My name is Graham Hughes. My life is not very normal. Before I went and won Jinja Island on a gameshow, I became the first person to visit every country in the world without flying.
The Odyssey Expedition spanned 1,492 days and over 220 countries and territories. It has been called “the most hilarious solo travel adventure of all time” and VERY SOON the first book of the unholy trilogy will be available to buy online, in book shops and round the back of the bikesheds – even better, if you’re British you can pre-order a limited signed pre-release edition. Just click on the big book below!!
Ha ha oops I appear to have missed a year! Don’t you hate it when that happens? 😀
Never fear, I will ‘back filling’ my entries for 2015 over the next month.
2016 began, as all good years should, with fireworks and copious amounts of alcohol. We took in Toro Loco, Mondo Taitu and ended up at The Bookstore.
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.
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.
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 director, 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. This was my view.
I was given headphones so I could hear the studio (just!).
Then it was back to the airport! The plane back was also delayed for an hour, but I still managed to be back at the Bookstore before 9pm where I met the delightful Jacky who furnished me with some much-needed supplies from home.
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.
After all the stress of December – floods, building the cabaña, the boat sinking – I could do with a few day’s 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 a European, 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 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!
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.
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!
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 Bowie.
The following weekend saw the return of a couple of Bocas legends: Bill and Janis. They had been away since September, after Bill had gotten very ill and had to be flown back to the States for treatment. They got back on Friday 19th and the next day I trundled around in the old Jinja Ninja to welcome them back – but I missed them… they had gone to Almirante for something or other. That night Fidel and Bruce popped around for a full-moon bonfire. We drank waaaaaay to much. I woke up the next morning in the new cabaña.
That afternoon I went to Rana Azul bar and pizzeria… and missed Bill and Janis again! Bah!!
A few weeks ago my old schoolchum 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 Usher, the former owner. In fact, Lindsey is named as the treasurer of the my 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. 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 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.
- Stairs to Bathroom
- Finish boardwalk
- Raise boardwalk
- Move Double Bed to Cabaña
- Beautify Cabaña
- Beautify Under House
- Beautify Island (gardening)
- Paint Boat (red & dark red)
- Permission for 16’x16’ Hammock Deck on the Water
- 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 friends.
So the next day it was back to Bocas AGAIN (this was a long month). I had some very special guests to pick up.
The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot a rather familiar face there.
For those of you who are newbies to my life, Mandy was my long-suffering girlfriend during The Odyssey Expedition. By the time we split up in 2012, we had been together for over 10 years.
But when I say “we’re still good friends” I actually mean “we’re still good friends”… so much so that she flew over to Panama from Australia to be here for New Year.
So all-in-all, I had Liverpool Anna, Scottish Anna, Sarah N, Susan, Matt, Alice, Lindsey and Mandy round to Jinja for New Year.
That night we all got excessively drunk, went swimming in the boat dock, drowned an iPod and broke a hammock.
The next day Eduardo and Bill took Matt and I all the way to Almirante in the pouring rain. Why? Because we needed ourselves some pig, that’s why.
Yep, it wouldn’t be a jungle barbecue without a roast pig, so I bought one whole (via Ernie, my main man from Tierra Oscura).
Only… I’ve never dealt with a pig before. I really didn’t know what I was doing… although that’s never stopped me before.
Bill and Janis were good enough to lend us their cooler box to store the pig in overnight – the only problem was that it didn’t fit.
Like, its head would have to come off.
With a hacksaw. And I’m mighty squeamish. But you know, if you’re going to live in the jungle, you have to do jungle-y things.
But we persevered. Matt and I filled and surrounded it with ice and it fit nicely into the cooler.
So then. That night Susan and I put up a fence around the chickens and, with the help of Scottish Anna, put plastic sheeting around the new downstairs deck to keep the wood dry. Like, seriously, with the high tides and all the rain we’ve been having it’s a swamp down there at the moment (as you can see from the photos). Later we played the UK edition of Cards Against Humanity that my friends brought me from England.
Matt and I woke up at 5am to go start the barbecue as it would take several hours to cook the pig. Bill and Janis were so kind and lent us their big re-purposed oil-drum of a thing. However, it was pouring down with rain so we went back to sleep.
Susan, Scottish Anna and I had put the plastic sheeting down around the house the night before, but now it was time to fill in the trench. Thankfully I had some incredible women on hand to help out (also note the wood covering the cinder block walls here… thanks to Bjorn and B-Man for that one)…
Meanwhile, the pig situation needed addressing.
Since it’s pretty impossible to light a fire in the pouring rain, we set up the BBQ under the solar panel roof to the side of the new deck, in the wet mud. Wellington boots all round.
As I said earlier, we really, REALLY didn’t know what we were doing. We simply lit the coals, then dumped the pig on the grill…
…splashed on some soy sauce and ran away.
Matt and I high-tailed it back to Bocas (AGAIN) for a beer-spirits-food-stereo supply run. We didn’t get back until 2pm. By which time the my neighbours had all turned up wondering where I was.
Although, truth be told I was more concerned about the pig. Had we just left it as it was it would have been a big burnt mess on the outside and raw bacterial death on the inside. Fortunately, my awesome neighbour Bruce turned up in the nick of time and saved the day.
He sensibly chopped it to pieces with a machete and cooked it like it was supposed to be cooked. And the pig was all good.
By the way, that’s not some Instagram blur filter, my camera got soaked on the way back from Bocas!
Earlier, while we were in town, Matt bought me the greatest invention known to man: R2-Disco. This little fella is a nightclub in a box. It plays music (loud), has Bluetooth, karaoke, a socket for your electric guitar, its own back-up battery (amazing!) AND a disco light ball on top!
What more do you need?
It was approaching midnight and everyone was wrecked. Scottish Anna decided to give silly old gravity a run for its money.
The gang all came together for this epic selfie…
And then, on the stroke of midnight, this happened…
Well here’s how I greeted 2015…NSFW.Fair warning 😉
Posted by Graham Hughes on Fry’day, Januarrrry 2, 2015
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Right now, where was I? Ah yes! CHRISTMAS!!!
Christmas saw the return of Sarah (Wonder Woman) as well as Anna from Liverpool. To make things extra confusing, she brought with her Anna from Scotland (whom you may recognise from Glastonbury 2014) and our special guest star Niall Doherty of Disrupting The Rabblement fame.
At this point, Niall had been travelling around the world for 4 years without flying (sound familiar?). Our paths had crossed a couple of years earlier in October 2012 in Kerala, India. I was trying to take a ship to the Maldives and he was trying to take a ship to Sri Lanka.
As things turned out, we both ended up on the same ship.
Sarah had been knocking around Panama City with her dad for the past week or so and she returned to Jinja Island bearing turkey!
Which we all whipped up into a FEAST!
Campesino looked happy. Or demented. One of the two.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!
Boxing Day saw us head over to Bill and Janis’s for a couple of cold ones.
I got to introduce the gang to Roboro, Bill and Janis’s tamed pirate.
And then we went out for a razz around Dolphin Bay.
Didn’t see any dolphins though.
The next day we went for a trip to Red Frog beach.
Niall got a hair cut.
The girls went for a swing…
We met up with my buddy Pua…
Posed by the gates of Red Frog Marina…
And then headed home to Jinja.
The next day we said goodbye to Niall as he continued his journey back to Ireland the hard way.
We were given a lift over to Bocas Town by Eduardo, Bill and Janis’s right hand man. I had a LOT of stuff to get from town, and no way would it have all fitted on my little speedboat.
See all that wood in the boat? That’ll mean something to you in just a bit.
So then, cheerioski Niall!
And back to Jinja for Anna and I! Eduardo, you rock my word man!
Did I ever mention that I have not one but THREE docks on Jinja Island? Maybe I should have.
Note the mattresses on top of the wood, you’ll find out what they’re for in a moment.
So, what was all the wood for?
Remember I said a while ago that I wanted to do something about the fact that under the house looked like a concrete car park?
This is what I wanted to do.
Hola lovely pine floor!
Job’s a good’un.
Globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record. This is because global warming is a real thing that will eventually affect each and every one of us, whether you live up a mountain or not. Anybody who says otherwise is a damn fool.
December began with Jazzy and Ben continuing their stay on Jinja. Soon they were joined by Colm from Ireland (on the left) and Alex from Canada (on the right).
Hang on Graham, what’s this got to do with climate change?
Ah yes, I’m glad you asked. This was the very out of my window at the beginning of December:
Here was the area under the house:
I’ve waited a long time to put these pics online as I didn’t want discourage anybody buying the island, but since the island is not for sale (more on that in a later blog entry), I’m thinking what the hell?
This situation is a direct result of rising tides – December 2014 saw the highest tides in the history of Bocas Del Toro. Most of the town was underwater. The real kicker? It’s salt water. When the tide recedes, it leaves salt in the soil. And salt kills plants and trees.
On my little island, it’s not that much of an issue – the palm trees are quite hardy and I can always – at some stage – build a small levee.
But just imagine you live on Tuvalu, or Kiribati, or the Maldives. Your soil is being salted every year by the sea, so much so that root vegetables are no longer viable and your fruit trees are dying.
That’s bad enough, but now imagine you live in Bangladesh – 100 million people living below sea level. Where the hell are they supposed to go? They’re completely surrounded by India – another country that’s already packed to the rafters with people.
But does anybody seem to care? Nope. You know when we will care? When we start to lose pretty much every beach in the world.
Anyways, since my island was underwater, it seemed like a good opportunity for Colm to teach me how to fish.
While Jazzy and Alex looked on.
And Ben tried his luck getting into a coconut.
Ben, Colm and Jazzy left on the Wednesday and were promptly replaced by Veronica from Cuba (yellow blouse) and Sarah from the US (in the blue). Alex stayed on for another couple of days.
Veronica was a real ray of positive sunshine, her boundless optimism was infectious. Sarah was a cycle-rickshaw wallah from Austin, Texas. She liked to dress as wonder woman.
But just because she dressed as a superhero, it didn’t stop me putting her to work!
But, all good things… after a few days Jazzy, Ben, Alex and Sarah went off on their merry ways.
I then took in Jayson and Cindy from Canada! It was all go with the CouchSurfers this month.
Jayson followed The Odyssey Expedition and was already friend of mine on Facebook.
Cindy and Jayson only stayed for one night (not long enough!) but they did leave me an amazing present:
No sooner had Jayson and Cindy left than I found myself hosting these three guys: Renne, Bjorn and B-Man.
Bjorn followed the Odyssey Expedition and did an incredible amount to help me win SOS Island.
A few days later, another castaway arrived, this time it was somebody I had known for a long, long time.
Anna and I go way back. Until I started The Odyssey Expedition she ran the dance studio above my office on Dale Street, Liverpool. We’ve been to three or four Glastonbury festivals together, we even met up in Indonesia, which at the time was in country number 179 of 200.
Anyways, it being six months since I returned to Panama, it was time for me to do a border run to Costa Rica… and Anna came with me.
That meant crossing the BRIDGE OF DOOOOOOM on the Panama/Costa Rica border once again (4th time for me!)…
As you can see, I was very excited to make it to the other side.
After a night on the tiles in Puerto Viejo, Anna went to explore Costa Rica for a few days and I headed back to Jinja… because I had yet another visitor… and this time it was somebody I’ve known for even longer than I’ve known Anna.
Helen and I met in Cambodia back in the spring of 2002. We shared happy pizza together and travelled down the Mekong River Apocalypse Now-style to Phnom Penh. There we found out she’s a crack shot with a 6-shooter. Django Unchained has nothing on her.
Helen was only staying for one night. In the morning she asked me the best question ever… “is there supposed to be a scorpion in the shower?”
For future reference peeps: NO. THERE SHOULD NEVER BE A SCORPION IN THE SHOWER!!
It was a beautiful Bocas day so we went out on the speedboat.
We trundled over to Erika and Jose’s place, the scrumptious Dolphin Bay Hideaway.
Luckily for us there was a Christmas Party in full swing!
So I got to introduce Helen to the local gringos like Wayne.
Helen even went for a paddle!
Later we went to Blue Coconut, the bar on the Solarte Island.
Can’t go wrong with a bit of Blue Coconut…
But it was a flying visit. My friends in the bar said they’d take Helen back to Bocas town for me. We said our goodbyes (hopefully not for another 12 years, mind) and I headed back to Jinja.
So I got back to find Campesino had decided to start sleeping in a washing up bowl that was ludicrously too small for him.
In my experience, dogs usually think themselves bigger than they actually are. Campesino is special, I think.
Just to go back to what I was saying about global warming/high tides/salt in the soil earlier, here’s what my banana trees looked like by December 23.
Sad eh? Well, they had to go (obvs).
But don’t worry, they’ll grow back bigger and better soon enough.