Panamanian Impressions

It’s two weeks here in Panama. Already. Not sure I can say I’ve got my ‘traveling stride’ since more than anything, I’m feeling laid up with this sprained ankle. But as Keelty said so well, “let the ankle set your pace,” which is exactly what I’m doing. Which means I’m doing very little because it’s sprained and there’s not a lot of ground to cover with a sprained ankle. So maybe this is my traveling stride now. The last days have been focused on the local Semana Santa celebration, reading, writing and hanging out at this Hostal Voyager which has been humbling and challenging for me. And yet, it is this very kind of humbling and challenging that is some of what I seek while I’m out here. Why I choose to travel in the style that I do and why I choose to do it in the places that I do. Step out of my comfort zone. Step into a kind of life and culture so very different from my own and learn to be present to all that shows itself.

So I’m being with the clutter and the dirt and the mess and the chickens crawling and shitting all over everything and the garbage strewn everywhere and everything from the fan that has no cover and which I have to give the blades a long, hard push to get it rolling to the tea kettle with no lid and no handle to the toilet seat that’s not attached and is cracked, and so much more in states of brokenness and disrepair.  There’s a certain kind of poverty that has me counting my extraordinary blessings. And Guadalupe, ever-friendly, and ever-kind in her presence and conversations. So yes, I am humbled and grateful for the experience and yet, I’m ready to move on, too, which I will do tomorrow. I’ve got a nice place I’m headed to in Boquete situated directly on a river in a town that is renowned for its beautiful surrounding nature and burgeoning ex-pat community. It’s been five days since I’ve seen another tourist and while that’s hardly a long time, it is definitely different when I’m in a place that is not focused or catering to tourists in any way. It has a way, sometimes, of sounding more romantic than it is.

Ohmigod, I don’t know how this happened, but I just spent two hours writing on the post and everything I wrote has disappeared! Yikes, another reason why I should be writing in Word and then transferring over – shit! Either I go to sleep now or keep writing – let’s see what happens!

I’ve been wanting to record some of my initial impressions of this country before they fade away. Here are some in stream-of-consciousness style.

  • There’s Chinese people here in Panama. Lots of them. They were a surprise to me, until once again, I was reminded of yet another country which used them for slave labor. They were brought over when the Canal was built and of course, became a part of the community, had families and stayed. Now they run most all the mercaditos (small supermarkets) and there are plenty of Chinese restaurants around too, which I certainly didn’t expect. Actually, Panama City had a wealth of different cultural restaurants and even tonight, in this small town of Boquete, I’m going to dinner at a nearby Peruvian restaurant.
  • In Southeast Asia, many women walked the streets everywhere in their coordinated pajama outfits. It tickled me and I was a tad envious that I didn’t have one of my own very special numbers to parade about in, although I have a feeling it might not have been as well received. (Anything would have been a relief for me from the clothing crisis I found myself in there. No such crisis going on, on this trip, mind you. I’ve actually brought a few too many clothes and that suits me just fine. No specialty traveling clothes whatsoever. No khaki, no pants that zipper off into shorts. No pockets up and down the sides of my clothes. No North Face, Patagonia or Ex-Officio crap or nonsense for me. Almost all aloha wear which works quite well here, is cool and comfy and that makes me happy. Earth colors are, as I said, best left to the earth. So I’m in my full color ensembles and feeling quite … myself. But really, I didn’t mean to go on a clothing riff.) Here, it’s not the pajamas that women walk around in. It’s rollers. Yep, rollers. You know the kind – those really big ones that I haven’t seen in decades and that I think I used maybe one time, although my sister did it more often. I can’t quite remember, but I think she used orange juice cans, but Donna, you can confirm that vague memory. What I do know for sure, though, is that we certainly never left the house in them. Ohmigod, no. Here, no problem in letting God and everyone see you in your rollers – on the street, on the bus, anywhere it so suits so! I love this photo most of all – toilet paper rolls!

  • My tattoo is getting a lot of attention. A lot. Especially when they realize that yes, it is permanent. It is real. A sweet story about one of those days: on Guadalupe’s suggestion, my own reading and going stir crazy at her place, I decided to take a day trip to the small village of Pedasi a few hours from Los Santos. It’s a sweet little town, ancient and nearby to gorgeous beaches. I needed an outing. As I wandered the town, I walked into a small Artesania shop where I was greeted by a gorgeous young Panamanian woman. Now, the people here are quite striking in their looks: dark brown or black skin, deep dark eyes, thick dark hair and some pronounced, earthy kind of quality to their features. Yes, quite striking they are, and she was outstandingly so. I found myself quite captivated with her beauty. She wears a short, diaphanous dress that capitalizes – big time – on her long, lithe legs. She’s adorned in long, colorful, beaded necklaces of bright orange, blood red, black and silver. She’s smiling brightly and the contrast of her pearl white teeth against her mahogany skin is dramatic. I am taken right in not only by her physical beauty but by her warm and friendly presence. She seems to be taken, too. With my tattoo, at least. She wants to know all about it and tells me it’s the most beautiful one she’s ever seen. I explain that it’s done in the traditional  Hawaiian style and how part of my life story is written in it. That entrances her even more. We exchange further pleasantries and I tell her how beautiful she is, which is not something I tend to do with complete strangers in foreign countries; but it simply had to be said. She smiles even more broadly and I’m transported. Some minutes later while I’m eating al fresco at the restaurant across the street (the best meal of the trip so far), she comes out of the shop and meets her man on the street. They embrace and kiss passionately, more passionately than I’ve seen on these Panamanian streets and enough to feel like I ought to look away and let them have this private moment in this very public place. No sooner am I busy looking away that she approaches me and asks if she can show my tattoo to her man. She explains to him how it’s a story of my life. He speaks to me now, as she walks off and says, “Maybe I oughta get a tattoo of the story of my life. Right in the middle of it, there will be a big explosion that shows when I met her.” His eyes twinkle as he smiles brightly in her direction. Somehow I feel a sense of privilege in being drawn into the romance of these two strangers, these two gorgeous strangers right here in the middle of the street of this small village of Pedasi. And I realize as this small scenario has taken place how, even in all my blah-blah-blah sophisticated life experiences, psychological training and broken hearted moments, I am a total sucker for romance. No matter how silly it may be, no matter how fraught with potholes of projection and sappy unrealism, I love romance. And this time something is different inside of me. That familiar sting in my gut that often accompanies the vicarious distance from which I witness such romance is not nearly so present. And I think of Miguel and how much he is romancing me, from all these miles away. And now I too am smiling as broadly as the beautiful Panamanian woman.

FANTASTIC salad with all kinds of yummy stuff hidden underneath this perfectly cooked (meaning hardly) ahi tuna!

Well, maybe it's not Sugo's or Caffe Giostra's bruschetta, but it will do just fine here in Panama!

  • Back to those beautiful Panamanians. Part of what I love is seeing that the full range of bodies appear to co-exist quite nicely. The thin women are here and are represented well, of course. But then there’s also the large women who do nothing to hide their size. No, they are not wearing flowing clothing or dressing in dark colors. Ohno, none of that. They’ve got some of the biggest bubble butts I’ve seen in a looooooong time. And they are showing them off just like their thin sisters are showing off their no-bubble-butts. Which brings me to the clothing of choice for seemingly all of them, no matter their size. Jeans. Dungarees, as I called them in my greener and more eastern days. In this sweltering, sticky heat and humidity, they’re all in jeans! I feel like I can’t breathe just looking at them! And tight, tight, tight. The tightest jeans I’ve ever seen. How do they get those jeans on? How do they get them off? I see my mother rolling her eyes right now, saying, with no words at all, “Christina, how easily you forget! You wore jeans just like that, damn it. I tried to get you to stop, but no, you wouldn’t listen to me. You never listened to me!” Okay, Sara, you might be right, I have an obscure memory from my much thinner days of lying on the floor and zipping up pants that couldn’t be put on in any other position. (There go her rolling eyes again.) But never in this kind of heat, I swear I drew the line there for sure!

    Tight jeans AND rollers all in one!

And in Church, no less! My mother never would have stood for that!

And what are many of them wearing with these jeans?  Yep, stilettos! I feel wobbly and like my vertigo might be in the midst of returning just looking at them!

  • Along with being so strikingly attractive, the Panamanians are also a friendly bunch. Everywhere I’ve been so far, almost everyone on the street makes eye contact and greets each other – me  included – with “Buenas.” No need for the whole phrase – “Buenas Dias” or “Buenas Tardes,” although some people say that, too. Most all just leave it at “Buenas.” Sometimes it’s long and drawn out like, “Bueeeeeeeeeeenas!” I respond in kind, of course and especially to that elongated one. I speak Spanish as much as I can, to everyone I can and although I recognize that it’s very basic, elementary-school level, they seem to be delighted that I’m even trying. The only problem is when they respond and then I’m really lost. But I love being able to communicate if only a little bit in their language and it makes me want to – amongst the long list of things I just have to do right away – add greatly improving my Spanish to that list. How can I live long enough to do and learn and experience all that I want to?
  • Before I left Guadalupe’s, there was a sad death in the family. Guadalupe had two dogs and a cat, all very sweet and lovely to have around. One of the dogs was just a puppy and wasn’t doing well. She was feeding him liquids by baby bottle and was very worried about him. I gently suggested that maybe he needed a vet and she agreed, although I imagined she couldn’t afford it. One day she went into a bigger nearby town and came back with medicine for him. But he was already gone. We found him dead under a car in the far back of the yard. She was troubled at the $10 she had spent, money that doesn’t appear to come easy for her. She dug a hole and buried him as the neighborhood children and I looked on. I made a bouquet of bougainvillea blossoms and placed it on the grave. There we stood, she and I, hugging and mourning together at the graveside of her sweet dog.

The other sweeties who are still around.

  • I can’t say I’ve been so thrilled with the food so far. Part of that has been that I’ve been out of tourist areas which means that I’m eating at the local restaurants that focus on the locals’ eating styles. Again, this is one of those things that sounds more romantic than it often is. A steady diet of rice and sometimes beans is, well, a steady diet of rice and sometimes beans. B-o-r-i-n-g. When there’s anything more on the menu, it’s always-always-always meat. Except in San Blas where I had a steady diet of lobster and fish.  (Oh, that wasn’t so bad!) But generally, it’s all about chicken (I try to ignore the cow and pig options entirely) and I’ve been eating more of it than I would prefer. I have discovered two things that seem to be everywhere that I like just fine, though – both savory and sweet, which is always my choice – and rather than or! Patacones (fried plantains) which are everywhere and very yummy; and much to my surprise, but also in every panaderia I’ve gone into (and I do like and frequent my panaderias!) – macaroons! WOW – ohsure, I would prefer the kind covered in chocolate, but these are doing my sweet tooth just fine and at 25 cents each, my wallet, too! Oh and here in Boquete, the most amazingly beautiful and delicious tomatoes at the mercado. Ohmigod, they are ruby red and huge and also only 25 cents each! I guess a diet of plaintains and tomatoes and macaroons can’t be anything much to complain about! I do find myself remembering the fantastic food of Asia and pining for it sometimes. It’s hardly a big deal and I’m rolling with it, since I just so happen to be a highly adaptable eater, but still, I look forward to some other options and will welcome them when they come! (Well, as experience would have it, I just took a dinner break from writing and what did I find on the menu at the restaurant I chose but veggie tacos! And they were delish! I guess I’ll save the Peruvian place for another night.)
  • Boquete has a big ex-pat community. It feels a little weird to me. Most all of them live in gated communities and are completely segregated from the local people. I came upon a bridge over a river in town on one of my walks, crossed it and suddenly everyone was Gringo and speaking English. I responded to them in Spanish. It seems to be a place ex-pats enjoy, but it wouldn’t be a way of living that I would like. My preference would be to be much more integrated into the community, although I also know that living in a foreign country is no cake walk. It’s also something that’s waaaaay more romantic than it sounds. Boquete is nice, but it doesn’t call me as a place I would move to. The mountains are great, I always love visiting the mountains. But really, the sea is my home.
  • I’ve been surprised in these few short weeks of the price of things. Okay you Bay Area and Hawaii-living people, hush up. your reference point is all out of whack anyway. To me, it seems expensive here – both the cost of food and lodging. Some restaurant prices are $12 – 15 for dinner and simple, nothing-fancy-kinda lodging starts at $40 per night (and way up from there). Transportation seems cheap – buses and taxis are more than reasonable, but my days of spending $3 for dinner and $3 for a room in Southeast Asia are long and far away. Scooter rentals are $40 for 8 hours – yikes, I spent $8 for 24 hours in SEA! Nature tours are ridiculously expensive and I’ve heard that Costa Rica is, on average, double the price of Panama. I’ve also heard that Nicaragua will be much cheaper than here. so it will all balance out, of course. My daily budget seems to be doing fine and actually on par with SEA so far; due in no small part, I’m sure, to the lack of almost daily body work I had there (even at the steal of the cost that it was, it was still a line item in my budget!). Ohyeah, and Panama’s currency is supposedly the Balboa, but it’s actually the USD. There are no Balboas in circulation, but they have coins that are used alongside ours and of the same denomination. They also have $1 coins which just makes me think – the whole world has something commensurate to a $1 coin – what’s with us that we can’t figure out how to do that?
  • The tourism scene so far has been very quiet. I don’t see tourist offices in every other storefront like I remember in Guatemala and like was certainly the case in Southeast Asia. There’s little tourist infrastructure or shops catering for them. Surprised to see this, I am. I haven’t even been tempted to buy anything. The few Artesania shops I’ve seen seem to have very little in the way of Panamanian crafts – most seem to be from Guatemala. Ohyeah, and of course, China. I haven’t bought anything yet and really, that’s better at this stage of the trip. Less to schlep makes this girl happy and makes the healing ankle even happier.
  • Now here in Boquete there are indeed more tourist-catered offices, particularly for adventure-type excursions, the very reasons I came to this town – hiking and rafting, primarily. I can’t do either of them now. My ankle is healing, no doubt, but I just don’t think that off (kinda) smooth-surface hiking is a good idea right now. And I definitely don’t think getting into a paddle boat and Class IV rapids would be too wise either. This is new for me. I’m not used to my body not being able to do almost anything that I want it to do. Ohsure, I’m not hiking at the distance or climb that I used to and that’s just fine with me. But to not be able to at all, at least for a limited time, is something new and different for me. And humbling off the charts. Who am I if I can’t hike? Who am I if I can’t raft? Who am I if I can’t rely on the fitness of my body to do whatever I want to do? Well, for someone who wants to offer programs to people about what it means to be aging and how to embrace the process with vitality, creativity and humility; how not to expect the physicality of youth to be part of aging, but instead to embrace what is so and to welcome the depth of life experience and resultant wisdom that can only come with aging – all this seems to be just what I need as I move into curriculum development! So, it’s just what I’m getting. Funny, this life is sometimes. Ohyeah, hilarious. In the meantime, I’m walking the town daily and doing so with precise attention to almost every step I take so that I can protect my ankle from the potholes and cracked, uneven surfaces that pass for sidewalks here. The town is lovely set with mountains all around, flowers bursting with color everywhere I look. So in the scheme of things, all is well, of course. I’m in a room that, from where I came at Guadalupe’s, could be called nothing short of luxurious. I am riverside with a hammock and a sweet lanai that’s sunny and yet also enshrouded with blooming heliconia. The sound of the river is ever-present and melodious especially as I’m drifting off to sleep. It’s chilly here at 3000′ and I couldn’t be more delighted to be out of the scorching heat and humidity. I wear my fleece jacket every night and am so grateful I brought it. I didn’t even have anything long sleeve in Southeast Asia and never wanted for it; but here it’s different and I’m glad I’m prepared! I’ve got a gorgeous, huge, stone shower with the hottest water of the trip (sometimes there’s been none, which is common). I’m resting and reading and walking and taking photos and resting some more. I’m being romanced and courted through email and Skype calls by a sweet and luscious man thousands of miles away. He’s being incredibly patient with me as I simultaneously question how he could be so smitten so quickly and luxuriate in it. I’m holding my hand much closer to my chest and yet I’m pretty blown away by what’s happening between us. So I think it’s a damn good idea to focus on all that I’ve got going right here and right now and just let go of what I thought I came here for that’s not quite being realized!

Look it! Look it! Look it! I found a labyrinth!

SILLY dog!!!

  • Back to Panama City – I already spoke about how the richness of it astounded me. I learned from an ex-pat who lives there that there are more than 500 banks in the city, all of them thriving. 500 Banks! Unbelievable! So much money there and yet, so much poverty, too. That same ex-pat clued me in to something else about the city. All those skyscrapers making up the skyline with seemingly more and more of them going up every day? More construction and construction workers than I had ever seen before? Yep on both. But check out those skyscrapers in the evening – almost none of them have lights on. No one is living or working in most any of them. They’re all about money laundering of all the money coming through the city, much of it drug-related. Can we all say that the drug wars have been a sham and that almost all drug education has been a dismal failure? No market, no need for these folks to be the running drugs that they are, almost all exported for US consumption. Okay, okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

I’ve planned my onward travel today and after five nights lounging here in beautiful Boquete, I will take my leave on the week-end to my final destination in Panama – Bocas del Toro. It’s a series of yet more islands in the Caribbean, but not nearly so isolated like San Blas. I’ve booked two different places, one in town which looks great, right in the middle of the action, for several days and then one which I’m really excited about – Palmar Tent Lodge – it’s right on a fabulous beach and looks outstanding! Check it out: http://www.palmartentlodge.com/

From there, I will zip through Costa Rica as quickly as I can and head to Nicaragua where I’ll spend a month. But that’s for later. Traveling is so much about being in the moment and yes, doing some planning but keeping my focus on the here and now. I love the yoga of that process! And I do so love being out here – can you tell?

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