Before arriving in Panama City, we had already reserved a place on a ‘back packer boat’. Travelling by sea from Panama to Colombia is now very popular, and as such, getting cheap passage almost impossible. We met many cyclists over the last who months who confirmed it and we begrudgingly came to accept that we too would have shell out the cash. Flying is cheaper, but then it’s just about the destination, and we would have to pull the bike apart, which is something we are dry reluctant to do at this stage. We are legitimately worried that it may not go back together again.
But we knew about the cost of sailing and it has always been in our budget. So we decided that spending a few days on a boat, traveling around the infamously beautiful San Blas islands, was the perfect way to cross over to South America end the Central American chapter.
The day we arrived in Panama City was awful. Having spent a week relaxing by the beach in Coronado in a house comforted by glorious white goods, getting back on the bike was of course rough. We expected that. What we didn’t expect was the broken spoke and the puncture. Which of course, we should have actually scheduled into our daily plan. You knew it would happen, so why didn’t we right? False hope? Denial?
Anyway, that was not the worst of this 90km ride. 30km north of the city, we rode into a tyrannical down pour that hit us which such intensity it felt like we were being showered in rocks.The highway was flooded in minutes and it was hard to see more than a few meters ahead of us. Despite our lights and fluro safety flag, we must’ve been pretty much invisible to the traffic doing 80km down the highway. Completely soaked and pumped with adrenaline, it was scary enough just to ride in this storm, let alone deal with the crazy Panamanian drivers. In clear conditions they can see us better, and are able to line us up easier. But with this hectic storm, they had to swerve at the last-minute to try to wipe us off the road. I am serious. The were some definite attempts at our demise. But we had no choice except to ride on. Stopping on the side of the highway in these conditions was not going to increase our safety in any way.
To enter Panama City proper, we had to ride uphill to across the Pan Americana dual carriage way bridge. It was downright terrifying. The ‘safest’ option was to occupy the centre of the lane and just hope that the drivers behind us would decide not to plough over us but to slow down and chose to overtake us instead. Even then, we copped a few side swipes. I don’t even think the barriers would have stopped us toppling into the canal either.
When we finally arrived at the hostel, I think we were in shock. We could barely speak to each other. This is of course the perfect time for a peppy Swiss cyclist to appear and animatedly open a discussion about our bike and cycle touring in general. It was a welcome distraction from our state though and within minutes, he had convinced us to ditch our ‘backpacker boat’ and try to find a cheaper boat with him.
So we cancelled our reservations and spent several days hanging out at yacht clubs, rubbing shoulders with sailors trying to find a boat that would take us and our bike to Colombia. While we believe it certainly is possible to find passage on a private boat across the Caribbean, at this time of year, most boats are sailing to the Pacific because of hurricane season. While we had options to go on these boats, it seemed unlikely that we would find a boat at this time of year heading to Colombia. And that is definitely where we are headed. We can’t alter that plan and suddenly switch up cycling for sailing. Not at this point anyway! But what this whole mental detour did give us, was the idea to cross the canal on a boat, rather than ride across the country. We had never considered it before, but seriously, how cool would it be to sail though the Panama Canal? So we added this to the list of unlikely things we would like to happen, and whiled away 5 days in Panama City, watching the World Cup and cooking pasta in the bathroom.
Now I take you back to 10.30pm on our last night. I was feeling really heavy-hearted. I put a lot of faith in the power of positive thinking and was pretty devastated that all our hard work networking had been for naught. I was so certain that an opportunity would open up for us and going to sleep meant that I was cutting ties with that possibility. It’s like knowing that you will be leaving a loved one tomorrow, but if you don’t go to sleep, perhaps you can fend off tomorrow a little longer.
Just before we turned out the lights, I decided to check my email one last time. Shazam! I received a response about places to stay in Portobelo. It was from an American guy named Scott that we had randomly met in La Paz Mexico last November. Turns out, he is not in Portobelo where we are planning to ride to, but is in fact in Panama City on his yacht, getting ready to sail through the Panama Canal. He needs crew and would we like to come with him on the boat to Portobelo? Well, I could barely reply fast enough and certainly didn’t get much sleep that night. The stunning turn around of emotions from a certain bleakness to having a dream materialise into reality, kept me awake like a kid on Christmas Eve. We were stoked!
It’s just crazy that stiff like this happens. The word ‘unbelievable’ was invented exactly for situations like this. And of course ‘randomosity’, a word I invented myself. I know I go on about this all the time and that I risk sounding like some mental hippy. But this bike journey is such a crazy balance or incredible and hard. Sometimes, really bloody hard.
We have created all kinds of internal devices to help us get through the really tough times. A lot of energy goes into simple hope. And we have a lot of faith in the unknown factors pulling us through. Which is crazy right? How can you have faith in something you don’t know and can’t imagine? And I have thought about it a lot but it’s the best way I can put it. It sounds cliche to say that ‘with great risk comes great reward’, but when you plunge yourself daily into unknown depths, it seems the best way to put it. But it doesn’t have to be a crazy, dangerous risk and you don’t have to cycle 1000’s of kilometers to feel it. Risk is simply something you personally feel uncomfortable with. You think you will probably survive it, but you’re not really comfortable putting yourself in that position.
But the rewards only come when you proceed through the uncertainty, usually holding your breath and with your fingers crossed. Certainly nothing is gained by acknowledging our fears and then backing away from them. And it’s not even a matter of closing your eyes and leaping, but you do need to believe that you posses the power to make the next step, and that if your power fails, something will happen to get you through and keep you safe. It could be something as simple as taking a new route to work or talking to a stranger at the bus stop. We all choose our own adventures.
And so we found ourselves moving onto the good ship ‘Roller Coaster’ with Capt’n Scott, in the Amador harbor with Falkor on a dinghy. And suddenly, we weren’t even surprised. So much incredible-ness becomes so normal so quickly, we find ourselves giggling madly at the swiftness with which we become accustomed to it.
We spent 3 nights living onboard before we set off to cross the canal. There was much to prepare for, cleaning and buying supplies mostly. There would be a total crew of 7, plus the ‘advisor’ (an employee of the Panama Canal) that was onboard for the entire crossing to make sure we had the appropriate speed with our knots tied right. I learned to tie a bow-line knot which is integral to crossing though the locks. I was very proud of myself, even though it took Brendon 5 incredibly patient hours to see me to knot tying success. What can I say? I am a visual learner and I need a good story to help me remember patterns. This malarkey of rabbits and holes was not enough. That’s the story that helped me learn to tie my shoe laces and tit sure as hell wasn’t helpful now. 5 hours. Yep, that’s how long it took me to get it. Now, I can tie it with my eyes closed and with one hand. Just don’t get me started about the monkey fist. That’s a whole new story.
There are 6 locks to pass through and each one is an incredible display of historical engineering. It’s hard to believe the Panama Canal has been operating for 100years. One of the 7 man-made wonders of the Industrial Age. The first day we passed trough 3 locks and spent that night on the Gatun Lake, cooling down with a quick swim while terrified of crocodiles. They are really there, we saw them. Needless to say, there was much celebrating and partying aboard the ‘Roller Coaster’ over our general Canal awesomeness, along with our ability to out-swim the crocs.
The next day we tackled the final 3 lochs before motoring through the darkness to arrive at Shelter Harbour. It was an awesome awesome time and we were just stoked to have been a part of the crew.
We spent the next 3 days at Shelter Bay dog sitting ‘Eddie’ the Jack Russel on the boat while Capt’n Scott returned to finish some work in Panama. And true to our incessant optimism, we relentlessly introduced ourselves to sailors, trying to find that elusive private boat to Colombia.
We will meet brother Michael in Colombia on July 16, and if we were gonna make that important date, we simply had to bite the bullet and find another backpacker boat. But with a canal crossing and 9 days aboard a sail boat under our belts, we accepted this turn of fate gracefully.
And so here we are, having sailed from Panama City through the Canal to Shelter Bay, and riding 70km from there to Portobello. And we didn’t break a spoke or get a puncture. Amazing! Not knowing which boat we would take, we settled in for the night at the infamous ‘Captain Jacks’ bar, only to meet the enigmatic Enrico and Rose who are planning their first trip to Colombia on their very fancy 50′ yacht the ‘Mikamale‘ (translating as ‘not too bad’ in Italian).
It’s funny. We have been getting a lot of great comments from our followers about how we are nearly done. Which I am sure seems true when you look at a map and count the 11 countries we have ridden compared to the 6 more than stand in front of us. But please note; while we have ridden 12,500km, there are still another 9,000 odd km to go. And that doesn’t count the additional 2,000km that we will ride in Oz from Brisbane to Melbourne. So to us, it really doesn’t feel like we are ‘almost there’. In fact, it feels that we are barely passed half way.