It was 6 a.m, and I was squashed into a 4×4 with several other travelers all bound for Colombia. We bumped along the dirt roads to El Porvenir, through the stunning mountains of the Darien before being dropped at a riverbank and taken in long, thin brightly painted rowboats to the Stahlratte, a beautiful 40-meter sailboat.
I have to admit I was a little nervous about this part of my journey. I’m not a big fan of sailing, nor of large groups of people in contained spaces that you cannot escape from: boats, school, work, prisons, that type of scenario. Making polite conversation whilst trying not to be seasick would certainly not be my idea of fun. In fact making polite small talk full stop is not my strongpoint.
But this was the best way to get to Colombia and I decided that a larger sailboat with more people could be better than one of the smaller ones on offer. There might be a few people I could communicate with on the Stahlratte, if I was on a boat of six and they were all irritating I would be putting my mental health in danger. So I braced and boarded the boat, wishing I’d had a pre-printed T-shirt made up stating my name, my traveling status (i.e. how many months I’d been on the road) and my plans for where I was going next, oh and a bullet-pointed list of the top 5 highlights of my trip so far.
So with all 20 on board and four crew we set off for the San Blas islands, where we were to moor up for two nights before sailing on to Cartagena. As the boat chugged out of El Porvenir (by motor, no wind for the sails) and into the San Blas archipelago, it felt as though we had reached paradise and my earlier worries started to fade. The aqua blue ocean was dotted with hundreds of white sandy islands covered by palm trees.
The region is owned by the Kuna indigenous peoples, who have autonomy over the San Blas, which consists of hundreds of islands, one for every day of the year, I was told. Despite the choice, the Kuna inhabit only a handful of these sun washed islands, as they hold strong community bonds and like to stay close to each other.
Our captain Ludwig, has been visiting the islands for years and knows the Kuna and their ways well. We had been moored for a while when a loud trumpet call came up from a neighboring island and we could see some Kuna wrestling a huge fish out of the water and into one of their narrow rowboats. Some of our crew went over to investigate and our dinner soon appeared on the deck with a loud thump; the biggest fish I had ever seen, a huge Grouper, all for $30 and a couple of beers.
Ludwig started gutting the fish and at the same time told me about the boat: “It used to be like a commune in here, free love…that sort of thing. But people got bored with that so now we’ve put the boat to different uses. We do this journey for a while and then later in the year we travel to Cuba.” What a great life, I thought, providing you don’t get seasick as many of the passengers did the next day. Ludwig continued. “I’ve been on this boat for 17 years. It’s not only my home, it’s like I’m part of the boat, kind of like the keel or something.”
The Stahlratte has certainly had an interesting life, as well as being a commune and a tourist boat it has been chartered out to various environmental agencies, from 1996 – 1999 it was a Greenpeace vessel and has also been used by the World Wildlife Fund. The two days we spent moored consisted of swimming, eating and chatting (or avoiding chatting) to others onboard the boat. My journey seemed rather unadventurous compared to that of some on the ship: a couple who were cycling from Canada to Argentina, a Canadian on a motorbike doing the same, a couple from Sweden riding the Americas and a chap from Stoke-on-Trent.
My trip to follow in Paul Theroux’s footsteps seemed to pale into insignificance and as I muttered about trying to find trains and explain about The Old Patagonian Express, the people listening seemed mildly bemused, which rather annoyingly left me feeling bemused and I started pondering on how I could potentially make the whole affair slightly more radical or risky in order to compete with these tales of excitement.
After two days ast sea I awoke to see the cloudy skyline of Cartagena coming into view. Not quite what I was expecting, lines of skyscrapers on the horizon. New hotels and offices hiding ‘the jewel of Cartagena’ – its old town which was just visible behind the high rises as we rounded the corner into the harbour. It was an exciting way to first see a country and seemed so much more natural than stumbling out of an airport dazed and confused. Now all we had to do was wait for passport control to let us off the boat and I was certainly keen to disembark. I felt that one more travel tale around the dinner table might just finish me off.