Saturday, November 29, 2008

Helping My Way Through High Seas

I took this after collecting plates from the lunch that had just been served. We were in the Hospital of Bocas del Toro, where mattresses had been tossed on the floor of three bare rooms to house about 30 or 40 elderly and disabled men and women whose nursing home had been flooded in the downpour. Several of them didn't have control of their limbs, or were blind, and needed to be spoon fed and have their drinks gingerly tipped into their mouths. There weren't enough wheelchairs for everyone to sit down all the time.

A few of them had to be physically lifted and moved into their beds. I was shy and ginger about it, not wanting to hurt them, until a nurse came and hauled them like sacks of potatoes to where they needed to be. I said I didn't want to hurt them. She said any little thing hurts them, and moved another.

Not all of them were entirely there mentally. One woman was terrified, convinced she was going to fall, no matter how we surrounded her with pillows on her mattress as she lay down, or what angle we set them at when she sat up. Another started stripping off his pants and adult diaper after I wheeled him to his bed at his request (an act I was later told off for). Other examples were slightly nicer though. Like the kindly old man who looked up at me when I served him his lunch and asked "how much?" ("Oh for you, sir, it's free." I told him).

One thing that impressed me again though, the same way it had from the last volunteer experience I had on this trip, was what was appreciated the most. It wasn't the physical help. It was the company. One man named Michael talked my ear off in English whenever I was nearby telling stories of his friends from Lebanon and Palestine and some of his skirt-chasing exploits from his younger days. Or Nicolas, the man who had both legs amputated, and his love of politics, travel, and also of riddles. Or Rafa, the childless Costa Rican lady who would alternate between languages to talk about how much she loved being with neighborhood kids and how relatives would say she spoiled the neighborhood boys but she didn't care.

But the man in this picture stood out to me somehow. He spoke very quietly, so quietly I couldn't understand his words. Sometimes it seemed to be English, sometimes Spanish, sometimes some other language entirely. But he always had something to say to me, and he would take his time to say it at length. I was never sure what to tell him, but he always seemed satisfied with just, talking, and haveing me stand there and listen. I never even learned his name.

Anyway, that was my experience volunteering in Bocas del Toro with flood victims. It wasn't exactly what I came to the place for, but I'm glad I found some way to help with the growing situation there, (the link is courtesy of my fellow volunteer there, Erin).

I believe all of them have now been moved back to their home. The last day I was there, I was told they would be moved back the next day, depending on weather. Which was, in fact improving. We had some sunbreaks that morning, so I'm hopeful.

The only public transportation off the island to the rest of Panama was by airplane. I didn't like the idea of paying a lot of money to fly through thunderstorms in a small plane, so I started looking for other options.

A few days later, I was sailing on the Caribbean as a line hand on the 66' sailing yacht, Colombo Breeze. I'd asked around at the marina for private yachts heading out and managed to find the only one braving the weather and heading for the port of Colón to the east. I asked the British crew if they had space for another, told them I was young, agile, bilingual, and didn't get seasick, and I was in.

Soon I was pitching and rolling my way across the open ocean for an overnight journey. I saw stars for the first time in weeks, and also saw and learned about phosphorescence. Glowing, living, pieces of the Caribbean like fireflies winking and swimming in our wake. It did rain a bit, still, but all that really seemed to do was flatten the waves. I never did get seasick, but the pitching and particularly the rolling was way more disorienting down below in the cabin than it was up on deck. Still, the movement rocked me right into a very deep sleep that left me groggy for hours afterward. Also, adjusting back to solid land once we made port took me much longer than adjusting to a moving boat had. I was so thrown off kilter that I checked my temperature to make sure I wasn't coming down with something.

I did not waste time in Colón. I saw the norther part of the Panama Canal (looks exactly like you'd expect it to-- a massive canal with massive lines of massive boats waiting for it), and then got straight onto a bus for Panama City. Colón is notorious for being the most dangerous city in the country, if not in all of Central America. The local wisdom here  says if you've been mugged in broad daylight once, it means you've been there a week. Twice means you've been there two weeks.

I made it to Panama City just in time to sign up for a Thanksgiving dinner at a hostel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood. I sat down with 49 other expats and backpackers and stuffed myself silly with turkey, potatoes, yams, veggies, salad, fresh pumpkin and apple pie with whipped cream that I ended up whipping myself with a whisk (good forearm workout). Fantastic atmosphere, great night.

Since then, I've been looking to plan my next move. The original plan was sailing to Cartagena via the San Blas, islands but the prices have skyrocketed to the point where an independent trip to the San Blas and back followed by a flight to Cartagena is $100 less. So I'm just booking myself a flight to continent number two.

But not until I've joined up with some guys from here who are going and hitting some bars tonight. Last night I was walking the streets and heard some fantastic live music. I found the source was a free concert and wandered up. One minute later, a table full of Colombian Panamanians were enthusiastically offering me a share of their food and drinks. Three minutes later, they had me on their cell phone with their 23 year old son who happened to be in town with his Seattlite girlfriend. So if all goes to plan, I'll be meeting them tonight. If I've learned anything when it comes to hanging with Central Americans, it's to keep your schedule clear or you're going to miss out.

Only minor bad thing was I got my day pack stolen. Most valuable thing inside was a Nalgene and a flashlight the charged by hand-crank. The most annoying part is that it's actually the top compartment of my big backpack, so part of my backpack is gone. I feel pretty stupid about how it happened. I had myself prepared for all situations of robbery. I had zipper pockets and a money belt to foil pickpockets. I had a decoy wallet in case of being mugged. I knew all the typical cons involving distractions like people spilling stuff on you and cleaning it up to distract you while you're robbed. But I didn't account for my own simple absent-mindedness. I went to get breakfast at a cafeteria in the rain. I put my poncho on a chair and slung my bag on my chair behind me. I got up to pay and started counting my change, putting on my poncho on the way out. It wasn't until ten minutes later that I realized I'd forgotten my bag, and by then... it was gone.

So I've got a gimp backpack now, and am missing little useful things like a water bottle, bandanna, flashlight, and the trail mix I'd made and been using as road fodder. But more than anything, I'm just annoyed with having my pride hurt like that. There I was, smugly thinking I was better prepared and smarter than all those bumbling fools who got themselves robbed, then I go and prove myself more bumbling and foolish than the lot of them. Figures.

Well, it's a well-deserved dose of humility and extra warning before I head into my next country.

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  1. Hey Joel, it's Suzanne, we met yesterday at Parque Metropolitano. Well I found your blog, it's great. I am at my office at UTP right now, but I won't forget to email my friends in Ecuador, OK?

  2. I'm sorry you got your brain stolen! That does suck. If it makes you feel any better, my friend Mike Miller had his backpack stolen out from under his chair, while several of us were sitting at the table, at the Santiago bus station.

  3. really frustrating, but we've all eaten a little humble pie in travel. glad it wasn't worse. And good for you for doing real things and helping people rather than just being the cool observer passing through. no doubt you'll have a better experience than others for having that attitude.

  4. Suzanne-- Yes! Thanks again, I really appreciate the reference. Definitely looking forward to meeting your friends at Latin Tour.

    Maritza-- My brain stolen? That's a good way to put it actually... I'll see what I can do to get it back...

    Anonymous-- Well so far I think I've been having a good experience. Speaking the language helps a lot, I´m going to have a harder time doing this when I get to places like Asia, but hopefully I´ll get somewhere.

    Also, can I just apologize for the horrendous copy editing on this post? I just reread it again for the first time and it was kind of painful. Sorry folks.