Friday, November 20, 2009

The Last Report about Panamá

The Panama Canoe.
I guess after having been to so many tropical places, I am just spoiled. I was a bit underwhelmed with Panamá. After a week on its northern Caribbean coast, we were ready to move along to a new adventure. I traded in my Central America Lonely Planet Guide for a Panama Guide, and started looking for a new destination. There are several beautiful provinces in the country with plenty of unique scenery and cultural influences. It seemed that the more interesting options were over our budget, would take a lot of bus travel to get there, and would have been preferable to arrive with fresh immunization shots. I have no doubt that there are some fantastic getaways in Panamá, but they are mostly upscale resorts. Prices for tourists are very high in the entire country.

Prices for locals are also too high. Perhaps this has something to do with the high incidence of crime and random violence all over the country. The two worst places for violence are Colón, where Annie had her purse sliced off her in the middle of the day heading to market, and parts of Panamá City that are dangerously close to highly visited tourist areas. The gang presence is overwhelming. Even the little kids are trained to mug and rob strangers. On the road to Colón they loiter near dumpsters and wait for expats to bring their trash from the smaller ports up the coast, just for the purpose of robbing them. The day we went into Colón and took the trash with us, we had to pass several dumpsters before we found one with no street urchins.

The buses are entertaining works of art. Evidently they are all privately owned; the drivers inherit or buy into a bus and a route. Other than owning your own taxi, it may be the most lucrative of Panamanian jobs. This photo gives you an idea of the size of the AlBrook Bus Terminal. There were several giant parking areas full of buses. Each uniquely painted, air brushed, decked out and decaled. I am pretty certain that the drivers are all on suicide missions. Some of the bus rides are white knuckle experiences. E ticket rides.

This is the bus that flies up and down the north coast every day. Every time it passed we'd notice a new section of the art on its side. The bus often stopped in front of our guesthouse to pick up backpackers from the hostile hostel next door to Annie's.

Flashing lights, feathers, crystals, pom poms - this driver probably has a little religious shrine built in there too. He should, to repent for what he has painted in the back of the bus.

This was in the back of the bus inches from my face. The only seats for 'the likes of us' were always in the back of the bus, by the way. Strange art work for a public bus.

In a place where there is nothing going on day or night, we lucked out and happened to be there for the celebration Campesino Day. The school in the village of Puerto Lindo put on a show, the women prepared local food dishes and the men built palm frond stands for them before they set out to play a softball tournament. Annie is waiting for an order of octopus in achiote and coconut milk, accompanied by coconut rice, which was one of the better food options in Puerto Lindo. The food was surprisingly bland, and they don't use hot chiles there. Where do they get their vitamin C? I didn't see any fruits available or being consumed anywhere, other than bananas or coconuts. The bananas were the best I'd ever had, without doubt. Coconuts seem to be staples for all fish and rice dishes.

Beautiful little girls.

The Campesino Queen for 2009.

The Queen's Court enters while most of the village looks on.

While waiting forever for these photos to upload, it occurred to one is smiling in any of these pictures. Even the adorable little queen had to force a smile, and she had agreed to let me photograph her. There was a heaviness in the air in the little village of Puerto Lindo, an oppressiveness that surrounded us. Well, that and the obvious abject poverty.....Some of the people talked with us while we drank a couple Panama beers. But there was something missing, maybe the feeling of welcomeness. I haven't pinpointed it yet. I always have to consider that people don't approve of us; so Pablo and I may have been sort of a freak show to the Puerto Lindeños. Another consideration is that Annie and her friend Sara are the only two expats who make any attempt to socialize with the local folks, so maybe all of us Caucasians are a bit of an intrusion. There are others around but they are locked up on their gorgeous yachts, or behind tall walls, down long driveways, with big signs advising everyone to stay away.

Annie is very helpful and friendly to the locals; as a nurse she even volunteers at the local medical clinic. Her friend Sara on the other hand is wasting away in Margaritaville. I found it difficult to deal with her beligerent drunken interrogations right in my face, her many large dogs scaring the shit out of me as they fought below my feet. Once I had to jump onto a church bench to avert disaster. In the early part of the day, I liked Sara. We played dominoes with her and her mom. We enjoyed her pet toucan and parrot who talked and sang all afternoon. I liked the Kuna Indian dog she was dog sitting, but the pit bulls or whatever the mean ones were, well they were just out of control. But it is hard to control a pack of wild dogs if you yourself are a wild drunk. I didn't want to badmouth anyone from this trip, but when we considered staying at Annie's house once she had to leave to meet up with a friend, the thought of dealing with a beligerent drunk every day, who made it clear from the beginning that she didn't like me or approve of us, helped to convinced me to pack my bags.

Pablo had his own set of reasons for wanting to leave. He overheard some conversation in Spanish and confirmed our unwelcome status. He's Mayan and Yucatecan, and he catches vibes pretty easily; sometimes they are just his imagination, and other times he is spot on. He also went there with an unreal vision, thinking there might be work there as a teacher or perhaps interest in seeking property around the area. He too was underwhelmed with the place. We have seen and heard howler monkeys and spider monkeys in Mexico. We can go to a real white sandy beach in an hour's drive from home. We can take boat rides throught the mangroves here; the coastline there was also comprised mostly of mangrove. So you see, someone who had never been to the tropics might find the experience magical. But for us it was more of what we are used to, but in a less amiable setting.

Althought I try not to, I find myself comparing it with other places, even my own house and comfort levels. Basically what I learned there was that I have no interest in owning property or living in Panamá. Mexico's laws might be crazy, but try a combination of US influence and the lacsidaisical Latino influence, and you get one mixed up crazy country. Everyone in search of the elusive but ever present Almighty Dollar.

Back to Puerto Lindo, the guys had fun at the softball tournament on Campesino Day.

This is Sammy, Sara's toucan. It was the first time I'd made friends with one, and the interactions were amazing.

Annie's guest house is a work in progress. She works for a few months in the States, and then spends three months in Panamá. On each trip she makes improvements to the house and property. In the third world it has sort of a three steps forward, two steps backward effect. She had the house and guest rooms all fixed up and ready to open for good on this trip. While she was gone Panamá was jolted by an earthquake and it broke the water pipe, possibly under the cement slab of the house. It isn't easy to find a plumber in the area, and of course by now Annie is planning her return trip to the US to earn the money to pay for the projects from this three month period. Panamá has strict rules about residency, you can't get it unless you are either retired with a pension or have a monthly income of an amount acceptable to the government. If I wanted to stay in Panama for a year I would have to prove I earned $10,000 US a month or something outrageous.
So, my conclusion, not necessarily of what is written above, is this: I believe Panama is beautiful country with a lot of well preserved and undeveloped areas. And I think there are some great resorts dotted around the country, but they are upscale and high priced. You have to pay a pretty penny to feel SAFE in Panama. I found Panama City to be surprisingly fun and interesting, and the north coast to be unfriendly and frankly, a little boring. The bottom line is that we all have a dream to fulfill. Annie's is to live in a tropical rainforest, near the Caribbean, where she can snorkel, fish, and kayak during her free time. And share her experiences with her guests. I imagine that she will eventually be able to outift her place with kayaks, a boat and realize her dreams, but I also think it will take the entire two years that remain before she can comfortably sit back on her porch, retired with pension, and wait for guests to flow through.


Islagringo said...

So glad you finally finished this series. Very interesting. I thought I wanted to tour Panama, like I did Costa Rica, but I don't think I'll bother now.

Linda Dorton said...

Times are pretty hard down that way these days. And the beautiful tales you used to hear about Costa Rica.....have changed into stories of robbery and crime too. Again, I am sure you can find paradise if you pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lin.

Thank you for your more informed look at Panama. One of my wealthier clients recently bought a condo in a Panama City high rise on the urging of her "new boy friend" and is now regretting it. I wish it had worked out better for her as she is pushing 80 and ...

I love the info re Pablo's artistic endeavors. Please keep it coming.

Love you.

Bob S.