San Blas'ted

The Darien Gap is a 100ish-mile stretch of impassible jungle, occupying the easternmost portion of Panama, overlapping into Colombia, and is technically the only break in the Pan-American Highway (a road otherwise spanning the entire length of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina, or rather Portland to Penguins.) There are no roads within the Darien Gap, let alone a highway. One is required to use their own two feet to get around. I've always envisioned a continuously swinging machete an essential tool in making painfully slow progress through the thick, unforgiving foliage. Probably an exaggerated mental picture, but since the area is described as a lawless swath of jungle ridden with deadly wildlife species and drug-smugglers, we opted to explore alternative routes from North to South America. Like so many other notoriously dicey places, the real danger is likely concentrated within established "don't go there" areas. Convenient in theory, but given we're still working through how to successfully navigate across town with mumbled Spanish directions, it felt ambitious to rely on our elementary level of comprehension to stay safe rather than just locate the bakery. Did the member of FARC, covered in head-to-toe camo, toting an automatic weapon, say to go straight or right at the third big rock in order to avoid risking life and limb? Ohhhh shoot, I can't remember. Maybe he said that we're supposed to take three rocks with us, for protection. No, that doesn't make sense. Let's just go straight, take a couple pebbles with us, and hope for the best. In the end, between indigenous settlements, anti-governmental activity and a steady flow of desperate migrants, pushing our penguin-bound bicycles not-so-stealthily through the jungle seemed bold. Is bold the right word?
 
With overland travel eliminated, two options remained. By air or sea.
 
Flying, although the cheapest option, is dismissed by many as boring or unadventurous. I understand, but also largely disagree. Flying is not only functional, it's exciting. I love to fly. Flying is THE form of transportation mentally reserved for our one-way journey home. Post longish bicycle ride. Post penguin selfie. End of the world. When people ask what our plan is once we reach the bottom, I don't even let them finish their suggestion to bike all the way home before exploding into a "oh helllllll no" chuckle. We takin' a damn plane, period. Envisioning the entire process is fun: An Argentinian pup under the seat in front of us, whatever electronics have survived shoved into a shared carry on and not much else. A fresh start, again. Happily strapped into an overactive bladder-friendly aisle seat, I'll make eye contact and enthusiastically nod as the flight attendant delivers her safety spiel. It will be in Spanish and I'll be damned if I don't understand every word by then. My obnoxious head movement will let her know that I know what to do in case of an emergency. Essential belongings (2 liters of water, chapstick, backup chapstick, snacks, backup snacks) will all be neatly arranged and equally accessible in the seat back pocket in front of me. Complementary, celebratory glass of wine in hand, staring at Aidan in excitement, I'll ask wide-eyed, "What do you want to talk about?!" As if we haven't had every day for the past five-hundred or so to chit chat. He'll lift an eyelid, smirk, and, "Shhhhh." He can't last more than two minutes once the engine is running. Like a newborn in the car. Lights out. "Ok, I'll just read," in a whisper after he's already drifted back to sleep, because by the time he wakes up, we'll be home.
 
Flying symbolizes the return. And signals the end. I grow a little flustered when we pedal past an airport or hear a jet fly overhead. "Was that a...a plane?" Marvelous. "Oh wow, a runway," I'll subsequently observe as we ride closer. "It's beautiful." The planes take off from right there, incredible. It's not that I want to go home, but after eight months on a bicycle, out in the elements, every single day, you can understand the likelihood of dirty thoughts to run through a woman's mind. Until we've completed what we set out to do, I simply cannot be trusted to make good choices at an airport kiosk. It'd be like someone on a strict diet walking into an ice cream shop and ordering a glass of water. I can't pretend like I don't smell the waffle cones. Ya know?
 
Due to a lack of self control, flying was out of the question.
 
Alas, by sea.
 
Most people we talked to deemed their sailboat crossing a the highlight of their travels and/or one of the best things they'd ever done. The boat trips stop over in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, home to the indigenous Kuna people for the past five hundred years or so. The islands are postcard idyllic with brilliant turquoise waters, white sand beaches and scattered palm trees. Picture perfect to outsiders. Outsiders who anchor off shore for a day to snorkel and sunbathe. The harsh reality is that most of the islands are only a few feet above sea level and it's predicted that many will disappear in the next 20-30 years. The ones that are inhabited are overcrowded, with a perpetually dwindling supply of resources. Although the Kunas technically survive off tourism, it's also sadly the industry that's contributing to their demise. Our presence on the islands felt contrived, and at times, transactional. The issue is that these sailing trips are sold as booze cruises through the islands, with marketing materials featuring over-saturated photos of young, attractive travelers joyfully jumping off pristine boats in unison, feasting on fresh seafood and wading in turquoise water. Admittedly skeptical, I swallowed my cynicism and agreed that sailing seemed the best option (of the three.) We forked over the painful price tag (subsidized by x-mas funds), disassembled and thoroughly wrapped our bicycles in plastic wrap until they resembled chrysalis formations beginning their continental metamorphosis.
 
We did a nauseating amount of research before choosing a boat. The horror stories are pretty horrific. Drunk captains, drug smuggling and filthy accommodation. I really wanted to believe that reading up ahead of time would ensure that none of these worst case scenarios transpired. Naively, I clung to an expectation that everyone else on the boat would be on roughly the same page. No spring breakers, just a sensible group of adults looking for a little wind in their hair, water in their snorkel, and something cold in their hand. Some light socializing and, of course, sleep. When one guy showed up with eight cases of beer, I had a gut feeling he wasn't going to want to sip some wine and stargaze. Neither would his friend probably who was hauling a couple handles of cheap rum and a bottle of Bacardi. How quickly the sailboat full of sober, sunshiney faces shriveled into a dark, claustrophobic dungeon. By day two (of six) all the beer on board had evaporated and a handful of those blacked out had officially decided that the boat shall be their personal party vessel rather than a confined space shared by everyone. Boat parts were broken, puke splayed the deck and a homemade fishing spear fashioned from a mop handle (the same mop presumably reserved for cleaning up said puke) rolled around precariously. The weapon constructed after specific instructions not to fish the Kuna's livelihood. No fish were harmed, but a perfectly good Swiss Army knife destroyed, as well as all the coral it was violently stabbed into.
 
The trip was pretty chaotic. Sixteen people on board. One accessible bathroom. Room for maybe six people in the shade, leaving everyone else to roast, provided occasional slivers of shade by the boat's mast and other tall features, resulting in a lot of strange sunburns.
 
Things were off to raucous start and we hadn't even hit open water yet. OPEN WATER. It makes sense now why there were no open water photos featured in the boat brochures, or on the websites, or anywhere. A collage of those images would make for one fucked up brochure. A lot of fetal position, cold sweats, pill popping, puking and horizon line stares. Party was officially over. The seas were absolutely massive. Someone told us after the crossing that he'd tied himself to his bed. Another who was tossed from a top bunk wished he'd thought of that. The few times my stomach felt strong enough for a trip to the deck, the bow of the boat looked like it had been green screened onto computer-generated waves, my own Perfect Storm. Aidan and I lived in a semi-conscious Dramamined state for the next three days. Awaking usually to eat lying down and/or use the bathroom. The latter not lying down. A trip to the bathroom was a violent human pinballing from one side of the boat to the other. And once in the broom closet-sized bathroom, the stench alone was enough to turn the strongest sailor green. I'd pull my shorts down with one hand, the other clinging to the wall for support, only to be rudely slammed into the opposite side, bare cheek suctioned against the wall that so many others' had before me. Buhhhhh. When the German guy entered the bathroom with a packet of wet wipes under his arm, there was a "I wouldn't go in there" window of at least an hour. And when gagging noises echoed out from the closet amidst body-slamming seas, it was pretty apparent that something was being expelled out of target toilet range. A hot, humid, bodily fluid-laden chamber.
 
Of course, it wasn't all nightmarish. There were some really beautiful moments. And lovely people. Especially the crew who put up with SO much shit. And smiled the entire time. There were rare morning moments when most were sleeping and a steaming cup of coffee was handed up from below deck to accompany the sunrise that I felt like I had all to myself. A relaxing moment typically interrupted by our Colombian captain who always greeted me with a Joey from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. "How YOU doin?" and a set of knuckles patiently awaiting a return dap. And when the French guys aboard puffed their cigs adorned in accent-accentuating snorkel masks, tiny briefs and fedoras, it made smile at the endless cultural differences existing in this world. And when our talented cook made an absolutely breathtaking meal of red snapper accompanied by five different colorful sides, there was a temporary moment of peace while everyone devoured the masterpiece she'd created for sixteen people on two tiny cabin stove burners. Until, of course, a couple plates ended all over the deck because those tasked with eating the meal were too drunk to manage. Rice ended up in my hair. IN MY HAIR. I've been present for the feeding of small children and ended up with less food on myself. A third guy appeared from another area of the deck and exclaimed, without joking, that "the chicken was fucking delicious." He had no idea what he'd just eaten. All that fresh-caught hard work wasted. I laughed, I did. In a sadistic way, it was funny. Aidan was probably relieved to see a smile on my face that particular night. He's got an enviable way of recognizing when a situation is miserable and refusing to let it affect his mood. He spent an entire day crafting a kite from found materials (read garbage) that would successfully fly a GoPro high above the boat. A Castaway'd drone. The sense of accomplishment visible on his face was enough to make my day. And although the aerial shots look an awful lot like "yet another drone angle" we know that he made that thing fly with shitty fishing line, packing wrap and a couple of sticks. The epitome of making lemonade.
 
All pooh-poohing aside, I'm glad we did the boat trip. It's taken a few weeks of accruing perspective to admit that, but I mean it. The pleasure to pain ratio has leveled off as we've ridden further away. But for those wondering if I'd recommend this trip to anyone on a meager budget, or anyone I cared about at all for that matter? Probably not. Ask me again in a month or two.
 
Really whats important is that we made it to Colombia safely. And it's everything I thought it would be. Dramatic, challenging, insanely hospitable. The people are not defined by their violent past anymore than we are by our Dumpy present. Everyone in the world just wants to be understood. My energy has renewed and I feel enthusiastic about pedaling again. And although our timeline, once again, seems too short for the incredible undertaking that is the Andes, we're ready to try. Currently in Medellín resting after a couple weeks of Colombian riding, we're set to get moving again anyyyy day now. Expect Colombia's writeup to be overflowing with positivity.

 We watched all three hours of Castaway in preparation for this trip. 

We watched all three hours of Castaway in preparation for this trip. 

 I take my coffee with peace and quiet. 

I take my coffee with peace and quiet. 

 Just like the postcards.  

Just like the postcards.  

 Self-proclaimed inventor of the selfie stick strikes again. 

Self-proclaimed inventor of the selfie stick strikes again. 

 Trial run in the rain. 

Trial run in the rain. 

 Need a little wind here. 

Need a little wind here. 

 A madman at work. 

A madman at work. 

 Just taking a moment. 

Just taking a moment. 

 Dinghy joke. 

Dinghy joke. 

 Desperately seeking shade. Down in front. 

Desperately seeking shade. Down in front. 

 Materials testing. 

Materials testing. 

 I guess it would have been easier to just ask someone to take our picture. 

I guess it would have been easier to just ask someone to take our picture. 

 Has anyone seen the mop? 

Has anyone seen the mop? 

 Ahhh, blow it out your snorkel. 

Ahhh, blow it out your snorkel. 

 Amphibious attack.

Amphibious attack.

 Panama City plasti-prep. 

Panama City plasti-prep. 

 Our beautiful butterflies are sailing. 

Our beautiful butterflies are sailing. 

 Mornin' sunshine. 

Mornin' sunshine.