August came around as it often does. Lots of thunderstorms but also some amazingly sunny days.
I started really getting to grips with the whole “responsible for an entire island” malarkey. Bill and Janis have been wonderful with their advice and wise council – there’s so much to do! Solar panels, plumbing, gardening, building, fettling the boat. With all that I’ve got going on I’ll be amazed if I get around to posting this blog before Christmas. 2015.
Being on my own is a bit weird, I’m defo not cut out to be a hairy hermit.
A week into August, my friends Dave and Victoria came over to stay on Jinja Island. Dave helped me with the chicken house that Ian had left a little worse for wear…
A little tap with a crowbar and it’ll be right as rain.
With the flush toilet installed and the chicken house sorted it was time to declare open Jinja Island OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!
Just a few days later I had a guy called Max come and take me up on my offer of staying on a private island for free – I had my first CouchSurfer!
On my journey around the world I CouchSurfed with dozens of people – I quite simply would not have been able to complete my journey without their help, and now it was time for me to pay off my CouchSurf karma… pay it forward so to speak.
A few days later I found myself hosting Felix and Steffi from Germany.
And then Conrad from the UK…
Who was joined by Timothée from France…
And finally, at the end of the month, Guillaume and Emeline, also from France.
We stayed up late, drank Panama beer, played cards, talked bollocks and marvelled at the starry starry nights that only come from living on an island 9 degrees north of the equator.
I do miss Casey though. It’s not the same without her.
I returned from Glasto with only a few days to run around and see everyone. The next day, my brothers Alex and Mike accompanied me and regulars Brian and Soraya for the Fact film quiz.
The next day I did the rounds, dropping in to Chester see a very heavily preggers Lucy, her husband Tim and baby Saul. Tim wants to call the new baby Saul II: Saul Harder.
Then it was one last night on the tiles with AB, Tom and Ste.
I came down to London a day early so I could grab lunch with another very pregnant friend of mine, Michelle.
That afternoon I took part in a photoshoot for the Australian magazine Frankie. We went to a workshop where they make bespoke hand-painted globes of the world. I was in HEAVEN. I also got some very cool pics of yours truly.
Afterwards I met up with Casey for one last night together.
The next day she drove me to Heathrow Airport. So this was it, as always, at a bloody airport. I hate airports.
As a parting gift, I gave her my hat.
And so back to Panama.
The plane left and landed on the same day. I got to Panama City airport and jumped a taxi to the Albrook bus station. Then it was a FREEZING COLD (as always!) overnight bus to Almirante, the port for Bocas Del Toro. I got back to Bocas before 8am, paid a taxi guy to take me back to Jinja and there I was.
Thankfully, my super neighbours Kent n’ Marcy and Bill n’ Janis had been looking after the animals when I was away. They rock my world.
But here I was. Casey-less. On my own.
Okay, so I’ve travelled on my own a lot, but I’ve never lived on my own. I was living with my parents until I was 18, then I was in uni for a few years, living with friends, then Mandy then Casey… I never really had a place to myself. And now, I’m alone. On an island.
It was strange.
And so to work, I guess. But nobody told me just how much it rains in July. It was insane.
And the thunderstorms. JESUS CHRIST THE THUNDERSTORMS!!! So there’s me up at 4am, crouched down in the kitchen, in just boxer shorts and wellies, torch in one hand, fire extinguisher in the other because the storm is DIRECTLY ABOVE THE ISLAND.
You know when you see the flash you start to count 1… 2… 3… waiting for the thunder? Have you ever had no delay whatsoever?
It doesn’t go KRACK-A-KRACK-A-RUMBLE it just goes BANG!!
And splits trees in half, like this one, just 50 metres from my house.
I spent most of the month just existing, adjusting, getting my head around all the mad shit that happened in order for me to arrive at this point.
I did a lot of digging, for some reason becoming obsessed with removing the hundreds of tree stumps that litter the island.
But all it did was make a nice big muddy puddle for bitey insects to breed. After this behemoth I decided to call it quits on the project – I’ll just leave them to the termites.
Three of the four new chicks were doing well, but the one we called Caska was having real trouble. She was a wee timid thing and the other chickens would bully her and steal all her food. So I let her hop up the stairs and come eat in the house.
She would come up every day at lunchtime, regular as clockwork, the cute little thing.
Every Wednesday and Thursday I do the weather on the radio for the “Bocas Emergency Network” (or BEN). Us landlubbers (or ‘dirt people’ as we’re known) team up with the yachties to present a show every morning at 7.45am on the VHF radio network. It covers any news, gossip, coming and goings, what’s for sale and what events are happening across the archipelago.
Doing the weather is quite fun, and a good excuse for getting out of bed in the morning. I like to make up ridiculous Grand Poobar-style titles for myself such as “Second Trombonist In The Coconut Army Choir”. Although I dunno if the Americans who make up the majority of people on the network get the joke.
A couple of Americans that did actually find me amusing were Dave and Tori, a young couple who had met working in Texas and were now yachting around the world on their lovely little boat the Eva Marie. They summoned me on the radio (my callsign is “BEN 63”) and asked if I wanted to meet up for shit and giggles.
Not long afterwards, the three of us found ourselves out in Bocas for a night of hilarity and destruction.
Afterwards I retreated back to Jinja and spent the next few days wandering around the island jabbering to myself. I’m not into all this solitude malarkey… I need to find me some house guests… some – dare I say it? – CouchSurfers.
The last blog entry was rather heavy, so let’s have some levity, eh?
As noted, Casey and I were now in Liverpool. So of course we had to give Cyrus, Ste and Graeme a call for a night on the tiles.
It was as theatrical as you might imagine.
We wound up on the roof of the old Far East restaurant waiting for the sunrise.
AND SO TO GLASTONBURY…!!!
Glastonbury is the greatest music festival in the world and I will fight anyone who says otherwise (especially if they’ve never been). This year was no different, we had superb weather, I hung out with Scottish Anna and her mates, which came in handy as my flag this year was the flag of St Andrew with “GO ON THEN, PISS OFF ;)” written in large friendly letters.
The lovely Casey dropped me off at the nearest train station.
I took the bus into the site for the first time in 17 years. Hell, I’m not complaining… it was free!!
I met my buddies at Block 9 and of course hilarity ensued.
Here are just some of the highlights of Glastonbury 2014:
At the beginning of the second month on Jinja, Casey and I awoke to a wonderful sight: four baby chickens! We called them Caska, Grey, Les and Ninja.
We also had some rather exciting visitors in June as globe trotters Alex Hennessey and Michael Graziano came to stay.
Mike and Alex are embarking on their “Global Degree” – a challenge to visit every country in the world before they hit 30. They filmed Case and I on the island and put together this lovely video of their time on Jinja:
You may have noticed in that video the quick shot of the composing toilet. It quite simply had to go. HAD. TO. GO. Seriously. Oh my God. Maybe they work well in a dry, arid environment, but here in the tropics it was the most disgusting thing I can imagine. So you lift the lid… and thousands of tiny flies emerge from… you know that bit you plonk your ass on? Yeah, that. Oh but that’s not all! Heaven forfend it might rain! Then you have these black leach-slug-woodlice THINGS sliming all over the outside of the loo, drinking the water, I dunno.
And then there’s the process of emptying the damn thing. So, people turn up at your gaff, leave their shit behind. You then roll it in some sawdust (like that’s going to do ANYTHING) and pull a lever and some of it will drop into the tiny plastic shelf under the crap barrel. You then pull out said shelf – full of shit and piss and sawdust and bugs – smelling like a Glasto portaloo on the last day – and CARRY THE [email protected]”%ING THING dripping brown urine through the kitchen, down the stairs out down the path to the far end of the island.
And then because the shit shelf was a fraction of the size of the shit barrel, you had to do that again. And again. Usually 6 or 7 times.
NOT WANTING TO DIE of dysentery or cholera or the bubonic plague, Case and I decided that enough was enough. Bill and his worker Edwardo were kind enough to run me to the mainland where I picked up a septic tank, a flush toilet and plenty of plastic piping.
It was time to right a terrible wrong. First up, I had to dig out a massive hole.
Then Case and I had to put the septic tank in the hole…
…fill the tank with water so it wouldn’t float…
…discover it wasn’t quite level so had to empty the damn thing before resetting and refilling it.
Then, back in the house, we had to reinforce the floorboards before cutting a hole in the floor where the composting toilet used to be.
Connect all the pipes, make sure the flush works and… eventually… voilà!
Casey and I were due to fly back to the UK near the end of June. I would be going to the Glastonbury festival. I’d be back here in Panama at the beginning of July, but Case wouldn’t be coming back with me. We would still be together, but she had stuff she needed to do.
We resolved to make our last week together on Jinja as magical as possible. And so we made our final pilgrimage to Rana Azul…
A few days later we took the boat over to Red Frog Marina on Basimentos Island.
From there we walked through the jungle to Red Frog Beach.
It felt like a story cut prematurely short – a great TV show cancelled in its prime.
My good friend Kendra (who I climbed the Great Pyramid with) had volunteered to look after the place while we were away. We had tried to get her friend Mohammed (who I also climbed the Great Pyramid with) into the country, but even though we got him a Letter of Invitation from my lawyer in Panama City, the Panamanian authorities would not let him into the country for love nor money (we tried both). So Kendra wound up looking after the place on her own. It was only for 10 days so we figured it wouldn’t be too bad – Kendra’s a hardy soul, originally from Boston, she’s been roughing it in Egypt for the last 5 years… she can totally handle herself. Mohammed would wait up in Guatemala (where he could fly) and meet with Kendra afterwards.
So Kendra arrived, four days later than expected. Bill and Janis took her under their wing and were even good enough to drop Casey and I off in town in the pouring rain.
Casey and I said our goodbyes to Kendra and our wonderful neighbours and then travelled back up through Costa Rica to San Jose.
We flew home via Houston in the USA.
And before we knew it we were back in Liverpool.
However, all was not well in Bocas.
On the first night Kendra was alone on the island something really quite terrible happened. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to post this blog entry was that I’m new here and I didn’t want to upset anyone by blabbing about something on the internet that isn’t public knowledge. But one of our neighbours – a guy called Stig, who I had met once at Rana Azul, was set upon in his own home by 3 masked intruders who proceeded to beat him half to death and then set him adrift on a boat in Tierra Oscura bay.
Since this event I’ve heard several accounts from people as to why this happened, and that it wasn’t a random attack… but still… Kendra was alone, on a strange island, and everything was playing out in real time on the VHF radio network, it was a Saturday night, speedboats were buzzing past the island… if it had been me I would have run a mile.
Thankfully, our wonderful neighbours Bill and Janis took Kendra in, and made sure she was okay. This all happened while Casey and I were travelling back the UK. On the Monday Kendra decided to head to Guatemala to meet up with Mohammed and my other wonderful neighbours Marcy and Kent said they’d feed Campesino the dog and our chickens.
Needless to say, once I get back I won’t be leaving the island again for a long time.
Case and I were picked up by Ian in the morning on his little blue and white speedboat, the Sea Nile, a 1970s Luger – hilariously carpeted, as were all things in the 1970s.
Ian gave me a go on the run over to the his island… sorry, MY island… at least for a year… welcome welcome to Jinja Island.
No sooner had we dropped off our bags than we were whisked over to Jean’s place in Dolphin Bay (around the back of Jinja) for lunch. Jean’s a local guy with a lovely palapa-style restaurant which sits out on the water… inspiration for Jinja, methinks!
The burgers were bigger than Casey’s head.
That night we chilled in the warmth of our new home. Ian and Vanessa were good enough to give us the master bedroom while they slept on the couches downstairs.
The next day, the initiation began in earnest. Ian showed Case and I around the island, explaining how to maintain everything – the solar set-up, the water system, the composting toilet (that’ll have to go).
Sunday we went to Rana Azul – a little restaurant hidden away in nearby Terra Obscura bay – something of a weekly tradition for the ex-pats around these parts. On the way we met Ernie from the episode of New Lives in The Wild featuring Ian’s island. Once at Rana, Case and I learnt how to make cocktails as we would be replacing Vanessa and serving in the bar come next week. We met the regulars – Bill and Janis, Jane and Peter, Tony and Marilyn, Linda and Wayne, Cathy, Lyn, Axel, Captain Ron, Captain Ray… and of course Joseph, the Austrian guy who runs the place.
Then it was back to Jinja. Ian and Vanessa stayed at Bill and Janis’s for the night, giving Case and I our first night alone on the island. An island!!! This is mental.
The next day I started work – I had a crazy idea that it might be intelligent to remove the many tree stumps that littered the island. It would be a few months later that I would discover that the tree stumps kinda keep the soil together – it would be better to just dump soil all around them. But hey-ho, I was having fun with my pick-axe.
Case meanwhile was busy befriending Campesino, the surprisingly well-trained island dog, and the nine chickens that would be our early morning alarm clocks for the next year.
Ian and Vanessa left the country on the Tuesday… and thus Jinja Island was born.
Case and I spent the next week getting to grips with our new environment – the chickens, the geckos, the exotic birds, the boat, the long trek to town, the VHF radio network (our secret codename is BEN 63), Dolphin Bay… it was a steep learning curve. Casey made a lot of smoothies.
It would be less than a fortnight when we got our first proper deluge – the weather here is either sunny or monsoon, with little in between. I made a mental note to buy some willies.
We then scooted off to Rana Azul to serve some drinks.
That week we got to see just some of the spectacular sunsets that Bocas is famous for.
We marvelled at the bananas growing out the back, and fell in love with the baby coconuts and the tiny geckos running all over the shop.
All our geckos are called Gordon.
I cracked on with my anti-tree stump campaign afterward we chilled on the hammocks.
It had only been a few weeks before we got our first visitors – Ed and his buddies. Ed was a friend of a friend who was travelling through Bocas. It was a bit of a panic to be honest, we had barely got to grips with the place, and here we had four people descending on us… six people in a house that’s about right for two.
But they were a good bunch, they introduced us to Cards Against Humanity (which will be a running theme throughout the year) and we drank a good amount of alcohol.
At the end of the month we were invited to fellow Brit-Gringos Peter and Jane’s place at Split Hill, 10km south of Jinja.
We caught a lift there with Bill and Janis, our wonderful neighbours from the US who have kinda adopted us. They’re like the coolest neighbours EVER. We love them.
It’s a great little community down here in Bocas Del Toro. I like it. I think I’ll stay.
After waving goodbye to the ruins of Copan we jumped a taxi back to town, picked up our things from the backpackers, went to the shop, bought some water and nonchalantly wandered down to where the bus leaves at 2pm for Tegucigalpa, the unpronounceable capital of Honduras.
We arrived at 1.55pm to find the bus had already gone. GAH!! This is no time to be getting ruthlessly efficient, Honduras!!
We had to wait another hour or so for the next bus, a minibus that got us into Tegucigalpa in the middle of the night. You know, the murder capital of the murder capital of the world. Sorry to hang this on Honduras, I think it’s quite a cool place, but the murder rate (90 per 100,000) is three times that of “really quite dangerous” South Africa, 19 times that of the “gun crazy” US and 90 times that of “it’s all going to the dogs” Great Britain.
In a word: EEK!!!
I’m no fool, I travel with both eyes open. Tegucigalpa is not a particularly groovy place to be right now, thanks to America’s genocidally moronic “War on Drugs” (43 years, trillions spent and no victory in sight). Luckily we made a friend on the bus over, a local Honduran who had lived in the UK for many years. He shared a taxi with us from the bus station and made sure we got safely into the (horrifically overpriced) backpackers (in which the security was like Fort Knox).
We booked the first bus out of Teggy City, which would leave at 6am. However, as the backpackers was so horrifically overpriced, we didn’t have to cash to pay for our tickets, so the hostel owner took me and another guest in their car to the cash machine at the all-night garage. It felt like we were doing a (albeit rather boring) mission on GTA. Everyone’s on edge! Or maybe I was projecting. I dunno.
Since I thought I would be on stuck on Jinja Island at the end of June this year I had (foolishly) allowed the reservation on my Glastonbury ticket to expire. But now I knew that my friend Kendra would be looking after the island for me, I could go… and the few remaining tickets would be going on resale that night at 3am (yeah, Glasto, just wreck everyone’s night sleep in the Western Hemisphere why dontcha?).
I had 4 tickets to try and get for me and three of my friends. I got through to the input screen – yes, even though I was sitting on a bunkbed in a dorm room at 3am in the hardest capital city name to remember next to Bandar Seri Begawan – I put in everyone’s details… hands shaking GOD THIS IS STRESSFUL… only to be told I “exceeded the quota” whatever that means.
Quick as a flash I pressed the back arrow back to the input screen and just punched my details in. I got it. For me at least. I pressed the back arrow again to get Anna’s… punched her details in quick as I could… and was directed to the SOLD OUT screen. It was 3.07am.
I was gutted for Anna, but also elated that I had managed to snag a ticket from the jaws of defeat here in the middle of Central America. I was also absolutely knackered. I fell fast asleep.
Two and a half hours later I was in the cold shower (how much did I pay for this room again??) getting ready to leave on the Tica bus for Nicaragua.
The air of familiarity about all this made it seem almost routine. Here I was, tearing through Central America on a bus and the air-con was set to 0° Kelvin.
Around lunchtime, we found ourselves crossing the border back into Nicaragua – a bit of a backpacker favourite, but exploration would have to save it for next year perhaps when we “do” Southern Central America properly.
We arrived in Managua – the capital of Nicaragua – in the late afternoon. Casey and I tried about 13 different guest houses until we found one that was just right – Hostel Los Cisneros, well recommended. Managua is a sleepy old town, not much going on at all. I walked the two-hour round trip to the nearest shopping mall (I couldn’t find and shops or restaurants on the way) and bought us both food to eat. I found Casey chillaxing on the balcony.
We were planning on pressing on to Costa Rica the next day, but the tickets were sold out and Casey wasn’t feeling so good. Hats off to her – we had been in Central America now for over a month and she hadn’t got even slightly ill (vaccinations! YAY SCIENCE!!), so a day of pampering was well within my remit. Another bloody long walk to the shopping mall though.
The bus left at stupid o’clock the following morning (because OF COURSE IT DID – it was a Tica bus), too early to get breakfast, but the lovely people at the guest house got up and made us coffee anyway.
Later that same day we were back in Costa Rica for the third and final time of this trip.
Having sworn never to step foot in the Lonely Planet-recommended Hostel Pangea for as long as I live (seriously guys, did you actually stay there or did you just go off their website??), Case and I stayed at the infinitely more pleasant Costa Rica Backpackers, near the screeching wheels of the railway station.
The next morning we were picked up from the hostel in a minibus and taken to the bus station for the bus to Sixaola – the border with Panama.
This time it wouldn’t cost us $100 in taxi fares.
So then, back through Liverpool, Costa Rica…
Over the rickety bridge at Sixaola, into Panama, and then the white-knuckle minibus ride to the boat dock at Almirante.
We arrived back in Bocas on the last ferryboat from the mainland just before dark on April 30 2014. The Bocas Turtles baseball team had just won the league and the party stretched on into the night, but we were exhausted. What a trip! Back not moment too soon… the next day we’d be taking over our very own private island… Jinja Island.
The Ruta Maya had given us both a fascinating insight into the world of the Mayan people. We had been to almost a dozen incredible sites spread out over 4 separate countries and seen hundreds of monumental works of ancient art, design and imagination. Not only that, but we had hung out with real Mayans, such as Luis from An Idiot Abroad, and watched real-life Mayan warriors play the ball games that were so integral to the lives of their ancestors.
Still one thing I still haven’t figured out though…
I don’t take over Jinja Island until May 1st, so Casey and I have a spare month to go and explore Central America, one of the areas I rushed through on the Old Odyssey Expedition. The plan is for us to race north and visit at least ten Mayan sites spread out over Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
So after a few days on the island we said our farewells to Ian and Vanessa for the moment and returned to Bocas Town, where we stayed for a week, chilling out in the Mundo Taito backpackers.
Then it was time to hit the road. Panama to Belize overland? Hell yeah! Why am I getting this strange feeling of Deja Vu…?
Casey and I left Bocas Town on April 5 and began our journey by taking the ferry boat over to Almirante and the mainland of Panama (Bocas Town is on an island). Then it was a typically hair-raising minibus ride to the border with Costa Rica.
Crossing the rickety old bridge at the border was as hilarious as ever, but at least we weren’t trundling our suitcases over it this time. From now on it’s backpacks all the waaaaaaay!
On the Costa Rican side of the border a group of backpackers coming the other way recognised me from such medical movies as “Mommy, What’s On That Man’s Face?” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore.” Photos were taken…
..and photos were photobombed.
I thought I had timed our border crossing really well, arriving at 1.55pm for the 2pm bus for San Jose… but I forgot that Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama (Panama, formally part of Colombia, syncs up its timepieces with Bogota) – and so 2pm Costa Rica time wouldn’t be for another hour. Case and I grabbed a dreadful burger from a (tellingly) deserted cafe, but before long we were well on our way to the capital via Puerto Viejo, Puerto Limon and – yes – the Del Monte town of LIVERPOOL, Costa Rica!
We arrived in San Jose around 10pm and headed to a bar that would be open late, near the bus station. The bus up to Guatemala left at 3am. Madness I know. I think it’s something to do with the fact that buses don’t like driving at night.
We got online and went to the Tica bus site to book our tickets for tonight’s bus, but the website don’t wanna let you do that.
So I left Casey in the bar with our backpacks and walked the streets of Costa Rica’s capital, late on a Friday night, to the bus terminal.
One of the most irritating things about travelling around Central America is that each bus company tends to have its own terminal, as opposed to the MUCH BETTER system in South America, in which there is ONE bus terminal and all of the bus companies operate out of it.
I walked for ages, and I just couldn’t find the damn place. Bad map reading skills? Not on your nelly! It’s not 2009 anymore. My memory (and my Lonely Planet guidebook) was out of date. The station had moved to the other side of town. Only, San Jose doesn’t think much of road names either, so finding an address for the new place was nigh on impossible.
I decided to take a cab, hoping he’d know where it was, and luckily he did. I arrived, asked my cabbie to wait outside, queued for half an hour only to be told the 3am bus was sold out.
I returned to the pub to let Casey know what was going on, and then walked the street trying to find somewhere to stay the night. Nearly all the places marked in my 2008 Lonely Planet had either closed down, moved, or didn’t take guests after midnight.
In desperation, I checked us into Pangea Hostel, a former jail that I’ve heard nothing but bad things about. And I can happily say that they didn’t disappoint!
For thirty dollars, we slept in a dorm room (cell) on bunk beds. In the morning we drank our tiny cups of free coffee whilst having pop dance music BLASTED into our eardrums at 120dB. At 10am we had to not just check out but leave the premises entirely… or else stump up another $15 to stay for a few more hours.
To add insult to injury, the staff were surly as hell (except for one guy who was nice but tellingly utterly exasperated by it all) and seemed to have gone to the Basil Fawlty school of hospitality.
Wow. Way NOT to run a hostel guys! Check out the reviews on Trip Advisor…
Luckily, there’s a lovely little bar a few buildings down the same road that’s cheap, cheerful, has wi-fi, the food is grrrrreat and it’s open until 2am.
We stayed all day and late into the night.
At 3am we left the city on our way up though Nicaragua, Honduras and into El Salvador.
Nicaragua not only has some amazing natural treasures, it’s also obsessed with Smurf hats. There’s one on the flag AND on the coins. Don’t believe me? Look closely…
We arrived in San Salvador at around 2am and the connecting bus to Guatemala would be leaving at 5am. We imagined we’d just stay up, but the bus company had thought of that…! They gave us no choice but to stay in their crappy little hotel, so we wound up paying for an entire night even though we were only there for 3 hours.
So then onward to Guatemala City! We arrived around noon and took a taxi to the bus station for Puerto Barrios on the caribbean coast… from whence we could take a boat to Punta Gorda, Belize.
These place names are not meaning much, are they? Would a zoomable map of our journey help? YOUR WISH IS MY COMMAND!
I know, I know, I’m far too good to you.
I managed to do this same journey much quicker on The Odyssey Expedition, but on this trip we didn’t arrive in Puerto Barrios until nightfall – there were no ferryboats until tomorrow morning.
So we checked into a sweet little guesthouse and went out to get ourselves a couple of mountains of yummy grub.
In the morning we paid our ‘exit tax’ and were stamped out of Guatemala. Onto the morning speedboat… next stop… BELIZE!!!