March, 1977

Panama City. Puente del Mundo and gateway to El Mar Caribe. Needed to find a ride back to America and I was almost broke. No problemo!

March, 1976. Hired on as unpaid deck hand on the yacht Fantasy. Motored through the Panama Canal. Sailed into Portobello and on to the San Blas Islands and the amazing Kuna people. Across the Golfo de Urabi to the fortified port city of Cartagena.

1 March, Tuesday, Tocumen, Panama City: Stayed at the hotel all day, lounging around the pool, playing shuffleboard, writing and generally relaxing. Being as I am running out of money I might do a mola trip back to the USA to augment my dinero situation. We’ll see. Total assets: $106.

2 March, Wednesday: Hit Cuidad Panama, the shops, the bars, the alleys and docks. A zillion shoppers, all after the bargains that a duty-free zone provides. Great savings on clothes, watches, track shoes, cameras and such. All big name brands, many 30% to 40% of their cost in the US. People hustle here, seems like 24 hours. You’ve got to be on your toes.

Pretty sure I’ll do a mola trip to refill my shrinking coffers. Should be able to swing it. Hard to relax in Panama, but we finally managed after certain preliminary steps. Ahhh.

Buying weed in the back alleys of Panama City is not for the faint hearted. But the fabled Panama Red, one of the first ‘name brands’ of dope, beckoned. So the first thing you do in Panama City is look to score.

3 March, Thursday, Colon: Got up early, stashed our gear in Lindsey’s car and set off for Colon. We caught a bus from Tocumen to the Plaza de la Martyrs, scene of the ’64 riots. Only 25 cents for 15 miles. Seems lots of prices went up on the 1st of March along with the inauguration of a 4% sales tax. Needless to say, the people are upset.

We cut across the Zone to the Panama terminus of the Panama Railroad. The train is red, white and blue. The Zonians live in a government-subsidised sterilized jungle version of Disneyland. No wonder they don’t want to give up their homes and jobs, but the Canal, despite the US money and organisation, is still in Panama.

Caught the 10.30 train to Colon. A great ride across, past the locks, over Gatun Lake on the causeway, through the jungle, all in the Zone. We passed some pretty large ships. Pulled into Colon and disembarked. A fun ride.

Colon is another bargain-filled town, only specialising in imported objects d’arte. Much fun shopping. I bought some nice molas. Walked all over town before renting a room in a cheap pensione. Saw a good double-feature.

4 March, Friday, Panama City: Up early. Ate a pretty good breakfast and then checked the busses to Porto Bello. Found out we had an hour to kill so I went back to Front Street and bought some more molas to round out my collection at 10 grandes and 27 chicas. Got some well-made specimens.

We caught the 11am bus to Porto Bello at the mercado. It took about 1 ½ hours down a beautiful seaside road to get there. We passed palm-covered islands, isolated shacks and deserted white sand beaches. A gorgeous ride.

The bay at Porto Bello is beautiful. Long and narrow, deep with jungle-covered hills rising steeply from the rocky shores. Three forts, ruins now, stand guard with their rusting cannon still trained seaward, ever vigilant against the phantoms of Henry Morgan and Drake. We disembarked in front of the Church of the Black Christ. Very rich interior, a contrast to the simple poverty of the village. Gold embroidered vestments covered the effigy which rested in a magnificent Mahogany case. Quite impressive.

We wandered through town, stopping at the main fortress. For two centuries Porto Bello was Spain’s key Caribbean gateway and shipping hub, a giant of world commerce, ‘til the pirates wiped it out. Old walls and walkways were everywhere. Little huts with ancient ramparts for a back wall. But by far the best part of town are the ramparts on the outskirts of town with the Casa Fuerte Del Santiago as the citadel overlooking all the formidable defense. Even with all the cannon and walls and castles the pirates still trashed the town every 20 years or so.

What a trip relaxing in the ruined citadel, the very site of bloody battles and death. Cool.

We spent about an hour drinking in the historic atmosphere before catching the bus back to Colon. This driver was a real hot rodder and it only took an hour for the return trip. Changed busses in Colon for the trip back to Panama. Didn’t get back to La Siesta until 10pm. A real fun excursion.

5 – 7 March, Saturday – Monday: Hung out at La Siesta, mostly took it easy. Pretty nice at La Siesta with the pool and bar. Beers for 50 cents. Clean and great facilities. Plus private. We were the only campers.

Managed to get a visa for Costa Rica, but it cost $10 for the visa and another US$46 to buy an ‘open’ airline ticket out, a necessary requirement. Gotta get moving, I guess I’ll head north.

8 March, Tuesday: Again early into the city to do battle with the 20th century. First stop, Balboa Yacht Club to check my notice. By golly, I met some people off the Fantasy, a 50’ Challenger ketch who might need an extra crew person to continue on to Colombia, Jamaica and into Miami. Talked to the captain/owner and visited the boat. Sounds good, I’ll know tomorrow. Ate a superb $1 Chop Suey meal. Assets: $4 and $46 ticket

9 March, Wednesday: Big day. Up early, took a shower and caught a bus into the city. Walked over to the Balboa Yacht Club to meet Jim, my prospective captain. Arrived and sat around waiting for quite a long time. Finally he showed up, we talked a bit and I was on. All right!  A free ride all the way back to Florida. Not to mention Colombia and Jamaica. Took the bus back to La Siesta and partied by the pool ‘til three am.

10 March, Thursday, Balboa Yacht Club: Up kinda late as we had fun last night. Lounged around the pool all morning, recovering from some raunchy rum. Packed my gear and cleaned up. Around 1pm we drove to our favourite Chifa restaurant and just ate ourselves silly. For $1.65 I had a gigantic cauldron of soup and a heaping plate of chop suey con puerco, both excellent. On into the city where I cashed in my ticket to and from Costa Rica for $46. Then to the Yacht Club.

There was the yacht ‘Fantasy’, riding serenely at anchor. My home for the next few months.

Said ‘adios’ to Lindsey and Alan, sure was great running into those guys. It was a good deal for all of us. Hailed the Fantasy and Brian rowed over in to pick me up. Spent the rest of the day and night getting acquainted with the boat and crew. Certainly looks good.

11 March, Friday, Colon, Panama: Up early. Today: The Panama Canal. The pilot boarded at 7.15 am. We weighed anchor and motored under the Puente de Las Americas and entered one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times: the Panama Canal. Spectacular scenery up to the first set of locks, Miraflores, then across Miraflores Lake to the last uphill banks at Pedro Miguel.

The lock passages, a complex undertaking with electric ‘mules’, little cartas that pulled the ships in and out of the locks, went extremely smoothly. We were able to raft up next to a tug at all three locks so we didn’t get battered around too much with the water rushing in and out.

From Pedro Miguel we passed through the Galliard Cut where the builders cut right through the backbone of the Americas, the Continental Divide. Quite impressive. All I could think about was the picture of TR sitting in a steam shovel. The ditch ran fairly straight for about nine miles to Gatun Lake, a huge reservoir that kept water to operate the locks. The 25-mile channel through the Lake was real easy. Lush jungle came right down to the Lake and deadheads popped up to the surface. Absolutely gorgeous.

By the time we hit Gatun Locks we knew the drill and were all set to loosen and haul the lines quickly as the water levels changed. A very smooth passage downhill through three successive locks then a quick run over to Colon Yacht Club where we anchored off for the night. A truly exciting and very memorable experience. Not bad for my first day at work.

12 March, Saturday, Colon: Up early. Brian, one of the other crew members, and I spent all morning cleaning the rigging, washing the decks, etc. I will be a deckhand and a damn good one. We rowed into shore after lunch and hung out around the Club enjoying ourselves talking to all sorts of transient sailboat people.

We returned to the Fantasy for supper. Rowed back to the Club, met some friends and we all drove to a big party in Gatun in the Zone. America, back again. Talked politics and got many sides of the Canal question. Very interesting, quite an experience. Relaxed quite a bit, Tambien. Later we went to a bar and hung out. Didn’t return to the Fantasy ‘til 3am. A fun evening.

13 March, Domingo: Up at 6am after only two hours sleep. Set to a finished washing the rigging (first time it’s been washed in three years) and scrubbed the decks. Kind of spaced out a bit. Jim (the skipper) Jerry, another crewmate, Harvey and I rowed into shore to take care of some paperwork in town, customs, etc.

14 Marzo, Lunes, Cristobal Yacht Club: Woke up early. We weighed anchor and motored into the Cristobal Yacht Club to fill our water tanks and try to take care of the yacht’s paperwork. Filling the water tanks was easy. The red rape involved in getting exit visas, cruising permits, crew changes, etc. proved to be too much. We spent all day running around and still didn’t get everything done. The usual problems were compounded because we were dealing with two mutually distrustful entities.

Got my hair trimmed from a cool lady crewing on a neighbouring yacht. Brian and I partied into the night on her boat.

15 March, Tuesday, Porto Bello: Up not so early as Jim still had to fight it out with his bureaucratic foes and the Port Captain’s office didn’t open ‘til eight am. So after a quick breakfast of Post Toasties and milk, Brian and I scrubbed the hull and waterline. Took about two hours of diving. Caught up briefly with Holly but they were back to work, stowing supplies on the Hannah. They were off the next day. Spent the rest of the morning waiting for Jim, shooting the breeze with other denizens of the Yacht Club.

Finally, at 12.15pm, with all of our stores safely aboard and all our papers in order, we loosened the lines, waved goodbye to the Hannah and motored out of Limon Bay. Past the massive breakwater and into El Mar Caribe. Sure nice to be back on the water.

We motor-sailed along the coast to the beautiful bay of Porto Bello, reaching it by 4.30pm. Quite impressive coming in by sea with the huge fortresses, citadels and cannon. Formidable defences, yet ultimately futile. Quite a trip.

Since I had already been to Porto Bello I knew the way in and piloted us to the sheltered spot near the village. Anchored off and ate a superb supper of steak and potatoes. A great day.

16 March , Wednesday, At sea off the coast of Nombre de Dios: Well, we’re starting to settle into a routine aboard the ship. We spent all morning fooling around with the sails, polishing chrome, etc. There is always plenty to do. Took it easy in the late afternoon, toured the fortresses again. Sure is pretty here in Porto Bello. Ate a good supper of spaghetti.

Our plan is to leave Porto Bello with the tide and sail all night to Porvenir, just off Punta San Blas. We weighed anchor just as darkness was settling over the harbor and sailed out, right over Sir Francis Drake’s watery grave. Strong winds and heavy seas made for an exciting night run. Totally outrageous surfing the swells in a following sea under the stars.  The Fantasy is a peach, sails well. We zapped past Nombre de Dios along the coast, passing freighters and stayed far off-shore.

17 March, Thursday, Porvenir, Comarca de San Blas: A rough and tumble night. Made eight knots average under full sail. Great sailing. We rounded Punta San Blas about 0800. All of a sudden there were lots of islands and reefs, simply beautiful. We rounded wide and came into Porvenir, the Capitol of the Camarca de San Blas, from the back side. Real pretty, dropped anchor.

Due to the rough sail last night we all took long siestas off and on all day. Brian and I rowed into shore and looked around a bit. Beautiful. Lots of nice, but expensive, molas. The Kuna Indians are a trip.

Wrote lots of postcards. Yeah, things look not too shabby from where I’m sitting right now.

18 March, Friday, Porvenir: Up early. We weighed anchor, motored over to some islands about ten kilometres away and anchored. I swam into shore, right over some nice coral formations. The Brain Coral was some of the nicest I’ve seen. Real nice deserted island. I found a beach with a bunch of class ’A’ horse eyes.

Swam back to the boat. When I got there a boat full of Kuna ladies had paddled up next to the Fantasy to peddle molas. I bought a few more. A little bit later some more sailed up and I traded some stuff (pliers, shades, a bit of line and old Mr Swanson’s ruler) for an older mola. What a trip.

Just kicked back the rest of the day, wrote some more letters and post cards. In the evening, after a great supper of Chili, Jim put on a slide show of the voyage so far. What a life.

19 March, Saturday, Porvenir: Up early. Fooled around on the boat, sails, etc. for most of the morning. I just took it easy while everyone else went snorkelling on the reef. A nice easy afternoon. We weighed anchor and motored back to Porvenir. Harvey, a semi-retired professor at CalTech and a friend of Jim’s, is leaving tomorrow due to his job back in LA. He treated us all to an excellent meal ashore at the hotel. I had broiled longosta. Muy bien.

20 March, Sunda, Sugtupo Carti, Comarca de San Blas, Republica de Panama: Five months on the gringo trail. Cozumel and San Cristobal are long past. Lots of mud, bugs, pigs and dogs between here and there.

Front side of the mola blouse I bought from a Kuna lady who paddled out in her cayuca from Sugtupo Carti. March 1975.

Anyway, we got up early and watched Harvey get in a small airplane on Porvenir and take off for the city. He will be in LA by nightfall. Some change. We fooled around on El Boato, putting in bedding compound under a couple of stanchions. Tough job.

A bit later we pulled the anchor and started motoring south to the Carti Islands, supposedly the most populated in the entire archipelago. We picked them up on the binoculars and WOW! Every inch of the four main islands had a dwelling on it. Large grass common houses, not unlike the communal long houses of the Kwakiutl or Iroquois, a few stucco buildings and lots of cuyucas lined on the shores. As soon as we made ready to drop anchor in the lee of Carti Tupu, about 50 women and kids piled in 10 or 15 cuyucas and made straight for the Fantasy.

Reverse side of the mola blouse I bought from a Kuna lady who paddled out in her cayuca from Sugtupo Carti. March 1975.

The following few hours were insane. More molas than I ever thought existed. I blew $25 on two absolutely classic mola blouses. Kids running all over. A festive atmosphere. The women wore lots of gold. Rings in their noses, on their fingers (some had up to 8 pure gold rings…on one hand) and in gorgeous necklaces. Most had very regal bearings, excellent posture with a slightly distracted look. Combined with their traditional dress, they present quite an impressive sight.

Jim, Estelle and I rowed into town. Quite a place. I wandered around, looked at molas, into the houses, at the people. What an experience. Crowded as can be. But a very gay and happy populace, laughing, running. I asked about problems. “No problems here.” And I believe it.

Meanwhile the boat was still the center of attention, lots of young people. It didn’t calm down ‘til about sundown. By then we were ready to turn in.   But, what a day!

21 March Monday, Sugtupo Carti: The San Blas Islands are too much. Early this morning, Browley, our English-speaking very relaxed friend, brought a large cayuca  for us to take up the Rio Carti Grande. We paddled the large cayuca across a few miles of shallow, reef-bottomed open sea to the bar at the mouth. We paddled over and up into a different world.

Overhanging mangoes and cacao trees lined the rio. Greenery everywhere. We paddled up about five miles, to where the saltwater stopped and the fresh began, to where the people of Carti had a number of small garden plots…fruit, veggies, a few others things. No room or fresh water on the islands so the riverside served a village annex. The women washed clothes and worked the gardens. They buried their dead across the river in a peaceful well-tended coconut grove.

Browley was a great guy and spoke excellent English. Gave us a crash course in Cuna customs, history and governance. Very interesting. We paddled back to the boat and another crowd of Cunas. These people are friendly. And sharp. They are certainly not stupid. They know about the 20th century and deal with it on their own terms. Period. I admire them very much.

Spent the rest of the day visiting the islands. One of which is Sug Tup Carti, or Crab Island. Talking to the people, learning about the San Blas and its people. Relaxed with Browley. Muy bien. Listened to his cousin and a friend play their flutes. Excellent. Man, these islands are nice, even nicer once you get to know them a little bit better.

22 March, March, Coco Islands: Up pretty early and fooled around a bit on the boat, putting bedding compound under a chain plate. Always lots of work to do. We weighed anchor around 10 and motor-sailed up the coast to Rio Diablo, the unofficial capital of the Comarca de San Blas.

The coast was beautiful. The crest of the Cordillera de San Blas, about 10 miles inland, dominated the horizon. The Continental Divide: Jungle-covered and shrouded in mist, running steeply down to the island-studded coast and reef. Little villages and isolated dwellings  appeared in clearings. We were never out of sight of at least two cayucas, many rigged for sailing. Pretty nice sail.

We passed Rio Azucar, a village with a very ‘progressive’ look. Also at Sidro Tupo where there is supposedly a fancy America-run hotel. We arrived at Rio Diablo around 2pm. We rowed into town and looked around, not much happening but lots of Panamanian influence. They have a library and school and a couple of churches. The tribal council meets every day at 5.30 pm to discuss business. The Kuna control their own destiny, no doubt about it.

We decided to move up to the Coco islands for the night as Rio Diablo had many lights. Real nice anchorage.

23 March, Wednesday, Tigre Island: Spent the AM washing the decks and re-caulking a few more chainplates and stanchions. Around 11am we weighed anchor and sailed up to Tigre Island, a more traditional village than Azucar or Rio Diablo. A nice anchorage.

Rowed into shore to look around. Here, as opposed to Rio Diablo, the women wore molas. The mola designs here were more geometric, probably older, more traditional designs. A coconut schooner from Cartagena was tied up at the dock. The double-ender was loaded to the gunwales with coconuts which they buy for 8 cents here and sell in Colombia for 30 cents. Quite a deal.

Nice houses, very comfortable grass common houses, hammocks for sleeping inside and open fires. The molas are hand-made but some of the blouses are machine-made. But they still retain the personality of the maker. Took it easy for the rest of the day.

24 March, Thursday, Tigre Island: As usual, spent most of the AM recaulking stanchions and chainplates. A tedious job, but who likes a wet boat? Read, played scrabble and wrote a bit in the afternoon. Talked to a couple and their kid off a neighbouring double-ender, the Edith Rose. Nice people.

After a great supper of fried grouper, Jim, Jerry and I rowed ashore to see a Kuna tribal dance. There were six flautists (bamboo pan-pipes) and six gourd rattlers, the women being decked out in their finest molas. The Mola- and gold-clad women danced with very formal, yet energetic motions for about 15 minutes a set. After the third set our hosts served coffee and bread. A very interesting evening.

I really like the Kunas, they are a proud and independent people. Probably the last I’ll see of them ‘til I return as we’re heading for Cartagena early manana. All in all, a great time here in the San Blas.

25 March, Friday, At sea in the Golfo de Darien: Weighed anchor at 8.20 and headed off towards Cartagena, Colombia, South America. Perfect sailing weather, wind 15 – 20 knots off our beam, rolling seas, clear sky. We clicked off a 7 knot average. Sailed easy all day and into the night.

26 March, Saturday, Club de Pesca, Cartagena, Colombia: I had the 3am to 5am watch. The big boat handles pretty well under sail. Real nice alone in the early morning, stars and wind and seas breaking. Really hauled ass in strong winds, sometime hitting 9 knots.

I first sighted Colombia, Punta Baru, around 9am. We were boarded shortly thereafter by Colombian authorities. They poked around a bit and then showed us the way to Cartagena. Then off they sped in their dull grey Bertram 25. They had machine guns.

Pretty soon the seas and winds picked up quite a bit and we had a wild ride to the mouth of Cartagena Harbour.

Boca Chica. Fortified on both sides by ancient forts. Supposedly they stretched a chain across the pass in olden days to keep the pirates out. Quite a trip. Into the harbour. Lots of refineries and industry on the shore. Big bay. We motored past another small mouth, again fortified into the inner harbor. Then, in front of us, was the old city. Forts, domes, ramparts and spires. All right! COLOMBIA. All right again.

We pulled into the Club de Pesca and there we were. A-OK. Cleaned up and ate a real good supper of sierra and relaxed in another continent. Far-out.

27 March, Sunday, Club de Pesca: Worked on the boat in the AM, cleaning it up after a rough passage. Wrote a few letters and rested up.   

In the early afternoon Brian and I took a walk around town. Lots of old churches, big cavernous interiors with richly decorated altars. Some hymn chanting in the background of one ancient cathedral gave an eerie feeling to the cyclopean masonry structure. The market was really hopping, people everywhere. Yeah man, Cartagena.

28 March, Monday: Worked on the boat a little bit this morning, putting a roller on the bow of the dingy. I work in the morning and have the afternoons and evenings off.

I walked up to the Fuerte San Felipe with Anne and Jim. Quite a large fort. Good view of Cartagena with all its walls and churches. From there we wandered around, visiting the Correos, a few shops and the docks. We returned to the boat via el mercado. Had a pretty good supper of pork and potatoes.

A couple of hours after sunset Brian and I decided to walk into town. We left the Club de Pesca and crossed the Puente Roman to the first wall and the beginning of el mercado. Even at this late hour vendors still hawked their zapatoes and zapotes. We continued past the quays where the week-end pleasure boats tie up during the week, opposite the Parque del los Martires. Across the street, under the watchtower arch, we were in another century. No hustle-bustling crowds, only the howling wind and distant music, the Latin beat providing authenticity to the overhanging balconies.

We found an upstairs poolroom and shot some stick, occasionally gazing up at the centuries-old hand-hewn joists or out the balcony window to the serpentine street below. We continued our evening by walking to the Mar Caribe, on the north-east side of the bastion, via an arborettes where we partook of an 18 cent cerveza. Muy Bien.

We walked back by way of the Plaza Bolivar and a neat bar called the ‘Vegas’. But we couldn’t stay as we didn’t have any dinero. Had fun for a while, though. Walked back through the market, just now thinning out, ready to spring to life again in just a few hours. Life continues in Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia.

29 March, Tuesday: Again more fun with the boat. A sailboat this size requires full-time maintenance. Today we finished (for the time being) putting bedding compound under the chain plates, a tedious job but one needing doing as rain and salt spray were seeping through into towels, tools and books, certainly not a good practice.

Anyway, after beating Anne again in Scrabble, Brian and I took another walk into the City. We ran into an old friend and relaxed a bit. Brian went back to the boat and I hung out a bit at the Plaza Bolivar before walking down to Boca Grande.

A nice walk past the exotic quays, past trading schooners from Rio Susa unloading their valuable cargo of handsome mahogany, past a Caribbean freighter from San Andreas, down past the Navy Base to the new section of Cartagena, Boca Grande. Cartagena certainly isn’t the crime-ridden den of inequity that I’d been led to believe. Old, staid and mellow, that’s Cartagena for me, so far, that is.

Note: 29 March was the very last full entry in my journals. I had filled up two spiral notebooks and ran out of pages. My last partial entries, for 3 – 7 April, were “Same, parties, enjoy life in Cartagena.” Nothing at all after that.

What follows are my best recollections of my stay in Cartagena (beyond the parties, that is) and ride on the Fantasy back to Key West via Jamaica and the Grand Caymans.

Even though these events occurred more than 45 years ago, the highlights were indelibly etched into my memory bank. You don’t forget an adventure like this. Indeed, as I write these words I remember even more stuff. Cool.

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