As part of my big journey through Latin America, the plan had been to sail from Panama to Colombia at the end of my tour. Sailing via the San Blas Islands is becoming a popular backpacker route to both explore some idyllic islands and also travel cheaply to South America. After talking with friends from the tour, we decided to rent an airbnb apartment for a week together in Cartagena, Colombia once we were done in Panama. Timing meant that sailing the San Blas was out, but we could take the relatively new ferry service (now defunct) that ran from Bocas del Toro, to Colon in Panama and then onto Cartagena overnight.
Now my friends were going to be taking the ferry from Bocas del Toro in the country’s north, while I would be coming from Panama City and meeting them in Colon. Colon as it happens is not a popular tourist spot and is widely considered to be fairly unsafe. The guide for my tour through Costa Rica and Panama said that he had never been to Colon because he couldn’t find any friends willing to go there. Thankfully, my time in Colon was brief, heading from the bus terminal directly to the ferry terminal where I met up with my friends.
While we were waiting to board they told me about their night on the ferry coming from Bocas del Toro and how they had met this eccentric Romanian engineer on the ferry. It sounded amusing but I was more preoccupied with getting on the ferry and getting to Colombia. It didn’t really occur to me that we were getting on that same ferry with that same Romanian engineer.
Once on board, my friends showed me around the ship and took me to the bar on the upper deck. While we were enjoying a drink, there was a sudden happy shout. It was Sergiu the Romanian Head Engineer, who came over to my friends hugging and shaking their hands, delighted to see them. After my friends introduced me to Sergei, he asked what we had planned that evening and insisted we visit his cabin later. As quickly as he appeared he was gone, back to work as we set off from Colon and Panama.
For the next hour or two we had a few drinks and made our way to the restaurant areas. When we had seen him earlier, Sergiu had mentioned that the entire ship was ran and staffed almost exclusively by Italians. This meant that Italian was far more useful than Spanish at the restaurant as the staff spoke very little Spanish (or English).
After a sub par meal, we were wandering about the ship when we ran into Sergiu. Once again excited to see us, it turned out he had been looking for us and invited us to his cabin for a drink. As it turned out, since he was working all evening he was unable to drink – he had gotten some beers solely to share with us. What’s more, he even had a plate or two of food for us and was a little hurt that we hadn’t expected such hospitality and eaten upstairs at the restaurant.
We ended up spending a couple of hours in the company of Sergiu, learning all sorts of things about him and also his views on the ferry and its staff. As an educated, multilingual person, Sergiu didn’t think too highly of the Italian staff who while working in Latin America, could only speak Italian. It seemed that he was indeed quite lonely aboard a confined ship with people that he could not respect or tolerate. To hear that was quite thought-provoking and was emphasised by looking around his cabin, which was rather spartan with not a lot of frills or luxuries.
As Sergiu liked to talk and probably hadn’t had a chance for a while, he tended to dominate the conversation and we just sat back and listened. While sometimes it was rather awkward or mundane, parts were fascinating, like hearing about all the places – including Australia – that he had worked contracted as an engineer. Also, hearing him speak of his family and Romania was interesting and helped spark my desire to visit there this year, although I’m still unsure whether he was trying to set me up with daughter.
Eventually conversation died off and we excused ourselves, bidding our host goodnight. As we walked back to the cabins, we talked about what a strange, yet nice time we had had. It’s not every day you get to see the quarters for the staff on the boat you’re on, let alone be a guest of a Romanian engineer on an Italian boat from Panama to Colombia.
Have you ever had a similar chance encounter with the staff when travelling? Please share your stories in the comments below.