Crossing Continents in a Speed Boat

Although North and South America are connected by land there is currently no road that spans between the two.  The border of Colombia and Panama is known as the Darien Gap and it contains one of the densest jungles in the world.  Not only does this natural mountainous jungle create an extremely difficult land crossing, but the region is prevalent with cocaine production and the groups partaking in the creation of partygoer’s nasal powder are known to eliminate anyone who stumbles upon their illegal activities.  So aside from the few crazy souls willing to subject themselves to considerable danger by hiking the notoriously treacherous Darien Gap, a boat or a plane is the only option to cross the continents.

Now in my opinion, flying in an airplane is one of the coolest things our species has ever invented.  To be able to get in a metal tube with wings, drink a few beers, watch a movie then land in a completely different country halfway across the world is an absolutely miraculous phenomenon.  That being said, I also sincerely appreciate overland or overwater travel and to be honest I think it is a more enriching experience.  When you simply take off from your capital city and land in another you miss everything in between.  These aren’t places you probably would choose to see or make an effort to get to once you are in a country, so the only way to experience them is to cross the border on land.

For this reason I decided to cross the Darien Gap in a boat.  Now most boats take about 3-4 days and the options are to either sail or take a speedboat.  Having already spent 3 weeks on a sailboat before I decided to try something new and spend four days island-hopping my way to South America.  The boat was appropriately named the Darien Gapster and we spent three nights and four days cruising through the surreal San Blas Islands going from Panama to Colombia.  These islands are nothing short of spectacular with white sand, crystal blue waters and some of them being so small you can literally walk the entire circumference of the island in 5 minutes.  They are owned by the Kuna Indians and the only buildings you will see if any will be bamboo huts with sand floors and hammocks.   The Kunas are a simple bunch who spend most of their time fishing and climbing palm trees for coconuts, which they have used as currency since they inhabited the islands.  Armed with hammocks, rum, snorkels and the mentality to chill we spent our nights on deserted islands or mingling amongst the Kuna.  Our time on the islands was fantastic, chilling with a small extremely diverse group of travelers sharing stories, rum and just being overwhelmed by the beauty of the area.  Combining rum with coconut water is one of the greater drinks around, but deceptively easy to drink and lead to the only serious negative aspect of the journey.

Playing “Never Have I Ever” until the wee hours of the morning and waking up reeking of rum and with a rotten stomach of a hangover DOES NOT go well with extended, bumpy speed boat travel.  One of the roughest parts of the Caribbean is between Panama and Colombia with surprisingly large swells almost all the time.On a small over-loaded speed boat, the rollercoaster size bumps for hours on end made me have to seriously concentrate so I wouldn’t paint the Swiss guy sitting next to me with a rum and coconut upchuck mixture.  Finally the trip ended in La Miel, Panama where we quite literally just walked up a mountain and across the border to Colombia.  Surprisingly it was THE most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever experienced in my life, as some of the group didn’t have shoes, shirts or even pants when crossing over to South America.

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I’m 63 years old and have 5 girlfriends in their twenties… Christmas Day in Panama

X-MAS in the Tropics

After a nice Christmas eve dinner with heaps of ham, cornbread, chicken, rice and scotch with the company of some friends and a kind Colombian family I woke up in my empty apartment on Christmas morning.  As Christmas is a family holiday its not the easiest day to just ring up a friend to hang out.  Eating by yourself on Christmas morning isn’t the most awesome time I’ve ever had in my life.  Although a heaping plate of bacon and eggs drenched in smoldering Panamanian hot sauce always puts a smile on my face, something about it just doesn’t feel right.  When your eating alone you tend to observe a lot more than when your in the company of others.  What’s going on at the surrounding tables, the abilities of your waiters and the decorations of the restaurant become more apparent than usual.  On this unbearably humid and hot morning I watched as families drank and ate together happily.  As I wondered to myself what my own family was doing at that time, who was opening a present or if they had eaten yet, a gorgeous specimen of a woman walked by my table.  Wishing she was some sort of Christmas gift from god to me, she cruised on by and sat down with an old, fat man in his mid to late sixties.  Now this girl couldn’t be far from 20 years old, but I could tell by their greeting that she was this man’s girlfriend. After a brief interaction in horrible spanglish the old man got out an Ipad and played an obnoxiously loud racecar game on it throughout the remainder of their meal.  Literally giggling with joy over his game, it was hard to look away from such a strange little scenario.

Having lived in Thailand for some time and now Panama I am well aware of the phenomenon of older men from the US and Canada coming to poorer countries with a bit of money and having many beautiful, young girlfriends very easily.  Watching this gorgeous woman’s bored face sitting with her old boyfriend who would rather play Ipad than speak to her made me feel bad for this girl, but is that what I should be feeling?  On the one hand it is gross and morally wrong for an elderly man to have a girlfriend barely older than a teenager.  On the other hand this man is probably supporting this girl and her entire family financially so if the girl is willing and wants to then who am I to cast judgement upon the situation.   Some could see this man as a sicko and others could see his as a legend with multiple hot girlfriends 40 years younger.  One of the first questions older men from the States and Canada that I meet down here ask me is how many girlfriends I have.  Just yesterday while watching a football game in a casino an older man struck up a conversation with me and before even telling me his name he told me he was 63 years old and had 5 girlfriends my age in Costa Rica and Panama.  Now even if all 5 of those girls are down with the situation, I just can’t help but judge this old mans character.  In Thailand I hated watching young girls walking down the beach holding hands with men old enough to be their grandfather, but as prostitution is the worlds oldest profession it is clearly something that will never change.

This question is often an easier one to ignore and look the other way than address, but what do you think?

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

Lessons in Philosophy and the Importance of Talking with Strangers – A Trip to Nicaragua

Some people spend copious amounts of time planning their vacations.  From things to see, places to eat and activities to do, making a plan for what to do in a foreign country seems like a fairly standard and normal activity.  For better or worse I am not one of these people.  In fact I’ve been living in Panama for the last 6 months of my life entirely based upon the idea that the country looked cool on a map!  Now, Panama only allows foreigners 6 months stay in their country.  After that you must exit the country for at least 3 full days (72 hours) before you return.  Some people find this a hassle, but I think it’s awesome!  It’s basically like a mandatory international vacation!  Can you imagine if your boss in the US forced you to leave the country every 6 months, how cool would that be!?  To maximize my “mandatory vacation” I selected a long weekend and asked for two days off of work to renew my visa.  I had no real plan for the time off, I was just going to take a bus north to Costa Rica and chill on a beach somewhere.  The day before I was about to leave a familiar feeling passed over me and I had an impulsive itch to check out a completely new country.  I researched flights to Honduras and Nicaragua which were both reasonable and the same price.  As I knew absolutely nothing about either country I asked a couple friends which they would choose, but getting conflicting advice I left it up to a coin-flip.

Granada, Nicaragua

Chillin by myself on the plane to Nicaragua with a curious smile on my face I realized that I had absolutely no plan what-so-ever for when I landed.  Not only did I not know how to correctly pronounce the capital city in which I would be landing shortly, but I was also advised to avoid it because it is very dangerous. Also, not knowing the name of a single other city, tourist attraction or hotel in the whole country I had no idea what I was going to tell a taxi or bus that crossed my path on that random Thursday. Thoughts were racing through my head like “Could I really just say ‘take me somewhere cool’ to a cab driver?”  Luckily it didn’t come down to that as good fortune was on my side.  A pretty Nicaraguan girl was placed next to me on the flight so I practiced in my head a couple of times what I would say to her in Spanish then struck up a conversation.  Although I was secretly hoping that she was a Nicaraguan princess fond of blue-eyed gringos and would invite me to her castle atop a volcano for the weekend, when she told me of a cool city by a lake called Granada I was happy all the same.   After short taxi ride to a ghetto bus station in Managua I found myself the lone gringo on an unbelievably hot bus on the way to a city I’d never heard of in my life.  Some friendly young, hungover Nicaraguans started chatting me up on the bus in English, telling me they were from Granada, knew the cheapest places to stay and could take me out for the night.  Amazed by the kindness of these people and at my random good fortune I was given a sweet tour of the city, friends and some pretty girls to chat with over beers for the evening.  Even if I had all the time in the world to plan this Nicaraguan vacation I don’t think it could have turned out as well as it played out!

Peace Nicaragua

There is a lot to be said about this method of travel or this method of living for that matter.  Of course you can’t always just leave life up to chance and fate, but how often in our busy lives do we allow for randomness.  Seriously, how often do you well and truly have absolutely no idea what you are going to do, where you are going to go and who you are going to meet for a given day?  Of course it can be difficult, scary and lonely at times, but there is also a raw, underlying feeling of awesomeness and adventure when you take just go with the flow and see what happens! As the late John Lennon put so eloquently, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  How true is this piece of advice?  When you reflect back on the better experiences in life how often are they sporadic moments rather than planned ones?  Now I’m not saying you have to take this outlook on life as far as I have, but just open yourself up to it every once in while.   The best way to start is talking to random strangers.  I know that since we were kids we were raised not to do this, but you never know what opportunities could present themselves from just a brief chat.  Who knows, maybe that person will be your significant other one day or maybe they will invite you to a castle on top of a volcano in Nicaragua!!!

Written by Alex Vere-Nicoll

3 Days With NO WATER!??

Although a visitor to Panama City might notice its resemblance to a US City such as Miami with a huge modern skyline, plethora of fast food restaurants and American style Malls, this city is far from it.  Never in all my travels have I experienced the unreal phenomenon that occurs in Panama where the water is just completely shut off to an entire capital city for days in a row.  The reason for this is that a metro is being constructed and apparently there is no way to build this subterranean train system without depriving the 1.5 million people of water for the entirety of their weekends?  The longest of these “dry spells” was last weekend where the water was shut down for a full 3 days and nights, let me share my experience with you….

Perhaps one too many of everything!

The tale starts on a Thursday evening before a David Guetta concert in Panama City.  The anticipation to see the currently #1 DJ on earth was high and my Panamanian concert crew purchased the necessary libations to truly experience this crazy party.  After mixing nearly every type of alcohol known to man like, a 17 year old on Prom night, my crew (-1 who partied a little too hard and fell asleep before the concert even started) cruised over to the Figali Convention Center which more resembles a giant warehouse than a concert venue.  After an incredible night of thumping house music, dancing robots and lasers I stumbled my way to a cheeseburger stand for a 5am snack before I made my way to work educating the children of Panama only an hour later with no sleep and not even having enough time to jump in the shower.  After 8 hours of kids screaming at me and running around while I try to keep my eyes all the way open, one of the hardest days of work I’d ever had finally ended and I collapsed on my horribly uncomfortable mattress in my un-air-conditioned, dirty little apartment.  I woke up briefly for a cereal dinner and although I was warned that there would be no water the next day I was too depleted to care or even take a shower so I laid back down next to my fan and went back to dreamland.  When I woke up the next morning finally feeling like a human being again I placed my head in the sink to rehydrate myself only to hear a slight hiss and not even a drop to cure my desert like tongue.  Kind of wanting to cry a little bit, but knowing it’s not worth it because my body needs the water I realize that I will be unable to have a lengthy “Gentlemans Moment” on my bathroom throne as there is no possibility of flushing the toilet which won’t make the bathroom a great place to hang out for me or the two pretty girls I share it with.  Trumping out into pouring rain thinking about the irony that the outside world has far too much water and the inside has none yet no one has tried to capitalize on this idea I bought some bottled water and used a casino bathroom.  Eventually I realized I must exit this loud, crowded, waterless city so two friends and I jetted off to the nearest beach in hopes of showers, beaches and a little tranquility.  After an hour speeding through the rain we arrived in the late afternoon on a grey gloomy beach, but the cheap hotel room we found had HOT water so it was such a vast upgrade it was utter paradise.

Everybodys going surfing...

The following day we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day (rare in the Panamanian rainy season) and I decided to try my hand at surfing for the first time in my life.  Determined to pick up the sport as quickly as possible and with a Mohammed Ali like mentality I rented a foam top long board recommended to me by the surf chick and took off into the sea.  Although being warned that a tricky rock break was the only place available to surf in the morning I did my best Baywatch style run into the choppy ocean and pretended like I knew what I was doing.  Now it needs to be noted here that I grew up in the mountains of Colorado and know virtually nothing about waves, surf etiquette or the ocean.  As I paddled my way out to where the other surfers were, trying to look as tubular as possible, I repeatedly embarrassed myself getting tossed around by the waves and onto a jagged rock bottom cutting up my feet.  Eventually I managed to fumble myself onto the board and catch a wave only to ride it way too far in and smash into some rocks, breaking the tail fin and costing me $20 with a look of shame from the other surfers.  Spending a solid 5 hours or so in the ocean, not really improving a whole lot but giving it all I had, I eventually found myself cruising back to the city, horribly sunburned as usual with sand in every orifice of my body.  Whispering silent prayers to myself that the good lord would please provide my apartment with just enough water to wash my body, I finally returned to my apartment.  Mortified to hear that not only is there no water on Sunday, but the following day would also be waterless the only redeeming event that occurred was that all schools in the city were forced to close so I would not have to work the following day.  To top it off a massive plumbing problem in my apartment has rendered my washer useless, so the first weekend I entrusted the entirety of my sheets and clothing to some trusty Chinos to wash for me upon my return from the surfing adventure, turned into an epic failure.  The washing place was closed so I was stuck in the same smelly, sandy clothes for yet another day.  Borrowing some raggedy old sheets from a roommate and attempting to lay in my bed in pain due to sunburns encompassing the entirety of my back and torso combined with a large “surfer’s rash” on my stomach from the surfboard, I laid on the only side that didn’t cause pain and thought to myself “Why the hell am I in Panama again?”

Sometimes you're up sometimes you're down!

To answer this question is to get to the root of my philosophy and reason for why I choose to live a life of adventure rather than comfort.  My intentions abroad are not to simply see as many beautiful places as I can, take a lot of pictures and return to a normal life back in the United States.  I want to experience what life is like for someone living in a different country all the good and all the bad.  Whether that be enduring days without water or spending a weekend on the most gorgeous desert island imaginable I do this just to try something new.  I’m not trying to bring all the comforts of home to a new country and stay in nice hotels, have air-conditioning and regular running water.  I’m going to live just like the average Panamanian guy you see walking down the street for better or for worse.  Only then can you truly understand and appreciate a different way of life and be thankful for how awesome you really have it back home.  I already know that when my time calls to return to the comfortable living of the United States it will take less to make me happy than it did before.  Simple things like a hot shower and comfortable bed will be far better than they were before and never again will I take any of the small luxuries we have in the States for granted.

This Bus is Hot, Cramped and Terrible, but it’s Better Than Being Sold By my Dad in Afghanistan!!!

Hungover and discombobulated with my heart still bumping to the beat of a DJ Tiesto concert the night before, I threw a book and some clothes in a small pack and walked under the oppressive tropical sun to my friend’s house.  We had a four day weekend from work so we decided to get out of Panama City for an adventure.  Since there is pretty much only one main road that spans the length of Panama it’s not too tricky to travel, you just pick a way and go.  I’d heard from some locals the Azuero Peninsula had some nice little towns and the World Surf Championships were held there a few months prior so we dragged our half alive bodies to the bus station and bought a ticket to a random city in the area.  On such a cramped bus seat I was literally pressed up against the bus window trying to suppress feelings of carsickness amplified by a hangover.  As I tried unsuccessfully to squirm my body into a comfortable position I generated a new strategy of coping with uncomfortable travel that genuinely works better than anything else I’ve ever tried. I’m currently reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini the dude who wrote Kite Runner.  While being an incredibly well written and awesome book this story is not a happy one.  Reading about the unreal difficulty and sadness of the Afghani women in the book made me realize that my current situation of simply being hot, cramped and hungover on a small, bumpy bus is really not bad at all.  The next time I considered leaning over to my buddy and exclaiming “Dude, this bus sucks sooo bad” I simply thought about the girl in Afghanistan being sold off by her dad at age 15 to an old, sweaty, fat man and suddenly felt stupid for complaining….  So next time you’ve got a 12 hour bus ride or a long flight ahead of you simply chose a story about someone whose life is much worse than your own and whenever you are feeling annoyed or uncomfortable, read their story to remind yourself that life isn’t so bad after all!

Eventually the “not-so-terrible after all” bus journey ended in a small city called Las Tablas.  A cooler, slow paced city where foreigners just came up to us on the street to ask where we were from, this town was a completely different world than the hot, loud urban sprawl of Panama City.  With dinner less than $2 and $0.60 beers in a bar, the price alone made this place worth a visit.  We met a local dude at a bar and I found his slower Spanish much easier to understand than the people of Panama City.  We jokingly told him we wanted to drink one beer in every bar of Las Tablas, but sarcasm is something that is easily lost in translation so we were literally taken on a hilarious, local pub crawl of the entire city! For a small town on a Thursday it seemed that everyone was out and about well into the night and we filled our bellies with beer for a laughably cheap price discussing Panamanian baseball. The kindness of strangers, ease of conversing with locals and overall good vibes of the city were tremendous, so much so that I’m considering moving to this town after my time in Panama City.  My job ends in late December so a move like this could be a lonely one as I would be spending Christmas, New Years and possibly my Birthday in a town where I know not a soul, but I’ve seen apartments for rent around $100 a month and I would be forced to practice my Spanish to do virtually anything so maybe it’s worth it?  At least it’s probably better than Afghanistan…

I’m Confused… What Did You Say!?

When you move to a new country with no prior knowledge of the language, confusion is part of your daily life.  As common as a trip to the bathroom or a glass of water, slightly shaking your head and thinking “what are they saying to me?” happens every single day.  As I near the 4 month point of my time in Central America its hard for me to judge how much Spanish I know.  Sometimes I have complete conversations and understand whats going on, but other times a simple conversation of pleasantries perplexes my brain to the point of no return and I just stare at this person like they are speaking some strange aboriginal language.  What adds to this confusion is that in the school I’m currently working for all my coworkers are from a range of different Latin Countries.  Uruguay, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Peru and Panama, the differences within the Spanish language are far greater than I would have ever expected.  Some of the teacher’s in my school speak slow, enunciate and make me think that I’m actually learning to hablo espanol.  Other teachers speak at me with their tongue moving like it’s on fire, dropping the ends of words and blending everything into something that sounds like maybe it could be Arabic.  When I’m completely lost in a group of people speaking Spanish and unable to contribute anything for uncomfortable lengths of time, I find it easy for my mind to wander or often just shut off completely.  Sometimes I play a little game in my head where I just completely make up the meaning of conversations taking them on crazy tangents that more than likely have absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in real life.

As Spanish is a passionate language people often speak with a lot of emotion that I often find hard to decipher.  Sometimes I can’t tell if people are fighting and yelling at each other or if that’s just the way they speak normally.  This often creates awkward situations where I’m not sure how to act or what facial expression to display.  For example, the other day I found myself in a parent-teacher conference in my usual cloudy haze of confusion.  As I desperately racked my brain to follow an Argentinian, Peruvian, Panamanian and Colombian speak with each other I noticed that the conversation began to increase in intensity.  Not sure whether the volume and pace of the meeting was normal, people were angry or they were all friends joking around with each other I maintained a big smile throughout the meeting and tried to act like I had somewhat of a clue as to what was going on.  When the meeting adjourned, I gave the parent a warm “goodbye and nice to meet you” and went on with my day.  Later that afternoon I overheard some other teachers talking about a furious parent who came in this morning and went off on a rant about the “stupid” teachers at the school.  As I inquired more I realized that I had been present throughout this rant and a shade of red took over my face as the embarrassment began to creep up my spine.  This confused Gringo teacher sat there like an idiot for the better part of an hour while a parent talked negatively about me and the other teachers and all I did was smile and exclaim how much of a pleasure it was to meet him.  The only positive thing that can come out of this is that the parent must have been slightly mind blown of how little his words affected me!?

Remember When We Almost Capsized a boat!?

This isn’t a phrase that most people have the chance or any desire to say during their lifetimes, but whether it be good luck or bad luck I’ve found myself saying it over the last few days.  Although this wasn’t my first nautical misadventure as I’ve had the misfortune to be aboard a large sailing catamaran that miscalculated the height of a bridge in Fort Lauderdale and crashed into it, this near capsizing was an extremely close call.  Let me paint the scene for you…

The Boat that Survived!

So I moved down to Panama on my own nearly 3 months ago and since then I’ve had the pleasure of 3 of my closest friends who decided to come and live this adventure with me for extended periods of time.  On my first holiday from school I decided to cruise up to the postcard perfect paradise that is Bocas Del Toro, Panama.  After a less than fun 10 hour overnight bus ride from Panama City, two friends and I arrived on a gorgeous island waiting anxiously for our fourth buddy to arrive and form the devastatingly awesome double duo I like to refer to as the “Hardcore Four.”  After checking into a fantastically chill hostel where I would be sleeping in air-conditioning for the first time in months, right next to the Caribbean Sea, we opted to rent some bicycles from a friendly Rasta Man and try to discover some caves.  Chalked full of excited anticipation and adrenaline these beach cruisers partook in a “Tour de Panama” up and down the jungle mountain hills of Colon Island.  With our hearts pumping to the sights and sounds of the jungle we cruised until sweat literally overcame every square inch of our shirts.  Not prepared in the slightest, we eventually found ourselves at a cave and using only one small flashlight and the screens of our cell phones we ventured inside.  As the darkness eventually surrounded us we continued through the cave alongside massive spider-cricket hybrid creatures and huge bats whizzing by our heads.  Eventually we realized the squishy hills we were climbing over weren’t rock, but mounds of bat shit and as we slowly found light at the end of the cave we drastically scampered out as quickly as possible.

The Legendary Papa

Later in the evening we were united with our buddy and partook in a debauchery celebration of Panamanian Beer, Rum and Exotic Island bars on stilts over the Sea.  After a fun, long night we woke up in a confused and hungover haze, very thankful we had air-conditioning!  Somehow the night before one of my buddies had managed to re-unite with a local friend who owned a small boat that could take us out for the day, so we forced our bodies up and onto a boat.  Words can’t even describe the legend of Andreas or “Papa” as he’s known by his amigos.  This local islander took us and an extremely hungover, random Auzzie dude on his boat for the day to go fishing.  We stopped on his island where he grabbed some fresh coconuts and hacked them open with a machete for us so we could drink the water to cure our hangovers.  Next we stopped for a case of beer, wrapped a fishing line around a plastic bottle to be used as our only fishing device and set out to catch some fish.  The first stop was to catch some small bait fish for which we had a huge net that we would cast out near shore to scoop them up.  Only 50 feet or so from the beach we began to catch net after net of bait fish as our boat was slowly rocking to the waves that seemed to be slowly increasing in intensity.  Our island captain was so caught up in catching the bait fish and we were too busy drinking beers in such an elevated mood that we hardly noticed what was happening, but as I turned my head I noticed a large wave that looked as if it was about to break directly over the boat.  One of my friends was literally standing on the hull of the ship making jokes as this boat quite literally crashed over top of us, nearly flipping the boat directly into the sea.  By some combination of luck and strength no one managed to go overboard, but our problems were only just beginning.

2 of the Hardcore Four and Papa

As “Papa” frantically made his way back to the motor he screamed at us to get to the front of the boat to balance it out, as we had taken on so much water there was quite literally only a few inches separating the level of water in the boat and the sea.  Our captain was waste deep in water with a stressed look on his face as we all stood beer in hands in a discombobulated state of happiness, confusion and disbelief.  As I sat on the hull watching the hungover Auzzie attempt to bail the huge amounts of water out of the boat using a tiny plastic half gallon bottle I kept noticing the back corner of the boat and the literal 2 inches separating us from never seeing this boat again.  As “Papa” sped us out of the waves and we slowly made it to deeper, calmer water the bailing began working and we realized this boat would see another day.  It was from this moment on that the “Hardcore Four” could honestly say that they nearly capsized a boat in Panama……