by Sharon Kratz s/v Rose of Sharon
The soupy slap, slap, slap of water against the hull brought me to near consciousness and half-awake, I smiled at the sound. I was home again, and happy to be here. This was my longest stint in the U.S. since 2004. I left the boat February 2012 because Daughter #2 had a crisis. And thank God her idea of a crisis is selling a house fast. There is more gas and oil fracking going on in the U.S. than you can imagine, and it is being developed rapidly in Colorado. I don´t want to think that we are on the brink of an international oil crisis, but let´s just say there´s more oil drilling development going on than is publicized. Unfortunately, much of this particular rapid new development was in my daughter´s backyard near the Denver Airport area.
She needed her house staged and was willing to sell it at a near loss to get her family in a home near downtown Denver. That´s where I came in. She flew me to Denver and I staged her home for quick sale and by golly, it sold within 30 days. She and her partner bought a beautiful mini-mansion close to their work and their children´s schools.
Joe flew in a month later, collected our RV (in Florida), visited the family in Texas and we reunited when I flew into Hobby. We took the RV for a road trip to one of my favorite places, Hot Springs, Arkansas, then went to Denver to help our daughter´s family make the move to the new house.
Then, heck, we needed a vacation so we took another road trip to Washington, D.C. My gosh, that was a fun trip! We camped in Maryland and rode subways into the city every day to visit one or more Smithsonian museums. But the longer we stayed in the states, the more I noticed a disturbing trend: Joe was becoming Americanized again.
He began fussing if a line was too long or the person behind the counter was too slow. He wanted more toys: an ipad, or ipod, or one of those high-tech things. His road rage, which had disappeared years ago, began rearing its ugly head again: he assigned personalities to the other drivers and muttered about their recklessness or their stupid driving, and that was enough for me.
I booked our flight from Denver to San Jose, Costa Rica. There are inexpensive flights from Denver to Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica on Spirit and Frontier Airlines. God willing, Southwest will join the competition soon, because it´s our favorite airline. But you know what a flight on Spirit means: redeye flying and long layovers in Florida. Still, for $250 per ticket, the price was right. “You can´t beat that with a stick,” Joe´s Texas mother would say.
I turned 60 in 2012. Joe would be 67 soon. Could we still make such a rugged journey? More importantly, would the airport personnel steal my stun gun?
In July 2012, we learned of a brutal attack in our own backyard; the south anchorage of the Bocas Marina site.
A pair of armed and dangerous assailants brutally attacked an American couple last night aboard their sailboat anchored in the "South Anchorage" of the Bocas Marina, next to Isla Colon in the province of Bocas del Toro in the Republic of Panama. The attack started after midnight last night, during early morning hours today, Sunday, 8 July 2012. The assailants pulled up next to the couple's sailboat at 1:00 am early this morning in a typical Panamanian wooden cayuco. The two assailants boarded the sailboat, held the couple at gunpoint, and tied them up. They ransacked the boat and stole everything of value, including cameras, electronics, a computer, cash, and jewelry. The attack lasted at least two hours, during which time the victims were assaulted and brutalized. The victims were finally able to put out a call for help on the radio at 3:30 am in the morning, after the assailants had left. This incident appears to be a serious escalation in what has been an increasing crime wave in the Bocas islands. – Don Winner, Panama Guide
The article actually glossed over the true horror of the crime: the couple´s hands were tightly tied with wire, they were pistol whipped and the woman was raped. She would be returning to the states later for counseling and family support.
Yes, we´d noticed an increase in dinghy thefts in the anchorage, and it was one of the reasons we chose to dock at the Bocas Marina. Security there was not tight by any means (in Guatemala we had armed guards walking the docks at night), but it had never had to be.
Were my days of sleeping in the cockpit under the full moon over? Maybe. But we intended to do some anchoring out, so I bought a stun gun. “I´m not sure I want you to have a weapon,” Joe said. He had a point. There were many, many times in our 42-year marriage that I would have shot him if I´d had a gun in my hand. The women in my family like to run over their men with cars, but I loved my Z-24 too much to risk denting it on Joe´s head. My mother had no such compunction and Dad once told me he had no idea how high he could jump until he saw our Chrysler Imperial speeding toward him with my deranged mother behind the wheel.
I left the stun gun in its packaging, lined the duffel bag with a trash bag, stuffed in a far corner of the bag then covered it with maxi pads. My experience is, men are squeamish about even handling that type of thing, and would stop the search once the hygiene products came into play. Then I stuffed clothes on top of that and medications on top of that and closed the duffel bag. We never bother to lock our luggage; it doesn´t matter. Sure enough, the bag was searched and my guess is, they never made it past the maxi pads.
The other duffel bag contained our propeller, which Joe had been hauling around much of the year trying to get a good fit. It hadn´t been tooled to his specifications, and he thought the fix might be a “key” of some sort, but until he knew for sure whether he would have it re-tooled or a key made, he toted that propeller everywhere he went.
So there we were, Sharon with her stun gun and Joe with his propeller and we were ready to get back to the boat and the cruising life!
Our daughter Kara got us to the airport in plenty of time for our 12:00am flight and I kind of liked it, quiet and deserted at the Denver airport, which always seems so busy. Homeland Security was lengthy but nothing like what it usually is. The flight to Tampa was three hours with only a few bumps. The 4-hour layover in Ft. Lauderdale had me sleeping on the floor. But I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the flight to Costa Rica, which also took about three hours, and at this point we started to feel a bit ragged. Plus I was cold. All the airports had too much air conditioning, and I hauled my blankie around like a deranged nursing home patient.
Once we cleared San Jose, we caught a taxi to the most dangerous place in Costa Rica, the San Jose bus terminal. This is where I just didn´t have my act together. I had read the online schedule, and thought the bus left at 1:30pm for Puerto Viejo and discovered there are TWO Puerto Viejos in Costa Rica, but I figured, hey, one city, two terminals. NOT. There´s another Puerto Viejo somewhere in Costa Rica. One woman told me tourists frequently get on the wrong bus, fall asleep and wake up in the mountains saying, “Where´s the beach?”
The locals helped me through how to get the tickets, and the ticket office, which was out to lunch, opened to sell me the tickets (I think because I was becoming hysterical and he didn´t want an international incident on his watch). And that´s what I love about Central America. They appreciate it that we try to speak their language, try to ride their public transportation, and find it endearing that we Americans are often so damn confused. They take care of us when they can, if we seem befuddled. Joe detests appearing dumb but I´m a natural.
Then we found fried chicken. Fried chicken always lifts my spirits.
Joe can recall the name brand of every beer sold in every country we visited, but I can tell where the fried chicken can be found. In Guatemala, it´s Campero. I once took my newborn grandson on an insanely reckless and speedy trip over cobblestone roads to get to a Campero chicken restaurant, even after I promised Joe I wouldn´t put “The Boy” on one of those dangerous mini-taxis. The kid´s head bobbled like a Chihuahua´s on the dashboard of an old Chevy, but I got my chicken fix.
Roatan Island, Honduras, has Bojangles chicken. As we toured that island trying to find a functional ATM, we bought chicken from Bojangles and I fed pieces to our driver as we drove around, tossing chicken bones out the window. You can take a girl away from her humble redneck beginnings, but you can´t always take the redneck out of the girl. I think driving around eating fried chicken and tossing the bones out the window is fun.
Pio Pio is my chicken of choice in Panama and it grieves me no end that there is not a Pio Pio restaurant in Bocas Del Toro. Turns out the best fried chicken in Bocas Del Toro is mine.
The upscale Costa Rica capital of San Jose boasts a brand-new Popeye´s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Church´s Fried Chicken and their own Rostipollos. But the dismal and dangerous bus station had a fried chicken kiosk with one word emblazoned on its sign: “Pollo.” That´s good enough for me.
Bocas Del Toro is much closer to San Jose than Panama City. Flying into Panama City involves booking another flight to Bocas on Air Panama, and even with our jubilado visa (a special visa for retirees) discount, it was more cost-effective to take the bus to the border and schedule a shuttle company to get us to Bocas.
Joe and I are re-thinking this arduous itinerary.
Our bus departed San Jose at 2:00pm local time. Costa Rica is on Mountain, Panama is on Central, we´d been on Eastern time in Florida for 4 hours, and at this point we didn´t know what time it was anywhere.
Joe and I slumped one way then slumped the other way on each other, trying to sleep on the 4-hour bus trip. We were in the mountains and the clouds were below us! I saw beautiful rainforest plants with leaves as big as coffee tables. I saw a flower-type plant whose petals were the size of oars. So every now and then, as my knees were crammed up to my nose and my backpack defiled my feet, I saw beauty.
We arrived in Puerto Viejo about 6:30pm and we were barely functional at that point. We had been awake and semi-awake for over 36 hours. The border crossing closes in the late afternoon, and I´d had the foresight to book a hotel room for two nights; it would take us one full day to recover. But when we departed our bus, all the marked taxis were long gone and even though I know not to get in an unmarked taxi, a nice man steered me to the generic taxi drivers and they said the fee to our hotel would be $4.00 US, which sounded reasonable. As we left the bus station (which is simply a building in the road, not a “terminal,”) Joe hung out of the car and tried to make eye contact with people drinking sodas at a table. He told me he wanted someone to remember us and recollect what car we were in when they later found us wandering naked on a back road.
The driver was a sweet boy who took us to a place that sold cold beer. I bought Joe a six-pack, gave the driver his due, and we gratefully drank the cold brew as the taxi sped down the dark beach road. It was a fabulous hotel, by my standards. The Totem Beach Resort was in the jungle, on the beach, and had hot water and air conditioning. The entire site is non-smoking except for a small area outside the restaurant/bar. There was a small Jacuzzi pool and lots of hammocks amid the lush, tropical foliage. The landscaping was perfect.
Later, we wondered how they manage to stay in business. It was off-season, I know, but there appeared to be few guests. A charming American family owns or manages the hotel. At $61/night, the price was a bit too salty for backpackers, and it was not a luxury hotel, as many wealthy tourists prefer. When a busload of German tourists appeared, we understood. The German tourists rushed from the bus to their rooms and donned their swimwear then hurried to the beach.
I don´t think any nationality in the world loves water as much as Germans! And I can always be guaranteed another form of entertainment for me: fat men in skimpy Speedo bathing suits! One man´s belly hung so low it obscured the entire front of the bathing suit (probably a blessing), and I said to Joe, “If he can wear a Speedo, you can wear one!” Joe once again assured me he wouldn´t be caught dead exposing himself in such fashion. Maybe I´ll bury him in a Speedo.
It helps if you understand Central American window air conditioners and showers, but this hotel had good AC units and the showers were the style with which you and I are familiar. We´ve experience some exotic shower units in our travels!
We spent the day sleeping. I had breakfast, took a nap. I woke up, wandered to a hammock and took another nap. We walked into town for lunch and as soon as we returned, we took a nap. We spent a nice evening chatting about a book Joe is reading, “Before 1491.” He shared with me some new theories about early life in the Americas, including the cellular makeup of the natives vs. the Europeans, which is why so many native Americans died from the diseases to which the white settlers had introduced and had become immune. That´s what I love about traveling with Joe. I see the here and now, and Joe seeks to understand how a culture evolved.
The next morning we were on the road again. Our shuttle bus picked us up at 7:30 a.m. and we made the short drive to the Costa Rica/Panama border. We thought there might be problems because of our one-way tickets, but we had no problems in Costa Rica. We checked out of the country and then we had to walk across a railroad bridge that is rusty and rickety and in need of extensive repairs to check into Panama. As we started across the bridge, I toted the roller bag and Joe carried two heavy duffels. We were only a third of the way across, when he stopped. “This bridge is longer than I remember,” he said.
I had my own problems with the uneven planks and the railroad tracks. Many of the bridge´s wood was missing anyway, so I had to watch every step while my bag fell through, got stuck, twisted around, and in general caused a problem every third step. Halfway across, Joe stopped to rest again. We were both perspiring heavily and being passed by young people whose luggage was on their backs. As we neared the end of the bridge, a young man rushed to Joe. “Where have you been?!” Joe exclaimed and handed over the duffels. The boy put both duffel bags on his shoulders and began walking quickly toward the border. Joe grabbed my troublesome roller bag and tugged it across the bridge.
When we were in Customs and Immigration, Joe tried to show the man the copies of our passports and jubilado visas. The man waved them away and charged us some kind of fee to justify letting us into the country without proof of return to the U.S. As we were leaving, I offered a nearby official the copies; I´d read they had to have non-returnable copies of our passports and visas and by, golly, I´d made the copies and was going to force them to take them. The officer glanced at the copies, saw our Panamanian retiree visas and interrupted the other man. He told him to return our money, which he did, and we continued on our way.
Our new shuttle bus took us to Almirante, where we caught a high-speed water taxi to Isla Colón and Bocas del Toro. Once in town, I grabbed what I considered to be vital necessities: eggs, bread, individual packets of mayonnaise, wine and rum. (The next morning, I realized coffee and sugar and milk were also vital necessities, but at the time all I could think of was a shower, happy hour, and bed, in that order.)
Our water taxi driver was a man I remembered. He says his name is Salsa and likes it when the women call him “Salsa Picante,” although he´s a pretty old guy to be a water taxi driver. I asked him to give me his current cellphone number; Salsa is a very knowledgeable water taxi driver and until our dinghy was back in service, he would be my ride to and from town.
I was never so happy to see a boat in all my life! She was clean because the marina had given her a much-needed bath, and the teak had survived the summer quite nicely. Perhaps we wouldn´t have to cetol this year. A large tarp covered the mainsail and the cockpit, and Joe untied the dockside tarp so we could haul our belongings inside the boat.
When he opened the companionway hatch, he recoiled. “It smells like a swimming pool down there!” This made me even happier. “That´s one of my favorite smells,” I replied. Before leaving the boat, I´d purchased a dozen swimming pool chlorine tablets. Because I left a month before Joe, I instructed him to put the tablets in bowls and place them throughout the boat. And therein lies my secret for no mold and no mildew when the boat is closed up for any length of time. We also have a very old window AC unit that keeps air circulating. It´s amazing to me -- this old air conditioner is practically rusted out and continues to work.
You will be stunned, absolutely amazed, to hear the refrigerator didn´t work. This is something I can always count on – no refrigeration – once the unit has been off more than a week. As always, Joe assured me he could work his magic and get her going. Once again, I began searching for the cellphone number of the refrigerator repair man.
The boat was full of stuff and once we added our luggage, you could barely find the floor. We could not locate our DVDs, but since the DVD player didn´t seem to work, not a problem. Joe hooked up the Freon Fixit thing he hooks up, and it appeared to be getting the fridge up to speed.
“When can I trust it?” I asked.
“Let´s see what´s happening in the morning,” He replied. I had visions of meat, milk, butter… Then banished them. I know how to function for extended lengths of time without refrigeration and was sure this challenge would be met as the other refrigeration challenges had been met: with creativity, pasta, and restaurants.
That first night, a dinghy was stolen from the nearby anchorage. CamrykaLand, where we would house-sit in November, had lost a gas can and other launcha equipment to bandits, and they lived in a secluded bay away from the city. Here´s what I heard: someone in the nearby town of Almirante was fencing as much stolen goods as the bad guys could steal, and was being protected by the local police. My guess is, as long as it was petty crime, de nada. But with the government investigating an assault on American tourists – and Panama loves its tourists – I imagined the operation might slow down. It didn´t appear to be slowing down.
Shopping in Bocas was a bit of a culture shock for me. My favorite, tony restaurant, 9 Degrees, was closed! My butcher shop was closed. How would I get 3” pork steaks sliced so I could stuff them with sausage/mushroom dressing? The small shack where another American cooked the very finest fish and chips imaginable for $6.00 was under construction. Joe and I split up; he wanted to get some sandpaper and a sim card for our cellphone and I had provisioning to do, now that the refrigerator was working. We agreed to meet at Pirate bar for a beer before we caught our launcha back to the marina. The legendary Pirate bar was gone, completely gone. More new construction was underway at that site.
I stood in the street, unsure what to do, then went to a nearby hotel and had a glass of wine. Meanwhile, Joe went up and down the streets looking for me. He said he first thought I´d be at the panaderia (bakery) and I wish I´d thought of that. But the grocery stores were holding my purchases, so I decided to stay at that end of town.
We finally reunited and chatted about the changes on the water taxi ride home. We also discussed other things. “You know, the woman said when you wake up and there´s a gun at your head, all your plans for defense go out the window. I mean, what can you do when that happens?”
“You have to say to them, ´Are you really willing to use that?” replied Joe.
“Okay, so while you distract them with that deadly question, I grab the stun gun. Do you want me to shove his gun arm up or down?”
“It hardly matters,” laughed Joe.
“Of course it matters,” I replied. If I shove up, you better duck down. If I shove his arm down down, you better jump sideways or up. Someone is going to get shot with something.”
There´s no place like home.