Panama City

I think Panama City must have been built on a swamp. The heat was oppressive. I wandered around Miguel’s apartment shirtless and slick with sweat. Getting up from the couch, I felt bad for leaving a puddle of sweat behind me.

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If you ever want to open up a hostel, do it in Panama City. The city holds you captive. Not in the magical sense either. It’s physical captivation. The road ends here, and the only way across is to get a boat or fly. The time travelers have to waste in arranging this, especially the boat option, will make a hostel owner rich.

Lucky for me, I had a CouchSurfing host. Unlucky for me, he was hosting an English guy.

Front-Seat Battles

His name was Ross. Although I’ve disliked most of the English travelers I’ve met, I started fresh with him – open-minded and friendly.

On our first outing together in Miguel’s truck, I conceded the front seat to Ross. I wanted to establish a sharing spirit among us, and show Ross I had no sense of ownership on the front seat. Unfortunately, he was English.

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I let Ross take the front seat a few more times, especially when stopping at the passenger-seat door would have impeded the flow. But then it happened. Ross stopped short at the passenger-seat door, blocking me, and making me step around him to get to the back seat. At this point it was obvious he didn’t want to give up rights to the passenger seat. It was important to him to get that artificial sense of higher value. And it was important to me to foil his ass.

So in our next face-off, although I feigned a comfortable, lazy gait, I moved to the truck with purpose as I monitored Ross’ movements. I made a casual arrival at the passenger-seat door, this time blocking Ross, who was behind me. Ross lingered behind me a few moments too long. Although I didn’t turn around to look at him because I didn’t want to draw attention to my feat, he must have felt stumped. I think he thought lining up behind me was going to indicate to me that I was in the wrong place. I got in and sat in my throne. He descended silently to the back seat.

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It was war. An unspoken battle for the front seat each time we strode through the parking lot. I let him win shotgun a lot of times; I just wanted it to be equitable. But stupid English bastard never conceded it to me. He never willingly moved to the back seat; I had to take it from him.

Clown Fetish

Miguel, an internet fiend, was all over my facebook, and asked me about the photos from the John Mark clown video I had made. I explained that I was acting as a character who had a fetish for clowns. But he and Ross didn’t get it, although they enjoyed their own stupid comments and questions. This became a big interest for them. Miguel wanted to see the video and asked me where he could find it. I stalled on it because I didn’t want to expose it to them. But that didn’t stop Miguel. He hunkered down in his internet power search mode and creeped through everything he could find that was linked with me.

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And eventually he found it. But, it had been taken down for copyright infringement. So they stayed up late watching almost every other video in our extensive catalog. The next few days were peppered with annoying comments.

“So if we go to the circus, and you see a clown, will you get really excited? Would we have to hold you back?”

I laughed along, although it was a struggle. These guys didn’t get it. I was especially irritated by the plain, English, boring guy. You’re too boring to understand this dude.

Then, as we were driving around, we passed a guy doing some Zen kind of Chi power-stance. From the back seat, Ross quips, “It’s like a scene out of your wanking video,” and then busts out laughing. I was pissed. I turned around and coldly asked, “How?” How, dude?! It’s frustrating when you’re getting cut down with material that’s not even good. How do you defend against it? It’s like trying to make fun of children who have an undeveloped sense of humor. Even if you get them good, they won’t get it, and then they’ll “zing” you with something that doesn’t even make sense.

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Crossing the Darien Gap

The Darien Gap makes you appreciate roads.

The Gap is the infamous area between Panama and Colombia that’s impassable, unless you’re hardy enough to hike through dense jungle over mountains and through rivers. There are no trails. I’ve heard about people doing this, but some have gotten kidnapped or held at gunpoint. Apparently it’s a hot spot for drug trafficking.

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Having had a hard time traveling with my bicycle on a dirt and rock road for a few miles, I held no illusions about overland travel through the Gap. But as I was considering all the other options, I yelled out in frustration a few times, “I wish there was a damn road.”

1. Sailboat:
There are boats that cart backpackers between Panama City and Cartagena, but they’re expensive. It’s a 5 or 6 day trip with a stop in the beautiful San Blas islands. $375. I considered this option because it would mean I wouldn’t have to break down my bike for boxing, but what got me was when I heard they’d charge me $50 more for bringing my bike on-board.
Here’s a list of the sailboats on one of the primary hostel sites in Panama City. I’ve read many good reviews about the “Stahlratte” boat from my extensive research.

2. Airplane:

This is the option I took. Aires Airlines is the way to go. It’s a deep-bargain Colombian airline that flies from Panama City to Cartagena, and many other places. I got my flight for $127 (after taxes), but then I had to pay $84 more for my bike ($4 per kg) and a $10 tourist entrance fee into Colombia.

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So I saved a lot of time and about $200 by flying instead of taking a boat, although I missed the sailing experience and the stop in San Blas. Oh well, I was really more interested in getting to Colombia quickly.

3. Combination:
You can get creative and do as the locals do by traveling along the coast in lanchas, which are small, short-distance, motor boats.  The only problem is that you have to get a flight out to Panama’s Caribbean coast close to Colombia.

Flight: Panama City – Tubal (Panama): $65: TACA flight leaves from Albrook (Regional) airport Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10:00 AM. and arrives at 11:00 AM to Tubal.
Boat: Tubal – Obaldia: $25: 1 hour
Boat: Obaldia – Capurgana (Colombia): $12: 1.5 hours
Boat: Capurgana – Turbo: $24: 2 hours

Total Cost: $126

My Colombian cyclist friend, Alex, crossed the Gap this way, and that’s how I got the information.  He told me that after he got off the plane at 11:00 AM, he immediately got on a boat to Obaldia.  Then, there was a boat leaving Obaldia at 12:30 PM.  Alex stayed the night in Capurgana.  I’ve heard from many people that Capurgana has nice beaches and is a good place to stay.

Panama Canal

While I was in Panama City, I was able to visit the Panama Canal.  It was a lot different from what I had expected.  I was under the impression that the canal was just a simple cut through the land, but in fact, it’s complicated and a major feat in engineering.

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The French were the first to try to create a canal through Panama, and they had my idea — to just keep digging until water could flow freely from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But they failed.  So, the US took over, and the chief engineer realized they needed a system that would take into account all the mountains in the interior of the country.  There were also complications with differences between the Atlantic and the Pacific, like tides and stuff.  So they built locks.  Here’s the description from wikipedia.

A lock is a device for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber whose water level can be varied.

Locks are used to make a river more easily navigable, or to allow a canal to take a reasonably direct line across country that is not level.

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It was interesting seeing these locks in action.  One chamber of water would drain, and another would fill, so that these huge cargo ships could be raised up to be transported through Panama’s interior, and then lowered back to sea level.

Old Grandad Whiskey, Abuelo Rum

When I was staying at Miguel’s place in Panama City, I noticed a bottle of rum on the table.  I wasn’t interested for the alcohol, but for the old man on the front of the label.  “Abuelo” means grandfather.

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This Panamanian rum reminded me of my favorite bottom-of-the-shelf bourbon whiskey, Old Grandad.  It was a big hit with my roommates, Jeremy and Simon, at my old place in Atlanta, 1250.  Abuelo got me reminiscing.

Drive to Panama City

About two months before I got to Panama, Miguel contacted me on CouchSurfing. He lives in Panama City and was wondering if I would be cycling down that far. It was great to establish a friend and accommodation in Panama City, long before I got there.

Then when I was staying at Rancho de Caldera, near Boquete, Panama, Miguel contacted me on Facebook, asking where I was. As it turned out, his family is from Boquete, and he was visiting that weekend. He told me he’d be returning in his truck in a couple of days, and that I’d be welcome to ride with him.

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Before jumping all over that opportunity, I considered what I’d be missing. Nothing. It would be four or five days of the Panamerican with only a few towns along the way. It seemed like it would be boring, and then when I asked around, it was confirmed – it was boring.

Since my friend, Jessica, had bought a flight to Bogota, time was no longer open-ended, and I still had to figure out a way to get me and my bike across the Darien Gap to Colombia.

With all these considerations, it was easy to accept Miguel’s invitation to ride with him to Panama City.

Rancho de Caldera

When Ryan and I stayed in Austin, TX with Nick and Laura, my goal destination changed.

After mentioning that Panama was my goal, Laura told me that her mom, Gina, lived there and had just finished building a resort. She showed me the website for Rancho de Caldera. It was unreal. The photos from the resort looked like a desktop background that comes standard with Windows, called “Paradise” or something. Laura called her mom and told her about me and my trip to Panama. Laura told me that her mom said that when I get down there, I would be welcome at Rancho de Caldera, and could stay a few days. My goal destination was no longer vaguely “Panama.” It became concrete: Luxury in the mountains of Panama.

After a such a long gap between leaving Laura and Nick in Austin and getting down to Panama, I was unsure about the situation, so when I contacted Gina, I only asked if I could stay for one night. Gina was happy to hear from me and offered to pick me up in David to help me avoid having to cycle up the mountain. It’s easy to “flow like water” when you get an offer like that. Gina had to run some errands in David anyway, so I was happy I was part of the return loop.

Five years ago, Gina bought 50 acres of land in Caldera, and moved down from Cleveland, with her husband, Chris. Just a few months ago, they were able to finally open the resort and restaurant. Unfortunately, she told me that they’re getting divorced, and they’re currently in the middle of it.

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Gina’s goal for the ranch is to be completely self-sufficient. There is solar, wind, and hydro power along with a backup generator. She has a large patch of fruit trees, a vegetable garden on the roof of the restaurant, and she’s working on building a greenhouse. And she’s got income from the hotel and restaurant, and horses, which she leases for horseback riding tours.

When Gina and I arrived at the Ranch, she showed me my cabin. King-sized bed, satellite tv, massage chair, bathroom with amazing shower head, wifi!, grind and brew coffee maker with some fresh Panamanian coffee beans, and a panoramic view of the mountains through the sliding glass doors that open out to the patio. I really wanted to stay longer than just one night, so I tried weaseling my way by asking Gina if I could help around the Ranch in any way. I wanted to be useful to earn my stay. She had mentioned that some potted plants needed planting, so I offered to do that, but she told me that I could just relax.

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After Gina left, I looked around the cabin, taking it all in with a “Wow” on my face. I tried everything out, and did a thorough search to find all the cool, luxurious things that I had at my disposal.

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Then I went for a swim in the pool. I had waited a long time for this. The pool is the centerpiece of the photo on the website, which was the image I had had in my mind since Texas. It was sort of unreal being in that pool and looking out at the mountains. For the rest of my time at the Ranch, I made sure to get in the pool at least once each day.

At lunch, Gina and two others were at one table, and then Chris, her ex-husband was sitting alone at the next table. I sat down with him. After some initial silence, he started talking to me about how the Ranch was a vision he had in one of his dreams 25 years ago. Chris also talked openly about how he and Gina were getting divorced. It seemed awkward to me since Gina was sitting at the next table. Chris was open about a lot of things, which was cool because I was in that initial stage in a new environment where I needed to build trust and comfort. He mentioned that he was moving some stuff over to another house, so I offered to help. I wanted to be useful!

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We moved some furniture and a couple of dusty rugs. Chris continued telling me about his recent life — his “awakening,” quitting drinking and smoking, and more about getting “dumped.” And it was impressive to hear about his life accomplishments and varied career. But it seemed more like a monologue. As we drove through the town of Caldera, I changed the subject, saying “It’s a pretty humble town, isn’t it?” Chris, turning it around, “Yes, and that’s the thing I am working on. Humility.”

Food

Gina told me dinner would be at 6:30 pm. I arrived on time with my crumpled long-sleeve shirt and patched-up jeans, my good clothes. It was a classy occasion as Craig, the chef, served a three-course meal with dimmed lighting and smooth music. The first night we had some badass soup, filet-mignon, and an apple dessert. His descriptions of the food were a lot better than mine. He told us that “Tonight, I went a little French,” following it up with a list of the exotic ingredients and “sprinklings” of things. It was probably the classiest meal I’ve ever had.

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Each night, Craig had a new, exciting, and beautiful three-course meal. We had Indian, then country-style fried chicken and mashed potatoes (somehow done really classy – I loaded up on this meal as there were big portions, family-style), and Italian on my last night.

So I ended up staying four nights, and this is how it happened.

After dinner on the first night, I started building up to asking Gina if I could stay another night, “Gina, I was wondering if ….” and she knew right away, “You want to stay another night? No problem. We’d love to have you.” I got a tingle of goosebumps that went through my body. It was exciting, and a relief, to be able to stay.

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Then the second night, my CouchSurfing contact in Panama City, Miguel, emailed me asking where I was. It turned out that he was in nearby Boquete and would be returning to Panama City in a couple of days in his truck, and would be happy to give me and my bike a ride. Flow like water, take the path of least resistance, and seize the opportunities that are presented to you. I don’t know if it could have been any better: Living in luxury for a couple of days until my ride pulled up to escort me to Panama City. I told Gina about it, and she was excited for me too, and reiterated that it would be a pleasure to have me stay a couple more days.

The next morning, Gina invited me to brunch in Boquete. A restaurant there was serving brunch for the first time and she wanted to scout the competition. We picked up her friend Howard on the way. There’s a lot of Americans living in that area, especially in Boquete. Howard took an interest in my trip, and related a few stories about his journey across America in his van when he was about 25. What’s with that age? It seems that a quarter-life crisis is common. Seeking adventure. He had fond memories of his trip and gave me a lot of encouragement on mine.

Brunch was buffet-style. I loaded and loaded. It might have been embarrassing for Gina, as by the third plate I was getting comments about how much I was eating. Hey, you gotta Flow Like Water, and take those opportunities. I’m just living the mantra.

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The owner of the restaurant gave Gina a tour of his greenhouses, as she’s about to build one herself. He had one built out of bamboo, which itself is a “sustainable” building material as it regenerates quickly. It was impressive. It seemed lots of expatriates in the area were striving for self-sufficiency.

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That night at dinner, it was the one with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, I ate a lot again. It was served family-style so these big bowls of food were passed around. I was at the end of the table, receiving it last, so I had the advantage of not having to leave any for anyone else. I tried to fly under the radar and not mount the food too high. I probably had two full plates, way more than anyone else, undetected, but then Craig asked, “Does anyone want this last biscuit?” Typical scenario, no one wants to take the last one. After a few seconds of no response, I offered my assistance. The straw that broke the camel’s back. People started chiming in about how much I had eaten and Gina told everyone how much I had eaten at brunch in the morning. Then there was a discussion about how many calories I must use when I’m cycling. I guess that kind of gave me an excuse for overeating, so that I didn’t look like I was just gorging selfishly.

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Visiting the Rancho de Caldera was an awesome reward for me after reaching my goal destination of Panama. The luxury I lived in at the Ranch was a huge change from what I had experienced throughout Central America: eating the food of the common man, dumping cold water over myself with a basin (showers), and sleeping on straw mat beds. I made a lucky connection meeting Laura through Ryan, and Gina was incredibly generous to me. Definitely the most luxury I have ever experienced (Second Place goes to the First-Class Delta flight from Atlanta to Dublin me, my mom, and my sister got one time because the flight was overbooked). If you’re not networking, you’re not working.