Guerrillas in the mist

Day 61 - Cartagena

Time passed slowly as the two travelers sat in an office squirrelled away in Tocumen International Airport. How slowly I cannot tell you for even the digital clock mounted on the plain white wall had stopped. Flight departure time was 30 minutes away but the battle to leave Panama still raged. Eventually our gratefull hands clutched a sheet of incomprehensible words and numbers meant to speed us to the next continent. Our reluctant hands abandoned our luggage to an airport worker whose assurances that they would meet us in Colombia were not entirely reassuring. Cartagena, famed haunt of pirates and privateers and redolent of the age of sail, lay before us. Despite several centuries some things haven't changed, it remains a busy port, services still exist for sailors long at sea. The latter point was illustrated most vividly as we stepped into, and i'll abandon euphemism here, a brothel. However unequivocal we might have thought our request of 'discoteque' was to the taxi driver clearly something was lost in translation. That or western males have acquired a louche reputation and penchant for the aforementioned euphemism. We drank one awkward beer and made our excuses. The next place was different, different in that it was at least ostensibly a bar albeit one heavily populated by women of an identical occupation. I debated with one over who had more right to the cubicle in the men's toilet before joining a couple of Colombians for a little innocent window shopping. The following evening we spent in the genteel environs of Downton Abbey, somewhat contrasting our brush with ill-repute.
Bogota, the name has become shorthand for South American violence of the drug-indiced kind. But it is a reputation the city is eschewing with the Uribe government's crackdown on the cartels. Still, as a newspaper headline once had it "War on drugs - drugs win". Tell an impoverished coca farmer that the eradication of his crop is for the benefit of an affluent soceity far from his and one has to wonder how much worse legal control could be? Nonetheless living standards in the capital would seem to be 'en la ariba' with the, admittedly fine, surroundings of the Bogota Beer Company parting us from $5 for every cerveza. Even the backpacker area in which we stayed had little of the scruffy value that we must seek. Perhaps Bogota isn't suited to parsimonious pass-throughs and rewards those with a longer stay and deeper pockets. Perhaps we didn't look hard enough. If we missed anything in Bogota at least it wasn't the start of the Six Nations. Colombia isn't overpopulated with rugby fans given that myself and Michael formed roughly 100% of the audience in the Irish bar. Still it's nice (if not unexpected) to beat the Scots whatever the location. Leaving soggy Bogota swathed in rain was an appropriate contrast to the place where we had next set our sights. Westward ho!

Sisyphean Airlines

Day 56 - Panama City

We nearly didn't make it into this slip of a country. Cruel fortune had us standing in the queue for the only Panamanian border officer who had read and decided to adhere to the rules. "Return ticket?" bugger.  His steely, uncompassionate gaze was unmoved by our desperate explanations of our travel 'plans'. Bribery also failed to move him to endorse our entry so our bus driver, with infinite generosity, offered to relieve us of another $36 to write up a return ticket to San José that we would never use. This finally satisfied the entry requirements and the stamp thumped down.
The country is divided by a synonymous strip of water down which floats a not insignificant quantity of the world's goods. Though our initial plan was to dive the canal, renovations kiboshed that idea and we had to settle for the traditional topside view.  On initial viewing the city itself seems built on the wealth its transoceanic connection brings.  Buildings soared to heights unknown since we left New York nearly 2 months ago, the skyline that of a modern metropolis.  The skyscrapers loom across the bay from the colonial ramshackle of the old town.  Though much of it lies in ruins due to several foreign incursions it retains that familiar charm of the old new world. Would that Birmingham had half the aesthetic of these places. I strolled its cobbled alleys alone, an absence of directional sense meaning every direction was the right one. Time passed and I found myself on a wooded hill to the north watching small deer frolic and a preoccupied armadillo snuffle though the leaf litter, silence soothed my ears and calmed my thoughts. It is an abused and ill-appreciated commodity these days. A short walk took me past the port with its Lego brick mountains of shipping containers and into a residential area populated almost entirely by men clad head to foot in white looking like they'd just stepped off the set of 'An Officer and a Gentleman'. As I headed back toward the old town I passed into an area best described by a resident that accosted me as a 'red zone'. It wasn't the best kept part of the city admittedly but his warnings of impending robbery and doom seemed a touch melodramatic.  I thanked him courteously for his advice and walked on. A policeman I encountered ten minutes later was more assertive with his advice and near threw me in a taxi. There ended my walk.
Pre-trip research had failed to throw up the alarming fact that Central and South America are entirely unconnected by road. Between them lies a vast forested area called The Darien. Home to deadly snakes, exotic diseases, guerrillas and drug traffickers it isn't exactly prime hiking territory either. If we thought getting into Panama was tricky it was as nothing to the saga of our departure. In our attempts to avoid an expensive and unbackpackery (it's a word, Mike told me) international flight I plotted a convoluted series of hops down Panama's Atlantic coast and over the water into Colombia. Involving a (cheap) plane, some boats, a bus or two and (probably) a donkey.  Alas the crucial flying portion of the jaunt was booked up for a week so we were back to square one. Square too were my eyes after hours straight at the laptop.  After near enough a day it was apparent the only way we were getting out of this country was via some pricey plane tickets.  Having negotiated Avianca Airlines labyrinthine purchasing process at perhaps the tenth attempt, I clicked the button marked 'buy'. Card blocked. An eye-wateringly expensive call to Natwest put me through to a guy whose security check was comprehensive and, I suspect not a little arbitrary. I should have asked if he moonlighted as a border control officer.  Card cleared I returned to the fray. The transaction went through, this time tomorrow we would be in Colombia! I checked my emails, confirmation was there.  I quickly checked the details of the long awaited document:

Panama City to Cartagena check
Sunday 30th January check
1, Mr Benjamin Welsher check
2, Mr Benjamin Welsher expletive

Now of course such an elementary detail cannot be changed just like that. No sir, you'll need to rebook the tickets. Again I started a process as familiar to me now as breathing. This time, this was the time, all details double checked, all security checks hurdled but one, the little blue loading icon turns its interminable circles. "This website cannot be accessed."
At this point I shot myself in the head.


Day 48 - San José

Three cold people stood on the streets of the Costa Rican capital wondering why the temperature dropped the further south they travelled. We needed housing and chose our hostel based solely on the fact it had a stripper pole. Before that could be put to embarrassingly enthusiastic use we had some people to meet. Our group doubled in size with the addition of Chris, Cass and Thierry, Tania's friends from the icy wastes of home. The only drinking establishment we had experienced in SJ thus far was one where the owner kept a pistol in the till and served turtle eggs as bar snacks, I kid you not. I was confident we could do better and how I willed these weary Canadians toward drink and dance. Alas 'twas not to be that night but I would get these people into a discotheque by hook or by crook, I think they sell hooks at the market... Softening the blow they did bring gifts of cider and Frank's hot sauce - truly the greatest condiment fashioned by the hand of man, not a food conceived it doesn't improve.
Another day, another volcano. This one, towering over the little town of Fortuna, we would not be climbing owing to the fact it is the country's most active and people have made a habit of dying on its slopes. We didn't drag our battered corps north for nothing though, other attractions were aboot. After a fruitless search for frugality we conceded to paying (for) a visit to a waterfall. Either I am too used to swimming in the sea or a skinful of alcohol the night before makes you negatively buoyant. Keeping my head above its cold, plunging waters was no easy task. Something a little tamer perhaps? Our next stop was definitely more therapeutic. Water gushes warm from springs heated by the volcanoe's molten brood. Hours passed as we luxuriated in the temperate stream letting the powerful flow knead our every worn muscle, hard business perpetual leisure. I heard it said recently that if you are struggling to make a decision flip a coin and as it is in the air you'll know which side you want it to come down on. So as the faded gold colone turned end over end, tails we dive/heads we head, did myself and Michael know our desired result? I suspect so, we just wanted to blame the coin for spending all our money. So chance had decided we were Pacific-bound.
I turned back and peered through the murk to see no-one behind me, ahead fins disappeared into gloom, now I was alone in the water. Somewhere in the channel our group had broken apart, were the others lost or was I? Coalescing again and despite the poor visibility lobster, eels, starfish and seahorses were spotted. Stingray and pufferfish were seen too and, at the very end and to my delight, I saw my first turtle. Back on the surface Devil Rays leapt above the waves and my logbook hit double figures. Crystal Utila it wasn't but to novices every dive is worthy experience and how fine to dive with new friends. Soon we would have to part ways but an open invitation to Montreal was proffered and is one I should very much like to take up. I'd better practise my shuffle eh?

Welcome to the jungle

Day 46 - Isla Omotepe

The island is formed by two volcanoes (one still active). Surrounded by a lake whose limits spill over the horizon in all directions. A worthy lair for a scheming Bond villain bent on world domination. The highlight of the first evening was a somewhat basic discotequa you could drive your motorcycle into, whose menu consisted of beer, whose gent's consisted of a wall. All good fun, all rather tame. In the spirit of the trip thus far the next day was spent quad biking around the island. The danger came from the roads whose condition could only only have been worsened by the addition of landmines. Like the gents we are Tania was lumbered with the fully manual beast while myself and Michael scooted along with clutchless ease. Well, until Michael decided to detour into a nearby set of bushes, terrible driver. Surfaces improved markedly near towns and oh how the locals must have loved us bombing up and down with scant regard for the speed limit, bloody gringos. Tania and I swam in rejuvenating volcanic springs before leaving Omotepe though no amount of relaxation would be enough to soothe the ten hour overnight boatride ahead. I must learn to scale my expectations because sitting out on an exposed deck, sleepless, shivered by cold and whipped by wind and spray did not meet them. Though we were trailed by gulls and topped by stars we had vastly miscalculated the amount of rum necessary to make this journey pleasant. I stood next to an engine vent spewing lord knows what noxious gases before the induced headache got too much and I had to sacrifice the warmth provided for the sake of my health. Not for the first time this trip it's an experience I'll look back on with fond amusement and absolutely no desire to repeat. Our next boat trip mere hours later was of a wholly different character.
The long, slender boat meandered slowly up the murky river. Thick jungle swamped the banks, an impenetrable thicket of choking vine and soaring palm. Fecund life in all its verdant glory. The brown water gave no clue of what lay below the gently stirring surface, logs broke through bringing imaginings of reptiles. The vessel's occupants snapped their heads left and right as primitive howls cut through the foliage, a warning? Black shapes moved high in the branches, dark eyes surveying the intruders. Birds of all colours skimmed the water's surface while turtles sunned themselves on the sun-baked shore. It seemed strange to conceive that nature could be so busy in man's absence, our homo-centric view as strong as ever. The old question of the silently falling tree sprung to the traveler's mind. This was how we entered Costa Rica, in a Conradian Heart-of-Darkness style (with a little license). But the country was no Congo, indeed its developed urbanity would quite exceed that we had seen before.

But it's shaped like a pyramid!!

Day 37 - Managua

The sun was barely up but there is never a better time to leave the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa than that very instant. Short on sights, long on vice and violence, myself, Michael and, Tony had become Tania (ah, travel's unpredictability!) barely strayed from our hotel the previous night. The bus deposited us at the border from where the crossing had to be made by bicycle rickshaw, a strange and amusing experience. Queerer still Nicaraguan immigration refused to accept its own currency in payment of the entry fee. I suspect there is an ongoing competition between the border control agencies of Central Americans countries to devise the most convoluted and quirky entry procedure they can. Nicaragua is leading on points by my scorecard. We stayed a night in the Managuan metropolis and sampled the city's delights such as people smashing each other over the head with motorcycle helmets outside karaoke bars. I tried in vain to induce my fellows into a discotequa shaped like a Mayan Pyramid but Michael was having one of his (worryingly frequent) off nights and couldn't be cajoled. I drowned my sorrows with the help of our new friend Rony Fresca.
Another day, another bus, This one departed the sprawl of the capital for the crumbling colonial charm of Granada. Its time-worn stone edifices were a reminder of Antigua's pretty pastel perpendicularity. I don't generally care for cities set to a grid pattern. The brutal logic of line and and square lacks life and has none of the organic meander that connects it to its inhabitants. Somehow the coldly efficient layout seems to amplify the meaningless swarming of humanity. These Spanish time capsules retain a faded elegance though, the ambience of a world half a millenia past. Broad streets and broader ambitions, high ceilings and high-minded ideals. Are these places the ugly stamp of imperial imposition or valuable architectural reminders of our inexhaustible folly? Perhaps they are brick and stone. "No hablo espaƱol" was becoming a worn phrase and the decision was made that a week's intensive Spanish at a Granadan language school was just the ticket, surely fluency would follow? Tania's impeccable linguistic skills had also made us lazy and rather than pointing at the things we wanted we had simply taken to pointing at her. But she would be flying to the Corn Islands in search of Hammerhead Sharks so somehow we had to cope without our Canadian crutch. Michael bid farewell in his inimitable style by belting out Bryan Adams in Cindy's Karaoke Bar. It assuaged his promise to dance on a table (if only temporarily). Our classes began at 8AM each day which rather curtailed our exploration of the city's nightlife. Or rather it should have. It fairness after one post-session-lesson we swiftly realised that multitudinous beers (in my case) and several strawberry daiquiris (in Michael's) did not aid our learning. A week in Granada also allowed time to fit in my traditional visit to the medical services. A very black, suspiciously thick hair had begun to protrude from the bottom of my leg. Dr.Welsher's own attempts at extraction yielded nothing but a discomforting amount of pain (I doubted his qualifications). Its tenacious grip confirming that it was a remnant stitch. I don't think I've had an operation yet where one wasn't left behind by the surgeon,as if for luck. So, laid out in a doctor's office again he closely mirrored my technique with the important difference that he pulled until I was silently howling and until the damnable thing finally snapped.
Tania, having had her own (predictably unique) limb issues was back after sadly little diving (she got her shark though) and with our lessons finished and Spanish slightly less non-existent than before, travel beckoned. Next stop - 2 volcanoes and a bloody big lake.

Rapid improvement required

Day 35 - El Naranjo

So, the odds defied, we were back on the mainland and having clearly discovered a penchant for activities not covered by our insurance policy we meant to try our hand next at White Water Rafting. In hindsight I felt a little mis-sold by the accumulated images in my head. Lots of people grinning with excitement as they coast tearing class 5 rapids and rather fewer images of upturned inflatables and rafters swept downstream bobbing in the froth. You may be able to guess by this point which of the aforementioned scenarios more closely matches my experience. Michael had ostensibly (sensibly?) bowed out due to the fact it was raining. That left me and Tony in the raft with our Canadian instructor whose irritation with our poor technique at times bested his laid back demeanor. Alan the Irishman was our safety net in a kayak on point. The brown river surged like some Wonka-esque creation, swelled by precipitation and testing the banks. The rain pummeled down as we rehearsed rhythmic paddle strokes in a calm pool next to the Rio Cangregal (River of Crabs). Once we had gone through a range of called instructions which basically boiled down to either 'row!' or 'throw yourself into the raft!' we paddled out into the insistent flow. I was the first to go. A slightly angled entry into a series of rapids bounced the inflatable up and me out. The consequences of not paddling together were soddenly obvious. Pulled in an instant 10 metres downstream I swam against a tidal treadmill whose pace increased as my limbs quickly tired. All in a day's work for Alan and Canadian guy though. Hauled back I was instantly set to work while my lungs still burned, the river waited for no man. The next set of rapids was negotiated with luck and silent prayers. Getting to the other side still perched precariously on the unforgiving craft we were shot through with adrenalin....and relief. Our fortune was not to last however. The final stretch of furious river approached and with hearts in mouths and paddles in hand we fought the white waters and our own sorry synchronisation. The raft bounced, yawed, pitched and....flipped. Its three occupants were unceremoniously deposited into muddy mayhem. Encumbered by paddle and a now familiar resignation I swam again for the boat. Scuba diving was mere child's play compared to this fearsome task. Reflecting afterwards on our miserable performance that ensured it was more white water swimming than white water rafting the adrenalin still coursing through my veins was no less intoxicating. Would I do it again?
Yes, in a chest-splitting, lung-bursting second.

A week in the life of a diver

Day 34 - Utila

The three lies of Utila are:
1, I'm not drinking tonight
2, I love you
3, I'm leaving tomorrow
The last had proved especially apposite as we stood atop a water tower on a hill overlooking a more than familiar island where a 2 day jaunt had become a residency. Now of course we had to stay for New Year, where else would we want to bring in 2012? And since we were here we might as well dive eh? Dive we did, in torrential rain and with the Divemaster's cheery "you're gonna get wet anyway!" not entirely comforting despite its indisputable logic. Still, the view from below was an intriguing reflection, a bit like being in a big glass box during a storm. Diving in the morning, night swimming, water bookended our days and filled our thoughts. Tania attempted an escape from this amenable Alcatraz post New Year, her trip to nearby Roatan Island lasting a few hours and costing more than a few dollars. As she strode back into Alton's warmly knowing smiles greeted her. Our own planned departure early on the 3rd was thwarted by lashing storms and dangerous tides. Perhaps Poseidon himself held dominion over the place? Deciding it was now or never the two of us and Tony chartered a plane so small you could fit it into a Kinder Egg. The airport was nothing more than a concrete strip and as our little craft heaved up uncertainly into the buffeting winds I wondered if the price of escape would be our lives. Rain coated the windows and leaked through the door as our rattling rescuer fought the turbulence and skirted the foreboding clouds. The pilot affected a demeanor no more perturbed than that of a taxi driver which I chose to take as reassurance. As the three escapees walked across the tarmac and out through the airport excitement at what lay ahead was tinged with sadness at what we had left behind, at a chapter in this story that had come to an end. A chapter filled with new, otherworldly experiences that will be etched into my memory for all time. I feel the 10 days on Utila were worthy of greater poetry than hath sprung from this pen, as if only an opus could do them justice. But it was a time more than a place I was describing and time is a most ethereal thing to capture in words. We shared a first kiss that island and I. Tan and Nic, Tony and Team Japan, bearded Jim and unbearded Jim, Erin, Arjen, Alan and Tom, to Rob and Yarl, Wendy and Joe, Sally, Nicole, Lucy and Leroy - my fond regards, it was famous