COSTA RICA, PANAMA, 18th-27th April 2019
I followed the main road east. Bizarrely, given how bad the cycling conditions had been in Costa Rica, for a while it had a European-style bicycle path alongside it. This was good, because it enabled me to cycle at full speed even with tears blurring my vision. It still felt so wrong to be leaving Dea, to be cycling off in different directions, but I resisted the urge to turn back. There was just too much potential regret in doing that. Instead I ploughed stubbornly on east, replacing my emotional pain with a physical one. If I was going to do this Caribbean plan I was going to do it quickly, to get to the coast quickly, to find a boat quickly, to get back to Dea quickly. So I rode quickly, joining the main road when the path ended and sticking with it, despite the lack of shoulder. It wasn’t the safest road, but it was the fastest way to where I needed to be.
It was 380 kilometres to Bocas del Toro in Panama, the place I’d identified as the most likely for a lift to the Caribbean, and I had a plan to be there in two and a half days. As well as getting me on a boat sooner, if I could stick to the schedule it would also mean riding the busy road out to the port of Limon on Good Friday, when the truck traffic would hopefully be lighter than usual. With this double motivation I raced on through the rest of Thursday, hardly stopping for anything. The road was hilly for a while, lots of short, steep climbs, that took their toll, but I was focused on making progress at all costs. After a few hours the road flattened out, but it also grew busier. As I flew through it, it was clear that Costa Rica was a more developed country than the others we’d seen in Central America. There was no one walking along the road carrying piles of firewood on their backs, no poor people cycling because they couldn’t afford a car. But as a result there was no need for the road to have a shoulder to accommodate them, this was transport infrastructure built for cars and only cars, and I had to hug the verge, watch my mirror, and hope for the best.
There was one section of newly-built road on my route that had a wide shoulder, and as luck would have it I was cycling on it late in the day, meaning I could ride until it was almost dark without fear of being hit. It also meant I could get up early, and after a few hours of sleep in my tent just off the road I was back at it just after 5 a.m. I watched the sunrise and enjoyed another ten kilometres of shouldery bliss, before the road narrowed once again as the rest of the world woke up. I had put in a good distance the day before, 84 kilometres in five and a half hours after saying goodbye to Dea, and I was flying along now at more then 20 kilometres an hour. I love a good cycling challenge like this, and in the present circumstances it had helped me a lot to ignore the pain of parting from Dea, to lose myself in something else, to keep my mind focused elsewhere.
Fifty kilometres into my morning I connected with the main highway going out to Limon from the capital San Jose, and it was this road that I most feared. Unlike most such major highways, I had heard that it was a narrow two-lane road without a shoulder, and could be a nightmare on a bicycle. But my luck was in, for the Good Friday theory appeared to have held true, and there were hardly any trucks on it. Lots of cars, true, but the road was actually a little wider than the one I’d been on up to now, with a sliver of a shoulder for me to enjoy, and this highway was far from the terrible experience I’d feared. Instead it allowed me to pound out another hundred kilometres quickly, and I reached Limon by mid-afternoon, where I caught my first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea.
If I’d thought the worst was over having survived the highway to Limon then I thought very, very wrong. The smaller road I now took out of Limon, heading south towards Panama, was absolutely packed with cars. It was of course a holiday, and everyone had been heading out of town to enjoy the beaches along the coast. Now many of them were heading back, no doubt some with a few beers in them, and the narrow road really was rather a dangerous place to be. I held my nerve on it for as long as I could, constantly hoping that the traffic would thin out, until eventually I dived into the jungle and set up camp. As I did so it began to rain and I stood outside in it, appreciating the cooling effects of the water on my skin in this too-hot world.
I was up early again the following morning and headed off towards Panama. The road finally got quiet for the last thirty kilometres to the border, ironically at the same point where the road widened and got a big, pointless shoulder. I could only laugh. The border itself was fairly easy, although the border official on the Panama side was unfriendly, and the Chinese woman in a shop who changed my money looked extremely depressed. Things had certainly changed. The people of Costa Rica appeared to be poorer on the Caribbean coast, but here in Panama there were even more noticeable signs of poverty, such as the fact there were now lots of people walking rather than driving. That did at least mean the roads were safer for me once again, apart from the bright yellow taxis, which were by far the most common vehicle on the roads, and drove very much like they owned it.
For a while the going continued to be flat, but then, with my goal of Almirante (the town where I could catch a boat to Bocas) very much within sight, things took a turn for the worse. Suddenly I was climbing up an absurdly steep hill. It really was an extreme gradient, and it wasn’t the only one. The road would drop back down and then swing uphill again, and I began to really struggle. One taxi driver pulled over ahead of me and said, “I’m gonna take you to Almirante,” as I staggered up to him. That seemed unlikely to me, and yet if ever I was going to waver on my no-motor-vehicles principles it was surely now, for with 350 kilometres covered in 48 hours my whole body was protesting at this final cruel obstacle. To make matters worse the midday sun was beating down upon me at full strength. The fast pace I’d maintained until this point was gone. Now I was into survival mode. I began to feel extremely weak. I was light-headed, struggling not to pass out. The road was so steep that I could pedal only a short distance before having to stop and catch my breath, doing my best not to succumb to the dizziness. I had to stop and rest frequently in bus shelters, recovering just enough to get up and ride to the next one.
But eventually this final cruel twist came to an end and I descended down towards Almirante. On the edge of town I was approached by a young man on a bicycle wearing an orange hi-viz with ‘Welcome to Bocas’ scrawled on it in marker pen. He was Miguel, a fixer of some sort, one of many unemployed people who did this kind of thing around here (a similar guy had latched onto me at the border to help me change money). Miguel offered to help me get on a boat to Bocas, and while I knew that the water taxis sailed regularly and ordinarily I would have been happy to find it myself, in my present situation I saw no harm in the process being expediated for a couple of bucks. I followed along behind the cheerful Miguel, and he led me straight to the port, where a water taxi was about to set sail. I was encouraged to throw my bike and bags into the back of the boat and was whisked off to Bocas in record time.
The boat flew across the choppy sea at alarming speed. I was stuck sat in a row of people looking forward, reduced to simply praying that my possessions, sitting at the back of the boat behind the driver, wouldn’t fly off as we bounced over the waves. We left the mainland behind and were now surrounded by low green islands. On one of these was our destination of Bocas Town, and as we approached it I saw my first sailing boats. Was that the one that was going to take me to Jamaica, I wondered, or perhaps that one? Many of them were anchored off shore, and I began to wonder how I was going to get in contact with the boat owners, but I was so very exhausted by this stage that formulating any real plans were beyond my tired brain.
Thankfully all of my belongings had made it and I was able to push my bike off into Bocas Town. It was a strange place, a small grid of streets full of tourists and businesses making money off tourists, but also with plenty of locals just hanging around with nothing much to do. I had expected to be approached by another fixer, who I would ask to find me a boat to Jamaica or Cuba, but this never happened, and I was in fact completely ignored and left to my own devices. I had made it to Bocas in a little over two days, but now I was exhausted, my head hurt, and I wasn’t sure of my next move. I knew I was supposed to be on a sailing boat as soon as possible, but how to make that happen? There were quite many white faces around that looked like they might belong to sailors, so I decided I would just approach one such older couple and ask them outright if they could help me. “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, but are you sailors?” I asked, in what I hoped would be the start of a beautiful relationship that would see us sailing the high seas together. “No, we’re not,” came the heart-breaking response.
But I had a nice chat with Gary and Susan, so far as my pounding headache would allow. I explained my ambitions to them, and as I did so I could hear how silly it sounded. Hitchhiking on sailing boats all through the Caribbean? Really? It wasn’t the best of starts, and I decided to call it quits on the hassling of strangers for one day. Better to rest up, clear my head, come out with a serious plan in the morning. But where was I going to sleep? Bocas was full of expensive hotels, and the cheapest option was a hostel a few kilometres out of town, around the island, where I could sleep in a tent. I rode out there, hoping to get some recovery in. But it turned into a disaster. There were a dozen tents set up next to one another on a wooden platform, and lying in mine the ground shook like an earthquake everytime someone was walking around. Which, because my fellow campers were backpackers, was at all hours of the night, made for rather a sleepless night. It wasn’t until I dragged my sleeping bag outside to sleep in the bushes that I got any rest at all.
The 21st of April, the day when I would begin my Caribbean quest in earnest, and I felt truly awful. Those last hills under the hot sun had really screwed me up, even without the 380 kilometres of total speed-cycling and not enough sleep adding to my woes, but the hurricane season would begin in precisely 41 days, and I felt a lot of pressure to get on a boat as soon as possible. I checked out of the hostel early in the morning and rode back to town, in the rain, stopping first at a supermarket to buy a SIM card for my phone. Like all of the small supermarkets in Panama, this one was run by a Chinese family, and the man who sold me the SIM tried very hard to help me to get it work and put credit on it, but unfortunately we couldn’t get it to work. I never usually bother with such things and it felt like this particular technology was beyond me. I’d hoped to get myself a contact number, a Whatsapp, so that I could give the boat owners a way of contacting me if they heard about someone who could help, but this first simple task ended in failure.
Not to be deterred, I rode on to an Internet café that I’d seen the day before. My plan here was to make leaflets and cards, explaining my mission and giving my now-quite-limited contact details. I would hand these out to the boat owners, or at least I would have done if the Internet café had been open. It was Sunday, it was closed, and this second simple task also ended in failure.
I didn’t have a contact number or any leaflets, but what I did have was the address of a marina, and I knew all I really had to do was to get over to it and start talking to some people. My plan was pretty simple; just go to the marina and ask around, start making some contacts. I was sure that if there was a boat heading to the Caribbean I would soon find out about it. The only slight technical problem was that the marina was on a different island, but there were water taxis going all over the place. I went to the water taxi office, where I asked a man if I could get a lift over to the next island with my bicycle. “Sorry, no bicycles,” he said.
I was getting pretty tired of how many of these simple tasks were ending in failure, so I pleaded with the man that I needed to take my bicycle, as I was sure I was going to be getting on a sailing boat to Jamaica from the next island and my bike had to come with me. “Okay, I will ask the captain,” he said, and off he popped to do just that, returning triumphantly. “Okay, he said he will take you for five dollars, is that okay?”
It surely was okay, and I was soon on a private water taxi over to the next island. It really was only a two minute boat journey over to the marina, which was right opposite where we started, but for reasons I can only assume were to do with justifying the five dollar fee, the captain sailed me around to the other side of the island. I disembarked upon a jetty and pushed my bike onto the beach to discover, to my surprise, that there were no roads upon this island, which I was now very much on the wrong side of. Things, on the whole, were not going superbly well so far.
But actually it turned out to be okay that I’d landed here, for there was a trail around the island, and it was rather a nice one for cycling. There were a few resorts along the beach, and also quite many local people living in relatively poor conditions, but it was just nice to be riding my bike somewhere without any accompanying roar of traffic. After half an hour or so I arrived at my destination, the marina. I did not feel very encouraged. It was smaller than I had anticipated, with only about twenty boats lined up either side of a single jetty. A wooden gate stood half open, but I respected the sign that said only boat owners and guests were allowed past, and I stood outside it and I waited.
After a while a couple of older white males came along on their way to their boats, and I asked them if I could speak to them for a moment. One of them kept on walking, but the other stopped, smiled, and listened patiently to my story. “I don’t think anyone here is heading that way,” were his discouraging initial words. “There was a family here who just left, they went up to Guatemala I think, although, come to think of it, they left about a month ago.”
Doug had not given me the belief that this was going to be as easy as I’d hoped, but he had offered to let me use his VHF radio in the morning. Apparently at 7:30 a.m. every day all of the boats in the area, including all of those that were anchored offshore, would be tuned in to some sort of daily community chat, and if I could get my request out on that I’d have my best chance of finding a boat. He also told me that in a couple of hours Mary, the manager of the marina, would be coming down for a pot luck dinner with some of the boat owners, and I should hang around to meet her. He’d indicated a building opposite the marina, the downstairs of which was the marina office (currently closed as it was Sunday) and the upstairs presumably where Mary lived. Next to this building was also the most perfect flat grass for camping, and with the use of the marina toilets and a strong wifi connection, I had visions of making this my base of operations, certainly at least for the night so I could make the VHF call in the morning.
Around four thirty an older American woman came down from upstairs as promised. “Excuse me, are you Mary?” I asked, before doing my best to explain my Caribbean plan. Mary was, to my dismay, not exactly very quick to get behind my idea. “Well none of these boats here are going that way,” she was quick to say. I asked her where they were going. “Most of them stay here a long time,” she said. I tried asking if she had any ideas on how I might find what I was after, but she appeared, understandably perhaps, flustered by my unusual request. “I’m going over to make dinner now,” she said, before adding, “if you want to continue the conversation I suppose you can join me.”
I trailed behind Mary, feeling like a fool for ever thinking I could pull this thing off, through the gate to a simple kitchen in a wooden building on the edge of the jetty. Well, at least I’d made it through the gate now, some progress had been made. There were not a lot of people coming to this pot luck, but there was one other woman helping to prepare the food who was much more warm and friendly. This was Fernanda, a Brazilian woman who was much more interested in my journey and in trying to help, though she confirmed no one was likely to be leaving from this marina any time soon. She did tell me about another marina, also accessible only by boat, where I would perhaps have more luck, and she even tried to call the manager there to make enquiries on my behalf. But there was no answer, and I almost felt glad about that. I was too tired for all of this, and I wasn’t even sure where I was going to sleep. I tentatively put forth the idea of camping on the lovely grassy camping place next to the marina, but this was quickly shot down by Mary. “No, it’s too wet to camp here,” she said, before suggesting I camp on a beach further along, on the part of the island crammed with locals. I wasn’t going to camp there, it was far too public, and Fernanda’s willingness to help now meant that the conversation went away from finding me a boat and onto finding me a place to camp. I didn’t really need help with that, I was pretty good at finding places to camp, but I also didn’t mind too much that I wasn’t getting any help finding a boat. Mary making comments under her breath like, “You can’t just show up here and expect to get on a boat,” had left me feeling deflated, and her obvious disdain only made me want to get out of there. I asked if they would call me a water taxi, and before dinner had even been served I was loading my bicycle aboard a boat, though not the type I had hoped for, and heading back to Bocas Town.
I rode out of town feeling exhausted and deflated, following the coast, past the hostel I’d stayed at the night before, and further north. Eventually I found a quiet place between the road and the beach where I could camp in a clearing among some trees. A few surfers came past and went out for an evening surf, but they ignored me and left me to it. I sat down and watched them and fell into a whirlwind of thoughts.
I thought back on this unsuccessful day and about the whole Caribbean challenge. Things hadn’t exactly gone to plan, I certainly wasn’t any closer to getting on a boat, and yet I wasn’t sad about that. As I sat and thought, there was actually a sailing boat heading out to sea, sailing north beyond the surfers. Leaving so late in the day there was a good chance it was off on a longer sail rather than just out for the day, a good chance that it was heading for Jamaica or Cuba even. If I’d only got here a day earlier, got on the VHF radio, maybe I could have been on it. But as I sat and watched it as it slowly moved across my field of vision there was simply no part of me that wished I was on it. I realised now that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to be on it. I didn’t want to sail to Jamaica. I’ve been cycling in Jamaica before, I didn’t even like it! What was I doing here? Why was I doing this? Why do these challenges mean so much, that I continue to pursue them like this even when it means doing things I don’t even want to do?
Sometimes you push so long and so hard for something that you just can’t let it go, even when it stops making sense. You have to keep going for it, it overcomes all sensibilities, and blinds you to the things that really matter. But sitting there looking out at the Caribbean things became clear to me, and I knew I wasn’t going to be sailing around the Caribbean. My heart just wasn’t in it. My heart wasn’t in it when I spoke with the sailors, with Doug, Fernanda, or Mary. My heart was not in making a VHF call, my heart was not in going to the marina, my heart was never really in finding a boat. Because my heart was with Dea.
For many, many years this bicycle trip had come first, these challenges had come first. It was something I’d started before I met Dea, and she had always understood how important it was to me, she’d always been so patient and so understanding. Until that morning it had never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t make it to 100 countries, now I knew that I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to risk going out to the Caribbean, even if I could find a boat out of here, just to get stuck on some island with no way off. To be away from Dea for months and months for no good reason, when I could instead spend that time with her. There was no doubt in my mind now, I would be turning back, going back to Dea to continue our journey together. I’d given it a go, I’d tried, I’d leave here with no regrets, but it was time to get my priorities straight. It was time to put Dea first.
And besides, I had a get-out-of-jail-free card to play, didn’t I?