The morning sun is gaining strength. In spite of the breeze, it is intensely hot and everyone on board is looking for a shady space. For the past hour, I have been trying to write my diary but the swaying of our boat in the waves has made me feel dizzy and I put the diary away and just gaze across the endless ocean. All of a sudden, something dark appears on the surface in the distance – what was that? Again! I am straining my eyes to see clearer but now … nothing, stillness. Suddenly and now much closer, two creatures breach the surface and in a graceful arch disappear – dolphins!
Just behind the first two, three other dolphins appear, and behind them yet another group. Ten seconds later, they are all around our boat, circling it with playful elegance and eventually convening under its prow, visibly enjoying the bow waves. It seems like they are escorting us, each one taking a turn in leading and at times even jumping high out of the water in a beautiful display of their grace. Transfixed, we all stumble to the front of the boat where we can observe them from above while dangling our feet above the water. After around 15 minutes, they disappear, leaving behind a joyful memory of a wonderful and unexpected encounter in the middle of the Caribbean.
For the last 4 days, we have been playing Pirates of the Caribbean. Even though there is a land connection between Panama and Colombia, this is impenetrable jungle and drug trafficking country, and there is no road that connects Central and South America - the infamous Darien Gap! Therefore, we had to ship Pele one last time while we hopped onto the Maratonga, a yacht sailing through the Caribbean from Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. We spend the first three days in the remote San Blas archipelago. With more than 350 miniature islands fringed by coral reefs and white sand beaches, this archipelago is a Robinson Crusoe dream. We explore one of the tiny islands swimming and snorkeling in the turquoise ocean, and hunting for hidden treasures in the shipwreck stranded on the reef.
Some of the islands are inhabited by the Kuna Yala, one of the few remaining indigenous tribes in the Caribbean. We anchor at one of their islands to replenish our fresh water supplies. The shrill cries of the children playing volleyball, the birds singing merrily and the occasional grunting of the pigs are the sole sounds breaking the stillness of the sleepy island. It is a delight interacting with the kids. As they are swinging and playing in their hammocks, one of them, eight year old Harry, cheerfully tells us that his father has left the family and has travelled to the moon from here he is watching him. When we leave, he asks us when we will come back and we promise to be back when he turns 16…
We say good bye to San Blas and start our sailing trip to Colombia. The weather forecast predicts gale winds and torrential rains for later today and Umberto, our captain, looks a bit anxious. He hopes to reach the port of Cartagena before the storm front hits us. For now, the sky is steel blue and there is no indication of any storm. I continue to gaze across the ocean and let my thoughts fly. After months of continuous travelling, this forced idleness is heaven sent. I feel how the steadiness of the waves and the rocking of the Maratonga convey a tranquility of mind that I haven't experienced in a long time.
"The World is a book and those who do not travel read only one page" – I rarely felt the truth of this inspirational quote as much as over the last month during which we have travelled from Los Angeles to Mexico and through Central America – a wonderful journey leading us to beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, dense jungle, stunning volcanoes and atmospheric colonial towns. We have experienced the Caribbean joy of life and I have drunk more Daiquiris, Margaritas, Cuba Libres and Mojitos than ever in my life. I have learned about highly developed civilizations I had never heard of before, had a glimpse into the turbulent past of the original "Banana Republics" and have seen how their recent history has led them in different directions, making me reflect about similar developments in Africa.
The last part of our journey through Central America took us to Panama. Immediately after a nail biting four hour border crossing from Costa Rica, we are stopped by heavily armed police officers who accuse us of ignoring their signal to stop and tell us that the fine for this amounts to 500 US$. Contrary to Kenyan police officers, they seem to be serious about intending to fine us and not just soliciting a bribe. Luckily, we are able to talk ourselves out of this and after a lengthy discussion, they allow us to drive on. To unwind, we practice the art of hammock swinging above the calm waters of Bocas del Toro, another tropical island paradise on Panama's Caribbean coast.
Panama's claim to fame results mostly from the Panama Canal, one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The 80 km waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in one of the narrowest points of the American continent and serves as a maritime shortcut that massively saves transporting time and costs. During our visit of one of the canal's massive locks, we are fortunate to witness huge container vessels crossing.
Right next to the canal sits Panama City, the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. We enjoy the special allure and dilapidated charm of its old city center as we stroll along cobbled streets, past beautifully restored colonial mansions right next to crumbling buildings, abandoned houses and boarded-up ruins. Only a kilometer away, countless glass and steel skyscrapers make for the most impressive skyline of Central America.
My reflections of the last couple of weeks are interrupted by sudden shouts and activism around me – our captain has caught a large tuna which means that there is sushi for dinner. Later at night, I am lying on the roof of the Maratonga – there is a strong swell and I can see lightning on the horizon. However, the lightning doesn't appear to come closer and above us, there is a breathtakingly beautiful star-studded sky. I am disappointed and relieved at the same time - the predicted storm seems to be missing us.