as I reached for my cell phone and I realized that our precious fan was no longer on.
Using my iPhone as a flashlight (and waking Nathaniel up in the process) I inspected the fan and realized power to the entire ship had been turned off. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and without saying goodbye I stumbled out of the room through the hull of the ship to the stairs that would lead me above deck.
I felt my way up the stairs and a figure passed in front of me as I got to the top. It was Taylor heading back down the stairs.
“Dude, it’s so hot I can’t breathe.” -Me
“I know that’s why I came up but it’s starting to rain. I’m going back down.” -Taylor
He padded down the stairs and I was suddenly alone on the deck of the ship. I stumbled over to a flat spot where I could sit down and the air felt amazing. The boat rocked softly in the water and apart from the occasional creaky boat sounds it was totally quiet. I decided there was no way I was going below deck before the power came on and I went to look for a folded hammock I had seen on deck earlier in the day.
It was quite a feat getting it hung up in the dark armed only with my iPhone but I collapsed into it sometime around 5 am and wrapped the sides of it around me like a burrito as I watched the stars winking at me from above the crows nest and tangle of ropes necessary on such a large boat.
I wasn’t alone for long – Jesse came stumbling through the dark and after giving me his “Hey Buddy!” catchphrase collapsed onto the metal floor clutching a bottle of water. He muttered some curse words and a general complaint about paying $1,000 dollars to sleep on a metal floor before he was asleep.
The second day on the boat was spent anchored next to the tiny island and people really did spend the day with every post card worthy time wasting activity possible in such a small space. I was a little burnt from the day before so I used my trusty hammock as shade near the front of the boat and laid in the netting suspended about twenty feet above the water.
Nathaniel went swimming with some of the other guys and caught a giant starfish for me at my request.
But – as all real travelers know, you pay for those perfect experiences in blood, sweat, tears and occasionally a lot of vomit.
Perfection can get boring so I we went to bed early knowing the boat was going to set sail for Cartagena at 5am the next morning.
As the engine rumbled to life in the pre-dawn light I sat up in bed (thanking god the fan was on still), popped a few dramamine and went back to sleep. Nathaniel got up around 7:30 and and at the urging of Taylor I got up around 8:30 for breakfast…
Seasickness I now know has a lot in common with a hangover – it might not hit you until you stand up. I wobbled through the boat as we rolled over the swells and barely made it to the side of the boat in time to vomit bile into the waves.I vomited three or four times before stumbling into the kitchen to sit down. Nathaniel came down stairs to join me and suggested I try and eat fruit because vomiting nothing can be really bad for you. After he brought me fruit I managed to eat a few pieces of papaya before I was back to the side of the boat puking again. All off the papaya came back up but it was at least more pleasant than that acidic yellow bile. This fruit eating, projectile vomiting pattern repeated seven or eight times through the next hour as I glared at the clock, the che poster on the wall or Nathaniel laying on the bench next to me. The only thing I couldn’t look at was the endless rolling waves in front of of that kept sending me to the side of the boat.
I kept trying to eat more dramamine, but I couldn’t keep it down. Nathaniel disappeared somewhere and I took his place laying flat on my back on the wooden bench in the kitchen and I didn’t feel sick…
I realized that as long as I laid there I didn’t need to throw up. I sat up long enough to take some more pills and then laid back down.
After a few hours I tried to move back to our room, but couldn’t make it all the way across the ship before I was puking (once again) into a cup I carried with me. I finished vomiting at the edge of the bed and then ran back upstairs collapsing once again onto the wooden bench where the world was okay.
This bench was so terribly uncomfortable a child couldn’t properly lay down on it but I spent the next ten hours of my life laying there sipping water and eating saltine crackers or bread (you can eat them laying down) at random intervals.
Once in a while Nathaniel or someone else would come through for a snack and I would talk to them getting regular updates on the other people sick aboard the ship (I was apparently lucky to not be vomiting blood). As long as I stayed on the bench I had absolutely zero nausea, it was magic and as uncomfortable as I was I was thrilled to have found peace.
Around six o’clock that night I rummaged through the kitchen for a black trash bag (insurance) and then made a break for our room. I made my way as fast as I could across the rolling ship down the stairs and collapsed onto the bed… waiting to see if I was okay.
I had managed to swallow enough dramamine that I was okay – and able to sleep. I spent the rest of the night in the sweaty darkness tangled with that bag. I didn’t moved until we were pulling into the harbor of Cartagena the next morning… where our adventures with Aduana would soon begin.