Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

Wow! (ok, no more palindromes… well, one more since “racecar” is my favorite, sorry mom & dad & bob—no offense)…

I thought I would put my MBA to good use by doing some pro bono work for cousin Dave and his ever-expanding hostel empire in Panama. Even the best of plans sometimes go awry! I guess the MBA taught me a lot, but most importantly, “signing bonus” and “equity.” And the environs proved to be much too tempting… as backpackers are always in search of adventure, camaraderie, epiphanies, and booze. Cheesy, yes… but those hackneyed words might also be the prologue to the newest reality tv show: Hostel Takeover.

Hostel Takeover Sizzle Reel

No need to program your tivos yet since the networks still must greenlight and the boys must get comfortable with forever altering the culture of their currently cosmopolitan hostel.

I spent the first few days in Panama City with the Mondo boys. They were immersed in prepping for the launch of their next hostel in the Casco Viejo section of the city. Dave couldn’t even part with his blueprints to pose for this pic.


This historical section houses both the Panamanian President along with the penurious (and to keep the alliteration going, also the Parisians—the French embassy). Unlike most of the bordering districts in the city, Casco Viejo, with its vibrant yellows and blues and rot iron trim, possesses much charm even though entangled with the cantankerous ghetto.


The schizophrenia of Panama City is not just restricted to Casco Viejo. After a couple early nights (yeah, the Mondo boys were taking their work seriously and turning in by midnight), I rallied the energy for a seaside run. The panorama of the Pacific lining the boulevard was absolutely breathtaking… but the raw sewage stench was breath“holding” (lots of waste is deposited directly into the ocean, hence no swimmers). The concept of noise pollution apparently doesn’t exist there either; the bellicose motorists pound their horn like basketball players pumping their Nike Airs in the 90’s. I’ll try to remember this stuff next time I’m cursing a slothful traffic light back in the States.

After a couple days, we took a puddle-jumper to the Isla Colon in Bocas Del Toro. I was treated to the master suite in the sister hostel, Heike. Having the single room in the hostel with AC made me feel like royalty… it’s all about having the right reference points.


So, you ask, what is a day in the life of Bocas…well, one day, Dave and I went for a bike ride and ran into their handyman’s apprentice who was biking one-handed with a domestic beer in the other hand. Dave relayed to him that a shipment of bamboo just arrived via boat to the island which would need to be jerry-rigged up as the new wall to dull the bar noise mollifying their neighbors (at least for the indigenous residents and not for the gringo Dennis who spreads false rumors of the Mondo being a drug den). Dennis is a classic misogynist who would regularly show up unannounced to absolutely ruin moments—like stalking into the bar and turning the music off. At least most backpackers sense his bad karma and stay away.


One of my personal acmes was having the opportunity to play bartender at the Mondo bar, a definite hole in the wall which would probably be one of my favorite drinking troughs in the city. They actually have two full-time professionals, Eduardo and Genesis, but I was intent on rallying the “one for you, one for me” modus operandi. WOOHOOO!!! Well, pretty soon I was throwing fistbumps (aka, “pound dawgs”… which are this generation’s Hi-Five. To the uninitiated, two people facing one another, connect fists, combusting into a shrapnel of fingers exploding from the epicenter.) Since my spanglish isn’t that great, I didn’t know how to say “blow it up” to Eduardo. So, instead I circumlocuted “manos… y… dedos” (“hands” and “fingers” timed to the two phases). Over the next week and a half and hundreds of pound dawgs later, “manos y dedos” evolved into “puños (fists) and dedos.”

If the MonDudes ever find some spare time, they like to hit the water in their motorboat. The boat ride around the bay was an absolute treat as the weather could not have been better. The sea was in full splendor with guppies vaulting and dancing on the surface and the dolphins frolicking. We tried to jump in and swim with the dolphins… strangely they did a deep dive and ditch us. I tried to tell them that I am one of them… a Mighty Meadow Dolphin (community summer swim team) of over 10 years of service. (Or maybe a little Ace Ventura… “To train zee dolphin, you must think like the dolphin.”

The calories were starting to pile up... the food had been scrumptious and the beers were cheap. (Yelp, community reviews, says the functionality for international reviews will be forthcoming. Until then, any reference to an international location through Yelp will be captured in Orinda.)
Surprising for me, especially given the plethora of vacation-type activities, Dave and I developed a wholesome routine of afternoon runs… even in the searing humidity + heat. Not many roads are paved in Bocas; but unlike the States where our airports are protected like they’re Fort Knox, the island tarmac is repurposed in the afternoon as a playground/track. On one memorable run, we were joined by a gaggle of indigenous kids… embarrassingly the ten-year-old was setting the pace, but at least Dave and I were neck and neck.

During one of the runs, I decided to sign up for the Scuba program through a local dive shop. Although the Bocas water might not have as many underwater treasures as some other sites around the world, the certification program was an absolute steal--$175 with the hostel discount including two additional free dives. Although “safety never takes a holiday,” it definitely “slept in” during my training. My first dive was not in a pool… or in confined water… I didn’t even have the mandatory can you float for 10 minutes or swim 200 meter test. Instead, I was treated to an open water deep dive to 18 meters. (I’m a one-man rallying crew for us to switch over to the metric system… we won the language war, can’t we just accept that meters/grams/liters/ heck even Celsius makes more sense? Come on Democrats ’08… get ‘er done!)

The highlight of the trip was an adventure to Zapitillas islands on my penultimate day in Bocas. The trip was almost doomed from the start since the sneezy weather sapped the spirit from most of the hostel-goers. The trip was almost cost prohibitive, $60 in total (I laugh now as I write this considering we just spent $10 on a 3 minute subway ride in Sweden.) Fortunately, my fellow adventurer/backpacker Amandacuda galvanized 3 others to join in on the fun. These islands were a set to one of the original Survivor shows—but now are currently uninhabited, except for one nasty Park Ranger who badgers visitors for a park entrance fee, but right when they’re about to leave. Regardless, nothing could tarnish the luster of this secluded hideaway. The pounding rain, normally the bane of any beach day, was revitalizing. Walking around to the tip of the island felt like we were tiptoeing over the edge of the world.


I spent the last few days back in Panama City, carpe diem, right? And who knows when I might get back. The taxi rides to the Mira Flores locks and then through Casco Viejo and ultimately out to the causeway were wonderful opportunities to dust off the old high school Spanish; Bocas rarely affords opportunities to speak anything but English. I’ve been told though that while my vocab is acceptable, mi aggscento es teareeblay. For proof, I will reference the final night in Panama. We were treating ourselves to a latenight walk back from the bars since the weather is at its best when the sun is down and the humidity is on hold. Almost all is quiet, even on the main drag of Balboa Ave bordering the Pacific Ocean. Given the dearth of cars, the night air is actually almost crisp.

Almost back from our stroll, a police pickup truck rolled up to us. They thought it wasn’t safe for us to be cruising around and recommended that we should take a taxi back. But since there weren’t any taxis around—an extreme anomaly since there are probably more taxis in Panama City than Manhattan—the police officers recommended that we hitch a ride in the back of their truck. A few minutes later, they dropped us off at hotel… except that they thought I said “La Paraiso” not “Marparaiso.” A difference of about 8 blocks and 3 levels on the US gov’t terrorism barometer. We knifed down the center of the street, the most lit area banked by both sides of the road that felt like moats between us and the darkness of the sidewalks. We made it back safely… but you probably guessed that cause how else could you be reading this right now? Chronology never fails to ruin a potential cliffhanger.

1 comment:

Ruthie said...

Yay! Kev has a blog!