I spent Christmas Eve at the Pakistan Embassy and Christmas day alone but happy in my guesthouse back in Delhi. I had something for dinner that didn’t have curry in it…that was as close to home as I was going to feel. I had just gotten back from a great adventure. Here is a peek of what I have been up to in the last 5 weeks:
I found Bala, my motorcycle
We completed our maiden voyage, 1250 miles (2000 kilometers) in about three and a half weeks through the Himalayan foothills
For hundreds of miles I drove on roads like this:
It was amazing
I spent Diwali, one of the biggest Hindu holidays, with my friends at their family’s home in Delhi. I almost blew my finger off with a firecracker
In my journal I came across a message written in handwriting other than my own that said “Check out Bedřich Smetana” So I did. Turns out he was an 18th century Czech composer. I instantly fell in love with his music. That journal has been with me in 3 continents and 10 countries. I can’t for the life of me remember who wrote that.
With the help of my mechanic(al engineer) Rahul, I put a new head cylinder and piston in Bala. It was the beginning of my lessons in motorcycle mechanics
Looking across a valley from the foothills of the mountains I watched this sunset:
Three hours later this was the new view from the same place:
I learned to ride a motorcycle with the brake on the opposite side from what I’m used to AND with the gears in reverse order AND on the opposite side they normally are, I did this at the same time as I had to get used to driving on the left side of the road…And I did ALL of this while driving in crazy New Delhi traffic. I survived
I learned the proper way to make Indian chai tea
I acquired a travel partner, Carmen, who joined me and Bala for 500 miles, I will be lucky to find more like her along the way. Never complained, lots of smiles, top-notch navigator, and with a healthy appetite for life, rice and dahl
I was invited to a traditional wedding in a tiny mountain village of a few hundred people. The bride and groom sat decked-out in colorful traditional clothes in two throne-like chairs without cracking a smile while everyone in the village took their picture standing behind them. Carmen and I were treated as the guests of honor and took almost as many pictures with the locals as the bride and groom
Bala got two flat tires within an hour
I created a fundraising campaign for charities, people who contribute get a postcard from me from somewhere in my travels. PLEASE consider donating or at least share the link on your Facebook page. It only takes one minute. Here is the link: http://www.crowdrise.com/thescenicroutetospain
I met a couple Pradeep and Rubina, who started a Christian school in a small village on top of a mountain overlooking snowcapped Himalayan peaks and a beautiful lake. They became dear friends and spent several days showering me and Carmen with hospitality
Two days and 200 kilometers after leaving Pradeep I met his cousin who happens to be a mechanic and helped me fix a problem with Bala
One week and 500 kilometers after meeting Pradeep’s cousin, I stayed with his mother at her home near the Pakistan border. I discovered where Pradeep learned to be so kind and hospitable
One day and 1oo kilometers after meeting Pradeep’s mom, I had breakfast with his sister Jyoti, a nurse at a Christian hospital
I saw a bunch of Indian military guys with ridiculous mustaches and outfits parade around in an absurd spectacle cheered on by thousands of flag waving people at the Pakistan border…the same thing was going on the other side of the border. This happens EVERY SINGLE DAY
I drove across the sacred Ganges river in Rishikesh
I spent a few days climbing in the Himalayas…only made it up to about 4,300 meters (14,100 feet)…just a taste of what I’ll see in Nepal
I watched for days women as young as 16 and as old as 70, walking into the forest at 9am every morning. 8 hours later they would return with HUGE bundles of foliage that they would carry for 2 miles (3.5 k) to their village. The foliage was to feed the cows. One day we brought them some water and cookies. I picked up one of their bundles to see how much it weighed…at least 75 pounds (35 kilos)! On the other hand, the men of the villages seem to spend a lot of time chewing tobacco and basking in the sun
In the last weeks on the road I dodged cows, chickens, dogs, goats, pigs, horses, monkeys (LOTS of monkeys), squirrels, sheep, donkeys, cats, and thousands of potholes the size of craters.
I met a couple at the Pakistan border who are driving a Ford Escort from Australia to London
I met a couple who showed up at the Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan and spent 3 weeks conducting music workshops for the refugees
I spent 4 days helping to build furniture for a school at Nirvan Commun in a tiny village of about 50 families on top of a mountain. This was the view we woke up to:
I found myself in a mechanics workshop 5 times in 3.5 weeks on the road
I met a guy named Dinesh on the side of the road. He invited me to his village of 400 people in the mountains to have breakfast with his family
I discovered that Indian mechanics can amaze you with their knowledge and efficiency…then, several minutes later, the same mechanic can amazing you again…with baffling displays of negligence smothered in a heavy dose of confidence and assurance.
At Pradeep’s school, we took a group of 60 school children, divided them into 4 groups and taught them how to sing row Row Row Your Boat in “round” style
I learned to hate driving on the “highways” and vowed to only take small roads whenever feasible
I swallowed so much exhaust that my breath would probably fail an emissions test
I spent a week hanging out in Dharamsala, a peaceful town in the Himalayan foothills and the home of the Dalai Lama. It is full of Tibetan refugees. It was like taking a vacation from India
I visited The Golden Temple, basically like Mecca for Sikhs. A holy site and pilgrimage destination for Sikhs all over India and the world.
I will ring in the new year while gliding through the Indian night with Bala on a 46 hour train ride to the far South of India where I will be making my way to Sri Lanka and the next sea of adventures.
This is all just half of the stories…CLICK HERE to see more pictures from the last weeks along with the comments I left with them setting the scene. To read more about the plan to drive Bala all the way from India to Spain, click here: Delhi to Barcelona, the Scenic Route
This morning I woke up in New Delhi. I have been living here for over a month now. India is everywhere around me, its in the smell of sweaty people packed into a congested metro train, in the sound of a deranged and never-ending symphony of car horns, in the street food, the smiles of the kids, the traffic, and the colors of womans sari’s. I work as a volunteer for an NGO that runs some free schools in one of the larger slums of Delhi. But as usual, the weeks since my last report, since my motorcycle trip through Southern Europe, have been full of stories, new places, old and new friends. What have I been up to in the last seven weeks? Take a look…..
I rode a bike across London Bridge.
I watched a cow languidly eating curried vegetables from a plate while standing in the middle of congested traffic.I was the top of a human pyramid on an abandoned train track/city park in lower Manahattan.
I reunited with old friends and family in New York. We laughed like idiots, we drank too much, stayed up too late, slept too late, and ate like pigs.
I admired the fact that bellbottom pants seem to have survived the 70’s in India.
In New York I saw the first of the four “Sunflowers” paintings that Van Gogh painted in Paris.
I marveled at the amount of trash people throw onto the train tracks and platforms in the New York City subways.
I marveled at the absolutely spotless train tracks and platforms in the New Delhi metro stations.
In London I saw the 3rd of the four “Sunflowers” paintings by Van Gough.
I spent many days in the slums of New Delhi admiring how happy and friendly people seem to be, despite the human waste that surrounds their homes, the 12 people they share their single floor with, the millions of flies that never leave you alone, and the fact that the government seems to ignore them.
I ate a dessert called “Arctic Fox Poo” with one of my dear and close friend.
I watched a four year old barefoot girl with knotted hair and hands and face black with dirt do cartwheels and backflips between cars at a red light in Delhi. She then came to the rickshaw I was in, stared right into my eyes, and made the motion of hand to mouth, asking for food or money. I know it’s the worst thing I could do…to give her money, but that girl, who looks into your clear western eyes, at your backpack that she knows contains a camera worth more than her home or more than what she was purchased for…she doesn’t know all the reasons why you don’t reach into your pocket. How can she accept that I can’t pull out and give her a 10 Rupee note, worth about 8 cents? What is going through her mind as she looks at me and I smile and shake my head silently mouthing the hindi words for “Im sorry”. I have never made peace with this situation. (If you don’t know the reasons why you never give money to street children click here)
I deftly snuck into The Museum of Natural History in London. I was quite proud of my
stealthy abilities and the money that I had saved.
I became an Indian….almost. I am an official Indian resident complete with documents.
I watched a sunset from an airplane that lasted 6 hours.
Thirty minutes after sneaking into The Museum of Natural History, I discovered that admission to all museums in London, including that one, is free.
At a busy pedestrian area in Union Square, I wrote out a short inspirational message and left it in a wooden box for someone to find. Someone did find it and then they found me. They wrote me a long message that gave me goosebumbs to read, this is one sentence from it: “You do not know me, but you’ve brought magic into my life…I hope you find yourself blessed with a journey and that you are the hero of that journey.”
I met an old friend in Delhi who I haven’t seen in 3 years. We met 6 years ago in Hollywood, coincidentally he was in Delhi visiting family and saw from Facebook that I was there too.
I saw someone slip, quite theatrically, on a banana peel.
I have spent countless hours in Delhi searching for my Rocinante…the trusty motorcycle I will buy that will take me through India and 20 other countries on my drive back to Spain. Still no bike…
In other news…I received word from my friend in Marseilles…with is help, my old motorcycle Billie Jean was sold at a fair price…the end of an era and the beginning of a new one….Thanks Szymon!
I ate Pizza in New York, Fish and Chips in London, and Dahl in India.
I smelled things walking through the streets of Delhi more powerful and intense than I have ever smelled before. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes not.
I went fishing in Long Island Sound on a boat with one of my oldest friends. The only thing we caught was a buzz from the beer we were drinking.
I saw the bones of a 180 year old 20 meter long dinosaur.
I researched and created an “Old Delhi Foodie Walk”. A walking tour that shows tourists the best of Delhi food culture in the “Old Delhi” neighborhood. The proceeds from the people who take the tour benefit the slum schools run by the NGO I work with. I have given the tour to 4 groups, so far no complaints.
I had a picnic in Central Park for the first time in my life when there were leaves on the trees and I was in short sleeves…despite the fact that I lived in New York for 8 months.
My second day in Delhi I came down with a serious case of Delhi Belly. I didn’t eat anything for 4 days and didn’t fully recover for almost 10. Those first days in Delhi, laying sick in a cockroach infested hotel room that was costing me $4.50 a night, I wondered with fear, knowing I was to be in India another 6 months, if I would ever be able to look at Indian food and curry again.
I rode a bike around South Manhatten a Polish artist and filmmaker who now resides in Barcelona.
After having made a full recovery, sans antibiotics, from my Delhi Belly, I began drinking ¼ of a cup of tap water every day to build up immunity. Now I eat anything, even some things my local Indian friends think I’m crazy to eat…and I am officially in love with Indian food.
I stayed with a guy who grew up in a conservative Muslim family in Northern India, moved to the US at 18, discovered alcohol and parties, became an atheist and a successful banker earning a very good living. At 36 he felt the call to return to his Indian roots. He quit his job moved back to India and started a co-op to help farmers in rural Kashmir.
I got my international motorcycle license.
I learned about “The double lives of India”. How an ultra-conservative culture brimming with cultural and religious rules and expectations leads people to lie to family and loved ones.
I drank beers with some Muslim guys. They said their wives have no idea they drink. Telling them is simply not an option…their marriage and entire family would be lost forever. They said don’t feel that the rules of a religion that they are only passive believers in, should dictate their lives….they also said they lie to their wives because they love them, and they don’t want to lose them, and I believe them.
I stayed with a guy who, pressured by his Hindu family, pursued a coveted degree in engineering and afterward scored a dream job as an engineer in Delhi. After a death in his family he re-evaluated his life, quite his job, and decided to go back to school to be what HE always wanted to be…a Biologist. he is in his second year. He’s happy now. But his family still thinks he goes to his engineering job every day.
Tomorrow I go look at another motorcycle…could be the one…
I feel I am standing on the edge of a great new adventure, about to dive in.
THANKS FOR READING! FOR THOSE WHO PREFER FACEBOOK PLEASE FIND ME THERE AND ADD ME AS A FRIEND. ON FACEBOOK I POST MORE PHOTOS (AND IN LARGER FORMAT) AND DESCRIPTIONS AND LITTLE STORIES TO GO ALONG WITH THE PHOTOS. CLICK HERE TO ADD ME ON FACEBOOK
From Bogota it was an easy 2.5 hour bus ride to a small colonial town called Villa de Leyva. Silvia had planned to travel this leg of the trip with me but she got tied up with things in Bogota so made plans to meet me in San Gil. So I arrived in Villa de Leyva solo just after dark and walked around the quiet little town till I found a little guesthouse to stay in. I only spent one day and two nights in Vila de Leyva and the one day I was there the weather was not so nice so I don’t think I got the full experience but it was a nice time walking through the gigantic central plaza and down the small cobblestone streets past whitewashed colonial buildings. From there it was 5 hours between two busses get to San Gil, a small city of about 50,000 in the mountains of Santander, a large province in Northeastern Colombia.
In San Gil I had contacted a couchsurfer who lived with her mom and roommate and were willing to host me and Silvia. Basically I struck couchsurfing gold with Eliana who turned out to be an amazing host and an inspirational person. We stayed up late talking about her plans to unite the San Gil community to embrace sustainable tourism, and literature, and poetry (she had won a scholarship to a poetry program in Austria).
So after months of trying to make it happen Silvia finally joined me on some of my Colombian travels! She arrived early the next morning and we jumped into Eliana’s jeep along with her mother Luz Marina and drove past mudslides, waterfalls, and breathtaking views of a huge gaping valley until we found ourselves at Dona Patricia’s in the heart of Barichara. Dona Patricia is an artist of the highest degree, her medium…cigars. She’s a friend of Eliana’s and invited us into her house which doubles as a factory, restaurant, and cigar store. We found her larger than life, propped in a chair with a cigarette in one hand and a handful of tobacco leaves in the other. She welcomed us in and we had a nice chat over a cup of coffee about how to select the right leaves to make the best cigars.
The next day Elaina was busy but recommended a hike to us. We returned to Barichara by bus, spent some more time walking around the little town and then set off for a 3 hour hike to a tiny town called Cabrera that is WAY off the beaten path. I had heard that if you looked hard, you could find fossils in the valley we were hiking through. So when halfway through the hike we stopped next to a small river for lunch I started picking up rocks and looking for fossils and within the first two minutes had already found a rock with the slightest hint of some sort of fossilized shell in it and that was it…I officially had fossil
fever. My obsession for finding a clearly distinguishable fossil took over me like a crack addiction and while Silvia joined me in my frantic search she maintained a better grip on reality and a suspicious eye on me as if wondering when she would have to stage a intervention. And so for the rest of the hike I walked with eyes glued to the ground picking up any rock that “seemed promising” and if I deemed it necessary, smashing these rocks against others to see what was inside. Silvia thought I had lost my mind and I had. I managed to pull myself away from my fossil hunt a couple of times to admire the amazing descent into Cabrera. The last hour of the hike was along an ancient stone trail partially built by Indians and finished by the Spanish. It was speckled with tiny waterfalls and views of the valley below and yes…fossils!
We arrived in Cabrera just in time to catch the last bus back to San Gil but decided to stick around and spend the night there. Cabrera has a population of just a few hundred people and has pretty much zero tourism and of the few dozen tourists who make it there every year I think it’s safe to say almost none stay the night. But we asked if there was a guesthouse in town and were pointed to a colorful unadorned door on a cobblestone street next to the church. There was a woman there who rented out rooms and she welcomed us in with an almost excessive kindness and cordiality and showed us to a nice room with a bathroom and three beds that she let out to us at the rate of 15,000 pesos for both of us (about 8 dollars). We cleaned up a bit and went out to the small plaza as the sun was setting and instantly made friends with a half dozen local kids who were interested in our apparent strangeness.
They served meals in the back of the small general store on the plaza and over dinner we got to chatting with a local military policeman in full uniform who was stationed in Cabrera. He told us about a nearby waterfall and since he had the next day off he offered to take us there In the morning. I slept well that night and dreamt of fossils and waterfalls.
We were up early at 6am and set off looking for our new friend and soon enough the three of us were trekking down a back road on our way to the waterfalls. The policeman kept us entertained with story after story, probably none of them true, of all the major drug lords of Colombia that he had helped put behind bars with his fearless attitude and quick thinking. After the first few I lost interest and my fiendish eyes fell to the ground where I kept up my search for fossils. By the time the waterfalls were in sight it was too late to get up close to them because we had to catch the next bus back to San Gil but they were impressive even from a distance…and we later found out they were the same waterfalls that we had seen from the top the day before! And so, with a backpack full of rocks we headed back to San Gil, grabbed lunch and jumped on the next bus to Parque Nacional Chicamocha, the “Grand Canyon” of South America
We made the big mistake of paying to enter the “Parque Nacional” to see the canyon instead of just seeing it from the road. It was like “Wally’s World National Park”, the cheesy theme park atmosphere complete with rides did a good job of cheapening the actual experience of seeing some amazing natural wonder of the world. But it was still cool and definitely worth the trip.
The next day was the big event, El Primer Encuentro Internacional Caminantes SaiaVita. (The First Annual International Meeting of SaiaVita Hikers). This was a community event that Eliana helped plan to get locals out onto the nearby trails to see the natural beauty
that San Gil has to offer and to promote sustainable tourism throughout the region. They had a great turnout of a hundred people or so, young and old who did the 3 hour hike from San Gil, through the mountains, and ending at a nice river. I was the “international” part of the the event so lots of people wanted to talk to me about where I came from and what I was doing there in San Gil and it was great to connect with so many locals out on the trail.
After the hike we had to jump on our bus back to Bogota but before we did we picked up some of the local culinary delicacies to try out. They are called Hormigas Culonas or “Big Assed Ants”. They are the queen ants of a local leaf cutter species. They are cooked in a hot pan with little or no oil and eaten salted. I thought they tasted like eating a pumpkin or sunflower seed with the shell on. Not bad! So we sat in our bus waiting to pull out of the station chomping on ants. The bus ride turned out to be one of the worst I have been on…we were the back two seats right next to a stinky toilet and the bus was so bumpy that I thought my head was going to hit the ceiling, not to mention that it was supposed to take 5 hours and took 8 hours. But we had some good laughs and all in all it was a fun bus ride. And so I was back in Bogota, the next day I would find myself on the Amazon River, and little did I know that ne next time I was in Bogota I would be with my hospitalized brother!
More on all that later. To see more pictures from my time with Silvia in Santander, CLICK HERE.
News update: Scott Claassen, recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, part time rambler of the world, full time philosopher, and songwriter extraordinaire has embarked on a mystic and epic journey across the United States on bicycle to promote awareness of climate change. Scott and I have conquered mountains together, explored continents, and emptied more than a few bottles of wine together in celebration of life. Check out his blog…he started a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, California and was last seen peddling past Mt. Shasta in Oregon. www.carbonsabbath.org
Saludos from Panama, this is a special news bulletin blog post that I am writing from Panama, I’ve been through lots of adventures in the last 6 weeks that I still need to blog about but when the adventures are abundant it gets tougher to find time to blog about them. Anyways, my most recent adventure is such a story that I’m going out of chronological order here to tell the tale while its still fresh in my mind. For those of you who want the details skip the text in blue and begin reading the text in italics right now (Will take about 15 minutes). If you don’t have 15 minutes, the blue text below is a very summarized summary.
For those who don’t have 15 minutes for the full story, the short version is this. About a week ago I hitched a ride on a sailboat heading from Colombia to Panama with hopes to hitch another ride from Panama to Cuba. After 80 hours at sea we shipwrecked in the middle of the night off the coast of Panama. Yea, full-on. There were about 10 minutes that might have been some of the most intense of my life but in the end the situation could have been MUCH worse and nobody died or was injured. Some Indian fisherman saw us and rescued us and brought us to a deserted island, then the Panamanian Coast Guard picked us up and took us to the mainland. If you want to hear the details read below.
If you want to listen to some music while you read, this song randomly came up on my ipod as we set off across the Cartagena Bay and from now on I will always associate it with the memory of that moment that began this adventure. Its is a piece by one of my favorite composers, Phillip Glass. There is something magical and light about the piece, but at the same time it seems to have a foreboding undertone, qualities that in retrospect suit the story quite well.
It’s nighttime and the motorless little dingy boat is slipping quietly through the shiny black water of the Cartagena bay. The moon is almost full and I can see the faces of the men piloting the little boat. Jose is from Spain, he’s the captain of La Sierra Madre, the 45 foot sailboat that is anchored about 150 meters ahead of us. This is the boat that I would spend the next 80 hours on until it would eventually crash into a reef leaving me and 6 other people on board with a near death experience story to tell.
Jose is in his late 40’s and has the look of a man who is either dishonest or just naive. He’s at the bow of the little boat holding a paddle in his hands while giving sharp unnecessary orders to his first mate Tilson. Tilson is at the rear of the dingy paddling us towards our ship. He’s Colombian, originally from Cali. His heavily creased black skin, his eyes bloodshot, the sunken features of his face, and the front teeth he is missing tell a tale of a rough life. All the same he had a positive energy and I was glad he was going to be aboard.
This was never in my plans. Plans….they are fun to make when you are traveling, but even more fun to break. I was trying to get to Cuba. When I arrived in Cartagena from Medellin I spent a day wandering around the marinas asking around for private sailboats heading in that direction hoping to find one that had an extra berth and was looking for a deckhand. It became clear pretty quickly that I wouldn’t find one, the winds don’t head that direction I learned, but several people I talked to had suggested trying to get to Panama. They said from there I might have a better chance of hitching a ride to Cuba. I had already been to Panama years ago, about 4 months into a year long trip through Latin America. It was a nice enough place but I had no desire to return unless it was going to get me closer to Cuba, which apparently it would.
So when Jose appeared at the marina one day and offered me a ride to Panama I took it. Most backpackers pay $400-$500 for the 5 day long trip which is supposed to include a few days sailing around and exploring the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. There is a whole cottage industry based around shuttling backpackers between Panama and Colombia on sailboats. Since jungle and armed and dangerous narco-traffickers make it impossible to cross from Colombia to Panama and vice versa by land, lots of backpackers opt out of flying and instead choose to sail. Jose was not part of this cottage industry, in fact he had never sailed this route before, he just saw it as an opportunity to make a little money on the side by taking on some paying passengers.
I had struck a deal with Jose that I would work as a deckhand during the trip and in exchange only paid enough to cover expenses. I didn’t have much experience sailing, a few days here and there really. The last sailboat I was on had actually shipwrecked in Mexico about a month after I had jumped off it. It belonged to a close friend of mine and I had accompanied her on its maiden journey from Southern California to Northern Baja Mexico. I remember when I heard she had shipwrecked I thought to myself “No way! That doesn’t happen to people!”
The dingy had almost reached our boat when the other passengers emerged from the hull and appeared on the deck to help us unload the dingy of the supplies we were carrying. These other passengers were backpackers in their 20’s. There were three Argentines, Tracy, Julia, and Javier and a Colombian named Martin, originally from Cali but who now lived in Panama. We unloaded the dingy and went to work putting things away and organizing…our departure had already been delayed several hours so we were in a hurry to get going. At 8:15pm we pulled anchor, started the motor, and off we went cruising through the calm black bay waters watching the Cartagena skyline recede behind us.
The mood on the boat was festive and light. We were all happy to finally be on our way, on our way to Panama, to islands, to sun, to adventure. An hour later though we were out of the bay and into open waters; no more calm bay waters, this was the real deal. The small swells of the open ocean pushed and pulled, and the light of the moon passed over the water with an ease and grace that La Sierra Madre was not capable of.
An instantaneous change in mood swept over the four other passengers. Cigarettes were extinguished, cups of rum set down, and conversations fizzled into non-existence. Seasickness and its bastardly effects had crashed the party like a silent force. Everyone settled into their sleeping spots and closed their eyes hoping for sleep to arrive. I felt fine, in fact I felt great. I carefully made my way to the bow of the boat where the bobbing and bouncing effects of the swells was exaggerated to an extent that it seemed absurd and impossible. I sat there alone watching the sky and the horizon and that feeling that I am always seeking came to me. The feeling of being quite alive and surrounded by adventure. It’s a feeling that always makes me smile to myself. It’s a feeling that would remind anyone that life is good, it is a gift.
The next few days were passed inching our way through open seas. The wind was not behind us, or ahead of us for the matter, it was nowhere to be found. The passengers seasickness made conversation amongst us short and sparse. I felt bad to see them in such a state but there was nothing I could do. Jose, our captain, came under scrutiny by me and the rest of the passengers, including his first mate Tilsen, from the second day. He made an effort to be a good captain, responsible and hospitable to the needs of the passengers, I’ll give him that…but it just wasn’t in his nature. His personality clashed with just about everyone on board and the bickering began quickly. He acted irrationally choosing not to start the motor even when the wind died completely and we began to drift backwards. The trip on open ocean that was supposed to take 48 hours was on course to take 90 hours. It wasn’t long before the word mutiny was making its rounds, although to some it was in jest, I know there were others who, if they had possessed more sailing experience, would have been making serious plans.
I kept a close eye on all this but was also determined not to let it ruin the trip. We were going slow but we were heading in the right direction. Yes Jose was difficult but se la vi. We had plenty of food and water, so if it took a little longer to arrive and I had to deal with a little negative energy on board then so be it. I never actually thought that something could go seriously wrong.
Piloting duties were shared between me, Jose, and Tilsen in two and a half hour shifts. Piloting was an easy job. My instructions were simply to keep the boat on its bearing, stand up every ten minutes or so and scan the horizon for the lights of other boats, and if the winds changed direction to wake up Tilsen or Jose. I liked being on my shift, especially at night when I was alone with the ebb and sway and the stars. The feeling of adventure and of being alive and the excitement it produced mixed with the calming effect of the waves and the breeze in such an intoxicating way that I never wanted my shifts to end.
It was on one of these nights, our fourth night at sea that Jose woke me up at 3:45am to begin my shift. I looked at the GPS and saw that we were getting close to our destination, Caye Holendese, one of the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. But the GPS was old from 2005 and only showed the coastline, not small islands, so I asked if I needed to worry about land, if there were any islands on the horizon. He said we had about 4 hours to go before reaching the islands. That land was far away and that my shift would long be over before we needed to worry about that… just keep the ship on course, watch for other sailboats and he would take over in an hour and a half. He stayed with me for ten minutes or so and then went below to catch some sleep.
Only Forty five minutes later I was fully wrapped up in one of my joyful moments admiring the sea and the night and standing at the till. The moon had already gone down. There was no light whatsoever – the boat was sailing through total darkness. All of sudden a rather large swell rocked the boat. This was kind of unusual but happened from time to time when we were at open seas. Then, 5 seconds later I looked to my right and saw a huge wave crested with white water heading straight toward me. Not towards the boat, but more as if there was a target painted on my chest. I knew this was bad.
I screamed Tilsen’s name and held on to the wheel with both hands waiting for the beating I was about to take. The wave dumped a thousand gallons of water onto the deck and rocked the boat so hard that I could hear all the silverware, pots, and pans come flying out or their locked cabinets below. Tilsen began to scream bloody murder in is rough salty voice through his missing teeth. He was screaming the most panicked terrifying screams that you could could imagine. “NOS CHOCAMOS! NOS CHOCAMOS! ARRANCA EL MOTOR!” (We’re wrecking! We’re wrecking! Start the motor!). Jose went for the motor to try and start it. In the meantime the ship was getting bashed around like a toy at the will of an angry kid. Tilsen had taken the wheel and was trying to point us into the waves which were crashing over the deck of the boat and rocking it so far on its side that I was sure it would flip. The motor didn’t start. It wasn’t going to start. And then rocks came.
Along with the sound of Tilsen’s terrifying scream, the sound of the boat hitting rock will go down as two of the scariest sounds I have heard in my life. It began with a WHAM!!! As the boat smashed against a rock and then followed by the sound of scraping metal as the wave pulled the boat off of the rock it had just smashed us into. To endure this sound once was enough, but it happened again and again and again. We would be rammed up against one rock until a swell dislodged us and we were smashed us up against another. Standing on the deck, holding on with both hands so as not to be knocked overboard by a huge wave or 1000 gallons of water I listened to this smashing noise wondering when it would end, and when it ended, what would that mean for us? Down below there was lots of praying and crying going on. Above we had our hands full. Surely the boat was already taking on water.
At this point my only thought was that we were still several miles away from land, that is what the GPS showed, that whatever was happening here was of epically dangerous proportions. That with waves like this broadsiding us, with the boat being smashed up against rock after rock, there was no way we were successfully, all seven of us, going to get out of this boat and into a tiny dingy, in these conditions of whitewater waves and rocks. There was just no way. My mind dropped the idea in a second and moved onto the next. We needed help. If we are going to go down out here, someone needs to know we are here, wherever here is. We need to get help on the way. Jose was still trying to start the engine below when I made my way to the hatch “JOSE! El RADIO! EL RADIO! LLAMA POR RADIO!” The engine was never going to start so he left it and jumped on the radio and began the SOS call. He held the receiver up to his mouth and shouted “MEYDAY MEYDAY! Es el barco La Sierra Madre, tenemos una emergencia! MEYDEY MEYDAY!” As if the situation was not already extremely (sur)real enough, for some odd reason hearing our captain shouting the word Meydey into the radio made the reality of it all reverberate in my mind. But there was no response. Channel after channel…nothing.
Jose threw me some flares and while he kept trying the radio I went back out to the deck, held onto the mast with all my strength and ignited the first flare which burst into a blazing red light. The blinding light caused a small feeling of relief…at least it was something. At least we were doing something to get noticed. But as with calling in Meydey over the radio, igniting that flare also made the reality of our situation hit home a little harder. Its something that you might see laying around a hundred times but you never thing you would actually be taking that plastic cap off and striking it lit. Once you make that Meydey call, once you strike that flare, its not a game, its very real.
Back in the hull the water was beginning to come in through the bow of the boat, I knew this was coming but the sight of it still sent an extra urgency through my body. The radio was not working. To this day I still don’t understand why, maybe it never worked. “Who has a cellphone that works!?” I shouted. Martin, the Colombian said he had a cellphone with a Colombian chip that would probably work here, but he had no battery. Tracy said she had a phone but the service was blocked so that it wouldn’t accept foreign chips. “What kind of phone is it?” I asked. “A Blackberry.” A flash of hope sprung up inside of me. “Is it charged?” I asked. I had a blackberry also, mine was out of battery but was unblocked. “Tracy, give me your battery, Martin, give me your chip!” I said. And like that we pieced together 3 phones and got an SOS signal! We called 911 and to everyone’s great relief within minutes we were talking to the Coast Guard reading them off our coordinates. By this time the waves seemed to have wedged us between two rocks, we were still being pounded by waves and the boat was rocking back and forth with the grinding noise of metal on rock reminding us of the gravity of our situation. Nevertheless we seemed to be stable, at least compared to the prior ten minutes that had lapsed since the first rogue wave.
It was about this time that the sun began to illuminate the horizon and reveal to us our situation in clarity. There was a tiny island, not even the length of a football field, sitting only a few hundred meters away from us. We were wedged on a reef, surrounded by reef and white water waves. Jumping off the boat and swimming or trying to use the inflatable dingy were not safe options, the sea was too violent and the reefs too unavoidable. But at least we knew then that our situation was no longer dire, that worst case scenario we could make take our chances in the dingy and if need be could try to swim without being pummeled into the reefs. There might be some serious injuries but our lives were not so much in danger as before. According to our captain we were far away from land, and that is what we had thought during the initial chaos of the shipwreck.
From that moment on the panic subsided (at least for me) and we just faced out reality. We were relatively stable it seemed, the coast guard was supposedly on their way, the ship was filling with water, but everyone was ok and we were close to land. The sun rose above the ocean covering us with a beautiful golden light that noone had time or mind to notice or appreciate. We busied ourselves with various chores, throwing the dingy overboard and getting it ready in case we should need it, taking down the sails, throwing out the anchors to ensure we did not slip off the reef, and making periodic calls to the Coast Guard to ensure they were on their way. The boat was still getting rocked by large waves and as it began to lean more and more to one side there was some fear that a large wave could topple it over. A tank of gasoline had also somehow opened in the hull of the boat and the water that was now knee high stank of gasoline that could possibly ignite. These two fears we held close; but the light of day, the site of the nearby island, and our impending Coast Guard rescue kept everyone’s nerves in relative check.
An hour and a half after the beginning of the episode we were wondering why the Coast Guard had not arrived when we saw a small boat heading our way from the nearby island. It was a homemade longboat, like a large canoe with a small outboard engine that was being piloted by two Kuna Indians. The Kuna is a tribe of indigenous Indians who inhabit the San Blas islands and the nearby coastline. They were fishermen and had seen the boat in the morning light being taken slowly by the sea. They knew the reef well, the crevasses and shallows and they carefully zigzagged through the reef through gaps that would only accommodate a narrow little boat such as theirs. By the time our rescuers had arrive the water was waist high in the boat.
And there we found ourselves. Shipwrecked on a deserted island. Safe. Alive. Shocked that the last hours were not a dream, that the thing that could never happen to you had happened to us. On the bright side we could not have asked for a better place to have wound up. The island was a postcard; with translucent blue water surrounding white sand and coconut palms. You could throw a rock from one side of the tiny island and hit the shoreline on the other. It was stunning. And from the distance we could see the outline of the ship, slouching into the waves. It wouldn’t be long before the sea would take the rest of it.
While of course we felt bad for Jose that he had lost his ship, everyone on board couldn’t help but be be angry that his mistake had nearly cost us our lives. He had calculated that we still had hours left before we would reach the islands when in fact we had already been sailing dangerously close in the dark of night past the unseen islands for quite some time before the shipwreck.
The Coast Guard arrived at the island about 3 hours after they received the distress call. Thankfully they brought their ski-masks and assault rifles. They offered to give us a ride to another island where we were to go through customs and answer some more questions about the shipwreck. And so we boarded their boat and waved goodbye to paradise, to the island that we would always remember as a our ray of hope. I’ll never forget the feeling of relief and salvation I felt when the sun had first lit up the horizon and I saw that island in the near distance. And now, as I sat on the coast guard boat in the blazing sun and watched the island grow smaller in the horizon, the feeling of being quite alive and surrounded by adventure swept over me again.
So that’s our story. To see more pictures click here: MORE PICTURES. Although seasickness and shipwrecking had prevented me and the other passengers to get to know each other while on the boat, in the days after the shipwreck we made up for it by spending time together in Panama City. I lost a lot of belongings in the shipwreck, including a camera that was full of videos and photos I had taken from the beginning of the boat trip through the rescue. Fortunatly I had taken some pictures with my other camera and Julia and Tracy also had some so that I had these pictures to share here on the blog. I dont know what happened to Tilsen, he was going to try and make his way back to Colombia. Although things were not so amiable between Jose and the rest of the passengers when we left the island, I hope that he is doing as well as can possibly be after losing something that I know meant so much to him.
So for all those other travelers reading my blog who are thinking about doing the trip from Panama to Colombia by boat, the lesson to be learned here boys and girls is don’t cheap out. Either spend the money to go with a reputable captain who is known in the community and has a track record, or fly. Or in general if you are going on a tour of any kind where there are risks involved, find out as much as you can about the safety record of your operator, make sure they have the right equipment, working radios, maps, charts, etc.
Well, I know I’m way behind in my blog and I still have to report on lots of things that happened before the shipwreck…eating bugs and finding fossils in Santander, going deep into the Amazonian jungles of Peru, vacationing in Colombian hospitals, and motorcycle riding in Medellin and the surrounding mountains. This is all to come on the blog (And has already happened), but I though the shipwreck story was one that should be told sooner than later.
Well, thats all for now folks! Smooth sailing to everyone.
Note for new subscribers (and reminder to others) Whenever you get an email update of a new post its better to click on the blue link above in your email that is the name of the post, for instance in this post where it says “Holy Semana Santa!!!”. That will take you to the actual website where it is better to view the post than from in your email inbox.
So my last post left me in Manizales, sitting in the rain and trying to make a plan for the approaching Semana Santa religious holiday.
Two days before the beginning of Semana Santa I still had no plans. There were a few places I would have liked to go but the mudslides from all the recent rains had closed several highways and eliminated a lot of my options. So I just decided to take a tour of “Small Town Colombia” and to spend half of Semana Santa in a small town called Quimbaya and the other half in an even smaller town called Filandia. Neither are in any guidbooks and I had not met any travelers who had been to either town, so it was to be a nice off-the-beaten-path adventure.
I’ll keep the narrative short but I will say that I made a good choice. It was so nice to be in some small local towns, not a hostel or a gringo in site, but plently of friendly locals. Both towns had some nice charm but Filandia, the smaller of the two (population 7,000) was my favorite. In both towns the locals gathered in happy hourds around the central plaza as if it were the Kaaba at Mecca. The sun came out for the first time in weeks and I spent almost all my time sitting in the plazas, lazily content in people watching. With the holiday from work, the coming together of families, and the recently emerged sun, there was lots of good energy in the air and it felt nice to spent time observing the whole ordeal.
The plazas were always full of vendors selling food and ice cream, sometimes there would be music, and always lots of kids running around playing. Once or twice a day a mass would take place at the church on the central plaza and preceding and/or proceeding the mass there was always a “Procesión”, a procession that always started and/or ended at the church. A mass of people would, somewhat solemnly, walk through the streets of the town following statues of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, The Virgin Mary, and other biblical characters as they were led down narrow streets accompanied by high school marching bands and church officials.
Photos couldn’t really capture the essence of the processions that were such a big part of the Semana Santa celebrations so I threw together a quick little video of what they were like. Click below to check it out:
After Semana Santa I headed back to Bogota where I planned to regroup with my friend Silvia and head to Santender, another region of Colombia. The bus ride was supposed to be 7 hours but do to mechanical problems (we had to change busses twice) it took 11 hours. Status quo? So I hung out in Bogota for a week, made a plan and took off to Santender where adventures in fossils, colonial towns, edible ants, and “international” nature walks awaited me. Coming soon.