Category Archives: Central America

Purim in Panama

This time last year I was living on a boat moored in a teeny village with a fantastic past. Unfortunately, it’s present has little more to offer tourists than great pizza and a place to anchor a boat. It did, however, have a painfully slow connection to Panama City. The village was Portobello, the former gold port of the world, and I was getting out of there for Purim.

One afternoon, while eating a great pizza with a glass of melon juice I noticed a guy wearing a Magen David around his neck. We are taught that there are Jews all over the world, but what does that really mean? And what does it mean to meet another Jew so far from home?

The curiosity of Jews

I’d already spent the last few weeks sailing with my new friend Tom, she and I had marvelled at our shared Jewish knowledge. It wasn’t that here, thousands of miles from home, we both know what a mezuzah is, and no, Rabbi, we didn’t have late night Torah study sessions (although we did do a Shabbat Service and Friday night dinner on board). For us, it was the songs, we knew the same words to the same tunes!

Here in Panama was another opportunity, rather than meeting Jews by chance through other activities, I now felt compelled to introduce myself to him. So I did. “Hey, are you Jewish?” sounds much stranger when you say it out loud but he smiled, said "yes, and we started chatting. He was visiting some family in Portobello, and heading back to Panama City, I was also heading to Panama City to buy some supplies for the boat and he offered me a lift. It’s an hour and a half’s drive during which we discussed Judaism in Panama and in London, and he explained that I’d be quite safe in the dangerous city of Colon because I was too scruffy to look worth robbing. Thanks…. I think!

I asked him about Purim, which was coming up in a few days, it’d be cool to see how they do things here. Without a moment’s hesitation he invited me along to his Synagogue! There are 3 or 4 communities in Panama City, and he was a member of the Progressive community, Kol Shearith Israel.

Purim Arrives!

A week went by, the captain said the weather was clear, we were going to set sail for San Blas on Thursday morning at dawn. I said I’m afraid I cannot come, I’ll be in Panama City for Pruim and can’t be back until the afternoon. I honestly felt like Mordechi, as if the whole of Judaism rested on my being a good Jew this week (which had nothing to do with the huge party Chabad were throwing that night, honest). The captains face wasn’t good, as his [[First Mate]] I helped to run the boat. It was only a small trip and he could manage without me (this captain was so epic he could manage without anyone), but I think he hoped I’d stay on after this last leg – despite knowing I had to get to Guatemala. He agreed to leave Friday morning (weather permitting) so I could make it back in time.

Wednesday afternoon I hopped on one of the amazing pimped out Panama buses, music blaring and neon lights streaking all the way to Colon where I changed for a comparatively dull coach to Panama City. A rude-beyond-belief taxi driver took me to the Synagogue which I entered tentatively. Greeted by smiles and offerings of fancy dress broke down all barriers, I entered the sanctuary and sought out my friend, not seeing him I sat next to a family and made a new one. Halfway through the service, I moved a few rows forward when I spotted him.

Right at Home

More than 5 thousand miles from home, on the coast of the Pacific, in a land of a Spanish, American and tribal mix, the closest to the Equator I’d managed, aside from reading the Megila in Spanish I could have been in Finchley. The rabbi was over dressed and over excited, the kids were running amok in their as super hero costumes, the teenagers chatted and the parents tried to make everyone enjoy it as much as they remembered enjoying it.

My Spanish was still awful, but I knew the story through and through and booed and cheered along with everyone else. At the end, some of the Bar Mitzva students came on and gave a little show. It seemed like one super talented young man wanted to perform and dragged his friends along. Ever seen that one before? He did some break dancing, and a magic show, and every was happy! He even had an en-core.

After the service there was a reception and I had food thrust upon me. Ahh Jews Smile There was Pizza, biscuits, wine and coke. Not too different from how we’d have done it at WLS. I mingled and spoke to bugs bunny and batman for about an hour before I had to head off to the Chabad Party. My friend had already left, but the Rabbi had found me earlier and asked whether I needed a lift anywhere, he introduced me to a family who offered me a lift without a moments hesitation.

Purim on a Boat

The week before all this happened I was staying in a hostel called Mamallenas, and there I saw a poster for a Purim party on a boat. Now that’s three of my favourite words in one title. It was the local Chabad house organising it, they had hired a massive boat and filled it with falafel and whisky. Charging a US$10 entrance to cover some costs, after that everything was free. Best of all, it started a about an hour after the service at Kol Shearith Israel finished, so after the friendly family dropped me off in the centre of town, they spoke to a Taxi driver so that he would know exactly where to take me – and a Panama price not Tourist price!

Finding the entrance was a bit tricky, it was down a dark road to the entrance of a small dock. I arrived to meet a large group of Israelis chatting in their typical super-fast Hebrew. Not the easiest conversations to join, but I made a few friends. The night was long, and excellent, the boat left the dock around 11pm and made a huge loop of Panama Harbour returning around 4 in the morning. After about an hour the falafel buffet and BBQ were unleashed, and soon after that was the Megila reading. In between and after everyone was chatting to everyone, it was a huge boat full of Jews from all over the world, with tales of their travels and stories of their own to tell.

Finding Jews Abroad

Panama was the first time I have sought out Jews while abroad, but I have done it ever since, in Nicaragua I visited the Chabad House for Friday night prayers, in Guatemala I the unique Adat Israel had my Guatemalan friend and myself round for Friday night dinner and in Mexico the Jewish area has many shops packed with Vegan goodies! The Internet has brought people closer together like never before, and special websites connect Jews all over the world to share in the joys of being Jewish. Particularly useful I found and for finding communities and making contact.

Semuc Champey

Whowzers, what a magical place.

Dozens of diddie water falls falling a few feet down steps 50m wide, and just above? Another step separated by a tranquil pool of crystal clear calm water.

We dove right into the first pool, splashed about, hopped between underwater rocks and threw fruit at each other.

It was blissful, transported to another planet like refugees from stress. Not that Alex or I are much ones to stress, but Steph sure makes up for our lacking!

After a time we climbed up the slippery waterfalls of the first of 7 steps (the last some might say, since we were at the bottom) and dipped into the next pool.

Fish Food

The three of us lazily floated around being nibbled by fish feasting on the breakfast buffet of our dead skin, I wonder which they preferred ‘ the Guatemalan, the USAian or the Brit?

Turns out they probably liked me best, though only because while Alex fetched off for the camera and Steph explored the pool I sat still as a rock waiting for more fish, tempting the larger ones to come and nibble.

I loved it, dozens of them a few cm long swarmed over my legs and back while those a few inches long bided their time – no doubt a trait that helped them get so big.

For the most part it felt like being prodded with a pencil, though every now and then tehy either bit harder or hit a nerve and the pinprick like shock made me jump and the fish in turn all jumped back a foot too.

The best, though, were those feasting on my feet. Tops and toes no worries, but soles had me giggling like a gaggle of girls in jumpsuits.

After, we walked a little.

The Arrival

It was not always so tranquil, however. This brief spell in paradise took an alarming amount of effort, 2 days is not enough to see Semuc from Guatemala City.

Alex is here volunteering in a hostel called El Retiro. Steph and I caught the 7am bus from Guate city to Coban (5.5 hours) then the skull rattling unbelievably slow paced mini bus (2.5 hours) to Lanquin, finally arriving around 3pm.

More Numbers

We now learned that the 11km to Semuc takes about an hour, we had to catch the 1730 bus from Coban the next afternoon, which meant leaving Lanquin at 1330 and so Semuc at 1230. The earliest shuttle from Lanquin to Semuc Champey arrives there at 1000 giving us a mere 2.5 hours!

We opted to stay in El Portal, a hostel right by the park entrance where the electricity stops at 10pm but the bar is well stocked and we can enter the park at 8am.

Home Time

In the end we left at 12:30, didn’t get the 2pm bus because it didn’t exist, got the 3pm one which left at 3:20 and missed the last bus from Coban to Guate.

Steph stressed out in her own delightful way, I did consider dragging out for for my personal enjoyment but instead raided a cash machine (for which my banked blocked my card as suspected fraud) and haggled with a taxi driver and got her back to Guate by midnight before either turned into a pumpkin and her mum went mad with crazy.


Sat here as Alex fertilised the forest gives me a short break from both our footsteps and our nattering.

I read my Lonely Planet a little before scolding at myself and just listening. Slowly at first, much like your eyes adjusting to the brilliance of the stars the volume slowly increases until the buzzing of bugs is only interrupted by birds chirping and trees rustling – and the odd fool with his MP3 player going, I politely reminded him I’d go to a disco if I wanted music. Turns out he works there, but what does that matter? That’s even more reason he should follow the “No Music” sign – which also forbids a small dictionary’s worth of other things.

Three weeks later, I finished writing this

Tikal is an awesome place, I’d love to have been the first person to write about it because it’s such a cliché. Walking down jungle paths between pyramids, climbing up them to peek at the tops of others poking out the trees.

Yada yada, I loved it but we had a different mission.

Yavin IV

Tikal, you see, was the set for the rebel base in Star Wars IV.  A fact pointed out by Steph (or Paola, or both perhaps) a few weeks earlier during our Star Wars Marathon.

So here we are on a mission to find X-Wings and support the rebel cause. hmm perhaps not sensible words to be using in these politically unstable countries!

Temple IV is the one used, though the noise of the X-Wings must have rustled the feathers of the much animal life (including Toucans!) we saw later that evening as we waited for the sun set.

Heading out as the light rapidly faded every leaf became a terrifying spider. We ducked into a bat cave (not knowing it was one until we reached the end) and finally got back to our hotel – El Jaguar- where we had rented a tent in their garden, and whiled the evening away drinking Micheladas and eating expensive pasta.


The next day we headed to Flores, I’d made a careful list of all the great sounding coffee shops, drinking establishments and food places I wanted to visit and Alex had agreed to a crawl of the lot of them. Unfortunately a truck ran into a power line and the whole of El Petén was out of power, so most places closed down. We whiled away the evening in our hostel, Hostel Las Amigos, and I had the chance to visit the well-worth-the-wait Cool Beans in the morning for breakfast. After breakfast I bought an excellent new book which kept me entertained during the 7 hour bus journey back home.

Todos Santos and Zaculeu

Relaxing on this cool concrete step at the side of Todos Santos’ square I overlook the village go by. Immediately to in front of me two Maya decedents discuss what appears to be an unhappy tale in Mam, their local language, as they chat the lady on the right tries to fix her bag handle. On the balcony to my left two menu dressed in traditional red and white trousers, large collared shirts and hats with a blue and white striped belt have been quietly discussing since before I got here.

The trouble I have here with approaching people is making the assumption they speak Spanish. Though it may be a fair assumption to make, it feels a little like rubbing salt into the wound of disparity between the Spanish descendants and the indigenous. In a similar way to visiting any other country and presuming someone speaks English – do you ask and risk patronising them or do you start out in English and hope it doesn’t make them feel bad for not understanding. Fact is, most of the indigenous do speak Spanish and are far too friendly to actually get offended by a tourist who wants to chat.

None the less, we had a brief chat, they had a jolly laugh at my Mam pronunciation and I never managed to understand her answer to my request for a photo. Some of those attached here, are from Claire.

Mam 101

Mam is one of the many languages of the Maya, it’s spoken by a little under half a million people – more than the population of The Borough of Barnet. There are three main dialects, however due to massive suppression by the Spanish of the written language huge differences evolved between neighbouring villages. It’s cool stuff, here’s a couple of words I learned from the lady with the broken bag and her friend:

  • Hiete – Hello
  • Cochonte – Thank you
  • Ba’am Peh – How are you?
  • Cuch-nah –  Bye!

I’ve not made many doors this week

I’ve only been here for a few hours, it’s nothing like the Lonely Planet’s description of “Mud streets and tortillas everywhere” but it’s wonderfully tranquil, the air is fresh and the scenery stunning. As if that wasn’t enough, the people are friendly, I’m greeted by smiles and waves and just spent 20 minutes in the carpentery workshop of Juan Carlos and Jovani talking about how business is slow and the state of English Football!

I had planned to enquire in HispanoMaya about their weaving class and film on local culture, but they don’t seem to be opening today. I shall try them again and, failing that, head to the ruins of Zaculeu.

Maya Fashion

Now it would appear at first, that here everyone wears the same thing, and I can almost hear mum saying “But where’s their sense of self expressive fashion?!”. But fear not, with a little eyeballing you soon notice that while all the guys have the same hat, the belt on it has different sequins or colours between the blue stripes. Many, too, have ditched their traditional shirt (which varies in the pattern, especially on the colour) or our European [[T-Shirts]].

The female difference is more subtle, in the patterns of their tops (all wear dark blue skirts and the way they tie their hair – often long black plats with coloured ribbon running down and tied at the bottom creating a big loop of hair.

All carry shoulder bags of equally intricate designs.

Ruinas de Zaculeu

HispanoMaya didn’t open but I also had to wait until 2pm hours for the bus which meant it would be too late to go to Zaculeu the same day. Instead, I hung out in a nice cafe with Internet and excellent fried plantains for a bunch of hours, until it got dark and began being dangerous to walk home. What’s the opposite expression of “Every cloud has a silver lining?”.

The next day, I hopped on a bus to Zaculeu. Zaculeu is a really cool place, sieged by the Spanish for several months before the inhabitants died of starvation, the town itself is surrounded on three sides by ravines, making defence easy. Today it’s a very nice sized ruins with reasonably sized pyramids, you can easily see the museum and walk the structures in an hour. Which was very convenient, since I only had an hour until I had to return to catch my bus back to [[Guatemala City]].

Not the cheapest way to eat

but a darn fine way to end the day.

I can’t recall if I actually do, or whether I just think I do, so I often avoid starting blogs with "So the plan was…" but this time, at least, I’m going to let it fly because it’s even more appropriate than usual.

The plan this morning was to set off at 7am with Clive to [[Panama City]]. I’d get my laptop screen fixed, he’d do his shopping for boaty things and we’d probably both be back in time  for the pot luck at Captain Jack’s pub/hostel/hub of travellers.

Things rarely "go smoothly" and today wasn’t by any means a disaster. After pulling several blanks on laptop screens and outboard motors I left my dear Bubbles (that’s the laptop, because she floats around me causing trouble) in the friendly and capable hands of MiniComputers. I had just popped into a different store who tried to fit a semi faulty screen – which would have saved me  40 USD at the expense of a slightly dodgy back light – who failed at that, and (as you’ll read later) damaged my VGA card. Unfortunately I didn’t insist they got her back to the state I’d arrived with her in (since I was only going to try and get the screen changed elsewhere), so didn’t realise they’d broken something until it was too late.

Time for the Boat Stuff

Off we set to our first chandler, which turned out to be a guy, a desk and a phone to the warehouse. Not quite for what we had hoped. After much persuasion from Clive, the gave us (another) 5% discount and agreed to ship the items from the warehouse in [[Colón]] to Panama City so that we could collect them by 5pm.

Satisfied we hit up Electronica Japan for some awesome cool LED light strips and other toys for me to fit on to the boat.

After lunch in Loving Hut and while popping into Mamallena’s, the hostel I stayed in recently, we called the supplier to try and get him to deliver to the hostel. Naturally he declined with a dismissive "I’ll try". Clive spoke to Will (our reason for visiting the hostel) and we got on our way to pickup the goods and get home (after collecting my laptop of course).

Clive made another cringe-worthy attempt to knock another 10% off our bill before finally relenting. Sometime during this I called up MiniComputers who informed me they couldn’t replace the screen. It was now 6:15pm and too late to try another store, so my options were:

  1. Not fix Bubbles yet, I still have 4" of working screen.
  2. Go home, return tomorrow at a cost of only $4 USD but 6 hours of travel.
  3. Find a hostel with space in an affordable bed, fix Bubbles in the morning and hope to return in time to visit the monkeys with Alex and Claire (my new crew mates).

I chose option 3, called up the Balboa Bay Hostel and booked myself a bed. Some Internet time later and a chat with another guy staying in the hostel I was ready for dinner – and had a very good sounding computer guy as a backup in case my last resort in the morning didn’t work out.

The Expensive Dinner

I had heard about an excellent grocery store on Calle Argentina, so flagged down a taxi to take me there. During some nattering chitter chatter the driver recommended a few vegetarian restaurants, he took me to one which was on the way but it had closed, though he said there happened to be another one next to the store I was heading to so that was pretty much win win.

That turned out to be Greenhouse, a restaurant who try to be environmentally friendly. They do really good food I had a saladey thing of some kind with a real fruit juice, followed by some whole wheat pita with home made humous to pass the time so I could spend more time in the restaurant.


The End of the Sorry Tale

The next morning I headed to the final computer shop on my list, they wanted $20 just to look at her. If someone has that little confidence in their own skills, I’m happy to agree with their opinion. I called up my last resort backup guy I’d spoken to the night before – a friend of someone else in the hostel – who sounded like my kinda guy. I left Bubbles with him and finally got out of Panama at 3pm, back at Portobelo by 6 where I spent an hour having a shower and making some pasta before trundling around the village to find my crew mates and a cold beer.

Next Week

Breaking blog chronology here, a week later after a trip to the San Blas Islands I met up with my guy again. He was unable to fix Bubbles, he could have got the new screen in but the video card on the motherboard had been damaged and would cost several hundred dollars to replace the motherboard.


I didn’t take any pictures in Greenhouse, so those above are taken from:

30 Miles from Nicaragua, 150 miles from Guanaja

I’m slowly deciding that, perhaps, sailing isn’t for me. It’s a thought I had last summer during my Comp Crew course.

The trouble is, while I love being on the water and living on the boat; and it’s exciting to be handling ropes while trying to stay aboard in the pitch black of night as the bow nose dives and sends another wave your way in case the last one didn’t quite soak you head to toe – there’s an awful lot of boring bits in between.

A couple of weeks ago, when I first arrived these were blissfully calm relaxing times. Now, however, they’re just plain dull.

We’ve been at sea for 2 days now and half. it took me a day and a half to get over the stomach wrenching appetite-destroying sea sickness and to find a rhythm of sleep which allows some form of coherence between my watch shift and going back to sleep. Now I just hope some of the others will have a similar balance which coincides so as to allow us to spend some time together,. Playing cards, playing squared, heck even to have an argument would be some kind of interaction!

I make this sound like a desolate place, but despite the lack of anything but water and sea birds as far as I can see (even with my glasses on), I’m with good people and there’s plenty to do. By “do” I mean bits of wood with screws missing, laundry, washing up, clothes (and Kindles) to repair, knots to learn and of course, dinners to make!

Clive, the Captain, isn’t much of a teacher and there’s few learning materials on board. So this isn’t a place for an inexperienced sailor. As you can imagine, this can be fairly frustrating for the 3 complete beginners we have on board. I have some, mostly theory, and the other crew member Aslak has some and is a pretty decent sailor so hopefully we’ll all learn something still! I’ve made it my mission to make the boat more learner friendly. So far this consists of signs & labels and moderately successful attempts for non-native English speakers. Suggestions for less cockney rhyming slang for them has fallen on deaf Kings Lears.

After 3 days of motor sailing into the head winds Clive began to concern that the 6 cylinder Perkins engine was drinking too much of the 1000L of diesel we had on board. Spying a cay on the slightly-too-large scale chart he figured there there may be a fishing vessel anchored willing to sell us some oil (another of his terminology which confuses the others!).

We made our approach carefully – since the chart had no real detail of the reef. With some with some good old fashioned binoculars and Aslack’s hawk-eyes from halfway up the foremast we successfully navigated through 2 miles of open water – we were way clear of the reef!

From a distance we saw a trawler, Telstar from Roatan. No response on the radio – a problem we suspect to be on our side – so we anchored up and Aslak and I rowed over through strong winds and big waves.

Not only would they sell us as much diesel as we wanted (they had 2000 gallons!), but they had fresh water, oranges from the captains own farm, shrimps (which the others got very excited about), ice and a single can of warm beer.

Manoeuvring around we tied our bow to their stern and began 19 trips with diesel bottles back and forth until the Perkins was loaded, the fruit bags hanging and the galley smelling like a fishmonger.

It’s pretty nasty sleeping on the while the engine is running, and the noise is only the start of it. All the hatches and doors need to be open to allow air in, so the noise flies around easier than a greased up snake on a slide and the rest of the air becomes host and stuffy. Great conditions for drying laundry.

The engine is used when we want to go against the wind, so the boat is very up and down diving the noise into the next wave with a splash of water on the deck and every now and then pours down the front hatch like a bucket of water onto the berths below.

So we’re hot and noisy, unstable and 2 berths down (of 6). As the seasoned CouchSurfer (and shortest person…) I’m in the salon while Tom and Aslak alternately use my dry bunk (Aslak’s bunk is under the hatch and Tom’s is next to the engine room).

After 3 days of that, it was very welcome news when Clive announced we’d anchor here for the night. No Engine, no bars playing music, just the gentle sway of the waves and a cool breeze through the hatch thanks to the wind funnel.

The BBQ came out, I made salted + vinegared chips, Tom showed me some stars and the out door bug-free sleeping began. After swapping my recently cracked Kindle screen with one from my recently dead Kindle I swapped the musty (and now diesel tainted) bed sheet for a clean one and settled down in my very own bunk!

Tonight, I love sailing!

The Engine Goes Off

The strangest thing about being on a boat isn’t, as you might thing, the wobbling about 24/7.

It’s the constantly changing direction of gravity. Pouring water from pan to tea cup becomes a physics experiment:

Prediction: Steaming hot tea.
Method: Lift pan, pour water.
Outcome: Half a cup of tea and wet feet.

Imagine, for a moment (or go try it if you fancy) standing in front of the bathroom sink brushing your teeth. The time comes to spit. Now lean back so your gloop would land neatly in your belly button and release. Watch as the white foamy gloop flies away from you, landing directly in the plug hole. It’s the closest thing you can get to zero gravity at sea level.

Of course this takes some practice, and many misses and wipe-ups before you can claim the title of 45° Spitting Master.

This sideways lean has been made possible by the final switch off of our engine after 300 miles and 5 days of motoring into the wind, which gives you violent forward-backward rocking. Now we’re sailing we have the far more consistent sideways roll and, usually, a gentle forward-backward motion.

270 Miles to go to Portobelo we’ve decided against stopping in La Provincia even though the gas is low and the cabbage mouldy.

The other night we ran the engine as well as the sails to out run some pirates who had started following us. But that’s a fairly uneventful (thankfully) story for a pub and a pint.