Panama to Providencia
As we enter Colon, dozens of giant ships are anchored everywhere awaiting transit through the Panama Canal. Black smoke rises all around Colon as people protest the government and a planned sale of prime commercial land called “the Free Zone”. The violent protests between the Panamanian people and police resulted in several deaths, commercial businesses closing, looting, citywide street closures and general mayhem.
We are safe in the marina at shelter bay, but nothing can be accomplished while here. I need water filters, fuel filters, maps and groceries. The taxi drivers will not venture into Colon. If they don’t feel safe then I sure don’t want to be there. In the week that we are in the marina, tensions escalate most days as discussions volley back and forth from the government and the people. During a lull in the Molotov cocktail throwing, I am able to get a taxi for $50US to take me to the grocery store. After two months without a large grocery store to fill our cupboards we are really low on food. The locals have the same idea to stock up with food and join in the melee inside the store. All the bread and chicken is sold out. People cram the aisles pushing carts into each other and me. A frustrating three hours waiting in different lines for cheese, meat and then the long checkout lanes and finally I am able to push my two cartfuls of foodstuffs outside.
The marina provides shelter from the nearby crazy city with a nice pool, a surrounding jungle and other boaters to talk with. This has been our only experience with living in a marina and the fun associated with it. Everyone is constantly working on his or her boats and are willing to talk and hang out. It’s kind of like a working party. I couldn’t work much except to change out a shive (pulley) for the main halyard at the top of the mast, which saves a whole lot of work hoisting it up. Everything else I needed parts to accomplish and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Walking into the jungle gives us all a fun diversion from the boat. Howler Monkeys swing
from tree branches just over our heads screaming as they go. All of a sudden, several of them start throwing poo at us, which sends all four of us into a panic. “Run!” I scream. Luckily, the kids heed my advice and run like the wind. From a safe distance we howl with laughter as I relay to the kids what they were throwing. “Then what were they pouring on us?” Chase asks in his innocent four-year-old way. “Well, that monkey must not have had any poo, he was trying to pee on us.” “What?!!?!” The laughter continues as we walk away. No direct hits today.
We are out of propane after our stay in the Kuna Yala. The propane stores in Colon have all been closed or impossible to get to. We could wait for things to settle down, but that could be weeks. Cold sandwiches taste good too; it will have to change our menu a little. We have places to go. If we aren’t going to be able to enjoy anything in Panama, we might as well go. Pulling out of the marina winding through the docks, our friends on Spruce jump out of their boat saying they have three small one-pound propane bottles. “Do we want them?” You bet! I need to maneuver close to the dock as Andy tosses each one to Lindsey. She was a Golden Glove recipient in her Division 1 softball days during college, so she fields them all with ease. It is one of those fantastic moments in boating where everyone is there to help each other. I am choked up with sentiment and our luck. I need coffee in the mornings.
Leaving Colon behind our wake feels good. Black smoke rises all around in even more fires than when we entered a week ago. One of my great sorrows about travel on a boat is that we can rarely make inland forays to the countries. Leaving Rivers2Seas at anchor all night or for days at a time without us doesn’t feel safe for the boat or our belongings. We had hoped to travel to Panama City and maybe do some rafting while here as our boat was safely snuggled into the marina. So if we weren’t going to be able to enjoy our stay, I’m glad to be on the sea again.
Sailing for fifty-two hours brings us to Providencia, Colombia, which is a hundred miles off
the eastern coast of Nicaragua. It’s a strange location that would become more dramatic to us in the coming days. We had to motor most of the way, but seas were calm making for a pleasant passage.
Providencia is a clean, artistic, and small island. At only four miles by one mile it is small and the inhabitants are proud of the fact that there is less than one person per square kilometer. It’s nearby sister island of San Andreas boasts the densest population of any Caribbean island. This is definitely the place we want to be.
Going for one of our strolls to view the area, we cover several miles along the Eastern coast walking over painted causeways, tranquil beaches, loud jungles and the bustle of a small town at work.
Most people use motorcycles instead of cars and carry anything that a truck would. Seeing a desk go by between two guys on one bike or a family of four or five or dragging fifteen rods of rebar twenty feet long behind or an entire welding setup is simply entertaining. Riding the taxi to fill our two propane bottles, I rest each on a knee speeding to the store. I certainly had no helmet and carrying two bombs is less than appealing, but it cost less than it would have in Panama and there are no riots in the streets or tear gas or bullets flying by or Molotov Cocktails…it’s pleasant.
The people are what make this island spectacular. All are friendly and welcoming. Many islanders in the Eastern Caribbean are jaded by tourists and see us only a walking dollar. Here people are truly welcoming. At one restaurant the proprietors sit and talk with us the entire meal, only leaving to stir the food or flip the fish. Walking down the street with two jugs of diesel and talking with a local man I express how much I like his island and the people. Clearly this man does not have much money, yet, as we part he slips a lime into my shirt pocket.
The kids have been waiting for Halloween and asking repeatedly if the locals celebrate the
holiday. They do, but in a different style. All the kids pack into the town gymnasium in a screaming melee of giggles. Welcomed with open arms as we strut in with a cowgirl and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, we grab some open seats in the bleachers. All sorts of shows are put on with the culmination of a funny and talented clown that had the entire place in hysterics. The speakers are turned up so loudly and the result so static ridden that I can’t understand the Spanish. When a bunch of girls go up to the stage for what I think is a costume contest, I urge Ella up there. The contest turns out to be a dance contest and I can honestly say that I am so glad Ella is voted off. Kids in the audience choose which kids would get to stay on through several votes, whittling down the number of kids on stage. Whoever dances in the most lewd, seductive and provocative way gets the most cheers. All these six year olds need is a pole and they could be on any strip club. There are others in the crowd who appear equally offended by the crazy behavior, but it’s their island. When the boys get up there the gyrations get hotter and bigger. There is even one boy and girl acting out a man and woman having sex. It’s crazy.
The kids get treats and cakes and ice creams from the adults, but no trick or treating. I had hoped for that as a good way to meet locals. We are all a little sad. But, Halloween came in a sort of Charlie Brown style.
Hiking to a rock outcrop named Morgan’s head gives us a nice hike through jungle with lizards darting every which way. Frogs announce our arrival around each bend with miraculous views when the trees part. A snack of saltines with peanut butter gives us a little rest for the hike back home.
Some rumors about eminent war with Nicaragua explain why there are three navy battleships in the outer anchorage. It’s rather unsettleing. After civil unrest in Panama and now nations at war, it seems as the world has gone mad. Nicaraguans feel that San Andreas and Providencia and the neighboring coral banks should be theirs because they lie within 200 miles of their coast. Nicaraguans feel that the wealth from fishing and oil reserves this large area could provide is worth going to war over. Colombians feel the same way in their desire to protect their islands and fishing grounds that they have held since 1822. There will be a decree stating what the international court of justice decides in less than a week. The Colombians meanwhile are strengthening their position, thus the three navy battleships nearby. I don’t want to be anywhere near this place when the decree comes out. War is never pretty and my ship wouldn’t survive much of an attack.
Pulling up anchor at midnight we start the 380-mile trek to Roatan, Honduras. We wanted a weather window for Isla Mujeres, Mexico but that wasn’t happening and we would rather wait in an area that isn’t at war within itself or with other nations.
Chase and Ella are both seasick in the seas but we have a great fast sail up the Nicaraguan coast and the fabled Mosquito Coast quickly disappears. The two kids compare puke bowls and whose is bigger in a way that only kids can do. The bowls fill as fast as we can dump them.
A hundred miles out from Providencia, a Colombian navy frigate angles his boat pointing at Rivers2Seas as he questions us over the VHF radio. They are obviously making a statement that these are still their waters. I think it’s weird when he asks if there are any women on board. I think it’s outrageous when he asks if we have weapons on board. The Honduran coast has a few of its’ own pirates and a bad reputation among sailors. Now, I have told everyone within earshot that I have a young wife on board and no weapons to defend ourselves. It’s not reassuring.
Thirty hours into the sail and we turn to the West which brings some better seas. I
understand better the desire for these fishing grounds as our freezer bulges with two five pound Skipjack tunas and a fifteen pound Blackfin tuna. These are good waters. I hope along with the locals of Providencia that whatever happens, oil will not be drilled for here. The prospect of black gold changes everything, but the locals seem to have the right mindset.
We spend our time reading, napping and telling stories to the kids. The kids play innumerable imaginary games as we bounce down the seas. My favorite is when Ella sets up a desk and starts selling raft trips. I’ll take a hundred people please! Going to bed, the kids ask for another “Daddy story.” I give them one of my newest titled, “Don’t chum the waters,” which sends them into hysterics. They keep interjecting their own thoughts and views; the laughter is loud and boisterous. Lindsey calls me out to check the sails, so I do some adjustments and by the time I return Chase is fast asleep and Ella is telling me to turn off my light. A minute and a half ago we were all rolling in giggles. Even on the little crew passages are tiring.
Our timing for the passage proves perfect as we motor into French Caye, Roatan, Honduras just before dark, 65 hours after leaving Providencia. If we made it in the dark we would have had to drift offshore all night until we could see the entrances and reefs. Another good passage is behind us. I can barely stay awake and fall asleep before the kids at 7 P.M. Lindsey does that last haul with the kids and crawls into bed minutes later.