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Floating In a Most Peculiar Way

 January 2016

2016 began, as all years should, with fireworks and copious amounts of alcohol. We took in Toro Loco, Mondo Taitu and ended up at The Bookstore.

Revellers!

Shazia and Theresa had a mooch around town while the three lads took in the delights of Selina and The Aqua Lounge.

We all met back up in the wee small hours and headed back to Jinja on a boat taxi around 5am. For me it was fairly routine, but for the others it was a ride of abject terror as we were on a small panga (designed for 6 people, not 12), with no life vests, no lights and heading towards Jinja Island bathed in total darkness.

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Note to self: don’t do that again.

On the day of the 1st we all slept in late – my guests headed out to Bocas in the afternoon and I had the island to myself for a few hours. A few days earlier, a producer for Australia’s Channel 7 breakfast show had got in touch about doing an interview for the show. I assumed it would just be on Skype from the island or something, but no! I was to get the VIP treatment – flown to Panama City for a satellite interview, no expenses spared!

It was a bit last-minute and I would have much rather have waited until the following week, stay in PC for the weekend, meet up with Jacky and go see Star Wars again, that would be awesome. Unfortunately for all things Star Wars they managed to find me a flight on Saturday afternoon (ie. January 2nd) – I would be flying in, shooting the interview live and then flying back. In all, I’ll be spending less than three hours in the capital. Eek!

The next day, Alex and the lads went to Bastimentos to visit Wizard’s Beach. I dropped Shazia and Theresa in town and they continued on their journey. I hung around in the old Déjà Brew until it was time to fly.

(The irony of flying to Panama City to do an interview about travelling the world without flying was not lost on me.)

It was crazy. I’ve never flown to Panama City from Bocas before. The airport was packed… and the flight (which was cutting it fine as it was) was over an hour late.

Got a nice view of ol’ Bocas Town on the way out though.

I was picked up at the airport by Javier, the son of Carlos, the guy who was going to be shooting me (with a camera, don’t get excited), and driven to Cinta Costera, the coastal walk from the city to the old town.

We set up about 100 metres from the production van. I stood on the concrete tetrapods on the other side of the sea wall. 

I was given headphones so I could hear the studio (just!).

Then it was back to the airport at super fast speed! The plane back was also delayed for an hour, but I still managed to be back at the Bookstore before 9pm where I met Jacky (who was ironically in Bocas, not Panama City), who furnished me with some much-needed supplies from home.

Most. British. Picture. Ever.

The three remaining AirBnBers wanted to stay out for a bit, so I left them to it while Jacky and I drank and put the world to rights. It was another night-boat home to Jinja, but this time we took a 12 seater and I think everybody was a lot less stressed!

The next morning I said my farewells to Alex, Pascal and Ruslan. Ariel the boat driver came over to pick them up.

Jacky came over to the island for a few hours in the afternoon. We were going to watch Charlie Brooker’s review of 2015 but we couldn’t download it in time. And then… I was on my own.

Home Sweet Home

After all the stress of December – floods, building the cabaña, beds, fixing the walkways, the boat sinking – I could do with a few days’ break.

On the night of the 6th I was invited over to Lazare and Carmen’s place in Tierra Oscura along with Martin, Lizzie and Lizzie’s parents. The next day, hungover to hell, I went to town with Lazare to pick up a couple of AirBnBers that booked at the very last minute. Since I wouldn’t have time to wash the bedsheets I bought a new set for $25…

…and then the AirBnBers changed their minds. Lazare took me back to Jinja in the pouring rain. Soaking wet and peeling the clothes off me I vowed to not let this happen again and changed my refund policy to ‘strict’… Basil Fawlty would be proud.

One of the great things about living in Panama is that not only do you not need a visa to visit here with an EU, North American or Australian/NZ passport, you also get 180 days on arrival. Before I flew to Panama City I was taken aside at the airport and a guy totted up how long I had been here – something like 170 days. It was time for me to do a border run!

Saturday January 9 was Martyr’s day here in Panama, all the flags are put at half-mast and you can’t purchase alcohol. Seemed like a good a day as any to get out of here.

You’re technically supposed to stay out of the country for 72 hours. The last time I did this (in December 2014) I spent just one night in Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica and returned to Panama  less than 24 hours after I had left.

This time I wasn’t going to be able to even do that – I had another couple of AirBnBers arriving the next day.

I crossed the border around 11am. The famous rickety old bridge of doom was out of use – maybe for some long-overdue repairs, who knows?

On the Costa Rican side I went to the first pub I could find, sat down, did some writing and drank some beer. 

About three hours later I attempted to get back into Panama.

I got stamped out of Costa Rica no problem, crossed back over the road bridge to the Panamanian side. I went to the little kiosk where you pay $3 to get in or out. It was the same women who I had paid to get out earlier. I hoped that all us gringos look the same to her… apparently we do!

Then it was down to immigration proper. I had printed out my flight back to the UK and had the little slip of paper to say I had paid my $3. The guy charged with stamping me in didn’t even look at them… phew! But then – new thing! – I had to pose for a photo like when you enter the States… eek! Does Panamanian immigration make a log on their computers the date you leave and the date you return??

Apparently not. I was stamped back in. Phew!

Job's a good'un

So it was back to ol’ Bocas Town. I had a look around to see if anything was going on, but with all the bars closed it all looked a bit forlorn. I headed back to Jinja on a taxi boat as Mario was fitting a new floor for the Jinja Ninja. The wood of the old one had turned to mush under the inexplicable 1970s carpet.

Literally EVERYTHING in the 1970s was carpetted: boats, bathrooms, the walls of the Sydney Opera House...

They say the two best days of your life are the day you buy your boat and the day you sell it, and I can see why. After last month’s sinking, the repairs to the engine and the new floor cost me up to $1,000. Going to see Star Wars was one EXPENSIVE trip to the cinema!

But what a lovely new floor, eh?

Even when I got the boat back, the engine wouldn’t start with the ignition key and the auto-choke was knackered – so starting the damn thing involved squirting fuel directly into the carburetter (sorry auto-correct, that’s the way my dad always spelt it) and then wrapping a piece of rope around the flywheel on top of the engine block and yanking like your life depended on it. It’ll come good on the seventh or eighth attempt. If you’re lucky.

My AirBnBers arrived the following afternoon. The next morning, the morning of January 11, I awoke to find a message from my brother Alex. “Grey, David Bowie is dead.”

Oh no, don’t say it’s true.

I had a little cry. This isn’t fair. It’s not right.

I took solace in the fact that I saw him perform live once, at Glastonbury 15 years ago. But still… Bowie? What? How? No.

The following Saturday I was in Bocas Town and I invited a few friends over for a Bowie bonfire and barbecue. Three people became four, four became eight, eight became twelve and before I knew it we had 15 people thundering towards Jinja Island on two separate pangas.

We even brought a couple of lady dogs to keep Campesino happy… Martin lit a fire… We played a lot of Bowie… Toasted some marshmellows… I got my face painted… We even set off the big firework I had bought for New Year 2015 (but never used)…

We hung out on the hammocks… And of course there was the obligatory epic selfie… 

Thank you for the music, Major Tom.

A few weeks ago my old schoolchum (and Island alumnus) Lindsey had got in touch to say she was thinking of coming back to back to Jinja for a while. Not only was Lindsey here last year for New Year, it was Lindsey’s uncle Michael who invested in the island, allowing me to fully buy out Ian, the former owner.

In fact, Lindsey is named as the treasurer of the company that has Right of Possession of the island. Lindsey has run a successful catering and events company in the UK for several years and would be brilliant at helping me get Jinja Island up and running as a going concern. My answer was “hell yeah, when are you getting here?”

We met up at Déjà Brew on Tuesday January 25, then loaded up with supplies and headed to Jinja. On the Friday we went on a tour of Dolphin Bay, saw some dolphins and then we met up with Mel and Gino on their yacht, the Meow. The Jinja Ninja’s engine wouldn’t shut off when I turned the key or pulled the dead-man’s switch so I was forced to yank out the fuel line. Nevertheless, the engine kept going for another few minutes like some infernal perpetual motion machine.

My intention was to finally catch up with Bill and Janis (who had returned to Bocas after Bill’s treatment for cancer in the US) after the Meow, but with the engine not starting without the performance of an elaborate ritual that required just about everything short of a blood sacrifice and now NOT STOPPING once I got it started(!) I thought it best to trundle over to see Mario the mechanic to see what he could do.

On the way Lindsey and I stopped at Lazare and Carmen’s place to see if they wanted to come for fried chicken at Ernie’s (next to Mario’s boat garage), I wasn’t planning on stopping, but this time the boat cut out and wouldn’t restart for love nor money. Believe me, I offered both.

Thankfully, Lazare’s worker Jose swooped in to save the day, noting that the ignition coupling had come, well, uncoupled. We plugged it back in and Hey Presto! it still wouldn’t start. But at least now it would stop. If we got it started that is. Which eventually Jose did with an ever-shortening piece of rope.

Lindsey and I trundled the Ninja over to Mario’s. While we feasted on Ernie’s legendary fried chicken Mario took a look at the boat. He rubbed the battery terminals with a piece of sand paper. It now starts – and stops – fine. Hurray!

Happy with our new working motor, Lindsey and I dropped in on Rana Azul which is open on Friday afternoons – and I finally got to meet up with Bill and Janis! At last!!

Lindsey and I shared a beer with them before heading back to Jinja and popcorn and movies. The next day was spent at Red Frog beach, where Lindsey and I set out our 10-part Jinja Island To Do List.

  1. Stairs to Bathroom
  2. Finish boardwalk
  3. Raise boardwalk
  4. Move Double Bed to Cabaña
  5. Beautify Cabaña
  6. Beautify Lower Floor of House
  7. Beautify Island (gardening)
  8. Paint Boat (red & dark red)
  9. Permission for 16’x16’ Hammock Deck on the Water
  10. Build Deck

One of the things that you desperately need when you’re doing any project is other people’s input. Sometimes you look at things so hard you miss the bigger picture. Case in point: I was all gung-ho for building a deck under the solar panel roof and putting in a second shower and flush toilet for guests staying in the cabaña (the first part of what will eventually become Carrotopolis).

I told Lindsey my plans and she asked “why don’t you just put in external stairs going up to the existing bathroom?”

Why indeed! The reason? It never crossed my mind. But damn it’s a much better plan – I already have the wood, we can lock the existing door from the kitchen side of the house and guests will have easy access to the loo without having to come into the house. Doing it this way will save me over $1,000. Thanks Lindsey!!

After Red Frog we went to Bocas to pick up the laundry from Don Pardo’s laundromat. Unfortunately he couldn’t find it. This has never happened before and was a bit of a worry to say the least.

The next day, the last day of the month, Linds and I headed over to Rana Azul with Lyn, Dempsey and Amanda. Bill and Janis are heading back to the US on Tuesday for further treatment so this would be our last hurrah for a while. Fair winds my old friends.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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