'Well, at least it has a crane,' says Olivier, sighing a slight amount of relief as we get our first glimpse of 'La Victoria,' the boat of largely rotten planks painted green and white that will take us one step closer to Colombia, as far as the town of Jaque. Satt deep amidst the jungles of Darien, Jaque is still in Panama but close enough to smell the drug smuggling FARC of Colombia.
'I'll be happier when the bikes are on, we're on and we're on our way.' I reply, anxiously viewing the huge mound of cargo still sitting on the dock waiting to be loaded.
'They can't be putting all that on,' says Oli, ever the optimist, 'it must be for another boat.' Though I can sense even Olivier's doubt.
'Maybe,' I say, calculating space, as a man adds steel rods to the mound and to my equation of; bricks, cement, fridges, washing machines, wood, galvanise, rice, beer, fizzy drinks, steel girders and the ubiquitous can't-go-anywhere-without-one....chicken...alive.
And let's not forget the two motorbikes.
We sit there atop of pallets of cement, eating bananas as the 9pm departure time comes and goes, darkness falls, Panama City lights up, and on the dock the bikes, the fridges, the washing machines and the TVs stand still...waiting, waiting. But, feeling they have space to spare the men start bringing twenty 200litre drums of petrol to the edge of the dock, the loading of which allows us to see first-hand the man-powered winch/crane, that will load the bikes, in action.
'Action; exciting or notable activity.'
With the boat floating - surprisingly - several feet below the level of the dock, the crane isn't actually tall enough to lift the barrels from the ground to then lower them. Therefore the method of loading is somewhat unorthodox. First, each drum is strapped at its waist..... second, it is hooked to the winch a few feet lower and finally, each drum is given a firm shove off the dock. The forth step comes soon, and with violent intensity, as the slack is taken up by the winch, then the barrel swings abruptly around over the other side of the boat - the jib controlled only by a rope held by a inattentive worker - and finally lowered hastily before the barrel should pop from strangulation by the ever-tightening strap at its waist.
Silence seems to fall over Panama City as Oli and me simultaneously picture not a drum of petrol, but our beloved bikes being shoved off the dock in similar fashion. We look at each other in shocked disbelief, shaking our heads.
'Well, we've paid now,' says Oli with lightheartedness, 'so we're fucked.'
And we laugh........albeit weakly.
We'd looked at every option we could think of to get to Colombia; Pacific Ocean sailing yachts, other cargo boats, light aircraft and, as well, motorboats from another small port 300km south, La Palma; though we were turned back by police on our way there...leaving us only one option: La Victoria. We thought we struck a good price at $125 each...but I wonder now if that were so.
Back on the dock, bored, Oli's goes for a walk, passing men bringing crates of 'Pony Malt' drink and a bare-chested worker comes over to me, I'd noticed him earlier, he looked hard, trouble, and maybe drunk. He speaks to me in short grunts, like an ape, maybe assuming my Spanish nonexistent, 'Boat full. Grunt. Bike on. Grunt. You pay.' he says.
'Don't think so. I think it's okay. The bike's don't take much space, no problem. And, I've paid the boss already.'
'Plata!' he says slappping his upturned palm. I shake my head, shrug my shoulders and ignore him, he'll load them eventually, and so I return to my thoughts, worrying about the enxt stage in the journey from Jaque, when Oli returns with the boss and with his help, soon the bikes are lined up for loading.
'You gotta push 'em,' says the boss, 'this isn't America!'
But this turn of events riles the bare-chested barrel-bellied bully, undermined by the boss, he's not happy with him and looks to stamp his authority with an iron fist and foul mouth, shouting at the boss, and then the security guard, who's come to see what the commotion is, and a tennis match of abuse ensues, escalating all the while.
'You perro!' says the bully, (you dog!) the ultimate debasement it seems, and the security guards socks the bully on his chin, sending him stumbling backwards, on to MY panniers.
So I kicked him in the nuts.
The bully puts on his dirty shirt, that hangs over his pot-belly and leaves, shouting abuse all the while. And now, with the troublemaker gone, the bikes are tied to the winch hook and with it hang my hopes and dreams....and fears. I take photos - to preoccupy my mind perhaps - while Oli just stares, imaging the worst I feel, for his hefty BMW. Rodney (my bike) is tilted sideways horizontally in an effort to get the winch hook lower, and therefore closer to the end of the jib, and then, just like the petrol barrels, is shoved off the dock. I watch then, helpless, as the bike swings out over the swelling sea, wondering if the Guatemalan welder did a good job of the rack that is acting as hook point, then the bike is lowered down on to the deck amongst the bedlam of boxes and bags, placed at forty-five degrees, where it shall remain for the entire journey, leaking fuel, to be used as a bed, a seat and a walkway by the various other passengers.
Oli is told to jump aboard, I throw down the luggage and I climb down to step aboard the boat as it swings in and away from the dock. No sooner am I aboard and we are away. Oli stares, pensive, in shock or like he has just realised he may have left his toothbrush on the dock. We look at each other, like looking in the mirror, 'Well, at least we got on!' I say. Two hours late mind you.
We watch the lights of Panama City fading away as we fall asleep amongst the knot of anchor ropes at the front of the boat, though when I wake some time later I notice the very same lights on the opposite side of the boat....we're going back: towards Panama, a sister ship broken down apparently and and we don't get under way again until 1am.
I wriggle there amongst the tangle of ropes, hoping to slot my body in, into comfort and out of the stiff breeze, to get the best sleep i can, though failing. I wake early in the morning anticipating; the boat's breakfast and - with my limbs feeling small and frail with cold and discomfort - the morning sun. However, a horizontal brushstroke of grey blocks out the sun, and the meager breakfast of two small hotdog rolls and two slices of processed cheese does little to satisfy our hunger. When the sun rises above the grey it burns with unrelinquishing intensity and we sit amongst the ropes grilling, thinking of food, lunch and hunger whilst watching whales, dolphins, turtles and small flying fish that flap their 'fings' with desperation, darting left and right in their frantic short-lived search for freedom perhaps?
Lunch is served and we make our way over the jumble of unprotected boxes, bags, polystyrene cool boxes, crouching low then beneath the cabin and over girders, past fuel drums, past the screaming engine and the thirty or so passengers crammed into every nook inside, out of the sun, to the kitchen; a portaloo sized affair, and collect a small plate of rice with a chicken bone.
Crammed against one another, in a corner I eat whilst the man behind yells at me to, 'eat faster!' so he can have my plate. I gobble down the meager serving before returning to our place on the ropes, to the sun and to my book.
We should have been in Jaque by 3pm but at 6pm we are discharging a craze of chicken-like passengers at nearby Puerto Pina, frantically turning this way and that, shocked to have arrived it seems,screaming in sad, pathetic desperation 'mi maletta!'....(my suitcase)! We receive another plate of rice and chicken bone for dinner, and sleep here on the boat near Puerto Pina as the nighttime dew starts to form huge beads on every surface. I wrap my self up in a tarp and try to sleep.
Early next day the Victoria is on the move again, despite still holding numerous boxes emblazoned with 'Puerto Pina - FRAGIL'. We arrive near Jaque, again no land port, and the remaining crazy chickens run about in exhausted stupor looking for bags, or like me and Oli, looking dazed and confused.
'WAIT!' is all the captain is willing to tell us as, so we do.
Once everyone is discharged another 'lancha' (outboard motor-boat) arrives, bright red and powered by two 75hp Yamaha outboard motors, the bikes and bags are loaded and the pilot, a huge bear like man, guns the two motors whilst a second man points the way through the large wave break and on through to the estuary where we park up on a shallow beach....wondering how we might get the bikes out.
'Where are you going?' asks the bear.
'Jurado....or Bahia Solano.' I say, 'doesn't matter, just south.'
'I can take you, I'm the only one with a lancha big enough.' he replies.
'Police first, then we talk.' he says with a greedy grin.
'What's your name?' I ask so we can find him. His name was Walter and we came to dislike him very much.
We sign in with the police, Walter talks to one of the police officers, then follows us as we walk into the small village.
'Entonces.' (literally: 'then') he says as we stop at a tiny shop. He says it not so much as a question, the intonation is all wrong, more like a statement, Oli takes over now, his Spanish better than mine and Walter comes up with his first price, he aims high...very high, $1000. We laugh, and he tells us of a Chilean man who paid $1000 - a story corroborated by others, but true or not we don't know. Oli replies with $400 for the two of us to Bahia Solano, four or five hours away in Colombia, though this price is met with equal derision and a stalemate ensues that ends with us having to remove our bikes from the lancha, pay $15 for his bringing us to shore - he wanted $25 to start - and look for other options.
The only other option is a lancha is owned by a man named Cameron. I find him later and find he is not the most approachable person ever....
'OCCUPADO! OCCUPADO!' he yells when I ask in my most polite manners for a second of his time. Cameron, I was to learn, always spoke in this way, like a gorilla named Mr.T poked with a pretty big stick, and so is therefore not the easiest person to understand, even Oli struggled later.
As I couldn't understand him, I've guessed and filled in his spaces....
'WHAT YOU WANT FOOL?' is perhaps what he said....
'Perdon signor?' I say, feeling myself shrink.
'You damn gringos are all the same!'
'Sorry signor.....look, I can speak quite a bit of Spanish, but you'll have to speak a little slower. I'm not a gringo either.'
'You're a smart arse though I can see that, I suppose you're motorbike is frikn ginormous is it like every other gringo?'
I look on bemused, having not actually understood anything, his friend sitting nearby gutting fish repeats what Cameron has been trying to get me to understand....
'How much do you want to pay?' says the man.
'Ohhhhhh! Right. $125 each.' I say getting straight to it.'
'HA!' says Cameron, with a derogatory smirk, before adding, 'We'll speak later. We go Monday.'
In the morning Walter comes to our camp spot, at a house on the rivers edge. He twists his big hairy hand from palm down, to up, to back down again....which means 'entonces' again, yet now without having to lower himself to speak with us. As Oli is still asleep I can at least play hard to get with Walter, so as not appearing desperate for a ride.
'Entonces what?' I say.
'Depends how much.'
'How much you want to pay.'
'Look, it's your boat, you say. Give us a good honest price and we pay and go.'
He steps away, Oli wakes up and starts talking to him, but in the end only the stalemate is seemingly agreed, leaving us hoping that Cameron will be fair and offer a reasonable price. Without delay we go to find him.
It's 8:30am when we find Cameron who walks over from his table camouflaged by 20-odd empty bottles of beer and several empty bottles of rum, and gives each of us a beer. He shouts something and with Oli taking the roll of group speaker, I watch Oli pull an equally blank face as I had the day before. Cameron shouts again. Louder, more impatient, drinking to be done.
'I think he's asking us how much we want to pay.' I say to Oli in English.
'Ohhhh! $250,' says Oli.
'$300,' replies Cameron.
And, feeling argumentative perhaps, chip in with '$200!'
'Ah,' says Cameron pulling a face of disgust as if his footy team just missed an open goal.
Oli goes to one side to talk...'Look, we're not like some people, we can't pay any old price. And, he's English, he's tight, he wants to pay $200. I'm French, I don't mind paying a little more, I think I can convince him to pay $250, but no more.' It works - surprisingly - and the price agreed, however, Cameron wants a deposit....
'Beer money more like' says Oli.
'Is this wise?' I say, 'I mean, will he even remember us in the morning.....or even this afternoon! let alone the price....and our deposit?'
'It's this or Walter.'
So we pay, all the while fairly sure we are breaking one of the golden rules of travel.
Other passengers wanting to get to Colombia, watching on, become edgy knowing that now we've paid a deposit, and too that we can't all of us fit in Cameron's lancha....who will go, who will be left behind to wait another lancha, or perhaps be forced to pay the greedy Walter?
The following day is departure day, but it seems, as always, we won't leave on time but instead two hours later as some bags, still in La Victoria are needed and these will be unloaded today...though these facts seem to have materialised - like many other rumours - from nowhere like fog on a mountain. Then it seems that we won't leave today but tomorrow at 7am, which I find hard to believe as it will be low tide....the fog thickens.
When I wake the following day, to go and buy our breakfast rations of bread, I find the tide is in fact high and everyone is waiting anxiously at the dock.
'Get up! I think we're going!' I shout at Oli's corpse inside his tent...'Oli!....Oli! Oh, crap....Cameron's moving the lancha round! We're going!'
Oli wakes, somewhat and starts sleep-packing, whilst I rush down to take my packed things over to the dock hoping to insure our place. Cameron, in his 'Darien' emblazoned red T-shirt, his round face beneath his white reebok cap,and carrying a small shoulder bag of sack-like material like most men with anything worth carrying blurts something, like he has a mouth full of toothpaste.
'PUH DE BIKES ON! NOW! BI-HUN FIRST!'
I race back to Oli, 'We're going, now, go put your bike in the boat!' I shout.
'YOUR BIKE! PUT IT IN THE FECKIN BOAT!! WE'RE GOING! NOW!'
Poor Oli, still mostly asleep, stumbles off, thinking, wondering what his body is up to without his brain's authority. His body remembers he needs shoes so comes back to get them. I shout, unfairly, 'GOOOO! I'M NOT MISSING THIS BOAT!'
The bikes are loaded with cunning use of planks, mental stress, and many helpful hands, followed by our bags, our passport received from the police and, after a lengthy wait, we leave, whilst seven unfortunates are left behind.
Cameron looks anxiously ahead as we approach the ocean break and we take a hefty couple of hits on our way out, Cameron struggling to lift the outboard motor out of the water, then releases the pin to drop it back in quickly and guns it and we are on our way after three days in the lovely Jaque, a town of largely relocated Colombians escaping the FARC controlled jungles.
Two hours later, after passing vast expanses of seemingly wild untouched jungles Cameron slides the boat on to Jurado's beach, Colombia! We unload the bikes as the waves lap up around our ankles and kness, and the military-like police wait on the dry sand holding automatic rifles to greet us. We chat with them, the police, very friendly and set up camp again near the station.
I preferred the peaceful Jaque, it's lack of a real centre, tranquil, small shops dotted about, no traffic to speak of - save the lanchas - people carving dugout canoes from huge lengths of tree trunk or shaping oars with a knife from a sagging hammock, but Oli prefers here, Jurado; there are shops, people and more going on....motorbikes and scooters too.....and there's a lot of attention as well, too much attention, especially for Oli and his BMW which is pulling huge crowds.
Though now in Colombia there are no road connections from this odd border town, but luckily a cargo boat bound for Buenaventura is arriving later the same day, and this will take us back to civilisation, the road that will lead us south all the way to Argentina. When the cargo boat arrives we go to see it and meet the captain, Oscar....who looks more like a mix of Onslow - of Keeping Up Appearances TV fame - and Captain Pugwash, wearing only a vest and underpants. He drives a very hard bargain, one I think is too expensive, but with little choice, we settle on a price of $160 each - though admittedly this is for 5 days, including food and, luckily it's lunch time so we eat here and save a bit of money!
Four days later I sit hovering over the toilet of the "Renasur del Pacifico," Oscar's boat, now full with it's heavy cargo of long red timbers from the rainforests. With its burden, the boat lists heavily from side to side, and toilet water washes over my feet as I squeeze desperately trying to rid my body of the 12 bowls of rice I've eaten in four days, breakfast, lunch, dinner....futile.
'Have you had a shit yet?' I ask Oli on the deck.
'Have you seen those toilets!?' he replies.
'I'm not going in there.' he says disgustedly.
'...I've just been...the water was washing all over my feet.'
'Ughh!....Did you poo?'
'Managed a nubb.'
We stand watching the mast light swing back and forth in the dark, glad at least to finally be on the move after several days stuck deep up-river in the jungles collecting wood, where 'sancudos', tiny biting bugs, and mosquitoes were rife and there not a breath of wind.
I watch the bio-luminescence in the wake of the boat before heading down to the dormitory where 25 pairs of wrinkly workers feet poke out from the tiny slots that are our beds and 25 pairs of beady white eyes watch another shoot-em-up movie on the TV. 'I want more death!' shouts one as I slip past into our room to slot myself into my bunk to read and sleep, content with my choice to come along the Pacific.
The next day we make it to Buenaventura, greeted by wooden houses standing on stilts in the low tide mud. The bikes are unloaded easily, thanks to a proper crane and I thank Oscar the friendly captain. All that is left now is the lengthy process of immigration and customs, and catching up on sleep, the workers starting as early as 3am, dropping the large planks of timber in to the hold of the boat, the fumes of the diesel powered crane too much to bare, starving us of air and sleep.
'We have chicken with sauce, chicken, bbq chicken, bbq beef, pork, bone soup....'
'Beef for me....please.' I say.
'OK.' says the waitress.
'And No rice!' I add, perhaps a bit sharply.
'No rice?' asks the waitress.
'Yeah, no rice....just bread please!'
'Me too...!' says Oli. The waitress laughs at our story and jots down our order, 'sin arroz'. It's good to be in Colombia!
We did it Oli! Thanks for the good times and good luck on your journey south....and, keep camping.