Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bocas del Toro

From Panama City my intent had been to take a sail boat to Cartagena, Colombia, with a stop at the San Blas Islands. After my dental appointment on November 19, the next two boats setting sail with spots were on November 21 and November 25. I decided to take the November 25 boat so I could spend a few days in Bocas del Torro. I've heard good things about Bocas from many people. My host family in Costa Rica recommended as well as everyone else I've spoken to who has traveled there.

Bocas del Toro is an island off the coast of Panama. It's actually a series of islands. There are two ways to get there from Panama City. You can take a bus (11 hours) and a water Taxi, or you can fly. I chose to fly. It was more expensive than riding a bus, but I decided to indulge myself. I flew in on Thursday, November 20 on a 50 seat prop plane. It is a tiny airport on the island and you can walk into town. It was weird seeing people standing in the grass on the runway. It was raining, but I kind of expected it. All the information I'd read stated that Bocas has unpredictable rainy and dry seasons.

The town had a good vibe. It is not overly developed and still has a small-town feel to it. Friday was 80's power hour at a local bar. They had a tape of 100 music videos from the 80's, edited down to one minute each. Every time the video changed, everyone took a shot of beer. Kind of a shorted version of the century club. Everyone was loving the 80's songs and singing them word for word, even though only about 25% of the crowd looked like they were old enough to have gone to see Bon Jovi on the Slippery When Wet tour.

It rained, and rained, and rained. It did not stop raining for any noticeable length of time since I got there. By Saturday, phone lines and internet service to the mainland were down. The ATM was also not working. The locals were saying that this is the worst storm since at 1991. It's funny how when it rains really bad the locals always say it is really unusual and they haven't seen storms that bad in many years.

On Sunday I was supposed to fly back to Panama City. From Panama City, I was going to catch a bus to Colon and then another bus to Puerto Lindo, where I would meet my sailboat. I got to the airport, and found out that no flights had landed or left since Friday. At around 2:30 that afternoon, the announced that no flights were coming in. Be back tomorrow. I checked into a hostel that was closer to the airport. I found out later that night that the road connecting Bocas del Toro to the main road had been destroyed by flooding and landslides. A couple of German girls had taken the bus out and after about two hours, the bus stopped and the driver said they would either have to wade through chest high water or go back to Bocas. They went back to Bocas. The Costa Rican border to the north was closed as well due to the floods. So the only option for getting out of Bocas at that point was by airplane.

On Monday, I got to the airport at 7:00am and was informed that they would board passengers in the order of their original tickets. So the Saturday passengers would board first, then the Sunday passengers. One plane landed, gathered passengers, and took off. They checked the next group in and I got a boarding pass. At 3:30 they announced that no other planes would be coming in and to come back tomorrow at 6:00. I walked back to the hostel and checked back in. By now it was evident I would miss my sailboat. This was probably a good thing since I didn't pay a deposit and with the bad storms moving south, I would probably not want to be on a sailboat anyway.

I've been passing the time playing cards (and drinking games) with people at the hostel – mostly Canadians, Europeans, and Australians. People are taking it in stride. The grocery stores still seemed well stocked. However, people are starting to run out of cash. I was getting a little tired of drinking anyway. Also, I needed to conserve cash. I was down to about $50 and wasn't sure when I was getting off the island or when or if the ATM would come back on. Spending $3.25 on a 6 pack was getting hard to justify since I might have ended up needing that money for food. Word on the street was that the town was powered by a generator and they were expected to run out of fuel on Friday or Saturday.

On Tuesday, I got to the airport at 6:00. The crowd at the airport, a mixture of Europeans, Americans, Canadians, and Panamanians, was extraordinarily calm. No one got visibly upset. That is, except one time, a dog wandered into the airport and some old man proceeded to beat it with an umbrella trying to get it to leave. Other then that, people were very calm and understanding, but tired.

I checked in and got a boarding pass. At 12:30, the plane came in, we went through security and boarded the plane. I was finally going to get off the island. Although I kept thinking about Gilligan's Island and how every time they got off the island or thought they were getting off the island, something happened that brought them back. I finally landed in Panama City on Tuesday afternoon. I will travel from Panama City to Medellin, Colombia by plane on Thursday – Thanksgiving day. I'm really looking forward to leaving Panama.

Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful that it was not worse and hope for the best for the recovery effort and for the people who had it a whole lot worse than I did.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Panama City Continued

anI have learned a few more interesting facts about Panama City while I've been here.

Panama City was established by the Spanish in 1519. In 1671, pirate Henry Morgan plundered the city and burned it to the ground. The city was rebuilt in 1673 about 5 miles away what is now the Casco Viejo Neighborhood. Pictures below are of the ruins of the old city (Panama Viejo).

Scenes from the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, were filmed in Casco Viejo (doubling for Bolivia). Pictures below are from Casco Viejo. I don't know if any are recognizable in the movie.

Panama is a narrow "S" shaped country. Due to its location, Panama City faces the Pacific Ocean to the Southeast. So you have the unusual phenomena of being able to watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. Below is a view of the Pacific harbor with ships off in the distance waiting to cross the canal.

I got a new camera and, as you can tell, I've been using it with vengeance. I'll put up more pictures on Picasa when I get to a faster internet connection.

Public transportation within the city consists of old, retired American school buses. They are individually painted and tricked out by the drivers. Many of them have loud sound systems blaring reggaeton music. They cost 25¢ to ride. The routes are a little confusing, as are the streets in general, but I managed to get around on them.

I went to see the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. Miraflores is one of three sets of locks that raise and lower ships so they can cross the canal. I saw a cargo ship and a cruise ship pass through the locks. Two old ladies on the cruise ship flashed the crowd.

I'm glad I got to see the canal. I wanted to take some video, but the ships were raised and lowered so slowly that it was hard to tell they were even moving.

I went to the dentist this morning. I found the Clinica Arango Orillac on the internet ( It seemed pretty nice and most of the dentists on staff were trained in the U.S. Today was the earliest appointment I could get. The office was nice - nicer than my dentist's office in Nashville. It was in a really nice neighborhood near a Trump building. The dentist spoke English but the hygienist did not. I had a cleaning and had a dentist check out my teeth. The cleaning was just as dreary and painful as a cleaning back home. Even though I still didn't totally have the feeling that the floss was reaching all the way to the gum, she said it was fine. I'm glad I went. It was a good experience on par with any dental visit I've had in the states. It even cost like a dental visit in the states - $80 for a cleaning and an examination.

For those of you wondering if you would be able to get good food abroad, this picture should set you mind at ease.......or scare you to death.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Heather, Jason, and Jen left Costa Rica on Tuesday. At least they tried to. One of the engines on Jason and Jen's plane malfunctioned about 30 minutes after takeoff and they had to return for an emergency landing. Since there were no other flights to the states that day, they got to spend an additional night in Costa Rica.

I just made it into Panama City on Wednesday afternoon. It was an 18 hour bus ride from San Jose, counting about 1.5-2 hours at the border crossing. The cost of the trip was about $35. I could have gotten cheaper, but I opted for the executive bus which cost $10 more. I'm not really sure what I got for my $10, but for 18 hours, I was willing to take a gamble. When I got to the border crossing there was a big sign on the window stating that you are supposed to have proof of onward travel (bus or plane ticket out of Panama) and proof of solvency (at least US$150 in cash) to enter Panama. I had neither, but I was not asked to show either despite many Nicaraguans and Salvadorians in front of me having to do so.

I'm a little unprepared for Panama. I haven't bought a guidebook or really made any plans. All I had was a recommendation from a friend for a place to stay.

Panama is very modern with many tall skyscrapers. I'm a little disappointed however, that there is no Club LaVela (Just kidding). It is very reminiscent of Miami. But I'm staying in the Casco Viejo neighborhood - the oldest part of town. It's a handsome, but still a bit shabby part of town with many old buildings. It fell into ruin over the years, but has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage sight and efforts are underway to restore it. It looks a lot like Havana, Cuba (or at least what I imagine Havana, Cuba looks like).

It's funny how we never appreciate buildings until they get old or until we're in danger of loosing them. All over the US, downtown areas and older neighborhoods that were fled by the middle and upper class in the 50's and 60's have been or are being restored and are trendy places to live, eat, and shop. It makes me wonder whether in 50 or 100 years middle and upper class people will flee the suburbs. Will Cool Springs or Bellevue fall into ruins? Will there be community efforts to restore them to their former glory? Will we ever feel nostalgic about strip malls, big box stores, and office parks?

I bought a camera on Amazon, had it sent to Heather, and she brought it down to me. The screen didn't work. So she is going to send it back for me and I am off to buy camera #4. I've had the worst luck with cameras on this trip. Luckily there is a pretty big mall near the bus station and prices on electronics should be cheaper here than in Costa Rica. I'm also going to try to find a dentist. I'm overdue for a cleaning and for some reason I can't get floss between two of my teeth. I hope I can get an appointment soon.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Leaving Samara

Everyone has an exam on Friday to measure our progress. Yet they tell us not to worry about it. They actually encourage us to go out on Thursday night by giving us tickets for free drinks at Bar Olas. So everyone is usually hungover on Friday for the test. Seems kind of counter productive. There is also a gradation where the students finishing classes are recognized.The male to female ratios in bars is a bit lopsided. Locals seem to run about 80% men and about 20% women. The tourists run about 60% women and 40% men. The local women stay home and the men go out and dance with and hit on the foreign women. They're a little old school here. A local bar not frequented by tourists is even more lopsided. This is more of a small town thing. In San Jose, women go out to bars and the ratio seems to be about even.

I'm going to miss Samara, but I'm really ready for a break from classes and to get to the next phase of my trip. I'm a bit burned out on classes. Eleven weeks is a long time to be constantly inundated. If I had it to do over, I would have taken one or two one-week breaks in the middle to let my brain rest.

The addresses here, as well as in the rest of country, are kind of funny. Landmarks and directions are used in lieu of street names and numbers. I don't even think street numbers exist. For example, the address of my family in Heredia was “200 Meters West of the Plaza Fatima, Heredia, Costa Rica, Central America”. The address of my family in Samara was “Road to Congrejal, First Entrance After the Bridge, 150 Meters to the Right, Samara, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, Central America”. So if you wanted to mail me a letter, that is how you would address it. (don't send me a letter because I'll be long gone by the time it gets here). It could be one of the reasons my absentee ballot never made it down here.

To date, my absentee ballot has not arrived. I requested it before I left. It know it left Nashville in late September. The trail goes cold after that. I knew that the Davidson County Election Commission and the Central American postal service both working smoothly was going to be iffy at best. The time has long since passed that we should be able to vote by the internet. If the internet is secure enough for banking transactions, it should be secure enough for voting.
The Spanish is improving. The old saying “The more you learn, the less you know” definitely applies to learning a new language. There are still a few subjunctive verb tenses I need to learn, and my vocabulary could improve, but I have the basics down and what I really need to do now is to practice. You just have to throw yourself out there and not worry about getting it exactly right. I can get my point across in many situations, even though I may not be speaking perfectly. For example, a phrase I hear often from people whose native language isn't English is “Yesterday Night”. It's not proper English, but I know what they mean. I probably say a lot of things like that when I speak Spanish. You really just need to talk and have someone around to correct you.

I'm spending one night in San Jose and will leave tomorrow to go to Manuel Antonio. I'm looking forward to Heather, Jason, and Jen coming down. I hope their trip down here is smoother than the one my absentee ballot experienced. Although they are catching a 6:00 am flight the morning after a Widespread Panic concert.