Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Heart of Darkness 221208

I’ve had a couple of days surfing the pretty solid lefts of Careneros. The first few sessions I went barefoot, like the big boys do, but a foot full of sea urchin spikes has put paid to my early bravado and I’ve donned my reef boots since. A full hour digging and hacking at my feet with tweezers, a knife and finally a sewing needle to get the beautiful yet poisonous purple shards out extinguished the remaining desire to be a cool barefoot reef surfer. It’s not like I’m trying maneuvers of such skill and delicacy that only my highly dexterous soles in direct contact with my board will suffice. My Bocas surf buddy has been with a 9yr old local kid who’s hitched free water taxi’s with me – I think that illustrates my level perfectly.

The swell dropped in the last day rendering Careneros too small so I headed for Isla Bastimentos, the next island in the chain and one who’s north coast is exposed more directly to the prevailing wave direction. The water taxi dropped me in the small town of Bastimentos on the south side of island. I was heading for Wizard beach on the north side and had been told there’s an easy 20 minute saunter across the island on the one clearly marked path from town. I asked some kids for directions in my finest Spanglish and was pointed down the path which served as the town’s high street. There’s no cars or roads on this island and it’s conspicuously less developed as a tourist spot than it’s neighbours. With chickens, goats and ponies wandering up and down the High Street(path) and not a gringo to be seen it’s unequivocally authentic. I followed the main path hugging the coast through the town until it veered inland and up the hill through the town graveyard, weaving it’s way through the graves until it stopped abruptly leaving only a small track leading into the dense jungle. This easy, clearly marked path kept splitting and splitting into equally insignificant and equally muddy one-person width tracks. As the mud got deeper and the jungle denser my flip flops (Inappropriate Footwear) stopped flipping and just flopped as the plug incessantly got sucked through the sole by the sloppy mud. Not long after I had to use my gorgeous new board as bridge to cross a stream whose banks were knee deep in mud I began to question the veracity of this path. I continued further taking a few left forks and a few right forks using my primeval hunter-gather’s instinct to guide me… Yes, I was lost and alone in the jungle. The twenty minute skip over the island had turned into an hour or so’s hacking and wading through almost impenetrable foliage and impassable mire. It was here and now that those innumerable hours spent worshipping at the televisual altar of the Almighty Ray Mears and my tireless, meticulous study of The Book — ‘Ray Mears World of Survival’ — kicked in. These years of Mears-conditioning had brought me to this point. My mind was alert, my body taught and keen. Preparation is the key for survival in this kind of terrain. My calm, calculating mind instinctively surveyed my kit list: Shorts, T-shirt, nice green surfboard, flip-flops (I.F.), sunglasses and a flimsy plastic bag containing a novel, a latin-american phrase book and some zinc sun-block for my lips.
What would Ray do?... What would Ray do?... The question rolled over and over in my mind for a minute or so before instinct, a sixth-sense if you will, possessed me as I reached for the phrase book and swiftly mastered the phrase “Where is the beach?”.
I stumbled onward, accumulating mud, sweat and tears as I went. Through sheer good luck, a favourable breeze, an indeterimate number of left turns and some right turns later I triumphantly staggered out of the jungle toward the topaz, lapping sea,. I had slightly missed my destination and had gone full circle back to the eastern end of the small town I’d been dropped in. To add to my already swollen sense of self-worth I had to shuffle past the kids who’d pointed the way an hour or two earlier — now a sweaty, sun-burnt gringo covered head to toe in a baby-diarreah coloured mud, wearing flops that had lost their flip, bearing a heavily mud-camouflaged mint green surfboard, muttering “ Dónde esté la playa”. Thanks Ray.

I did finally make it to Wizard beach, using the OTHER main path out of town. It’s a beautiful, secluded, palm-fringed beach but the solid 3ft waves were blown out by an onshore breeze by that time in the afternoon. I was exhausted and just had a 30 minute paddle out, as much to wash the mud off my self and my board as to catch a wave.

SR’s arriving in just over a day — woohoo!
Just in time for a new swell pulse to hit, which if Surfline is correct should be producing 12ft waves on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day! A classic case of the surfers eternal dilemma. I’m really looking forward to spending tropical beach time with SR but can I ignore the best waves of the trip so far? Greater men than I have stumbled upon this quandary before me, so what can I learn from their accumulated wisdom?

Get up early and get a couple of hours in before she wakes up and then try not to fall sleep over dinner.

Monday, 22 December 2008

No quiero vomitar morado 191208

As I passed the anchor line through my hands descending metre by metre beneath the surface my ears wouldn’t equalize properly and I began to feel some pain. This reminder that being, and moreover breathing, underwater isn’t normal for us homo sapiens was enough to unsettle me and I began to breathe quicker. Then I became all too aware of my breath and then breathing seemed like the most difficult problem I’d ever faced. I signalled to Claire, my instructor, that I wasn’t happy by which stage I was taking too many short shallow gulps of air but her experience showed as she looked into my eyes and calmed me down, directing my breaths like a conductor would an orchestra. From that point on, although never fully relaxed, I was much calmer and able to enjoy my first ever scuba dive. The rocks we were diving around were teaming with technicolour fish of all sizes, shapes and denominations and corals of all colours. It truly is another world down there and one I was privileged to visit for 45 minutes. We weren’t able to go to Isla Coiba, which is reputed to be one of the best dive spots in the world, but it was an unforgettable introduction to another water sport I can enjoy when the waves aren’t working.

Too many days with too little surf prompted me to make the move to the Caribbean coast, to the archipelago Bocas Del Toro. It’s not too many crow-miles away, but travel in Panama is mas lento. So two buses, three taxis , eight hours and no food later Kurtis (the Canadian) and I rocked up at The Purple House in David to break the journey. Everything about this place is purple, the walls, floors, furniture, books, cupboards, plants, air fresheners, the owner Andrea, the cleaning products…. Damn, I even inadvertently turned up in purple t-shirt. I’m not a major fan of purple, particularly not the sort of wishy-washy lavender purple that infected every molecule of this place. The cuteness of it all was cloying, overwhelming in the scorching heat of David and when the lovely poodle snuffled up to me and was introduced as “Cute-Si” by Andrea I think I had a little bit of lavender scented sick in my mouth. There was only a dorm-room bed available so I hardly got a wink of sleep before heading to the airport the next morning.

I arrived in Bocas on a funny little plane which skimmed and bumped it’s way over the highlands over to the East coast. The atmosphere, the smell, the rickety wooden architecture, the people and the prices definitely have a Caribbean flavour. Bocas del Toro is the name of the archipelago and also the main town which is on Isla Colon. It’s a ramshackle maritime town nudged up against the water with a few upmarket hotels catering for the rapidly increasing tourist boom. Bob Marley & Che Guevara seem to be the heros to the local mestizo looking rastas. I dumped my bags in my room, waxed her up and got a water taxi to the neighbouring Isla Caranero for $1 and surfed a nice left point break which reels down the coral reef on the east side of the long thin island. It was pretty fast and shoulder to head high with some real power behind it. It was breath of fresh saltwater and I had the first real surf workout of the trip which exposed the shabby shape I’ve fallen into. I’m pretty rusty on my lefts aswell (that’s assuming I was ever actually metallic enough to go rusty) but I had a couple of good rides in the pocket getting a few top to bottom turns in. I’m still not exactly at home on GG but damn she looks good!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

El Lujo 171208

(Luxury) is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort - Jean Cocteau

We woke early and waded across the river to catch the 7am bus to civilization. Civilization comes in the form of a wild one-street town , how I’d imagine a wild west, frontier town to be complete with rancheros on horseback wandering down the street. The joy and jubilation of the ATM working ensured the trip had a positive slant. My breakfast of Jamon omelette, patacones (fried plantain chips) and Panamanian coffee was just reward for the grueling trip to town. My silly coloured hair attracted the town’s attention; an old man laughed and reached out to grab a lock that was peeking from beneath my cap and a beautiful young English student requested an interview with me. She took me aside, produced a Dictaphone, shook my hand and began the interrogation. I think her hormones must have gotten the better of her when she strayed off course and asked if I liked Panamanian women and then asked why. I think I blushed and shuffled awkwardly in true Templeton-gigolo style. These Panamanian mestizo women can be incredibly beautiful, a mix of afro-carribbean, Spanish and indigenous Indian creates strong proud features, perfect skin, almond eyes that dance in the light and physiques born from an active lifestyle, though to see them married to or hanging out with old, fat, ugly gringos has the rancid reek of a nu-capitalist imperialism where the dollar wins all.

I surfed the next day at Punta Brava, the swell magnet of the region with Kurtis my Canadian room-mate — Paula was afflicted by the Playa estero lurgy sweeping the beach. Itolo, a warm, amiable Brazilian ex-pat who wound up in Santa Catalina in 1979 and now runs a guest-house gave me the tip and talked me through the set-up. A twenty minute walk down the beach brings you to the rocky outcrop of Punta Brava , then a scramble through rocks and pools leads you to a channel from which you can begin paddling. No-one else was out and I found myself the most experienced surfer so I lead the tricky 15 minute navigation through the rocks and out to the break. The reward was about 45 minutes of fun 2-3ft lefts and rights breaking over rock and sand before the tide came in too far and softened the wave too much. I took a few drops and made the odd turn, but not enought to know whether GG is the dream-machine I hope her to be.

I really love the simplicity of this place… it’s an uncomplicated, simple, slow, raw, natural way of life here, with the added bonus of year round surf and perfect weather. The Real estate hawks are circling so it will not be long before the place is concreted over and golf courses are hacked from the land — prices have gone up from $5/sq.mt to $50/sq.mt in the last 5 years and investment groups from the states are busy buying up all available beach front land. Everything’s an investment opportunity in our wonderful exploitative western world.

No-one made any money, however, from one of the highlights of my stay so far. A heavy, tropical afternoon downpour stimulated an impromptu game of football in the rain on the beach followed by a rain-soaked swim in the sea. Why was such an ingenuous activity such a pleasure? Here’s a thought. We are made of water, saline water. We’re born into a womb with a saline solution almost exactly that of seawater, and our blood is similarly saline hence our attraction to the ocean. Whilst others ran for cover because of the rain we embraced it. The water in the air and the ocean, above and below relates to something primal taking us back, in evolutionary terms, to our aquatic origins.... Or maybe it’s just quite nice to be in warm rain?

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Cast

So back to the Green Goddess, as I prepared her for her maiden voyage she drew admiring glances and prompted conversations with all passers–by, she’s a real show stopper. I still haven’t been able to put her through her paces because I haven’t really found much power in the ocean yet. Not for lack of trying though. My surf–buddy so far has been Paula, a very cool girl from Asturias — where I'm looking to to buy a village — via Madrid who I met whilst priming GG. We’ve wandered up and down the coast, scrambled over rocks, paddled out to rocky prominantaries day after day with little luck. There’s either been not enough swell, too much water, too little water or we’ve just been to the wrong places — our joke has become that we’re actually not surfers, we just like taking our boards out for a 'lovely walk' — and end back at the weak beach-break out front.

Another significant character in the Santa Catalina story is the wonderfully warm, charismatic and incredibly funny Mikael from Israel. He’s so unlike the typical dour Israeli traveler to be almost unrecognizable. Paula, Mikael and I are going for a family day out to Soná tomorrow on the bus and we’ve resolved to sing all the way there, entertaining the passengers and thereby saving our $2.50 fare. We’ve been laughing lots together. They are good people.

Another interesting character is Lee from Hull who I met on the plane into Panama. His typical northern machismo persona masks a sensitive, deep thinking man. Some of the conversations we’ve had he’s said he could never have with his best friends at home. He’s been a Saturday night pub fighter in his youth and has razor blade scars all over his body to prove it. He’s been hilariously funny in a very loud, northern way, but what’s been equally amusing is the American, Dutch, Canadian and Spanish speakers trying to understand a word he’s saying. At the beach bonfire last night he got soppy-drunk and called me an oracle and that our conversations had stimulated thoughts which had changed his outlook on life. He said I had a 'pure soul' which is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me, but means even more coming from a stranger, a stranger from Hull. There's nothing stranger than Hull.

I’m thinking a lot about another pure soul I know and that makes me happy…

The Mission

I now have a mission. I don’t know why but having a seemingly insurmountable feat to perform gives shape to our days. I think we’re conditioned to think that life is about solving problems, beating this, winning at that, achieving the other… I think it will take a few more days for me to stop ‘needing’ these missions.
Anyway, my mission is this; I need to get some cash from the ATM.

It’s tougher than it sounds. I’m in Santa Catalina, Panama’s surf city, so you would imagine it would be geared to getting & keeping the surfers balboa (dollar), but this place is remote, really remote. As I write this on the porch of my concrete cabana on Playa Estero beach I am a 30 minute walk — across a river mouth which at high tide you have to wade through neck deep — from the centre of Santa Catalina. The centre has a restaurant, a small barely stocked shop, a couple of hostels, 2 scuba diving shacks, 1 telephone box (the only international call place in town) and a bus stop. The bus can take you the 2.5 hours over roads which are 3 parts pot-hole to 1 part road up to Soná, the local conurbation, which has 1 internet computer (the nearest to us here), 1 ATM, a couple of shops and a bus stop. Luckily my mobile phone doesn’t work in Panama (it seems all European ones don’t) and with a stroke of sheer good fortune my bank stopped my card as I tried to get money out in Panama City.

Still, I have money enough for a couple more days, the beach is on my doorstep, the waters warm, my board — the Green Godess — is waxed, finned, leashed and built for fun, the food is good, the beer is cheap and having ditched the penny-pinching dreary career-backpackers I accidently fell in with on the bus ride over here I’ve found good company in the Brits, Spanish, American, Canadian & Israeli folk that I’ve been hanging out with. The surf is small and weak, but that will change, the sun I shining, the landscape and beachscape is heart-achingly beautiful — I sometimes have to add a little skip to my step as a surge of excitement runs through me at how god damn incredible life is!

Thursday, 11 December 2008


I began my journey aboard the unwelcoming and cheerless Continental Airlines flight to Newark, NJ churned up with feelings of loss and yearning at leaving the wonderful SR behind combined with the palpable anguish of a situation with potential to upset ‘our’ apple-cart whilst I am far away. These thoughts were then jumbled, shaken and stirred together thoroughly with 4 hours of teeth chattering, bone-shaking turbulence. The resulting cocktail from this blend of ingredients was, surprisingly, one of wind…. A mighty wind. The diversion of finding opportune moments and localities in which to parp brought with it enough space to allow my thoughts to settle and with it a wonderful, almost Biblical sense of peace and clarity. The kind of clarity that only distance and flatulence can bring.
By the time I was passing the hours in Newark airport eating bad fast food (or was it just bad food, fast) I felt calm and open enough to embrace the journey ahead. The five hour hop down to Central America was almost consistently turbulent (and yes, a little but windy) the food didn’t really deserve the moniker and it was way too hot but the feeling was different. People struck up conversations easily, offered sweets around… smiled even. By the end of the trip I’d met enough people to fill a cab into town and whisk me to the ‘rustic’ palace I find myself in now after some well needed but short-lived sleep.
I’ve just had an early morning wander around the Havana-esque old city of Casca Vieja which has got me really excited about being here, there was loud latin music blaring from the crumbling colonial facades and kids protesting in the streets about something and deals being done in alleyways and people spitting joyfully in the gutters… but much as I love it I’m heading straight out to the beach today I think. I need the water in my gills.
One other point of note; the rave pustules I gathered from the weekend’s party have made a seamless transition into travel boils and a couple of cold-sores have come to join the party too! Here we go…

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


It's with a mild sense of panic that i find myself packing for Panama today. As usual I've procrastinated until I've left myself too much to do and obviously I'm trying to take way too many things (despite promising myself last time to go light). Of course I can depend on my furry faced friend (that's my cat, not her-indoors) to help in such a situation. He's parked himself on my board bag and looks so cosy and comfy I don't have the heart to move him. He's also generously donated little bundles of his fluff on my towel and clothes as mementos whilst we're apart.

I need to leave a record of my beautiful new surfboard before I relinquish control, throw it in the hold of an aeroplane, cover it in wax, and dash it on some panamanian rocks, so here's a few pictures of her in her immaculate, virginal prime.... mmmm!