Saturday, August 12, 2006



Yesterday was work. I walked and walked: first to the marina to thank those who helped Ming and I with advice when we first arrived. My Mexican bags had holes. I bought new and watched a cobbler for a couple of hours while he added reinforcing. I found a good map and a book of Spanish verbs at a bookstore in the Historic quarter. I brought the blog up to date. The supermarkets sell fat-free yoghurt. I buy two, take them to a juice stall and have the lady spin me a smoothy. In the evening I walk past the secondhand bookstores on the square to the prawn and oyster stalls and dine on a huge prawn cocktail at $2. Each stall has a few plastic chairs, good for people watching. For cabaret I watch teams of speed bladers circle a banked concrete hippodrome. Finally I head back into the Historic quarter for a beer. A genius did the lighting of the cathedral. The three domes for the Trinity and the clock above the main entrance glow a pale soft gold against the midnight blue of the sky. Ming has gone but Ming is here. The calm with which he ponders leaves a comfortable aftertaste.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Monk with Toad

We have rooms at the Hotel San Philipe for $14. The hotel faces across Centenary Square to the Old City. The elevator works. The rooms are large and air conditioned and have good bathrooms with warm water showers. We have three beds each - all airconditioned rooms have three beds. I wish to know what particular Colombian custom this satifies. The receptionist giggles.
I, who wake for a pee three or four times a night, sleep the sleep of the just, eight hours straight. Ming does likewise. We breakfast at the hotel (ham and eggs, juice, coffee: $2.20). We walk the old city. We stroll unafraid for five hours in the morning and a further three hours in the afternoon. We visit museums and churches and peep into private houses and ask permission to visit the shaded patios of official and unofficial buildings. Cartagena is Spanish Colonial at its best, painted in soft pastels of blue, white, red and ochre. The buildings are cared for. There is little litter. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful...And the people.
The people of Cartagena are light and laughter and sensuos movement.
In the evening we drink cold local beer in a square beneath the city walls before progressing to an open-air restaurant where we order the dish for which Cartagena cuisine is famous: a fish and shellfish stew. The stew is rich with prawns and pulpo and clams. We are surrounded by the perfect architecture of the 16th century. We have escaped from the Hell of the ship and of Colon and find ourselves in heaven. We have shared an adventure that was often stressful, mostly uncomfortale and sometimes dangerous. We have become friends - not in a casualHey, do you know my friend, Ming sort of friendship but a friendship of true affection and of shared thoughts. Tomorrow we will part. Ming has a friend to meet and I have my work. We plan to meet in Bolivia.


We have enjoyed little sleep over the past three days. We have waded ashore. We have ridden for eight hours. Ming is in shorts and a T-shirt. I wear a long-sleeve red cotton shirt and Chinos that had seen better days when they were new. We are unwashed. We stink. And we are illegals.
We follow the sighns to the Historic center of Cartagena. The road swings round the bay and we spot a yacht marina. We need advice and Colombians who deal with yachts deal with customs and immigration. Alirio de Avila Lora is boss of wharehouseing and imports at TODOMAR MARINA S.A. He listens to our story and despatches us behind a guide on a small Suzuki to the Office of Immigration. We explain our case to an official. His boss must decide our fate. We wait nervously on an old sofa in an outer office. Four female officials occupy the office. One is dealing with two young foreign women one of whom is bored and reads a book while her friend has her fingerprints entered. Reading strikes me as neither politic nor polite. A middle-aged Itallian is complaining loudly at another desk. His voice is brutal and he jabs fingers at documents he presents and at papers the woman official peruses. The woman catches my eye and raises her eyebrows in exasperatioon. I reply with a grin of sympathy. The exhausted Ming has dozed off and is tilting sideways. I dig him in the ribs. The boss returns. Once more we recount our story., apologise for our appearance, explain that we came directly from the road. He asks how long we intend staying in Colombia.
We say, Ten days, possibly two weeks.
We return to the outer office. I ask one of the women what nationalities she finds most courteous and which are the most asrrogant. She sanswers without need for thought: all Ecuadorians are courtous. Italians are invatriably rude and arogant.
The boss returns our passports. He has written 60 days on a Cartagena entry stamp. "Hurry," he tells us, "and you will reach the Customs offices before they close."
Our guide on the Suzuki has been guarding the bikes. He leads us to the Customs. We are directed to a large open-plan office. We relate our adventure to an official who finds us hilarious. He gathers his fellow officials. They find us hilarious. Ming is the center of atraction. Ming is a make of celluar tellephone imported from China. What does Ming mean?
"It is my name," Ming says.
"But it has a meaning?"
"People," Ming says. "Ming is people."
We are part of an ongoing joke beween our official and the boss. The boss is a dark tall elegant man. He speaks with Ming in English - not about our bikes or illegal arrival in Colombia - about matters of language and Ming's past. Meanwhile import papers for our bikes acrue signatures as they circle from desk to desk. A beautiful young woman enters their numbers in a ledger. The boss adds a final signature and we can leave. I say to the boss that I am reluctasnt to leave when faced by such beauty. The boss laughs. The woman asks for a translation.
"Be satisfied," her boss sys, "satisfied that it was extreemly complimentary."
I kiss her hand and we leave. We are legal.
I remark to Ming that, were this England, we would have been filling forms for a month.
Ming says, "In the States some would have shot us."


We ride thru ranch lands towards Tolu. The ranch houses are of a richer class than those I have seen on this journey. There is greater taste in the use of the land - Countryside as art as in much of the United Kingdom. There is less litter.
The Bank of Colombia is in the plaza central in Tolu. A kind ATM machine spits Pesos at us. We head on to Cartagena. We are illegals. We hit a road block every twenty or so kilometres. Most times the cops wave and wave us through. Those that do stop us do so because they want to admire Ming's Suzuki. They find us an odd couple and they laugh easily. Perhaps we are odd. Slender Chinese Ming, the putative Zen Bhudist monk, is ageless and rides a vast bike. Fat Toad on his Pizza delivery Honda is Caucasian and clearly well past his prime. As travelling companions go, definitely odd...


Ming and I and the bikes are loaded off the hell ship into an outboard-powered launch at 4.30 of a pitch-black morning. The boatman is an onlooker while three black men do the work. The outboard won’t start. The boatman curses and yanks the starter cord a dozen times. The motor fires. The boatman engages forward gear. The motor stalls. The boatman curses and yanks the cord again while the crew of the hell ship watch and bawl advice. Neither Ming nor I are confident. Finally we splutter away from the ship. We run at most a quarter mile to a beach below rocks and a ruined stone wall. Two of the black men leap into the water and hold the launch steady against the surge. Ming and I presume we have arrived and prepare to disembark. The boatman disabuses us. The black men want twenty dollars. We have negotiated the price to be paid on arrival. Apparently this isn’t arrival. Rather than argue in the dark, I pay ten and we head back out to sea. We run parallel to a heavy swell. Cloud covers the moon. The launch rolls, the launch pitches, the motor stutters. This is not good. It is an adventure. Not all adventures are good.
Twenty anxious minutes pass before a thin scattering of lights in the distance indicate a coast. Clouds clear. The moon is almost full. We discern low buildings, a ramp, a dozen men waiting. The crossing, if it was a crossing, has taken forty-five minutes. The outboard stalls. There are no oars. Waves threaten to fling the launch on the rocks. The launch skipper yells at his assistant who fights the bows straight with a long punt pole. The shore men are all black. They are shirtless and wear shorts or pants rolled above the knee. They wade out, grab the launch by the stern and run it up the sand. They lift the Honda first, carrying it clear of the water and up the stone ramp. The Suzuki weighs a ton. The men gasp and complain, yet keep the bike dry.
The ramp serves a village of low mud shacks. One of the men fetches fresh water and rinses salt from the bikes while we explain the mathematics of the price agreed on the Hell ship minus the ten paid the two men already disembarked. The men are wonderfully good natured, friendly, curious. They laugh amongst themselves and laugh at the weak jokes I attempt and they accept the math. I long to ask how come black people do all the heavy work. Is this an all black village? Or is Colombia similar in to the rest of the world?
The Honda fires first kick. The Suzuki is electric start. We ride down a deserted street of dry rutted mud with first light paling the horizon. An hour later we are in a small town, San Bernando. We find a police station. A disinterested cop listens to our story and studies our passports in that way officials have when they would rather be doing something else. He finds Ming's 650 Suzuki Endurance with its nine-gallon gas tank more interesting.
Where do we intend going?
Then go to Cartagena.
We need food and drink. Our dollars are useless. The bank won’t open for another ninety minutes. We ride to the next and larger town. We eat fresh-baked sweet rolls and drink great coffee on a small square across from a bank. Colombians surround us. They, too, are friendly and curious. After Colon, this is heaven.
The bank opens. They don’t change dollars. The four ATM machines in town are down.
Our predicament is discussed on the cafe terrace. A small boy leads me through the market to a hardware store. The elderly owner has a Jewish name and wears a gold crucifix on a gold neck chain. He changes twenty dollars at a punitive rate of exchange. We pay for breakfast and ride towards the coastal resort town, Tolu, midway to Cartagena.
I lead. Ming follows. Cops stop us at a road-block. They ignore the Honda. They ignore our passports. The Suzuki has their total attention and their total admiration. Are they bikeists or biggists? Your call…

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Ming and I tried for sleep up on the canopy. Rain drove us in. The revolting deckhand had occupied my nook. I slept in fits in one of the loose car seats. The ex-military man swung in a hammock nearby. His farts would have startled a deaf horse. Ming feared little better. We rise with dawn to see a canoe speed thru the reefs. Our canoe...
We rush to English-speaking David's house. It is not his house. Coona houses belong to women. The man moves in to his wife´s house - or, in David´s case, his mother-in-law´s house. The mother-in-law is baking bread. High-school David´s wife sits in a hammock. She and David have one small toddler. A second is on its way. David is picking coconuts on the mountain with his father-in-law and his wife´s younger brother.
Mother-in-law is deeply serious, a thinker, and commited to the community.
She had wanted an education for her daughter. Education is important. Throughout the world, women are considered only as part human and part beast of burden. Only education will free them. She is less wonderous than Coona men, more practical. She talks of another daughter in Panama city who has a mestizo child and has taken on Latino ways. It happens, she says, though mostly it is the men who leave. The community demands responsibility from each member. Few men are responsible. While she talks, she feeds us delicious bread and fish smoked in a rolled leaf.
We leave to speak with MM. MM is on the telephone.
David arrives from the mountain with a sack of coconuts. The owner of our canoe has crossed to another island to meet the flight from Panama City. He will return in the early afternoon - if the plane is on time.
The crew hustle us to board. MM has the all clear. The Hell ship is sailing. Our options have run out.


Ming and I ask the two women on duty at the community store whether prawns are available.
Certainly - and lobster and fresh fish.
Our juices bubble in anticipation
But not tonight, say the women. A girl child has been born in the village. Girls are the core of the Coona community. The birth of a girl demands much ceremony. Everyone is tired. Tomorrow we can eat prawns.
With chili?
Certainly with chili.
Ming and I love this island. We love the people. We love their good manners and their quietness and their consideration - and we love the thought of escape from the Don Sebas. We will spend two days here before shipping the bikes by canoe to Turbo. We will swim from a clean beach. We will eat camarones a el diablo. The crew summon us to eat on board. Ming and I would rather starve. Tomorrow morning we will talk with the owner of the canoe.


Evening on an island with a hill. The Cable & Wireless office is a thatched hut with stick walls. Connection may be slow and there are four plastic chairs. A stick screen divides the chairs from two cabins. MM is bellowing at the telephone. Will we sail tomorrow? MM doesn't know. Nor does he know our precise destination - or the destination is a secret. Of the two boats alongside the village wharf, one has made two approaches to the Colombian mainland only to be warned off. Ming and I imagine being arrested, the only legals.
A young Coona sits with us. He introduces himself as David. He speaks competent English. He is nineteeen-years-old and in his last year of high school in Panama City where his dad works as a carpenter. David has a web site and intends working in the islands as a tourist guide.
Behind us, the village kids are at the movies (watching a cd in a community hut - for the Coona everything has its place). The kids are very quiet. Ming peeks in. The movie is a Hong Kong Kung Fu.


Ming and I are ashore on an island with a hill. We have eaten next to nothing since boarding in Colon. We have slept briefly. We haven´t bathed and we haven´t defecated - the lavatory is as vile as the crew's humor. A Coona man asks where we come from and where we intend travelling. He is polite, cultured. He owns a thirty-foot dugout canoe and two outboard motors. Women buy in Colon's Free Zone. The Coona runs them into Colombia. He has made two trips this week.
We are not smugglers. We are legal - a strange concept to this Coona.
We long to be put ashore at a regular port in Colombia, a port with immigration officers willing to stamp our passports and customs officers happy to document our bikes.
Very weird...
The Coona ponders: Well maybe, though it is unusual. Perhaps this once.
How much?
Again he ponders: Say one-hundred-fifty dollars for Ming, self, Suzuki and Honda.
How long?
Depending on the weather, five hours, possibly six.
Ming and I imagine the hellish alternative: darkness, rolling deck, blackmailed over unloading charges, a launch to an unknown beach. $150 is cheap.
Can we talk in the morning?
Certainly, says the Coona, Talk anytime.


Mid afternoon and the skipper creeps thru a narrow chanel between reefs to shelter in the lee of the only hill in the San Blas islands. Next comes much yelling as he runs the Don Sebas aground while approaching a concrete wharf where two ships already lie.
I wondered this afternoon whether dislike of sailing by night is a Coona thing? Or is the skipper doubtful of his ability to thread the reefs? I asked to see the chart. There is no chart. Ah! Nor are there any lifebelts. The dinghy is powered by a temperemental outboard and has no oars. I relate this information to Ming the Unpeturbed. Ming is unpeturbed. Logic protects him. We wanted an adventure. We are having an adventure.


Mid evening, a fullish moon, and Ming and I walk thru Tiger Island village. MM is shouting on the telephone at a cabin by the community meeting house. Cable & Wireless is the provider. The connection is by radio. I have twenty minutes left on my Cable & Wireless plastic and could call home. Bernadette has a rough day ahead and might consider being woken at 4 a.m. as more unfriendly than loving. Seats in a semicircle face across swept sand beyond the community house to a table on which stand a HiFi or LowFi system. A Coona man asks if we need bread. All Coona appear to speak quietly and I don´t at first understand that the bread is merely an excuse. His true wish is to show us a badge on the door of his hut. The badge was given him by a biker stuck on the island for a month waiting for a boat. It is the badge of the Latin American Biker´s Association, Montevideo, Uruguay. The Coona man recounts the occurence of the Latin American biker with an almost childike simplicity I recall present in the marina fisherman persecuted by the irritable mother-in-law. Childish? Simple? Or full of wonder at a world we take for granted and dispoil?


Ming and I are the foreigners on board the Hell ship and basically dumb. Next are two oldies, one of whom is marked by posture as ex-military. He is a tall man, mahognay-skinned, balding, clipped military moustache and a bush of white sprouting from his ears. Our conversation is limited to his barked greetings in English. These are his only English words. Speaking Spanish to me would show ignorance or weakness on his part so we have no conversation. His companion is a small black man, monosylibic.
The handsom young Latino and the skinny black man who threw up close by my shoes make a couple. Mostly they sleep. When awake, they clamber onto the canopy and return with glazed eyes.
A tattooed ex-prisoner in his late twenties joins them on occasion. He is heavily muscled and forever exercises his neck in the way boxers do in the movies. He has been out a while and his jail muscles have grown a layer of fat.
I suspected a small middle-aged Latino man with hooked nose and sunken mouth to have lost his teeth. Not so. He is the most companionable of those on board and sits with me in the bows. He has been working in Panama. He is returning home with a gift for his wife: the carefully wrapped sections of a wooden bed frame, a double bed.
Of the crew, the cook is fifties, balding and under-weight - not surprising given the food. He wears shorts and a safron shirt and squats on deck to scrub his pots at the tap, chop meat, fish, peel yucca, slice onions. MM shouts. The captain and the engineer are brothers. The captain speaks quietly and seldom. The engineer never speaks. The assistant engineer/deckhand is a musclebound dolt who considers himself a brilliant humourist. All his jokes are gross and illustrated with gross actions. Most involve effeminate males. His number-one friend is the companion of the young girl. The girl appears only when we dock. While at sea, she is postrate in a small dank airless six-bunk cabin aft of the wheelhouse and opening onto the galley area. Little wonder that she throws up. Her man is off-black, late twenties, with a good body and ready mouth. He also is an addict of jokes at the expense of the effeminate. He has a loud voice and acts his jokes. I find him vile from day one - a judgement supported when he boasts of his conquests and of putting the girl to work - a pimp.
Ming and I seek peace on the afterdeck canopy. The smokers visit briefly for refills. Midnight and rain forces us back onto the cargo. The discomfort is barely eased by brief interludes of sleep.


We approach Tigre Island the day of the Coona inter-community football torneo. The football field is the only open space on the island. Dusk and we watch the players pelt helterskelter in pursuit of, to us, an invisble ball. Our captain eases the Don Sebas to the crude wooden wharf. Three Coona men sit on the wharf. They ignore the Don Sebas. The ship nudges the wharf and a sailor hurls a line. The line falls in the water. Only then does a Coona rise and wait for the next throw. I sense no hostility. Lack of interest is nearer the mark. Ming and I stroll thru the village to the football field. The huts are thatch roof, stick walls, sand floors and no litter. We are greeted with quiet politeness by all those we pàss. They are small people, Tibetan in feature, though dark skinned. The women are noticeably square of shoulder and wear footless stockings of strung beads.
A fence protects the open area surounding the football field. A notice proclaims a tourist zone. A row of ten small huts is the community´s tourist accomadation. A small, simple, thatch restaurant faces the huts from across the field. The shaded terrace is in two sections, male and female. Two young blond German women eat dinner in the female zone. Two teenage Coona maidens sit at a second table with their backs to the football match. Fish, yucca, rice and fried bananas are on the menu. Ming and I order bottled water. The water comes chilled from an old kerosene icebox. The plastic seals on the bottles are torn. Presumably the bottles have been refilled from the village well. The two German women have their backs to us and intend keeping their backs to us. Travel is competitive amongst many backpackers. These young women were the sole foreigners on Tigre Island. This is their adventure. We are unwelcome. The crew from the San Bas arrive at the edge of the field. They are boisterous and out of place.


I consult Ming as to whether this vast circle of islands is an atol? Ming´s doctorate is in electronic engineering rather than geography. His intelectually honest is restful. When questioned on something of which he is ignorant, he says, "I don´t know." Then he considers the question for a while, turning it this way and that. We share a broad ignorance of the San Bas islands. We know that they are Coona territory. The outer islands are seldom more than a hundred yards in length, uninhabited and the most romantic. Low mounds of pale, freshly-washed sand, they sprout a single topknot of skinny coconut palms. Foam breaks over rock and coral between some islets. In the lee of the reef lie yachts at anchor in silken waters where the breeze keeps the mosquitos and sandflies at bay. The inner islands are larger, often fringed with mangrove, and harbour communities, thatch huts packed close.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


We sail from Colon at 4.30 a.m. My fellow male passengers sleep on top of the cargo. They resemble a line of sardines. I bought a foam exercise mat in Panama City. I find space on the edge of the cargo below a car seat and a fold-up bicicle. I have to get up in the night. I pee over the rail, then lie awake. Sailing is a relief. Deck cargo adds to the ship´s roll on heavy swells from the North. A pretty pale mulatta in her late teens is the only woman. She is first to throw up. So does a thin black man who smokes both dope and a white powder up on the steel canopy shading the after deck - he narrowly avoids my shoes. A young male Latino is a further casualty. Ming speaks of a headache. I sit forward of the wheelhouse on a steel hatch in the early afternoon and watch the coast. Curious as to our progress, I ask MM where we are. We have passed Portobelo. He points to Mirimar and tells me we will sleep the night at one of the San Blas islands. We round a point and see the first of the San Blas spread in a vast circle. The islands protect us from the swell. I consider alerting Ming. He lived his first nineteen years in Indonesia. He is familiar with small tropical islands, coconut palms, mosquitos, beaches infested with sandflies. I let him sleep.


A crescent of lamps and palm trees give Colon´s nightime waterfront a spurious normalicy. Latino dance music blares from the cafe at the end of the 5th Street wharf. A light breeze rises cool off the sea. I can count sixteen ships out in the roads and listen to the throb of a tug´s diesel engine. The Immigration officer has visited. Much shouting accompanied his discovery of two extra men and a young woman not entered on crew or passenger list. He has departed with the captain and our passports. We were dure to sail by midnight or 2 a.m. MM is yelling at his cell phone.


Ming and I and the bikes are on board. What a performance. First come the extras. Twenty dollars to load each bike. Ming is quiet and polite and speaks little Spanish. The boat crew mistake good manners for weakness. Mistake. Ming knows his mind and doesn´t shift without considerable thought. We argue twenty dollars each down to fiteen for both (I do the talking).
The big black woman in the big-belly wharf master´s office tries to hit for an extra ten dollars for customs clearance. I tell her to show me the regulation in the book. Finally she surrenders sulkily. Colon, Colon, why art thou Colon...And why do down-town Colonese behave so shittily? Not all. The gate guards are great, the extended family who run the bar/cafe at the gate are great.
As for the ship, we sail at midnight or 2 a.m. Meanwhile we sleep on cargo stacked on the after deck. I will refer in these Blogs to the money man as MM. He is medium brown, paunchy, clipped hair, wears spectacles and is for ever on a celular telephone. Electronics are a mystery to him (I presume)so he shouts at the telephone to make sure his message reaches whoever he is talkig with. Shouting has become habitual and he carries it over into general conversation. I fear an argument over payment for unloading the bikes. I attempt to clarify exactly where and when and how we disembark. MM decides that I am stupid. "Look," he says, "we are contrabandistas (smugglers). We come in to the coast and unload when we receive the all clear. Three days, five, twenty..."
"At a wharf."
"On the beach."
"Oh," I say.
I tell Ming.
Ming is a student of Zen Bhudism. He smiles and says, "We wanted an adventure."


My last day in Colon and Ernesto has been driving me round in his 4X4. I was over at his house yesterday evening. Back at the hotel the owner´s son, Javier, had waited up. Javier runs the restaurant and bar. He and I sat at the bar drinking beer and yackking untill 2 a.m. Untrue to write that I will miss Colon. No one could miss Colon. However I have made good friends, kind and generous, with whom it will be a priviledge to keep in touch.
Add to the above, the Polish software engineer with a yacht and his Giggly Brit. I say His, because she is his - not as a posession but as one says, My love. They are in love. I notice so many small signs, the touch of a finger, the way their eyes meet, the ease with which they laugh together. We met outside Rey´s supermarket today. They had read on the Blog of my boat delay and had been planning to run me down to Cartagena on the 28 foot sailboat. A Honda 125 would fit just.
Meanwhile they were searching for three dollar shirts for him and a skirt for her. For now he wore a T shirt that had lost its sleaves and gained a history of boat maintenance: varnish, red lead primer, teak stain. While the Brit wore what might once have been a see-thru nightdress cut off above the belly.
I learn from them that the unpleasant little American yachtman with attitude had been thrown out of every bar on the Rio Dulce, Guatemala. I try to imagine what would get a man thrown out of a bar on the Rio Dulce. Frontera is the AA capital of Guatemala. In their day, these AA members were serious drunks, men and women who could start a riot while bearly capable of crawling across the floor. They never got thrown out. So I guess he was thrown out for simply being who he is and booring his fellow drinkers half to death.


Ming the Merciless has a red line across his throat. Three kids jumped him. All three carried knives. One held a knife to Ming´s throat. The remaining two emptied Ming´s pockets: five dollars. Is Colon dangerous? Too damn right!
The harbour master on the 5th Street wharf shows me the .38 revolver in his desk drawer. Out of the office, he carries the revolver tucked in his belt. Today he is wearing black baggy shorts and a gold on black Ghana shirt that balloons over his belly. I don´t like to ask how he expects to make a quick draw from under his belly. Fact is he would be dead, buried and gone to wherever such men go before laying a finger on the revolver´s butt...


I have met the "Chino". His name is Ming. He is forty-years-old, of Chinese parents born in Indonesia and a US citizen. He is an electronic engineer with a doctorate and has been granted a year´s sabatical by Hewlett-Packard in the hope that he will free himself of the travel bug. He rides a 650 Suzuki Endurance with a nine gallon gas tank. He claims that the 650 is way too big and heavy for the trip.