Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The "Stahlratte" going to Panama! sounds weird, right? A strange name, the kind of name that can only speak about something incredible. This is the name of the most beautiful boat we have ever seen. Maybe we were already blind by our love for this peaceful warship, maybe someone else would find this "steel rat" ugly with its rusted iron dress...but for us, it was a dream...the dream that will take us to the San Blas islands. the story started in the harbour of Cartagena. It is always a lot of fun to look for a boat. We enjoyed it in the Canary Island and we were excited about the idea of going every day to the harbour to talk to the captains. We find always genius character there, true sailors, outlaws who sailed away from the society for the unlimited sea. They are also some kind of revolutionaries...

Cartagena is full of opportunity to sail to the San Blas islands...but most of them are possible for the one ready to pay 400 dollars. Sailors from all around the world came here to make some money. As a matter of fact, the sea is the only practical road to get to Central America. The Darian gap is a jungle where only well-equipped travelers can get...and there are also all those stories of guerrillas and kidnapping. We chose the safe way...and our bright star shined really strong in those days. We had the great honor to meet two free spirits, Ludwig and Rolland, from Germany and Austria, two great travelers who share some of our ideals. Rolland has been travelling throught America for five year on a motorbike he made himself. He is huge, impressive, 2 meters high but a kind heart and a lovely person. Ludwig is a great captain, funny, free and anarchist, he manages the Stahlratte as a volunteer. The ship is amazing, 40 meters long, a true iron tank that was first put in the water in 1907. For more than hundred years, it has been sailing as a fisherman boat, hosting a revolutionary "commune" in the sixties, taking part in greenpeace actions in the eighties and finally bought by a community of sea lovers. Today, about 150 people own the boat to allow it to sail for ever!

Ludwig and Rolland are only the two to take care of the boat, they have both dreams of traveling some more but they are in love with the Stahlratte! They accepted to meet us on board and after listening to our story they asked us hundreds of questions to ensure we were honest...and they finally said we could sail with them with two conditions: To find other people who would pay...and help for the cleaning, washing and cooking! Deal! Every time we find a boat, it is hard to describe the flow of emotions that pass through our veins...this was the last true obstacle on our journey, as soon as we get to Central America there is just one road, the Panamerican way that goes till Alaska! We spend the last week trying to find as much was pretty hard since we were in the low season and they are a lot of competition...but finally we succeed to find a couple of people and the boat is almost full when we leave. We enjoy our last days in the centers...eating pizzas, pastas and all kind of delicious meals prepared by Italians, German, french, Colombians and sushi restaurants. The owner of the sushi restaurants,

Edgar had even checked his wardrobe to give us some old clothes! We met Marina, the angel of Cartagena who prepare everyday vegan food for the people for a very reasonable price. She is lovely, a pure heart who invites us every day...then come the times of leaving Colombia. We didn't see much at the end but the experience was rich.

We jump on board of the Stahlratte with 11 guests, 3 Americans, 2 Australians, 1 German, 1 Swiss, 2 Danish, 2 British, Ludwig, Rolland and Luis, a Colombian traveler who wants to get to Europe from Panama...10 different nationalities but on board, everyone felt as a world's citizen. We are back on the sea...the "steel rat" breaks the waves under a shiny sun. The atmosphere is great on board, we clean, cook, laugh, talk, exchange and 40 hours later we arrive in the paradise islands of San Blas, an archipelago of about 360 islands inhabited by the Kunas, indigenous people who live according to their own rules. All their villages are situated on islands, in the middle of a turquoise water. A true paradise where we have the chance to stop for two days and three nights. The water is sweet, transparent, we can snorkel around in the coral reefs, eat on a desert island where there are just white sand and some coconut trees. We can't unfortunately grasp any, the Kunas are really strict about it, everything has a cost..especially here, one dollar for a coconut, one dollar for a picture...and it seems the price is the same for a smile. We understand it, they have been trying to save their culture along the centuries.

Today, they are 50 000 kunas, they have just forbidden alcohol in the towns to ensure the males don't get too crazy. Indeed, in most places in the world, even the most remote ones are suffering from the damages of alcohol. The kunas have their own “Cacique” and their own government. They have 2 representant in the national parliament, they are recognized and have the chance to save their culture.

Ludwig arranged a longboat to get to the land...the driver get crazy when we tell him we can't pay...apparently, someone gave lies about it but finally everything get arrange and we can start hitchhike to get to Panama city situated at about 100 kilometers...nothing easier, we don’t even have to wait, quickly, as kuna stops at the border of their land and he takes us to Panama city...the ride is fast, we can barely see the countryside and we immerse ourselves directly into the craziness of the city. Welcome to capitalism, billboards everywhere, huge advertising every 5 meters...McDonalds, Wendy’s, Fast food restaurants and malls along the road. It can’t be said that the United states didn’t influence the construction of the Panamanian society...

Actually, Panama might not exist as a country if the United States didn’t intervene in 1903 to plaid in their favor against Colombia. As a matter of fact, Panama had joined great Colombia in 1821 when the Spanish left and then remain attached to Colombia. It is only thanks to the military pressure from the United states that Panama could get its independence. The US were interested in the famous Canal of Panama abandoned by the french who couldn’t afford the high costs of the construction of one of the biggest engineering project in the world that would connect the two oceans and allow the trading company to save a lot of money. The US finished the canal and managed it until 1977 where they agreed with Panamanian institutions to cooperate on the canal. In 1999, the US finally had left the management to the Panama Control Authority. Thanks to this, Panama could increase its income considerably, the canal generate a revenue of more than 2 billions dollars.

Therefore, Americans have been traveling and living in Panama for decades influencing the way of life of the Panamanian citizens. We arrived in the outskirt of the city and without any problems we found a ride to get closer to the city center. Our friend leave us at the entrance of a huge area that just looks like Beverly Hills...we feel in another world, big fancy houses with neat lawns and big SUV in the garage, no one on the streets, not even a pavement to walk. It is surrealistic, no need to say that most of the people living here are US citizens or rich entrepreneur who work for the canal. We enjoy luxury and ask two sushi bars...they offer us some vegetarian sushi's with pleasure! Then we get further to find our friend from couch surfing, Benny who lives in a wooden house close to the park. As always, couch surfing is a big help...the way to connect to great people around the world especially when we arrive at night in a city we don’t know anything about...

Benny is great guy, he welcomes us with a big and honest laugh. He is amazed by our story and very happy to host us for a couple of days. No beds but we got used to sleep on the’s nice for the back! We spent five days in Panama city, time to relax, check the internet and discover the city center. There is also a “casco viejo” that was built by the french at the end of the nineteen looks though quite different from the one of Cartagena. Everything seem to be abandoned, left out...a ghost place with just a few souls walking around. We understand quickly that the city is “transforming” the center trying to convert it in an attractive tourist was before a popular area and rich investors are trying to evict the humble people who lived there all their lives. On top of this, with the renovation of the building, the prices are getting high and no one can be find to invest. Just a couple of are appearing here and there. As a result, the poor people are expelled to the bad neighborhood and the houses remain empty. All around the old city center, poor neighborhood have been growing in the last decades, places where, according to the police we shouldn’t even try to enter, they would rob us, kill us even if we don’t have anything...People like to talk about danger and they walk away from it as far as they can...increasing the gap. Inequality again, on the other side of the center, we can see the high buildings of the business area of the city, companies from all over the world who came here to build high towers that remain empty most of the time. The vision is dark, those black towers rising in a grey sky over a polluted sea.

They are talking to build another area on the other side of the canal to attract foreign investments. Martinelli, the president of Panama doesn’t seem to be really concern and many people sleeps on the streets, some kunas try to sell some handcraft...the atmosphere is strange...We find the way to talk to some pupils about our journey, a great experience, the kids are all very interested and ask us tons of questions!

We leave Panama city in the sixth day after having recicled in most restaurants of the old center. Hitchhiking is so easy that we have to force ourselves to stop if we don't want to get in Costa Rica in the evening. We don't wait more than 5 minutes each time we rise our thumbs. Panamean are pleased to have us on board, we hear all typ of stories, confrim that Panama's government is as corrupted as other latin american country. We stop in the beach to enjoy our last day in Panama, the sky remains grey but we manage to take a bath and get some coconuts. The atmosphere is weird and no one wants to host us for the night...we go back to the city thanks to a "gringo" and his pick up while a heavy rain falls suddenly on us. We stop at a big supermarkets...the only store in the town own by..the Chinese! Like in many place sin latin america, the chinese have taken over the consumption industry of this city. If you need anything you go to the chinese where you will find for sure what you need...even what is not appearing on the shelves can be found somehow. The owner don't speak spanish but hopefully the caissier, his daughter is really nice and she offes some bread we cna enjoy with coconuts. There is a couple of drunk and strange people under the big roof of the supermarkets. The rain keeps going outside and we have some interesting chat with these workers who have been celebrating their newly recieved paycheck! We don't want to imagine how much of their salary goes into alcohol...We get saved by a german guy working in the area, he takes us to the fire station to spend the night...we hitchhike further in the morning to end up at the border with Costa Rica.

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