Voyager Sans Peur

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

Embracing the sun at Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

Welcome to Sans Peur! Here I will be recording my many journeys across the globe. Sans Peur is French for “without fear”. I truly believe that the best way to see the world is without hesitation,  diving into the unknown, and learning as much as you possibly can. I waited a number of years to travel, wanting to feel comfortable when I did it. But that’s the best part of traveling – it’s NOT comfortable! It’s out of your comfort zone, and you know what? That’s glorious. A healthy dose of caution is of course necessary, but you should never let fear prevent you from experiencing the plethora of gifts this world and it’s people have to offer you. Alors, voyagez avec moi!

 

 

 

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Wide Eyes, White Knuckles, and an Exasperated Kia – Driving in Panama

So you want to drive across Panama? Let me tell you, driving in Panama is an experience. Buckle up, kids. (Oh wait, it’s Panama, so you CAN’T!)

On Monday evening, Christine, Clayton and I went to pick up the rental car, all packed and ready to leave Panama City for the country. In my infinite wisdom, I had scheduled the pick-up time to be during the height of rush hour. This leads me to believe that despite months of planning, hardships can come right down to just plain lack of common sense. Brilliant.

Our car for the week was to be a little white Kia Picanto. With exactly once lesson in manual transmission driving under my belt, I’d opted for the more pricey automatic. Still, the car came out to about $5 a day – it’s the added insurance costs that get you, but all in all, a really affordable option for a car for the week (provided you have a credit card that will cover half the insurance cost). Our Kia had about 30,000 kilometers on it at the start, and seemed to be in pretty good shape.

We swung by Zach and Christine’s apartment and just managed to fit in all four passengers and associated luggage. A bit cramped but with high spirits, we set off for Valle del Anton, a mountain town south west of Panama City and about two hours of driving in the best of times. However, being rush hour in Panama, this was not the best of times, and the entire trip would take closer to four hours.

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Now that’s the face of bravery.

I gripped the wheel with white knuckles as we entered the chaotic streets of the city. During rush hour, the roads seem more like a giant free-for-all than a sensical societal structure. Stop lights were suggestions. Lane demarcations disappeared completely in the crush of cars and motorcycles. The sun set quickly, and suddenly my field of view was a blaze of flashing lights in a sea of steel. Many people in Panama have tripped out their cars with different colored flashing lights, blinking brake lights, and crazy colors. Coupled with the blaring of all manner of horns, I was in sensory overload. We finally made it to the interchange to get on the Pan-American highway, and I felt like I was in a spaghetti knot. Everyone was slowly merging into one giant vehicular mass, and I quickly learned it was “do or die”. Boldness was the name of this game, otherwise you’d never get anywhere, and need to subsist purely on the foodstuffs that were being sold by people walking up and down the aisles of traffic pushing carts. Yes, in the middle of the interchange. Talk about business-savvy.

To make matters worse, the unfortunate shortcomings of the Kia were felt almost immediately. Automatically reaching for seatbelts in the back seat, Zach and Christine fell victim to the bizarre fact that there just aren’t seatbelts in the back seats of Panamanian cars. Well perhaps there are, but I never saw any. The law only requires seat belts in the front seats, and we spent a while theorizing why the back seat belts would be actively taken out. We came up short – sort of like the safety standards. The windows began to fog horridly, both inside and out. The windshield wipers were pitiful and just smeared the smog around a bit, and we couldn’t figure out what setting on the inside of the car would dehumidify. Clayton kindly sacrificed a shirt in our efforts for clear vision.

Things were a bit easier once we reached the highway, though throughout all my driving experiences in Panama, I don’t think my comfort level ever dipped below “constant, mild panic”. As it was dark, we didn’t see much on the way to Valle del Anton, though as we approached the town through the mountains we had great views of a fantastic lightning storm in the distance. That night I also learned that rest stops aren’t a thing in Panama, but hey, ditches in the middle of nowhere are everywhere. How lucky.

Having arrived to Valle del Anton safely, I couldn’t rest on my laurels for long. There would be a few long haul drives on this trip. Clayton and I would tackle the six hour drive to Boquete, the four hour drive to Almirante, and the final eleven hour drive back to Panama City on our own.

We left for Boquete on Wednesday morning. Following the advice of our bed and breakfast host, we took a shortcut through the mountains. The weather was gorgeous, and as we twisted and turned up the steep slopes, we passed little towns bedecked in flags and banners. Our best guess was that it was a celebration of a saint, but we can’t be sure. The vistas that greeted us from the tops of mountains were breathtaking, and we felt on top of the world.

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However, our Kia didn’t share the same attitude. Despite only having 30,000 kilometers, suspension was a distant memory. Potholes in Panama were unreal. Deep and sudden, they dotted the road without rhyme or reason, and by the end of our travels our backs were sore from all the bumping and jolting despite my best efforts to avoid them (or at least slow down for them). The little Kia also wasn’t a fan of steep inclines either, aka, Panama itself. The little transmission did its best, but we had to help it by turning off the A/C on particularly steep inclines. Whether it helped or not doesn’t matter – we felt better doing it, despite the sweat trickling down our broken backs.

Entering the highway brought relief from the sharp turns and single lane roads, but little else. Potholes were a problem on the highway too, and Clayton pointed out several that would easily kill a motorcyclist. On top of this, people drive fast on the Pan-American highway. Really, really fast. But perhaps my perspective is skewed, since in the whole of Panama, the fastest speed limit I saw was 110 km/h just outside Panama City. Most of the country oscillated between 50 and 80 km/h on the highway (30 to 50mph), which was really slow. Since I was too afraid to speed and get caught in the numerous speed traps we saw, it felt like other cars were racing by, even if they were just going at a more sensible speed. Speed limits would change fast and often without warning, and Clayton and I surmised that perhaps that was on purpose to catch speeders. Indeed, there were a lot of police out and about, and we saw several people get caught. We watched as one policeman was sitting in the shade on the side of the road, and pulled over the truck in front of us by simply pointing at the truck, then the side of the road, indicating he should pull over. And it worked.

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The wildly exciting views off the Pan-American Highway in Central Panama

My anxiety at being pulled over only increased when we encountered checkpoints. Not being able to speak any Spanish, the idea of trying to explain myself in any fashion didn’t appeal. I’d read some horror stories and heard lots of warnings about bribes.The first official checkpoint we passed through was on our way to Boquete in eastern Panama. I nervously gathered all my documents in hand as our car crept up the queue. I felt infinitely better when the policeman smiled and waved at a baby in the car in front of us, and then I felt just silly when the policeman simply glanced at my passport, yawned, and waved us through. Even when Clayton drove through a checkpoint outside Almirante without stopping and the policeman had to flag us down, we never had any issues whatsoever. I suppose it’s always good to be cautious and prepared, but over-worrying is not necessary.

The majority of our time on the Pan-American highway was uneventful. It’s flat, though there was never one location in Panama where I couldn’t see a mountain at least in the distance. The highway became a gradual uphill for miles and miles as we approached Boquete and neared the Highlands.

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Look how calm I seem.

As useful as GPS is (I can’t imagine traveling without it, spoiled millennial that I am), it can certainly lull you into a false sense of security. Late for a coffee tour in Boquete, I blindly followed the GPS instructions through the town towards the coffee farm. The narrow street suddenly rose sharply and turned to gravel, and in my infinite wisdom I kept the car plodding along up the street, not really knowing what else to do. The road got bumpier and bumpier, gravel kicking up behind us, and suddenly, we weren’t moving anymore, though my foot was still pressing the gas pedal to the floor. This incline just wasn’t in the stars for our little Kia. Clayton got out and talked me through a ten point turn. Several older gentlemen all sitting and smoking on their respective porches watched as the two crazy Americans fiercely debated the turning radius of the little Kia. Finally succeeding in turning the car around, I watched as one of the men gave me a thumbs up and nod of approval in the rearview mirror.

The drive from Boquete to Almirante, a port city near the border with Costa Rica on the Caribbean side and our portal to Bocas del Toro, was perhaps the most eventful. The drive would take us through the cloud forests and some more remote parts of the country.

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Look at all this information that is probably important to understand!

The first part of the drive was easy, through some more remote farmland outside Boquete. It still offered up some notable events. Once, I thought a giant palm leaf had fallen across the road. Only when we were close and it suddenly shot into the bushes on the side of the road did we realize it had been an enormous iguana sunning itself. It must have been four feet, tip to tail. At one point the speed limit suddenly slowed to an infuriating 20 km/h, but it soon came to light that it was because we would be crossing a giant dam on a narrow lane road. Luckily that speed limit didn’t last long, or we’d still be driving in Panama to this day. We passed men riding their horses down the road, looking not unlike the Mexican charros. Soon enough we were driving continuously uphill as we approached the jagged mountain ranges separating us from the Caribbean. I felt like we were in an optical illusion – we could see for miles on all side, and the landscape was rich and verdant. Waves of thick, opaque clouds seemed to tumble over the sides of the mountain peaks, moving quickly yet never seeming to grow or dissipate – otherwise, the sky was a deep, jeweled blue. We commented on the accuracy of the name of a village we passed – Bella Vista.

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Approaching the Highlands of Panama

Mountain driving didn’t offer much of a respite for nerves. Speeding cars, trucks, and buses remained a constant source of anxiety. It didn’t matter that we were on narrow country roads with sharp turns, drivers up here sped just as much as on the highway. I often would pull over to let them pass rather than have a tailgating friend for miles and miles. They clearly knew the roads and the rules. This led to a couple hair-raising moments as we pulled over next to sharp drop-offs or surprise ditches, but hey, adrenaline keeps you awake, right? The roads were as twisted as ever, and as we gained in altitude, the wind picked up and buffeted the Kia from all sides. The waves of thick clouds we’d seen as we approached the mountains were no longer beautiful in their distant glory – we were driving straight into them. The fog was so thick, we could barely see twenty feet in front, and soon enough, it began fiercely pouring with rain. Once we were on the way down the mountains, the rain cleared up, but I remained as vigilant as ever since the road could suddenly produce chickens, dogs, stopped chivas, or workers with machetes slung over their shoulders. At one point, I had to slow down quite suddenly as we approached a few houses and children came running out into the road, waving bunches of lettuce and hoping to make a sale. I was almost as afraid of hitting a chicken as I was of hitting a child. By law, you need to find the owner of the chicken and make reparations.

Eventually, the high state of anxiety and repetitive scenery led to much impatience for reaching our destination. Miles and miles of forest, broken up by thatched-roof houses on stilts and bus stops. We felt so far removed from civilization, though we were constantly surprised by people everywhere, walking or waiting on the sides of the road. After hours of glimpsing the Caribbean through the trees, we arrived at the port city of Almirante.

In Almirante, I got closure on the story of the machete workers we’d seen up and down the country. We’d driven by miles of banana fields, and watched as men carried bunches of bananas they’d harvested with their machetes. We watched men walk down the sides of the remote roads carrying these bunches. We’d let pickup trucks piled impossible high with green bananas speed past us. In Almirante I watched these trucks empty their loads into giant shipping containers stamped with “Chiquita”, ready to be loaded onto the cargo ship in the port. Now, whenever I see bananas in the grocery store marked “$.49 a pound”, I think of those men working in the Panamanian sun, machetes propped on their shoulders.

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Another picture from the Highlands of Panama

Our last full day in Panama meant driving almost the entire length of the country to get back to the capital. All told, it was about eleven hours of driving. We woke up at 5am in a treehouse in Bocas del Toro and had dinner in Panama City. Bocas was not a city of early risers, and we didn’t even get coffee until we arrived to Santiago at 1:30pm in the afternoon. It would have been slightly earlier, but our way was suddenly barred in Santiago by some sort of protest, religious demonstration, or accident. We couldn’t tell. The fact that we made it that far without exploding at one another remains a testament to either Clayton’s patience or my ability to keep a grumpy monologue silent. Though, Clayton’s sudden gasp of awe at a majestic bird and my ensuing near-heart attack made for a testy moment.

The final driving test in Panama was the exit off the Pan-American highway to enter Panama City. A large eighteen-wheeler had pulled off the side of the road and was blocking a clear view of the exit, so the line of green cones indicating that the exit was closed was only visible at the last possible second. I slammed on the brakes, jammed my finger into the hazard light button, then accelerated to the absolute limits of the Kia’s ability to merge back onto the highway. There had been no signs, no warnings that the exit was closed. But that was par for the course in Panama – you need to take things as they come, even if they come very, very suddenly. Never again will I take the plethora of road signs and warning lights on the US road system for granted. These are luxuries.

All in all, our entire driving experience in Panama was incredibly without incident. Driving in foreign countries is always a learning experience, and can be stressful, but it offers the opportunity to see a country on your own terms. Although I’m in no hurry to drive in Central America again any time soon, I’m very glad that we did. There is a wild beauty to Panama, and driving cross country allowed us to experience it firsthand.

Sipping Coffee in the Shadow of Volcán Barú

On Wednesday morning, Zach, Clayton and I enjoyed a last breakfast in Valle del Anton before hitting the road to our respective destinations. Zach was following Christine back to Panama City, and Clayton and I were striking out on our own. Our last Spanish lifeline was leaving us, and we would be left with nothing but our wits and a few Duolingo lessons under our belts.

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Enjoying breakfast in Valle del Anton, Panama

 

The drive to Boquete started out a bit harrowing, as we were following the shortcut recommendation from Ursula, our B&B host. For a more detailed account, including a ten-point turn on the side of the mountain, see my post on driving in Panama here.

After many hours of driving, we finally made it to Boquete, an idyllic town in the highlands of Panama. It’s known as the “land of the eternal spring” due to its balmy climate year round. The town lives in the shadow of Volcán Barú, from the summit of which you can see both oceans on a clear day. (Alas, the 12-hour hike to do so wasn’t in our itinerary this trip). Boquete is the destination for a good number of ex-pats due to the climate and general beauty, and the prices tend to reflect that. However, because it was a touristy town, it meant that we had some delicious restaurants to tempt us and an overall elevated patience level with our broken Spanish.

 

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Amy gives us the tour introduction at Finca Dos Jefes

 

Our first stop was Finca Dos Jefes, a coffee plantation on the mountainside overlooking Boquete brought to life by two American ex-pats. The seven acre farm has an abundance of coffee plants, fruit trees, and flowers. Slightly late, we parked our Kia and joined the group of tour-goers having coffee tea on the shaded patio, listening to a young Panamanian woman with impeccable English and a plethora of tattoos. Amy, the tour guide, was a relatively recent hire of the plantation, but knew the coffee industry backwards and forwards, becoming a strong advocate of fair farming practices in the coffee world.

Just like most every agricultural product, there is a lot of injustice that goes on behind the scenes of producing what you probably enjoy in a mug each morning without thinking. Workers usually deal with terrible conditions and pitiful pay. In Panama, for example, many coffee plantations will employ workers from indigenous tribes, and pay them the same rate that they paid their great-grandparents, banking on a poor education system and lack of leverage from the workers.

 

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Running hands through drying coffee cherries at Finca Dos Jefes

Finca Dos Jefes believes in a fair wage, and is one of the rare “direct trade” producers. Direct trade eliminates the middleman by allowing coffee roasters and shops purchase coffee directly from the farmers. Farmers and roasters develop a mutually beneficial relationship, as buyers will visit to inspect the quality of the coffee,  worker conditions, and sustainability practices, all at no extra cost to the farmer. You’ve probably heard of Fair Trade – while although Fair Trade is a good practice, Fair Trade standards are regulated by a third-party non-profit and farms need to pay upwards of $10,000 in certification fees to be eligible. With Direct Trade, farmers are rewarded for growing good coffee as well as treating their workers and environment with respect, without hefty certification fees.

 

 

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Resting coffee cherries with key information written on the side at Finca Dos Jefes

After hanging on to Amy’s every word for several minutes, we left the shade of the patio to go out into the farm itself. We walked through the raised beds of picked coffee cherries drying in the sun, encouraged to run our hands through them to allow for more to see sunlight and dry out. There is nothing quite like running your hands through hundreds of warm coffee cherries, blue sky above and birds singing. Amy continued to teach us about how coffee is made as we walked, something I never really thought about. The cherries, picked from the coffee plants all around us, would finish drying on the tables with the skin and fruit intact, the sun adding to the natural flavor of the coffee. Once dried to a specified moisture content, the cherries are left to “rest” in bags for at least three months before they’re peeled and crushed to get the green beans out and ready to roast. This allows for a sweetness and flavor to fully develop and absorb into the beans. (Most coffee producers will peel the skins off and rinse the beans, losing all that flavor). The production process of Finca Dos Jefes doesn’t just take sunlight into account – Cafés de la Luna, the coffee they produce, is farmed in alliances with the moon according to ancient farming practices. According to their website, during the waning of the moon, “when the earth inhales”, they furnish organic nutrients into the soil. Then during the waxing of the moon, when force pulls upwards, they nurture the trees to foment growth.

 

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Energetically exploring the raised drying beds at Finca Dos Jefes, Boquete, Panama

 

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Pro-roaster Clayton at Finca Dos Jefes

Continuing on, we passed some compost heaps, and were greeted by some friendly farm dogs that clearly loved tourist attention. Back at the main building, Clayton was chosen from our tour group to roast some beans. (We had a heads up this was coming so he was able to volunteer quickly – thanks Zach!) Amy explained the extremely specific chemical processes that were going on in the roaster, pulling out beans at each stage so we could see the beans go from green and plump to dark and compact. Not only does the temperature of the roaster matter, but how long the beans are kept at each temperature matters, how long it takes to get to those temperatures matters, etc. Clayton roasted like a pro, and Amy divided up the beans so that each tour goer could take home a small bag.

 

Clayton and I headed back down the mountain, following Amy’s direction to avoid the incline extraordinaire (apparently that hill caused issues for other tour goers as well). Soft rains came over the valley and a double rainbow arced over the town. We found our hostel after only going in three or four circles around the block, wondering how they could possible not thing a sign of any kind out front was important. We should have followed the rainbows – instead of a pot of gold, the foot of the rainbow was right where our hostel was! The lady behind the front desk was incredibly patient with our language barrier, and quietly waited as I translated everything using Google Translate on my phone. It slowly came to light that the town had no water until late that evening. For what reason, Google couldn’t tell me, but we’d make do without. We dumped our bags in the room and set out immediately to see the town.

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Rainbows appearing over Boquete, Panama (the second rainbow was too faint for my camera, alas)

Boquete certainly has more Western influences than anywhere else we’d seen in Panama, due to the high number of ex-pats. Perhaps because of this, it appeared wealthier than any other areas we’d seen outside Panama City. We passed the central square, still covered in Christmas lights. It was pretty jarring to see the holiday decor with sweat running down our backs – after several days in the heat and humidity of Central America, it was so easy to forget that it was still January.

Having eaten minimally all day, we were ravenous. We headed to Retrogusto, an Italian restaurant on the main drag. An Italian restaurant in central Panama, you say? Buon appetito, we said! We went there on recommendation from Zach and Christine, and we were not disappointed. The food was delicious, the servers excellent, and the experience lived up to all expectations. Stomachs full, we meandered back to the hostel, and despite the copious amounts of coffee we’d tasted, were soon fast asleep.

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Delectable Italian Fare in central Panama at Retrogusto

Sleepy Sloths and La India Dormida

Valle del Anton is a sleepy town in Central Panama that is located in the crater of a volcano. It’s small yet quaint, and everywhere you look you are surrounded by verdant mountains. Having arrived rather late the previous evening, we all woke up bright and early to start exploring.

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Clayton getting into sloth-mode at the entrance to Casa Mariposa, Valle del Anton, Panama

Clayton and I were staying Casa  Mariposa, an adorable bed and breakfast that doubled as a sloth rescue mission.  Our guest house overlooked luscious gardens, which included everything from a fancy veranda with hammocks to chicken coops. Our room was painted with scenes of butterflies and birds – a little paradise in the valley. Alas, our first experience that morning was being unable to find the guest house keys. We tore the room, the rental car, and our bags apart. To this day, they remain missing, but luckily the owners were incredibly friendly and understanding of the frazzled Americans and we were able to easily compensate them for the lost keys.

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Our new sloth friend!

We met up with Zach and Christine for breakfast at Dos Hermanos, a small restaurant on the main road where we enjoyed simple eggs and vegetables with our coffee. We had to get a move on since Christine was catching the bus back to Panama City that afternoon, so we headed back to the B&B to get the car to head on our hike. Luckily, when we stopped by to get the car, a sloth was out. Ursula, one of the owners, happily educated us on sloths and let us hang out with the little guy. He came to the rescue house when he was quite young, so wouldn’t be released out into the wild since he was too brave to survive out there. For example, he had no problem with climbing down to the ground to get to a particular juicy bush, but in the wild, sloths are incredibly vulnerable on the ground and only go to the forest floor once a week to go to the bathroom. Ursula let us pet him, and I was shocked at how soft his fur was! He even grabbed onto my finger, and I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the incredible grip he demonstrated. Sloths have an amazing amount of strength in their claws!

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La India Dormida, Valle del Anton, Panama

Our sloth visit over, we piled into the car and headed off to find the start of our planned hike. Some of the mountains overlooking Valle del Anton are famous for looking like a sleeping girl, and they are known as “ La India Dormida”, or the Sleeping Indian Girl. The legend is of a chieftain’s daughter who fell in love with a Spanish soldier. A strong fighter of her tribe fell for her, and when she did not return his love, he leapt to his death from the mountaintops. The chieftain’s daughter left her home in sorrow for the grief that she caused, weeping for her fate and never seeing her own true love again. She fell dead when looking back to the mountains where she had been born, and the mountains were so touched by the sad story they formed the shape of the girl.

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The illusive trail entrance to La India Dormida, Valle Del Anton, Panama

The hike was reputed to have beautiful views and we were excited to get started, but being Panama, it was incredibly difficult to find the entrance. Our GPS took us in pothole-riddled circles until we found the entrance. We parked the car and walked up through a series of empty booths. Clearly this place was far more busy on the weekend, and had all the infrastructure for vendors to sell their wares. Being a Tuesday, it was pretty empty. We paid our small fee to enter the trail, picked up some maps, and headed up the mountain.

Having rained the day before, the trail was a cascade of mud and slippery rocks. Watching our footing carefully, we were still able to enjoy the rich forest sights, sounds, and smells. The trail went straight up the mountain, and to the left was a long series of waterfalls, all swollen due to the rains. Sun-dappled vegetation came with the soundtrack of the constant buzz of insects and waterfalls; music to the eyes and ears. The first spot of note we passed were the petroglyphs, or La Piedra Pintada. These petroglyphs date back thousands and thousands of years, to the Pre-Columbian era. No one knows for sure what they mean, but plenty of people have their own theories.

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La Piedra Pintada, ancient petroglyphs found on La India Dormida in Valle del Anton, Panama

We passed a French tour group on the way up, and after struggling pathetically through so much Spanish, it was a delight to speak to people in a language I could actually understand. They helped us with a fork in the road, but as we encountered several more unmarked splits, we had to rely on the reviews that all said keep left (as dubious as the left seemed to look) as well as sheer luck.

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The top of La India Dormida, Valle Del Anton, Panama

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Brave explorers reveling in the success of mountain climbing

After much huffing and puffing, we made it to the top. The views were breathtaking – we could see out across the entire valley, which was the crater of the volcano, and the strong winds buffeted us soundly as we enjoyed the view. The landscape looked straight out of a fantasy, and due to the shape of the valley, all sorts of sounds traveled up to us and felt like they were coming from just feet away. Dogs barking, children laughing, chickens clucking, music beating. The trail itself continued for several miles, all along the sleeping Indian girl’s bust and back, but we would turn to go back the way we came. But not before enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cold one! The adrenaline of reaching the top seemed to set in, and general shenanigans were had before heading back down the mountain.

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A waterfall pool made for jumping and cooling off on La India Dormida, Valle del Anton, Panama

Before we reached the end of our trek, we decided to swim at one of the waterfalls. Needing to change into a swimsuit, I found what I thought was a secluded place off the trail, but clearly it was well known to local children, as I quickly found out. Nothing like standing in the middle of the Panamanian cloud forest with strategically placed towels and feeling like a total fool. Luckily, I managed to maintain dignity and privacy after that, and all of us appropriately attired, we hopped into the refreshingly cold water. Mustering up some courage (some needing to dig deeper than others… cough ME cough), we took turns jumping off the waterfall into the pool. I must have looked the most hesitant, because I surfaced to the sound of several strangers clapping for my success along with our little friend group.

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Zach showcasing our delectable meal at Del Inca – all for under $5!

Back in town, we bid goodbye to Christine after enjoying some chai tea lattes from a coffee shop. How very millennial of us. Zach, Clayton, and I then slowly meandered our way to a well-reviewed Incan restaurant for dinner, Camino Del Inca. The menu listed several pricey dishes, but due to Zach’s keen eye when perusing the reviews, we knew to ask for the fish of the day platter. For less than $5 each, we were delighted with enormous platters of melt-in-your-mouth fish, rice, beans, and salad, and a glass of pineapple juice.

Bellies full, we walked off the decadence-overload by exploring a bit more of the tiny downtown. The sun was setting, which meant that things were closing down. Still, I was able to look through a few vendor stalls. We shared a papaya batido (milkshake), then called it a night. Clayton and I spent our last bits of energy enjoying the sounds of the forest from the hammocks in the B&B garden, imagining the lives of the sloths.

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Making use of the hammocks at Casa Mariposa, Valle del Anton, Panama

The Canal and West of Casco

Monday dawned bright and clear, and Zach, Clayton, and I hopped on a bus to Miraflores Locks, a museum and viewing station for the Panama Canal just north of Panama City. The journey was fairly smooth, though we did get off a stop early in our confusion. Only when we were off the bus did we understand what the bus driver had been trying to tell us, and why he shook his head as he drove off. Unphased, we set off to complete the half mile to our destination.

We traipsed up the hill to the museum that doubled as a viewing platform and purchased our tickets. We then tried to get to the highest viewing platform, and after several attempts and several staircases, (nothing can possibly be straightforward in Panama), we found ourselves on the fourth floor overlooking one of the wonders of the modern world.

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A cargo ship entering the first lock at Miraflores Locks

The Panama Canal is a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is critical for international maritime trade, and is an extraordinary feat of engineering. The French were the first to try and build the Panama canal in the 1880s after their success with the Suez Canal in Egypt, but failed due to being unprepared for the tropical conditions. The US took over in the early 1900s, connecting large lakes throughout the isthmus to join the two oceans. Americans retained control until 1977, when it was handed over completely to the Panamanians, with much rejoicing on the Panamanian side. There are multiple lanes now, allowing for absolutely enormous cargo ships to fit through, sometimes with mere feet on either side. It takes about six to eight hours for ships to pass through, and midday the direction changes, so there’s a big time gap in the middle where you can’t see any ships go through as they wait for them to clear out. Ships pay enormous fees to go through the canal, the average being about $150,000, but some of the ships can pay a few million to get through depending on their size and what they’re carrying. And yet, the fees are peanuts to them. Capitalism!

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The viewing deck at Miraflores Locks, Panama

We had arrived early, so luckily the viewing platform was basically empty and we could get good views of some giant ships passing through. We watched as one oil tanker slowly made its way through the lock. It was bizarre – everything seemed to move so slowly, but if you looked away for a second, the ship had moved into a lock and had risen by dozens of feet already. The power involved is incredible, but it’s all based on how the water flows back and forth with gravity, and the opening and closing of the locks. For something so spectacular, it is a wonderfully smooth process.

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I feel safer already with these two at the helm…

We meandered through the museum, learning about the history of the canal and how it was built thanks to well-thought out exhibits and a short film in a theater. We were even provided the option to steer a ship (!)…..virtually. We went out to watch a cruise ship pass through, but by that time the viewing deck was so crowded we decided to leave.

Back in Panama City, headed to Casco Viejo where we were to meet Victor, a friend of Zach’s that he volunteers with teaching children English in the Chorrillo neighborhood. Chorrillo is a neighborhood that borders Casco Viejo, and one of the poorer parts of the city. As we waited we bought some Geisha coffee at the American Trade Hotel. Geisha coffee from Panama is considered one of the best coffees in the world, and some varieties, depending on where it comes from, is the most expensive in the world. I paid $9 for a small cup, and to tell the truth, I didn’t taste much difference from a regular coffee. It tasted like a light roast with floral notes. Though I suppose this wasn’t one of the more expensive varieties. I guess I learned that if you’re going to shell out for Geisha coffee, you might as well pay more for the real deal.

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Our absolutely incredible tour guide Victor starting the tour with Zach and Clayton

Victor soon found us, and we began our tour. A long-time resident of Panama City, Victor is a fount of information on the surrounding area and Chorrillo, where he spends the majority of his time helping out the community. We walked from the central square of Casco Viejo a few streets over to enter Chorrillo. Victor pointed out the policemen walking up and down the street that bordered the two neighborhoods, explaining that they were there to stop “white people” from accidentally crossing over unawares. Because the neighborhoods were so close to one another, it was easy to wander over into Chorrillo, and they didn’t want unsuspecting tourists to find themselves in an area they may not want to be in.

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Protests against the gentrification spreading into Chorrillo, forcing locals out due to rising prices

The shift between the renovated, clean, and elegant buildings of Casco Viejo and the run-down, dilapidated, seemingly forgotten buildings of Chorrillo was indeed sudden, and the difference was like night and day. In the first block, we spied cock fighting, trash everywhere, and buildings literally crumbling before our eyes. It was at this time that Christine was able to join us, and Victor regaled the four of us with some of the neighborhood history. This part of town was caught up in the cross fires, quite literally, during the American ousting of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega in 1989. Troops came through and many people fled, and the end result was empty buildings with weapons left behind. For many years after, Chorrillo was rife with gang violence. Victor casually pointed out corners where there were shootouts and deaths, where one gang territory had ended and another began, etc. But things have improved quite a bit over the past few years, and these days it is much safer. Indeed, I felt perfectly safe walking through the neighborhood with Victor. The fact that everyone seemed to know Victor personally didn’t hurt – everyone called out greetings and seemed happy to see him. My first impression that Victor acted as a pillar of the community didn’t seem to be far off.

Victor took us to a training gym where famous boxers trained and pointed out houses where famous soccer players came from. It was beautiful to me how the community seemed to focus on the heroes – despite the struggles the neighborhood is facing, it is clear that the positive role models are incredibly important and instill a fierce sense of pride in the community.

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Neighborhood kids greeting Zach and Victor, their English teachers

Not long after Victor showed us where he and Zach taught English at the community center, we turned down a side street and Victor was immediately rushed by a group of beaming children. He was drowning in hugs and shouts, and the sight was so pure it almost moved me to tears. And before I knew it, for some inexplicable reason I was being hugged by all the children too. The young girls especially took a liking to me, and as we continued down the street, they all seemed to want to hold my hand. The children took us to a soccer field in the neighborhood and asked us to play with them. We obliged, despite the midday heat.

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Zach and Christine playing a much better game than I was!

These kids were good. Like, I-was-embarrassed-to-play-with-them good. I don’t pretend to know the first thing about soccer, but being about fifteen years older than most of them falsely led me to believe I could get by without making a fool of myself. How wrong I was. I reverted back to my school-day tactics of hanging out wherever the ball wasn’t, while somehow looking like I was always running towards it. It’s a method perfected over many years. What can I say, I was a rower – land sports aren’t my thing. In any case, I was impressed, and I can tell that many of the kids see soccer as a way to get out of their current situation. I hope that the socio-economic situation in Chorrillo can continue to improve so that it’s not their only option, especially since it appeared that there weren’t any neighborhood girl’s teams (though Zach did give Victor the idea to start one up, so perhaps that will change in the near future).

After saying goodbye to the children (and after patiently explaining to some young girls that no, I’d prefer not to give them my class ring), we stopped for lunch at a restaurant closer to Casco Viejo. Victor ordered our lunches, and Clayton and I shared our delicious dishes of rice, fish, chicken, and plantains. We thanked Victor effusively for the informative tour. It was truly an honor to have met him, and I ardently hope that he can continue to make the positive progress he wants in the area.

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Ending our tour with a delicious lunch in Chorrillo neighborhood

After enjoying some paletas in Casco Viejo, Clayton and I struck out on our own. We hoped to go see Panamá Viejo, historic ruins that are what is left of Old Panama City, the original capital. We nervously hailed a taxi, well aware that between us we had about three words of Spanish. We did manage to communicate where we wanted to go, and we were soon off through the streets. I observed how driving was done in Panama City with wide eyes, knowing full well that I would need to drive a rental car out of the city that very night. As I watched cars swerve and honk, I was not comforted.

Sadly, when we arrived at Panamá Viejo, we found out that it was closed for some reason hastily explained to us in Spanish. The taxi driver asked where we wanted to go next, and fearing an astronomical ride charge, we asked to be dropped off at the nearest bus station. Our driver took us to the next closest one, explaining in broken English that the neighborhood the first one we saw was in was “no good”. We were dubious this was true, but didn’t have much choice. Finally, it was time to disembark and pay.

Taxis in Panama are unmetered, and it’s generally understood that you’ll haggle a price at the end of the ride. This is much, much easier when you speak the same language. Unfortunately, many taxi drivers will take advantage of non-Spanish speakers and charge exorbitant fees. For example, we’d be asked for $15 when we’d taken a $5 ride. We’d been warned against this, and told to stand our ground. Although it’s considered normal, I was really uncomfortable haggling with such extremes. Ubers are clearly a lot easier for tourists to deal with since prices are set by the app, but recently the taxi drivers in Panama lobbied against Uber and won. The ensuing strict rules for Uber drivers resulted in a sharp decline of availability. It’s a shame that tourists are made to feel so uncomfortable, and I admit it left me with a more negative feeling than I would have liked.

In any case, soon enough we were on a bus back to Zach and Christine’s apartment, and Christine very kindly came with us to pick up the rental car that would be taking us to Valle del Anton. The process for picking up the rental was a lot smoother than I had anticipated (mostly due to Christine’s patient translations), and suddenly I was behind the wheel in Panama City during rush hour. Driving in Panama was an experience in and of itself, so I will be dedicating an entire post to the ordeals.

The day ultimately ended with Zach, Christine, Clayton and I all safe in Valle del Anton, (though I was about twenty years older due to the stress of getting us there). Clayton and I were staying at a quaint bed and breakfast that doubled as a sloth rescue, but given it was dark, we wouldn’t be able to see much until the following day. Exhausted, we collapsed into sleep.

 

Into the Jungle: A visit with the Emberá

 

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Taxi ride to Chagres National Forest

On Saturday, Zach, Christine, and I were picked up at 8:30am sharp for our trip to an Emberá Village in the Chagres National Forest. The Emberá are one of the three main indigenous tribes of Panama, along with the Guna and Ngöbe-Buglé. We had booked the tour directly through the village, which meant that we were more confident that all our money was going to the village rather than a middle-man. The village we were to visit sent Evan, (pronounced Ee-vahn), and he had hired a taxi for our trip. We piled in, (without seatbelts of course), and headed out of Panama City. We only stopped once for Evan to pick up some fruit and for us to get water, but soon enough we were in the vast, rolling hills outside the city.  A concrete factory dwarfed the landscape, and a thick layer of trash covered the sides of the road. Unfortunately, there is a major littering problem in the country, and it’s quite evident anywhere you go.

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Headed down the river in Chagres National Forest, Panama

The paved road soon gave way to bumpy gravel, and we approached a dock on the banks of a large river, crowded with all manner of tourists, locals, and wandering dogs. We unloaded from the taxi and Evan pointed us to our boat, saying he’d meet us later. Our boat was a long, dugout canoe, with a motor stuck on one end. Two Emberá tribesmen were there to take us, one in charge of the motor, one to stand at the front with a pole. I guessed it was for steering when we pushed off and for when we were to arrive, rightly so. One man handed us orange life jackets, and we piled in single file, as the boat was only wide enough for one person. I was reminded of the narrow racing shells I used to practically live in during my high school and college years, although the hard wood seats and thick sides were radically different from the smooth, thin fiberglass hulls I was used to.

We set off up the river. The motor pushed us along at a quick pace, but despite that the surface water remained serene. We were graced with beautiful weather, and the sun beat down on our backs. I couldn’t help but be jealous of our boatmen’s perfect skin, smooth and browned by the sun, stretched over taut muscles. I could see the faint traces of tribal tattoo art on the bowman’s back and legs as he stood on the bow, perfectly still, pole poised if needed. Jungle noises carried easily over the water, and the river spray kept us cool despite the sun. Palm leaf roofs jutted out above the thick, verdant forests along the way as we passed other Emberá villages. As I gazed over the prow, I couldn’t help but feel that I had somehow jumped into the cover of a National Geographic magazine.

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Our waterfall stop in Chagres National Forest, Panama

We went quite a ways down the river, deep into Chagres National Forest. Our guides expertly guided us to a little inlet that led to a waterfall, the entrance all but hidden amongst the leaves bowing down to touch the water. We disembarked and climbed up a rocky incline to the waterfall, and encountered several people swimming in the pool beneath. Not having brought a swimsuit, Zach and I took off our shoes and waded in the water while Christine dove in. As I slid and slipped back over the rocks to return to the boat, I struck up a conversation with one of the boatmen. Like all Emberá, he had wide, high cheekbones, and his smile was open and wide. He asked where I was from, and when I told him, he looked off as if in a dream, repeating softly “so beautiful. USA, so beautiful. So big. So beautiful”. I felt humbled, feeling that I should feel more lucky to be where I am from. Many of us always yearn to be where we are not, and easily forget that our grass is also green.

We continued up the river, watching birds swoop into the waves to catch fishes, passing waterfalls tumbling down cliffs to feed the river, and navigating through quicker rapids. Finally, we arrived. The canoe pushed up onto a sandy shore, and we walked up stairs in a hillside to enter Drúa, an Emberá village.

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Our greeting party at Drúa, an Emberá village in Chagres National Forest, Panama

As we climbed the steps, we were greeted by a group of Emberá children singing and playing instruments. We felt a bit uncomfortable, as we were more interested in seeing how they lived and meeting them rather than getting a fanfare, but that’s what they do for tourists. The village is populated by 25 families, one to a house. The huts were built from materials all found in the surrounding forest, harvested after a full moon since it is said that prevents termites. The sloping roofs made from palm leaves would prove extremely effective for keeping the rain off us when it started to drizzle around noon. Emberá children are educated through middle school here in the village, and are sent into the city for further education. Two teachers from Panama City come during the week to teach, only speaking Spanish, so that the children learn both their native language and Spanish. 

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Joel, my kind Emberá tattoo artist, painting me with jagua juice 

Young villagers are sent to school in Panama City to further their education, most of them interested in studying tourism. Most of our tour money would go towards funding their education, which made me happy. The village’s only other main source of income is their arts and crafts, which we would peruse later. As I wandered around a bit, I approached some of the men tattooing each other with juice from the jagua fruit. This is a fruit found in the forests that, when squeezed, produces juice perfect for temporary tattooing. They draw it on with tiny, needle-like strips of palm, dipping it into little vials of the pure juice. It stains the skin and lasts for up to eight days. I was fascinated by the beautiful patterns they were creating, and Joel, (pronounced Yo-el), generously offered to give me one on my arm. I readily agreed, and he gave me a traditional Emberá tattoo on my arm that would last me the rest of my days in Panama.

 

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Mateo giving a demonstration on traditional dress

We all gathered in the main structure for a lecture from a village tribesman, Mateo, who taught us about the Emberá way of life, dress, food, etc. He introduced us to one of the village founders, an elderly man covered in jagua tattoos. He brought up a young Emberá woman to show the woman’s dress, saying she was the queen of the village. We asked why she was the queen, and he laughingly explained that there is a different queen each day, so no one gets jealous. The Emberá’s traditional clothing is mostly a distinct printed fabric from Panama City as skirts, and thickly beaded tops.The men just wear cloths on the bottom, some of them with more extensively beaded coverings.The Emberá passed around some of their basket weaving, explaining that they can dye the “palma chunga” different colors by soaking it in sugar cane, cooking it with rosewood shavings from the men’s carvings, burying it in river mud, etc.

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Our lunch, overseen by one of the village founders

Lunch was then served – fresh caught tilapia from the river, so fresh and succulent it seemed to melt in my mouth despite being fried. (I was careful to pick out the tiny bones). Smashed, fried plantains (called patacones) was our side, and our dessert consisted of the sweetest papaya, pineapple, and bananas I’ve ever had. We washed our hands in large bowls of water with torn, lemon-scented leaves floating on the top. After we ate, Mateo invited us to look through the arts and crafts the villagers had made. I purchased a beautifully woven palma chunga piece and a hammered silver bracelet, chatting directly with the ladies who made them. Finally, we gathered back in the main structure for a dance demonstration. After watching several groups dance to the pipes and drums, we were asked to join in. The tourists all seemed hesitant, so I leapt up and started dancing with an Emberá man. I felt clumsy amidst the whirl of color and music, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.

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Emberá youth giving a dance demonstration, one dancer not particularly into it that day

Zach, Christine, and I meandered around the village as we waited to leave, viewing the church at the top of the hill and passing by many chickens and even a pet monkey on a leash, which made us incredibly sad to see. We found Evan down by the village entrance, almost not recognizing him as he had changed into traditional garb. We said our goodbyes and hopped back into the canoe for our return trip down the river.

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My palma chunga plate purchase, and the woman who made it

After a taxi ride back to Panama City, we were all fairly exhausted. Zach and I did manage to go to the grocery store to stock up for the massive amount of driving I had ahead of me. I really enjoy going to grocery stores in other countries, seeing what is different and what is normal. I like to purchase the most bizarre things I can find, and that usually leads to new favorites. I now know I adore lime-flavored plantain chips, for example. As the night wore on, the three of us attempted to find some salsa dancing, but as no one showed up, we contented ourselves with fancy drinks and ceviche. Not a bad way to end the day.

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Enjoying avocado milkshakes in Panama City

Sunday was a lazy day, much needed. Zach, Christine and I spent the morning at the pool, then had some delicious Vietnamese fare for lunch. I tried my first avocado milkshake, and it tastes exactly like it sounds. Strange, yet absolutely delicious. Our thirst for salsa dancing not sated the previous night, we trooped across town for a free salsa dancing lesson in a park. It was very well attended, and the instructor was fantastic, yelling over the crowd with clear instructions. Despite being in Spanish, I could even understand thanks to his gestures. I will say, I will never, ever forget the Spanish word for “left”, as he shouted it over and over to the music to indicate which foot we should be on. He was quite the character, and as he walked closer during the class the three of us shared a smirk as the kind of plant patterned on his pants became clear. Let’s just say, he seemed pretty carefree.

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Free salsa dancing in the part, with our excellent instructor in his delightful pants

We enjoyed some well earned paletas (salsa takes energy!) and Zach and I then headed to the airport to pick up Clayton, who would be joining me for the rest of the trip.

Red Devils and the City of Treasures

It was Friday –  the day I would see two oceans in one morning by way of the Panama Canal Railway. Zach and I woke up early and hopped on the metro.

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A metro train in Panama City

The metro in Panama City leaves me with very mixed feelings. The first and only line was completed just a year ago, meaning it is very new and clean. The trains come like clockwork, and the stations are big, open, and airy. It’s easy to feel safe as there is usually an armed guard at either end of the trains, and there are always guards at the ticket turnstiles. (Panama had some rough gang violence for many years, though things have calmed down recently.) However, some aspects of the metro did allow for some head-scratching. Large screens seemed to be advertising something exciting coming soon, but Zach explained to me that all the large screens were built but no contracts for advertisers sent out, so they were all blank. Of course. The trains are all far too short for the platform, almost as if they didn’t have money for more cars on the trains. This means that during rush hour, the trains turn into veritable sardine cans. To make matters worse, Panamanians aren’t afraid to outright shove, and they will gladly do so, since the train doors open for mere moments and don’t account for peak hour traffic. Hopefully, with the addition of the second line currently being built and longer cars, there will be less crowding. But it is interesting to see a metro culture in it’s infant years.

We arrived at Albrook Station, a massive commuter hub as well as a mall, and the crowd blossomed out of the trains to go catch connecting buses. We crossed over a large pedestrian bridge to get to the mall where we would find a taxi, and I looked out over the sea of Diablo Rojos and more official looking city buses. What is a Diablo Rojo, you might ask? I was soon poised to find out.

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Our taxi cab, lacking in seat belts and with an overabundance of check engine lights

Zach hailed a taxi that would take us to the nearby train station. I climbed into the backseat, mindlessly reaching for the seatbelt and coming up empty. Of course – in Panama, seatbelts were only required by law in the front seat, and for some reason only known to the Panamanians, backseat seat belts were consciously removed. At least, they were removed in every taxi and car I encountered in the country. So, I sat, unfastened and bouncing, as the taxi sped down the highway with salsa music blasting and the check engine light proudly shining from the dashboard. I held up the Dunkin Donuts coffee I had purchased at Albrook like some sort of holy relic, helplessly watching as the nut-brown elixir shot out the hole in the lid like some sort of misplaced, pathetic geyser.

The taxi whizzed by some landscapers mowing the lawns of office buildings using weed whackers. Yes, weed whackers. Inexplicably, Panamanians mow their lawns with weed whackers, resulting in incredibly closely cropped grass and the befuddlement of many a tourist. I will say, they are very dedicated to their lawn care.

Soon enough, we arrived at the Panama Canal Rail station, and after haggling our fare with the taxi driver, boarded the train. The Panama Canal Railway train is a freight and passenger line that runs between Panama City in the south and Colón in the north, connecting both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It runs parallel to the Panama Canal, and you can glimpse the canal through the trees at multiple points during the journey. It is incredibly strange to see a massive cruise ship sitting amongst the thick jungles inland, but that’s a wonder of the world for you. The cars themselves were pretty swanky, and what I would call “old world”. Zach and I got a booth to ourselves (not too difficult, considering how empty the car was) and sat on the left side of the train for the best views of the canal. A lady came through with a cart offering complimentary coffee, and I suppose that’s the closest I’ve been to the Hogwarts Express…so far.

 

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A staff member serves coffee on the Panama Canal Railway

 

The train chugged through the forests at a good clip, and lush, tropical vegetation came right up to the windows. Every now and then, I spotted small, rough shelters on the side of the tracks, and several of them were surrounded by men standing in the light rain, silently staring up at the train as it passed by. There were “smoker balconies” in between the cars, but most of us went out onto the balconies to feel the fresh air and get better views of the scenery. I held onto my Panama hat in the strong winds, but my jovial hat salesman from the day before was right, and the smaller size faithfully stuck to my pate.

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A cruise ship in the middle of Panama – crossing the Panama Canal

Soon enough we arrived in Colón, known as the second city of Panama. Colón is incredibly poor, and considered one of the more dangerous cities in the country. It is advised that tourists don’t go there, and if they do, spend as little time there as possible. Daylight muggings on main streets were said to be common.  Although I was quick to take the advice of passing through quickly, the rumours made me sad. There are fiercely proud people in Colón that would love to share their city with the world, and tourism can bring a lot of economic benefit to the city. The government built up a Free Trade Zone in the city in the hopes to spur some more development, but unfortunately many people that work and shop there come up for the day from Panama City and return there at night, leaving Colón right where it started.

Zach and I walked from the train station to the bus station, neither of us holding our phones out for directions. The streets were muddy and full of potholes. We passed tenement-style buildings, colorful laundry hanging on ropes out of almost every window. We reached the bus station, which was bustling with morning activity. Locals and tourists alike ran to catch their bus, drivers shouted out destinations, merchants sold trinkets and individual candies from tables in the middle of the sidewalk, and travelers grabbed breakfast from food booths emanating sizzling heat and the thick aroma of grease. Stray dogs twisted in and out of the crowd, and accompanied the sleeping homeless in dark niches. An official looking man pointed us in the direction of  bus to Portobelo, and my visual senses were overwhelmed with color. Although the bus system in Panama is fairly extensive, it’s only within the city that you see buses you’d expect. Out in the country? This was the land of the Red Devil.

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Some of the Diablo Rojos in Colón, Panama

Diablo Rojos, or Red Devils, are retired American school buses that get sold and shipped down to Central America, where they are painted in stunning patterns and colors and outfitted with enormous smokestacks in the back. I’m shocked the drivers can see anything, as the windshields are covered in elegant graffiti broadcasting the bus route. The safety of said buses may be questionable, but they are ingrained into society, since in many cases they are the only means of transportation between cities for folks living out in the countryside.

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Aboard a Diablo Rojo

Zach and I boarded the bus and took seats near the middle as we waited to depart. A mistake, we soon found, as the closer to the back you get, the more the suspension is a distant memory. The bus was covered in mold and the windows took every muscle in my arm to close as the unseasonal rains started to come down. The Diablo Rojo thundered to a start, and we were off towards Portobelo. The bus driver went impossibly fast, and didn’t even bother shutting the front door as he went. At most of the stops people hopped on and off with the bus still rolling – clearly, contrary to everything we had seen or would see in Panama, time was money on the Diablo Rojo. Safety was quite secondary. Though I did notice that most drivers will always wait at a full stop for women and children to be seated before tearing off again. We raced down twisty and narrow roads along the Atlantic coastline, brushing past other buses, to the point where our driver would casually reach out and pull in his side mirror every now and then. I focused on the waves to my left – this was the second ocean we saw that morning, since you could see the Pacific from Zach’s building.

Due to the harrowing speed of the bus, we were quickly at the town of Portobelo, allegedly named by Christopher Columbus 1502. It is also said to be the resting place of Sir Francis Drake, among other rich histories. It was established in the Spanish Colonial Period and used as a stopping point for the Spanish Treasure fleets. The Spanish built extensive fortifications in the natural harbor, the ruins of which can be explored today.

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A glimpse inside the Church of the Black Christ in Portobelo, Panama

It was quite overcast and rainy in the small town. We walked through the wet streets to the famous Church of the Black Christ. Cristo Negro, or ‘Black Christ’, is a highly venerated wooden statue that washed up on the shores of Portobelo in the 17th century. Every time there was an attempt to remove the statue from the city there was a great storm, so there the statue remains, a source of pilgrimage from all over. Alas, a sign at the door of the church asked for those in shorts and short sleeves to refrain from entering, so I made do with glimpsing the statue from afar as Zach walked in for a better picture.

Sadly, the treasure house was closed for renovations, so Zach and I continued on to explore the fortifications of San Lorenzo and San Jeronimo. The fortifications were in ruins, but the walls, watchtowers, and cannons were left intact. We schlepped through inches of mud and climbed up to the little watchtowers for views out into the harbor. There were many boats anchored in the harbor, and Zach and I were very curious to see several boats that looked like they were straight up sinking. Yet no one seemed to be in a panic, so neither were we. Determined to see everything there was to see, we walked down dark staircases and turned on phone flashlights in dark tunnels, but none of them went very far and nothing greeted us except an exceedingly strong smell of must and mold. I did brave a foot of water to go look into a small enclosure – I expected only about six inches, and got a nasty surprise when my foot immediately plummeted deeply into silt and dirt. The amazingly fascinating view of absolutely nothing was, perhaps, not quite worth it.

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Exploring the town and ruins in Portobelo, Panama

We walked back to the center of town to find a place to eat, and ended up at Casa Congo, a restaurant right on the harbor. We enjoyed garlic shrimp and Ropa Vieja, a flavorful cuban meat dish. Along with Panama beers, of course. After the meal, feeling like we’d seen just about all there was to see of the city, we decided to start the journey back to Panama City. Luckily, buses ran every thirty minutes through the town back to Colón, and we only had to wait a few minutes at the bus stop outside a convenience store. Though it was enough time for me to watch a man go into the store to do some shopping, his pump action shotgun in hand. Like you do.

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Our fiercely decorated Diabo Rojo that took us from Portobelo to Colón

The ride back from Portobelo was no less hair raising. That particular Diablo Rojo had brakes that positively screamed when in use, which, incidentally, didn’t seem to be as often as I would have liked. I’m not sure if the Red Devil was the bus or the driver, and I am ashamed to say I gripped the seat in front of me quite hard with white knuckles. I felt like a jumpy tourist, as no one else was bothered in the least. Some were napping, others chatting on their phones, and children and chickens walking on the side of the road were nonplussed as the Diablo Rojo roared by.

In Colón we switched from the Diablo Rojo to a coach bus. It was already almost full by the time we boarded, and I was separated from Zach for the ride. I sat next to a Guna woman, and between her, a man standing in the aisle next to me, and the woman in front of me who joyfully discovered that the seats could recline, I became the poster child of claustrophobia. The bus driver’s assistant squeezed up and down the aisle, advertising Doritos and water for sale in impossibly fast Spanish. Despite my 20 square inches of space, the ride back would have been uneventful, but about halfway through, a woman seemed to be incensed that the bus route changed, shouting and raving from the middle of the bus that the driver was “loco”. The argument grew heated enough for the crowded bus to stop on the side of the road for the argument to finish, and it would have been tense if not for everyone chuckling quietly to themselves and shaking their heads. Luckily for my squashed self, we were soon on our way again, and thanks to Zach’s quick thinking, we managed to alight at one of the first metro stations we passed rather than go all the way through the city at rush hour, saving us an hour of time. Good man.

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Zach thoroughly “enjoying” the unique exercise contraption in a park in Panama City

Christine met us at Albrook, and despite thinking we could maybe attempt the Amador Causeway, my energy levels ran out and we returned to their neighborhood. After more of  Zach’s delicious lasagna and The Simpsons in Spanish, we went out for batidos (milkshakes). Batidos were a close second to palatas as my favorite dessert in Panama, and I enjoyed such flavors as cherry, passionfruit, mango, and even avocado. I never thought I would have an avocado milkshake, and its unique flavor was strangely addictive, and easily deceived me into thinking I was being healthy. Which I totally wasn’t. Luckily, that night on our walk home, we found a local park with all sorts of exercise contraptions, and burned off perhaps a tenth of our batidos. Indeed, from an old world train to delicious milkshakes, it was a day in Panama well spent.

 

 

Bienvenido a Panamá!

 

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Lights from the ships waiting to go through the Panama Canal

I think one of the most remarkable things about flying into Panama City is seeing all the ships out in the harbor waiting to cross through the Panama Canal. Yes, the skyscrapers are incredible with their unique architectural designs, dizzying heights, and sheer numbers. Yes, you saw the Atlantic a heartbeat ago but now you are over the Pacific. But the ocean dotted with the hundred lights of lonely ships in good company makes you feel so small as you come in for a landing in this small but powerfully placed Central American country.

This was my first trip to Central America, and my first trip somewhere I didn’t speak the language. Despite my conversational French  and few weeks of Duolingo Spanish, I was still pretty helpless, and my struggles getting through border control, collecting my baggage, and getting through customs was a harsh foreshadowing of some trials to come. But thanks to friendly strangers who can recognize a poorly concealed look of bemusement following airport announcements and the timely response of my friend Zach with his exact address I’d be staying at (which border control demanded even though Panama seems to severely lack specific addresses for just about everything), I was out the airport doors and into the thick Panamanian humidity.

I would be spending my first few days in Panama City staying with Zach and Christine, friends I met in Wisconsin and who are living in Panama for 10 months while Christine teaches English. Zach picked me up from the airport, and I’m very grateful that he did. Even just figuring out how to get to the buses was a trial. If you’re trying to catch a bus from the airport, you need to follow a sidewalk between two arbitrary buildings, cross an official looking parking lot, follow a walkway that seems impossibly long after getting off a cramped plane, and race across the same road twice…or was it three times? Welcome to Panama.

Declining to hop on the smaller “chiva” buses that sped by with men hanging out the doors calling out their destinations, we boarded an official bus that would take us to the metro station. I felt dwarfed as we sped across the Cinta Costera, a highway that juts out into the Pacific and gives a fantastic view of the massive condominiums in some of the swankier parts of town. We switched over to the metro to complete our journey to Zach’s apartment, and I admit I was impressed, but that’s for another blog post. Once we arrived, I enjoyed a heaping portion of Zach’s famous lasagna and met their kitten Arriba. Arriba is a wild little cat that was rescued from an elevator, and Zach and Christine are watching her during their stay in Panama. I’ve never met a more energetic kitten!

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View from Zach and Christine’s apartment in Panama City

Despite the unseasonal rain, I was able to enjoy the fantastic views from Zach and Christine’s apartment when I woke up for my first full day in Panama. The city seems somehow more vast in the daylight, and being up on the 21st floor certainly helped. After a quick breakfast, Zach and I took the metro to Cinco de Mayo station, which was the closest stop to Avenue Central, a main street with tons of shops, loud music, and people touting their wares on individual microphones and speakers out into the street. It was hard to ignore the massive anti-American mural painted onto the wall at the metro exit. Many Panamanians don’t take kindly to the American ousting of Noriega, their president in the 1980s, as was made very obvious by the large graffiti-style artwork.

 

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Anti-American Artwork outside Cinco de Mayo Station, Panama City

 

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Entrance to a tunnel of artisans, Panama City

Avenida Central was packed, and apart from tourists and local Panamanians, I spotted several women from the indigenous tribes of Panama, set apart with their beautiful dresses rife with color. The sun was hot, but we were temporarily relieved from the heat as Zach led me down a closed-in market to see more of the local crafts. Shops sold lacy dresses and tembleques, which are beaded hairpieces that many Panamanian women wear in their hair, especially during festivals and holidays. Many artisans were working on their craft right there in their booths, and it was a delight to watch them work so skilfully. 

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Enjoying my first paleta – guava cheescake!

For my first Panamanian lunch, I enjoyed fresh ceviche and a passion fruit cocktail at Tantalo, and we satisfied our sweet tooth with paletas. I absolutely adore paletas – they fast became and remained my favorite treat in Panama. Paletas are essentially ice cream treats on sticks that come in a vast array of flavors and toppings, a few of my favorites being nutella, guava cheesecake, and strawberry with condensed milk filling. The day they come to the US en masse can’t come too soon.

 

We continued to explore Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city and a dedicated UNESCO world heritage site. This was a gentrified part of town, and from the main square you could see many restored colonial-style buildings. Mere blocks away was some of the poorest parts of town, the line of demarcation so blatant that a pristine building was next to one literally crumbling into ruin. But I would be entering those areas later – for now, to explore Casco Viejo. For it being January, it was wondrous to be so warm and surrounded by flowers. We walked through several green spaces with towering trees and brilliant flowers, then explored more artisan booths out on a coastal walkway. I admired the molas, hand stitched panes of fabric made into colorful designs by the Guna people, and little figurines carved out of palm seeds, also known as palm ivory.

 

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Obelisk commemorating the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal

The intricate skyline of condos was ever present along the coastline, and it was slightly surreal to be browsing the art of the indigenous peoples while the towering and architecturally absurd buildings remained in view. Zach and I briefly admired a much smaller tower – an obelisk dedicated to the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal, years before the Americans did. Mildly depressing, but hey, lessons learned. On our way back to the central part of Casco Viejo, I decided to buy an iconic Panama Hat. When in Panama, right? After browsing several shops for one with the right fit and the color hat band I wanted, we were finally sold a hat by a beaming man who was absolutely convinced one size down was better for my head, casually jamming his knee into the hat to stretch it out. Sold. I love it.

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My jovial Panama hat salesman (Photo Credit: Zach Heise)

 

After enjoying a coffee in a cafe that was experiencing a power outage (evidently quite the norm, as explained by the cafe worker as he untangled a spaghetti bowl of extension cords to share power with his neighbor across the street), Zach and I discussed the merits of taking public transport to the Amador Causeway or just heading home. The Amador Causeway is a long strip of land made from the rock taken out for the canal, and sports a scenic walkway and many shops. However, it was getting late and the traffic was picking up, so we returned to the apartment for some rooftop swimming and panoramic views. We were even graced by a triple rainbow over the city.

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For dinner we enjoyed arepas with pulled chicken and pork rind. Arepas are sort of like thick tortillas made out of ground maize or cooked flour, and they’re most prominent in Columbian and Venezualan cuisine. My dish came slathered in sauce, a common theme I would soon find. We ended the evening meandering back to the apartment as I enjoyed one more paleta. No shame – it was vacation, and this was Panama.

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The joy of patacones and sauce. All the sauce. All of it.

The Northern Lights

I was already drifting off as the tour bus pulled away from the hostel, my head bouncing against the cold window. I was arguably insane for attempting to see the Northern Lights that night – the last 36 hours had included flying across the ocean, a walking tour of the city, riding across lava fields on a surprisingly fiery Icelandic horse, and absolutely no sleep. Fatigue was beginning to harden in that particularly soft place behind the eyes, and the cold was settling into my bones. But the Northern Lights are unpredictable. There are so many factors that go into them appearing. The weather, the cloud cover, the light pollution, and dumb luck. I would never forgive myself if the only night they were visible was my first night in Iceland and I didn’t go.

The excited chatter of the other tourists decrescendoed as the tour guide picked up the microphone. For the next hour or so, as we drove out of the city into the wilderness to find a place with minimal light pollution, she would regale us with everything from the early mythology of the Lights to the modern science explanation. I closed my eyes and listened to her tell the tale of ancient peoples revering and even fearing the Northern Lights, as they believed it was an opening to another dimension. As she spoke of Thor and Odin and the mythology of old, I slipped into a dream state, those old gods becoming giants in my consciousness, never making it to the scientific explanation.

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Where we saw the Northern Lights

The tour guide announced that we had arrived, and I woke with a start. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the ends of the Earth. Outside the window it was dark, and I could just make out the lava fields stretching out on all sides. We were on a peninsula that shot out of the south western coast of Iceland into the cold Atlantic. Sleep was thick in my mouth as I bundled up and stepped off the bus. I could hear the waves crashing onto the shore in the near distance, but other than that, there was nothing but the loud sound of an empty cold. I looked up and could just make out a thin, fuzzy green band crossing the sky. Our tour guide excitedly called out that we were in luck – they were out. She instructed us to take care walking over the lava rocks, and suddenly, as if on cue, the buses all turned off their lights, and we were plunged into darkness.

The Northern Lights clipped into focus. Long, pale green waves crossed the midnight sky with an otherworldly glow. I stumbled across the lava rocks to get away from the mass of people, and made my way to the point farthest away from the group, out on the lava field and closest to the sea.

The Lights played with us, alternating between smooth undulations and little tickles stabbing downwards. They danced in whorls between the clouds, and as we stood and watched for those few hours, they would come and go, fading away every now and then but suddenly coming back sharper than ever before. I had the strange thought that the Lights looked like what happens when you throw a handful of flour, or powdered sugar. The flour or sugar bursts forth and seems to hang in the air, then slowly falls to Earth at different rates making up thicker lines in some places. It may be a hint that I bake far too much, but I was struck by the similarity.

You could see thousands of stars, and the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. There was a plethora of shooting stars as a meteor shower began, and you could watch them shoot across the sky behind the Lights. I can see why people of old believed the Lights were an entrance to another world. The way they shone with a power of their own, and how they peeked out from behind dark clouds over the sea. Having slept through the scientific explanation, I was seeing them as the ancients did. No explanation, just magic. At one point, the Northern Lights swept towards us in a great wave, looking as it they were falling out of the sky down to Earth. Directly above us, one ray of Light pierced the sky, and as the greater wave came to join it with the motion of a cracking whip, we were immersed in the universe, looking up through a tunnel to God.

We stood staring up into the sky, the sound of icy waves at our backs, for over two hours. I stamped my feet in futile attempts to remain warm, and wrapped and re-wrapped my scarf around my face. My mind wanted to stare into the universe forever – this great unknown that was Heaven touching down on us. My body knew when to quit, however. That shockingly effective survival instinct is difficult to ignore, and I soon found that my subconscious was leading me back to the buses. And not before time – each step felt like a shooting dagger of ice on my numbed feet. My back and neck were screaming in protest, having been frozen in place looking straight up for so long. When I finally differentiated my bus from the rest of them, I found my tour guide beaming and exclaiming that this was one of the better shows she has seen. Given she was an Icelandic native, I was elated that I too had seen it.

As we trundled back to Reykjavik, the fatigue that had plagued me hours before was temporarily vanquished by the memory of dancing Lights. I kept going back to the idea that the Lights look like throwing flour, that something so spectacular and magical and heavenly could look like something so mundane and … ordinary. Or is it that something so ordinary can look like something so magical? I see flour in the Northern Lights, and I see the Northern Lights in flour. It’s like the universe is repeating itself, giving us a taste of miracles in everything we do. Just as we are fascinated by the fascinating, we can be fascinated by the mundane. The entire universe is in it. The universe repeats itself, and it is in the ordinary everyday that we can see it.

Porcelain Flowers and Farewells

Tuesday morning – my final hours in Martinique. I packed up my one bag and said goodbye to the little flat and cat. I drove north a bit to the Jardin de Balata, the national botanical gardens. I figured it was an easy visit for my last morning. I made it there after some harrowing suburban driving at the top of a mountain – I’ll never understand why Google thought it was a good idea to take me down single lane rows where the brick walls on either side could scrape my mirrors. At one point I immediately lost the suggestion of a face off with another driver down one of these roads. I quickly acquiesced and let her through by backing up several hundred feet.

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These flowers looked too perfect – like they were made of porcelain

In any case, I made it to the gardens. Perched on the side of a piton, there were views of the rainforests in the distance and the most beautiful flowers right in front of you. I knew that there were beautiful flowers in the world, but it’s one thing to see pictures, another to see them growing right in front of you.These bizarre and beautiful things are real. Roses that looked like porcelain, snaking leaves that were covered in “fur”, little shrubs that looked like they grew their own pots to sit in. I’d never even looked that closely at the base of a palm tree – the 

thick trunk looks like it’s hiding hundreds of tiny “feelers” that peek out at the bottom. Sort of like the end of a shaving brush. There was a tree top walkway that make me really feel on top of the world – rickety wooden bridges and rope railings, people walking far below.

After the gardens, I went to the little gift shop next store. I bought a dress of traditional Martinique fabric (madras) and sat at a table to drink an Orangina. The older French couple who owned the store sat with me a bit. They expressed their love of Martinique and the gardens and were (surprisingly) impressed by my quite basic French, which was a confidence booster.

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View from the hillside of Le Jardin de Balata

And just like that, my trip was over. I drove to the airport, returned the car, and flew away. Needless to say, Martinique has a special place in my heart, and I plan on returning. I learned so much on that trip. A love of hiking, a real (foolhardy) sense of adventure. My next goal? Hike Mont Pelee, the famous volcano of Martinique. Ever onwards, ever upwards.