Friday, 16 January 2009

De Luz

My few remaining days in Panama have been filled with as much surf-time as my aching body will allow. I’ve surfed my biggest — but not necessarily best — couple of waves , having made the drop the wave’s were curling above and ahead of me well overhead. I’m never very good at judging wave heights, they always seem bigger to me than they probably are, but these were definitely 10ft+ faces and very nearly barreling (curling right over the surfer enclosing them within a tube of water). I took one smaller wave which curled began to curl over me and instinctively I ducked under the lip of the wave as it pitched out over me but it hit my head an knocked me head over heels. Next time eh?...

Spending so much time in the sea this last week I’ve observed some really spectacular light phenomenon. The brooding, stormy Caribbean weather has often been overcast but bright, and no wind the polished surface of the sea reflects the grey of the sky through it’s aqua lense creating a silvery green shimmer which makes it very difficult to distinguish between sea and sky, above and below air and liquid merging. One of the stormier days produced a light show that took me a few moments to comprehend it’s existence outside of the Photoshop realm. Off the northern tip of Isla Bastimentos on the waters horizon was what I can only describe as a setting rainbow, but rather than a ring-like rainbow this was a solid circular spectrum of light dipping below the skyline.

Another feature of surfing so much is the thinking time it affords between sets, in which time I’ve come up with a universal analogy between relationships and surfing. Both begin with a leap of faith, conviction, effort and determination to catch a ride on an inexorable wave of energy. Once aboard momentum takes over as an exhilarating freefall occurs but if you’re passive at this point then the freefall runs it’s course and it fizzles and dies or you tumble and crash. Once the initial buzz is under way you need to work to read and ride that energy to keep momentum going to stay ahead of the crumbling breaking wave, you need to use experience and intuition to understand and react to that energy, to flow with that energy and you have to keep opening up to the energy , to let yourself go in order to keep riding it for as long as possible.
Oh – here comes another wave…

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Mi Nuevo Amor

After bumping down on Bocas runway I found a place to stay thirty minutes walk down a swampy road to Playa Punch, a shallow reef break with lefts and rights that I didn’t get to surf on my last visit. Staying in walking distance from my surf spot saves the $20 return trips water taxi fee and being out of town in Big Creek suits me just fine, I just want to surf, eat and sleep my way through these remaining days in Panama. Having orientated myself at El Alma I waded through the morass up to Playa Punch with the admittedly cumbersome GG under one arm — she’s definitely putting on weight. Keen to surf I innocently strode out across the reef until it was deep enough to paddle and stroked hard to clear the white water. The waves were fun, fast and head to head-and-a-half high so I had a fine old time of it despite the excessive crowds in the water. With my arms/shoulders burning and energetically bankrupt I began to look for my exit point, hoping to follow someone else back in — the reef was sharp and the tide had dropped exposing even more of it. Most folk were getting picked up in water taxis and taken back to Bocas so after half an hour of waiting my patience gave and I caught a wave in toward a randomly selected spot. I let it wash me in until it was too shallow to paddle and I slid off my board to walk the rest of the way in. The wave that had delivered me thus far washed out revealing a reef covered with more sea-urchins than I believed possible. There were urchins nestled in between the spikes of bigger urchins having a sea urchin jamboree, their spikes swaying in the water in anticipation of the fun to come.. A quick scan in all directions confirmed that the whole coral shelf was covered in the pesky blighters. I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t go forward. The scene resembled a WW2 minefield, in miniature, and I the ship’s captain had to negotiate safe passage back to shore. After a few minutes of physical and mental inactivity, standing there like a right ‘nana I figured I had to take what was coming to me and I stumbled onward through the calf deep water aiming my feet at light–coloured spots where possible. On examining my reef boots once on dry land they had absorbed most of the damage, but the more tenacious spikes had found their way through and I knew I had a fun packed evening ahead — just me, the iodine, the needle, the tweezers and a whole lot of wincing.

I have a terrible confession to make. After such a heady, whirlwind romance I have forsaken GG for a smaller, lighter, more petite model. The following morning I just couldn’t face carrying GG for thirty minutes across difficult terrain — water retention from the knocks and scrapes we’ve been through have left her bloated and heavy. The smaller board I have with me which I’ve only used sparingly until now — the smaller size and volume make it less forgiving to ride and I’d judged it a step too far for me in more challenging waves — took a walk with me up to Punch. GG has been in dry-dock ever since. My new love is fast, light, agile, nimble and her duck-dives are obscenely satisfying. She doesn’t quite have the looks of her rival but she makes up for it in performance, in these waves anyway. I’m not proud of the way I’ve behaved but to be honest things had been a bit tense between me and GG for a few days previously. We just weren’t having fun any more.

There’s a great Hotel up at Playa Punch called La Coralina run by a wonderful host called Stacey. I had initially tried to stay there when I got to Bocas this time but they were full, but I have been hanging out there between surf’s, eating, drinking and enjoying the antics of Edgar the monkey riding Sugar the dog around the place like a pony. Her dad was arriving a day later than expected freeing up one of the expensive suites for a night. She let me have it for the price of one of her budget rooms so I’ve just spent a day in the lap of luxury enjoying a deliciously comfortable bed and an amazing multi-directional mist spray shower room. La Coralina overlooks Punch so at dawn I paddled out — through the urchin-less key-hole in the reef that Mike from the hotel showed me —and had the waves to myself for an hour before the boat’s unloaded their town-dwelling cargo. Between sessions today I took the first surf pictures of the trip. A combination of difficult access to the waves, water taxis and breaks being too far out to sea to photograph has handicapped me until now. Better late than never.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Café con Leche

Back on my own again — they call me the lone wolf, the dark raven, the bringer of light, the wizard’s cup, the crab botherer…. Oh yes, the open road beckons and the sea whispers (one of) my name(s).

Two features consistently epitomise my various global wanderings. Coffee is the first. At home I don’t really do any caffeine so hot drinks tend to be pond-water derivatives. Yet once I leave the motherland’s shores letting my hair down and drinking coffee must act as some kind of emblem of freedom for me. I’ll only have one or two cups a day, mind. The second is The Age Game. I meet a lot of folk and they tend to be younger than me, typically early to late twenties. The meeting banter tends to take the following course at some point: What do you do? > How long have you done that for? > [a puzzled look crosses their faces] > Errr, so how old are you ? > What! > I thought you were in your late 20’s, 30 at most! > {I try to suppress a smug smile}. My decaying ego’s fire is fuelled once again and my account for eternal youth is put down to over two decades of hard slog at the coal-face of disco…. That or good genes. My sprightly 75 year old paragliding father is testament to that.

The car hire place at David airport cocked up once again, but this time in my favour. I got a top-end 4x4 for the price of the cheapest one they did and felt like the king of the road as I headed down the InterAmericana (Panama’s primary road and the one with the least potholes) looking for thrills and danger. A quick nose at Playa Las Lajas was disappointing so I hoofed it back down to Santa Catalina to catch the end of the swell. I surfed the point and the beach break at Estero until the swell had pretty much said farewell at which point I saddled up and headed for Los Santos province to 4 hours to the east. This state has been almost completely deforested yet the infinitely undulating verdant landscape is spectacular. I arrived at Playa Venao an hour before sundown and leapt into the sea for a surf before dark in this wide crescent shaped bay. It’s a really great beach-break with plenty of room and a range of peaks to choose from and the surfers I met over the following couple of days told me it holds size when the swell’s right and yet it’s almost completely undeveloped… thus far. There is so much surf potential in this region with beaches facing from due east to south west with points and reefs dissecting them and there’s even talk of an outer reef with 100ft monster waves for the foolhardy. Yet despite this there’s not much surf development, perhaps because the U.S. grey dollar invaded the area a while ago pushing land prices up. I really like it in this province yet the lack of challenging waves and my impending departure persuaded me to surf my remaining time out in the consistent Caribbean Bocas del Toro. A pre-dawn departure from Pedasi enabled me to catch the 10am land-hopper from David to Bocas. The Caribbean surf forecast predicts it to build and hold until my departure. Let’s hope I’ve got my surf pants on.

Hasta Lluego

We greeted New Years day watching the sunrise followed by a leisurely breakfast with the monkeys before a grueling eye-bleeding 10 hour drive East across Panama back to Santa Catalina — I like it there. The combination of a new swell pushing through to the Pacific coast lighting up the main point for the first time since I’d been in Panama with the end of the holiday season meant town was full. We found a room on the bluff between town and the point, ate at Viankas and slept, the sleep of a thousand monkeys. Having shown SR all the sights, the next morning I made the 20 minute paddle between the rocks to the main attraction and inadvertently found myself right in the takeoff spot and caught myself an overhead right which walled up ahead of me growing in size and getting hollower as I shot down the line. A few instinctive top to bottom S-turns and a cutback kept me in the game until my final top turn just happened too quickly for me to control and my board shot off without me… my best wave ever!... Again!

We wandered in to town with the vague notion of getting a fish for dinner and arranging a snorkeling trip to Isla Coiba, one of the world’s premier dive sites and a nature reserve who’s only rival in terms of diversity and species numbers is the Galapagos. On the way to Rolo’s to arrange the Coiba trip we bumped in to a man, still dripping from his dive, with a spear gun skewering all manner of sealife. Our eyes were drawn to the enormous Snapper which we secured for $2. You don’t even see Snapper that big in the UK but it must have been £30-40 worth of fish in our sweaty mitts. A makeshift barbeque from a tinfoil cooking tray and a metallic washing up drainer and SR’s preparation, care, attention and garlic & ginger marinade provided me with one of the best meals I’ve had.

Isla Coiba is home to all manner of wild beasts from anacondas to sharks to crocodiles to whales to rays to prisoners — this island was a former prison colony and an unknown number of prisoners still reside in this wild island. The discernibly raw and untouched flora and fauna of these islands prompted a feeling of regressing millions of years as we approached. As the boat passed between two outlying islands we could see the submarine topography with absolute clarity beneath the limpid sea. Our excitement was palpable.
On signing in with the park rangers we saw a saltwater crocodile hanging about waiting for breakfast to slip by and then headed off for a tiny postcard-based desert island for us to snorkel around. We saw a kaleidoscopic array of colourful fish and coral in these pristine waters but the appearance of a gang of 4ft white tip sharks had SR scrambling for the safety of the rocks. With a little acclimatisation to the grey suited presence we continued and saw 2ft wide head of an indeterminatebly large shark lurking beneath some rocks and another 6ft white tip alongside huge shoals of fish in their brightest attire. The sheer magnitude of life around these rocks was breathtaking. When a cruise ship anchored nearby about to unload it’s cargo of 100 passengers we scuttled off to another nearby island with the most pristine white sand beach imaginable, clear turquoise waters backed by dense, dense jungle. A set-designer would have trouble coming up with a more perfect tropical beach.

A dawn surf on Sunday provided even bigger, double overhead sets but it was chock-a-block with locals guys demonstrating their skill and intimate knowledge of their wave. I caught what I could on the inside sections which wasn’t much but it was worth getting wet before our drive back to the city of David for SR’s trek back to San Jose, Costa Rica to get her flight back home.. A cursory check of the tickets when we arrived at the hotel in the early evening struck panic among the troops, we’d erroneously thought her flight was 4pm on Monday, allowing enough time for the 9hr journey the next morning and a fond farewell for us that evening. Oh No! It’s only bloomin’ 7.45 am. It was late already, there are no buses from La frontera after 9pm, it takes 1-2hrs to get to the border and 1-2hrs to get through the red tape at the busiest Panama-Costa Rica crossing and about 6 hours bus ride from there to San Jose. A quick bit of mental arithmetic determined that SR was in the shit. We booked a taxi, clothes were flung in bags and a wide-eyed stressful hug later and she was gone. Three hours later I was startled by the room phone ringing. SR was clearly in distress. The border crossing was a confusing nightmare and the last bus refused her passage and she had to watch it disappear without her. Endorsed taxi’s were quoting $300 but she found someone willing to do it for $200. But of course the cashpoints weren’t working that evening in the wild-west-like no-mans-land! The vulnerability of SR’s position was made manifest when the unlicensed cab took her down unlit streets into the countryside. With no common language between them her fears were only alleviated when he took her back to his house, wife and kids and allowed her to use his phone to call me. A midnight dash in a taxi to the badlands, my pockets stuffed with filthy lucre enabled SR’s 30-hour home-bound journey to commence.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Feliz Año Nuevo

With the swell dropping and the Caribbean rainy season living up to it’s reputation we decided to head over to the pacific side to the remote peninsula Punta Burica where Panama borders Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast. On the Costa Rican side of this peninsula is Pavones, one of the most renowned left breaks in the world, yet the Panamanian side is relatively undiscovered and must receive the same swell as it’s Tican neighbour.
We planned to fly from Bocas to David having heard that the road had been closed for the last few days due to continuing landslides but the flight we wanted was full so we braved the water taxi to the mainland and then the bus from Almirante to David. Whole sections of the mountains had succumbed to rain-sodden gravity carving great earth red scars into the otherwise lush green forested hillsides, sweeping car sized rocks, forests and roads away. There were some pretty precarious sections that had been patched up using piles of rocks and gravel to allow one lane of traffic through and our driver didn’t seem very confident at some points as he got out of his cab to have a closer look. Still, we made it and headed straight for the airport to pick up our booked 4x4 from Thrifty so that we could make down to the wilds of Punta Burica. Blanks faces met our arrival - they didn’t have a 4x4 free until the next day which scuppered our plans. A systematic sweep of the car hire places at the airport furnished us with a 4 wheel drive Daihatsu hairdryer with a dent in every panel and a careworn interior. The delay in securing our off-road coiffure-machine meant that by the time we reached Puerto Armuelles it was nearly getting dark and we’d missed our low-tide window to make the 2 hour beach-drive to Punta Burica. The portless Puerto Armuelles is a one-horse kind of town, and we were very lucky to find that horse. We had nowhere to stay and the very friendly boy in the restaurant we randomly pulled up outside warned us off the only hotel in town. A drink and a site down proved fruitful. The only other gringos in town, an American couple in real estate took pity on us, because we reminded them of their beautiful children, and put us up in a colonial style mansion for the night.
We pottered around Armuelles for a couple of hours in the morning buying supplies and browsing the multitude of Todos Dollar shops that made up the town centre before the tide would allow us to begin our mission to reach Mono Feliz, a jungle lodge, on the remote peninsula. We were worried that we weren’t 4x4’d up enough with our tinpot Terios so we tried to tell everyone we could that were driving to Mono Feliz in ‘this’ car. Everyone just smiled and said we’d be fine…. But watch out for the tide…. And the rocks… Having found access to the beach it was surprisingly good fun driving through sand, shingle, pebbles and rivers. Where we nearly came unstuck were the expanses of lava fields and rock pools that we had to traverse and the rivers which were deceptively deep. With huge crashes, bangs and wallops we bounced our way over rocks, logs and forded streams and rivers. We waved and smiled and checked the way to Mono feliz with everyone we saw in case we might need their help when the hairdryer finally ran out of steam, but two stressful, yet exilarating hours later we saw the sign, off the beach, to Mono Feliz – Happy Monkey. Pulling up and finding our open wooden cabin at this deserted jungle fringed beach made it all worthwhile particularly as whilst the kids who were looking after the place showed us around a gaggle of Squirrel Monkeys came down from the trees to see us, and with our fists-full of bananas they lept all over us to feed.
Juancho an American, grizzly adams type, runs the lodge with his local-born wife Luzmilla. He has bought 2 plots of land which he has left as a natural wildlife habitat whilst the encroaching ranchers devour the rest of the peninsula. His land is home to monkeys, as you might expect, particularly a troop of maybe 50 Squirrel monkeys which make up a good chunk of the remaining 2500 global population of this model. There are also Capuccino monkeys, Howler monkeys, Wolf Spiders, Jesus Lizards, Toads, Sloths and a whole lot more besides. Our open-side and fronted cabin sat on the jungle ledge only feet away from what was effectively our own private beach. Punta Burica’s 180º vista allowed us to watch the sun rise and set right on our doorstep. We did Yoga, run by the delectable Instructor Von-Stretchalot SR’s guru, on the beach at sun rise and built beautifully elaborate driftwood bonfires on our beach at sunset to cook on and lie by as we gazed at the ridiculous number of stars someone had spattered the sky with. By day I surfed one of the many point breaks along this coast either with two of the boys from the lodge or on my own. The swell was small so I didn’t get to see it in it’s full glory but it was just amazing to be riding decent waves in a tropical paradise without a crowd. After surfing a quick dip in the spring water plunge pool was a good bracer for either a jungle walk, a beach walk or some hammock time.
On a guided jungle on New Years Eve morning Junacho took us to one of his gringo neighbours places even further down the point and therefore even more remote. The American guy David is doing something similar to Juancho by returning his land to natural habitat but his Environmental Fundamentalist attitude brings him confrontation at every juncture. He’s fighting the poachers, ranchers, farmers, hunters, drug smugglers, gangsters, environment agencies, press, corporations and the government which has resulted in numerous fights and death threats and him carrying a pistol at all times and his wife being too scared to live there. Juancho’s philosophy, conversely, of doing his bit for the environment but also by integrating with the local community, working with nature and with the local people has endeared him to his neighbours and he leads a beautifully peaceful existence. I think the adage that you get back what you give out, that the world is a mirror to our own attitudes rings true here. Still, his heart is in the right place and his dedication has many benefits. He invited us into his wild cat cage, he rescued a baby Margay after hunters had killed it’s mother. This ferocious feline was a little bit bigger than the biggest domestic cat (yes, even big Jeffrey) and was an incredible beast, with leaopard-like spots, immaculate fur, huge nocturnal eyes and disproportionally large paws she was definitely not tame. She nearly bit our hands off when we tried to play with her, but to experience a wild feline so intimately was an indelible memory. As a parting gift David gave us a bag full of newly hatched sea turtles that he had incubated in a purposely built sand pit, having bought the eggs from the poachers for 10¢ more than they get from their contacts, for us to release into the Pacific that evening.
As the last sun of 2008 sank beneath the watery horizon SR and I drank chilled Bollinger in plastic beakers around a particularly ostentatious bonfire before coaxing, cajoling, tapping, flicking, encouraging and cheering our turtle friends to make their first steps into their ocean home. And all of this at about midnight GMT. What a way to spend our New Years Eve.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Nochebuena! 241208

My my, I'm behind on this blog. A combination of Christmas cheer, surf, remote wilderness and SR time has kept me away from the blog, but I'll begin to play catch up right now.

One of the most striking things about the Carribean side is the music. Music of all kinds and generational appeal booms out from peoples houses day and night like the oil in the Bocas del Toro machine — the Bocas Crew car creeps through town with it's blacked out windows, huge spoiler at the rear, UV lights underneath and a very fast looking "Bocas Crew" logo in gold down each side booming Ragga & Reggeton – A genre of latin music mixing hip-hop, reggae, and ragga, salsa and merengue. People of all ages throw open their windows, face their huge soundsystems to the street and sit on the porch to listen to anything from ballads, to reggae, to dancehall & ragga to reggeton to straightup salsa and merengue. On the far less touristy and therefore genuinely carribean Isla Bastimentos was the biggest soundsystem of them all.Coming from the murky depths of the most ramshakle and rund own looking stilted wooden house came the bone vibrating, blood jiggling bass from the meanest sounding ragga I've heard. The whole of Old Bank — the main town on Bastimentos — vibrated quite happily to this sound while the owner sat nonchalantly on his porch. A few brave souls tried to compete but to no avail.

Being a beginner — at anything — gives you the best and worst of times in close proximity to one another. On Christmas Eve I had my best surf ever, doing my first cut back, proper top to bottom turns and this all on my backhand! Christmas day was good but the point at isla Careneros was way too busy so I didn't catch too many waves and then I had my worst ever surf on Boxing Day. With a bit of a hangover I stumbled up to the point to see that the predicted new swell had arrived and it was absolutely firing. The waves were another foot or two bigger but more significantly they were hollower and seemed to slam into the reef with much more power and therefore much more noise. I paddled out, finding a convenient gap between sets and found myself in position pretty quickly. I managed the take-off and the drop OK but was immediately aware that the increased speed of the waves left little margin for error. I had taken off with too little angle so this fast breaking wave overtook me pretty quickly and I realised I wouldn't make it round the section ahead and kicked the board away to take the tumble in the whitewater before trying again. The tumble was much more than I'd bargained for as my limbs were flung about in every direction and I was spun head over heel for what seemed like an age. I'd had enough and tried to make it to the surface but the surging water was holding me down against the reef. Don't panic is the golden rule in these situations but every atom of my being was screaming "PANIC!". It was over relatively quickly and I came up for air only to realise in my haste I had taken the first wave of the set and I had another 6 of these beasts to come. My board's pretty floaty and the water was shallow so that incombination with my being an eedjut meant I couldn't duck dive deep enough beneath the oncoming waves to avoid the turbulence so I wrestled-the-crocodile and hung on to my board as I got pushed and pulled about underwater for the next 3 waves. A quick look up and I realised I had been washed nearly all the way down the point by now and the rocks at the southern end were looming perilously close. with one last push I summoned all my energy and paddled hard away from the rocks and managed to punch my way through the last couple of waves narrowly escaping being dashed on the rocks. That episode set the tone for the rest of the session, I was too timid and surfed without conviction taking off eather too early or too late but either way I missed most waves and pulled out fromsome perfect take-off spots as I watched people getting barrelled left, right and centre. The next day I wasn’t afraid but just lacked the skill to surf comeptantly in these kind of conditions. I caught a few waves but took missed out on a whole lot more. On one particular wave I dug my inside rail in as I was making a bottom turn and got sucked up the face of the wave and over the falls, me and my board getting slammed with the full force of a Carribean storm nose fist into the reef. I smashed the tip of my board into something hard, i think it may have been my ankle because I gouged a chunk out of my ankle too. Surfing is a great teacher; the lesson learned in these few days was that if you do or act with fear and too much caution then things just won't work out, and if you're not very good at something things don't work out. If you're not very good at something and you're afraid then be very careful!

SR arrived on Cristmas Eve, dazed and confused after a mammoth trip from Sweden via Stanstead, Heathrow, Houston - Texas and San Jose - Costa Rica! We had an hilarious and beautifully sweet Christmas with silly hats, presents, rum, champagne, hammocks, tequila, palm trees, crabs, beaches and our local pub on stilts over the sea!