Saturday, July 29, 2006


I rode to the 5th Street wharf at noon. The boat for Cartagena is in. I spoke with the skipper. He will take me. The bike is a problem. Why? I don't know. The skipper will tell me midday on Monday whether he can take us both. He will give me the fare midday on Monday. I shall spend the weekend chewing my nails. As insurance, I rode out to the Shelter Bay marina. The road crosses the canal. The bridge is a steel grid on top of the lock gates. Water boils out of the sluices on one side while the bows of a massive ship tower above you on the other. Beyond the canal, the road leads to the marina thru the rich forest of a national park. I spoke with the directer, a grey-haired, grey-bearded big-belly American eating lunch in the club house with his decorative female Panamanian assistant (probably thirty years his junior). The assistant showed interest in my journey. The director sent me outside to talk with the janitor, a Coona Indian. The Coona was fishing off a dock with a weighted line and crab for bait. He pulled in a couple of fish while lecturing me on what is good food and what is bad food. Bad food is what everyone eats at Chinese restaurants, so he tells me. The Chinese cook rats and cats and dogs - again, I quote. The bits of meat in fried rice is rat.
The Coona is 59 years-old. He was out of work a year. He visited all the factories in the Free Zone. He was told either that he was too old or that they would be in touch. They never were in touch. He has four children and three grandchildren to feed. He went hungry often. His mother-in-law does sewing and embroidery work to sell to tourists. The mother-in-law was hard on him, nagging and demanding why he didn´t work and why he was reading all the time. The Coona was reading the Bible. He reads the Bible every day. God answered his prayers with the janitor's job. Solving difficulties is all a matter of praying and waiting. God will answers prayers in his own good time.
The Coona was close to tears while relating his trials. Though a sweet man, he was of little help to a aged Englishman with a bike in need of a boat. The marina director and his assistant were in the store. The assistant asked how I had progressed with the Coona. I told her of his mother-in-law and she got the giggles. The director seemed irritated so I left.


I bought a pocket knife today at a big hardware store. The cop guarding the hardware store was an off duty cop. A sergeant, no less, and a fanatic biker. What sex (the cop not the bikes)? Female, mother of four, and a widow. Her left leg turns thru 200 degrees - that was the Harley wreck. The weird elbow was a BMW. A Yamaha 750 did for her right knee. She was impressed by my leather leg gauntlet. Her own right leg has burn scars up to mid-thigh. She was in uniform biker´s britches so couldn't show me. She earns $600 a month, has two kids at school, two in further education and supports her mum. Do the sums and you understand the need for extra income. I fetched the bike and we talked for half an hour out on the sidewalk. A lovely woman...

Friday, July 28, 2006


The relationship between men and women in Portobelo confuses me. The sexes seem separate species and communication between the sexes is clearly difficult. Mostly it comnsists of women shouting at men. What ever the message, it seldom gets thru. I remark on this to the cook. She replies that the men here are cold. She asks where we live and in what type of house. I describe the house and the garden and tell the cook that Bernadette told me today on the telephone that she had saved a failing rose bush. For medicine she had used horse manure from the dungheap behind my brother's stables.
The cook says that no man has ever given her a rose.
Riding back from Colon, I stop at the big supermarket. I buy fruit salad and a packet of cured pork loin for my dinner and a bunch of pink roses for the cook. The cook says that I am a good man and gives me a hug and a kiss. My temporary granddaughter giggles. I drink coffee and watch the traffic pass thru town. Public transport is used school busses imported from the US. The busses have names: Doña Lola, Conquistador, Niña Jenny. The sides are striped and often bare cartoon characters. The back is the real canvas. Some subjects are religious: The Resurection, the Angel Gabriel. Others bare pictures of the jungle, rivers, a puma. I spotted a Swiss mountain scene on one while, in others, scenes are drawn from fantasy movies. Cherished busses have their exhausts extended with chrome pipes risng vertically up the back and all of them have messages painted across their windscreen. In God We Trust is a favorit. Bikers are vulnerable. I would prefer the driver to trust less in God and have better visibility thru undecorated glass.


Workmen have closed 5th Street midway between Central Avenue and the wharf. I backtrack down Central Avenue. How can I tell which street is safe? I take a right, ride to the end, take a second right and am at the gates to the wharf. The boat for Cartagena has not arrived. It should be in tomorrow. My informant is the skipper of a boat heading thru the San Blas Islands to Cartagena. I am tempted. However the voyage will take three weeks. Waiting in Panama has already put me behind schedule. I don't have three weeks. The guard at the gate warns me to take a left outside the gates and a second left to return to Central Avenue. Turning right would take me into dangerous territory. Right is the way I came. Ouch...


Portobelo awakes to a second day of incessant rain. The Spanish treasure fleet gathered anually in Portobelo Bay. Now the few yachts anchored off shore look misreable and unromantic. I sprint across the road to breakfast. The Spanish bridge is diagonally across the street. The bridge once carried the treasure of the Americas to the Customs house in Potobelo - the town was sacked repeatedly by the Brits. Drake was first - he died here and is buried offshore. The list contains all the great names of pillage: Parker, Morgan, Vernon, Kinghills - all put Potobelo to the torch. Presumably they attacked in the dry season. Today you would require a ton of gas.
Portobelo has been declared a World Heritage Site. The Spanish bridge is being recobbled. This cobbling is the only work in town. Six men are unoccupied with the cobbling. They have rigged awnings against sun and rain and sit on the balustrade and chat amongst themselves.
A black woman wearing a pinstripe business suit sips black coffee at the next table. I watch her watching a couple of black men the far end. The men's speech is loud and comes in brief rapid bursts. They are wired. The one man is unable to keep still. His movements are as jerky as his speech. The cook has brought his breakfast. He forks a mouthful of sausage, only to be distracted. Up he jumps and crosses the street to the Chinese supermarket for a quick talk with a man in a pale grey hoody. He returns and actually eats the first forkful of sausage. Then he is back to the Chinese, then down the street. He returns with a carboard container of orange juice. He picks at his food a moment then is off to speak with the six men sitting under awnings at the Spanish bridge. I continue watching the pinstripe woman. Read her face, and you know that she is thinking: "Lord, am I really part of this?"
She finishes her coffee, checks that all four door of her dark grey Nissan car are securely locked and boards a white Health Department 4X4. Four vultures sit on the roof of the Chinese supermarket. I eat my eggs.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I am stuck in Portobelo. I have a room with a bathroom ($10). The bed has two foam mattresses and tissue-thin nylon fitted sheets that slip off the mattress corners if I sneeze. The bathroom is cold water which is fine after the first strike. I could do with a shelf above the sink. Instead, I balance the tubes and cups and soaps of old age along the back of the sink from where they fall whenever I move. I breakfast on scrambled eggs and great coffee at a thatch-roof restaurant across the road ($2.50). A bright, pretty girl of, I would guess, seven, has adopted me as an auxiliary grandfather. She is very dark with naturally straight hair and an unnaturally wicked smile. I believe that she is the cook's daughter. I could be wrong - Caribbean relationships are complicated. She has shown me how to use the washing machines at the launderette and walked me to the health clinic to have a stitch removed from my finger - a stitch the nurse in Boca had overlooked. A black man I believe to be her true grandfather has a habit of talking politics and social issues with me while I drink my second cup of coffee of a morning. He tells me there is no work to be had in Portobelo. He tells me that none of the black people own farms. The Latinos own all the land. They bought the land from the black people for next to nothing. He tells me that modern youth is utterly corrupted. Thirty years ago you could walk thru Colon counting hundred dollar bills and be as safe as in a bank safe. Now kids kill you for a five dollar watch.


A dual carriage avenue divides Colon. Trees shade the avenue. If it were safe, it would be a pleasant place for a stroll and a little window shopping. I stop on the avenue to ask a woman directing traffic for directions to 5th Street. She advises me to enquire of a proper cop. I follow her directions to a cop shop and find myself at the entrance to a slum street of crumbling tenements. This is a street that I wouldn't enter in an army tank. I do a quick U back to the avenue. A fellow biker, a clerk type with a briefcase, pulls alongside. I ask for directions. He tells me to follow. We cross the avenue and he halts at a couple of cops (checking out the war zone?). The cops signal us on and we make it to the 5th Street dock. Guards direct me to the captain of a small trading vessel. The captain tells me of a vessel due on Thursday and expected to sail Saturday for Cartagena. Enough for one day. I need out of Colon and I need a cold beer...


The cops tell me to check out the Coco Solo wharf in Colon for a trading vessel sailing for Cartagena. Coco Solo lies to the east of the highway. I don't have to ride into the city. A Latino meztizo at a bus stop gives me directions. I ask if it is safe.
"Be careful," is his answer.
I ride a K and enquire again of a guard at the entrance to the container wharf.
"Keep going," he tells me, "And be careful."
I pass the flooded entrance to a row of tenements ready to be cast in a horror movie. Beyond the tenements lies an opencast litter mine. Rain falls. The road narrows between walls of cane invading the verge. I ask directions of a black woman walking with a cute daughter beneath a pink umbrella. The woman tells me I should have taken the flooded entrance. I turn back. I want to keep going right on back to the highway.
I have already chickened out of sailing to Jaque.
I take the turn at the tenement buildings and ride gingerly thru the flood. The docks and ships lie ahead behind a twelve foot security fence. The road is flooded to the fence. Half a dozen men in semi-rags are picking thru the litter dumped to the right of the flooded road. I imagine myself thru their eyes: a fat juicy pigeon. Hitting a pothole hidden beneath the flood water will put me in serious trouble. A medium dark middle-aged man in cap and dungarees picks his way along the edge of the road from the dock. He tells me that there are no boats in for Cartagena. I should try the wharf on 5th Street, Colon.
I ask whether 5th Street is dangerous.
"Dangerous, Yes. But not as dangerous as where you are now..."
I turn the bike very very ccarefully and ride back thru the flood and out of Coco Solo. I have no deep desire to return. Odd...


Dawn and Portobelo lies under a tablecloth of charcoal cloud. The cloth has a paler fringe at the horizon. The one window in my room at the Hospedaje d'Aduana overlooks the bay. The rain falls steadily. The yachts lying to anchor are almost hidden. Closer to shore a line of pelicans rise to a barely noticeable swell.
This coast maybe a holiday paradise for the wealthy young of Panama City. Perhaps they don't notice the trash, the trash and the attitude. The attitude is unavoidable. This is the first area in 6500 Ks of journey in which people have tried to scare me as I ride by, shouting suddenly or pretending to throw a stone. Not often, but it happens. Kids, mostly, teenagers...


I ride 35 Ks from Portobelo to Sabanitas, junction of the coast road and Panama City-Colon highway. I work at an internet outlet for a couple of hours. Then, for the hell of it, cross the highway to the town's only bank. I stick the plastic in the slot, ask for $200. The ATM machine spits out the cash. Too late to catch the Germans headed for Cartagena...


I need a base. I have found a room in Portobelo, base for the anual Spanish treaure fleets for 150 years. In truth, the town is no more than a village. It guards a lovely bay. It has three small ruined Spanish forts, a Spanish customs house which now houses a museum, a small walled Spanish cemetery. Three churhes, one of which displays a famous statue of the Black Jesus. Columbus came in 1502. The road to the Pacific, the Camino Real, started here. What more could a tourist town desire?
Portobelo should be beautiful. It should have charm. It has litter. It is strewn with the detritus of the fast food era. It is a polystyrene Paradise, a visual symphony to cellophane, a sepulcher for discarded Styrofoam cups.
The restaurants serve genuine Caribbean food, fried, fried, fried...
Drakes is the gringo yachtie haven. The owners are a Canadian and his Fijian-born wife. I pray and check for yachts headed for Cartagena.


Honda introduces me to brothers and sisters at a Domino pizza parlor

No Germans are in Mirimar. How do I know? Mirimar is too small to hide a chicken. The dirt street is wet, the trees drip. Small thatched and tin-roof houses sit miserably amongst the puddles. A Yamaha low rider loaded with packs is parked outside a shack. The Japanese biker and his girlfriend are eating fried fish on the small terrace. He has hair down to his shoulders, string and leather bracelets, a few amulets round his neck. She has studs in her tongue. They both speak some English. She has been living in Mexico and speaks better Spanish. I relate my plastic jailer. We share biker experiences. They are impressed by my tales of 400 Ks. They find 300 Ks a full day's ride. Further and their hips hurt. I guess the pain is caused by the angle at which they sit on the low rider. It looks cooler than my Honda pizza-delivery bike. However I sit upright on the Honda. All I suffer is a numb butt.
We walk to the dock. A big dugout canoe lies alongside. I would guess it is thirty feet in length. It is narrow of beam and powered by an outboard. The bulwarks have been heightened with planks and it carries a cargo that is mostly Coca Cola. The captain, a Coona, has his crew shift the Coca Cola aft to make room for the Yamaha. The canoe is five feet below the dock. They tie a strip of canvas to the bike and lower away. I would be scared for the bike. So are the Japanese. Up there in the bows, the bike is going to get wet in anything other than a glass-flat sea. Islands of mangrove protect the shore and we can't see the height of the waves. We say our goodbyes and our good-lucks. I watch the canoe slide out from the dock and head out between the mangrove. Maybe the Plastic jailer did me a favor. I return to the terrace where we met and eat fried snapper.


We depend on plastic. Even more so, when traveling. I am stuck. I am in jail. Plastic is my jailer. Will plastic release me on Monday? Meanwhile what to do? Maybe the Germans from Stahlratte will be at Mirimar. I can explain my predicament.
Mirimar is 85 Ks east along the coast from the Panama-Colon highway. A weekend and this a weekender coast. Schools are out on summer vacation and the wealthy are down from Panama City. Flash family 4X4s come loaded with surfboards and ice chests.
The road is good for the first 35 Ks to Portobelo. Beyond Portobelo I weave between potholes. The road is hard dirt for the final stretch. I walk the bike across one of those plank on plank bridges. To me this is a different country. It is not Latin America. It is Caribbean. The sea is ever present, palm trees, almonds, sea grape trees. Most faces are black. Men favor sleaveless undershirts. Small girls wear their hair braided. Big girls and women have the curls ironed out. Each village carries the scent of fried fish and the music volume is on high.


Guide books claim that Panama City is dangerous. I have ridden thru the city over the past week. A barrio has a look of danger, I find a different route. I have been careful and have never felt threatened and have been assisted with courtesy asking for directions. I have had a great time.
Colon is different.
Colon is dangerous.
Development has passed it by.
No skyscrapers, no flash banks.
Not even a decent downtown hotel. No sensible visitor would want to stay downtown.
I stop by a couple of cops patrolling the sidewalk on the central avenue. They direct me to a bank and call a motorbike team to escort me. The two cops on the trail bike wear dark-glass space helmets and flak jackets over combat camouflage. They are armed with machine pistols and automatics and clubs. I follow them to the bank. The bank has three guards. It is a small bank by Panama standards.
I carry a Debit card in preference to a Credit card. Debit cards are of little use to a thief. Debit cards are of little use to the Colon bank. A kind teller presumes I have misused the ATM machine. She tries the card and gets the same message: call my bank. Saturday afternoon in England and my bank is closed for the weekend.


Stick plastic in an ATM machine and you get money. Or you get a message. I get a message to call my bank. I try two more banks and the ATM in a casino before calling the UK. A woman, young judging by her voice, answers. I tell her my card is blocked.
She consults whatever requires consulting and says, "No, it isn't."
"It is," I say. "I've tried it on three machines in three separate banks and at a casino."
"Well, it's not blocked," she says.
"Why can't I get any money?" I ask.
"Possibly the system is being updated," she suggests.
I try to sound neither desperate nor infuriated. "How long does that take?"
"Not too long," she says. "You can try the ATM again in the morning."
"I have to pay for a boat ride in the morning," I say.
She says, "Well, that's all I can suggest." She is home in England. This is Saturday morning early. She will finish work and sit with a boyfriend in the sun outside a country pub.
I will worry all thru the night.
My best choice is to ride down to Colon early. I will be closer to Mirimar. If the ATM machione refuses my card, I can talk with the local bank.


Stahlratte is a German sailing assocciation. They own a 100 foot steel schooner and they do the run thru the San Bas islands to Cartagena and back.
Find them at or check their blog:
They are sailing for Cartagena on Monday, 24. Perfect. I call their mobile. Sure, they take bikes. They have a Japanese biker booked on this coming trip. $500 is the fare. The ship is at Porto Vinir in the San Bas islands. A Coona launch leaves Mirimar at midday, Saturday, for Porto Vinir, $50 for a bike and rider. Mirimar is 85 Ks east of the Colon highway. No problem. I head to the nearest bank and stick my plastic in the ATM machine.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Waiting for a boat, I have been drifting. I need to take control. First I must find an orthodontist. I am up at 7 a.m. and consult the receptionist. The receptionist gets the giggles over my teeth. She consults the hotel owner while I gum a plate of scrambled eggs. 8.30 a.m. and I sprawl in a luxurious dental chair. I am at the Clinica Rojas Pardini. My mouth is full of gel.
The heart specialist I consulted in Guatemala was Johns Hopkins plus the standard extras.
The orthodontist overseeing the mechanic taking an impression of my mouth is Boston plus the standard extras.
9.30 and I am equipped with a fully reseated set of top teeth. Maybe the dentist is kind to pensioners - or enjoys the idea of my trip. What ever, he charges me $50.
I feel back in control.
I leave the bike for a total overhaul at the Honda agents, Promotos.
I cab across town to Electronico Chino where a genius repairs the charger for my lap top.
I hit the internet and discover a yacht leaving Monday for Cartagena.


Late evening and I sit outdoors at a cafe in the company of a young American botanist who works out of Jaque. He says that Jaque is safe but not that safe. He keeps a low profile and keeps each visit down to a max of a couple of months. Longer and he could become too tempting a target for kidnappers. Only a lunatic would attempt traveling in Colombia's Choco Province of which only Bahia Solano and Buenaventura are safe for a short visit. Bahia Solano is OK, Buenaventura is a dump.
I feel good at having made a sensible decision. I head back to the hotel. While preparing for bed, I drop my top plate in the sink. The plate had been repaired in Mexico. It snaps in three pieces. One piece disappears down the drain. I sit on the bed with the two remaining pieces cupped in my hands. I am a writer and I turn for consolation to my laptop. The battery is flat. I plug in the charger. Nothing happens. I feel old and stupid and very alone. I want to go home. Help...


I need to think. I write a letter to my grandson, Charlie B. Charlie B is four- months-old, a good age for a sage. I explain that the trip is in three stages and that the first two destinations have no road communication with the outside world. I describe the disaster of a boat and the unfriendly captain charged with my wellbeing on the initial stage to Jaque. Then I search for a rationalle understandable to a four-month-old sage.
What is my aim?
To travel thru Colombia.
Buenaventura is way to the south. I will have to ride all the way back north to see anything of the country.
I enjoy sailing.
I want to sail, why did I buy a bike?
And the cost...
And the worry as to what the cost will be.
So why?
Because I am afraid of seeming afraid if I chicken out.
Hardly a rationalle.
Nor am I a competive traveler. I don't give a damn whether I am the first outsider to visit a place or the five-billionth. I travel because I enjoy traveling. I visit places which I expect to enjoy. I make the getting there enjoyable. This trip down the Pacific coast fits none of these parameters. Call it off. Switch to the Atlantic coast. Ship self and the bike to Cartagena.


I park in Plaza Herera. The pear lady has fresh pear juice in the ice box. I sit at a computer and email a query to Kelvin at the Blacksheep hostel in Medellin ( can I fly the Honda up from Bahia Solano?
I pour myself a second glass of pear juice. The pear juice woman reminds me of a Cuban, the owner of the longest surviving private restaurant in Santa Fe. Both women are short and square; they dress identically: baggy grey T-shirts, baggy jeans cut off at mid-knee; they wear their hair short-short and they walk with their elbows out (not, as with Blair and Bush, to appear manly - but to bypass ample bosoms and ample hips). I tell her the problems of Bahia Solano.
She warns me that Colombia is dangerous.
Not Bahia Solano, I reply.
All Colombia, she insists.
I drink my pear juice and check the BBC website for new destruction meted to the Lebanese by Israel. I recall Lebanon as a more beautiful and less crowded South of France. I recall warm company of kids my own age, of laughter and great food and dancing thru the night at cafes up in the cool mountain air, the lights of Beirut spread below and the arc of the sea front. My recollections of the Lebanon are ancient, almost half a century.
Kelvin brings my knowledge of Colombia up to date. I can not fly the bike from Bahia Solano to Medellin.


I visit the boat and Captain at the Fiscal wharf. The Captain has the charm of a tent-peg mallet. I wait ten minutes before he acknowledges my existence. Meanwhile I talk with a Coona woman shipping yams. Coona are the indigenous people of the Darien. She has returned recently from both Jaque and Bahia Solano. She assures me that both places are pleasant and safe (most places I visit, safety is a given). She provides the name of a boatman for the trip to Bahia Solano. He sails on Tuesdays or Wednesdays so I will be stuck in Jaque 5 days. The Coona woman paid $70 from Jaque to Bahia Solano. I suspect she is a tough negotiator while I have proved a walk-over and I own a bike. Bike fare always exceeds people fare. She tells me that there is no road out of Bahia Solano: if there was a road, only a suicide would travel it.
I said, "You said Bahia Solano is safe."
"The town is," she said.
So I require a boat south from Bahia Solano to Buenaventura, three days, if and when there is a boat. I do some basic math and dislike the result. I also dislike placing myself and my negotiating ability at the mercy of boatmen in Jaque or Bahia Solano.