June 2010 Odyssey from Madison to Panama
 
We traveled to the United States in late May 2010 so that Rob could umpire and judge at the US High School and Collegiate sailing championships, and of course so we could visit with friends and relatives along the way. We left Akka at a mooring at an island in the San Blas of Panama, watched by a very reliable fellow cruiser.

Our visit in the US was fun, and even included a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle that we volunteered to be "bumped" from, for vouchers worth $400 apiece - in return for arriving in Seattle a mere two hours later than planned. Our return trip, however, turned into quite an odyssey.

The last series of Rob's regattas were in Madison, Wisconsin, where we stayed with Gene Rankin and his family (Gene has crewed aboard Akka several times, including a memorable trip from the Peloponnesus in Greece to the French Riviera, and a stint as watch captain for an Atlantic crossing). We stayed in Madison the night after the regatta concluded, and early next morning Betsy Altman drove us from Madison to Chicago, leaving early enough to show us the new Chicago Match Racing Center before we had to be at the airport. We were impressed by the CMRC. They have 2 kinds of boats: Elliots and Toms. The Elliot is the new Olympic boat for Women's Match Race. (Too bad there are none in production, but that's another story.) When we got to the CMRC, racing was already going on, just off the seawall in Lake Michigan, so it's easy and pleasant to watch. CMRC has a specially built houseboat affair for crew changes, sponsors, and a commentator. The commentator wasn't there while we were, but we did get to watch 3-4 races. Among the racers were several of the college sailors who'd been in Madison. So, that was cool.

Then Betsy drove us to Midway Airport, and we were there about 1 1/2 hours ahead of our Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta. Although we encountered the longest and slowest security check-in lines we've ever seen, we had no problem getting to the gate on time. Delta had overbooked the flight and was asking for volunteers. We didn't offer because we wanted to be sure to make our connection onward to Panama.

As is our usual practice, we waited to board until the lines had diminished (who wants to sit on a hot airplane?) and were with the last 8 passengers, when one of the desk staff disappeared into the jetway saying she had to check the bag count for all of the carry-on luggage that they'd had to check because the overhead bins were full. She reported by radio not to let any more passengers through because "we're overweight." No further explanation. We asked, about 5 minutes later, what was going to happen. "We're working the numbers," was the response. Sort of like, "Don't worry, we're the pros." The desk person then returned a few minutes later and shut the door to the jetway. "The plane has left," she announced. "We'll give you cash for your inconvenience, re-book you and provide meals and hotels if necessary." We were all pretty irate at the cavalier attitude and lack of communication, but they really did come through at that point. The cash amount depended on what value Delta put on the flights we'd booked. We figured they'd only count the flight from Midway to Atlanta, so we were astonished to get $800 each. Our flights from Panama to NY, to Seattle, to Chicago then back to Panama had cost only $638! Delta re-routed us through Atlanta, then Miami, where we would spend the night, then take an early morning Copa Airlines flight to Panama City. This meant spending a night in Miami courtesy of Delta Airlines rather than a night in PC on our own dollar. We were pretty happy with that deal.

We used the measly meal vouchers ($7 apiece, no alcohol!) to get a snack and boarded the flight to Atlanta (again overbooked, but we didn't volunteer) among the first passengers. When we were almost to Atlanta, the pilot came on to tell us that we were in a hold pattern due to thunderstorms in Atlanta, and were low on fuel, so we might divert to Knoxville. We eventually did divert, but once on the ground we just went somewhere where a fuel truck could get to us. We refilled quickly and were off. Now, instead of a 4-hour connection, we had less than 1 1/2 hours, but it was enough to blow our vouchers on nachos, then on to Miami (First Class!), arriving at midnight.

We didn't actually have hotel vouchers yet and there was nobody at any of the counters at that hour, so we went to luggage services -- they'd told us that our luggage would have been transferred onto the Copa flight, but we wanted to double-check. The clerk gave us vouchers for the Wyndham (how nice) and assured us that the luggage was in Miami. We finally got to sleep around 1 a.m., and were up at 5:30 for the 8:30 flight. We think the room may have been large and comfortable, but didn't spend enough time awake there to really be sure. We had an uneventful flight to PC -- a full hour wait for our bags, but they did arrive - then the 20-mile taxi ride to the hotel, where we collapsed for a few hours. Whew!

That evening, we did some massive shopping at the Riba Smith Supermarket (over $500 of groceries, including cases of beer, soda and canned goods). Our little room was kind of crowded that night! An SUV was to pick us up at 11 the next morning to take us to Carti in the San Blas, but it didn't arrive until 1, and it was a large van. Roughly par for Panama arrangements, and off we set for the 2-3 hour drive to Carti. We've done this trip before, and knew that the last part, through the Darien Wilderness (i.e., jungle), features tight turns and steep slopes every 50 feet or so, plus fording a river, so we wondered how this 2-wheel-drive van was going to make it. The solution turned out to be a rendezvous with an SUV 4X4 and a new driver. The van exchanged us for the 5 Colombian tourists the 4X4 had brought from Carti, and then we (meaning the drivers) transferred all of our stuff (the 4 pieces of luggage plus 2 laptops plus handbags, now joined by 3 large cardboard boxes of groceries, one styrofoam cooler of meats, and a half-dozen plastic bags, including one with 3 dozen eggs). Each time someone handled the egg bag, we'd yell "¡Huevos!" and the call would get passed on along with the eggs.

Now ensconced in the SUV, we felt more reassured about those hills and that river ford, especially since it was raining pretty hard and we thought the river might be high. The driver said it was raining more where we were, at altitude, than lower down, but when we got to the river, which had been a clear placid stream when we'd forded it 3 weeks earlier, it was a raging clay-red torrent. We think our driver really wanted to give it a try, but some dude convinced him not to.

The dude-in-charge directed us to large outboard-powered dugout canoe moored to the riverbank. So we (meaning, they) unloaded all our stuff from the 4X4 ("¡Huevos!") down the slippery mudbank and into the dugout, in the rain. The dugout crew covered it all with a tarp and in we got, along with a Kuna couple and one other gringo. People kept climbing over the huge pile of luggage ("¡Huevos!") but eventually we were off down the river. A while later, we got to a landing where the Kuna couple got off. Now they had to sort through the entire pile of luggage to find the Kunas' bags. We kept telling this one Kuna Indian that all the bags that said "Riba Smith" were ours, but he kept unloading them, anyway. It finally dawned on us that he couldn't read! But eventually we sorted it all out and we continued down the river, then two miles out into the "Atlantic" to the island of Carti. Now, this is a distinctly different place from the landing strip on the mainland side of Carti where we were supposed to meet our launch to take us to Akka. The dugout took us to a dock on the island and assured us that our lancha would appear. We (meaning, they) unloaded all our stuff from the dugout onto the dock ("¡Huevos!") and sure enough, here came the rather nifty, brand-new fiberglass lancha, with 3 Kuna kids, powered by two substantial outboards. We (meaning, they) once again re-loaded everything into the lancha (we hung onto our huevos this time). Twenty minutes later (have we mentioned that it was raining throughout this entire venture?), we arrived at Akka and they off-loaded everything onto her.

Whew.

Let's see. We left Madison at 7 a.m. on Friday, and were back on the boat at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. One r, three airplanes, a van, a 4X4, a dugout canoe and a launch, not counting taxis and hotel courtesy vans. Not so bad, considering, and very profitable.

Everything made it in good condition. One egg cracked, one broke.