Ship Ahoy- the Stahlratte / Erika Rowe

We got kicked out of the Radisson lobby at about 8am, which was really much better than I expected. All night I anticipated getting the boot and having to drive around scary Colon looking for a different hotel. We were exhausted, but thankfully we had made up our minds to take the sailing ship Stahlratte to Colombia.

The first time we heard about this ship was from a Canadian couple that was staying at our hotel in Panama City. When they told us they were paying $780 per person plus bike, we scoffed and assured ourselves that we were not suckers and would never pay that sort of money. Less than 48 hours later I was on the phone with Captain Ludwig begging to sleep out on the deck if he would only let us on board. How the mighty do fall. Not that we didn’t put up a good fight. We really exhausted all other options.

When we first arrived in Colon we went to the port and started asking around. The official response was “no way” but some dude told us to head down to pier 5 because some cargo ships were leaving from there to Colombia. We drove down through the decrepit flooded downtown and parked in front of the gated pier five. When Yaniv tried to walk through the door towards the buildings he was shoved back by a shouting guard who forced him to look through the bars while asking questions. Eventually we were allowed inside and we waited around for the Aduana officer to find out the deal. The deal was very confusing. Apparently they were willing to take our bikes, but not us. This was clearly not an option. When we insisted that we wanted to travel with the bikes, they said we had to go to a different port to do that. Unfortunately, there was no Aduana at the other port. We asked whether we could just fill out the paperwork here then drive to the other port, but no, then we would be driving illegally. Where else could we do the paperwork? Nowhere else. Would they do the paperwork for us? No. At some point the guard started whispering to Yaniv that we could come back secretly at midnight and they could smuggle us aboard. Would our paperwork be legal then? No.

They eventually told us to drive to the other side of the city and check with the port on that side. As we navigated the city we stopped to ask a cop for directions. A helpful citizen who spoke some English showed his ID to the cop (I guess verifying he wasn’t a criminal?) and cheerfully told us to get out of town as soon as possible, because on our bikes we were just screaming to be robbed. We checked around at a few more piers, got some offers of possible help, but nothing to be sure of until the next day. It was getting dark, and a storm was coming in. We asked whether we could camp next to the port, since there were security guards and it was well lit. We were told that this neighborhood was controlled by a gang that regularly robbed the people getting off the cruise ships. The security guards were useless, as they had no guns. And that’s how we ended up in the lobby of the Radisson.

We had a difficult choice. The Stahlratte was leaving the next afternoon. Ludwig told me that he had already told two Americans that he didn’t have enough space for them. They were flying while their bikes were on the ship. Probably because I begged he said he would try to move people around on board to make space for us. We could suck it up and pay almost $1600 for passage, or hang out in Colon for another day hoping some cargo ship would take pity on us AND charge us less. After pinching pennies for so long it felt like such a waste to spend so much money. However, in the end it was the best possible choice we could have made.

The road to the port of Carti used to be very very bad. Unpaved in fact, and quite a challenge in the rainy season. Luckily for us, in the past year it was paved. It seems as though, bit by bit, piece by piece, this once great adventure to the south is being tamed. I think, in view of our strength and adventuring abilities, that this is a positive change for us, allowing us to see places that we never could have reached otherwise. On the other hand, it’s a bit tragic that what used to take great skill and daring can now be accomplished by any boob on two wheels. One of the last frontiers of wilderness in Central America, the Darien Gap, is in danger of being beaten any day now. A part of me wants to brave that jungle while it’s still there, though the larger part of me values my life and health and won’t set foot near those narrow muddy tracks. What great frontiers are left? The jungles of Brazil, the Sahara, the deep sea. Space.

Anyway, not only was the road to Carti paved, they also built a bridge over the river that previously needed to be crossed by canoe. Now everyone wants a picture of their beast in a canoe, but for me this was one more hassle happily avoided. We managed the steep inclines and declines of the Kuna Autonomous territory (paying the hefty $16 tax to enter) and finally spotted our ship resting at “port”. By port I mean one cement pier jutting out of the sand next to three or four huts. As we negotiated with the “gate keepers” who wanted to charge us $8 dollars each just to reach the boat, I heard a might roar behind me. Turning around I saw not one, not two, not three but nine motorcycles pull up behind us. First our Russian friends on their brand-spanking new spotless BMW 1200 adventure series with matching paint jobs and luggage. The rest were almost all on BMW’s as well, with the exception of one V-strom and one KTM. We all drove down the pier together and happily chatted about the trip ahead of us.

19 Bikes wating to become airborn

From Stahlratte 1

soooo many BMWs

From Stahlratte 1

So far on our trip we have waved to a few bikers going the opposite direction. We stopped once in Costa Rica to say hi to a German couple. We met the Russians at the border of Panama. We met one Canadian couple, on BMW f650GS’s, who also happened to stay at our hotel in Panama. And we met an American couple our last night in Panama City at the BMW dealership, also on a BMW F650 Dakar. Not so many bikers considering how long we have been travelling. Suddenly here we are, about to leave for a 5 day trip along with 19 other bikers! It was surreal. I looked at the boat next to us and tried to imagine a) how do you lift one (let alone 19!) 500 lb machines from the dock onto the ship and b) where are they all going to go? Where were we going to go? At this point I was under the impression that we would be sleeping on the deck. Luckily, somehow, Ludwig managed to set us up with our own double bed in a little curtained berth downstairs. The two Americans who were forced to fly to Colombia were there loading their bikes on and joking about throwing people off the pier so they could get a place on the boat. Did I mention how lucky we are? Lucky.

The answer to my question about loading the bikes suddenly strode up and kissed me on the cheeks. All of 6’7”, heavily muscled, hunky, sweet faced Roland (Roli) who had all of the women’s jaws hitting the floor. He was like a god. With a cute German accent. He tied up all the bikes with a rope attached to the main mast, then, as they were lifted into the air, he used ropes to pull the motorcycle away from the side of the ship until they were high enough to be lowered in. We all watched with trepidation and awe as we saw our babies lifted into unnatural positions, snapping pictures and biting our fingernails. Within a few hours we had all of the bikes and all of the gear safely on board and we set out towards the tropical San Blas Islands.

extremely unnatural

From Stahlratte 1


From Stahlratte 1

for the ladies

From Stahlratte 3

bike about to be lifted from canoe. notice the owner chugging in the background

From Stahlratte 3

A word about the boat. The Stahlratte (=Steel Rat) is a 100 year old German steel ship that about 20 years ago was brought by a collection of young people and run as a collective. Now the boat is circumnavigating the world, making money where it can, all proceeds being put back into the project. What does that mean exactly? Well, if you want to work on the boat, you have to pay about $50 a day. Does that seem extreme to you? We were suspicious at first, but the long-time crew, Captain Ludwig and Roli, assure us that they don’t get paid at all. It is truly an alternative way of life.

the good ship

From Stahlratte 2

On board we had the German crew, four Americans, two Austrians, one Irish, two Canadians, one Israeli, one Swiss, one Britain, one Lithuanian, one Russian, two Mexicans, and one HARD-CORE Japanese dude. We stuck all of our smelly biker gear downstairs and went up for a delicious meal of home-made dark German bread, sausages, cheeses and fruit. It was heaven. We hung out getting to know each other than sailed over to a near-bye island for the night’s entertainment. Our hosts were the Kuna people. They have a red flag with a backwards Swastika (an ancient symbol used here for centuries) and isolationist policies. They have autonomy over their region and try very hard to keep their race pure. The people are very very short with high cheekbones and beautiful almond eyes. The women wear colorful bracelets covering their ankles and wrists and heavy gold nose rings. When they get married they cut their hair short. The tiny islands are packed with thousands of people. When we were navigating through the narrow sandy alleys between huts I found it difficult to imagine living so densely when there were uninhabited islands near bye. They arranged a BBQ and a native dance for us. The young men and women faced each other in different formations and hop shuffled around while the boys played a repetitious but lovely melody on flutes. The children were very fond of the captain and threw themselves on him yelling “cola cola man.” We were told they are considering closing the islands to visitors, in order to preserve their culture. Alcoholism is a very big problem, as well as youngsters leaving for the mainland.

kuna fashion

From Stahlratte 3

traditional dance

From Stahlratte 1

The boat was great. The food was incredible. The people were interesting and fun. As one of three women on board, and the only one under 40, I enjoyed lots of attention from the young men. We went snorkeling and swung off the boat on a long rope. Our second night on the boat they bought fresh lobsters and prepared a mango curry lobster dish with coconut rice. Washed down with plenty of rum, of course. It was divine. Everything was peachy, in fact, until we started heading out to sea. I woke up suddenly at 5 am to the crash of glasses and beer cans rolling across the floor.

BBQ on the beach

From Stahlratte 2
From Stahlratte 2

swinging

From Stahlratte 3

having fun with the boys

From Stahlratte 3

maybe a bit too much fun

From Stahlratte 3

The time of sickness had arrived. Now don’t get me wrong, this happens on all of the small boats doing the crossing. I read endless accounts of other misadventures where the captain was a sociopathic, cocaine-snorting drunk who promised a relaxed tropical cruise with gourmet food but instead provided rotting vegetables, mac and cheese and only 10 gallons of water for 18 people for five days. And they got sea sick too. At least we had adequate space, medicine and water (the ship desalinates its own water via reverse osmosis), as well as a captain who was genuinely concerned about his passengers. We all spent a miserable day regretting the excess of rum the night before, puking over the side and generally bemoaning our fate. I remember at about 6 am dry heaving and thinking to myself if I had to suffer another 24 hours of this I would rather jump over the side and end it all now. Thankfully, the Dramamine kicked in eventually and everyone dozed fitfully through the day and into the night. The next morning we sighted land and sailed through the ancient sea wall into Cartagena.

dinner

From Stahlratte 3

stranded?

From Stahlratte 3

captain LuLu

From Stahlratte 3

We disembarked, the boats stayed on board for the night. The next morning we were supposed to gather at the boat at around nine to collect the bikes and go through customs. Yaniv and I woke up at 8:30, walked to the bank, and it started pouring. We decided to wait out the rain inside. By noon the streets and sidewalks were flooded. Most people were sheltering on high steps and not budging, which made us realize this was not a normal occurrence. Later we would discover that Colombia hasn’t received this much rain throughout recorded history. Regardless, we had to get back to the boat. We rolled our pants up to the knees and braved the sewage filled streets. The rain was still pouring, cars were pushing waves ahead of them and we slogged on. By this time water was lapping at the doors to businesses and when cars opened their doors water flooded out. We were the last ones to get to the boat, last to get our bikes and last to get to customs. Most people had been waiting at customs since 9am. With our usual impeccable timing we arrived for lunch and somehow got our papers done before everyone else, and were among the first to leave. As we collected our stuff back at the boat, I overheard one of the Mexicans say he was going to go stay at the home of his Colombian friend. I quickly asked him (Fernando) if maybe we could set up our tent in his back yard. He smiled and told us that we could, or we could stay in his spare apartment. Score. Fernando took us, the two Mexicans and a stray American that he picked up on the road back to his house, about 20 miles south of Cartagena.

Cartagena

From Cartagena

the deluge

From Cartagena

wet boots

From Cartagena

Why do some people invite strangers into their home? What do they get out of it? Haven’t they heard of thieves, rapists, psychotic cannibals? During our trip we have been consistently awed by the level of trust others have shown us. They are part of a global community that respects friendship and hospitality, that holds out an olive branch of peace in the hope that somehow their actions make the world a better place, an easier place. For the down-trodden traveler like us, these experiences are the highlights. They make us feel human again. They give us a unique insight into the local cultures and people. And we make really good friends. Oscar, Gustavo, Mark, Yaniv and I are treated as a part of Fernando’s family. He cooks for us, takes us into Cartagena to run our monotonous errands, drinks rum with us at night. Right now, we have an indefinite invitation from him to hang out until our spare parts arrive. We have our separate living quarters with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and fridge. We can cook and read and relax about money, at least for this week. We are blessed with kindness from strangers.

our new biker gang

From Cartagena

riding to our most over-priced under-yummy fish meal

From Cartagena

Fernando

From Cartagena

Update: Less than two days after writing this and I need to amend my previous statement. Yes, we are blessed with kindness. But sometimes those strangers turn out to be the crazy neurotic ones. Our host, Fernando, age 50, has a 25 year old girlfriend living with him. She seemed nice, if uninteresting. We had a pretty big language barrier, so not a whole lot of interaction took place. We had been staying with them for a week very comfortably. Anytime I asked Fernando a question (can we do laundry, use the internet, make hot chocolate etc) he would say “Erika, Erika! This is your home! Act as though it is your home!” Nice, right?

So one night Mark, Yaniv and I decide to watch a movie. We ask if anyone wants to join us, open a bottle of wine and share with everyone else in the house, and settle into the living room. We briefly consider going into another room, but think that it may be considered antisocial. I pop into the study and politely ask Isa (the girlfriend) if she would mind turning down her music “poquito”. She smiles and turns it down. We watch the movie.

The next morning Fernando tells me that we have to pack up and leave immediately. Apparently I offended Isa so much she gave the ultimatum that either we leave or she leaves. It’s her house and she can listen to music at whatever volume she wants to. O.K. We pack up and leave, in shock. I kept expecting Fernando to burst in laughing, saying it’s all a big joke. But no, he is quite serious. We ride away from the house upset and hurt. That night lying awake in the hotel bed, I kept running the previous night’s scene through my head. If only we had gone in the other room. If only I had smiled at her more. If only if only if only.
Truthfully, I don’t think I did anything wrong. She freaked out, for whatever reason, and did something that in hindsight will seem silly and neurotic. In the future, I will be more careful of my behavior, become even more calculating, if that is even possible.

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One Response to Ship Ahoy- the Stahlratte / Erika Rowe

  1. James Brady says:

    Fantastic article-thank you for that. I am booked onto the Stahlratte for the 23rd march to the 30th. It’s so true, when travelling and meeting people/new friends/travel companions on the road, everything can be fine for weeks/months, and then suddenly it isnt…and there is not always any indication that somethingis brewing. C’est la vie :)

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