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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Pirates of the Caribbean

'You are welcome to come with us!', I read the message on my phone. I didn't even get to Cartagena yet and it already looked like I had a ride. There's probably no better message to see in the morning when you're looking for a boat! Including a link to the video of my first boat hitchhiking proved to be a good idea. Sundy, who answered me so quickly, mentioned that her boyfriend Paul, who was also the captain of their boat, was following Loïck's blog. So they kind of knew me already. Sweet!

Guys wanted to lift their boat in Cartagena to paint it and I decided to use this time to visit Tyrona National Park. The entrance fee was not cheap and I was quite broke, so my plan was to sneak in to the park by night, especially that one person at the campsite explained me where the second, less controlled entrance was and what's more important he passed me a wristband that every visitor received. Its colour changed every day, but there was a campground at the park and some people stayed longer so obviously guests had bands in different colours.

I started hitching in the afternoon and I was quickly picked up by a mid-age lady. She was going to visit her friend who happened to live next to a path which was the second park entrance. I was invited for a drink and when the owner of the house heard about my plan, he offered me a hammock in his garden so I could grab a nap before my night adventure. I was told that there was no proper ticket booth at this entrance, during the day park rangers were just patrolling the area on horses. I gave my sincere thanks to the guy before I hit the hammock and set my alarm for quarter to three.

When I woke up all I could hear was the noise of the night jungle which was always bringing me a bit of fear. I switched my head light on and started to follow a path winding up the hill. I froze many times on the way seeing a snake or other beast, which only a second later always turned out to be a shadow of a grass or branch in a dim light of my old torch. With all the adrenaline my imagination was like on steroids.

Around 6 a.m. it started to dawn and I finally could see a bit more than a metre or two of the path in front of me. Ten minutes later I arrived at the ruins of an ancient Indian village with stone structures. From there the path led through a kind of massive stone steps and it was hard to tell if they were natural or man-made. The green surrounding me was so intense, the chirping of birds and the trickling of streams under the stones were so soothing. There was no more adrenaline, there was awe.

I went down to the campground where people were preparing their breakfasts and then marched to a beach in a cove, dotted with big bright boulders. I found one secluded, with trees perfectly shaped for my hammock, so I had a nap after which I continued walking towards the main entrance and then the main road. I got a ride back to Palomino in a minute.

Back at my campsite I started to exchange emails with Sundy, I needed to know more about the deal. Boat hitchhikers usually covered their food expenses and I wanted to know how much they expected. She said it was fifteen euros a day which was pretty much the same when I was crossing the Atlantic. On top of that there was a local tax in San Blas that we would share, but it wasn't much. I could survive for less on shore in Colombia, but only when accommodation wasn't considered. I was okay with the price, but because I was so broke I had to know how many days they wanted to stay in San Blas islands, before getting to a port of entry with immigration office.

Sundy told me there was one in Porvenir still in San Blas and while it was on an island it was just a stone throw from the mainland town of Carti. Supposedly the road connecting Carti with Panamericana was recently paved. I could get my stamp in Porvenir, be dropped off in Carti and hitch from there to Panama City. Everything seemed sorted, I was ready to go, but then I received another email. I didn't like it.

According to some other sailors and reports on Noonsite, Panama introduced a mariners' visa for everyone arriving on sailboats, which meant all crew or passengers. Hundred and five dollars? Are you insane? Fuck, I couldn't afford it. What about all the backpackers taking trips on sailboats to Panama? I checked a website of one company organising such tours. It was stating that every passenger had to pay it, unless they flied out of Panama in seventy two hours. Ah, that was some trail. I searched the internet for more info but couldn't find much. I needed to get to Cartagena quickly, it was time to meet Paul and Sundy in person anyways. The website for my host's campsite was ready so I packed my stuff, said goodbye to everyone and hit the road the next day.

Hitchhiking was very easy, it seemed that northern, coastal part of Colombia was the easiest for finding a ride. I needed one ride back to Santa Marta and two to Cartagena. I was dropped off in the afternoon at the airport where I hid straight away. The city felt so much more sticky humid, the air conditioned terminal was a nice relief. I stayed that night at a bus station to save some money and in the morning moved to the cheapest hostel I could find.

The old town was absolutely beautiful, with colourful colonial architecture and absolutely packed with tourists. I found one company bringing backpackers to Panama so I went to find out more about the seventy two hours thing. They confirmed that such transit visa existed, was free and all I had to do was to have an onwards ticket within that time. I already knew how to get a free onward ticket for most countries in Americas with Copa Airlines. With them it was possible to hold a reservation for forty eight hours and pay later, such reservation looked like a proper ticket with confirmation number, names and dates which could be printed. If there was no payment it was automatically cancelled. Once in Panama I could hitch to Costa Rica. It looked like I was sorted, now I wanted to meet my future captain and his girlfriend.

We met at Club Nautico where their boat, called Arbutus, was on anchor. She was thirty six feet long aluminium sloop built in France with retractable keel and rudder which allowed the boat to sail in really shallow waters or even land on a beach. Because of that feature Arbutus had a central cockpit and the dining and living area was at the stern with six windows pretty much around. I'd never seen a boat like that.

In real life Sundy, who was a Japanese Canadian from Vancouver, seemed even more chilled out and funny that I imagined by reading her emails. My first impression of Paul, a tall short-haired guy, was that he was more quiet and distant, but in just a few hours I realised I was wrong. My third hitched boat and my third captain were again French. Funny, I had no idea why, but somehow I was connecting very well with Frenchies. I spent one more night at the hostel and moved to Arbutus. The weather forecast was good so we raised the anchor the day after.

It was a fine morning with light clouds on the sky. We motored down the Bay of Cartagena for a while watching the skyscrapers of Boca Grande, the modern and posh part of the city, on our starboard side. Once we passed Boca Chica, the southern strait connecting the bay with the Caribbean Sea, we set the sails, switched the engine off and enjoyed the sounds of splash and breeze. We sailed for a few hours and in the afternoon we dropped the anchor on the leeward side of the Roasario Islands. The idea was to wait here for a couple of more hours to avoid arriving in San Blas by night. The archipelago wasn't perfectly charted and the coral reefs were a real threat. After late dinner we were ready to hoist the sails again.

We were sailing downwind with a nice speed all night. The morning welcomed us with a dark steel sky and it looked like it could get rough. Luckily it didn't.
 'We got a fish!', suddenly I heard an excited voice of Sundy. 'Help me out!' We were rolling the line in and in and finally saw it, pretty big tuna. It was fighting for its life trying to dive deeper but we were stronger. Ten minutes later all was left of this creature was two yummy looking fillets. One species eats another, that's the prosaic aspect of life since its beginning on this planet.

Mural in Cartagena Colombia
Mural in Cartagena
Once my night watch was over I fell asleep quickly in my bunk and when I woke up a few hours later I literally ran to the cockpit. The view of the archipelago was mind-blowing! Islands, islands, islands. There were around three hundred and sixty of them in San Blas and we could admire many of them on our port side. Some bigger, all covered with mangroves. Others tiny with just a few coconut palm trees and a beach surrounding them, so small you could walk around it in a minute or less. Just like in cartoons. And the corals, I could see them very well through the clear emerald water. Mind blown!

I studied geography in university, but somehow I hadn't heard the name San Blas until recently. Even after discovering its existence, I imagined typical Caribbean islands with cities and harbours, hotels and cars. San Blas had nothing of that. It felt more like arriving at remote atolls of the Pacific. Some islands had a few rustic cabins to rent, a few sheds covered with palm leaves, maybe occasional bar or shop. There were probably two towns in the entire archipelago, where locals lived somewhat more modern lifestyle. The rest didn't change much for centuries.

The islands were inhabited by the indigenous Kuna People who fished for seafood in their cayucos*, collected coconuts and traded them for other goods with mainlanders and sailors. While men wore western shorts and T-shirts these days, women still preferred traditional colourful dresses and beads around their calves. San Blas had autonomy within Panama and locals could apply their own laws in Kuna Yala, as the islands were called in their language. It was not only a beautiful, but indeed an exotic place.

We dropped the anchor in Chichime Cays between two islands, but space was a bit limited and if the wind changed we could end up on the beach, so we moved behind the bigger of the twin islands. In the evening we had guests coming over for dinner, two Spaniards Sundy and Paul met before. Lorenzo and Mario sailed around San Blas on their boat Lycka and from time to time they invited tourists on board to make a living. The dinner was on me, or rather on the sea, I just cooked that tuna fillets. I went totally freestyle in the galley improvising with spices like a jazzman with his trumpet. A delicious, Asian inspired meal came out of it. We called it Chichime Soup.

In the morning we sailed south to Dog Island where an old navy gunboat was sunk next to a beach. Perfect spot for snorkelling. Corals of different size and shape were all over and the shipwreck itself was home to numerous fish species glittering with all the colours possible. The weather couldn't be more Caribbean, hot and sunny with water so warm that it wasn't really refreshing. Luckily there was some breeze.

From Dog Island we moved the same afternoon to Banedup located a few miles to the northeast where we dropped the anchor for the night. The next morning, while we were swimming and snorkelling again, Paul spotted an octopus hiding between corals. Spearfishing was forbidden in San Blas so Paul started to improvise a tool with a hook to catch that weird but delicious beast. The design of the tool was being improved constantly and after an hour or two of messing around and playing seek and hide he finally got it.

Once we got it on board Paul gave him a lethal stab and ripped off his beak. Then we smashed its body against the deck as it supposedly was helping with tenderising the meat. None of us had much experience with turning an octopus into a dish, improvising again. We raised the anchor early afternoon and sailed further south to meet other friends of my captain and his mate. Philip and Monica were waiting for us in Los Grullos Cays on their catamaran Miss Molly.

'The recommended route in Bauhaus' guide** leads around this island', Paul pointed to an isle some thirty degrees to the port side, 'but all the charts show it's deep enough to cut through between the two islands. It will be faster.'
'Maybe we should lift up the keel?, I asked.
'Yeah of course! Here's the handle, can you do it?' I started to slide the keel in using the hydraulic jack. Once done I moved to the bow to observe the depth. We were motoring slowly towards the channel between the two islands. I was scanning carefully the sea bottom I could see clearly, but it looked like it was deep enough to safely pass.

'To the star! To the starboard!!!', a moment later I shouted as loud as I could. 'Coral mushroom!!!'
Boom! Too late, we were stuck. The waves were throwing us rhythmically against the coral, it felt like we were hanging on it. Paul lifted the rudder and pushed the engine to its limits but we didn't move at all. Suddenly I noticed a guy in a dinghy speeding up towards us and a second later he was pushing us while his outboard whined and smoked terribly. Khrrrr, I could hear a scratchy sound and it was it! We were free! I looked at Paul's eyes, Paul looked at me, then Sundy scanned our eyes. We all looked like we'd seen a ghost. Actually, in my imagination I'd seen a ghost, a ghost of Arbutus. Just an empty hull lying on its side washed by waves, like the wreck of a yacht we'd seen earlier in Chichime. A dead leftover of something that used to be a living floating home. Arbutus was lucky this time.

We followed the dinghy and I learnt that the man who saved us was Philip from Miss Molly. We dropped the anchor all still a bit shaky and Paul dived straight away to check the damage. Only a minor scratch on a hull and two plastic washers smashed on the rudder shaft. Changing them took us maybe half an hour. It had to be done straight away, they were separating the steel shaft from the aluminium rudder and these two metals didn't like each other, quick corrosion guaranteed. That evening we spent on Miss Molly, invited by Philip and Monica. We brought a pot of delicious octopus stew Sundy concocted, after all we owed it to Philip, he saved us at the reef.

We spent in Los Grullos one more day and then sailed northeast to Holandes Cays where we dropped the anchor for the night. The weather changed, heavy clouds were covering the entire sky. After some snorkelling and relaxing on one of the islands of the cays we set the sails again and sailed down to see some civilisation. Nargana was a proper town with a shop or two, a small restaurant, houses made of bricks, even a free public wifi. It looked more like a regular Latin American town or village, though it was built on two islands connected with a pedestrian bridge and there were no cars. We bought some fresh fruits and veggies, which as we were told, were brought to town once a week on small cargo boats from Colombia, and left Nargana for Green Island where we found a safe haven for the night. It was blowing quite strong that afternoon.

'Hey Paluch, we know we agreed on a certain amount of time, but the islands are so beautiful that we would like to stay maybe two more days. Are you okay with that?' I was just about to answer, but Sundy continued. 'We know that you're broke right now, don't worry we don't want any money from you for those extra days.'
'Ha' I smiled, 'I don't see a problem. San Blas is fucking amazing!'
'We were also thinking of not clearing in in Porvenir, but in Portobelo instead, they have an immigration office. We want to stay on anchor there and start the paperwork for the canal transit.'
'Portobelo…' I checked the map. 'Oh yeah that's way closer to Costa Rican border. Perfect for me, I was a bit afraid there would be no traffic from Carti. I'm absolutely up for that.'
Good people, that's for sure.

From Green Island we sailed west to Cambombia where Charlie and Karen, a couple from Wisconsin, were awaiting us on their beautiful boat Changing Tides. They were other friends of Arbutus crew. We had dinner, a few drinks and lots of sailing stories. These guys were cruising around for quite a while. After a night in Cambombia we sailed back to Chichime. We made a small and quick loop around only a tiny part of San Blas. In order to see it all, check all the anchorages, put feet on most of the islands we would have to spend here months, maybe even years. And some people actually did.

Octopus on board the sailboat in San Blas Panama
Octopus finally on board
In Chichime we had our last night at the archipelago and we went for a beer to a local bar with Mario from Lycka. This was one of the most popular islands and beside the bar there were cabins to rent and a campground. It was funny to go back to the boat on the dinghy all tipsy and cheerful. I almost felt like singing. Luckily I didn't, I was definitely not talented.

We sat the sails right after breakfast and started to go west, leaving this little piece of paradise behind us. In the afternoon we arrived at the anchorage near Isla Grande welcomed by growling sounds of howler monkeys. We reached Portobelo Bay around noon the next day. We were passing many boats on anchor, some looking like they didn't lift it for years. I was ready to take care of our anchor but Paul was still going, passing boats one by one.
'Not yet, not yet', he was repeating and I started to recognise letters on signboards ashore.
'Why so close?', I wondered.
'You'll see. Okay, now!' We waited for a while then checked if it was holding. Once confirmed Paul took out his mobile phone. 'Let's see what wifi we get here… Casa Congo… Oh, there, let's go for a coffee.'
'Ha ha, I got you you bastard, there's nothing better than free wifi onboard!'
'Yep!' Paul laughed proudly.

We strolled around Portobelo after our coffee mission, it was very old town which according to a legend Christopher Columbus settled himself. There was Aduana building, the antique customs house, many fortifications in and around town and a church with its famous sculpture of Black Christ. There was a lot of history in this place, history of conquistadors and gold shipped from here to Spain and history of pirates and their attempts of stealing all that gold. Captain Morgan, one of the most famous between them all, even captured Portobelo in 1668.

There was a festival going on in town just as we arrived, Festival of Devils and Congas during which a lot of locals dressed up as devils. There was a lot of music, dancing and flares, occasionally some devils would even whip white tourists. It was a sweet revenge for the years of slavery as most locals were descendants of people brought here from Africa. So I had to be on my guard.

The immigration office opened when all the festivities were over and it was finally time to sign out of the boat. I was asked for the ticket, the officer checked the details on it and after stamping my passport he wrote something next to the stamp. When I got it back I checked it curiously. It was written: '10.10'. All right the clock is ticking, time to hit the road. From that moment on I had seventy two hours to leave Panama. I hugged goodbye Sundy and Paul and went for my first hitchhiking in Central America.

The first lift was within half an hour with a pickup collecting metal scrap. Then a car brought me to the junction in Sabanitas. While I was standing next to McDonald's a wave of colourful butterflies flied over the road. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, migrating south east. Soon after I had a ride directly to Panama City with a truck driver. The city surprised me, there were a lot of skyscrapers, it looked like some kind of Miami.

It took me a while to get to a bus terminal as I was dropped off at the outskirts. I had to get to La Chorrera where the motorway was turning into something more hitchable so I got on an old American school bus painted in bright colours with music blasting from the big speakers inside. They used them all over Panama as intercity public transport, especially on shorter distances.

Night time arrived quickly and I spent it at a petrol station with a permission of yet another friendly worker. It took me a couple of hours to find the first ride and after three of them I ended up in Santiago early afternoon. I had to walk for a bit to find a decent spot, which still didn't work for me for the first hour or two. Finally a car packed with a family stopped.
'We're going to Tole!', they shouted.
'No idea where it is but whatever.' I quickly jumped in.

Roadworks first and pot holes later made us move very slowly. A woman behind the wheel, who was a mother of two teenagers, was very quiet on the beginning, but slowly began to be more curious about what a person from Poland was doing in Panama. I had plenty of time to tell my story. When we arrived at the exit for Tole it was almost dark.
'If no one picks you up tonight, where are you going to sleep?'
'I don't know' I looked around, 'maybe at this bus stop.'
'You're crazy!' I just smiled, then I went to ask workers who were repaving the road if it was okay to sleep at the bus stop. They didn't mind. Suddenly I saw the car that brought me here coming back. 'Here, take it! I don't want you to be hungry.'
'No no, I can't!'
'Just take it!'
I ended up with fifteen bucks in my hand.

I needed only two quick rides in the morning to get to the border. A stamp out, a stamp in and I was in Costa Rica. Shortly after I got off in Ciudad Neily and started to walk around town. It had such a different feel than the ones in Panama. It was very clean, neat, kind of organised. The buses were modern and quiet, local pubs had people seeping beer or coffee during the day. It felt so different, it felt European somehow.

I camped that night in Golfito on the coast and around noon came back to Ciudad Neily where I could use the internet in a university library. I stayed one more night in this lovely, but very expensive country and hitched back to the border. I paid eight dollars departure tax on Costa Rican side for stamping me out. When entering Panama I was asked to show a ticket, another fakey I prepared earlier, and cash to prove I could support myself. I took a bunch of dollars, mostly singles wrapped in twenty bucks bill. That worked. The last thing was to pay two dollars municipal tax and I was back in. But this time I could stay six months and it costed me a tenner in total. Hundred and five bucks? Fuck you!

Hitching back was so much faster, I was changing cars like gloves. One of the drivers was a Colombian who lived in Panama for more than ten years. When I told him that I just arrived, had almost no money and was looking for a job, he invited me for food and at the end gave me twenty dollars saying: 'I was in the same situation when I first came here.' Fair play.

When I got off in Portobelo I went straight to Casa Vela, a place for sailors and run by sailors. It was owned by a married couple from Germany who sailed over here some years ago. After dropping the anchor in Panama, Ray opened a loft where he was fixing sails and Birgit had a little bar next to it with the cheapest beer in town. Occasionally there was lunch on the menu or a barbecue. It was their way to make a living and trying to save to sail the Pacific one day.

I met them earlier with Paul and Sundy and I knew they had a lot of local knowledge. My idea was to try finding a job on boats that bring tourists either to San Blas or Colombia. Lorenzo's girlfriend Alejandra was working on such a boat and was very happy about it. Sooner or later most boats ended up in Portobelo for provisioning. First though I needed to find some base, I had less than hundred bucks left, I hadn't been so broke for years. Birgit mentioned there was a hostel in town, and I went there in the evening. Just ten minutes talk with the owner was enough to seal the deal. I would start volunteering the next day. Finding a base. Checked!

Captain Jack's Hostel was run, obviously, by Captain Jack. He was a funny guy, a bit like a pirate, with long grey ponytail and a loud laugh. The hostel had skull and crossbones flags and other pirate paraphernalia all over the place. Jack sailed down from New Jersey some years before and dropped the anchor here for good. The place was not only a backpackers' hostel, but also a restaurant with a bar, quite expensive to be honest. A bit strange mixture, but it was working.

Portobelo was surprising me regularly. When I first arrived I met Artur, a Polish guy who was brought here to help out on a boat, but ended up messed up with drugs and turned into Arturo that everyone knew, who would always ask for a dollar. Just like some other local bums. Sometime later I met another Pole, Beata who had a boat here and chartered it from time to time. We were sitting over a beer in Casa Vela when she mentioned another Polish sailor, Mikołaj.

'People call him You You here', she said.
'Hold on, You You? It's sounds familiar.' I couldn't remind myself where I knew this nickname from, grinding it in my head.
'It's after his first boat.' 'You You, boat, Mikołaj… No fucking way! They had this blog, well him and his girlfriend Patrycja. What was it called… aroundtheworld.pl. It was my inspiration to start boat hitchhiking.'
'They're not together anymore, she's back in Poland now.'
'I know, I sent her a message a few years ago asking for advice when I found my first or maybe second boat. She was very helpful.'
'You should be able to meet Mikołaj soon, he works as a skipper on one of the backpackers' boats running to Colombia and back. He's here every ten days.'
'Brilliant! You You, fucking hell…' I was still shaking my head in disbelief.

After a week or so I met with Sundy and Paul again and I ended up on board the Arbutus one more time. I had my two days off and they needed some help with crossing the Panama Canal. By regulations every small vessel passing through the locks had to have four line handlers apart from the captain. So it was me and Sundy and we were joined by Lorenzo and his girlfriend Alejandra.

We arrived at the Flats Anchorage near Colon in the afternoon, which was almost at the entrance to the locks of the canal. Once the adviser from the Canal Authority joined us we motored up the canal, tied with another sailboat and entered the first chamber together behind a massive cargo ship. Now it was line handlers' job. We had to manage the lines tied to the walls of the sluice to stay within a safe distance from them, as the chamber was filling up with water and the boats would go up. We repeated it two more times and stayed overnight at the Lake Gatun.

In the morning I wanted to refresh in the lake even though it was home to alligators, but another adviser showed up very early. We motored half a day through the lake and the canal and then repeated all the process again three more times, but now going down in each chamber and finally reaching the sea level. Welcome to the Pacific guys! Sundy and Paul were very happy, now they were free to sail towards Australia. For me it was time to go back to Portobelo. I had my duties now.

Working in the hostel was so much fun. There was actually not much work regarding the hostel, I was more bartending and sometimes waiting tables. I loved the vibe of the place. Jeff, who was a manager, had this grumpy 'I don't give a fuck' attitude, but always performed with a big smile. I started to follow and quickly became cheeky with customers as hell. Someone would ask: 'do you have a cold beer?' and I would be like grrr, cold beer, why would I have a cold beer… big smile. People loved it. After all it was pirates' bar.

The food was pricey but it was delicious, it was catered more for sailors than backpackers. We had three cooks. Angelica was a local girl, Francis came from Dominican Republic and Madu was from as far as Cameroon. I had only one free meal a day, but girls in the kitchen always took care of me. As in every restaurant there were some leftovers, some wastes, some wrong orders. I was spending pretty much only on breakfasts.

Jack himself was a real entertainer. Sometimes he would bring up his karaoke set and sing. And gee, this man could sing. Angie meanwhile, Madu's daughter, would dance around with Parranda, Jack's dog. What a show. There was maybe lack of organisation sometimes, hostel check-ins were done on a piece of paper, same with food orders or even pending bills. One evening I wanted to pay my beer bill but I couldn't find it. I asked Jack if he'd seen it. He just shrugged his shoulders adding: 'just do what you can.' So I started to do what I could. Pirates' attitude rocks!

One day I finally met Mikołaj, or You You. He had long dreadlocks, big contagious smile on his face and the vibe of peace and love. The Polish Rasta.
'I know you from your blog!' I said straight away.
'Oh wow, it was ages ago, but good to hear that somebody was reading it.'
'Yeah man, not only once. Maybe because of this blog I'm here now. So thanks man!' We both smiled and ordered another beer.

Soon after I met Miro, another Polish sailor. There was also Ukrainian couple Lena and Leo, crazy Russian lad Vito, French Ramon, Scottish Alan, Irish Dave, Brian, the jewellery guy… Oh so many characters, it was such a sailors' hub. One evening a guy shared his story. Before the global crisis in 2008 banks in America were giving out mortgage loans not only for fixed property, but for yachts as well. He paid some small percentage, sailed down to Panama, changed the name and numbers of the vessel, faked the boat's registration papers and showed his middle finger to the bank. If that was a real story, he would be a real pirate!

Days were passing and it didn't look like I would find a job on boats. When I mentioned Jeff that I might move to the capital city to find some paid work there, he told me he would try to convince Jack to pay me some salary. Then I heard the same from Lorena, Jack's girlfriend. And soon they succeeded! I was so happy I didn't have to go anywhere else. I loved this job. And from that moment on I got into it even more. I translated all the menus to Spanish, searched with Jeff for new drinks recipes, created a new cocktail menu, I even went to Panama City to buy cocktail glasses. I wanted my margaritas to look more posh.

I had total freedom in the bar, so I was experimenting and I did it often with Lorena. She would sometimes come in the evening a bit tipsy saying: 'Paluch, prepare me something nice!' One night we were messing together with bottles and created really yummy drink. 'What should we call it?' we thought. There were two creators, one from Poland and one from Colombia. And that's how Polombia was born. We put that name on the blackboard for special offers. In the morning we both looked at the board confused. What was inside? We had a few during the process. It took us half a day to recreate it.

Szymon Kuczyński Atlantic Puffin sailboat Portobelo
Szymon and his tiny Atlantic Puffin
One morning I received an email from Patrycja from Poland. What a coincidence, I just met her ex-boyfriend. She wanted me to help a Polish sailor who was on his way to Portobelo. Szymon was on a mission to sail solo around the world on a tiny boat called Atlantic Puffin. She was only twenty one feet long. What's more, she had no engine whatsoever! Szymon was not too good with foreign languages and he would need some help with the canal transit.

We met personally a few days later and I called one agent to organise the transit. The problem was that an engine was required to cross the canal. The agent wasn't sure yet how to manage the situation and we knew already it would take some extra time. We couldn't just sit and do nothing. And we didn't. Every time I was off we would go hiking through the surrounding jungle. When I was working Szymon would come to Jack's and we would seep Guinness together trying to motivate ourselves to do something about our websites. I was usually more successful. His effort worked contrary, I would just grab another Guinness and mess with customers, if we had any. It was a quiet time at the bar.

The agent was sometimes unreachable, sometimes bringing up some crazy ideas, but at the end he organised an outboard engine which we installed at the improvised wooden bar at the stern. I crossed the canal with Szymon, which was my fourth time, as I was making some extra quid with line handling. It was amazing to see Szymon in action. He could leave a busy bay just on sail. Same with dropping the anchor in a spot filled with sailboats. He only needed a few seconds to analyse the wind the current and waves. After that he knew his route, how to trim the sails and how many tacks were necessary. Old school sailor. I saw him the last time in Panama City after the canal transit and soon he left for French Polynesia.

Weeks were passing like days, months like weeks. The six months of my visa free stay was nearly over. I had to go again to Costa Rica to renew it and this time I had a company. Felipe was a Chilean whom I met in Ecuador. He studied documentary filmmaking and moved to Panama City to do some projects, so we met first at an apartment he was renting for a few drinks and later in Captain Jack's when he came over to watch Chile's Copa America match together. We started our trip in La Chorrera and even though we were two, it was really easy. Felipe had such a funny style of hitching, he would wave his Chilean flag grinning from ear to ear in front of upcoming cars. We did the same route as I did the last time and it took us only three days.

One evening Jack told me suddenly that he wouldn't have a job for me anymore. It was slow, that was a fact, but it wasn't the only reason. All of a sudden he was not right about me having a beer during work and generally drinking sometimes on the house, which was happening before with his knowledge. I wasn't sure what caused this change, maybe he got grumpy after drinking less, I hadn't seen him with his morning beer recently. Speculations, I would never know. And it didn't matter, it was time to move on. No hard feelings after all. And these were exact words he used when I said goodbye.

I first thought of moving to the capital, but somebody told me they were looking for someone in Casa Vela. Birgit wanted to keep the bar open till late to make some extra money. They were usually closing at five, six the latest. The deal was decent, I could live in the place and get a percentage of my sale, plus some food. After the first day I noticed it was really slow, I had to attract more customers. Soon I had toasties on the menu in four different flavours. A beer without a snack? Can't be.

'Hey Paluch, how are you?', I was greeted one morning by André with his strong Quebec accent. 'Listen, could you make a website for me? I need it to promote my trips to San Blas, I have to get more customers. I'll pay you well.'
'Sure I could prepare something. Do you have any ideas how it should look, any particular colours you would like to use?'
'No clue, I'd leave it up to you. I don't even know how to open a Facebook account', he laughed.
'Okay, I'll prepare a draft in the next couple of days and we'll see if you like it, then we'll work on details.'

André was one of many sailors chartering his boat and his offer surprised me a bit, I didn't know why he asked me. While I knew very little about designing websites I could always use a free platform, there were many of them that had ready templates. I was using them before. In Casa Vela I had my regular customers always up for a beer and a toasty, but it was never too busy, I could work on the website during my working hours. Extra cash was always welcome.

A week later the website was ready and I was paid more than agreed on the beginning. Portobelo was a small town and the sailors' community was even smaller, information just like gossips was spreading around quickly. The same week I was approached by another guy, this time from Iran, with the same request, designing a website. That made me think. What if I learnt more about web design and programming? I could create whatever I, or any future customer, would imagine and want. I could start a small freelance business I could carry with me. That made me really think.

The second website never materialised at the end, the Iranian man's boat was grounded on one of San Blas' beaches in bad weather. In the same time I realised that I spent in Panama nearly eight months. The urge to move, to hit the road again, began to grow in me and soon I was ready for goodbyes.

I went to Captain Jack's to see Jeff, the girls in the kitchen and Jack himself. I wished all the best to Lena, Leo and Vito with whom I was spending a lot of time recently. Big hug went to Vivi and Cristobal, a Brazilian-Chilean couple who was visiting me every night in the bar and to many more people I could see that day. The biggest hug was for Ray from Casa Vela, my home for the last two months. We spent many evenings with Ray, seeping beer and debating about life. I also sent a message to Birgit who at that time was back in Germany.

All that goodbyes took a while and it started to get late, so I jumped on a bus to Sabanitas. I looked at the Portobelo fortifications for the last time. They were made to protect it from pirates, but some modern versions of them were still hanging around. I had something in common with them. I could drop my anchor wherever suited me and sail off whenever I felt like, never really knowing where my next haven would be.

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* Cayuco - a dugout canoe used by Kunas.
** Bauhaus' guide - The Panama Cruising Guide written by Eric Bauhaus, the best guide for cruising in San Blas, with the most accurate charts available.