Barfing 4 Adventure
Growing up in Honduras I suffered from geophagy, a condition usually associated with anemia that made me crave dirt, and I would eat heaping spoonfuls of the stuff. Not unlike the character in a comic book who, when exposed to lethal doses of radiation or the bite of a deadly spider, rather than die develops superhuman abilities, I believe I was rewarded with a digestive track that can consume just about anything. If properly seasoned, I could eat week old leftovers, roadside cafe foods, or wall insulation, without so much as a stomach cramp. That can come in handy if you're, say, on a motorcycle adventure through South America. By extension I also considered myself impervious to motion sickness, so when Russ asked if I'd be OK and offered me a Dramamine while boarding the Stahlratte — the sailing vessel that would transport us from Panama to Colombia — I snorted derisively at him. Please, I thought, that'd be like asking Spiderman if he's afraid of heights.
Like the character from the comic book, though, I also have a kryptonite. I suffer from a debilitatingly acute sense of smell. A fact that has become a great source of irritation to both Russ and I for entirely different reasons. We share quarters on a regular basis, which means I have to endure all the smells and Russ has to put up with my nagging. "You're wearing THAT shirt to dinner?" or "Mind leaving your boots outside?" or "I think we need to wash our riding suits again." On and on. It can be maddening, I know, but thankfully Russ takes it all in stride. Sometimes, though, he gives me a look — the kind that delivers not only a reproach, but also a threat of actual physical pain. "You ask about my socks one more time and I'm going to hit you with this wrench," it says. "In the balls." In the weeks leading up to our voyage aboard the Stahlratte, I thought a lot about this leg of our adventure. By thought, of course, I mean fantasized: there's me wearing an eye patch, demonstrating my extensive knowledge of knots, which I must have spontaneously acquired by virtue of being in a boat, since, as it stands, I can barely manage to tie my shoes without running to Karie for help — "Bunny ears," she patiently reminds me; then there's green-faced Russ, leaning over the railings to throw up for the 27th time; and there's me pointing and laughing. Motion sickness never entered my mind because for the longest time I believed it to be the stuff that only happens to other people. People like Russ.
As we boarded the Stahlratte, I realized that I'd be sharing close quarters with not one but twenty other adventurers with varying degrees of personal hygiene standards. Twenty bunks were arranged along the walls in a space no larger than a mid-sized studio, each marked with the name of its occupant written on a piece of paper. As I searched for my bunk, people were settling into their assigned areas, removing their boots, their riding suits, and their dignity as they peeled off their sweaty underwear. My nose went on high alert and my stomach seemed to turn itself inside out. I wanted to find my bunk, but more than anything I wanted to leave this boat and find some other way to cross the Darien Gap — right-wing paramilitary groups and hostile tribes suddenly seemed, if not less dangerous, at least a little tidier.
An Australian fellow watched as I struggled to maneuver my duffle bag around the tight quarters, trying to keep it from touching the floor, which smelled like rotten fish and soot. "You won't need that here, mate," he said. Apparently he thought that I was carrying motorcycle tools and spare parts, and was surprised to learn that these were actually my clothes. Well, some of my clothes. I had left the rest in the metal boxes on the bike. "How many brundies do you need?" he asked. By brundies, he meant pairs of underwear. "Fourteen," I said, realizing quickly, but not quickly enough, that this made me look less like a tough adventurer and more like a girl. A woman named Bertha overheard our conversation and stopped working on the transmission she had just taken apart to kill time, wiped her greasy hands with a filthy rag, and reached into her bag to pull out a spare pair of underwear still wrapped in its original packaging. "Two pairs are more than enough for me," she said, to which I reacted by letting out a high pitched yelp and quickly covering my mouth, a move that further downgraded my status as an adventurer.
I hugged my duffle bag tightly and hurried down toward my bunk, and was reminded of the countless prison movies and TV shows I had seen. The protagonist, usually a new inmate unaccustomed to prison life, receives advice from an old timer, “Rule number one, if someone gets in your face, stand your ground." Bertha had laughed at my expense, but I wasn't sure that constituted getting in my face. Besides, standing my ground to a woman would do little for my street cred, especially after she beat me up. I surveyed the room to find a more suitable opponent and saw Russ, folding and stacking his clothes neatly by type, then color. I thought back about rule number two from the prison movies, "Stick with your tribe, they'll have your back when things get tough," then disregarded it and rolled his towel to give him a good smack. Unfortunately rather than the stinging crackle I had intended, the towel landed softly on his arm. It didn't help that he thanked me, then folded and put away the towel without realizing what had happened.
After everyone had settled, we gathered around a table on deck for an orientation meeting called by the chief mate, a young German volunteer with a background in finance and a dog named Sonnenschein. After a meal of quinoa and chickpeas, she shared some of the history of the ship, then moved on to rules and safety guidelines. We learned that there would be no running, jumping, or skipping allowed onboard. Also, men were asked to urinate from the deck’s port side, paying special attention to wind direction to avoid backsplash. No standing urination was allowed in the onboard toilet, regardless of size, aim, or proficiency — anyone using the onboard toilet was required to sit, especially the women. Flushing the onboard toilet required 27 to 29 pumps of a stiff lever similar to those found in casinos, so bowel movements came with the added bonus of a right arm workout. For a balanced workout, the next time you used the restroom you could straddle the toilet and face the tank while pumping the lever with your left hand. Showers consisted of a water hose located on the deck’s port side, the same place where men urinate, so footwear was encouraged but not required.
Later, a man nicknamed Bello (beautiful) who looks very much like Danny Trejo, approached the Stahlratte on a speed boat and the crew cheered his arrival. Their enthusiasm was almost contagious until I saw that he brought onboard what would become dinner, a bucket of wriggling crabs and lobsters. He quickly got to work by snapping each creature in half and tossing them on the floor of the deck’s port side — yes, that one — then washed everything with the shower hose and put it all back in the bucket. For dinner I ate coconut rice and bread, and washed it all down with a Coca Cola. Later that night I found the crew’s secret stash of sweets and helped myself to 6 packs of Oreos. I was feeling fine, but was concerned about the smells on the boat, which seemed to be a blend of rotten fish, stale coconut, and either BO or toe jam.
Russ and I were assigned to the same bunk area, which meant I had to lay a mattress on the floor, next to Russ’ boots. The area was so small that no matter the configuration, his boots would invariably end up near my nose, so I decided to camp out on a couch across the aisle. At around 1am, my notebook, a paperweight, and then a stuffed toy elephant named Clive landed on my head. At first I thought it was Russ trying to wake me up, as he often does by throwing objects at me, but then realized that we were in the middle of a storm and the boat was listing dangerously on its side. I couldn’t go back to sleep because of the motion and the smells so I decided to go upstairs, close to the bathroom, just in case. Eric, a brit who looks like Orlando Bloom, was sitting at a table near the bathroom. He was sweating profusely and I thought I heard him praying, but was greatly relieved when I realized he was just cursing. Moments later I noticed Russ climbing up the stairs and when he suggested we go outside to watch the storm, I readied my camera. But rather than getting sick he seemed giddy with excitement every time the boat climbed each massive wave and splashed down. Later we went back inside to find Eric sprawled on the floor, near the bathroom. I’m not really sure what triggered it, but one moment I was sitting at the table having a stare off with Russ, and the next I was jumping over Eric to get to the bathroom. From that point on I was unable to recover, even after stealing all of Russ’ motion sickness pills.
The Stahlratte brought Russ and I closer than ever, but not in the BFF way that you'd imagine. We didn't develop a sudden appreciation for the little things that strengthen a friendship, nor did we learn to walk in each other's shoes (gross). There was just not enough room on that boat for us to chew gum without bumping into one another. Rather than strengthen our bond, it actually put it to the test. At some point I actually considered throwing Russ overboard, after I saw him reach for the last pack of Oreos, but then I thought about the long search, the questions, the paperwork. It was just too much, so I decided to wait until we hit land, but by then I needed to split a cab to the hotel and the whole thing was forgotten.