Friday, July 10, 2009

What’s Spanish for brakes?

The alarm went off at stupid o’clock, unaffectionately known as 4am. Thanks to our trip to the grocery store we had some cereal for breakfast and then dragged our butts to reception carrying just our day packs with just enough stuff for our two night getaway. There was another couple waiting whom I recognized from a few days ago before they had had to relocate to a nearby hotel when they forgot to reserve their room for enough nights. There was also a group of Israelis ready to head out too. Downstairs there were two white 4x4s waiting for us one driven by a super energetic lady named Judy. She hustled Adrian and I into her jeep and then drove off with the other driver claiming that we were his.

We got about a block away when Judy got a phone call that made her do a crazy u-turn and head back to the hostel.
“I’m sorry I don’t what is going on. I’m the driver for your island but you have to go with the other guy.” She said to us via the rearview mirror, while talking in the cell phone, steering and shifting at the same time.

I was kind of glad we were going with the other driver as Judy scared me. But this didn’t bode well for the beginning of our journey (although I was too tired to care). In the new SUV I was lucky enough to get the front seat while Adrian was squeezed into the back with the gaggle of Israelis. My relief at being with a sane driver disappeared when he shot off and barreled down the dark streets of Panama then on to the expressway east in record time.

I was amazed that even at this stupid early hour there were long lineups of locals waiting for buses at the side of the road. The day really does begin and end with the sunrise and sunset for these folks. I drifted off to sleep and woke up about an hour later when we pulled up to a little fonda (no not bridget or jane, but a hole in the wall shack café on the side of the highway) for some coffee. Then it was back on the highway that soon dwindled into a pothole-ridded road. And by potholes, I mean giant pits, which our driver preferred to swerve around without slowing down. That meant a lot of flying back and forth inside the vehicle but amazingly none of us got car sick.

We turned off the highway onto a gravel road that slowly (well fastly, at the speed our driver was going) turned into a dirt road and then mud road as me headed up and over the mountains of Panama’s continental divide. The road was very twisty and treacherous but our driver’s preferred technique for handling it was going as fast as possible downhill so he could use the momentum to get up the next hill. At one point there was a truck in front of us that couldn’t make it up a hill and we almost rear-ended it. Our driver reversed at full speed to give the other driver room. It was just as scary as any roller coaster and I wished I knew how to ask “where are the brakes” in Spanish.

The road became worse the further we went. But we got to catch our breath when we stopped to pay our Kuna tax of $6 each as we entered the Kuna Yala territory. Then it was back on the death road through the jungle for another hour and half ride which even involved driving across a river. I was relieved when the road suddenly became paved only to realize we were now on a runway of a small airport that looked like it hadn’t been used in years, except perhaps by drug runners. We pulled up to the small terminal at the end of the runway where lots of other travelers were waiting all looking similarly green in the face after their ride in. The terminal apparently was now the dock for the boat transfers to the island.

As we waited for our boat to whisk us away to Iron (ee-rone), our driver told us that he had to take us to another port further in the jungle. So we reluctantly got back in the truck. The trek was a short one to the banks of a river where a few boats and about 15 other travelers were waiting including the American couple from this morning. Judy was also there yelling instructions – I don’t know what coffee she drinks in the morning, actually I do so I can avoid it. She came up to us and once again apologized for the confusion. Our boat was there but the Americans’ luggage wasn’t; it was still making the trek on another SUV. Eventually after an hour of farting about it arrived and we got on the small 12 person lancha with 10 other folks. Most got off at the stops along the way, leaving just us and the American couple who were also headed to Iron which apparently was the furthest west of all the islands.

We flew across the water, eventually slowing down as we approached a tiny palm tree covered island with a handful of huts dotted on the white sand. As the boat curved around to the other side, the Kuna family living on the island ran out to greet us. The women wore red skirts, and what looked like leg warmers until I realized that they were beaded leg wrappings. We learned that Iron was the name of the owner and the older woman greeting us was Oneida (spelling a guess)his wife. There were also countless kids and other members of the extended family who lived in the huts we had seen on the other side of the island. On this side was where they housed us visitors. There were four huts, all basic but with a comfy bed and wooden floor. Woohoo. The bathroom was a toilet in a hut that had to be flushed by pouring water down the bowl, and the shower, well the shower was something we didn’t get introduced to. No worries we changed into our bathing suits and jumped in the water just steps from our hut. From the water we got a clear view of the rest of island including another grouping of basic huts where we spotted Matt from the Canal bus stop. He told us the accommodation at that end was really basic – sand floors and no bedding. But he didn’t care it was cheap and the view (photo above) was priceless.

Soon we were called for lunch where Adrian and I met the other 4 people staying with us. The American couple were Nick and Arianne from Portland. And the two others already on the island were Britt and Gunn two girls from Norway. While chowing on our rice and fish, Ricardo introduced himself to us. He was Iron’s best friend (and brother-in-law) and looking after us while Iron was in Panama City. He also formally introduced us to our boat captain, Negro who told us he was going to take us out tomorrow on a boat tour to some other islands. We all asked for a good snorkeling place and he told us he know the best place that has a barco escondito – or sunken boat. It sounded amazing we just hoped we didn’t mean an old lancha on a sand bar.

After lunch we went back in the water but soon the weather changed and the clouds looked quite fierce so we decided to read. Well I decided to read. Adrian went nosing around the island and found out that Oneida’s daughters had two kittens in one of the hut which he immediately demanded that he play with. They were pretty darn cute and we cooed like idiots as we held them and posed for pictures with them until dinner.

At exactly 6:30 we were served dinner which was hot dogs and rice. Good thing we had a box of sangria with us. We shared it with the 4 others - it was my postponed birthday after all - and enjoyed the evening sitting at the table chatting by candlelight. Britt and Gunn had arrived the day before and assured us the food had been better. But they also warn us about the cockroaches that come out after dark. I wasn’t really bothered – unlike sand flies and mosquitos they don’t bite me. But Arianne was freaked out. To make her feel better, Nick decided to give the cockroaches a name. From now on we were to call all of them Frank. Well Frank (or one of his many children all named Frankie or Francesca) popped up on the thatch roof near the picnic table as well as in the toilets. However as it became pitch black we lost sight of Frank and every one chilled until 10pm when we decided to pack it all in for the night. After the crazy trip out here, we had finally found the brakes.

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