The story of how we got from Liverpool, England to Jinja Island, Panama.
(NB: these blog entries are set to display in chronological order)
Welcome to 2014.
Huzzah 2013 is finally over! I don’t know about you, but for me and a load of my friends it wasn’t much of a good’un. Maybe I was just having trouble adjusting after The Odyssey Expedition.
The year ended on a high, though… with me winning Samsung’s SOS Island competition – $100,000 towards an island adventure of my choice. HELL. YES.
Survival of the Smartest, apparently… you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
I also now have a literary agent who ISN’T the unholy lovechild of Murray from Flight of the Conchords and Stephen Merchant in Extras. I’m finally motivated to write the book of my travels, which will provide the backdrop to 2014, which will mostly concern the my quest to find, purchase and live on “Jinja Island”.
And more good news – my “One Second Every Country” vid has just smashed the 1,000,000 views barrier in less than 6 months.
In less good news, Guinness World Records have handed the decision about whether I get the certificate or not to their lawyers. My argument is that a trip to the border town of any given nation counts as a “visit” so long as you cross the border at a legal border post and you actually cross the border, visa or not. Whether GWR’s lawyers agree with me is another matter entire.
I have decided however, that whatever happens, 2014 is going to KICK. ASS.
You heard it here first.
So you won an island???
You jammy sod. When are you going to get a proper job?
Well… possibly never?
On December 11 2013 I was declared the winner of Samsung’s SOS Island.
Now $100,000 is more money than I could possibly imagine, but when it comes to buying an entire island, it’s only enough to get you a rocky patch in the middle of a frozen river in Nova Scotia.
But Chris came up with a mad plan, a plan so brilliant, so devious, so utterly insane that it might just work. There was a guy he had met in the course of making his TV show “Island Hunters”, a British chap called Ian Usher. You might have heard about him, he sold his life on eBay about five years ago. And by his life I mean HIS LIFE – his house, car, motorbike, his job and even his circle of friends. He netted himself a tidy profit and set off around the world attempting to achieve 100 goals in 100 days – including meeting the red crabs of Christmas Island and the owner of some place called Necker Island. Wherever that is.
Sound like something I’d do? Yeah… it’s fair to say that Ian and I are very much cut from the same (rather colourful) cloth.
Possibly inspired by Branson (he of pickle fame), with the money he got from selling the rights to his story to Disney, Ian bought a 2 acre island off the coast of Panama.
There was no house there when he bought the island and it was overgrown with jungle. Over the last three years, he has cleared the land, built that house, installed wi-fi and set it well on the road to 100% self-sustainability.
Ian and his island recently appeared on Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild, which Brits can watch now on the Channel 5 website:
Now he’s looking to sell. But for a wee bit more money than I had to spend.
Chris Krolow’s plan was this: offer to use my prize money to buy a one-third share of Ian’s island, with a proviso that I have exclusive use of the island for a year. In that year I will endeavour to increase the island’s value when it goes back on the market in 2015 I’ll get one-third of whatever it sells for.
Elegant in its simplicity, and wonderful in its design. If I play my cards right, I get to live on my own tropical island paradise for a year and it won’t cost me a penny – I’ll even convert my winnings into real $$$ when the year is over.
So in February this year, Casey and I were round at Lorna Brookes’ gaff and I had a Skype chat with Ian. It was important I left a good impression, as Ian wasn’t exactly sold on the concept – it meant another year of risk for him (what if the house burns down?) and he has a penchant for clean breaks and fresh starts.
But the conversation went well and I guess the kindred-spirit thing worked in my favour. After discussing it with his girlfriend Vanessa (who said “when have you ever done anything the conventional way?”) Ian got back to me the next day with a yes.
Within the hour I had booked a flight to Panama for Casey and I.
The last six weeks of my life have been rather manic. And that’s putting it mildly. Not content with PURCHASING A GODDAMN ISLAND and preparing for life in Panama, I also moved out my flat in Manchester…
Finally received my Guinness World Record certificate…
Helped organise Global Scouse Day on February 28th…
Helped organise the inaugural Great Liverpudlian Scouse Off at Maggie May’s (and made chums with the Lord Mayor of Liverpool)…
Spoke at TEDxBathUniversity…
Watched Everton beat West Ham (woo!)…
Celebrated the 60th wedding anniversary of our family friends in the trophy room at Anfield…
Captured over 240 hours of footage from The Odyssey Expedition in HD (it takes an hour to capture an hour)…
Finally got around to having Burn’s Night…
Stripped an entire room (including the ceiling) of GODDAMN woodchip wallpaper at my mate’s Stan’s gaff in Fallowfield…
Not only that, but everything came together to allow me to film this sequence I’ve been dreaming of for the last five years:
HUGE thanks to Ste Webster (camera, Earth Zoom) and André Ferreira (drone pilot) and everyone who came along on the day to help make this a reality.
Phew! And I’m totally forgetting a bunch of stuff there an’ all. My last night out in Liverpool was spent with Casey, Ste, Cyrus and Graeme – which OF COURSE ended in a drunken mess.
I woke up in Cyrus’s spare room with Casey out for the count. I got picked up by my mum, raced to town to grab the last few bits and pieces that I might need for the next year in Panama, thundered home to, you know, pack – then returned to Cyrus’s to wake a very groggy Casey up from her slumber.
I said my goodbyes to my mum (aww…!), and then Casey and I drove down to London. Our flight to Central America leaves at 5pm tomorrow. This is it baby: The Road To Jinja Island.
Of course we made the flight by the skin of our teeth and of course we were the last to board, because that’s what always happens. But before we knew it we was up up and away in our beautiful balloon. Well, jet aircraft, whatever.
Over the Atlantic to the US of A, my ninth flight (one way or the other) over the pond since I completed The Odyssey Expedition. The flight was pants and our movie selection was lacking, but it got us to Newark in good time – around 9pm Eastern. Since our connecting flight to Costa Rica was a good twelve hours away, Casey and I decided to STAY UP ALL NIGHT (woo!) hire a car and head to Manhattan to meet up with my awesome filmmaking chums Oscar and Cesar as I only hang out with people who have names that are hilarious to say in a pirate voice ie. Oscarrrrr, Cesarrrrr, Hitlarrrr etc.
JESUS CHRIST IT IS NOT EASY GETTING OUT OF NEWARK AIRPORT IN A CAR!!!
It’s like Spaghetti Junction has grown to encompass the size of a the Isle of Wight and all of the road signs (that you have a 5 second window to read since YOU’RE ON A FREEWAY) have more names on them than Tracy Emin’s tent.
Hey NJ/NY – how about a big mofoin’ sign that reads MANHATTAN (TOLL) and MANHATTAN (FREE)?? And that’s it.
We found Oscar around 11pm beavering away on his latest film at his University somewhere in the Middle of Manhattan – near Times Square, if that helps.
Dragging him away from his edit suite, we somehow got into a incredibly popular Japanese place for din-dins (Oscar claims it was the force of my ridiculous good luck that I’m blessed with) and talked movies and what on Earth I plan to do with this island. After dinner, Casey and Osc took the big red cube for a spin.
Then we said our tally-hoes and headed off to Brooklyn to go meet up with “One Second Every Day” Cesar Kuriyama who was up drinking in a bar near his gaff. It was now around 2am and with NY being 5 hours behind the UK, my bodyclock was screaming that it was really 7am and WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING DRIVING?!!
No probs – we could just have a sleep in the car for an hour or so after saying hello to Cesar, we just need to go into this here bar…
And promptly remember that the legal drinking age in the US is 21, and that Casey is 19.
Oh well, we’ll wait in this ‘ere car and see Cesar when he gets out of the pub!
Within five minutes we were both sound asleep.
Dunno how, but I woke up in time to drive Casey and I back through Manhattan to Newark airport, fill up with petrol, return the car, check in, get through the odious security and board the flight.
Speaking of odious security, I do NOT allow myself to be scanned with that infernal body scan machine they have in Yankee airports. You know, the ones that take a big fat photo of your balls. Americans are more than aware of their own rights, you only have to watch a real-life cop show (or engage in debate with a member of the NRA) to know that. Not so aware of other people’s rights though are we America? What’s that you say? The scan images are not recorded? REALLY?! Is that how TENS OF THOUSANDS OF THEM ENDED UP ONLINE?
Nah, I’ll take the “pat down” which is slightly – SLIGHTLY – less intrusive, but still somehow involves a total stranger getting to know me better than they would after a first date. I find it interesting that on my journey to every country in the world I wasn’t personally violated in this way in order to enter any country… and yet the country MOST obsessed with its individual rights and freedoms is the place where everyone’s like “ah yes, I see why this is totally necessary!”
Anyways…….. so off to Costa Rica!! “Eh?! Why Costa Rica?” I hear you cry from the Peanut Gallery, “I thought your island was in Panama?!” Yes but Jinja Island is tucked away in the very top left-hand corner of Panama, making it closer to the capital of Costa Rica than it is to the capital of Panama. FACT!
So unless you’re taking a domestic flight from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro, there be no sense in lollygaggin’ around the canal zone. We would be taking the bus, and SJO will do us just fine.
We arrived in San Jose just after midday. NO WAY am I spending $25 on a damn taxi, so we hopped the local bus into town. We checked into a sweet little guesthouse called Kap’s Place. After dropping our bags off and showering, Case and I headed out for a walk. The capital city of Costa Rica is not the most attractive of tropical metropoli – it’s a grid system built up with more concrete than a 1960s Town Planner’s wet dream. However, there are small pockets of UTTER MAGIC which more than make up for it, not least the wonderful colonial architecture and churches dotted around the place. If you know where to look.
Case and I saunted along the main shopping street towards Central Park, which isn’t called Central Park, it’s called La Sabana. It was a bit further than we anticipated and it was getting dark by the time we got there…
…so we got a shot of the lovely Museo De Arte at the park’s entrance…
…and jumped a cab back to the hotel. We even managed to convince the driver to turn the meter on and everything! RESULT!!!
(I’m pretty sure that the general lack of taxi meters round these parts is why Central America is the murder capital of the world.)
Back at the ranch, we realised that we HAD. NOT. STOPPED. for weeks and promptly fell asleep.
There are loads of buses throughout the day that take you to the bordertown of Sixaola, just 30 miles from Bocas Del Toro, Panama. But there’s only one that goes direct to Bocas Del Toro and it leaves at 10am.
Central American cities have this REALLY ANNOYING HABIT of having separate bus stations for each bus company, and each bus company has it’s own route monopoly. In South America, the bus companies are all lumped in together in one place WHICH MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START.
So, erring on the side of caution, Casey and I got to the bus station at 9.05am to find out that the bus to Bocas had already left… at 9am.
“No problemo”, thinks I – “a short taxi ride to the edge of town will see us catch the bus, after all – it’s only got a FIVE MINUTE head start… that’s nothing! Have you seen how the taxis drive around these parts??”
Unfortunately for us, we managed to get the one taxi driver who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) drive like a mental. Once we got to the city limits with Mr. Driving Miss Daisy behind the wheel, I came to the conclusion that the bus was loooooong gone. I saw that the fare was up to around 5,000 Colones, which is around $12, I (stupidly) thought well, it’s not really worth going all the way back and asked the driver to drop us off at the next town. My logic was that all the buses going to the Caribbean coast come this way out of San Jose, so we’d just hang around in the next town for something bus-shaped that would take us to Puerto Limon.
There was just one small flaw in my cunning plan.
It was bollocks.
The next town wasn’t for like 40 miles. Through a national park.
By the time I had fully comprehended the sheer stupidity of my sheer stupidity, we had past the point of no return and we had no choice but to press on… for another 30 miles.
Groan. Luckily, the driver was happy to take US dollars. Unlucky, he wanted a ridiculous amount of them, which was fair enough – he had just driven us halfway across Costa Rica.
So we got out at a rest-stop in the town of Santa Clara. It was only 20 minutes later that a bus to Puerto Limon arrived and whisked us off to the Caribbean coast. My wallet has still not forgiven me.
So we arrived at the bordertown of Sixaola around 4pm, feeling rather confident that we had in someway beaten the system, huge taxi fares notwithstanding.
But it wasn’t until he had wasted half an hour sauntering across this RICKITY OLD BRIDGE OF DOOOOOOOM…
…that we realised that while Costa Rica is GMT-6, Panama, being a former province of Colombia, is GMT-5. So it wasn’t half four. It was half five. And the last boat over to Bocas left at six. From a town 30 miles away.
Thanks to our driver who was either going to get us there on time or kill us all in the process, we made it (as always by the skin of our teeth) and hopped on the last boat from Almirante over to Bocas Del Toro.
We found a cute little guesthouse called Casa Max, hung our hats and headed out into the night – no rush – Bocas will be our only link with civilisation for the next MILLION YEARS!!
Well, twelve months at least. WOO PANAMA!! We found a place with marvellously cheap drinks and watched one of them fire-twiddlers twiddle away into the night.
Bocas Del Toro is a charming little place, firmly on the backpacker route around Central America, yet not yet marred by the influx of mass tourism. There’s only really one main street, every waterside property has a rickity old jetty sticking out the back and the beer is impossibly cheap (26p a bottle from the beer crate man). It has a bunch of great little restaurants and kick-ass bars, it’s got its own airport and it’s a short boatride away from deserted beaches, exclusive resorts, gnarley surf, Dolphin Bay… and JINJA ISLAND!!!
So then, let’s meet the people whose lives we will be INVADING and REPLACING like the Bodysnatchers/Cybermen/Borg what we are.
Ian Usher is the guy what sold his entire life on eBay a few years back. He then set out to achieve 100 goals in 100 weeks, a bit like Everton football club. After selling the film-rights to his story to Disney for a princely sum (I need to get on that grrrravy train), he purchased a Caribbean Island, upon which he built a lovely little holiday home.
Ian’s island has been featured on Island Hunters in the States and New Lives in the Wild with Ben Fogle in the UK, whose signature adorns the living room wall.
As you can probably guess, Ian and I have a lot in common – we’re both Northerners with an Aussie connection and our respective ladyfriends both hail from Daan Saaf (Down South). And we’ve both done a fair bit of travelling in our lifetime. Ian’s partner is Vanessa, who he met last year while on Island Sabbatical in the UK.
We met Ian and Vanessa outside the hardware store on Bocas’s main street. We grabbed some lunch (chicken and rice), helped them with the groceries and then climbed aboard Ian’s speedboat and headed towards our new home…
After a quick tour of the island, Ian and I sat down and thrashed out an agreement between the two of us. I’m to use my SOS Island winnings to buy a one-third share of the company that owns the island: Lunes Azules SA (that’s Blue Monday in English, pop pickers!) and in return I get to live on the island as Emperor Fuego of All I Survey for a year!!
When the island goes back on the market in twelve month’s time, I get 33.3% of whatever it sells for – whether it’s more or less than the amount I invested.
So it’s in my interest to make JINJA ISLAND worth as much gold as humanly possible.
Normally when buying or selling property you need your own lawyer to talk to the other party’s lawyer (at a cost of $100 a letter) and one or both of you end up paying all kinds of fees: surveyor fees, escrow fees, bank fees etc. But what if you didn’t really need those things? What if, instead of seeing it as a property transaction, you saw it as a business deal? What if instead of two lawyers, you both used the same one? What if you were both happy to draw up your own contract and list of obligations together then just have one lawyer check over the written agreement and a notary rubber stamp
Is that even possible?
Yes indeed it seems it is, because that’s how I purchased my share of Jinja Island. Ian and I split the legal fees 50/50 and it came to less than a “standard” train fare from Liverpool to London.
We sealed the deal at the El Pirata restaurant in Bocas Del Toro, our lawyer Larissa took the paperwork with her to Panama City to get notarised. Before I knew it we were all hurtling back to Dolphin Bay to meet our lovely new neighbours, Bill and Janis.
So I won an island!! Man, I wanna parrot…
You wanna brief tour of Jinja Island? Yeah? Yeah??
Here’s everything you need to know about my little gingdom by the sea.
BOCAS DEL TORO:
- The island is located in the Caribbean Sea, a few miles south of Bocas Del Toro town in north-west Panama.
- Bocas has its own airport and is just 45 minutes by plane from Panama City.
- Bocas is a big backpacker hub, plenty of new-agers roaming about sporting dreadlocks and sandals.
- It takes 20 minutes to get from Bocas to the island on a speedboat.
- The island is around 9 degrees north of the equator and is very tropical – lots of sun and lots of rain.
- There are amazing (and usually deserted) beaches just a few miles away, as well as luxury hotels, such as Red Frog Resort.
- 2.2 acres, flat, grassy with over 100 tropical trees – Palm, Banana, Noni, Mangrove etc.
- Helipad in case of emergencies
- In VHF radio range of Bocas Town
- Strong mobile phone signal – mobile broadband available
- 20 mins from Bocas Del Toro Town/Airport by boat
- Surrounded by mangrove trees which provide privacy
- Fringing coral reef makes it difficult for unfamiliar speedboats to come close, which adds extra security
- Calm waters – located within a mangrove reserve
- Dry shed for storing electrical equipment
- Ample room for a load of tents
- 3 useable boat docks: 1 jetty/boat house, 1 wooden jetty for kayaks, 1 stone dock for delivering equipment via barges.
- Island comes with a guard dog (Campesino) 9 chickens and a speedboat
- There is no freshwater on the island, but there is plenty of rain.
- Two bedrooms
- Two floors
- 8 solar panels
- 800 gallon watertank fed by rainwater
- Hot water / hot shower
- Gas cooker
- Composting toilet*
- It’s possible to see the entire island from the house.
*Yeah, that’s being replaced with a flush toilet as soon as possible!!
All righty then! I don’t take over Jinja Island until May 1st 2014, so in the meantime Casey and I will be travelling up to Belize, Mexico and Guatemala to see for ourselves some of the famous Mayan sites such as Tikal and Chichen Itza… join us for the RUTA MAYA!!