04.06.2012 - 04.06.2012
Gualaca was 25km outside of David in the direction of Almirante. I rode up to the town after sunset in hopes of finding a small room to rest for the next day's drive over the mountains to the Caribbean coast. I've found that smaller towns are almost always better for the short overnight stays. They're safer for Cheeks, easier to navigate, easier to find a nice local eatery. This small town of 3,000 didn't let me down. After asking some locals in the square (rule of thumb: if you want information always drive to the square. I've yet to find a Latin American town without one). They pointed me to a pensione - "you must have passed right by it." I rang the bell. An elderly woman came out. "I would like to stay just one night" I said. "One night!? You can stay as long as you want!" And she introduced herself.
That night I ate a 1/4 chicken and two greasy empanadas in a restaurant with plastic chairs and very thin napkins. Everything was just as it should be in Central America. After dinner I sat on a bench next to the girls watching the boys play soccer on a concrete basketball court under the dim lights. It was twenty minutes when a loud siren went off and the game split, everyone going their different directions. Gualaca and her 3000 citizens had a curfew.
cdescending through panamanian cloud forest
Pale Cheek's 30 year old diesel awoke just before sunrise and we were on our way. It rose in our face and lit up the farmland. The road ascended to 8000 feet to wind, rain, and pine trees. We passed through a police checkpoint and started our descent to the Caribbean. The vegetation changed quickly with the steep descent and soon we were in lush, green, anything-can-grow cloud forest. Almost every inside turn of a switchback was a waterfall. One of them we passed was serving as a shower for a truck driver. We made good time to Almirante and, leaving Cheeks behind in a family owned parking lot, I hopped a boat to Isla Colon to meet Neil.
Neil is owner operator of a non for profit named "Give and Surf." The idea is simple: give a donation to the association, volunteer helping at the local primary school or at after school camps or teaching adults English. In return Neal will take you to the locally known surf spots or, if you want, he'll teach you how to surf.
kids being kids like they are everyday all over the world
The one elementary school for the community is located on a small compound on Isla Bastimentos. A crickity old dock greets you upon your arrival (the school is only reached by water). One tin-roofed concrete building makes up the school's only two classrooms. Across a small grass soccer field is the cafeteria and kitchen which is housed in a wood hut built on stilts into the mangrove, also with its own dock. Behind the classrooms a steep path leads to a playground built by Give and Surf a few years ago. From here you can behold the whole bay, her mangroves and blue water and the the Isla Solarte.
tribal leader, father of school children and my tour guide to a remote cave
Long haired, laid back Neal had just bought a boat before I arrived and so he had a funny little anecdote that had to do with the ninos and the boat that I will recount to you now.
All of the students that attend the school are of indigenous descent, of the Ngobe tribe, and so they are, either a blessing or a curse, without 21st century luxuries. When Neil started Give and Surf and began offering the after hours programs, the kids would be rowed to school by their parents, or they'd row themselves in small groups. He told me it wouldn't be uncommon for a 5 year old to row across the whole bay in a little craft by himself to make it to a scheduled game of kickball or for a session of arts and crafts.
And then Neal got the boat. He began to pick up stragglers and the kids whose parents had a hard time getting them to the school. Habits were made, expectations were to be expected and now the kids have forgot what was so natural for them before. They need the outboard.
the unnamed vessel school bus
In the mornings we played school bus and picked up the ninos for the day's activities. We'd approach a makeshift dock and a little girl in a dress. Neal would ask her where her brother was. "He's coming" she would say, and the little guy would come charging down the dock with a big smile. Across the bay we'd nose up to the mangrove and three kids would leap out of the shack that was their home and swing on the branches to the bow. Another time, a Dad would stand on the gnarly bank and hurl his kids into the boat. There was no doubt that these kids were more agile and more durable than any kids I've seen in the States.
And then we went surfing. Neal insisted we take the boat to a reef break. I had never surfed a reef break, it's a type of break that is supposed to be big and fast and with more serious consiquences if a mistake is made. The swell was big and we found ourselves in a little predicament. Neal's anchor line wasn't long enough. If we anchored deeper past the point of any threat from a big set, we wouldn't have enough line and there was a threat of the boat being an ornament on the horizon. If we came in closer where we knew it would be shallow enough so we'd have enough line for the anchor to hold properly, the boat was almost certainly going to get smashed by the waves. And, the most serious threat of all, was the fact that his boat didn't have a name yet. Luck was against us.
We found a "sweet spot" and proceeded to paddle IN to the break (Ha! that was a first). The salt in the eyes, the empty palm lined coast that was visible over the spray of a set, the clear blue water and two good waves (the best of the expedition) made for a pleasant memory. We returned to the unnamed vessel to find the anchor stuck in the reef. It wasn't quite time to celebrate. Neal's tight Give and Surf budget was arguing against cutting the line. How deep was it? 25'-30'? Like a Samoan diving for pearls, I descended to the deep, found the chain and then the anchor wedged into the reef. I stood on the ocean floor and pulled her out.
It had been one of those days where you felt healthy and alive from the day's exertion. And we toasted our ice cold Balboa to the day's feats.
a poison dart frog on isla bastimentos