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Panama in Review 5: Return

March 18th, 2010 1 comment

The topic of the return from an international trip wouldn’t usually be sufficient to warrent it’s own missive, but this one was adventure enough to justify it.

Why an adventure?  Simple: Tracy and I both had wicked sun burns from our surfing, highly specialized to the back side from all that face down paddling about.  The burns were bad enough and the day was long enough (19 hours hotel to home) that our journey was an exercise in meta-physic:s a game in mind over matter, practice at the transformational distinction between pain (what is) and suffering (a possible interpretation about what is).

Without that sort of mental fitness we would have been quite that sad and suffering pair.  Instead we came up with the following:

  • Confidence that we’ll be fit travelers together for at least 40 more years, because we were just fine walking around with the stature and gait of retirees.  Knees buckled, shoulders hunched, slooooooow, small steps: turns out we can travel under these conditions.
  • Elaborate strategies for minimizing the number of times we would need to sit down and stand up, including waiting around extra long before boarding the plane (to ensure our window seat neighbor had gotten settled before we took our middle and aisle seats).  (Though some strategies did backfire, like sitting around at Chile’s Too for long innings drinking tall beers.)
  • Delight in popping pills together, when we decided to splurge on Airport Advil and have what is probably the closest experience to being junkies that we’ll ever come to.
  • A deep and profound respect for one another as hardcore and jovial human beings, able to have substantial fun in the face of substantial discomfort.

The best was when we got back to Denver: it was cold, but with the backs of my knees as red as they were I had no interest in trading out shorts for jeans.  So it was socks, sandals, shorts, and hooded sweatshirt (and don’t forget my hobbling stride).  I looked like absolute hell.  And it was funny, too.  Just ask the lady at the King Sooper’s (grocery store) who openly giggled at me when we stopped in for some late night food.  I’m one major step closer to understanding the mentality of older people who couldn’t care less for fashion, save for perhaps what others think about their fashion.

It’s kind of liberating. :)

Categories: Enlightenment, Travels Tags:

Panama in Review 4: Surf’s Up

March 16th, 2010 1 comment

It was our last day on the island.  At 4:45pm we would hop a plane back to Panama City, stay another night at the Hotel California, and wake early for our all day adventure back to Denver.

There was unfinished business.  Surfing.

But we weren’t sure if we’d fit it in.  Who knew when and if we could get a surfing excursion that included a beginner’s lesson in time, and besides, that morning we thought we’d do 9am yoga.  I like to think that fate kicked in when we arrived 2 minutes late to what was, in my experience, the first and only yoga venue not laid back enough to admit such barely-late stragglers.

So we wandered the main drag in search of surfing opportunities instead.  Ricardo, the rad proprietor of La Buga dive and surf shop, had a deal for us.  (Ricardo is rad for a number of reasons: wall full of PADI certifications, friendly manner of speaking English with his kickin’ Panamanian accent with which he can always convincingly tell you it’s a great day for diving, and Tracy and I were both pleased and unsurprised to see him doing well for himself romantically, apparently dating the smokin’ hottie who fixed Tracy’s smoothie that morning).  His deal: another person was going for an excursion at 10am and we could get in for $49 a piece, including a lesson, and back on land by 1pm.  Sold.  Pardon us while we run back to our room to change.

The lesson was a quick 20 minutes in a few forms, balance, and a fun test of whether you ride normal or goofy foot (i.e. with your left or right foot forward: the test is to push you from behind and seeing which foot instinctively leaps forward to prevent your imminent face plant).  Our lesson was held on the back porch/dock, and was punctuated once or twice by Ricardo stopping by to briefly and nonchalantly pump some serious iron at the weight station 6 feet away.  (Ricardo, you’re such a bad-ass.)

And then it was off to a nice patch of wavy water just off the beach we’d visited the day before.  We jumped into the water with our boards tethered to us by our ankle leash, and our instructor positioned himself with fins and snorkel in the middle of the bobbing water, ready to guide us to hang ten glory.

The premise of surfing, I now know, is simple: hang out in one spot, bob up and down as you wait for a good wave to come your way.  When it does, paddle like hell away from it so that you have speed enough to ride the wave once it does catch you.

How did I do?  I attained the goal I’d set for myself during our lesson: I managed to stand up and ride a wave for a good 8 or 10 seconds.  That was the last of maybe a dozen good waves I’d caught: on the path to said competence I’d had one good salty gulp of the sea, nearly ran over Tracy once, and appreciated the heck out of the aforementioned ankle leash about 4 times (when you fall off the board, the board keeps going: the ankle leash is pretty much the only thing that puts a cap on how far it goes).

In just two hours out I gained two unexpected things: a sudden and profound appreciation for the scattered bits of surfer talk I’ve heard all my life (ahhh… turns out that “catching some killer waves” is worth getting excited about!), and a wicked sun burn on the back of my legs (I neglected to mention the other side of the surfing equation: after riding a wave, you spend a lot of time lying face down on the board, peddling with your arms back up to where you started–it’s a fantastic shoulder workout).

Panama in Review 3: Food and Drink

March 14th, 2010 2 comments

One of the main perks of heading south for the winter is the fresh produce factor.  Due in no small part to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which follows the exploits of the author and her family to eat locally and in season for an entire year, I’ve lately kept my choices in the produce aisle pretty narrow during colder months.  (You could, I suppose, argue that I’ve been brainwashed by locavore propaganda, but I’m content to tow the line for perhaps no other reason that, sure enough, tomatoes do taste bland and mealy when you have ’em in the dead of winder–I don’t doubt that fresh veggies have a stereotypically bad rap with kids due to their now commonplace out-of-season mediocrity.)

So to be in a growing region of mangoes, bananas, and pineapples after 2 months of tubers and other root vegetables is quite a treat.  Or at least it should be.  Perhaps it’s just a symptom of island life, but the produce pickings were kinda rough on Bocas del Toro.  There were papaya and pineapple to be enjoyed, but it just wasn’t the delectable bounty that we found in Guatemala (not even any big dudes brandishing machetes ready to hack that coconut to an edible state).

But that’s not to say the food was a total bust.  The pineapples were delicious, especially when bored out to make way for a top notch pina colada.

The greatest culinary gem I found was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the main drag of Bocas del Toro, named Chitre.  Pony up $3.35 and pick between pork, beef or chicken, and a sweet older lady will serve you up a full, balanced plate of your meat of choice with sides like spiced rice, homemade coleslaw, or a funky pasta salad (on the lucky days there are little bowls of cilantro’d lentils).  It’s like a lunch lady Doris style experience, only AWESOME.  A number of locals had told me that the great local food to try was the rice, so I think Chitra was the most authentic, day-to-day Panamanian cuisine that I found.  I wish an eatery like that existed here in the US.  Super fast, super cheap meals that are all of filling, balanced, and utterly delicious.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure all the food there was made with love.

For the meat eaters, there’s an interesting general trend that I noticed which juxtaposes with what I found in Argentina: Argentine beef was exquisite, while Panamanian beef was tough and flavorless.  Conversely, Argentine pork was nothing to write home about (it’s true, check out my blog series about it–not a word about it), but anything with pork in Panama was fantastic.  Argentine angus, Panamanian pigs.  I wonder if every country has a meat-based strong suit?

Categories: Eating Well, Travels Tags:

Panama in Review 2: Island Bound

March 13th, 2010 1 comment

After a well slept first night in the city, it was time to make up for lost planning due to a faulty online booking system and plan our flight to our island getaway.  This time the telephone would be our medium.  I confess: I punted on the opportunity to make my way once again with my trusty Spanish skills by saying right off the bat “Hola,  err… hablas ingles?”  Messing up accommodations for the night is one thing, booking the wrong flight is quite another.

Twelve minutes and a few hundred bucks later we were set with our domestic flight for 6am the following day, giving us another night in the city and the full day to explore.

During our milling about town we got recommendation of the Hotel California from another cab driver.  Either it was a really great place to stay or the cabbie conspiracy was a brilliantly executed marketing plan.  Either way we were sold, and true to the song by the Eagles, there is in indeed plenty of room at the Hotel California (not to mention it was a worthy place to stay!).

Our morning flight started without a hitch, but the torrential downpour on the island of Bocas del Toro had us pass it over to another airfield some 150 miles away for a 3 hour layover.  When we took to the sky once again Tracy and I were a little worse for wear.  Fun factoid: to combat growing queasiness on our second flight I thought to myself how bad Hot Tub Time Machine must be.  Doing so made me giggle, strongly enough to get my mind off the storm-laden bumpiness of our trusty two-propellor mini jet.

Man, that movie’s gonna be terrible.  Thank goodness.

Soon we were in the little town of our island paradise, complete with a dash of monsoon season.  Back here at home, thanks to google maps, I can see exactly how the landing strip fits on the little island–I wouldn’t wanna mess around trying to land there in inclement weather either.

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Panama in Review 1: Instantly Comfortable

March 12th, 2010 1 comment

That was the sensation I had as we worked our way through Panamanian customs, phoned to make a reservation, and chatted it up with our cab driver en route to our evening’s accommodations.  In spite of two months of utter neglect of Spanish practice (that’s how delighted I was to be able to express myself in English again back in January, without first mentally checking if I had the requisite vocabulary), it came right back without a hitch starting with my first practical exam of calling a hostel to check for availability, ask the price, comprehend the price (numbers over 30 are still a little shaky for me), and make a reservation.  Tracy, my lovely on-site professor of Spanish vocab and comprehension nodded in approval as I worked my way through the process.

Soon we were on our way.  During the 35 minute long ride from the airport to the city, our cab driver was goodly enough to indulge my (usual) desire to practice Spanish, talking about weather, the city, where to stay, and recommendations of what to see.  He heartily recommended we stay at the Hotel California, and offered to take us there instead of our planned hostel.  Despite its rad name, we decided to stay the course, though whether out of suspicion of what may be an impartial recommendation, or to keep with good karma of honoring the reservation we’d already made, it is not clear.

At our simple hostel I changed quickly, and the shorts & sandals-worthy 85 degree temperatures plus the gecko on the window of our bathroom both made me happy to be in Central America once more.  Especially after the frosty air of Denver just that morning.

Accusations are starting to fly that I’m turning into a total winter bird.  I have no defense. :)

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