7/11/19 – 7/14/19
It was Monday, July 15th. I’d lost track of how many days we’d been in Puerto Lindo. In reality, it was probably four or so. It felt like a winter. A sunny, breezy, cervesa soaked last dollar in your pocket kind of winter. I was sitting in my little chair in front of the only socket in the restaurant; charging everything I could because I knew that as soon as I left somebody else would move in. I had my sunglasses and headphones on so nobody would bother me. My hat was pulled over my eyes and I tipped an empty beer bottle on the ground next to me for added effect. I was eaves dropping on any nugget of wisdom that Raymond, the bar owner, might drop. He appeared to be explaining something to a drunkard captain.
"I don't care if you drive a blow boat or Air Force One, you try to steal an ashtray from my fuckin' bar and I'll slit your goddamn throat."
He’d taken a day or so to warm up to us, but was incredibly gracious.
“I’d unlock the bathroom for you if I could, but I found the guard in there with a strumpet and they made a mess of the place.” He raised an eyebrow at us in an “I’m sure you’ve been there,” sort of way.
I’d spent much of the day wandering up and down the docks talking to every captain I could find and giving them our sob story of needing a lift to Colombia. There was Fabian, a Colombian and a cyclist. He didn’t have space but introduced me to Cesar, who had two spots left for $500 each and said he had plenty of lobster. That sounded nice although the boat stank a bit of shit.
I ran across a Chilean whom we’d met a day or two before. He looked at bit ragged when we'd first crossed paths and now he was completely besotted and bleary eyed to the point that it was only a matter of time before he pissed himself
"I got you my friend, don't you worry. I'll find you a boat."
He looked like the alcohol was melting him. I fully expected to find a strange slurry of a man dripping off the docks leaving nothing but a pile of salty rags drenched in rum.
A guy named Daniel kept dropping by. He was going to the Panamá/Colombia border and said we could easily get another boat from there to a place called Turbo. Raymond warned us about him though.
"That guy Daniel. I saw you two talkin'. I don't get in nobody's business, but he runs a dirty boat. Dropped anchor on the Turks and told them to fuck off."
Raymond trusted the Turks and I trusted Raymond.
“Tahsin is a good Captain. They run a clean boat and will make you the finest Turkish food, but your liver is going to hurt by the end of the trip.”
I politely declined the Chilean’s offer on the grounds of not wanting to get stuck at another port with no end in sight. The Turks, Tahsin and Rengin had an amazing seventy two foot sailboat that they were in the process of restoring. They had planned on leaving early Saturday morning but were getting PanAmericaned in much the same way that we were.
“We just replace one bolt on motor and then we leave,” he’d originally told us when we arrived on Thursday. It turned out that the one bolt was rusted in place. They tried an entire can of WD40 and used half a bottle of propane trying to torch it and break it free, but couldn’t.
“There is a man in Panama City,” he said to us over beers on Friday night. “He will come tomorrow with extractor and then we leave Sunday.” He blew a smoke ring into the air and stared through it at the harbor as if it were a little port hole in a boat.
“They’re not leaving any time soon.”
“Nobody is driving from Panama City to Puerto Lindo on a Saturday. He’s in the same pile of shit we’re in and he knows it.”
Our pile of shit was Captain Joel. Panamanian and native to Portobello. He drove a water taxi and occasionally would make runs back and forth to Colombia on his little eighteen foot power boat. There was no room for a life raft. He didn’t appear to have any emergency flares. Judging by the way he didn’t return phone calls or texts he probably didn’t have a satellite phone. And it was quite obvious that at the first sign of a swell the vessel would capsize. The Spirit Airlines of charter boats to Colombia. What he saved by skimping on safety and most certainly skirting a law or two he passed on to clients in the form of a trip through the San Blas Islands that was half as much as any of his competitors. The other Captains hated people like him and took any opportunity they could to slander his kind.
“They wouldn’t be allowed to do what they do in any developed country,” Tahsin told me. “You’d better be sure he’s not doing something shady on the side.”
“You think it’s a blow boat?”
“No. Nobody runs cocaine through here, but guns….. maybe.”
I asked Raymond if he’d met Joel.
"Look man, I've had like a hundred strokes ok, sometimes I find myself on my hands and knees picking through cow shit hoping to find the fuckin' remote for the goddamned VCR that I threw away twenty fuckin' years ago." He blew a puff of cigar smoke into my face. Normally I would find this offensive, but I knew it was all theatrics to punctuate what he was saying. It worked. “So maybe I met the guy. I get these acid flashbacks and that’s fucked up cuz I never stopped doin' the shit. So maybe I didn’t meet him. What’s it matter? You’re looking for a deal right?" He made a soft “pfff” sound as another puff of smoke escaped his lips. Before it could float away he inhaled and it all raced back in.
Raymond was Sam Elliot in a Panama hat, aloha shirt, tattered khaki shorts, and five dollar flip flops. Paler complexion, smoking cigars in his plastic folding chair throne while drinking Coke and trolling Facebook all day. He cultivated a strange sense of mystique.
"You can’t trust any of these Panamanians, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come through,” he told me. “See Edwin over there? Been my employee for six months, he's a hardened criminal. Don't trust him a lick and keep your eye on your shit around him. Good man though." I nodded as if I understood.
"That drill battery is dead. Had it sitting there for a week now as a trap to see if somebody steals it. Somehow it seems like they only steal the good ones though."
Captain Joel and I had been in communication for several weeks. He usually took a few days to respond to a text message, but his notes were always accompanied by little dolphin and sea turtle emojis. All the other captains appeared to be drunk at all times and generally smelled as if their clothes had been used to mop the bathroom floor in an hourly motel. Joel exhibited none of these characteristics. Perhaps this should have been a warning.
We were supposed to meet Thursday morning as we got into Puerto Lindo. He said he was running a bit late though and would meet us around noon. We didn’t think much of it and took our time breaking camp and then had an overpriced cup of juice in Portobello while staring at sunken ships exposed by low tide and old cannons in a nearby fort.
We pulled into a little restaurant with a dock just outside the main port around noon and sent Joel a message. He said he could meet us in thirty minutes. We convinced a guard to let us down near the docks. Around one o’clock I sent another message. Joel responded around three o’clock to let us know he was just around the corner. He arrived sometime after six thirty.
I could not tell if his fluid interpretation of minutes and seconds was simply a don’t give a damn sort of mindset or caused by a deeper understanding of the warping of space time. Perhaps he was moving so quickly that time stood still for him and I just sat around aging. Nevertheless, his substandard punctuality was never acknowledged, discussed, or seen as anything worthy of an apology. We followed his taxi back to his office as he had offered us a place for the night so we could leave town early Friday morning.
It became clear relatively quickly that Joel was playing the bait and switch.
“We cannot leave until Saturday because of the other rider.”
“Who’s the other rider?”
“Well, I don’t know, but I hope to find one in town tomorrow.”
I told him it seemed implausible to think he would pick up another rider to go to Necocli. Nobody wants to go to Necocli. We wanted to go there because it put us closer to the Andes and would allow us to take our time through Colombia as we had to be in Quito by mid-September for a trip to the Galapagos. But for the average twenty something Euro traveler that only seemed interested in smoking cigarettes, avoiding the sun, pushing the limits of body odors, and sampling Colombia’s most famous export, Cartegena was the place to go.
Joel told us that he would go to town Friday morning and try to find another passenger and we would leave at noon whether he found one or not. With business settled, we set up camp at his office. It was a concrete block shack with an outdoor shower, a mysterious hole in the ground that could fit a Buick, and a pair of cots. His brothers, uncles, and cousins were there. I realized that they were just scrapping this whole thing together like tech entrepreneurs; sleeping on floors, eating ramen noodles, hustling any rides they could.....
They built half the office in front of our eyes. Hung a door, ran two wires from an adjacent field through a creek and onto the porch to power a light bulb that one of them was installing, fixed a leaky pipe. We talk economics and psychology. Soph explains PTSD and I discuss the impacts of retaliatory tariffs. Joel's little brother wants to know what everything costs in the US. A coca cola, a truck, pants, a home, and a banana. They're shocked to hear that we have poverty, that we don't all have beautiful furniture and fancy homes with roofs that don't leak
We woke up to howler monkeys, humming birds, chickens, and all the other jungle morning sounds. Soph’s underwear was drying on her bike and as she reached for it a scorpion crawled out.
We sit and drink coffee with the family while waiting for Joel. Uncle Carlos tells us about Adam and Eve and the afterlife and that one day we may die and find ourselves on other planets, but maybe Darwin was right he says and it is evolution.
“Nobody alive will ever know where we go when we're dead. Peace and love and water," he says "Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi." I simply nod, "peace and love my brother." He switches quickly to life on Mars and I get confused about whether we're discussing the afterlife or aliens. I pivot to trying to explain constructed wetlands and their potential role in creating fresh air and water on Mars and how this was all pioneered by a man named Bill Wolverton in the seventies. Everyone stares at me strangely at the end of this though and I have no idea if I was contextually out of place or if my Spanish had failed me.
The morning rain hit. Everyone pitched in and added some sheets of tin to the roof. Soph and I hid inside drinking avena, a watery oatmeal sweetened with condensed milk, and eating little corn cakes with eggs. Water dripped all around us from holes in the roof. What was once a dry runoff bed surrounding the property was now a twelve foot wide river complete with small logs being carried away and the occasional rat struggling to escape its current. Joel didn’t show up until eleven, and he hadn’t bothered to look for another client yet.
We went back to the terminal at Puerto Lindo.
"America is beyond the point where voting will solve anything if you know what I mean," I had gotten sidetracked from my reflections on how we’d ended up camping in the storage area of Andrew’s restaurant to listen as he explained some of his politics, "I got enough ammo that they'll have taken me out long before I get through it all."
Tahsin was standing in the sun using the underside of a beer can as a mirror as he scraped the hair off his face with a rusted Bic razor.
To pass the time on Saturday I took a data science course online. Joel appeared out of nowhere late in the day after I’d messaged him to say we were looking for another boat and sleeping at the marina. He said we would be leaving Sunday morning. He drove me to his mother's office in Portobelo to get copies of our passports. I feared for my life as he cornered the meandering shoreline roads at eighty miles an hour but everyone else in the car, including his mother, seemed perfectly calm.
After the copies he asked for a $200 deposit. I told him the money was at the marina. It was in my pocket. On the way back I decided that we couldn't give him the deposit because the money was our insurance that he actually came. I gave him my word that if he arrived with the boat, food, and gas at 8:40 in the morning we would leave with him. We argued about it for a while and eventually he submitted.
I had low expectations, but we didn’t have much planned for Sunday morning, so we decided to wake up and break camp from the back of the restaurant as if we might actually be leaving. Joel showed up a bit after nine. He looked a bit stressed. I greeted him with a smile. I looked at the boat and thought that it seemed sparsely packed for a two day trip. We walked up to the port masters office to get our paperwork. Being a Sunday, it was of course closed.
He had an artificial “aww shucks,” kind of look. He smiled and said that we would most certainly leave the next morning. Soph and I agreed that we needed to take the next boat to Colombia regardless of the price or where it was going. There was no telling how long he would string us on.
“I used to be somebody,” Raymond was now telling the cleaning person. I was intrigued to hear the explanation, but was distracted by a drunken sailor that had apparently aggravated a dog and had been bit on the hand. He tried to sit and get back to his beer, but was spilling blood all over the table. His friends picked him up and started dragging him towards the kitchen sink. He seemed as if he’d already forgotten what had happened and now thought he was being dragged away from a bar fight. He started screaming and pointing at everyone back at the table. His entire arm was covered in blood and it dripped all over the concrete floors.
“You the guy looking for a boat?”
“That’s the captain of El Gitano over there. They leave tomorrow night and have space.”
Like what we're doing here? Throw us some bread. It keeps tires on the bikes and food in our bellies! Better yet, share us on social media or send a link to a friend with a message that says something like "Hey, I consider you a person of refined taste and culture and think that you would enjoy this."
Your street smarts definitely came in handy when dealing with Joel.
I think we all have met a Joel at one time or another.
Yeah, he should learn to ask for the deposit before he has dragged people along for half a week….