Saturday, November 29, 2008

whitewater mania!

I left the Lost and Found lodge in hopes of getting to Boquete for the western union transfer. Originally I was going to go to Panama City, but the fondue-making Dutch flight attendants at the L&F told me that Boquete was fine, it had opened up again to tourists. I really wanted to see it anyway, so I decided to go. It´s so easy to travel here, I´ve never waited more than 10 minutes for a bus. Andrew from the lodge dropped me off in David, then I got on a yellow schoolbus for $1.45. 45 minutes later, we arrived in Boquete. A pretty little town up in the mountains with a river and pine trees, it reminds me a lot of a colorado town. The western union office was easy to find, and the transfer went though so I treated myself to a nice hotel on the edge of town. They cut me a great deal because the town was basically closed a week ago due to the massive floods. One block from my hotel is a big washed out bridge. Tourists are a stil a little sparse. Unforntately I´m still not going to be able to go to Bocas Del Toro, the devastation there was just too bad. I REALLY had wanted to go to Bocas del Toro. Oh well, sometimes you can´t tell mother nature what to do.
The restaurants in this town are either uber-panamanian cafeteria type places, or tourist places with english menus. There are a few nice places, but I still miss the Libertad restaurant in El Valle. A place with a menu in spanish, but with ambiance. The town itself is cute, though. I´m not complaining. I arranged for a full day whitewater rafting trip for today, then had dinner at a bistro place, then an atlas at a jazz place.
The guide, Tini, picked me up bright and early. ¨Tini¨is supposed to be like the nickname ¨Tiny¨. But unlike an ironic mobster name, he actually was sort of tiny. Also in my boat was a Californian family: Herb, Wanda and their son Sam. They were great, very adventurous and well travelled family. We were joined by a kayaker (who picks up paddles and helps with rescues in case something happened to Tiny) and we drove about an hour and a half up to the Costa Rican border to the Chiriqui river. This is the same river that flooded last week, so the water was VERY high. While we were unloading into the river, we saw toucans (my first) and some monkeys. I was really excited about the Toucans. Growing up in Battle Creek, I always pictured Toucans with big smiles like a bowl of Fruit loops. Ive been rafting a good 7 times before (class 5 in West Virginia and a very cold class 2-3 with my dad in Colorado), and never once fallen out of the boat, so rafting does not really scare me, although my chiropractor 5 years ago made me promise that I´d never do it again.. oh well. a good minute after put in, we already had a class 4 rapid. I know what a class 4 rapid feels like, that was a class 5 rapid. We had class 5 rapids for the first hour of the trip, one after another. I sat in front and was actually scared, which was fun (hey, I´m getting my money´s worth!). When you sit in front, you drop into rapids and just see a wall of water coming at you. Everyone was soaked the whole time. I was screaming, but it was really fun. Each rapid is named for something, usually for who falls in it or who´s boat tips in. For example, we approached one and Tiny said ¨Thees rapeed es called Mexian family!¨ meaning that a mexican family fell in not long ago.
About 45 minutes into the trip, when we were going over a class 3 rapid (which is actually class 4), I was tossed out of the boat. I don´t actually remember falling out, I just remember all of the sudden being UNDER the raft, looking up through the muddy water and seeing yellow, and thinking, holy crap, I actually fell out of the boat and Oh, I hope there are no rocks! When that happens, you are supposed to claw your way over to the side of the boat, and have someone pull you up. Which I did. We were moving so fast, it was actually pretty terrifying. Herb pulled me up, and we were still going over some rapids. I was all disoriented for a minute, I couldn´t tell which end of the boat was in the front.. then after a few minutes I stopped shaking and was all fine. SO much fun! Tiny said now we can call that one ¨Chicago rapid¨. haha. It was truly the most exciting and rough rafting trip I´d ever taken, which to me is a good thing. And the hot shower and hot coffee I had after getting back to my hotel was life-changing!

Arriving back in Boquete, it started raining again and I had to go to the Lavanderia to wash my clothes. It was a busy laundry day and the lavanderia wouldn´t take me, and the women were really bossy and kinda mean, so I had to find the OTHER lavandaria, on the edge of town. I kept asking people where it was and not understanding the answers. I almost gave up and took my laundry back to my hotel, which I know would have been expensive. One guy took me to the river and pointed at it, and said that I could wash my clothes there. A half hour of walking in the rain later, I found the other lavanderia that was run by the world´s nicest woman. I talked to her for awhile, then another guy who was washing his clothes. Finding the second lavanderia just made my day. That´s what´s fun to me about travel. Sometimes you try so hard to do the simplest thing like find a laundromat. Then, when you do, it´s just so satisfying. You feel like such a winner.
During the clothes-washing I stopped at a cute mexican reastaurant for a taco and a beer. On the window near me I was horrified to see the biggest wasp I´d ever seen. I backed away from the table and got the waitress and asked if the insecta was a vespa. They killed it for me. I tried to tell them that it was the largest wasp I´d ever seen in my life, then I realized later that I kept telling them that there was a ¨wasp in my life¨, haha. Which sounds kind of metaphoric, doesn´t it?

Tomorrow I think I´m going to go to David in hopes of catching a bus or plane back to Panama City. The weather forecast for the whole country is BAD. I seriously might fly to Costa Rica and just go to my old town of Montezuma for the beach, where the weather forecast is good. I don´t know. I might not be too tan when I get home but I´m definitely having lots of fun adventures here in Panama.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Smokeskis/How dare it rain in the rainforest!

In 1988, while I was busy making my hair big and listening to Guns n Roses, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Panama for Noriega's shenannegans. Little did I know that just 20 years later, Panama would impose sanctions against me personally.
I left El Valle on a rainy morning, and took the bus with some uniformed schoolkids through the woods to the Panamerican Highway, where I caught a bus to what I thought was David, but actually went 2 hours in the other direction to Panama City. I was tipped off by the huge skyline... When I said "necissito voy a David" the person told me that there was no direct bus there, but I had missed that little detail. I got on a giant megabus to David with two stories, and had a great seat in front in the top row. 3 peacefull, blissful hours went by until we stopped at a truck stop for a meal (I had some sketchy pasta), and to pick up more passengers at the halfway point.

I could hear them before I saw them, two older, overeager americans in their 60s. The woman plopped down next to me and her husband sat across the aisle. I smelled something foul and rotten, and thought maybe it was the bus, but it was them. The smell of stale cigarette smoke, smoke that was coming out of their pores after a good 45 year smoking habit. When the woman asked if she could sit there, her teeth were brown and grey. Everything about them was grey. They were nice enough, and you can't exactly tell someone to move because they smell so bad, so I tried to stare out the window and angle the fan at them, to blow away the smell. Every time they chuckled at the stupid movie, I had to breathe through my mouth. I tried to chew some really strong gum and thought about offering them some. I was angry. Why was I the one chewing gum? Why are some people so naieve - clueless that they STINK??!!!
heh.. hegh hegh.. achachack ack. hech hech.. that's the sound of the smokers cough I heard all the way to David.

When we disembarked, I was happy to be rid of them, and laughed that they had both lit up a cigarette before we could even get our bags out of the lower compartment. When one of them dies, is the other one going to stop smoking, I wondered? I took a taxi to a hostel I read about, and had booked a private room. When I arrived, who pulls up at the same time. Mr and Mrs Smoky!

I just resigned myself to the fact that I would have to see them again and again... and went to buy some groceries for dinner. David is a pretty crappy city so there was really no place to hang out at night besides the hostel. So I grabbed an atlas and sat out on the porch with the Smokeskis, the funny hostel owner Greg, his cute Lenny Kravitz lookalike employee Benny, and a random French Canadian. Greg and Benny took turns playing the guitar, The smokeskis smoked, and we all talked about travelling. Greg used to live in chinatown, NYC and we talked about my favorite dumpling shop. I learned one of life's great mysteries - how they make soup dumplings! (they freeze the soup first, then put in the dumplings and steam). The smokeskis were on a long, extended trip through central america, which I thought was cool for people their age. I asked them if they met over a love of cigarettes, and they looked at me funny and said they met because the Mrs was Mr's dispatcher at an old job. We discussed smoking laws, their love of smoking and how they differ in Central America vs North America (CA is cracking down, which is nice!) The Smokeskis even buy special cigarettes by the carton from the Native Americans back home, because they are cheap. I even suspect they moved from Oregon to Nevada for the more liberal smoking laws. Greg and Benny took me across the street to the uber authentic ceviche restaurant, which served three dishes: ceviche, fried fish and some other kind of fish. I had some ceviche and Greg and Benny laughed with the regulars (all older men) and told dirty jokes. It was the type of place that I would have been really intimidated to go on my own, but in their company it was OK. I went back to the hostel, bid the Smokeskis goodnight, and went to sleep to dogs barking.

The next morning (my designated "banking" day) I went into David to try every cash machine in town (still did not work!) and try to cash my traveller's checks (no bank in town took them). This is the first country I've ever been to where neither worked - sometimes my ATM gives me trouble but I can always get cash from my Am Ex checks. This is just one of those things you have to deal with when travelling - every country has a quirk, but it was still frustrating, and I was beginning to feel like Panama did not want me to take out any money! I called Am Ex in a panic, and they agreed to western union me the money. Whew! The only western Union place in David was offline (of course) so I just went to the lost and found hostel way out in the jungle as planned.
Andrew, the owner, picked me up and brought me wayyy out into the jungle, where we had to hike up a steep muddy hill. A huge "backpackers resort" was up there, with a huge uptdoor sitting area, a kitchen (you have to make your own dinner), some cabins and a dorm. I had the dorm with Steve the kiwi and Andrew the Aussie. Really, really nice guys. It rained the entire time, but I was happy for the peace, the hammock, the sounds of the tropical birds, the kinkajous that came to eat bananas (they are so cute, look them up!), the hummingbirds, the sound of rain falling on the roof at night. I made some spaghetti with red peppers and chicken. Three dutch people were also at the lodge - three flight attendants, two guys and a girl. They were really funny, kind of demanding and a little flamboyant. I was amazed, though, when they whipped up an impressive dinner of fondue in about 15 minutes flat. They brought in their own cheese and bread. It was amazing! They didn't share (boo!) but I took a photo. I didn't get to do the night hike due to the rain, but I went to bed early and slept better than I have the whole trip.

More coming tomorrow, and I'm sorry but the internet cafe doesn't read my camera memory card.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

El Valle - I´ve got some decisions to make

I woke up in Santa Clara and had breakfast with the crazy family, then hopped on a few salsa busses to El Valle. El Valle is a volcano crater, a small, sleepy little misty town up in the mountains. Supposedly it´s what Boquete was like 10, 20 years ago. The bus stopped to drop me off, and I said oh, I need to go to the CENTER of town, thinking we were on the edge. They said, this is the center of town.. haha. It´s small. It´s absolutely beautiful and I just walked around town, had lunch at a place that had a bowl of Halls cough drops instead of candy, saw the hot springs, went to a bizarre little zoo and laid in a hammock on the roof. There are only faint sounds of roosters, faded salsa music, and a few cars. That´s it.
This town doesn´t even have a coffee shop but it has a zoo out on the edge of town. I went there around sunset, when it was dark and misty. They had a crocodile, tropical birds, an ostrich, a few raccoons, pigeons and turtles. I was the ONLY person at the zoo (which was in the woods) so it was really spooky.
For dinner I had about three choices, since the town gets really dark at sunset and I don´t have a car. I could go to the lunch place, where all the gringos were sitting, or I could go to the Panamanian place near my hotel. I decided to go to the cute little Panamanian place, and what a good decision that was. I asked the waitress, an abuela type, what the especiale was, and she brought me this chicken stew with fried plantians which was fantastic, smoky, just delicious. I could rhapsodise about it forever. And it was only $3.50! For dinner. With this whole ATM card not working thing, I´m really trying to see how much money I can save. Today my lunch of chicken neck soup with bizarre squashes in it and rice was $2, then I treated myself to a 25 cent banana cupcake with merange on top. I didn´t eat the neck, but I didn´t even know what was in the soup until it came to my table. I just went to the place next to the laundromat because it looked cheap and local. And that was the only thing on the menu.
My room comes with a TV so last night I watched the news. Uh oh. I knew there was some flooding in Boquete and Bocas del toro, where I´ve been planning to go (pretty much my whole reason for coming here) and it´s BAD. Roads washed away, thousands lost their homes and businesses. Other travellers are getting e-mails saying their reservations have been cancelled. This situation is all too familiar, since I was in Thailand during the tsunami.. That´s how I discovered Laos, which was great. I´m going to David tomorrow, then to the lost and found hostel, check it out Cool, isn´t it? One very smart thing I did was bring my cellphone, which actually works here. I called them and they are open and will pick me up from David and the guy said we can talk about beaches when I get there. Luckily I have two weeks, so I still have some time. Though not much. These are my choices:
1. Go to the San Blas. I researched this a ton before I came here. Pros: nice beaches. Cons: the cheaper places have toilets that empty into the ocean, it´s sorta expensive (have to fly there), two people have told me they were bored there after 2 days. I´ve been calling and some of the places are booked up. And I can´t afford $150 a night or anything like that.
2. Go to Costa Rica. Pros: possible nice beaches in the Corcovado-Osa penninsula area. Plus I love taking busses. Really, I do. Cons: I have no guidebook, I have already been to Costa Rica, I wanted to go to PANAMA. Costa Rican food is also kind of..meh.
3. Find another beach in Panama. But it can´t be deserted, I am travelling solo and for safetý´s sake I need other gringos around. When I get to David, I´m going to poll people at the hostel.
David itself isn´t supposed to be anything to write home about, but I can go to a real bank to cash my travellers checks and go to that cool eco lodge from there.
Maybe I won´t even see many beaches. I really came here to see Panama. And that´s what Í´ve been doing. I didnt´want this trip to be stressful (see Asia 04-05), so I´m going to try not to stress. The whole ATM not working thing isn´t helping.. but I´ll get through it! At least I´m not home in the cold. Panama or Costa Rica? What a problem to have. boo hoo poor me, right? I mean, I hiked to some beautiful waterfalls this morning. Life is good in El Valle (when it´s not pouring rain like it is now..). I totally dig this little town.
Coworkers, if you are reading, comment and sign your name. Guess where I´m going for dinner tonight? Yeah that´s right, the chicken stew place!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Santa Clara: Beaten senseless by Salsa music

I woke up bright and early in Casco Viejo to rain tapping on the roof. I had originally planned to explore Casco Viejo today, but since I saw most of it the night before, I got itchy to move on to a beach. In the lobby I mulled over my options and worried about some logistics when Eli gave me a fist bump and said ¨be a traveller!¨. I caught a taxi driven by a woman. She was as nice as could be, and at one point asked me how old I was. Well actually I turned 38 yesterday. Turns out that is her exact birthday as well, year and all! I thought that was an auspicious and promising sign to my day. I went to the main bus terminal which was attached to a shopping mall. I tried 4 different ATM machines with no success, then saw that the internet was closed as well. The ATM problem worries me, but this happened in Brazil as well. I have got to get a damn debit card and not rely on my normal ATM. Have I not learned my lesson before? I have travellers checks and my credit card and enough to get me through a week of normal spending. I may have to charge all of my hotels and hostels, and pay myself back later to get though two weeks. I will make it happen regardless. Mai pen rai. whatever.
I sat in the bus terminal to eat my Mc Donalds desayuno deluxe, and noticed that everyone´s favorite place at the bus terminal is a chicken chain called ¨pio pio¨, with a baby chick as the logo. They must have named it that because baby chicks sort of make that noise, don´t they? pio! pio pio! haha.. love it.
Once again I found myself to be the only gringo on the bus. It was nice and airconditioned, and we listened to salsa. Think about how loud you might listen to music in a car, then turn it up about 5 notches. That´s how loud music is on the busses. I do like salsa though, so I enjoyed the ride though lush scenery, and in two hours I was in Santa Clara.
I got off and walked the 2KM to the beach, to my planned hotel, cabañas veraneras. Sweat poured out of my face and my backpack is a little heavy. Though I´ve noticed the whole marathon thing this year has made the backpack easier to carry and walk around with. I´ve always been able to manage it, but I can tell a difference from last year. Which is nice. After walking down the road in 95 degree temperatures, I checked into a cute treehouse looking room overlooking a restarant at the beach. The beach was lovely, and I was the only gringo there that I could see. Hundreds and thousands of Panamanians were hanging at the beach and had pointed their car sound systems at the water, fighting with the speakers coming out of every restaurant on the small stretch of beach. The day started fairly quietly, but by 4PM the salsa was deafening. Even I was annoyed and couldn´t hide from the music. I read my Barack Obama book on the beach (dreams of my father - which is very good) and tried to not let the rhythm get me, but as Gloria Estefan warns us, the rhythm is gonna get you. The eight count beat and swelling horn sections and backup singers held me hostage until about 6PM, when miraculously everyone went packed up and home. EVERYONE, and the beach was beautiful and peaceful, where I enjoyed the sunset (above).
I had a fabulous dinner of cevice and an Atlas beer (which I have decided is my favorite), and listened to salsa music at a softer volume, which is still louder than what you might consider normal in a restaurant. Between the bus and the day at the beach, I had listened to salsa for over 12 hours straight. What I´ve concluded is where other Central American places such as Guatemala and Costa Rica play salsa SOME of the time, Panama must play salsa ALL of the time. And that´s OK. I could not, for example go to a place that played heavy metal ALL of the time, country or emo rock ALL of the time. So whatever those countries are, I need to find them and probably avoid them. The salsa though, it´s OK. Though we are only on day 3.
Suddenly the salsa was interrupted by the unmistakable sounds of KC and the sunshine band. It was enough to cause me to put my book down and look around in shock. I knew there was another table of loud american tourists, and now they were drunkenly dancing. A pot bellied man in his early 70s, his young panamanian girlfriend, and the man´s daughter. I introduced myself to them (when you are the only people in a restaurant and someone causes a scene, that´s what you do I suppose) and they invited me over to their table. ¨Hey, Chicago - GIT OVER HERE!!!¨The daughter (in her 40s) was visiting her dad (who had retired in Panama) and brought along her young boyfriend, 30 at most. They were quite a family. Loud and brash, and kinda trashy and a lot of fun. The staff of the restaurant played the KC and the sunshine CD that they had brought in to be played. Which mortified me on some level, but was hillarious at the same time. The daughter and boyfriend were into NASCAR and the father proudly told me he wasn´t divorced yet to his former wife. His Panamanian girlfriend was very sweet and friendly. We sat for a few hours and for once it was nice to not be the most obnoxious person at the table for once. I got birthday drinks again. (why not?) The father was giving me deja vu for some reason, I couldn´t figure it out... did I know him? How could I know him? Then I realized it was becuase he sounded EXACTLY like Dr Phil. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and Dr Phil said ¨YOU GOTTA GO NUMBER ONE OR NUMBER TWO?¨ haha.. I told them number one, but everyone who knows me knows that poop stories are the way to my heart, and when I come back, I´ve got a good one for you. Boyfriend pointed to the daugher and yelled after me ¨She LOVES POOP STORIES!!¨
I returned to the table and told them my famous story about the comcast guy and what he did to my bathroom, which pleased them. They were confused about how I got there, how I found this place and I explained the whole backpacking thing to them, and how we all read the same guidebook, stay in the same places, blah blah.. They admired it and kind of shook their heads, but Dr Phil lectured me about safety, which I thought was nice in a fatherly way. I went to bed at around 11 and slept well to the sound of the Pacific ocean.
Some random observations about panama, other than the mandatory salsa at all times law:
*people here drive new, clean cars. Waaay newer and cleaner than the other CA countries. And they favor Toyota over all others
*Ocean Pacific is alive and well. I saw an Op billboard and people wearing new Op clothing.
*I always, always see foreign lookalikes to people I know from home. At Santa Clara beach was the Panamanian Dan Hansen and a Panamanian Logan Rosenthal! AKAP, you´ll have to tell him!
above: my lunch of chimichurri steak and the sunset at Santa Clara

Panama City: Langosta, not Langostina!

My grand plan for Panama City was to stay in two contrasting neighborhoods, the more historical one coming in, and the flashy bank district with all its glitz and glamour on the way home. Lonely Planet had talked up the Casco Viejo neighborhood as ¨less seedy than 5 years ago¨ and one of Panama City´s most up and coming hip and trendy places. Where you might see abandoned buildings, then you would find youself in a hip, candle lit retaurant.
After a quick and painless trip down to Panama and no stay this time in a crappy Dallas holiday inn, the humidity was completely overwhelming. I am not complaining.... But wow was it hot, even at 9PM. I used a trick I had read about to get a cheaper taxi into town, (it´s a good one! Go to the arrivals area and get a taxi dropping someone off. They are more willing to cut you a deal than the guys getting all the people coming off the plane into the country for the first time. I paid $10 less than the book said it would cost!) This is what I was thinking as we drove through Panama City:
wow, this is nice! beautiful high rises, what a skyline... Love that salsa music in the taxi. da..dadada...da. da! Ba ba baba!! Hey.. I´m in PANAMA now! kickass! oooh, fancy hotels and casinos... Ok where are we going now?
CLICK!!! my driver locks the doors
holy crap are those prostitutes? What the? Oh man... wow. Bad slum. very bad slum. Damn you Lonely Planet! I might have my driver turn this car around and take me back to the Sheraton I saw a ways back...Is he taking me here to kill me or is this how Casco Viejo is going to be?
He called my hotel for directions, (not his murder accomplice as I was thinking) then we finally found the Hospedaje Casco Viejo. The neighborhood was better than before, we were just separated from Panama City by a horrific slum. Still, I was pretty shellshocked when I walked in but relieved to see some backpackers in the lobby. Before I even checked into my room (which was huge, had a balcony and a great fan), they asked me if I wanted to go out for a beer. Um, YES.
I joined Miranda (teacher from N Cali) Eli (cute little culinary student from Savannah) and an older dude, I forgot his name, but he was close friends with Abby Hoffman in the 60s and went to the Chicago 7 trial. He wrote a book about the 60s as well and I have to look for it. Miranda had also been in Thailand during the tsunami, and had been to Antigua over Christmas. So the three of us had lots to talk about. Everyone had some travel stories, and What´s his name had good stories about Chicago in 1971 during the Chicago 7 trial. I couldn´t have asked for a better crew for my first night in Panama. A free spirit, a culinary student and a genuine, authentic hippie.
Casco Viejo was charming at night, though a little sketch and I was relived to have company. Miranda and I had just arrived, and Eli had been here for a few nights. He took us to a jazz bar, then to a cool outdoor restaurant with some live music. I accidentally ordered prawn soup instead of lobster, but it was still fanstastic. It had a huge, whole prawn floating in the top. I love it when I get to make eye contact with my food. I suddenly remembered again that it was my birthday and they all gave me hugs and bought me a beer.

We wandered around a little bit more, and heard a live band coming from a stone wall. It was this place I had read about, La Casona. Kind of a run down, though atmospheric public space that sometimes has performances, music jams, theme nights, etc. Literally just an ancient stone wall with a roof overhead, with lots of candles. It looked like a place we might have an underground dinner party in Chicago. The only other gringo in there, a girl from New york who made it clear that she was ¨with the band¨, so nicely gave us a few beers from a plastic bag. The band consisted of three boozed up college kids, and they took turns pretending to be Axl rose. We heard ¨don´t cry¨, and ¨knock knock knockin on heaven´s door! .. ay...AY AYAYAY!!!!¨ Along with some of their own Panamanian ballads that everyone but us knew. Miranda and I were laughing at one of their friends, a kid who wasn´t in the band but stood ALMOST on the stage and sang along to every song. He had a very impressive beer belly - he looked pregnant. And the tight white soccer shirt wasn´t helping his look. We thought about funny songs we've heard that we could request ¨hey, do you know gasolina? Do you know papichula?¨
We capped off the night on the roof of the hostel with a couple more balboas (one of panama´s beers) and I finally went to bed around 230A.