I’ve only been out here for a little over a week and already, I am deep in the throes of traveling in the 3rd world – well of course I am, what the hell did I expect?! Right now is probably not the best time to write, hence, it is the best time to write. It’s been a helluva travel day and I am again humbled by them. It’s not quite the place I imagined starting off when I sat down to write … but “start where I am” is how it goes in the Writing World, so here I am!
I’m currently in La Villa de Los Santos, known as either “La Villa” or “Los Santos” depending on … well, who knows what it depends on; but that’s what it’s called. I wasn’t planning on arriving today, Holy Thursday. My plan was to stay in El Valle de Anton, known as El Valle, a wonderfully pleasant small town at about 2000’ elevation, which brought some – albeit minimal – relief from the sweltering temps of Panama City. But more on El Valle later.
I was sitting drinking some tea and reading this morning at El Orquidea Hostal in El Valle – the Orchid Farm that doubled as a Hostel which I was quite pleased to be staying at – when an ex-pat who lives in El Valle and volunteers at the Farm started talking with me and warned me that I shouldn’t wait until tomorrow – Good Friday – to travel. The city would be emptying out of people headed to the Azuero Peninsula – where Los Santos is – and the buses would be packed tomorrow, probably today, too. I hadn’t given travel a thought. I was so pleased with myself that I had found Los Santos, a small town with a big Semana Santa (Easter) celebration where I had booked a room ahead of time and was all set with. But now I was faced with a travel challenge. Should I stay or should I go? I imagined this woman came along with good reason, so I quickly finished my tea, packed up my backpack (which takes no time at all – gotta love those packing cubes!), and headed down the road to catch the first of what would be many buses over the course of the day. The women at the Hostal told me that it would take five or six hours to get to Los Santos, which surprised me, since I thought it was just a few away. It was already close to noon before I took my unexpected leave, which meant I had a full day of travel and not too much time to waste with daylight lasting only ‘til around 6:00 pm.
Before I walked even a few steps outside of the Hostal, I was flat on my ass, having slipped on some small stones and splayed out with my center of gravity way off – I think I probably looked something like a up-ended turtle. I quickly brushed myself off and got up, but it was instantly obvious that my ankle was not happy. No choice though – with no bones protruding in any awkward directions or skin broken, I carried on the ½ kilometer to the bus stop. It came quickly and brought me to the Carreteria – the Pan American Highway crossing where I would catch my next bus – hopefully all the way to Los Santos, but if there wasn’t one of those, then I would find one to Penonome and from there to Los Santos. The buses here are mostly small mini-van type that comfortably hold about 20 people, but which jam in way more than that when the jamming is called for. It looked like it was gonna be a jammin’ kind of day. The first bus was fine – I had my own seat and the 45-minute ride went by without a hitch. My ankle was screaming, though, and I had the brilliant idea to ice it with the cans of cerveza I had bought last night (thinking I was spending another night in El Valle). They were still cold since I had just taken them out of the frig at the Hostal and I gave myself a chuckle thinking about how I was administering 1st Aid with beer cans. I was worried about the ankle, though, and couldn’t move my foot at all without pretty intense pain. But we were off and it was getting iced and that was all I could do in the moment.
The man on the bus warned me that the buses would likely be full, but directed me where to catch the next one. A Los Santos bus pulled up shortly after I did – wow, what luck! – but it was full and the man was waving his arms like crazy to let us all know there was no more room for any of us. Okay, okay, I got the message. I found a bit of a curb to sit on while I waited for the next one to show up. My ankle continued to throb and worry me. Several buses came and flew right by the stop, all of them – full, full, full. So much for the experienced traveler thinking of everything. I stood at this highway cross which was just that and nothing more – no businesses or hotels or restaurants or anything and tried not to imagine standing there as dusk came upon us. I pulled my oft-used mantra out of my back traveling pocket – “Everything will be fine, everything will work out. It always does. Remember, it always does.”
It was close to an hour before a bus to Penonome stopped and had just a few seats. In fact, several people stood for the ride and I was able to secure one of those jump seats that folds down and back up as needed. It’s smaller than a normal seat and I had to keep getting up and down as other people needed to get off, but I was so happy to have a seat, I didn’t care one bit, except for my ankle, that is. Ohsure, the screaming, beautiful girl-child next to me was another story, but I was on my way!
Just as we were approaching Penonome, I asked the ‘conductor-type’ guy if there was a special stop for the bus to Los Santos – he pointed to a place we had just passed and the driver quickly stopped. (And yes, I asked him in Spanish!) I hobbled off the bus and limped – yes, limped – to the place where I saw several buses at a restaurant stop. They were all headed in the direction of Los Santos, so any of them would do and they were all empty while the passengers and drivers were having some food. I asked a woman about whether I could get on the bus (yes, in Spanish!) and she pointed out the driver in the restaurant who I should ask. I limped on over to him as he was gobbling down his lunch, but he told me that the bus was full and he couldn’t take me. Other drivers at the table confirmed the same thing. They warned me that although other buses would be passing by coming from Panama City, it was likely that they would all be full, too. I needed to wait for the next bus and hope for the best. Yes, all this conversation went on in Spanish, too. I’ve found precious few people who speak English and while I’m having a hard time understanding them, they are patient with me and always, always eager to help. What more could I ask for? I’m delighted that at least there is a small foundation upon which I can depend to communicate and while small, so much larger than anything I had in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam – for sure!
Okay, so there I stood and waited. I needed a bathroom, which was there and I was grateful for and then I stood near the buses that were readying to leave. An older woman approached me, spoke way more rapidly than made it possible for me to fully understand, although I did get that she confirmed what the drivers had told me – all the Panama City buses would be full. It would be best for me to take a different bus to Agua Dulce (which made me think of yummy Dulce de Leche ice cream by Haagen Daz, which made me think of Flea and the inordinate times that we loved eating Dulce, amidst a zillion other flavors, together.). But there was no time for grand indulgences in such thoughts – I had to listen to her and see what advice she had. Yes, take the bus to A.D. and then change there for another bus to Los Santos. But the A.D. bus stop was somewhere else – a kilometer or so away. No way, I couldn’t walk that far with my pack and more importantly, my throbbing ankle, which I pointed to and told her it was not possible. She suggested I take a taxi. It was then that I decided that as well meaning as she certainly was; I was not going to follow her advice. For some reason I couldn’t begin to explain, I decided I would get a bus from here and that’s all there was to it. So I went back to waiting. I limped around, looking forlorn and feeling that way, too. I was hoping that the little bit of cleavage I was walking around with couldn’t hurt the cause either. That’s when one of the drivers approached me as he was getting on his bus – he said it was full but that all the buses coming would be full too. “Are you alone,” he asked? (Yes, in Spanish!) “YES, I am alone, alone, alone.” Thank God I’m alone. After some paragraphs that I didn’t fully understand, he pointed to a little stool at the front of the bus and grabbed my bag to put it in the luggage compartment. Hooray! I had my ride and on the same bus as the woman who suggested I go to A.D.! Somehow, that made me feel even better! As I boarded, a man passenger took the stool for his seat and gave me the jump seat. There I was, with a front row seat and we were off! Well, before you get too excited for me, this bus wasn’t going to Los Santos, but it was going to Chitre, the town just before and very close to Los Santos. So upon arrival in LS, I would simply take yet another bus and find my way there and to Guadalupe Peralta and the Hostal Voyager. No problem, no problem, I had skirted the holiday travel situation and was getting closer every minute. It was a two-hour ride to Chitre, with police standing on the side of the road every few hundred feet with radar guns. This made the going slow, but I didn’t care. I was happy to see the countryside and give my ankle a rest.
We arrived in Chitre and I gave the driver a tip of a $2 bill. He tried not to take it, but I told him it was for Bien Suerte (Good Luck) – then it seemed that he felt obligated to take it. I brought some with me on this trip after so many locals on my Asian trip saw the one I was traveling with then and were all cavorting it. Then it was my Good Luck Charm, so I didn’t want to part with it. This was the perfect time to give the first of them away and I was glad to give it to this fine man! An elderly woman stood nearby and was headed to Los Santos, too, so we boarded the local Chicken Bus together and in no time we had arrived in Los Santos. I didn’t have an address for the Hostal Voyager, but since it was such a small town, I didn’t imagine that would be a problem. I imagined wrong. The driver had never heard of it or of Guadalupe Peralta. After passing through what was clearly El Centro, we were headed out of town and I had no clue where the Hostal was – where’s the seasoned traveler, I was wondering right about now?! The elderly woman took a liking to me, apparently, and tried to help me. She suggested I get off with her, which I was happy to do. She asked a few women standing around on the street and a cab driver about my Hostal, but no one knew anything. One even checked a phone book but still, nothing. I decided I would take a cab to a nearby, well-known hotel and perhaps they could help me to locate mine. Well, no one at Hotel La Villa spoke English and none were overly interested in helping me find my way to another hotel. Oh, and just as I arrived there, the clouds opened up in a fury and it started raining. No it didn’t rain. It poured as hard as it could possibly pour. I ran into the lobby of the place that was clearly way above my standard, accessed the internet and wrote to Guadalupe, telling her I was waiting here at this hotel for her. Then I checked her website once more and found a phone number which I called right away; but it was thundering and pouring so hard that I couldn’t understand the man on the other end of the phone. A young Panamanian woman was checking in at the hotel and I implored her to come and help me. She spoke to the man on the phone, got and wrote down the address and then I called yet another taxi to come and pick me up and deliver me to Guadalupe’s. Oyyyyy! The taxi arrived quickly, took one look at the lengthy address and in no time, delivered me to the door. The rain had not stopped pelting down and two hours later as I sit here, it has still not stopped.
If you’re feeling exhausted reading this right about now, I feel your pain. But really, you’re comfortably ensconced wherever it is that you are comfortably ensconced. And here I am, not so comfortably ensconced but the process of downloading all this is helping, and that’s a really good thing. For me, anyway! If you’re even still reading, you’re either a masochist or you’ve just got too much time on your hands! Or, better yet, you’re someone who loves me and wants to know what the hell happens here!
Okay, so we arrive right in the middle of El Centro, which is a good thing, I figure, because I want to be right in the thick of it for the Semana Santa Processions and all the fiesta stuff. We’re right across the street from the Catholic Church – geez, when am I ever so pleased to be so close to the Catholic Church?! I step into the Hostal, which does indeed have a small sign on the door and into a room filled with computers and way more junk than suits my tidy Virgo nature. It’s the local Internet Café which is obviously attached to the Hostal and that makes me happy knowing I’ll have internet access. The young boy working in the internet room which has only a few other boys in it, all of them glued to the computers in front of them, tells me that Guadalupe isn’t here.
Oh, segue – I’ve been the only tourist I’ve seen all day – all the buses, all the towns, everyone local and no other turistas anywhere. Already, I’m way off the Gringo Trail!
He calls Guadalupe and then directs me to the room, the room that Guadalupe described as ‘tipico.’ Sometimes ‘tipico’ is a really good thing as in an authentic taste of local color and culture and sometimes it’s not, it’s just a euphemism for, well, for shit. Guess which one it is this time?
My room is shabby, moldy, with no windows and certainly at the lowest standard so far of this trip and a lower standard than is my current standard. The walls are painted cement, the ceiling has styrofoam pieces (yes, styrofoam!) covering the 2 x 4s in certain places and not in other places. There’s a mish-mash of furniture – a rickety table, a huge, over-stuffed chair covered in a smelly throw and well, okay, I can’t describe anymore right now. The boy helping me can’t find a way to turn on the lights and goes searching for extension cords and lights and yadayadayada. The room is stifling with no windows, no access to air. I ask him for a fan – he brings one, thankfully and it, like everything else in the place, is tattered, broken and yet somewhat functional, although making so much noise that I can’t quite imagine how I’ll sleep through it, but that’s to worry about later. The rain has still not stopped teeming down. Now it’s raining inside my room. I find some buckets to catch the water and am grateful that the bed (ohgod, the bed!) is out of its range. For now anyway. One of the first things I pull out of my pack is my sleep sack – tonight I will likely zip myself deep into it, lest I come in direct contact with the bed. There’s an open-air lanai off my room which is filled with clutter and a few dogs finding refuge from the rain.
I’m not the least bit thrilled to be here at the moment.
And yet I realize that it’s Semana Santa – Holy Week – and the throngs of people from the city have come to the Azuero Peninsula for the celebrations. It is not likely there is another place anywhere around to bed down. (The Hotel where I first landed was full and I now I’d be happy to consider it, even at it’s way-out-of-my-budget range.)
My ankle is throbbing worse than ever. It’s clearly sprained. I’m hobbling around and I’m cranky. Whew, am I cranky. These are the kinds of times when I realize it’s really quite best that I’m traveling alone and just have myself to be cranky with. Now I’m getting hungry, but it’s raining and thundering so hard outside that I couldn’t begin to step out there and not be soaked within a minute. The sidewalks and roads are flooded. And I’m hungry and cranky and I could even cry. I mean, why not? Crying seems like a really good idea right now! But instead I sit here and write in my squalid hovel of a room, trusting that all will be well, all will be fine – All Will Be Well, Damn It! Some place has got to be the lowest standard of the trip – I just didn’t quite expect it would be so soon, but so it is. If only it would stop raining, I could go out and find a restaurant for dinner. But not yet, not yet.
I feel a bit like being in the midst of one of Ann Randolph’s writing sessions. I didn’t get to anything that I wanted to write about. But I have to take a break now and venture out because I hear women’s voices outside and perhaps Guadalupe has arrived and now I’ve got to play the part of the friendly and oh-so-grateful guest!
More to come … and really, the last week has been a whole lot better than the current moment, so I’m eager to write about it. My time in San Blas was utterly divine!
The big lessons for me lately seem to be all about my body being in less than perfect health over these last many weeks. I am humbled and I am vulnerable and yet, here I am, out here, working it out as best I can. What else can I do, really? Oh, yeah, I can find an ace bandage and some dinner, that’s what!
Oh and yes, Guadalupe has indeed arrived — all dressed up and so very friendly and apologetic about the rain inside and how someone is working on the house but not this week, you see, because after all, it is Semana Santa. She kisses my cheek and tells me that yes, there’s an open restaurant nearby – come, come she’ll show me where it is right now!