Hopping continents the hard way.
A collection of motorbikes is huddled on the rickety peer. Amongst them Robin Rawhide is crouched shyly, caked in a layer of dust and filth. She has a rope tied loosely around her handlebars and another looped through the frame and piled up on the saddle with which she will later be winched high in the air. Tolga, a Turkish film maker is crouched beside her staring intently at the homemade pannier frames and ‘no a la guerra’ stickers adorning the top box. He likes her raffish look and takes some photos, pausing to frame the images just so. The little boat we are crammed in to rocks gently and, a few minutes later, pulls away from the jetty. Robin and Tolga recede in to the distance and then we are at sea. Everyone turns to watch the tiny village of Carti dissolve in to the horizon, no doubt questioning if the next time they see their bike, it will be a wavering, sunken wreck at the bottom of the Caribbean.
Twenty travellers riding eighteen motorbikes have been funnelled down through Central America and squeezed in to Panama’s narrow waist, all piling together here, bound for Colombia aboard the Stahlratte. ‘The Steel Rat’ is a hundred year old yacht captained by the gravitous Ludwig, a semi naked, planet shaped German with a crooked grin and mop of lank, yellow hair. The plan is to winch the motorbikes on to the deck but Ludwig is a canny man and has clearly had experience with bikers hovering anxiously around and interrupting the process. He has popped us all on to a little blue boat and siphoned us off to a distant island where we can’t get in the way.
Three Germans, one Italian, a Transylvanian, two Dutch, six Brits, a Canadian, two Americans and a clutch of Swiss wade ashore and greet the ramshackle hotel philosophically. For the pleasure of our knobbly beds, cold showers and cramped taxi ride, we have paid the princely sum of $40 per person per night which will make this the most expensive nights accommodation since the eye wateringly pricey San Fransisco. On the positive side, the sand on the beaches is alabaster white and the water warm and crystal clear. Beer comes in at a dollar a can and dinner is included despite the appearance that it has survived a nuclear explosion.
We pad about on the spongy lawn, sipping tingling cold lager and chatting inanely about our journeys and eventually gravitate towards the gorgeous water. Within half an hour we are all bobbing about squeaking as the seaweed catches in our toes and admiring the drowsy coconut palms lining the beach. Most of us have driven down from Canada, some from the USA and we are all headed south to Argentina. Amongst us, Duncan, a Mancunian turned Ozzy who we briefly met in the middle of Mexico. He threatened rather ridiculously to ride through the Darien Gap, a famously impenetrable piece of jungle lurking with unpleasant gun toting guerillas and drug traffickers. It seems my worries for his safety were unfounded as he has made his way aboard the ship along with our friends Bev and John who, coincidentally met Duncan six years ago in Pakistan. The rest of the group all seem to have bumped in to at least one other member somewhere along the way and so we get acquainted with relative ease. A bottle or two of rum and a great quantity of beer help and by the following morning, we have formed a fledging crew, shipshape and raring to pace the decks.
The little blue boat reappears at 8.30 the next day and sweeps us up, headed for the Stahlratte where we are deposited on deck and left to excitedly peep below deck and feel out the life of a sailor. We each have a berth with a maroon curtain strung in front of it for privacy although Jamie and I have been assigned a bed in the bow of the ship with a guitar hanging on the wall and a mattress that will slide slowly off the bed as the waves kick up on our final day. There is a porthole in the wall which lets in gentle puffs of breeze and through which I delight in sticking my head to admire the turquoise ocean and palm topped islands in the distance. Later, the porthole will have to be sealed against the waves which will roll up the ship and gurgle about noisily against the glass but I don’t know about that yet and that’s probably for the best given that I am by no means a natural sailor.
A pair of rangey, tanned men, one Austrian, one Spanish appear to welcome us aboard followed by a dreadlocked German girl, her brown tummy and legs on show as though clothes were an obscure practice favoured only by galumphing landlubbers. Ludwig appears from the bridge smiling broadly, dressed only in shorts over which his enormous, glossy belly hangs. It seems we are over dressed and under prepared for life aboard the Stahlratte but the crew graciously overlook our pale feet and stumbling ascents up the stairs and instead, call us to lunch. We are presented with a swathe of brightly coloured food at which we coo prettily and then consume greedily. Great tomato studded bowls of guacamole are handed carefully around followed up with pasta, fresh bread, ham, salads and cheese. A plate of thinly sliced, cumin studded gouda makes its way towards me and sits at my elbow, swiftly despatched ribbon by glorious ribbon in to my mouth and is eventually forcefully removed by Jamie who I have assigned as my caretaker in all matters relating to cheese.
Don’t let me have more.
I say assertively. He nods and takes a bite. I lean forward to swipe another slice of cheese.
He says and moves the plate.
I say, wounded. We haven’t had strong, European cheese in five months and I seem to be having trouble controlling myself. I wait until Jamie is busy with the ham and scarf another few slices, stuffing them in to my mouth hopefully before he notices. He notices and moves the plate out of reach, slaps my hand and I am forced to divert my attention to socialising.
Fortunately we make a fine group and soon everyone is chatting and laughing. I watch my fellow passengers, carefully trying to unravel them. Neil, a Brit living in Hong Kong seems anxious to please and talks to fill the gaps though later I will see that he simply likes to chat and make pithy witticisms. He soon teams up with American William whose smooth, relaxed face speaks of a laden bank account and whose sense of humour will have us all snickering incessantly for the following few days. Luigi, Italian and lacking fluent English or Spanish will sit quietly, smiling at people and shrugging massively from time to time and reading in a sun lounger on the bridge. Frauke and Michael, two Germans living in Switzerland who we have already met twice in Panama will hold fort, laughing and chatting in a variety of languages in that smooth way only Germans can manage. Now and again, Frauke will chuckle and shake her head as she watches a task being undertaken and whisper,
I will be so glad to be in Switzerland again and have this done right.
And I will beam at her, inordinately pleased at the stereotypes bubbling up from under our surfaces. The Brits sit about in the sun making silly, self deprecating jokes that rush way over the American’s heads. The Americans hold fort making grand assertions and smoothly wisecracking. The Swiss listen carefully and make smart, well considered comments and the Dutch are philosophical and laconic with easy smiles and never get seasick. I don’t know any Transylvanian stereotypes except those with fangs and a penchant for immortality so I have to accept that apple cheeked smiles and a preoccupation with ayahuasca ceremonies are the go to traits in that corner of Romania.
The anchor is reeled in with a deafening thunking and the engine starts up tunefully, a repetitive growling pootle emanating from the stern. Later, in my sea sickened, slightly delirious state I will be compelled to sing songs to the rhythm it makes in terrible, endless loops in my head. I don’t know about that yet and that’s for the best because right at this moment, the noise is exciting and sounds like an adventure. I go up on deck for a while and stand amongst the plastic wrapped motorbikes, squinting at the horizon. The sea is beautifully flat and I pad about barefoot feeling all maritime then head down to our bunk to read until we finally come to a chortling stop some hours later.
The anchor is noisily lowered back down in to the luminescent depths and when I reappear on deck, we are sat quietly in the breeze between three islands. Everyone has gathered at the bulwarks to stare excitedly out at the little land masses in front of us. Two islands are nothing but sand and palm trees. The one directly in front of us is the same neat little hub of white sand and palms like a child’s drawing but it also has a wooden hut filled with supplies and a few local men standing outside it looking back at us.
We are shown to a box of sandy snorkel masks and mismatched flippers and told to help ourselves, we will be here for two days soaking up the sun and tonight there will be a barbeque. Apart from that, we are free to do as we like just please avoid stealing coconuts, shells or photographs from the locals. Coconuts and shells are a dollar, photographs are a maybe. Nodding enthusiastically we plunder about on deck in our enormous flippers, down the ladder and jump in to the Caribbean. It is extraordinarily salty and I spit out the water in my mouth and bob delightfully high in the water while adjusting my mask listening to the sounds of laughter and great splashes as the rest of the group leap gleefully from the boat.
Mask painfully suctioned to my face, I duck my head under the surface and immediately think of sharks. The water is a fabulous, deep sapphire blue stretching down in to indigo depths.
You are not going to be eaten by sharks. You are not going to be eaten by sharks.
I say to myself and kick my way towards the island, staring in to the liquid abyss below me twitchily. It takes me five minutes of determined splashing until the water pales and I look up to see I am nearing the island. The sand banks steeply down in to the water in to the depths and I realise I never considered how a desert island would look underwater. I gaze down the slope examining the sand for any signs of rock but it looks as though an enormous eight year old has simply piled the sand up in a rock pool and stuck some twigs in the top when they had finished. I find that I am smiling underwater, amazed at my luck in being here. As I swim to shore, huge, fat starfish appears at the bottom and I dive down to pick it up. It is heavy, as big as a dinner plate with that curious squashy but solid feeling to it. It is lined with nubby spikes and glows a beautiful burnt orange at me as I look down at it under several inches of water. I look over at Jamie who is standing in the shallows with Frauke peering in to the water and exclaiming delightedly. They have evidently found many more starfish and my imploring shouts to come see are met with wide eyed exclamations about the sheer numbers of the huge creatures littering the sand further in.
The small group of Kuna men, the indigenous people living on the San Blas islands stand about on the beach looking at us as though we are some curious new species of fish and I feel suddenly foolish. I try to imagine a group of giggling tourists shouting and pointing at a squirrel or standing transfixed beside a privet bush. I remember my reaction to Japanese tourists in York taking close ups of brick walls and my suspicions that we look like idiots are confirmed. Two men off shore float in a wooden, dugout canoe and peer intently in to the water. Intrigued, a small group of us swim closer to take a look and are patiently told not to touch. Another man in a lovely, old fashioned round snorkel mask dives to the bottom and when we look down we can see him tending carefully to a group of enormous leggedy crabs each tied with a long string to the next. The crabs look resigned though a little disgruntled, flicking their claws lazily as one of the men in the canoe pulls on the string and the first two are lifted from the seafloor and examined. They dangle in the water for a moment and the strings adjusted then allowed to sink slowly back down where they rest again on the sand waiting until later to become dinner.
I swim away until I come across a litter of gigantic, heavy looking shells, discarded by the Kuna and now sitting amongst tendrils of fine, billowing seaweed. It is as though life here has been supersized. I remember my first year primary school teacher smiling mysteriously and holding up an enormous shell she had lugged back fro the Seyshelles and my determination to find a shell like that of my own one day. Twenty eight years later I float over the huge shells for a moment before swimming back towards the boat, surprised that just seeing the shelks is enough. I reach the towering hull and am momentarily petrified by a dark shape looming towards me from under the boat. My brain empties for a moment with an almost audible pop until I realise the shape is a just large bag full of cramped looking lobsters tied to the stepladder. Jamie appears beside me and looks at the bag for a while.
I accidentally kicked the bag of lobsters and something nibbled me.
He says and we gaze at the long antennae and rosy coloured legs sticking through the holes in the bag thinking about dinner before climbing the ladder and trailing seawater around the deck in a matter we have expressly been requested not to.
I have being eyeing up the nets slung across the bowsprit, a long wooden pole sticking straight out the front of the bow where I feel there should be a mermaid or something equally nautical. I pull off my flippers, don some appropriate net clambering clothes and grab a beer, carefully notching up my chilly haul on the tally sheet tacked trustingly to the wall behind the fridge. I make my slightly leery way across the gently rocking deck and look over in to the nets. Invisible from the deck, John is lying jauntily in some folded sails wearing sunglasses and looking pleased with himself. I launch myself jerkily over the bulwark and in to the net then shuffle about trying to acquaint unsailorly body parts with the rough netting. Whilst I am hoisting myself about, legs akimbo, Jamie appears and nimbly tips himself in, seemingly quite at home. He also brings a beer and the three of us sit for a while chatting until Bev appears to join us. I lie face down in the netting staring at the water some 12 feet below me. I don’t know it yet but the day after tomorrow I will do just the same, staring down as the prow cuts the water in two and the foam crusted waves guzzle at the hull. I will ache all over from lying down so long and my stomach will be emptier than it has been in a long time. Cartagena will apparate slowly from the horizon in front of us and I will never be so pleased to see dry land again.
We stay slung in the nets for an hour or so, Jamie falls asleep face first in a pile of rope and I read a book, stopping sometimes mid sentence to contemplate the fluttering sail, the elegant rope ladders, the crows nest. We have been told we can go up there as long as we are not drunk, do not jump from it and it’s not night time. I wonder who will be first up, fairly sure after all my initial enthusiasm, that it will not be me. Duncan has already made it two thirds of the way up the ladder before freezing with an anxious expression in his face
Go on Duncan!
We shout encouragingly and he looks down at us smiling nervously.
No I’m shit with heights! Nice view though!
He shouts back and peers round to admire the view. As the group disperses, he obviously feels relieved of his duty and I watch as he makes his wary way back to the comforts of the deck. The first person to the top will be Simon, a quietly determined, friendly guy from Switzerland who, with his lean frame and cheerful face, makes everything look annoyingly achievable. We watch as he quietly assesses the ladder then slings his camera over his back and swiftly, unhesitatingly makes the ascent. His wife Josephine watches, grimacing as the ladder narrows to a point and he hoists himself up in to the distant cage. We laugh and cheer when he finally stands at the top taking photos of the sea stretching out around us and the cheers encourage Neil who is ill advisedly wearing flip flops but who nevertheless reaches the top and negotiates the difficult entry to the crows nest. I look about from my perch on a box of life jackets on the bridge for Jamie and it is only a few seconds before I see him spidering up the ladder himself. He looks unconcerned by the height and scissors up fluidly until he reaches the top and is confronted by the challenge of getting in. I watch to see what he will do, my heartbeat quickening in anticipation of his unusual gung ho approach to dangerous situations. My anxiety is rewarded. He hands our camera to Neil then jumps, launches himself at the rail and hangs on a moment, feet dangling, arms taught.
I say suddenly and rather too loudly and Josephine laughs. By the time I look back, he has hauled himself in, Neil clutching his hands to the rail in alarm. All three men stand there taking photos and savouring the brief moment of uninterrupted masculinity before quietly descending and shrugging off our compliments. It was nothing at all, really, nothing.
The first night onboard brings us a barbeque on the nearest island. Huge pots of potatoes and beetroot salad are hauled in to a little motorboat. A bucket of lit coals is passed down followed by a great bucket of cubed beef, sliced peppers and chunks of plantain. We join the food and are ferried across the dimming stretch of sea to the island where a small band of Kuna men crouch by the hut and watch us curiously. The burning coals are tipped on the pyre and logs are pulled up where we will perch and eat our dinner.
The first part of the evening is strange and awkward and I don’t know if we should be going over, welcoming the locals in to our huddle and thanking them for use of their beautiful island. I watch for a while, rehearsing what to say in my head but gradually I realise they are way more interested in the cool box full of beer and the diminishing pile of beef. They have seen this all before, the snorkel clad tourists, the dreadlocked crew, the piles of food that aren’t the usual boring old lobster, crab or fish. They watch the beef intently and finally, when we are finished pushing the big cubes on to wooden sticks and charring them on the grill, they hurry round the box and begin to build enormously heavy kebabs. One man simply takes a bowl and loads it with beef cubes and sits chewing them down contemplatively, completely raw.
I eventually give up on the idea that we might become an integrated unit and make the rounds of the Stahlratte passengers proffering a bottle of Nicaraguan rum. The evening fades to a dense black, licked with orange by the burning wood heaped over the barbeque and we chat and laugh and sing Happy Birthday to Matthias, a quiet, mirthful German who would rather we didn’t but nonetheless happily downs the celebratory rum. The fire lights the faces of the group and I nip amongst them swapping information and drinking rum until their features blur a little and I go to stand on the beach in the dark watching Jamie swimming in to the shadows. The boat is magnificently lit, coldly beautiful under the white deck lights. At some point she has swung around in the water to face us as if butting in to the proceedings. I stare at her for a moment, quite taken with the novel idea that I get to hop back onboard and sleep nestled in the bow under the starlight swimming weakly in through the little porthole. During the crossing to Colombia, the same light through the porthole will tease me with its extraordinary longevity. The day will stretch out in to infinity while I lie aching on the sliding mattress but never mind that right now.
I rise at six the next day and sit quietly around the table with a disparate band of fellow early risers drinking coffee and rapidly cooling tea. Breakfast is served later and we happily crowd around the table plucking further slices of gouda from nearby plates and wolfing down eggs. The beautiful, unkempt day stretches out ahead of us, a lazy, swirling gauze of swimming, swinging from the rope swing and sitting in the powdery white sand marvelling at the view. I take a swim around the island, snorkeling in the shallows where coconut palms have fallen lengthwise in to the weedy water. Each fallen bough is swarming with fish, some stripy and tiny as bees, others larger, blue, orange or black. Groups of delicate, white fish flirt with the sand, the silvery light catching on their bodies as they turn together as an assembly. I poke at a slinking, hairy slug-like creature and lift it up on a stick to examine it. I think of my friend Kate who laughs at my fauna bothering ways and wish she could see this too but when I life my head out of the water, there is no one there. I drop the poor slug back on to the tree trunk and carry on through the waters sweeping the fish from my path and plucking coral shards from the sand.
To keep us out of mischief, we are later ferried out to a tiny island we have all admired from a distance and instructed to snorkel more. It is a tiny cap of pearly white sand with two palm trees on top. There is no room for anything else, the island is so small, and we have all imagined a hammock strung across the two trees and a man in raggedy trousers and a beard living there. We are dropped off and left there clutching our snorkels and grinning as the boat disappears without us. We are literally marooned on a dessert island and by the looks on everyone’s faces, we are totally thrilled about it. Everyone pulls on their masks and flops about wedging unwilling feet in to flippers then plods off in to their own patch of ocean. I forget that everything here is better than the last thing and wade in, sure that it won’t improve on the fish I have already seen that day but I am completely wrong.
The beach continues about two metres under water then falls sharply away to a depth of ten feet or so. Hanging over the the drop, flitting in front of me, are thousands and thousands of tiny fish clouding the view, moving as one. They part like a curtain as I swim through them revealing a fantastic world of enormous yellow, bulbous corals etched with Escherlike patterns of infinite pathways and detail. Below me, sheltered by the rocks, a small group of fish dressed in luminous orange and purple fluoresce against the shadows crowded in by sail like angel fish and a myriad of neon tetras who refract the rainbow as they turn in the watery sunrays. A billion more fish wheel and flit, tumble and dart in front of me as I swim, carried by the motion of the waves. I reach out hold myself steady and find my fingers coated in a layer of slime coating the corals below. I brush off the slime and in doing so, I spot a delicate, blanched sea urchin shell bald of its spikes and glowing slightly tucked in to a crevice in the rock. I take a deep breath and dive to the bottom, arm outstretched in front of me. I push my hand into the crevice, anchoring myself against the roll of a wave and am just about to grab the shell when I spot a bristle of long black spikes protruding from under the rock and snap my hand back with a jerk. Live urchins lurk in these rocks too and I am prone to stings and chomps from all things marine so I swim on leaving the treasure behind. Everywhere I look though, there is more and more and more life. The waters are simply teeming. It is like being in an underwater rush hour and I feel like the double decker bus holding everyone up.
I am wondering if I can sport the ragged trousers and sling my hammock here without rescue when I resurface on the other side of the island. The wind is whipping up the surface of the sea and the sun has disappeared behind a great clot of low, grey clouds turning the sea an ominous shade of navy. Bedraggled members of the group are standing about on the island smearing damp hair out of their eyes and stealing excited glances at the sky. I stand up, the water tumbling off me and immediately feel the goose pimples rise all over me as a tugging gust of wind threshes over the island. We huddle in the warm water laughing at our Crusoe like fate and peering towards the Stahlratte checking for signs of impending rescue. The rain starts to thread down through the wind and those who remain standing hurry in to join us in the shallows. In the distance, the little motorboat appears wracked by the gulping waves, Titin, the dreadlocked Spanish crew member at the the helm.
A light cheer goes round when he arrives and the rain retorts with a cheerful pelting intensity that has us squinting to see what’s in front of us. We clamber back in to the boat dripping and stumbling as the waves toss the boat around in four directions. We set off waving goodbye to the overspill of people left behind on the beach.
Bye! Nice knowing you!
We shout and collectively say oop! as the boat pitches to one side, warm sea water flooding over the edge. It is only ten minutes back to the Stahlratte but we are soon bailing the murky, sloshing water from the bottom with an empty juice bottle and rescuing floating snorkel masks as they drift about under our seats. We round the yacht in a long, lazy curve and the little boat tips to the right sucking several more gallons over the side. One by one we clamber the aluminium ladder and pull ourselves up on deck, relieved to be free of our impending castaway status. I dry off with my towel in the tiny bathroom and peer out of the porthole looking for the little island I have left behind. The rain has obscured it totally and I can’t see it at all. Jamie is still on it no doubt growing a straggly beard and fashioning a hammock from palm bark as we speak. I feel a flicker of worry in case the tiny boat sinks on the way back but dismiss it quickly.
I close the porthole and drip for a while on the lovely wooden floor before resigning myself to the single life and head solemnly downstairs. Fortunately Jamie reappears, unharmed, ten minutes later with a wild, happy look in his eyes and a beer clutched in hand. The boat rocks in the waves and I realise with a start that I don’t feel seasick at all. How unexpected, I think, maybe I have found my sea legs already! The next day I will appeal to Neptune to help me find those sea legs. I will lie on the bed wishing fervently for dry land, cursing the bloody Caribbean sea and all those who sail on her godforsaken waters. But I don’t know that and my ignorance is, frankly, bliss so lets leave it that way.
Darkness falls like a stone in a well in this part of the world and by six the darkness spreads out all around us punctuated only by a few lights glinting from the nearby islands and a cluster of orange far off in the distance. The lobsters are hauled from their watery niche and have their heads unceremoniously sliced off in a corner of the deck. Ludwig dons his metaphorical chefs whites and spends several hours sweating in the minute kitchen over a huge pan of lobster tails. Eventually they appear on the table swimming in a rich, spiced, yellow sauce served with piles of rice, a tangy lettuce salad dressed in cream, dill and sweet vinegar and plates of marlin steaks to pass up and down the table. After everyone has had their fill and Jamie has eaten six lobster tails having noticed and unbearable surfeit, a great pan of peach and marzipan crumble is served with little cartons of cream. Bev, who has been extolling the virtues of English puddings for a while, goes quiet and spoons in the buttery, slidey fruit with a twinkly expression on her face. The sound of spoons tinking on empty bowls soon fills the air and Jamie and I rise with the rest of the alloted washing up team to tackle the piles of slippery plates and wedges of burnt on rice.
When we appear, wiping the moisture from our foreheads, the rest of the group is gathered along the side of the boat looking out in to the inky black water shining their torches in to the depths. Where the beams hit the surface, the water burns an effervescent blue and in to it flaps an eagle ray, silently gliding on unseen currents. The white spots on its body sizzle against its shadowy brown skin and for a moment we are totally silent as it drifts past us soundlessly in to the darkness. More torches appear and several minutes later a large, dusky shape appears from the depths, attracted by the light. The turtle raises its head above the water and its eye catches the beam for a second before it submerges its huge body and sinks back out of sight. We stand like this, transfixed and pointing in different directions as more rays and several turtles slide quietly in to sight, flippers and fins lapping noiselessly in the water for a moment before slipping away under the hull of the Stahlratte and out of sight.
I climb down the steep, wooden staircase to our bed in a bubble of awe. To think that the alternative to this amazing adventure was a cramped spot in a container ship for Robin and two economy seats on flight 161 to Cartagena for the same price. By half past six the following morning when I am vomiting over the side of the boat under the watchful gaze of the crew and the stoic Dutch, I will feel rather less bedazzled by the idea but when I climb in to bed I don’t even mind that the sheets ping off at all four corners yet again. I lie in the dark with eagle rays gliding before my eyes and am asleep within minutes.
At five thirty in the morning, the nightmare begins. The anchor is rolled noisily out of the sea and the engine chugs in to life ready to feed it’s tune in to my delirous ears. One of the crew pops his head round the dividing curtain with a polite permiso and closes the porthole tight. I should be alarmed but I am too dozy. I swallow a seasickness tablet and lie in bed for a while feeling the unpleasant push of the waves before stumbling upstairs and standing sleepily in the pale wash of morning light watching the islands in the distance sliding past us. Neil and Frauke are standing together by the lifeboats watching the water. Neil is clutching a tissue and Frauke, a small chunk of bread and some water. She has spent the last twenty minutes vomiting over the side and is enjoying the euphoria that comes when your stomach has finally finished heaving. Bev appears from downstairs and stands queasily in a corner before up chucking neatly in to the sea under the stoic gaze of Harry, an enormously tall Dutchman who appears completely unaffected by the rolling belly of the boat.
The nausea creeps in around the edges of my body, seeping in and displacing all the excitement and happiness of the last few days. I try to talk to Neil while staring fixedly at the horizon but my stomach clenches unhappily and I lurch to the bulwark and swallow determinedly. Brad, the Canadian contingent wanders up with his hands in pockets.
Say, have you taken any Quells?
He asks cheerfully and I am just able to give him the thumbs up before the great glassful of water I chugged down with the nausea pill comes straight back up and splats in to the sea. The muscles in my abdomen squeeze painfully and up comes more water. I didn’t even know I had drunk this much water but there it is, returning to the place from whence it came. Several more stomach clenches later I straighten shakily up and turn back to Neil who proffers the tissue kindly.
Well that’s one way to wake up in the morning.
I offer palely and Neil nods.
The smiling Dutch have taken to photographing our bilious capers whilst they sip their coffee and I suddenly wish I had been born in Amsterdam. I pad about unsteadily for a while clutching my stomach before Duncan appears exclaiming
Ginger! Ginger tea! I’ll make ginger tea!
And potters off, returning ten minutes later with a cup of hot water steaming gently, chips of root ginger drifting about in the bottom. When I first met Duncan in Mexico, I decided he was a bit of a pillock.
Ride through the Darien Gap?
I scoffed at Jamie
But over the last few days I have begun to see that there is much more to Duncan that I had give him credit for. He is adventurous and personable, humourous and individual and above all, he makes extremely timely ginger tea. I suck the tingly, hot spiced water down and nibble halfheartedly at a bread bun Frauke has dispensed to me then return downstairs where Jamie is lying unhappily on the sheetless mattress looking pale. He slides a look over to me and smiles cheerlessly then hauls himself up and goes upstairs to lie in the breeze.
I flop down on the bed and the mattress slides another few inches towards the ground but I am rendered incapable of getting up again by the relentless nausea clutching me in its clammy embrace. Blurggghhhh! Says my brain. Hmmmmurgh, I whisper and swallow another seasickness tablet. It takes a half an hour sleep and an hour of staring at the ceiling before I can get up and stumble uneasily to the kitchen. Some half baked tale about Coca Cola being good for sickness has whispered in my ear and I return to the bed clutching the can hoping for release. Half an hour and several short naps I have finished the can which I wedge between the mattress and the wall between sips, unable to sit up and put it anywhere else. It is only when the nausea ramps itself up a notch that I remember the words ‘flat, warm’ were meant to go before ‘coca cola’ and the likelihood of a drink that can clean coins can calm my unhappy stomach is very low anyway. I am suddenly sat up scrabbling about for a plastic bag, shaking it out and checking for anti suffocation/ leaky sick holes before chucking up several pints of alarmingly cola flavoured vomit in to the bag. I sigh and wipe my mouth on a tissue wishing fervently for an emergency landlubbers escape hatch but alas, the porthole leads only to the ocean which swells and gushes up and fills the little window every few minutes. I tie up the bag and, unable to trust my rubbery legs, push it behind my shoes on the floor and hope Jamie won’t come back and step on it.
The day goes on and on and on. Apart from the merry group of Dutch and Brad the Canadian, most people lurk in the confines of their bunks, clutching the mattress and looking woeful. I sleep and wake, sleep and wake, tossing and turning and ruing the moment I set foot on the wooden deck three days before. Hours and hours later though, my stomach allows me a temporary reprieve and my incredible thirst sends me weaving up to the kitchen where fizzy orange is the only easily accessible option that is not beer or coke. I don’t have time to assess the wisdom of this plan before my stomach reigns me back in and I scurry downstairs to lie on a small sofa in a gloomy nook full of books. I sip carefully on the fizzy orange and am surprised to note that nothing bad happens. I take another sip, everything is ok. I pick a novel from the shelf and warily start to read. Everything is ok. I sit up and everything is not ok. As the hours wear on I discover that as long as I am lying down, I can read and drink luminous, carbonated drinks as much as I like. I even feel a slight, niggling hunger. Lunch is well past so I creep up to the fridge and tip a handful of cold, cooked penne in to a bowl, shower it with pepper and a quick slug of olive oil and return to eat it tube by blessedly tasteless tube from a supine position in the half light falling in from the stairwell.
The darkness finally falls, seemingly much slower than usual and I am forced to renounce my sofa snug and return to bed. I briefly consider joining the sparce group upstairs for dinner but my insides insist otherwise and when I totter in to our berth, Jamie is flat out on the bed again.
He says groggily.
I manage in return and slide back in to bed. The night passes long and cruel, the lurching of the boat increasing at some point in the night and taking my stomach with it. The mattress slides ever further to the floor and the waves gurgle abdominally against the porthole. Somehow I sleep then I wake. I sleep, then I wake. It seems as if it might be nighttime for ever and I think of a horror story I once read where a couple find themselves in an eternal night of relentless driving past blanked out roadsigns never realising they have crashed their car and died. Somehow though, I sleep a little more and when I open my eyes a little sliver of cobalt morning light has made its way through the night sky. My skin hurts all over, my bones ache, my spine shrieks. I sit up and test the field. Shaky and empty feeling but not too bad. Not too bad at all. I get up warily and pad to the stairs past a snoozing Duncan and Tolga’s empty bunk. Upstairs others are sitting with cups of weak coffee, faces like broken soldiers except for the Dutch who look fine. I sit on the life jacket trunk with a cup of tea and read quietly, untrusting of my stomach’s intentions. People look up and smile and say ‘hello!’ in a way that indicates I may have been gone for a rather long time. I smile and realise that I have spent about 23 of the last 24 hours lying down hiding in the dark. My stomach wobbles on the edge of a precipice of nausea but at the moment, I am ok. The sea is calm and silvery, the morning cool and still. I slide down from my perch and wander over to the bow and peer in to the nets. Gingerly I climb up and pour myself over the side and fall uncomfortably in to the cradle. I shift around until I am lying face down for a while watching the waves parting as the boats slices through the water. Somewhere beneath us a school of dolphins is following spotted briefly by Harry before they dive under and remain hidden from sight. I look up at the horizon and see a spectral host of skyscrapers gathered in the mist. I squint for a while until they solidify out of the mist and I realise that land is ahoy, Colombia is rushing up to meet us. I feel a rush of pleasure that the end is nigh then a quiet feeling of discontent as I realise our maritime adventure is nearly at its end. A few others clamber in to the netting with me and watch the skyline unpack itself with the closing distance between us.
We have made it to another continent, I think. Welcome to South America!
Homemade Trits Ice cream
While in Central America, specifically Costa Rica, we discovered Trits. Oh what a day. A thick puck of vanilla ice cream laced with chocolate sauce and sandwiched between two golden, crunchy, sugar grainy biscuits not unlike cheesecake base. I stole a recipe for the homemade version from epicurious.com but have bastardised it to make it richer, more cheescakey and way better. Thanks and goodbye Central America!
140g melted butter
250g of crushed graham crackers if you can get them but failing that, 200g of digestives mixed with 50g plain, unsalted crackers
150g soft brown sugar
50g granulated brown sugar
2 large eggs
400ml double cream
100g soft cheese
200ml of whole milk
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
200g good quality icecream sauce, chocolate flavour or use this recipe to make your own http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2012/jul/19/how-make-perfect-chocolate-sauce
Biscuit Part: Beat the butter and egg together, then mix in graham cracker or biscuit/cracker mix and the sugar. Roll out mixture on a baking sheet to between 1/8″-1/4″ thick. Using a silicone baking mat works best. Bake at 180 degrees for 18 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool for only 2 minutes. It must be warm during the cutting. Using a glass or cookie cutter, cut out circles. Dipping glass is sugar helps keep it from sticking. Let cookies cool completely.
Ice Cream: Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar, a little at a time, then continue whisking until completely blended, about 1 minute more. Pour in the cream, soft cheese, milk, and vanilla and whisk to blend. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze following the manufacturerʼs instructions or place in a bowl that will fit in your freezer, leave for 30 minutes then remove, scrape down the edges with a spatulate and beat in to the mixture. Continue until frozen.
Sandwiching Tips: The best way that I have found to make the sandwiches is to let the ice cream freeze in the freezer a bit more. I then make a log shape with the ice cream using cling film as a casing, just smaller in diameter than the biscuit. I let that freeze completely, then I cut the log into slices 3/4 thick. I then sandwich each icecream disk between two biscuits putting a dollop of chocolate sauce on one side of the ice cream. This is a really messy process, but so worth it. Pura Vida!