Hitchhiking with a Cargo boat to Panama

Kuna Segelboot auf den San Blas Inseln.
Kuna Segelboot auf den San Blas Inseln.

I am camping on the Caribbean coast in La Miel, Panama. Behind me the deep jungle of the Darien Gap. 5:30 am. Something had awakened me and as I look out of the tent I see a group of 15 people standing around the military commander receiving instructions. Maybe illegal Cubans that populate the area and sometimes try to sneak into North America. A slight breeze is blowing, as it had all night through.

Unionized mosquito swarms

Although the flowering vegetation and the fauna-rich area I was surprised to not being bothered by a single mosquito that night. A welcomed change, to see that they have strict working periods here. I had been unbelievably lying in my tent for several minutes with my head lamp trying to find insects. There were none. The other side of the coin showed its terrible face at 5:45. Start of work. All mosquitoes to the time clock. So whilst I was deconstructing the tent I had mosquitoes all over me like bees sticking on their honeycomb.

But I made my first goal for the day. To wake up early. Since my possible lift was about to leave at some time. I waited at the army office for somebody from the boat to drop by. And the young guy from the day before with whom I had a nice chat came over. Today a little grumpy. I greeted nicely and sticked to his heels on the way to the boat. The whole crew was already working. They unloaded masses of booze for the duty free shop and lowered washing machines, fridges, freezers and other electronic stuff from the roof. Several of the packages had a rough landing. The whole process, including also 800 packages of water bottles and 250 units of 24 packs of coke, took several hours.

At some point I turned around to join the group of younger people to have some chit chat. The guy from the day before was with them and I realized that he wasn’t even part of the crew. And also, he was rather grumpy. “Do you have a lighter? It might take some time there.” “Where would you go?” “Puerto Obaldia, with the cargo ship.” “Not possible. No passengers allowed. You have to take a Lancha. My friend can drive you.” What a bold lie. Very bold since the same guy who had told me the day before that it wouldn’t be a problem to go with the boat now said “No puede (Not possible).” And even more cheeky since the military and the captain had already given their ok. Damn bloodsuckers!

Dieser rostige Kahn sollte fortan mein Boot sein.
With this rusty boat i was going around.

All for the crew, all for the club

Since there was nothing else to do, I, at some point, joined the human feeder band and helped them for the next hours to unload the ship. The captain was amazed. He also was a nice comrade. Laughing all the time. A latino by the book, originally from Panama, always keeping his cool. Not even ruffled by the dropping gas refrigerators. A well trimmed schnauzer, short-trimmed hair and jug ears. A combination of Ernie from the Sesame Street and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. A mediocre loud, authentic laughter that made you laugh as well and always up for a joke. But also he spoke fast and mumbling. I didn’t understand a word of his. Pity. Still, I liked him.

At noon we started towards Puerto Obaldia. 20 minutes of sailing and an immigration stamp were waiting for me. I even got lunch for my working aid. So friendly. Ready to enter the new country. My backpack was completely ripped apart by the next friendly commander. Immigration was closed and I had to wait 30 minutes. That really pissed me off since I had hoped to continue with the cargo ship. With my passport stamped I headed back for the ship as fast as possible.

A lift to Panama!

Let’s make it short. After some hassle and back and forth with the army and the captain, my name made it to the crew memberlist and I had my ride to the next road, passing the Darien Gap. Just as easy as that. Passage completed. From then on I was a worker on a cargo ship and it was a welcomed change from normal hitchhiking. The whole journey took us about a week. Together with Ernie L. Jackson and a crew consisting mostly of Kuna people, the indigenous people from the San Blas Islands.

The first night we stopped at one of these islands. After we had roped up the ship I went for an excursion to the island. It wasn’t much bigger than three football courts but from one edge to the other full with huts. It was the first real culture shock I remember. Not a single house made of stone, all the huts were traditionally covered with thatched roofs or Bamboo (I think). I strided through the streets and felt like in an ancient viking settlement.

Dorf der Kuna mit traditionellen Hütten
Village with traditional Kuna huts

In the big main building there was a ceremony going on. I joined them. In the middle two men sat in hammocks singing traditional Kuna songs. Sounded like indian Chantis. Very relaxing. As I made two pictures several people approached me taking me outside forcing me to delete the pictures from the camera. It was not allowed. I apologized. Still I wanted to restore them later with a special program (didn’t work though). After the surprisingly interesting walk I went back to the ship finding the whole crew drinking. Last evening. Next day we would be at the main Kuna island where the bigger part of the crew would be staying for two nights with their families.

The entertaining of an alcoholized crew

Kuna people can’t drink much. Was my feeling. Especially the older ones were drunk very fast. As I was already in bed, “fun” started. The second captain, a tall, disgusting person that could easily have made it to the Hells Angels, was quarreling with our chef, Pablo. I really like Pablo since he took really good care of me. With his head he nearly reached my belly button, he had a fluffy beard making him look like a Catfish and he was always equipped with a basecap of some Panamanian Schlager star. They were cursing at each other. I had no Idea why but the second captain always asked: “Dormiste, dormiste?”, “Did you sleep? Did you sleep?”. At some I could hear a smack when this bastard hit the poor, outgunned Pablo. The next day Pablo had a black eye.

Second act: I tried to sleep but above me, in his hammock, there was swinging “the snorer”. But it wasn’t really a snoring, rather a snotting. Snoring gets familiar as soon as you tap into the rhythm of the snorer. Not with the snotting. Isolated slime chunks that are – often but irregularly – pushed back and forth from the inhaled air inside the throat. And on the top of that: respiratory blackouts. Sometimes I thought he had died. Then I relaxed for a moment because I thought the snotting was over. Every time it continued with an even louder rattling inhale. Like Chinese water torture. You never know when the next drop will hit. The movie of the drunk crew continued. At some point two of the younger ones brought the old, fragile ship mechanic carrying him to his hammock at the end of the ship. I had seen before that he was totally drunk. Looks like he wasn’t even able to walk. At some point I left the hammock beneath the snotting guy and took over the hammock directly beneath the old mechanic.

At some point I opened my eyes. What was going on? Mr Mechanic was poking, clumsy as the old and tattering man he was, with his hand through the darkness. As if he wanted to reach a far distant object. He wanted to get out of his hammock but was extremely drunk and in general a little senile. I watched him for some time, in my head saying “You can do it, come on oldie!”, waiting for him to make some progress.
In the end I got up to help him out. In that moment he dropped out of the hammock like a newborn calf. I helped him to get up, he was shaking. Taking his hand I led him to a nearby barrel that he grabbed, stabilizing himself starting to urinating directly on board. As he was done he fumbled his way back to the hammock that I was already holding in preparation because I really didn’t want to pull him out of his own piss the next second. Skillful, the same way he had fallen out of the hammock, he fell back in and asleep.

About gas bottles and Kuna woman

Mein Cargo Boot mit jeder Menge Gasflaschen.
My cargo ship with a lot of gas bottles

The next day we stopped at the main Kuna island where we would be staying for the upcoming three days before we would go north. The daily routine on the ship was pretty exciting. We stopped at uncountable amount of small islands, loaded and unloaded fridges, boats, groceries, air conditioners and loads of gas bottles. Many gas bottles, sometimes over a hundred per island. Also, a young Kuna joined us because he needed a lift to Carti. It was also my own goal since there the first road was starting. So we went for several days from one island to another selling gas at Kunas.

It was so interesting for me, I really enjoy experiences like that way more than looking at some tourist attraction. Here there is business. Here is life. Buying, selling. Exciting harbourlife. Joking, haggling. Discovering how people challenge their everyday routine. When I am watching my crew members, how they deal with their relatives.

Especially the Kuna women were very fascinating for me. They are dressed in a short skirt and a colorful blouse, headscarf, nose piercing and some kind of curly leg warmers. They seemed very proud to me. They were the ones that were doing the business whilst the men were hanging around. I have no idea about the Kuna culture and am too lazy to read up on them, but that proudness and self confidence appeared very sexy to me.

Meine Crew und mein Boot.
My crew, my boat.

At the end we arrived to Carti. The friendly captain and several others including me went off the ship. A Lancha was prepared that would bring us 3km to the coast, where the street was beginning. I had crossed the Darien Gap. The whole northern American continent in front of me. Ready to be explored. This was probably the second most difficult and second most important passage of my journey. Done! I can tick that. I was relieved and happy.

I started walking immediately. Several thousand kilometers of hitchhiking in front and in the back of me. I have to get to Guatemala and continue to Mexico from there.

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