Panama City to the San Blas Islands

The boat I am no longer on is slowing its pitch and roll in my head, so I guess I can try this typing thing now…but I may need to take a break if I get landsick, okay?

This guy apparently really likes his lawn mower.

We rode to the coastal town of Carti (small enough to not show up on Google Maps) in a well-worn land rover, air conditioner blasting before sunrise, and a mildewy smell to attest to the habit. Already seated in the middle row were two young girls who apparently did not feel like talking to anyone, answering questions in curt, single-word answers and generally pretending they were alone in the car. Turns out they’re just Israeli.

Remember Jessica, the 40-something year old in Bocas del Toro who had just submitted the last part of her thesis? She was on the boat too, and turns out her thesis was on the role of Israeli defense forces in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She sat in the front.

We picked up an Argentinean couple whose freshfaced glow immediately shouted honeymoon! to me, then a Venezuelan, so we were 8 in the car, the middle bench comfy with me and the Israelis, the back nook crammed with Argentineans and a Venezuelan.

The road to the coast is an intensely winding string of cracked pavement, one side is Panama, the other is Kuna Yala, a semi-autonomous indigenous region. The Panamanian side is a freshly clearcut horror already eroding away under the road while the Kuna side is healthy untouched jungle where I spotted at least one bird that looked an awful lot like a toucan as we went by.

I felt a tap on my knee and looked up to see a pale and sweating Israeli girl asking me in a breathless voice to get the driver to stop. We pulled over and she took a breather in the bushes. The driver said my seat was better for carsickness than hers, so we switched and set off again. I gave her one of the ginger candies they gave us on the Clipper, neglecting to tell her it had been riding around in my bag for the past two months. It wasn’t enough as a minute later she needed a second stop, then a minute after that the Venezuelan in the back needed one too. He barely made it out of the car before blasting.

Fernando and Mariana, my favorite
eternal Argentinean honeymooners

I switched with him, and found myself squished in back with the Argentineans, whose happy glow protected me from motion sickness as we descended to the coast. The Israeli girls were not coming on the boat with us, and as they pulled away in the car the Argentineans confessed that they had thought Jessica and I were a married couple and the Israeli girls were our kids! They added “I thought they were very mad at you, and that is why they would not talk.”

Most of the Israeli’s I’ve met traveling, these ones included, are about 20 years old, and have just finished their two year service in the army. I found myself wondering, do I look like I could have 20 year old children?

I in turn voiced my guess that they were on their honeymoon, to find that nope, they’ve been married three years, have a little boy, and are on a couple day excursion after the husband, Fernando, finished some work in Panama City. I wonder if my people-watching guesses are ever correct?

We passed the sleepy guard with a battered rifle at the Kuna border, paid the $2 Kuna territory entry fee, then the $10 Kuna port fee, then the $30 driver fee, and staggered, stunned and with lightweight wallets, to the dock for our lancha boat to our sailboat. Along the way we examined the Kuna flag, which looks like the Spanish one, only instead of an archaic coat-of-arms, the Kuna have basically a swastika (totally unrelated to Nazism of course). Maybe a good thing the Israeli girls didn’t come with us.

They took us out to where to boat was waiting for us… Or rather, where the boat was supposed to be waiting for us. Luckily the Venezuelan, Fermin, had reception on his cell, so we called and discovered that the boat was stuck in customs, and would be a little late. So we swam ashore on one of the Kuna islands, walked around the white sand and palm tree paradise, swam over the rusting wreck offshore, got to know each other better, and had a lunch prepared by the Kuna guy in his palm frond hut.

Turns out the Kuna are like everyone else, and like to make a buck off the tourists. Entry onto the island: $2. Can of soda: $2. Lunch of rice and smoked fish: $10. Being there, and with those people: priceless.

We looked up to find a new sailboat rocking just offshore, and were soon ferried out to climb onboard the Andiamo, which we did with an ocean of excitement tempered with a spoonful of trepidation.

Welcome to the San Blas Islands