Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The plane! The plane!

or Crossing The Darien Gap.

The Pan-American highway is incomplete.


The space inbetween is called the Darien Gap; Rainforest/swampland on the border of Colombia & Panama.  Crossing the Gap is very expensive by air & very dangerous by land (due to rebel activity).  But, it must be done.

The options are are #1 to take a series of 4 or more lanchas (speedboats) through the San Blaas Islands, followed by a jeep to Panama City, or #2 get to Puerto Obaldia, the first stop in Panama, & fly out.  Another option is to take a 3-5 day "cruise" through the islands for about 400$.  I am aiming for #2, which has a much shorter timeframe, ends up being the cheapest, & especially because it doesn't involve 6hr speedboat trips from hell, as I've been recounted.

The road north from Medellin.  One moment drinking fresh squeezed orange juice at an amazing finca (cottage/weekend villa) with tennis courts, trucking less than 150km in 5 hours with overnight at a truckstop as home, & sleeping on the deck of a cargo ship the next night.

Turbo is a shithole of a town.  Also a necessary pitstop in taking the morning boat out.  The water in port is like sludge.  Saw more than a few dead mice floating in it, being nipped by the mutant minnows.  There is nothing appealing about it.  It's a disgusting little town.  But, being prompted by a new friend, Hector, who works security for the cargo ship, I remembered the people are very friendly, & despite it's unrefined exterior, it's safe.

My only knowledge of the speedboat passage is from my friend Kelvin who soldiered through a 6 hour stint on these same waters.  He equates it with a level of hell.

Hey, this isn't so bad!  This is actually pretty awesome, with a big smile on!  The sea spray is like bleach white fireworks along to my music.  I was cunning enough to get a spot at the back of the speedboat, where I might get soaked, but at least not queasy.  The water colour changed 3 times, from sickened grey, to the comforting tan brown of all rivers in Colombia, to a more fierce blue of the Caribbean sea.

Next stop:
Fireflies.  I was wondering when I would see them again, or if they'd ever existed.  This is in Capurgana, a little village where you get your exit stamp for heading to Panama.  The graveyard has a horse standing sleeping in the middle.  The frogs coo like doves & chirp like from video games.  Locals stop me on the street, asking if I want company to wherever I am walking to, or afterwards, & one particularly heavy night out, I asked a friend if anything really wild was beyond my recollection, since everyone in town seemed to know me, or at least know me as The Canadian.

The ocean wears it's way along the side of the cobbled sidewalk 10ft from my door.  There's reefs & great snorkelling all along this area.  I was swimming with my friend Camilo, a future ichthyologist - a fish researcher, and a great guide to have in the water!  He pointed out lion fish, starfish & pencil urchins.  Crabs & fish always scatter, reminding me that Humans are the only creature who provokes fear into every other species of animal (The Once & Future King), even when we just want to say I am one of you.

Getting the exit stamp is a constant Come back tomorrow/Come back later, until their system's down & then it's Come back in the morning before your boat.  Listen.  Not being an idiot, I am cursed to know that when opening at 2pm really means opening at 4:30, the office will not be open before 7am on a Sunday.

So, not panicking of course, & still leaving tomorrow at 7am with no exit stamp, boat ticket or plane ticket - which you cannot buy in advance or until you arrive.

The first two sorted themselves out easily enough.  When we arrived at Obaldia, we were just barely too late.  The plane is full.  They were weighing the passengers & their cargo, adding them up to see if they could possibly squeeze on a few more bodies.  In this town, in which I've been instructed not to go to early if at all possible we will be stuck for the next 3 days.

There were 6 extra people in line, so 4 of us banded together - Toby (Australia), Tyler & Cole (Texas).  An french girl opted for the lure of the sea.  She tells us "The first boat is 2hrs/20$, then there's a second boat, then the jeep is 40km/15$ & we might be able to make it there today."  Too good to be true.  We'll never know if she made it or when.  It's that second boat that's a mystery of time & price, & I've heard a couple stories of getting stranded without knowing when the boat will arrive.  It's not as interesting, but at this point, I do have a timeline, although I've heard the islands are beautiful.

The days are too hot to do anything but sweat.  85% humidity beats you down.  Funny that in a place that's little more than a 2 roads off the main square, you can still discover "there's a place that sells vegetables?"

Finally, our day has arrived!  We'd been teasing about sneaking out early & locking the others in to ensure our spots before the boat arrives from Capurgana.  We're on the list no problem, with payment upon arrival in Panama City.  It's our turn to coach the new arrivals on what the next few days will consist of.  2 French girls join our crew, while we wait.  One plane arrives on time to take our luggage & is coming back in the afternoon for us.  Oh yeah?  Raised eyebrows.  After counting down the hours the past couple days, our future is still in limbo.

Card games or anything.  We decide if/when we arrive & discover our luggage strangely "didn't make it", at least we have arrived/have left.  We had no other option.

"The plane hasn't arrived yet."
"The plane hasn't taken off yet."
"We're going the wrong way!"
"We're flying very low to the water."
"It's safe to say we're beyond turning around now."
Not pessimism.  Realism.

It takes us over 2 hours to get through airport security.  Searching & dogs & waiting & filling out cards & writing & waiting & going through individually, etc.  Finally we stood in a narrow freshly painted hallway overlooking the waiting area, waiting, waiting & waiting...patience stringing us along...  Haven't we been in Panama 3 days already?

This is where I recieve the message from home saying the Canadian Postal Workers' strike is over (Hallelujah!), & I have a a doctor's appointment at the Infectious Disease department of the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.  Before I left I had been waiting on my bloodwork.  I think it's safe to guess I have that Nile parasite afterall.  Every night I battle mosquitoes, mostly losing battles the past few days, & I hope there's no malaria in my bloodstream.  Maybe I should have yearly checks at the HSC...

In the meantime,
PegCity, meet PanCity.

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