Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When the Going Gets Wet

I am currently stranded on a Caribbean island.

People from back home sometimes tell me they envy the weather I must be having down here in Central America. They say it's warm and sunny. Most of the time they've been right. But not this week.

I crossed into Costa Rica last week in a drizzle, landing in Liberia in time for it to clear up a bit. I wanted to push ahead into Panama. Costa Rica is a wonderful place, but I'd been there 8 years ago in the perfect season to see places like Arenal, Tortugero, and the Nicoya Peninsula. The other places I wanted to check out like Corcovado weren't in great shape to see just because of the time of year.

So I pushed through one drizzle to the next in San Jose, stopped to check out the great theater scene and found the major theaters were either dark for the next few days or only had concerts scheduled. So I pressed on to the south Caribbean coast and Cauhuita. There it really started to rain. The power was out too, so I stayed long enough to try a fantastic Caribbean fish coconut peanut curry, served with a Panamanian chili pepper so hot it actually gave me the hiccups (one of my father's legendary tests for whether or not food actually qualifies as spicy). Then I pressed on to the border, hoping to get to the Bocas del Toro islands and better weather.

I got to the islands fine, but the weather followed me right there. Two other travelers and I ran off the boat through the downpour, (followed doggedly by a local who offered me both marijuana and cocaine within three sentences of "hello") to a hostel where I was quickly given an introduction to the layout, my room, and then The Three Bocas Lies: 1. 'I'm not drinking tonight', 2. 'I'm leaving tomorrow', and 3. 'I love you.'

Morale was low. Bocas is a fantastic place to go to the beach when it's sunny. It was not sunny and wasn't shaping up to be sunny any time soon. Most people there were sitting around without much to do. That didn't appeal to me much, so I started thinking about my next destination.

But then I thought for a bit and decided that clearly I was going to get wet here, I might as well get really wet. So I found the nearest PADI shop and enlisted in a scuba diving course. Three days later, I was a certified open water diver.

This didn't come quite as naturally as surfing did. To be honest, I kind of freaked the first time I went underwater weighted by a lead belt with a hose stuck in my mouth with air that didn't taste right and didn't feel like enough to breathe by, plus the fact that the visibility was less than 2 meters. But once I got over the initial shock, realized the air was just fine and that I didn't need to suck it down to stay alive, I was actually able to enjoy myself somewhere where I could see more wild animals in 10 minutes than I would see in a forest in 10 hours.

Visibility was bad. Good conditions to learn in and I'm now a stronger scuba diver for it, and it had the cool effect of putting everything in a greenish fog that came out at you as a surprise. We got to dive a shipwreck near the island and see most of it absolutely covered in coral, plants, and animals of all colors. A school of fish followed us with a synchronization and precision I'd never seen from anything anywhere, something a team of human dancers could only dream of. They could twitch in unison. We found a few lobsters eyeing us suspiciously from nooks and crannies and we dodged jellyfish.

It wasn't a cheap venture, but it was definitely worth it. And like I said, as long as I was going to get wet anyway...

Thing is, this was turning out to be more than just rain. This is a massive system that is simply sitting on top of the entire country of Panama and parts of Colombia and Costa Rica, refusing to move. And it rains, rains, and rains, until you think it can't possibly pour down again. And then it does. I haven't seen the sun in more than a week.

This means flooding. The nearby island of Bastametos, where I was originally thinking of staying, has been flooded. People have lost everything. Until very recently, out here we had no telephone access to the mainland, no internet, no ATM service. The roads out of the nearest mainland town have been wiped out in both directions. The seas are treacherous-- two ships have recently sunk trying to leave. And the conditions aren't good for the small airport either, all flights yesterday were canceled, and I'm not sure the ones today are going either.

At first it was an inconvenience. Then it was a situation. Then yesterday I learned that the President of Panama has declared a state of emergency. Mutterings of food, power, and water shortages are beginning to circulate.

When I heard that, I stopped trying to leave and started trying to help. I started spreading the word to other stranded travelers with no money, food, or places to stay where they can go to get help. I've left my name with the police and tourist office as a possible volunteer and I'm going with some friends to the hospital later, where a lot of the people who lost their homes in the flood have gone to stay. If they need more volunteers, I'm getting them more volunteers. There are plenty of backpackers sitting here in the rain with not much else to do right now who are all ready to lend a hand.

I'm keeping my ears open for when people figure out road travel and I know the name of a private sailboat that's going to leave for Colon sometime within the next couple of days if they can. But I'm leaving the flights to the people who are missing connections home for the holidays, jobs, and loved ones they're trying to meet.

I'm optimistic. We got internet and phones back today, and the clouds seem lighter and thinner. I've been here two days longer than anywhere I've been on this trip, but I don't have any hard date I need to be anywhere else yet. I've started making some great friends in the area-- I even had one guy from Bocas ask me if I was Panamanian (something I'm still ridiculously pleased with).

Still... well, maybe the best way to describe the feeling is from something that happened a couple nights ago. I was hanging out with a Panamanian artisan, two travelers from New Zealand, one from Italy, and one from Germany. One of the Kiwis got a bit bored and started drawing on the other's leg (these are the kind of people I like to hang out with). Soon, there were a few birds on her knee. The German liked it a lot. He told us that that kind of bird was a symbol of freedom. If you put it in a cage, it dies.

None of us are literally dying, but we want out sometime soon.

In the meantime, I'm going to see what I can do to help.

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