Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Yeah, We're Running a Little Bit Hot Tonight

Your correspondent recently returned from a gruelling nine-day expedition to Panama, and after the preceeding one-note entries, has finally completed the traditional too-long Holla trip report.

While our trip to Panama seems to fit into the mission of this journal, because it's sort of Central American (although, historically, and in many ways, culturally, a lot more South American), it really was a week of vacation. The editorial board is somewhat distressed by the fact that Guatemalan life has become so routine that this journal has become little more than a record of our weekend trips, but until we find some more talented writers, that may be unavoidable. In any case, a full week of vacation run-down may be more than all but the most patient and closely-blood-related of readers can bear, so we'll endeavor to hit the highlights of general interest.

First, and quite possibly foremost, Guatemala finally has a competitor for the coveted title of "worst national beer in Central America." Panama Lager is just as watery and flavorless yet aftertaste-ridden as Gallo. And yet, Gallo still holds the title as the worst because Panama lager was usually $1.00, except in happy hour, when it was 75 cents, which is a much fairer price than what one shells out for a Gallo.

With that sad discovery taken care of in our first night in Panama, we were ready to do further exploring, and took a boxy prop-plane to the Bocas del Toro islands, on the Caribbean side of the isthmus, near Costa Rica. After getting the lay of the land and taking care of important business such as re-confirming that the local beer was not noteworthy but was cheap, checking the functionality of the hotel hammocks, and eating a couple delicious meals, we rented bikes to head for the beach.

Although the bike that The Lovely Katherine was stuck with dropped its chain every five minutes, and your correspondent chivalrously took a turn on said bike only to have the chain pop off on the steepest dirt-road downhill of the trip, rendering the coaster brakes useless and forcing an emergency braking procedure courtesy of a knee-deep puddle at the bottom of the hill, the travelling party survived to find a beautiful deserted beach of soft sand and pleasant surf an hour from town. The joy of finding a deserted beach such a short flight from hundreds of millions of North American beach-seekers was immense; of course, there is a multi-story luxury condo development planned for Bocas del Toro town starting any day now. In any case, it was good to be there when we were. The tourist infrastructure was enough to offer a Thai restaurant and two competing dive shops, but not so bad that everything felt manicured yet.

Other activities over the next few days included scuba diving, kayaking, and snorkeling. Animals spotted included tiny red tree frogs, sharks, stingrays, dolphins, and the elusive (no, really) ocellated frogfish.

We moved on to Boquete, a smallish town in the Panamanian Highlands. We went for a hike that turned out to follow a road past endless lots that were either for sale, or featured a huge, modern home with an SUV parked in the drive, or in some cases, both. This was not the only place along our trip where we calculated that given different circumstances we would definitely buy property, as the market was clearly going nowhere but up. There are apparently a lot of Americans buying retirement homes in Boquete, or rich Panamanians buying second homes there, or probably, both. As such, there is a new mini-mall in town, including a wine shop selling Wente Zinfandel from beautiful Livermore, CA. We sat out on our deck, gazing at the Pacific tens of miles away and enjoying the first California wine we've purchased in Central America. The Panamanian Highlands may not have much on the Guatemalan highlands, but they do have good wine, and they have the national bird of Guatemala. We went on a hike specifically to spot the elusive (no, really) Resplendent Quetzal, on a trail specifically called the "Trail of the Quetzales." We were pretty sure we would be let down, as we've heard of many foiled attempts to find quetzals in Guatemala. I literally gasped with suprise and excitement when we managed to track down a group of a few quetzals based solely on the approximation of their call that the ranger had given us. The Staff Photographer provided more excuses about photographic conditions than he did good pictures of quetzals.

Nonetheless, we considered our mission accomplished and climbed onward to the scenic viewpoint and allowed the photographer to focus on more stationary subjects. We started in on our picnic lunch and it began to rain, so we took shelter and waited for it to pass. It did not pass. The "cloud forest" did its best impression of a full-on "rain forest" as it poured on us the whole way down. Being experienced hikers, we would have been fine with a little rain, but the Panamanian philosophy of trail maintenance was a bit shy of American standards. The trail was eroded into a gully the whole way down, which flooded with running water, becoming possibly the largest river in the department. We hiked down in several inches of rushing water, and arrived at the bus stop back to town soaked to the bone.

Luckily, we didn't have to wait long for a collectivo bus to come by, and we were soon cheered by the thoughts that we would soon be warm in our hotel room with another bottle of delicious California wine. We enjoyed and/or endured the views on the bus trip back into town, and apologized that we were still dripping water on the floor when we went into the gourmet deli to select a vintage for the evening. They, in turn apologized that the mayor of town had banned all liquor, beer, and wine sales from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday in order to ensure that all residents showed proper respect for the highest of high holy holidays. We literally had to have them explain it to us a couple times, and they showed us where the mayor's decree was posted on the wall near the wine section.

There is a popular theory that life in the Foreign Service leads to high levels of alcoholism due to job demands including regular cocktail parties, on top of the isolation and boredom of living in certain remote posts. I don't think your correspondent is contributing to that statistic just yet, but after hiking for hours in the rain and then being told they would not be allowed a celebratory tipple to top it off, the entire travelling party was perhaps irrationally upset about the situation. Our vacation - ruined! What on earth were we going to do in Boquete for an evening if not split a bottle of wine? What kind of self-defeating mayor bans alcohol in a tourist town in one of the busiest travel weeks of the year? And what kind of liquor store puts up with it -- and doesn't even bother to tell customers on Wednesday that this is their last chance to stock up for the next few days? Resourcefulness prevailed and disaster was averted as we eventually found an Italian restaurant where the waitress was either ignorant of the law or rebellious enough to break it and we managed to have some wine with our saltine-crust pizza in the end, without having to knock over any convenience stores.

We'd had enough, and decamped the next morning for a long bus ride to Panama City, featuring a brief spell of sitting on the floor of the aisle in the middle of the sold out bus, and a not-so-brief spell of sitting on milk crates in the aisle that the bus driver helpfully stopped to pick up.

We got to Panama City, picked what seemed like a couple good restuarants in the bustling, cosmopolitan city, and discovered that they had one-upped Boquete by closing down entirely for Good Friday. Apparently pizza places are the least pious eateries in Panama, as we once again were saved by middling pizza, although this time they would not relent on the liquor. We spent Friday, a day of our precious vacation, entirely alcohol-free. As you know because I'm writing this now, we survived for a final day of sightseeing at the Canal
(pictured above) and other sites, but I swear I don't know how we did it.

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