Colombia and Panama may share a land border but crossing by land is completely inadvisable. There are no roads – just thick, largely impenetrable, jungle known as the Darien Gap. Even if a person has the necessary experience to get through thick largely untracked jungle it is a route for drug smugglers and once a hotbed for guerrilla warfare – there is no knowing who might be encountered on route.
A welcome break from cycling
I had a hunch that I wouldn’t find much happiness going overland with my bike; thus I had the option to either fly or take a boat. It is generally much cheaper to fly than take a boat. Yet my aversion to flying meant that I decided to take a boat, and not only that I chose to sail, which is one of the more expensive boating options to reach Panama. It cost $550 for a 5-night trip, which actually turned into 6, stopping overnight at a few of the San Blas Islands on route to snorkel, drink coconuts, and generally laze about.
It was certainly exciting to set foot on the sea vessel – a Catamaran named Santana – that would be a home for me and eleven other beings for the next days.
A paradise, of sorts!
It is hard to describe the trip the multitude of happenings and all the associated emotions that eventually came to pass. There was plenty of joy, delight, and awe. At one point there were some 20 dolphins swimming right in front of our vessel – sometimes jumping right out of the water. I saw odd-shaped fish with radiant colours down in the reefs. I enjoyed the company of others, playing volleyball on the beach with my fellow seafarers and sitting around a bonfire in the evening drinking from coconuts.
The best part of the day for me was always the morning – cooler and quieter. I’d normally be the first to get up and I’d go and sit out on the front of the boat and watch whatever was before me. Sometimes it would be the vast sea, other times though a new island surrounded by boats similar to our own. I’d think, I’d write, I’d hum.
At one point, as I sat on a sun blazed island no bigger than a football pitch under a palm tree immersed in something I’d only even seen in a holiday brochure, I wondered to myself whether this was paradise.
In that very moment I might very well have had a glimpse of my paradise. I was present; I was content; I was timeless. But how much of that paradise was of my own making and the making of the environment? It seemed to me in that moment that what surrounded me and what was taking place in my inner state where reflecting one another in perfect and eternal oneness. Bliss and harmony.
What’s behind an apparent paradise?
But it can be difficult to sustain a paradise within when all basic needs aren’t easily met. My body, although welcoming the break from cycling and eating in abundance, struggled with hydration and sunburn and I could not always eat in line with my vegan/vegetarian preferences. I wondered about how hygienic it was being at sea with a group of others on a small boat for some days in a tropical climate. We were well cared for and looked after and life was comfortable in many respects but my heart cried for a bit more freedom to take myself where I like and do as I please as I have become accustomed to on the bike.
Sometimes a sadness, perhaps a touch of frustration, and even maybe some anger too. Such emotions are never far away in my emotional landscape and I’ve found it better not to deny them and they increased with the bodies struggle.
As I watched other boats sail into the island and anchor up I pondered about the idea of a “luxurious” lifestyle on a sailing boat. Sure, it looks amazing and it is easy to imagine it would be better when compared to wherever it is we normally might be but even in a perfect picture postcard setting everyone still has to piss, shit, and eat. Behind the smiles of a moment there may also be difficult thoughts and emotions that are not seen. And then there are deep questions, that I know plague me at least, as to whether I’m living a “good” life and being truly who I need to be.
Money and happiness revisited…
As I wrote this post I got to thinking about a boating experience on the Amazon river 2 months ago, and also how the two experiences related to a recent post I wrote on money and happiness when travelling. In that post I wrote that sometimes the most enriching travel experiences cost very little and when I reflect on the two I think these two experiences serve the point I was trying to make there.
In the Amazon, the boat was the least expensive way of getting to Iquitos – the unreachable by road once booming rubber city. To reach Iquitos from Pucallpa it cost me $30 for a 3-night trip on a cargo boat. It was anything but what might be called luxurious – it was the way locals travelled. 200 odd passengers swung seemingly convivially together on their hammocks – we chatted, we shared food – occasionally getting up to do all the other things that humans need to do.
Both trips were unique and powerful experiences to have had for my journey about happiness but it is taking a boat down the Amazon that I’d choose to do again and again, and would also be able to afford to do so many times over.
But that is just me…