Day six on the Stahlratte, we steam ahead at night and nothing in life may be more beautiful than now.
The boat rocks against the waves in the darkness, the mast traces wide arcs against the stars and sky, it is a challenge to walk and to pitch over the side is certain death.
Staring out into the heat lightning and the absent horizon and the starlit foam against the churning ink, we chug chug chug across the Caribbean, the threat of love, the threat of death!
At seven knots we vanish ourselves into the beauty.
We wait at the end of the launch pier in Cartí for the Stahlratte to pick us up. This steel-hulled vessel sailed until the 1950′s when it had an 80-liter diesel motor installed, and now it both sails and motors too. It was used for fishing and then was owned by Greenpeace, but now it's the only reasonable method for getting past the Darién Gap with your moto. (The Gap is the 40-mile unpaved stretch that cuts the Pan-American Highway in half. Crossing it means moving through dense jungle while evading both the Panamanian Army and drug smugglers. It is not recommended.) Normally the voyage takes only three days, but this is a very special voyage, nine days in which the captain will be hosting his family.
The vessel, with the very German Captain Ludwig at the helm, approaches the pier with deck hands looking over the side. The boat gets closer and closer and then hits the pier and they tell us we need to hurry with loading the bikes on board because they don't like him bringing his big boat here to the launch pier, especially since he just hit it. They lift the bikes on board with a professionalism informed by haste, and once the bikes are on-board we wait away from the pier for one late motorcyclist with a flat tire. This motorcyclist is Sean Dillon and he is riding a 90cc Honda Super Cub with teeny, tiny tires that love to get snakebite flats.
We motor for a few hours before reaching the Islands of the Gods in San Blas. We anchor here for the night and eat dinner in the dark.
The next day we swim about the islands. We grab some snorkel gear and decide to swim out from the boat to a distant two-tree island, a little far and I'm not a strong swimmer, but why not be adventurey? So we get going and soon it's clear that we are going against current, that the waves are choppier than we thought, that the island is getting closer too slowly, and I look back at the boat and I look at the deep water below me and part of me panics and I think to myself to keep it together, that we must continue, that the boat looks small behind me and that it's too late to turn back. Sink or swim: there's no stopping with no floatation or signal device, and I focus on technique, on how my legs and flippers push me through the water, how the flow tugs on my arm hair, how my breathing must be deep and steady, how I wonder truly if I'll make it and how quickly I've gotten myself into a dangerous situation. Face down, lungs full, legs pumping rhythmically, I glance up through the fogging mask occasionally to correct my course and as the island grows closer, I realize I'll make it, and somehow it becomes easier, and I claw onto the sand like a survivor, and the others follow soon. Later we would estimate the swim at a kilometer.
Once on the island, we bury each other in sand, which we could have done back near the boat.
I really honestly thought I discovered a treasure chest between two trees on a tiny island. I began plotting how to get it out of the country without telling anyone. Then I discovered the "chest" was a log.
We swam back, the current taking us to the boat, and we had a barbeque on a nearby beach. We ate shish kebab and sang songs and I showed people how to take really, really long exposure photos in the ridiculous dark.
The next day we visited the tiny island of Kuna Yala, Panama, and we got to see a bunch of people living on an island, and I tried to buy a Diet Coke and everyone thought I was crazy.
That night we sit around and form an impromptu band, 20 year-old Alex prefers System of a Down but he just discovered Pearl Jam's "Ten" so I do my best Eddie Vedder ever, a part I've prepared my whole life for, and I throw myself into a rendition of "Black" that shocks, simply shocks, and I wear sunglasses while committing myself to the performance because my voice makes me so vulnerable that I have to hide my eyes.
That night we eat large lumps of fresh lobster in a sauce I don't know the name of, but it was yellow, creamy, and very rich. The lobster came from a vat, I've never had vat lobster, and it might have been my best meal ever, ever.
The next day, seasickness dogs me and I sit at the rear of the boat staring at the captain's dinghy (heh) and I pulse to the rhythm of the marine diesel chugging at maybe 100 rpm.
Ivonne comes out and a small craft with kids rows up and she starts throwing them sodas, and I tell her she shouldn't do that because kids will come to value our resources over social interaction. Luckily she threw them the disgusting Pony Malta, it tastes like a cross between cola and bread, and the kids pour out the horrible sodas and quickly row off. They must not have The Finger down here, because if they did then they'd have given it to us for sure.
I don't remember the rest of the day, things started to blur together even with my notes. Ships do weird things to your brain, all sailors are alcoholics, no question.
Around day four I notice this strange swelling pain in my abdomen and I can't tell if I'm seasick or horny and I realize it's both. The limits of my world extend the 100 feet from bow to stern and no further, so I do the sex math: who can I hook up with and what are my odds? There are a number of couples, so I subtract those women and men. There are two women and five men left over. Two are too old for the women, one is Darren and he doesn't seem interested, so I figure one of the two should be mine. With five days left, I should seduce one today or tomorrow and then have a few days in a tropical paradise with temporary lover, seems like a solid plan! Until then I prove wrong the warnings on my box of dramamine about not taking it with alcohol.
We stop in Sapzurro, just south of the border, and now we are officially in Colombia and in South America and now it will be easier to keep going than to turn back. We take a launch to the nearby town of Capurganá and it is overfilled and we aren't wearing life vests and it seems very tippy and I figure we've come too far to die like this so I don't worry. In town, we wait for the power to come on before they process us at immigration, then we decide to hike back to Sapzurro and I realize I'm now hiking through the Darién, in sandals. I discover that this involves going up into the hills to a beautiful mirador, then descending down into lots of spider webs filled with spiders like the ones back in Bocas del Toro. Meanwhile my sandals barely stay on my feet and they slip down the steep trail and I miss my boots. This hike lasts an hour and a half.
After dinner I wash dishes with Ivonne while singing along to Violent Femmes and I think I might get somewhere with her. That night we motor out of harbor and moving at night for the first time is disconcerting. I look at the electronic nautical maps in the signal house and on the computer screen there is a red line pointing straight out from the ship to show us where we will be, given our current course, and the line doesn't intersect anything and I feel calmer. Outside we chug toward lightning and the night sky swirls against the mast. We pace a distant bulk carrier with flood lamps illuminating its deck, and I see that Ivonne and Sean seem very closely engaged in watching laptop videos, and now I have to revise my sex math. The only remaining available lady is Kannis. The rocking of the boat as it motors through the waves, this is my luliaby.
The next day we went snorkeling again. I'm detecting a pattern: breakfast, snorkel, swim, read, lunch, nap, swim some more, visit whatever is near, dinner, drink, sleep. I'm starting to forget to brush my teeth, though I manage not to forget the dramamine and loperamide for long. Later we discover the rope swing, which gives us a solid hour of novelty. Then we visit another island and have dinner and drink coco locos, coconuts filled with coconut milk and rum and other stuff less important than rum.
And now the apex of my laziness, I decide to just live in my underwear. The captain has been in his undies the whole time, sporting a big German gut and a big German package, so I go for it. I take my pants off and right then the captain walks by and he lets out a gasp of modesty — "Ooh!" — while in his undies and I just say, "Oh come on!" That night the ship decides I need to do a Stompers Boots modeling session in my new attire.
Later that night, still in my undies, bumming around the deck, Kannis more or less says flat out that she's not going to hook up with me, even though I didn't say or do anything. She says I use "too many F-words" and that I'm "one of those player guys". There's no point in arguing with someone who is right, and my voyage is sexless and I no longer suffer seasickness but now that dull radiating ache is worse than ever.
Finally we arrive in Cartagena. Everyone is glad to be getting off the boat, but we are sad that we will be separating. Most of us end up staying in the same hostel to stave off separation anxiety. We end up crowding its courtyard with bikes.
Next time: The threat of love, the threat of death! She said, "I will wait for you in Bogotá."