Dubai Comes to Central America

Friday, February 05, 2010

It was a long, all day trip from Santa Catalina to Panama City, but soon suburbs filled the bus windows. I knew for certain we had arrived when the bus crossed the Panama Canal on the friendship bridge and I could see boats coming out of the canal headed for the Pacific ocean beyond. And I knew it was going to be a different experience than the rest of Central America when I arrived at the bus terminal. It. Is. HUGE. Absolutely enormous. But unlike other places, it is well organized (or at least planned) and doesn't involve walking through crowded markets and vegetable stands in the sweating sun. Instead, it is directly across from the very American equivalent: a super mall named Albrook. Yet as well planned as it was, I was having nothing but trouble finding a bus to Casco Viejo, the old part of town. One bus driver would point me right. The next left. Then I'd walk back and the first would ask where on earth I thought I was going and to be honest, I had no idea. My right hand pointed left and my left pointed right with a shoulder shrug was my reply. Even taxis, when I'd say "Casco Viejo" would just say no and drive off. Was I going to a bad area or what? Finally a taxi driver offered a ride for $2 but I had read $1.25 so I passed that up. The next offered for $4 and when I said the other taxi had offered $2 he drove off. Then the next wanted $5 and when I told him about the $2-$4-$5 progression he too drove off. Finally, a bus driving to Panama Viejo (which is actually on the opposite side of the city) told me to get on. At least it was a direction, I thought.

The man next to me on the bus was likewise getting off at Casco Viejo which was helpful although I had no less than 5 people telling me when we arrived at the stop. If one of them could have told me which bus to take an hour prior it would've been helpful but a little help is better than none. I had popped into an internet cafe in Albrook Mall to quickly check with Brian, my New Jersey friend with whom I do the FrankBlack.Net Podcast because one of the reasons I was arriving in Panama City was to interview "Frank" Black Francis and Eric Drew Feldman on their upcoming record, Non Stop Erotik for the March 1 episode. I figured I had just enough time to get to the hostel and hopefully Skype in. Getting off the bus, the man next to me insisted on walking me to my hostel as we were in, he described, a dangerous area to walk alone, especially with your backpack on. Pretty nice as he obviously had no need to do so. But we walked first to Luna's Castle, which was full; it's ALWAYS full I would discover. Then to Hospedaje Casco Viejo, which would be my home for the eight days as I tried to find a sailboat to Colombia. It's not a bad hostel, but it lacks much in terms of common area and social scene, unless you want to hang out in the lobby where there is always, it seems, someone talking way too loudly on Skype. I did manage to do part of the interview, but we had to settle for phone as the internet connection was tenuous at best. As always, it's great to talk with them and their album is pretty exciting.

Coca Cola Cafe

I met a German girl in my dorm named Esther who, in spite of her name, was not an octogenarian, and we went out for dinner at the nearby Coca Cola Cafe. My love of Coca Cola had already sold me on the place, but going in I realized I would have loved it no matter what. The food was decent, the price was right, and the atmosphere was like something out of a movie. Old wooden floors, trodden to a dull earthy tone, bright lighting, a dripping air conditioner, and a blast of cold air greet you initially. Then, as your eyes adjust to the bright lights and more dense cold air, you see in one corner a couple military guards chatting over their bowls of spaghetti, at the table to your left, four old men (who you would come to realize are ALWAYS there chatting over coffees), a local family with the dad setting down everybody's food as the kids tried to wiggle their chairs closer to the tables, then a guy in the corner writing notes and looking up from time to time (probably writing something like this paragraph) while clumps of travellers (never more than three in a place) are interspersed among the locals and three yellow-aproned waitresses are trying in vain (but relaxed and smiling) to keep up with everybody. For this place is always busy and probably has been since 1903 when it opened.

We sat down and ordered. I don't remember what I had, but I remember Esther had Spaghetti con Pollo (Spaghetti with chicken) because when she received it, it was a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce and a second plate with a roast chicken leg on it. Not exactly what you picture but it was tasty (I ordered the same thing a few days later). From there, we went to a place called the Mojito Grill, which is really just a small courtyard in front of an old abandoned building that, ironically, does NOT serve mojitos. Then to Luna's Castle which also has a really great bar in a downstairs courtyard (and an amazing location looking out at the skyline of Panama City over the water). In the end, coupled with a few pre-drinks on our hostel's balcony, it was a pretty fun evening. The next day, the two of us set out on a mission: find me glasses. I had lost mine in Belize and it was time to get some new ones so I didn't have to always use contacts. We set off for El Cangrejo which is supposedly rife with shopping options but instead found ourselves walking all the way to Via Espana (though we didn't really know where we were going at the time) and at last finding some glasses that were cool if different. At least, I hope they're cool. They're a bit more pronounced than my old glasses and I now fear a bit too wide but they do have a style all their own. I also discovered my vision had degraded since my last test or prescription, which is a bit alarming since it wasn't that long ago. After this, we found Esther a cable for her camera and then found ourselves escaping the heat in a supermarket which, unlike everywhere I've been lately, was wonderfully stocked with EVERYthing.

The Darien Gap

That evening, Phil arrived in town, running from Santa Catalina (where he'd bizarrely had somebody sabotage his surf board) like I had run from Boquete. We went out with Esther and an Italian guy to the Mojito Grill again where there was some live jazz that was a bit too mellow for more than a drink or two and went from there to Luna's which likewise felt a bit antisocial. So it wasn't much of a night but it was good to have Phil here especially since that meant I had somebody to look for a sailboat with. I talked to my dad the other day and he asked me why I was sailing and I suppose that's a good question. As I believe I already mentioned, my first stop in South America is Colombia which, as it happens, is also the next country south of Panama. However, between the two countries and continents is a region of Panama called the Darien Gap, one of the most deadly places on the planet. It is largely primeval jungle, filled with all sorts of wild cats, deadly insects, snakes that will choke the life out of you in your sleep, and poisonous plants. "Well, surely you can drive through and not have to worry about all that?" you ask. No you cannot. For there is no road from Panama to Colombia. The jungle wouldn't allow it or perhaps more realistically, it serves to make the flow of drugs and contraband northward much more difficult.

It also serves to fill that same jungle area with many drug traffickers trying to smuggle things in northward. Add them to the list of dangers as down here, nobody (especially in that line of work) would think twice about popping a bullet in your head, especially in the middle of nowhere like that. And because the area is largely untouched and attached to Colombia, Colombian guerrillas also use it to train and escape Colombian authorities, not with Panama's consent obviously but I imagine that guerrillas outnumber law enforcement 1000:1. Add them to the list of dangers. And then don't forget the risks of getting lost, sick (there are all sorts of tropical diseases with cool names waiting for you), or injured in the middle of nowhere, or running out of supplies. It's a long walk. A friend of mine met someone that did it and lived to tell the tale. The highlight, aside from a couple weeks walking through the jungle, was a guerrilla stoned on cocaine with an AK-47 muzzle pressed into his head. But he survived. I obviously can't vouch for how dangerous the area really is myself, and stories of danger tend to be exaggerated, but sometimes it's best not to know. Still, there are two other options. It is, obviously, possible to fly across. But that feels like cheating. Everything from Mexico down has been overland and it feels more like a voyage this way then hopping a plane and coming out of the airport in a new country. Still, for those making the trip, the cheapest flights I've found can be found at Cost is about $150 tax included.

Sailing, Sailing

Option three is finding a cargo ship heading in that direction. Much more adventurous (AND overland or at least oversea) than flying and generally safer than the Darien Gap. That is, unless you book with somebody that happens to be smuggling drugs and your boat is raided by the police. Your Spanish will have to be much better than mine to explain that one to authorities. Or maybe, and I've read blogs of people to whom this has happened, you pay your money for passage and in the middle of the night you're taken from your room and put on a small 'boat' in the middle of the ocean. "You said you wanted adventure," one of them said to the other. At least they didn't get murdered. But while this way can be an adventure the risks still aren't worth it I think. Generally you can get to Colombia for about $60 from others' accounts. And finally there is option four: sailing on a small boat to Colombia on a 'cruise' of sorts. The generally take 4 days to a week and sail along the San Blas archipelago, a place that many travelers with far more miles than I have logged list as the best place in the Caribbean and some of the most beautiful islands on the planet. If beaches aren't your thing, there is a local tribe that control the islands and still live traditionally called the Kuna. So. Culture, 5 days of beautiful islands, transport to Colombia, food, accommodation, and border fees, how much do you expect to pay? The answer is about $400.

I haven't left yet, so I can't tell you if it's worth it but I'll tell you what I've hopefully paid for. We're going on a 36' yacht called Da Capo sailed by a Swedish skipper named Mats, who is a retired journalist and more importantly, has crossed the Atlantic four times and been sailing for 40 years. AND apparently he has a love for good food which supposedly means we're going to be eating lobster and all sorts of incredible food en route. It leaves from a place called Carti in Kuna territory on the Caribbean coast of Panama (only accessible by 4WD) and after five days in the San Blas islands arrives at the border town of Sapzurro which, as far as I understand it, is only accessible by sea. From there we have to find another boat further down in Colombia (Carpurgana and then Turbo) where we can at last take a bus to... somewhere. The traditional trip sails 2-3 days in the northern San Blas islands only and then cuts across the high seas to Cartagena, but at this time of year the ocean is quite rough and a lot of captains are switching to this route. The next post will have it all charted out on my little map. For those looking to do the trip, the best resource is by far Mama Llena's hostel here in Panama City. Other hostels also have boats but nowhere near as many. Remember to look for reviews and also to take them with a grain of salt. We also tried posting in some sailing forums and emailing captains directly but it seems going through hostels is the only real option.

Sightseeing in Panama City

Eight days is a long time in one city and I'm not bothering to be chronological here, or at least not entirely. Of course the must-see thing on anybody's list, especially if you're an engineer, is the Panama Canal. An incredible feat that today allows boats to cross from Atlantic to Pacific (or vice versa) without going all the way around South America, cutting a 3 week trip into 18 hours. It's not just a really long and high-walled canal however. Instead, ships (and remember that some of these ships, fully loaded, are taller than 10 storey buildings) are raised through a series of locks to an inland lake where they sail through across the continental divide to another series of locks where they are lowered back to sea level to continue their journey. Phil and I arrived at the Miraflores Locks in time to watch the last boat for the day heading towards the Atlantic Ocean and then to see several boats making the journey in the opposite direction. Also, you may not know this, but a new set of locks is being constructed alongside the current ones that will be wider and longer to allow today's much larger ships to use the canal as well. Additionally, the current canal dumps enough fresh water into the ocean to supply all of Panama City for a full 24 hours with every single ship's passage. The new locks will recycle the water and are scheduled to be completed by 2015.

Phil and I also visited Panama Viejo, the original location of Panama before the pirate or at least privateer Henry Morgan came in and leveled the place. This we could have done without as there was little information and not much to see, but it did pass some time. Most of the buildings are now just scattered walls of stone, though there is a tower that was probably rebuilt and a church that is half standing. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the city which is shining steel and glass and all pretty new. There is a huge amount of construction here at the moment including one for Donald Trump (another was completed last year) and the place looks like I imagine Dubai would. Seeing all this modern development, your first reaction would probably be to think that the city had sold its soul but in fact the city is vibrant, alive, and loving it. A walk from Plaza Santa Ana to Cinco de Mayo will confirm that to you, not to mention around Casco Viejo or in numerous other areas around town.

Speaking of around town, I eventually had to pick up my glasses. I had my receipt and their business card but all they had for an address is "Via Espana" which is like saying "Circle Drive" in Saskatoon. It could be anywhere. So we took a bus heading to Via Espana to pick up my glasses hoping to pass by it. Instead the bus went everywhere EXCEPT Via Espana. I don't know how far out it took us, but I know that we spent four hours on the bus driving around Panama City into places where we were definitely not seeing any gringos. Obviously we knew we were long past Via Espana but by then it had become an adventure and we took the bus to the end of the line and then found another bus back. The bus back was awesome. Pumping music, fuzzy dice, and pretty girls everywhere. They should have taken out the back row of seats and set up a bar. The only way I managed to find my glasses was that I had taken a picture nearby on Via Espana of a building which I located by satellite to get a cross intersection. And still that didn't help as my driver didn't understand me. But in the photo was also a name of a mall, Plaza Concordia, and with that I finally made it to my glasses.

The food here is decent but we definitely haven't been eating enough fruits and vegetables. On the walk back through Caledonia to the hostel I passed a cart where a lady was selling cucumbers, which are not that easy to find here, and I decided that I was going to do it: I was going to attempt a Greek salad. I stocked up on tomatoes, cucumbers, couldn't find red onion and definitely couldn't find feta. Some random cheese substituted along with canned olives and decent olive oil (for here), salt and pepper, and I had what is probably the worst Greek salad I have ever made. Pretty much all of the ingredients were sub-par and you can't build a brick house with twigs. But at least it was healthy. Most of my other meals were at a cheap Chinese place down the street from the hostel, of course the Coca Cola Cafe, and, believe it or not, at the food court in either Albrook or Multiplaza Pacific. Sometimes you just need a change from the same discount dishes, and we found some pretty good Chinese food not to mention Philly Cheese Steaks, Wendy's Frostys, and so on.

Subtitlando en Espanol

In fact, I'd be leaving out a pretty significant portion of Panama City if I didn't mention our mall rat pastimes. Did we shop? Yes. Or at least we browsed. I did buy two pairs of shorts and a t-shirt for less than $10, but that was on Avenida Central not in a mall. One thing Phil and I both bought were plain t-shirts. These we took to a lady in the food court and finally finished something we'd been talking about doing for a long time: we got shirts made that said "Mismo mismo, pero diferente" which translated means "Same same but different". If you've ever been to SE Asia you'll know that this expression is ubiquitous there and Phil and I had been attempting to spread it (it was his idea but I latched on immediately) to Central America with limited success. Now, armed with t-shirts, we would be unstoppable. Even though Panama City was our last stop in mainland Central America. Phil had also lost his SURFO hat to an Argentinian girl and was lamenting it, so he was excited to see they had the EXACT same hat with no writing on it. He had them make a SURFO hat but we later discovered they had put it off-centre and whatsmore, refused to fix it. Seriously. We weren't even asked for a new hat, just to add a period or an "S" to the end to line it up again.

But the one thing we did more than anything else here, is catch up on all the movies we'd been missing. Before Phil had arrived I saw Armored, a movie in which one armoured car guard faces off against his friends and co-workers trying to pull a heist that, as always, has gone wrong. It was entertaining but I think this could have waited until I got home. The day after Phil arrived and we got the shirts made, we went to see a movie called Up in the Air, which in Spanish has the name "Amor Sin Escalas" which I think means Love Without Stairs. This was a very ironic movie for two world travelers to watch as it was about a man who has cut all connections to the real world and spends his life on the road, traveling city to city and firing people. All he has in terms of relationships are his loyalty cards at least until he meets a woman. He leads a lonely life and, aside from his considerable frequent flyer miles, his epiphany and attempts to start having relationships with family and this girl end in him sitting alone, too late to repair the damage done and no longer happy in his old life but with no direction for a new one. This sucked the life out of us until we went and picked up our new shirts at the vendor. Ah, materialism.

By far the best movie we saw, and in fact the most astounding movie I've seen perhaps since Star Wars, was Avatar. Yes, we saw it in 3D and in a digital theatre, which was incredible, but I think that even without these things the awe would have been the same. The story, repeated again and again throughout history is of colonization and the things we do to cultures we don't understand, and it may have been done, but never with this level of imagination. A whole new world unfolds in its "Unreal" like quality, and walks the line between surreal and cartoon with incredible deftness. It was also a treat to have Spanish subtitles instead of dubbing not only because every other theatre in Central America is only dubbed, but because when the aliens speak my Spanish is just good enough to make out what they are saying which is how it would be in real life, rather than reading a matter-of-fact account of the dialogue in English. We leave tomorrow morning but may try to see it again tonight, it was that good and it MUST be seen in theatres. Sherlock Holmes (yes, it is a big list, isn't it?) was pretty cool though more action than mystery. I think it would have been aided by Sherlock divulging some of the evidence he was accumulating rather than simply spelling it all out at the end, giving the rest of us the chance to put our minds to work on the mystery. Even so, the dialogue was witty and sharp and Robert Downey Junior is making his way up my favourite actors list.

Finally, the last movie we saw was Estan Todo Bien, which in English means "They're All Fine" though I'm not sure what the English title of the movie is. It starts Robert Deniro as an older man checking to see how all his kids are doing after they bail out on visiting him. Some of the drama was overdone, and actually I can't even say I thought the movie was all that great but nevertheless it was sad and the tacked-on Christmas scene at the end (I really do think it was tacked on - the movie even faded to black) didn't come nearly close enough to redeeming it. Unlike poor George Clooney, Robert Deniro's character actually benefits from the lessons he's learned but the uplifting ending just wasn't that uplifting. Maybe that's a good thing, as it does stray a bit from the "lived happily ever after" Hollywood fairy tale a bit but not too much to make the masses uncomfortable. Still, I'm not a masochist and depressing myself with fictional stories is not my idea of entertainment.

Farewell Central America

Speaking of entertainment, we did finally find a street with a pretty decent nightlife, and that street is Calle Uruguay. It's lined with clubs and lounges and we finally made it there on our second last day in Panama City. We went out with a Brazilian guy who was a lot of fun and also met up with some girls from Colombia that were pretty nice. It was also my first chance to go out with the glasses and one girl really liked them and the other said I shouldn't wear them as my face was too nice which is a very politic way to say "your glasses suck". The lot of us all hung out together (although the Brazilian guy disappeared with the group of Brazilian girls later in the evening) and it was a good night all said. We were supposed to meet up with Eduardo, my cousin Con's friend from here, but never did manage to get a hold of him when we tried to call him back. He'd recommended a bar called Pure but it was $20 cover and didn't seem especially busy so we negotiated another place down to letting us in for $1 and partied there (I think it was called People). Aside from this night, our other attempts had mostly been failures. Luna's had a cool bar but it was just hard to meet people at it, and otherwise there isn't much that's backpacker friendly in this part of town.

Tomorrow I will leave Central America, which was intended only to be a footnote in my journey to South America but has since become so much more. It astounds me how many incredible countries and cultures are packed into this little isthmus and how little we hear about them back in Canada. I shouldn't pin my own ignorance on the whole country, but I suspect that my own knowledge of, say, Nicaragua, was probably around the national average and that is to say that I would probably have to hesitate and consider whether it was in Central America or Africa before remembering a quote from Family Guy where Lois instantly sizes up the price of 2.5 kg of "uncut Nicaraguan" cocaine and concluding it is Central America. Looking at the map, this area is tiny, especially considering it took me three months to see it properly and I have a much larger slate of land ahead of me with roughly the same amount of time allocated and that, I suppose, is a testament to the many experiences to be had in this part of the world even if my blog is not. I have no conclusion for these thoughts, they're just observations, but if I could do it again I would have left three months earlier so I had more time for South America. But I'm looking forward to my next adventures there and hopefully you are too. See you there!

Panama City Photos

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