So, I have a passport therefore I can travel internationally, right? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had the freedom to pretty much travel wherever and whenever I’ve wanted to, depending upon what time and budget allowed. We recently came face to face with a very different reality for so many people around the world. We arrived with our yacht at Obaldia, Panama, which is very close to the border with Colombia. It was here we planned to clear into the country and cruise nor’ west along the coast. Outside the Immigration office there were about thirty or so people making quite a ruckous, many speaking loudly in Spanish. After we’d completed our formalities I spoke with a couple of the girls who told me they had come from Cuba and that the intention of their group was to join “the caravan” going to the USA. If I understood them correctly, they said they had flown to Venezuela, crossed overland into Colombia, then taken a boat around to Panama. Their group included Haitians, Venuzuelans, Africans, Surinamians, etc. The poor young guy at Immigration, who spoke quite good English, explained that he was not authorised to admit them into Panama. So these people were in immigration limbo. We then understood why there was such a visible military presence, with clusters of army guys about the place and in the Immigration office. Then we noticed the tents dotted along the shore, which suggested these people were planning to settle in for the long haul. How bad must it be in the place where you live, that you think it’s better to try and travel through umpteen different countries (often walking vast distances), to get to another country that has already said they won’t accept you? They looked like normal, rational people, and not just a pack of ratbags. I would have loved to have been able to spend some more time with them, to gain an understanding of their situation, but that didn’t seem appropriate under the gaze of the gun-toting army guys. We wished them good luck as we parted, but the utter futility of their predicament was not lost on us. It was a timely reminder for us that we are indeed very privileged to be doing what we are doing.
Having completed Panamanian Customs, Immigration, Port Police, National Police and obtaining a Cruising Permit, we were now free to travel along the coastal area known locally as the Guna Yala, or San Blas islands. There are 365 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited. The local indigenous people still lead a fairly traditional life, tending their vegetable gardens and doing a bit of fishing. The kids need to leave the islands to go to secondary school, but we did see older kids playing soccer and volleyball, so evidently some do return. Coconuts are an important part of their economy and are exported to Colombia for use in gelatin, biscuits, sweets and shampoo, amongst other things. But the area is most famous for the “molas” produced by the women. These cloths are made from layers of coloured fabric from which patterns are cut out then the remaining areas are stitched together onto the base layer. Whilst the men have adopted the western form of dress, molas are incorporated into the colourful traditional clothing which is very proudly worn by the local women. Kath and I couldn’t resist the temptation to purchase some small momentos of our visit to the area. Meanwhile, Ben amused himself admiring the local wooden boats.
The villages we visited were, for the most part, very neat and orderly. However it saddened us greatly to see the scourge of plastic waste in some coastal areas. This is not waste generated by the village, but has probably travelled many miles at sea before being washed up on their shoreline. When are humans ever going to wake up to the massive global problem that is plastic? But I have to say, the biggest bit of junk we saw was a sorry and salient reminder of the boat-munching reefs that abound in this part of the world, a yacht skeleton washed up on the shore, the result of someone’s unfortunate misadventure about three years ago. We felt really bad for the couple that we spoke to who now have to put up with this wreck sitting in their backyard. Aren’t insurance companies meant to clean up mess like this?
After visiting some of the villages we enjoyed some chillaxing time in the outer uninhabited cays. The locals have got it sussed. Realising that yachties like a good feed they zoom about in their wooden canoes amongst the various anchorages. I kid you not, the first lobsters were on board before we’d even finished anchoring. They were still kicking and at US$4 a kilo an absolute bargain! The fresh fish the next day were very nice too.
It was then time to make our way towards the Panama Canal. This is one very busy waterway, with shipping going in all directions. We’ve spent the last week and a half at Shelter Bay Marina getting ready to transit the Canal. We’re about an hour from Colon, stuck out on the edge of the jungle, but the marina puts on daily buses to a shopping centre so it’s relatively convenient. As I sit here writing this I can hear the howler monkeys howling nearby. We’ve undertaken various maintenance tasks, along with some more provisioning. The new mainsail has been hoisted and happily fits well. Upon our arrival in Curacao we discovered our wind instruments and bow thruster (both fairly essential items) had decided to stop working properly. Bummer! Much to our relief, the parts we ordered have finally arrived here at Shelter Bay, because once we’re through the canal we really will be of “no fixed address” for some months. We’ve rented the requisite large fenders & extra long lines, as well as an additional line handler for the transit (every vessel must have four). Loki has now been measured and we have our official Panama Canal Ship ID number. We are now ready for the Pacific! Amongst all this we also made sure we had some time out to celebrate Kath’s birthday last Tuesday and took a nice walk to an old Spanish fort nearby. Happy birthday Kath!
A few days ago Fitzy and I had a sneak canal transit preview, joining our Danish friends on “North Star” for their transit. Thanks for the opportunity Marie & Kim! We’ve heard a few stories about the odd yacht losing control in the locks. With a fill rate of a million gallons a minute there’s a shipload of water moving about, so it’s essential to be on your toes. It was good to have first-hand experience of how it all works and what to expect when we take Loki through.
So tomorrow the adventure continues. It will be “hasta luego Atlantic Ocean, hello Pacific”. All very exciting really! We should be at the Gatun locks around 3pm Sunday our time (7am Monday morning in Australia), so if you check out the web cams at https://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html you might even see us going through. We then anchor overnight in the Gatun Lakes before continuing the canal transit the next day. I’m not sure what time we’ll get to Miraflores locks on Monday, as there are many variables, but we could be there at a similar time, or a bit later. In the first set of locks we’ll probably have a big ship in front of us, but at Miraflores the yachts go first.
We’ll be in Panama City for a few days before heading off to the Galapagos, so don’t forget to drop us an email and tell us what’s happening in your world. It may be the last time we’ll have internet for a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to post about our Canal transit. See you next on the other side!