Leaving the South

8 07 2010

After lots of waiting around until the money-laundering bureau de change finally decided to open (an hour after their scheduled time) I finally changed most of my pesos into dollars so that I had enough money to pay for the boat. I said my goodbyes to Matt and Jo and then we got in 3 taxis towards the dock. I was on my own in one with lots of the luggage and was quite disturbed when the taxi driver failed to follow the others correctly and kept going on straight. After pointing out that all the taxis had gone the other way, we all arrived at the dock okay and unloaded all the bags.

We waited on the dockside for a while, which gave us more time for Ivan to go and grab some more beers, before Luke came and picked us up. He’d borrowed a dinghy from one of the other boats since the outboard on his had been stolen a few weeks beforehand whilst they’d been docked in Cartagena. The previous dinghy had also been slashed to shreds.

Nepenthe - our home for the next 6 days

After lunch on-board, we set sail (or more correctly, we started the motors — the wind was not yet right) and headed off towards Panama. I spent most of the afternoon sunbathing on deck (without sun-cream; a trait that was going to lead to a new nickname) and reading a book that Sara had in the library — Loving Frank. After a bit we played 20 questions: where you’d first guess if it was Animal (including famous people), Mineral or Vegetable. This was going fine until Mitch did it and one of his clues was “Well, it’s a type of Mackerel”. Quite how none of us managed to guess “Spanish Mackerel” given our strong ichthyological backgrounds is obviously a complete mystery to everyone.

Sunset on the open seas

After watching the sunset we had dinner and then we went below decks to play Shithead. Unfortunately after one round I started to feel sick and we pretty much had to abandon the game as Becki, Mitch and I sat above to grab some fresh air. Feeling slightly better, I eventually crawled back down to my bed and when I woke up I felt fine. Luke said it was probably the roughest crossing that he’s had in the 15 times he’s done it so I didn’t feel too bad.

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

7 07 2010

Contrary to all expectations (both mine and others’) I managed to get up early in the morning so that I could go to the Totumo mud volcano. The woman on the bus got in a huge strop when she discovered that people who’d booked the trip from Media Luna hadn’t paid the additional commission charge and had just paid the normal Hotel Marlin rate. Ironically I was one of the few who hadn’t booked it via our hostel and yet I’d been charged the full amount. All this only served to put the woman in a foul mood and after refusing to let anyone on the bus to begin with she continued to rant away in Spanish and scowl for the first half an hour of our journey.

There were lots of people on the trip but apart from Julia, I only really spoke to Rich (UK) from my dorm — he’d just arrived from Panama and had been raving about his trip with Fritz the Cat — and Alex (Swiss). When we finally arrived at our destination it was probably one of the most bizarre experiences of my trip. After walking up the stairs to a pool of mud, we proceeded single file into the pool where a man massaged mud into you. The mud was so thick and gloopy that you couldn’t find the bottom of it. It was also hard to propel yourself through the viscid quagmire without using the sides of the pool.

Julia and I at the mud volcano - picture courtesy of Julia

After being completely covered in mud, we went down to the lake down the road where some local women washed us off. At one point I was instructed to remove my swimming trunks and she washed them for me. I was responsible for washing the contents apparently!

We had lunch at the beach and then headed back to the hostel where I watched the second half of the Germany-Spain match. I was quite shocked (and a bit disappointed) when Spain won. Just towards the end of the match, Matt and Jo arrived. It was great to see them again: I didn’t expect to see anyone from the Lost City trek again before I left the continent. After the game I walked with them into town so they could get a late lunch. We went to El Bistro which once again seemed to have a limited menu (presumably this time because it was late in the day for lunch).

We went back to the hostel for a few beers but Jo really wanted a cocktail so after wandering for a bit we eventually ended back at Cafe del Mar for the sunset. Unfortunately none of us had our cameras on us so we completely missed any photo opportunities there. Eventually we headed back up to the roof terrace and spent most of the evening chatting to Aussies and Kiwis there. After a while I showed Jo where the bar used to be downstairs and, after a quick walk around the neighbourhood, went to bed early so that I’d be well refreshed for my trip to Central America the next day.

Making Decisions Sight Unseen

6 07 2010

In the morning I went down to the harbour with Jack, Sarah and Becki (English) to look at Fritz’s boat. It was a huge catamaran and he could comfortably accommodate 15 people although the sleeping area that he mentioned that 5 people could share  — a big couch in the middle of the common area — was not ideal. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Fritz himself. He was probably in his 50’s and a real sea dog. Whilst we were on-board he had to move the boat across the bay so that one of the previous passengers from Panama could offload his motorbike. He was barking away orders at his girlfriend in stern, stentorian German and seemed quite prickly. The boat also wasn’t the cleanest vessel but what I was most dubious about was that he only had two passengers at the moment (a couple) and he didn’t know who else would be on board in a few days time.

After our mini boat trip I wandered around town again: this time it was much more lively. I finally got a padlock for my locker (my previous two lost somewhere on my travels) and was able to stow my stuff more safely. After that I watched the Holland-Uruguay game. I got quite worried after the half-time equaliser and then sat on the edge of my seat at the end of the second half scared that Uruguay would somehow fluke their way into extra-time but in the end it all worked out well and I was stoked. During the game Jack and Becki had been off to see another boat: the Nepenthe. This was a lot smaller: it only accommodated 6 people but they seemed to be quite enthusiastic. Jack had asked offhandedly if I wanted to join them on their boat but I wasn’t sure whether the offer was shared by the rest of the group and I was nervous about joining a group of 5 people who had been travelling together for weeks together — as it turned out later they hadn’t; so I had no real cause for concern. In any case, I agreed to come and meet the captain and his girlfriend later on that evening.

After a small disco nap (at various points during the Dutch game I had nearly fallen asleep), I met up with Jack, Ivan, Mitch (also Australian) and Becki to meet the boat owners. Sarah was feeling quite ill so she couldn’t make it. Julia was thinking that she might have to get a boat in a few days’ time instead of crossing the Darien Gap so she also came along too to see how it all worked.

The boat owners, Luke (Australian) and Sara (Canadian) were quite young and seemed really cool and laid-back. We had a beer with them on the roof terrace and a really good discussion about the boat and all the ground rules; I decided to join the others and handed over my passport (this was needed for the port authorities so that they could process all the paperwork). I hadn’t got the money together yet so would need to go to the bank the next day to sort out some dollars.

After Luke and Sara left we had a good discussion about the boat and got quite excited by the prospect. At one point Jack said, “And I think it’s really great that they’re both about our age.”  As he said this, he cast a surreptitious glance in my direction as if to say, “How old is this guy?” I failed to sate his curiosity until the first night on the boat. We all headed off to get some pasta down the road from the same place I’d got a steak with Lisa, Lucy and Janek many weeks beforehand and then we ended up once more on the roof terrace drinking beers. There I met a couple of Becki’s friends: Sarah (Australia) and Lucy (UK) and we chatted to them for a bit. Felix, Sarah and Ciara had also turned up at the hostel that day so I hung out with them too. The Irish girls went to bed quite early and so Felix and I stayed up for a while chatting before I called it a night.

Back to Cartagena

5 07 2010

I got a door-to-door shuttle service back to Cartagena — I’m not sure it really counts as proper travelling when you’re getting picked up from your hostel and dropped off at another; without ever arriving at a strange bus station trying to work out where the hell you’re supposed to go. Once again I stayed at Media Luna hostel. It was weird being there on my own without all the people who had made my previous stay there so much fun.

I did some preliminary investigations into getting a boat to Panama; which basically involved walking to Casa Viena and enquiring about a big catamaran, Fritz the Cat, that was due to leave in a few days and checking the price and availability. Afterwards I wandered around town but it was absolutely dead and very few places were open: it turns out that there was a national holiday.

I spent most of the afternoon in an Internet cafe; trying once more to get my blog up-to-date: although, such was the backlog, I had about as much chance as King Canute commanding the tide to stop. Julia was also in Cartagena so I arranged to meet her later on for dinner.

This was also harder than it sounded: like the other businesses, most restaurants were closed due to the national holiday; only the very expensive touristy places were open for business. Eventually we settled for one next to the main square and paid a small fortune for a tiny plate of food. At one point as we wandered around, a guy was trying to sell me 97% pure cocaine and I got in a small “discussion” with him about the fact that if it really was that strong I couldn’t put it up my nose without having an embolism. Know-it-all Barry getting into arguments with drug dealers based on one visit to a cocaine factory in the middle of the Colombian jungle: always a wise course of action! It reminds me of a time back in Amsterdam when a dealer had chased me down the street after I’d responded to his “Coke?” enquiry with “No thanks, I prefer Pepsi”. Although I’m sure this is because he knew I was lying: who in their right mind would prefer Pepsi?

After dinner we went to an ice cream parlour before heading back to the hostel and hanging out on the roof terrace. There we spoke to a Dutch couple that I’d met on the bus (Lucy and Hans or Hank — wasn’t quite sure what his name was) and Sarah (Canadian; who I’d seen a few times back in Santa Marta); Jack and Ivan (Australian). Sarah, Jack and Ivan were also looking to get a boat to Panama so it was interesting discussing how their investigations were going: little could I know at the time how our closely our future paths were bound together.

The Start of the Long, Dry Weekend

18 06 2010

There were elections in Colombia that weekend so, in order to ensure that the electorate was in command of all their faculties when they elected a carbon copy of their existing government, alcohol was banned everywhere. Being my usual organised self I completely failed to buy any alcohol before it started so it promised to be a very quiet few days. In the morning I looked down from my bunk to see that it looked like Julie was packing up all her stuff. Apparently her and Signe were leaving us that day and although when we’d first got to Cartagena they’d mentioned that they may leave on Friday; it had not been broached since so it came as quite a surprise to Janek and myself.

After watching another disappointing England performance in the restaurant attached to the hostel with Georgi and Simon (also English, he’d joined Georgi that day) I limped off into town to try to find some new flip-flops. I really wanted some Havaianas but after an hour or so of searching I couldn’t find any in town so I bought some imitations.

Lisa’s friend, Lucy, turned up that day and since, by now, I’d taken a dislike to the other Lucy she became known as “Nice Lucy” instead of “Evil Lucy” in the event that we needed to differentiate between the two. After another walk around town (much easier this time with functioning footwear) I went to dinner with Lucy, Lisa and Janek around the corner from our hostel. We were a bit dubious about the restaurant at first: it looked like we were in someone’s house and our waitress didn’t seem to know what she was doing; but the steaks when they turned up were pretty good.

The hostel was pretty dead after dinner: the party mood destroyed by the lack of alcohol; but I ran into Christi and Olivia there and we decided to go for a Sprite or two at Cafe del Mar. Much as when I’d gone there a few days before with Signe and Julie, it took an absolute age to walk there because the girls stopped at every purveyor of goods along the way. I vowed never to go there again with women! Despite the lack of alcohol there were still quite a few people in the bar and it was nice to sit in the sea breeze looking out over the ocean before heading back to the hostel and getting an early night.

Bierkeller, lost wallet, broken flip-flops, hookers and missing out on the party

17 06 2010

The day started off well when Olivia and Christi, who I’d first met way back in Máncora and again in Quito, turned up at the hostel. It was great to see them again after so long. The water problems of the previous day were now resolved and, as if to remind us what water looked like, the heavens opened and continued to pour their scorn on all the unwashed bodies milling about. The gutters in the hostel spewed torrents of water into the inner courtyard and even under the eaves it was hard to walk around without getting wet.

I headed off to lunch with Janek, Lisa, Olivia and Christi but we weren’t quite sure where to go. That would have been okay if the weather had been nice but we were getting absolutely drenched as we wandered around. Finally we found a cheap restaurant on one of the side streets near the hostel and ate there. I paid my bill and we left the restaurant and after walking less than 10 metres suddenly realised that my wallet was no longer in my pocket: the sloppy pockets on my swimming shorts had finally done their damage. I quickly rushed back to the restaurant but they played on the fact that I didn’t know the word for wallet in Spanish and pretended to be ignorant to my plight. I think that I must have dropped my wallet on my seat and the staff just pocketed it. The only consolation was that I was due a visit to the cash point and my wallet was close to empty.

In the early evening we had a few beers and then joined a huge crowd of people going out for a dinner in a German bierkeller. Christi, Olivia, Lisa, Janek and myself were joined by the Californian contingent of Finn, Ryan, Andrew and Julian; as well as Lucy, Victor (Dutch) and Peter (Austrian). The food took an absolute age: we had polished off a few steins before it arrived; although I guess considering there were 12 of us we couldn’t have expected the food to be quick. After dinner we all headed up to the roof terrace back at the hostel. Once again they had opened the bar on the roof and once again the cocktails were crap.

Some of the gang on the roof terrace of Media Luna

A large group of us decided to head off to nightclub. En route I ran into 2 Irish girls that I’d met briefly in Medellin — Ciara and Sarah — and I stopped to chat to them for a few seconds. When I turned around, however, the rest of the group had vanished. When I went to the nightclub that I was positive they’d just walked into, the bouncer told me that it was a privado party and that my friends definitely hadn’t gone in there. I didn’t believe that they could actually have gone anywhere else in such a short space of time so I refused to believe him but there was little I could do but walk back to the hostel alone.

I hung out on the roof terrace with Sam (who I knew from Quito) and his friends Georgi (England) and Jo (Australian) who I think I’d met briefly in Medellin and then headed back out to Havana Club on the corner of our street. Much to my displeasure it was full-on salsa in there and although Signe and Julie were in the club too I felt like I’d missed out on the real party when I’d lost the others. I eventually struck up a conversation in stilted Spanish with a local girl, Doris, who was sitting on her own by the bar. She kept saying that my Spanish was really good: even though I could barely string a sentence together.

As we left the bar she started chatting to a German guy in pink jeans (I kid ye not) and the next time I turned around both her and the German were gone and a taxi was pulling off. The next day I was chatting to one of the Americans in the hostel and he asked if I’d been to Havana Club the night before because it was absolutely full of hookers. It was only then that I put two and two together and realised that a pretty girl sitting on her own at the bar, complimenting my faltering Spanish was probably not talking to me out of altruism.

On the short walk back to the hostel, the strap on one of my flip-flops snapped which pretty much summed up the whole evening for me. The party by this time had moved downstairs to the courtyard inside the hostel and after chatting to a few people there I finally decided to head off to bed.

No Mas Agua

16 06 2010

There was a major calamity in Cartagena on our second day: the whole city was out of water. This meant you could no longer go for a swim in the hostel pool to cool down from the unrelenting heat: the water that normally flows into it to keep it clean had stopped; and you had to put up with a whole city of unwashed, sweaty bodies. I was up so late that day that I only managed to catch the second half of the Uruguay and South Africa game. I can’t even remember much about that game now. (At the time of writing these events a month and a half has elapsed!)

At the hostel in the evening there was going to be a big roof top party and salsa lessons. I think I’ve already mentioned a few times in my blog that salsa is not really my thing but just in case that has eluded some of the less loyal readership: that wasn’t going to rock my boat. Still the 2 mojitos for the price of one sounded good: it’s just a shame that they were still  expensive; they have no idea how to make a decent mojito at Media Luna and that the bar staff are surly and inefficient. I also think that part of the motivation for doing it was so that the bar was on the roof terrace and no one could smuggle booze in from outside if that was the case. Obviously I never let such minor gripes get in the way of a good time.

Lisa had bumped into Lucy during the day and told her we were heading out to dinner at 7pm so even though we were all ravenous we waited until then just in case she turned up. She didn’t and by this time a German girl, Angela, that we’d met the day before had already joined one of the salsa classes. Unlike Janek, Angela is stereotypically German: she asks really annoying questions about everything all the time and has no real sense of humour; I personally couldn’t care less if she came or not but Lisa’s friend, Marina, who we’d also met in Medellin, seemed to want her along. Eventually we just got Marina to shout to her across the dance floor to tell her where we would be eating and then Lisa, Janek, Marina, Julie, Signe and I headed to El Bistro restaurant in town.

Some Californians (Finn, Ryan, Julian and Andrew) that I’d spoke to the previous evening had been absolutely raving about the prawn masala in El Bistro so I was very excited to have my first curry for months. Words can’t even begin to describe the crushing disappointment I felt when I discovered that the water stoppage had also impacted the menu and they were only serving a very limited menu: presumably one that resulted in minimal washing up.

The food took a while to arrive so we kept devouring bowl after bowl of delicious German bread (it was a German-run establishment), and drinking some very tasty mojitos and were eventually joined by Angela. She then proceeded to show even more annoying sides of her personality by first saying she wasn’t going to eat anything; then waiting ages before ordering the fish but getting it with just salad (it came with salad and fries) and then, after seeing our fries, deciding that she really had to get some. When she said to me “But vhy is zere no vater?” I told her that the dam had broken and all the water had drained away. Upon being asked “But vhy has zee dam broken?” I had to admit that it hadn’t and that I had no bloody idea why there was no water and didn’t really care. In any case the food was really good, if a little overpriced for Colombia.

Eating dinner at El Bistro

After dinner we headed to Cafe del Mar, an absolutely gorgeous bar set atop the old city walls. The cannons are still mounted in the walls facing out towards the sea and the vibe of the place is very relaxed: all the rich Cartageneros come here to see and be seen. After knocking back a few beers we headed back to the hostel and rejoined the party on the roof. I didn’t find it as much fun as the previous night (a lot of the previous night’s revellers couldn’t face a second night on the go) so I didn’t make it to anywhere near to sunrise this time.

Cartagena de Indias

15 06 2010

We arrived at Cartagena bus station and headed over to the taxi rank where Signe and Julie promptly stole the foremost taxi off the “Aussie” guys whilst they distracted them by talking to them. Janek and I didn’t mind too much about being complicit in their crime: we hopped in too and set off for the centre of town. The first impressions of Cartagena weren’t amazing: the long road from the bus station goes through some quite seedy looking areas — we knew we weren’t in Medellin any more — but then as we approached town we saw a surprisingly modern city with lots of skyscrapers in the distance and then lots of quaint colonial buildings and vast city walls.

We headed to the Media Luna hostel which was in a bit of a state of chaos — we’d arrived around checkout time and the staff were looking quite harried. Still that didn’t excuse their oft-times rude and surly attitude. The situation wasn’t helped when Signe decided that, despite our reservation for 4 dorm beds, the 2 girls wanted a private room (I think they were getting tired of sharing with us!) which the hostel didn’t have. Finally we checked into a 6-bed dorm which we had to ourselves the whole time we were there. Unfortunately it didn’t have air conditioning: just a rather ineffectual fan; so our nights there weren’t that comfortable.

After grabbing some food at the restaurant attached the hostel we headed into town and wandered around. It is probably most the beautiful town in Colombia and I found myself pulling my camera out every time we rounded a new corner to try to capture the new vista.

The streets of Cartagena

Janek wanted to watch the football so we found a cafe in one of the main squares and watched North Korea and Brazil. There were quite a few Brazilians in the bar so I’m not sure that our cheer when North Korea managed to score was appreciated that much. The girls enjoyed the game so much that they curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.

Julie and Signe watching the football

Much to Janek’s pleasure, Lisa (who had flown up from Medellin a few days before us) was also staying at our hostel and in the evening we sat on the fantastic roof terrace of the hostel and drank some rum and coke that we’d smuggled into the hostel: much to the chagrin of the staff. Eventually there were so many people on the roof drinking their own booze that any of their attempts to warn us off would have been futile. After a bit we headed into town to look for somewhere to go out but, being a Tuesday night, it all looked pretty dead so we refused to pay cover fees to go into an empty club and then headed back to the roof terrace. At one point Janek noticed that the label on Lisa’s dress was sticking out and for once his normally impeccable, accent-less English failed him when he said “Lisa, your shirt sign back…” We’d tease him about this for days.

On the roof terrace I chatted for quite a while to an English girl called Lucy and when the “Aussies” came back from being out in town they told us about how, between the four of them, they’d had two bad incidents occurring almost simultaneously. One of them had to take money out whilst his friend was held at knife point and in a separate incident one of the guys was forced to strip naked by the police in the park and in the end bribed them so that they didn’t do the full cavity search. It all sounded quite scary but through the whole of my travels in Colombia these were the only people I heard of who ever had problems in Cartagena.

I stayed up on the roof for literally the whole night and saw the sign rise over the city before finally calling it a morning and going to bed.