Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Random Thoughts on Panama

So we're nearing the end of our time here in Panama. Actually, we arrived January 16, which means today is our six-week anniversary.

¡Feliz aniversario!

We will be flying from Panama City to Santiago, Chile on March 5, so we have one more week here in Panama. I think it's acceptable timing to have a mini retrospective, so here goes.

My Spanish still sucks

But WOW I am so much more functional than when I got here! I mean, wow! 

Our first full day here I was horrified to discover that our waitress didn't understand me when I asked for water. Agua! I've known that word for 20-25 years now and she straight-up did not understand me. My pronunciation was off, I guessed, which was even more horrifying. "Ah-gwah?" "Ah-wah?" I felt fear in my heart for the next month's worth of water-ordering.

Last night I asked our waitress, in Spanish, if they had any desserts (just because there are desserts on the menu doesn't mean they actually have them, in Panamá). She told me they had a house flan, lemon pie, and some kind of mousse. Passionfruit mousse, we determined by looking at the menu.

Then I asked which one she liked, and apologized for my atrocious Spanish. She said either the flan or the mousse, and warned me the mousse was... something that sounded like "acidic."John and I decided after we tasted our mousse that whatever word she used might have meant "tart."

I could not have had that conversation six weeks ago.

Of course (claro, according to my Spanish Is Fun textbook), almost all of my vocabulary revolves around food. You have to eat before you can walk, I guess.

The best part? The waitress was smiling at me in a very genuine way. I doubt the server smiled when this lady in a big group of tourists said, with much frustration in her voice, "I WANT A HAMBURGER, WITH CHEEEEESE."

In Spanish, that's hamburguesa con queso. Maybe try a little harder next time. Also, calm down. It's not their fault you don't speak Spanish.

"Latin Time"

Telling the story of any trip to Central America probably requires a mention of this infamous concept. John and I were discussing it last night and I think it's pretty straightforward.

Nothing is urgent.

No, really.  Nothing.

There is no bus schedule; you just go to the stop and wait until the next bus comes.

If the taxi driver says he'll be there in 20 minutes, he means at least 40.

Your entrees do not come out at the same time, ever. If you ask for more water, the server will stop to flirt with the bartender before she brings it. Once you've finished your meal you intend to linger for as long as possible and therefore the server will not bring you your check. Or ask you if you want another beer (if you do you'll let her know, right?)

When you invite the very generous person who's letting you stay in his house over for dinner, he will accidentally fall asleep and then call you several hours later to apologize and reschedule.

It's actually not as annoying as it might seem. If I had to stay home for three days, waiting for a utility company rep to come by my house, as our aforementioned generous host had to do, I would probably end up annoyed.

For the most part, though, it just means we get to slow down and enjoy the fact that nothing is urgent. 


* * * * * * *

Oh yeah, don't forget to check out John's blog, Have VIM, Will Travel. He's more detail-oriented and technical than me (more detail-oriented than me?? whoa) so his first post details the steps he took to become a "digital nomad!" Very informative, and it features my favorite photo of him here in Panama ;)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

El Valle de Anton

Some of you are probably wondering why it's taken me so long to post again. And so I am forced to ask my poor, neglected readers:

Would you rather look at this:

Or this?

Or perhaps this:

Or my personal favorite:

But to get on with the blogging - 

El Valle is a very different beast than Panama City

In Panama (what the locals call their capital city), we didn't take any photographs outside of major tourist sites, mostly out of a desire not to attract any more attention to ourselves than two large, pale members of an alien race would inevitably attract.

It was only partly for the sake of not flashing our expensive electronics. The place is probably no more dangerous than, say, Philadelphia. You avoid certain areas, other areas you just keep your head up and eyes open. But really, we like to pretend we're not tourists and carrying a camera doesn't help the mental image we have of ourselves.

Frankly, though, I hated living in Philadelphia. Great place to visit; never want to live there again.

People in El Valle smile at us.

Of course, as we pass folks on the road they are careful not to make eye contact. But as soon as we say "buenas!" their faces warm right up and they smile and return the greeting.

I think this says more about how travelers tend to interact with the locals than anything about the locals themselves.

In a way, the best part about being in El Valle is the hospitality of the owner of our hostel, Esteban. It's like we had an instant amigo, someone to converse with us and tell us about the area. He laughs a lot, which is always nice, and his English is better than the majority of Panamanians. 

Esteban is great, and it doesn't hurt that the public area of the hostel is exactly what we need it to be: shady with a great breeze, tropical landscaping, tables for me and hammocks for John. 

And orchids! They grow wild here, though this is probably a cultivar
(removing from the forest is actually a big problem).

We spent two nights here last month, and we liked it so much that we're back for two weeks. If you find yourself in the area and looking for a decent price for decent, basic digs, I definitely recommend it: Hostal Cariguana, If you don't speak Spanish, call the third phone number listed on the Contact page.

Starting to sound like Esteban paid me to say this. Maybe I should ask for a discount.

Who doesn't love laughing parrots?

The town

is tiny. Awesome change of pace after the city. Everything is within walking distance of everything else. Maybe three miles long by two miles wide. And the best part?

It's nestled within the ancient walls of an extinct volcano

Hopefully extinct.

And so the other evening we accidentally hiked to the top of a mountain. We were aiming for a waterfall, but it's pretty hard to navigate when your map sucks. 

That's the satellite view.
(Thank you for not suing me over this screenshot, Google Maps.
I promise I won't make any money from this blog post.)

 We started with walking up a crazy steep dirt road

Don't worry, this wasn't the steep part.

A view.

We managed to meet a couple of Michiganians (?) while trudging our way up, and one man of undisclosed origin who told us about the secret path to the top.

John is the star of my pictorial story; otherwise you'd be looking at
a bunch of photos I took of myself hiking up a mountain. Ha, yeah right.

The path was pretty treacherous, studded with volcanic rock.

The barnacles of the earth. Don't trip.

The views were getting pretty good so we pressed on, keeping careful watch of the sun as it crept toward sunset.

Only the blowing of the wind and the crunch of grit under our feet.

All this used to be tropical forest.

We were rewarded for our efforts, though:

Alas, the light was leaving us and it was a long walk home, so we started back without traversing the ridge to the very end. 

This adventure has no end date, though, so we felt good about our decision.

Plus we nearly killed ourselves anyway, stumbling and sliding down that dirt road.