A Travellerspoint blog

Breathe, Breathe in the Eire, Episode 1

My mother didn't mention cannibals

rain 14 °C

As I sit at the trusty laptop today, it’s cold, snowy, rainy, and windy. It reminded me of our voyage to Ireland in 2006. Yes, Irish weather was very nearly the same as the weather here today, minus the snow. Well, and the cold. But it was windy and rainy.

I don’t really remember how it all started, but we had only joined TP 18 months earlier, and we had already attended 2 TP meet-ups, one in Montreal and one in Ft Lauderdale. This was to be our “longest distance” meet-up to date. I think my dearest started things, but it could have been Nikki or even Phil that really got the ball rolling. It was July 2006, and we had gotten to know a number of members quite well without ever having met them. Yes, we assumed they were lunatics, but OUR kind of lunatics, so we felt comfortable mingling amongst friends, albeit the faceless TP faithful. Well, not really faceless, as we did check everyone’ profiles to see what they looked like…..it would seem a bit silly wandering Ireland asking complete strangers if they were who we guessed they were. Not that it hadn’t happened before – at the Montreal meet-up, we really had no idea what anyone looked like except Tina, Sam, and Peter, who had all emailed naked photos of themselves months in advance. OK, not exactly “naked” photos, but you get the picture…

A trip such as this required literally months of planning. We reasoned that if everyone drank they way we did (and they mostly do [re: Jason], plus, this was Ireland – Land of Guinness), that it would be a long, laborious process to actually organize such an adventure. It was indeed a long and laborious process, taking week after week of drinking to excess and PM-ing and thread posting while trying to not drool on our keyboards. Trying to work together with 15 disparate personalities (sots all) was not unlike herding cats without a whip or catnip. Tough going, let me tell you. Good thing we drank to excess, else the whole adventure would have wound up taking place in Montreal again.

Our global sense of keen timing had kicked in quite nicely, and in a mere 8 weeks everyone managed to almost completely disagree on where to meet, how to meet, and where to drink. The only real agreement was with Phil, who we managed to bribe into accompanying us on “an interesting drive” around the Emerald Isle. It is entirely possible Phil was under the influence of pharmaceuticals, but he was happy enough to be our guide into parts unknown. Giggly even, which made us slightly uneasy. Our saving grace would be our extensive knowledge of Monty Python sketches and phrases.

We booked our flight, our hotel, and a car. All was well in the Universe. Or so we thought. The meet-up was to take place September 23 and 24 2006, somewhere in the middle of Dublin. We still had a few details to work out, such as, was it Doyle’s or Foley’s pub where we ought to meet. These were hard questions, made harder by the fact that we had no idea whatsoever where we were, and oh, the Ryder Cup was to be played at the K Club while we were there. Ryder Cup? Yes, that lovely golf tournament pitting the best of European golfers against America’s finest. Shit, no one told us that every hotel for 300 km was occupied. But I’m getting ahead of myself…..

Our departure date of 21 September was fast approaching. How does one pack for 10 days in Ireland? And how do we fit 2 metric tonnes of clothing into that small bag? My dearest was up to the task, and after a mere 3 weeks of washing, ironing, folding, and cramming, she once again outdid herself. 4 metric tonnes were to be the order of the day. How nice. But, I am the consummate mule, and I was up to the challenge. Feed me a little hay, rub my forehead, and I’ll haul your shit anywhere.

The day was nigh upon us. A fitful night of sleep, preceded by several pints of rum, and I awoke to a familiar refrain: “We’re going to Ireland, we’re going to Ireland….”. Shit, had I really done everything to prepare? Yes, work had been prepared, baggage had been packed, a ceremonial Guinness had been consumed. I was ready. The angelic voice in my head continued on….”we’re going to Ireland, we’re going to Ireland….”. Cooked meat products were in order, along with very strong coffee, but alas, we had done all the dishes the night before and were only willing to dirty 2 cups. Dammit, I could really go for a nice Panamanian breakfast, but this was not to be. A fighter pilots breakfast was all we would manage – ciggies and coffee. Close enough, we could eat on the plane.

As I hitched the cats to the sled, I could only imagine what lay ahead: endless days of walking and drinking. Hmmm, quite appealing, minus the walking part. A sharp snap of the whip, and the cats were off at a brisk pace down the stairs. It was just a short ride to the kitchen, and hopping off the sled, I grabbed the coffee. Back up the stairs, and that angelic voice came back to me – “we’re going to Ireland…” – alright, enough angel, here is a cup of life-giving java. Are you sure everything is packed? Yes dear, I checked it 38 times last night between pints of rum. Cool. Passports? Check. Cash? Check. Travelers checks? No, remember Panama? Yes, no travelers checks. Toothbrushes? Check. OK, we’re ready, just let me put the cats out and wash the cups. Sweet, let’s go.

Arriving at O’Hare airport, I muled the 4 metric tonnes of baggage to the ticket counter. “Going somewhere for a lifetime Sir?” asked the ticket agent. Funny you should ask….no, just for 10 days, but good observational skills. Could you possibly find us some horribly uncomfortable seats for our 10 hour flight, I asked the agent. Funny Sir, but yes, I can, right after you submit to the standard full cavity search by our friendly TSA Security personnel. Damn latex gloves, forgot about them. Still, the 6 meter tall TSA Agent was quite friendly with his insertions, and security was a breeze. And there we stood, at the gate, staring blankly at the airplane that was to carry us to the Emerald Isle. It had wings and engines, everything you would need for a good flight.

Halfway through the ride, we were served a lovely meal of microwave cow excrement, lightly basted in a rat intestine sauce, with a side of salted plastic beads. The stewardess relished in the serving, no doubt knowing full well that it was either that or chewing on the complimentary $5 pillows. More booze, that was the answer. One can consume even airline food given sufficient booze. Plus, the pillows were quite small, and I suspect, made of the remains of passengers that had died on route. Still, we made the best of it, playing 3000 or so hands of solitaire while killing the batteries in our iPod. I think there was some sort of airplane disaster movie playing, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

75 days later, we arrived in Dublin. Completely besotted, I asked my Dearest “who were we supposed to meet again?”. Well dear, after we retrieve the baggage, we should find Nikki and Phil, and maybe even Greg, who has just walked over from Toronto. Fine then, I’m ready. And having become re-acquainted with our possessions, we sauntered into the main airport. We craned our ears, and sure enough, we heard the giggling that could only come from Nikki. There Dearest, is that her? No, over there, standing next to that rather large chipmunk-looking person, who no doubt is Phil. And that Canadian-looking person, that must be Greg. And indeed, that was who we were greeted by. Many hours of hugs and kisses passed. Oh look, we can change money there; surely they have a good exchange rate for dollars here. Ha….airports always have the best exchange rates, especially if you don’t want to go searching for a bank. Right then, now we must find our transportation. Not unlike the Arctic expeditions of a hundred years ago, the five of us eventually found the car hire kiosk. Trudging through the snow and cold, stopping only to hunt for the odd walrus, we made it to the counter and I presented my identification. Oh Sir, you won’t be taking this car into Northern Ireland will you, asked the friendly person. Absolutely not, proclaimed I, hedging on the information Phil provided that there were savages up there. We’re here for adventure, and that doesn’t include savage races. Wonderful Sir, please sign these 300 pages of documents, submit to this retina scan, and give me 4 pints of blood as collateral.

The five of us boarded another plane to get to the car hire agency, located just off the airport property. Several hours later, we were deposited at the agency. Apparently no one was home, so we picked out a nice black Hyundai Santa Fe from the lot and drove off. With any luck, no one would notice.

“Now don’t forget, we drive on the left here”, exclaimed Nikki. Thank you Giggler, I gathered that from the steering wheel being on the right. “Just checking you know (giggle giggle)”

And we were off, but everyone says that about us…….

Posted by beerman 10:55 Archived in Ireland Comments (1)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama, Day Last (14)

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 32 °C

Day 14 began with a sinking feeling. We knew that this was the last day we would be in Panama, and that the only adventure that awaited us was chatting with the TSA at the airport. Well, getting to the airport could be an adventure, so it may not be a total loss. We rose out of the fog that came from too much to drink the night before, and slowly made our way to the restaurant. We did manage to put on some clothing first, which was good, as there are few things in the world worse for ones' psyche than dropping cooked meat products on ones' lap when one is au natural. Plus, the wait staff appreciates serving meals to clothed patrons. Knowing this would be our last meal amongst the supposed cannibals, we ordered appropriately - eggs, lots of cooked meat products, and many liters of coffee. Good cannibal fair, but hey, when in Rome....

We had a 1:00 pm flight bound for Newark, New Jersey, so we filled up on breakfast. Airplane food tends to be barely palatable, even for cannibalistic adventurers on a 7 hour flight, so we made the most of it. Cooked meat products store quite well in the pockets of cargo shorts, though I recommend against wrapping them in napkins - the grease just comes right out and they become dry. Over-stuffed, we sauntered back to the room and began the arduous task of organizing and packing 2 metric tons of luggage, plus various souvenirs purchased along the way. Fortunately for me, my Dearest is a Master of Packing. She packs, I mule......it's an arrangement that has served us well over the years, though I now have a tendency to graze, be it at the buffet or a grassy field. I do try to not be an ass, as mules are much more civilized and refined, and I love a good scratch behind the ears.

14 porter/bearers appeared at our door, and struggled to load the luggage onto 28 valet carts. They were steadfast and true men, and in a mere 3 hours, we were in the lobby at the reception desk. I tipped the bearers well, and they disappeared, no doubt off to see the house doctor for some pain killers. Oh, Senores, did you enjoy your stay with us, asked the receptionist? Si, we enjoyed ourselves by setting fire to the city, I expertly translated into my best Spanish. We consumed many tree branches, and the staff has been more gracious than incontinent ostriches. I was on my game. The receptionist simply smiled, and we checked out. Would Senores require a taxi to the airport? Yes please, and make sure it has extra mustard. Languages are my newfound specialty.

The taxi driver struggled to stuff every last pound of luggage into the trunk of his car, looking at us as if we were stealing stone relics from ancient burial sites. No Senor, it is simply our clothing and a few souvenirs covered in gold that were mined from the caverns of Old Panama City. I suspect he didn't entirely believe me, but he was kind enough. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he motioned us to get in the back seat while he tied the trunk closed with some conveniently procured baling wire. The poor vehicle would have been no match for the trusty Nissan, which had braved virtually every element thrown it's way. Off we flew. The driver was working on his tour guide skills with us, pointing out all the various sights we could easily stop at and meet his brother the curios salesman. The man had several hundred brothers stationed throughout the city and along the highway to the airport, all eager and willing to add to our 2 metric tons of luggage. No, gracias Senor, solamente el aeropuetro con queso. He didn't quite get the cheese reference, so drove on, slightly sullen that he couldn't make a sale. But his snails' pace did give us the opportunity to see that Panama City's beaches are mostly unused. The driver explained that the beaches are rarely used by the people, as most of the shipping traffic disposes of their bilge just offshore, thus polluting the sand and water. The seabirds didn't seem to mind, but it did give us pause for thought - perhaps if we had listened to the Police Commandante/Real Estate Agent, we would buy a finca more inland......perhaps somewhere along the canal....

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In no time, were arrived at Tocumen International Airport, unloaded the mass of baggage, and made our way to the counter to check on our flight. Si Senores, your flight leaves in 2 hours. Will you be checking those bags filled with all our National Treasures? Si, we will check them. OK then, please go through security over there, and have a good flight.

Panamanian airport security isn't quite like American airport security. For starters, they don't use lubricant. But they do allow cooked meat products to be carried aboard in one's cargo pants, which is a good thing. They know how bad the food is on the planes. Passing almost effortlessly through the interrogation, though we had to leave our lighters behind just in case we set fire to the stewardess, we found the bar. We had an hour to kill, so why not juice up a little, maybe we could actually get in a nap on the plane. For us, it's nigh impossible to drink enough to actually sleep on a plane, but we gave it our best.

The old John Denver/ Peter, Paul, and Mary song kept flowing through our brains: "We're leaving, on a jet plane, don't know when we'll be back again.....". It would be some time, but not because of the cannibals, or the fact that Panama has a garbage issue, but because there was further adventure to be had in other parts of the world, not the least of which was simply getting home. We happily waved to the pelicanos that had gathered to see us off.

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7 hours in an airplane seat in steerage can do something to a man. Insanity was not out of the question, but that damn stewardess had our lighters. Still, we made the time fly by (ha, get it? airplane joke). Gratefully, the skyline of New York/New Jersey came into view. Oh look, there's the Statue of Liberty. We landed in the ancestral Land of Cannibals on time, but there was one more leg of this adventure that needed to be passed. Well, two, if you include driving from Milwaukee to home. Still two hours before the last flight, so we found the smoking area of the airport, cleverly concealed behind a set of invisible doors next to the garbage dump. A chilly breeze blew off the Hudson River, carrying with it faint aromas of the city in the distance and the Cargill terminal just next door. Ah, America. As we smoked, we gazed out at the International terminal filled with planes headed to far off destinations. Soon come my Dearest, soon come. We shall be off on adventure again one day.

The flight from Newark to Milwaukee was thankfully short, as the pilot knew we needed to be home. Really, we told him, so he had shifted into overdrive and landed at Mitchell Field in just a few short hours. Unless he lied to us....a distinct possibility. Still, the last leg of the journey was at hand. Filing through Customs was remarkably easy, as we had no lighters. Do you have anything to declare, asked the friendly latex-gloved TSA person? No, not really, just these 300 kg of National Artifacts mined in Panama City and parts beyond. That's funny Sir, now do you have anything to declare? No, just these finely cooked Panamanian meat products stuffed into my cargo short pockets we obtained at breakfast this morning. You obtained cargo short pockets at breakfast this morning, he asked? Ha, that's even funnier sir, now do you really have anything to declare? Yes, I do......there are no cannibals in Panama. I think this was the final blow, as not only had the drug sniffing dogs just finished biting through my pockets and consuming our breakfast, but the highly trained TSA agent had enough of my jokes. He allowed us to pass.

Another song swept through our brains, this one by Jimmy Buffett: "Just two more hours to go, losing any more hope of scoring any more dope, and we still have to do another show......."

I knew that soon I would be back in the Beer Mine.

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But I also knew that we were so very close to finishing our adventure. This was February in Southern Wisconsin after all, and the weather was not apt to cooperate. Navigating our way to long-term parking, we found her, sitting there in the cold, shivering. Our beloved Beaner-mobile. The chariot that had moved us through so many adventures right here at home. We piled the 2 metric tons of luggage into her, and sat down in seats that fit us like a warm glove on a cold night. Turning the key in the ignition, there was silence. Son of a bitch. Dammit all, I had left the dome light on, and two weeks later, the battery was dead. Fortunately, cannibals in Milwaukee long-term parking are equipped with battery chargers, so after a short search for them, they hooked up and Beaner roared to life. Left turn, right turn, onto the on ramp, and away we flew. Beaner took her time in warming up, no doubt punishing us for abandoning her in a lot full of strange cars. But a few short hours down the highway and we were home.

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Damn if it wasn't colder than shit. We weren't dressed for this kind of weather, hopefully the furnace had held steady. Indeed it had, and a few more hours of muling the luggage upstairs and we were finally home, visions of giant buzzard mosquitoes dancing in our heads. The children-beasts were not in a good mood, having also felt abandoned. But we were now home, and after a few scratches behind the ears, the beasts were assuaged and ready to sit on our laps. But first, a cocktail.....

We slept for 15 hours, and dreamed of adventure yet to come.

So endeth our adventure in the Land of the Cannibals. Stay tuned for the next riveting installment, wherein we mount an assault on the Emerald Isle. Or go back to work, one of the two.......please bring your tray tables and seats back to the upright position and prepare yourselves for more adventure......

Posted by beerman 11:03 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama, Day second to last (13)

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 29 °C

Day 13 began with a silent chorus of angels. Or perhaps it was the buzz in my head from over-consuming seco last night. Nonetheless, it was a peaceful sort of chorus, one that gently roused you from a lovely night of slumber. No wait, that's a bus. Or a taxi horn. Maybe it really was an angel, though it seemed to be insistent on waking me. Get up Gringo, you have adventure before you. So right she was, as this was the day we set aside to explore one of the wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal. But first, we must rise.

I walked through the knee-deep piles of confetti and into the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, I thought for an instant that some bizarre clown from another planet was staring back at me. I was still covered in confetti, bits of red, green, and yellow stuck to my almost every part of my body. Festive though it was, I was in need of a cleansing, and not the colon kind. The water showered over me in blissful waves, bringing my mind to another place, one that was tranquil and had plenty of umbrella drinks. This was good.

My Love was next to bathe, and while she moaned quietly under the running waters of life itself, I dressed and retrieved the guide book from the luggage. So, what else is Panama known for besides this really large ditch? Heat? Yes, that was omnipresent... .being located at 8 degrees north latitude kind of mandates the heat. Weak beer? Yes, this one is pretty universal, every country has weak beer to some point. United States oppression? Yeah, that one was a given, the US has been fairly oppressive in all of Central America for many years. Banking? Why yes, this is what Panama is well known for. Why, you may ask? Quite simply, one doesn't pay for transiting the Canal with cash or travelers checks. And actually, travelers checks are really quite useless in this country. You'll see.

Ready my dear? Yes, let's hit the restaurant. We were outfitted as adventurously as we could summon: Flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, camera, guide book, travelers checks, smokes. Albert Schweitzer, eat your heart out. OK, so we didn't have a machete, which would have completed the gear, but still. We wouldn't need a machete in the restaurant anyway. Most likely. We were seated amongst a large number of folks who had the appearance that alcohol was the beverage of choice the night before. Perhaps the waitress thought our festive apparel would rouse the crowd into larger tips, who knows. Even the Guatemalan football fans were somewhat somber, very unusual as they were even more bedecked than we. Just readying themselves for the big game tonight, no doubt. I was sorely tempted to get the crowd into a sing-along of "Roll Out the Barrels", but not only did I not know the words in Spanish, but this was a hangover breakfast, and people seemed to just want to absentmindedly stab at their meals. Getting shot at it is not a good way to start the day, so I settled for my usual: eggs, toast, and well-cooked Panamanian meat products. The ham and bacon was exquisite, not too greasy, slightly burned. Well sated, we hit the streets.

First thing to do, return the trusty Nissan, slightly dirtied, hardly dented at all from the encounter at the Los Capitanes lobby, to the Hertz rental agency. Pedro the manager greeted us with a bit of amusement, which we chalked up to being grateful we brought the car back in one piece. Little did he know the stories this vehicle could tell, of being fed gas from Wesson oil jugs, of off-roading through the suburbs of Santa Fe and Boquete, of relaxing on the beach among drunken domino-playing pelicans, and of waiting in the parking lot next to Hell for his charges to return safely. Ah little pony, live well. We petted the girl on her front quarter panel and thanked her for carrying us safely. She snorted demurely and parked herself in a corner of the lot.

Next thing to do, change useless travelers checks into cash. One would think that, in a country that had every international bank situated withing a few square miles, it would be easy to cash a travelers check. Apparently thinking was not on the agenda this day. We went through security (all banks seemed to have extremely tight security procedures in place) of every bank we could walk into, to the amused looks of the guards. Every nation that had a bank, had a branch here, with very well-armed guards. C'mon, a Hawaiian shirt can't be THAT threatening. Every teller told us the same story - no Senores, we do not cash travelers checks, but Banco Such and Such LLC, probably will, they're just up the block. Three hours of rejection, and 25 banks later, we just gave up. A valuable lesson was learned that day: travelers checks are shit. Credit cards, now they were gold. We managed to secure a few hundred dollars from an ATM at one bank, and that would have to do. Fine, we'll pay the 20% fee on an international withdrawal. We needed cash for taxis, and this was better than selling body parts to a grimy doctor in a grimy back alley of a Panama City slum. Besides, we might need those body parts one day.

We hailed a cab, determined to not let the bureaucracy of international banking get us down. Adventure my dear man, we need adventure. This is probably the worst possible thing one could say to a Panamanian cab driver. Manuel, our driver, sped off as if starting a Grand Prix race. We could have made it to Costa Rica by nightfall at this pace. I take you Senores to the Parque Nacional, and there you will find adventure, they have monkeys there. OK, not something we have back home, drive on. A few short minutes later (driving at warp speed is an amazing way to get somewhere fast), Manuel pulled over. There Senores, there is the Parque. But oh, it seems to be closed. They closed the park? The National Park? Well Senores, there isn't anyone around, so they must be closed. Uh, ok, well just drive around a bit and maybe we'll see someone. An hour of this was sufficient, as every roadway was completely deserted and devoid of any adventure, though the scenery was quite nice. No monkeys either. They must be sleeping off the party from last night too. Manuel, be so kind as to shoot that buzzard-sized mosquito off the hood of the car and take us to the Miraflores Locks. Manuel was a crack shot, and the giant mosquito fell dead in the middle of the road. Oh Senores, you wish to see the famous canal, this is very good. Bolts of light passed the windows (light speed, remember?) and soon we were at the Gem of Panama, that grand passage through the Isthmus that has been the salvation of sea-going vessels for 91 years. As long as they didn't bring travelers checks.

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Manuel let us out at the newly-built visitor center, and insisted on being our tour guide for the day. How much, Manuel? Oh Senor, not much, only $40 USD, and I will show you all that the canal has to offer. I was tempted to bargain, but why bother? Manuel was kind enough, albeit an insane driver, and was well-versed in canal lore. OK, Manuel, come along, show us what you've got. Oh Senor, you will not regret this, I will show you everything. And so we paid the visitor center entrance fee for Manuel, and began to immerse ourselves in the history of this massive project.

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There were amazing displays of the boats and equipment used to build this wonder. I was hoping to see a diorama of the giant buzzard mosquitoes descending on the hapless workers and carrying them off in their beaks, but to no avail. We learned that the average transit cost for cargo vessels is several hundred thousand dollars, which pales in comparison to the time and cost of going around South America. Hence the banking system.....no, sorry Senor Capitan, we do not take travelers checks. The least expensive transit cost USD$0.36, but the man swam the canal. That takes balls. Manuel gratefully filled in the details on how the French tried to build the canal and gave up. But you know, the Spanish originally tried to build a canal in the 1500's, but they too were carried off by the bugs. Then the Americans came in with their bug spray and heavy equipment and finished the job in only ten short years. It is incredible, no, Senores? Si Manuel, muy incredible. We ambled up to the roof of the center with Manuel in tow. Ah, the panorama (that's Manuel next to me in the picture).

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It seems the Guatemalans had been in need of adventure as well, as the roof was crawling with them, festooned in their blue and white jester hats. Manuel spat, apparently disgusted at the sight of so many of the enemy football fans gathered in one place.

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The only boats we were able to see were tugboats, slowly chugging through the waters of the locks. I imagined that they were off to rescue some stranded vessel on Lake Gatun that had fallen prey to the mosquitoes. No matter, this was history unfolded right before our eyes, and with a narrative we could not have performed. Seems that all cargo ships built to date must be no larger than Panamax standards, in other words, able to fit through the locks. The Chinese have built larger vessels, but they cannot transit. There is a movement underfoot to expand the canal for larger ships, thanks to the ever-growing presence of Chinese made goods in Wal-Mart stores in America. Manuel, back to the hotel, and step on it. This was hardly worth saying, because no sooner were we seated in his cab than we were back at the hotel. Simply amazing how a cab that, at first glance, could have easily been a relic in a museum, yet was capable of moving so quickly, oblivious to the laws of physics. Manuel embraced us heartily and bid us goodbye. The bellman at the hotel just smiled, knowing full well that we had paid what he considered to be way too much money for nothing in return. It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. Our lives were enriched for having met Manuel.

Back in the bar, the Guatemalans were going crazy. The game was tied at 0-0 in the second half, but hopes were high. The competitive spirit was in full swing, and the outfits were colorful. Oh well, you have to love fans, so we ordered more drinks and joined in the fun. I was tempted to ask if anyone liked American football, but it's a serious business in Latin countries, so I kept my mouth shut.

We drifted off to sleep many hours and many secos later, nearing the end of our voyage. Comfortable bliss was our bedtime story, and a new day awaited just a few short hours hence.

Stay tuned for Day 14, wherein we find that indeed, one can bring too much luggage, and flying home can bring rewards of its own.

Posted by beerman 11:41 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama, Day Doce (12 for fun)

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 30 °C

Day 12 began with an alarming silence. The crowds all seemed to be unconscious, which was a refreshing change from the night before. I opened my eyes at the same moment as my Love, and we lay there facing each other, each thinking that it was good to be alive. No one armed with thermonuclear weapons had fallen through our door. We decided in unison, without actually speaking, that it was time to get out of town. Funny thing about shared fear.....verbal communication is altogether unnecessary. We dressed and brushed our teeth in short order, quickly packing our bags, which was simple as we hadn't really unpacked. Muling our metric ton of baggage down to the lobby nee bar, it took a few minutes to find anyone who was still alive. Empty bottles of beer and other spirits littered the landscape. Even the garbage pile vultures were still in repose, though no doubt they would feast that day on the hapless victims of the previous nights' festivities. But not on us, as we were now armed with a keen sense of departure. Walking back through the kitchen area, we found several employees nursing large cups of coffee and managed to convince one of them to take our room key and summon a boat. Down on cash, I knew that we would have to play this escape well, so we briskly walked down to the boat landing and bravely waved for one of the boats. I handed the first boatman $3 in hopes that the extra dollar would assuage his vision of American cheapness. It worked. Apparently, $2 is insufficient, but $3 made all the difference. 5 minutes later, we were back on shore and quickly found the Nissan. Oh little girl, you're still here, and undamaged. Thank you Adventure Gods. We were off, and breathing a sigh of relief, we made for Panama City. The last sign out of town we encountered was nigh comical:

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Yes, good traveling, but no, we would not return soon. Perhaps we would, but not during Carnival, and not to the Hotel of Doom on Isla Grande. As we sped down the road, we hoped that the extortion children were still asleep. And they were. Nice. This left us with $1.50 in our pockets, and $500 in travelers checks. Though I bet the kids would have taken travelers checks.

Back on the southbound highway to Panama City (it could have been westbound, still not sure), we popped a nice Jimmy Buffett CD into the player and sang with abandon: "Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same, through all of my running, and all of my cunning, if we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane". And so we laughed, pleasantly overjoyed at the fact that we had survived a harrowing night of Carnival in Hell.

Along the highway, magnificent views of the canal came to us. Wow, how in the hell did people survive in this heat and brave the vulture mosquitoes and actually create this thing? Granted, many didn't survive....malaria was not well understood at the time. Doctors would still prescribe bleeding to cure ills. They didn't have to worry about using leeches, there were plenty about. The jungle was thick at the roadside, and the air hung still and heavy. Good thing we were driving at some speed, the breeze was refreshing. A mere 2 hours passed and we were back in the thick of Panama City, and by this time we didn't even have to stop for directions. Driving in Panama City was not unlike driving in many major cities....one had to understand the concept of city driving. Chicago had prepared me well for this, and I weaved through traffic much to the chagrin (though grateful chagrin) of my Dearest, whilst breaking very few traffic laws. My keen sense of desperation led us straight to the hotel we had stayed at the first night of our adventure. The hotel was indeed a sight for sore eyes, and our eyes were sore. Antonio the doorman greeted us with extraordinary pleasure. Senores, you have returned (translated poorly - subjunctive tense). Si Antonio, regresamos con felicidades (we return with happiness - I think). Antonio summoned a bellman and, with aplomb, unloaded the Nissan of our two metric tons of baggage. The gracious lady at the front desk was happy to see us again, though that quickly faded when we asked if she could exchange some travelers checks for cash. Pues si senor, pero no tengo mas de cien dollares (yes sir, but I have no more than $100). No problema senora, esta es perfecto....we cleaned them out of cash. It was Carnival, after all, and all the banks were closed, as we would soon find. Not to worry, and shortly we were escorted to a lovely room, complete with a bed that was not made of sandpaper and a real working bathroom. And the door was solid wood. Nice again. Freshly armed with cash, I tipped the 14 bellmen generously, as 2 metric tons of baggage can get heavy. We fell onto the plush bed, as if it were the clouds of Heaven. Mmmmmm, this was good, but I believe a cocktail is in order Love of my life. Indeed, we must partake of the bounty of the bar. At the bar, Ramon spoke: Bienvenidos senores, que quieren? Dos secos con limon por favor. Ah bueno, es lo mejor bebida en Panama, he beamed. Yes indeed, it is the best drink in Panama. Some hours, and many secos later, we stumbled down to the restaurant, shuffling past hundreds of Guatemalan football fans. Seems the Guatemalan football team was in town to play the Panamanians. Talk about a rivalry, especially at Carnival. Would have been nice to have had tickets for the game, but they were sold out weeks prior. So we settled for fine dining. We ordered several more cocktails before dinner, and settled in to the lovely view of the pool. Shortly, two of the most exquisite and tender four inch thick filet mignon appeared before us. Were we in heaven? Yes, we were. Considering that Panama beef consisted of brahma cattle, which tends to be a bit tough as they are grass fed, these were without question the two finest steaks we had ever consumed. I wish I had taken a photo of them, though in retrospect, I'd have eaten the photos. With remembrances of the previous night, we ate with what can only be described as total and abject abandon. The service was as impeccable as the food. We both could have died happy that night, even though the night was not over.

The waitress finally decided that four hours was enough time for us to enjoy our meal. She brought us our bill, and I signed it off on the room, adding a particularly generous tip for her. She beamed, and wished us well for the evening. Carnival was just beginning on Avenida Central, and it was time to see what the celebration was all about. It was about 10 pm, and already there were numerous people that had consumed far too much seco laying about. We passed through a Police checkpoint, one that was there to ensure that people were not bringing in weapons....I had never seen a metal detector at a public event before, so this was a novelty. We were allowed to pass as we were not carrying guns or knives or thermonuclear weapons. Standing on the sidewalk of Avenida Central, we watched the parade of people and floats pass by.

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People were out in force, and all were in the mood for a party. Yet not with the same amount of abandon as the people on Isla Grande - these folks were better mannered and not in the mood for fighting. Fathers were hoisting their children onto their shoulders to get a better view of the parade. Mothers were busy keeping the remaining children in check. And everywhere young girls would throw confetti at men while young men would throw confetti at women. We were covered in confetti in no time at all. Good thing we hadn't found beers yet, or they would have been filled with confetti as well.

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So many floats went by, and the crowd continued to cheer each one. The National Police were out in force too.....perhaps this kept the party-goers in check. We managed to find a beer vendor and settled in to watch the rest of the parade. Panamanian beer is not unlike Budweiser, but with notes of grass and cow manure. It was good, mind you, but light in body and aroma. Still, the sheer joy of the people around us was a sight to behold. Catholic dogma had its interesting points.

Late into the night, the parade ended and people were making their way off the street. We sauntered back the two blocks to the hotel, past another metal detector, and ended our evening. There was a fairly sizable pile of Guatemalan football fans piled in front of the hotel lobby, but as they were passed out, it was relatively easy to hike over them and make for the elevator. Back in the room, we settled in for a good nights sleep. Ah, the comfort of a good hotel bed. Made one want to stay there. And so we drifted off to a well deserved sleep, making up for so little the previous night.

Stay tuned for Day 13, wherein we attempt to figure out the Panamanian banking system, tour the famous canal, and drink more (like that was unexpected).

Posted by beerman 10:50 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama, Day Once, or 11 for Clarity

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 30 °C

Day number 11 began with the traditional El Valle wake-up howl. That damn squid was back, slamming cars against our patio door. Having prepared ourselves at the Farmers Market by purchasing anti-squid spray, we made quick work of the beast with a few easy sprays. Well, they would have been easy sprays, except that the wind would blow the mist right back into my face each time I let loose. It only took four cans of the juice to beat back the monster, and retreating back into the room, I found the bathroom through half-blinded eyes and washed the offending mist off with the help of pure Panamanian Ivory soap. Gotta love soap, it does so much. I even used it to patch the wall I had been thrown through the previous morning. It's important to be a good hotel guest....leave things as tidy as possible. Maids work hard for their living, and no sense making unnecessary work for them.

Rousing my Love, we dressed and made for the restaurant, as coffee is the most important meal of the day. Or tea, but I prefer morning coffee. The squid-waitress was again ready for us, and she elegantly placed us at our usual table with our beloved coffees. No, no whale steak this morning, gracias, Simple eggs and campesino sausages this morning, as we have adventures ahead of us. No, no beer, I'm driving. Mas cafe, por favor.

Several hours passed before we could finish the campesino sausages and coffee. Muling the luggage down the stairs was going to be difficult. In the now repaired lobby, we spoke to the owner and thanked him for his German-style hospitality and copious amounts of foodstuffs. He grinned from ear to ear, thanking us for being his guests and repairing the bathroom. He also pointed out where the nearest drive-in sex parlor was located. The night before, over way too much beer, the conversation somehow turned to sex. Go figure. It seems that in Panama, sex between unmarried adults and/or livestock is considered taboo, yet people have found a way to get around the taboo, at least publicly. There are large buildings all over the country that one drives into, much like pulling into one's garage. You pay at the kiosk before entering, and once inside, the door closes and you have all the privacy you want, and no one seems to mind as it is now a private matter. Novel approach to getting around Catholic dogma, especially if your co-habitant happens to be a sheep. We would now be on the lookout for these buildings. Amazing man, the Captain.

We slipped a nice Steely Dan CD into the player and off we drove, headed for that famed, almost mystical city of Portobelo. For us it was famed mostly because Jimmy Buffett had a lyric about it. We had to see this place. Back on the CA1, we made for Panama City, that metropolis of grime and tour bus-owning brothers who gave the wrong directions. Oh, and there's a large canal....some fame there, but that's for the next blog entry. Wheeling into Panama City, we were alert for road signs that would lead us to the the fabled city of Portobelo. There were none. Not to worry my Dearest, we have a map. Ha, fat lot of good that's done us so far. We would have to rely on my keen navigational instincts, the ones that kick in when you're stranded in a country with few road signs. I was alive with keenness. Oh look, there's a sign for the road to Colon, that bastion of latent Capitalism strewn with outright corruption. We could probably score some good deals on knock-off Chinese Rolexes there. Or get mugged. On we persevered. The road was unremarkable, save for the unmistakable presence of more National Police officers than I had ever seen. It was Carnival season after all, and preserving the peace was a duty. Best fill up with gas first, just in case we drive off the map. Fully juiced, the Nissan braved ahead, along winding roads that led us sort-of North. It might have been East, not sure. We were half tempted to stop at a hotel halfway along the road that catered to well-heeled tourists eager for some jungle and canal views off their balcony while sipping champagne cocktails. No, tempting as it was, we were in search of adventure. The cocktails would have been nice though. As we drove, it became increasingly difficult to imagine how, a hundred or so years earlier, hardy souls had carved through this thick jungle to create one of the wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal. No wonder the French gave up......mosquitoes the size of vultures hovered all around searching for hapless victims to suck dry. These were big mosquitoes, let me tell you. I'd swear we saw several with VW Beetles in their beaks flying off to gorge themselves on whatever lay within.

In short order, and after having witnessed the cruelty of nature versus VW-owning man, we came upon Colon, named for the discoverer of Panama and all of the Americas, honest to God, Christopher Columbus. I think the Indians, West not East, were here first, but who am I to quibble with history textbooks approved by the Texas School Board? Crazy world of history this was. Colon is a city awash in every sort of debauchery one can imagine, not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah before they were smitten (smited?) by God. Commerce was the name of the game here, as Colon is the northern terminus of the Panama Canal. If you wanted it, it was here, including but not limited to human life, you just had to pay for it. Marveling at this beacon of sub-humanity, we drove right on through. We didn't actually need watches made in China, or slaves made in China, or pretty much anything else made in China. Oh look, there's the sign for Portobelo, just 33 km ahead. The people were thick on the street, hawking merchandise of all sorts. Good thing the Nissan had four-wheel drive. I clicked into 4WD at a stoplight, and driving over just a few of the vendors, made for the road to Portobelo. No one seemed too angry at the potential loss of life at our behest....fewer vendors mean bigger profits for those remaining.

Driving through several small towns, we noticed that the local children were creating roadblocks at various junctures. We were forced to stop at several....it was either that or run them down in cold blood. Tempting, but not good for fostering goodwill amongst the people. At one such stop, the children deftly maneuvered some infants into the street to stop traffic. OK, can't run down an infant, so we stopped and I rolled down the window. The little beggars were engaged in a sort of Carnival extortion, stopping cars and demanding money from the drivers so they could pass through "their town, on their road". Fine nino, here's a dollar, get out of the way. OK senor, you may pass. Seems that we had chosen the proper vehicle, as Nissan SUVs were driven by rich and powerful people....the kids knew not to go too far in their extortion attempts. Further on, the road grew narrower, bordered by very dense jungle. Rounding a bend, we saw up ahead, along a straight stretch of the road, several National Police officers chatting by the side of the road. No other vehicle was in sight. A few hundred yards away, the officers noticed us. One of them stepped out onto the road and started waving one arm in a motion that suggested he wanted us to pull over. Swell, that's what we need, first extorted by children, now the National Police. I pulled over to the side of the road just short of the men and rolled down the window. The man who was obviously in charge of this group, the Commandante, dressed in a crisply pressed green uniform complete with sidearm, approached. Senor, Buenos Dias, salkfneaekjkjfn w[owlwfjohf ijf nxc hwjfwd,m sxj a,md wkjdam csmsbvs c,s,d cms dcjejf v xc cvjsJSfve r,vm,m nkncvdflmfvmdf fv,x,xcn s sflklearfer vmmx c nxvmvlbsmfeq;l;lrjoNFELLRMIERIRN. I was dumbfounded at the rapidity of this man's speech. Commandante, por favor, habla un poquito mas despacio, no te entiendo (please speak more slowly, I don't understand you). Senor, dfknvsdkkfnvadfnkidfni rijfc ;eaoir jfc e;lkrj vlilr ;riljf hci; face eroi fveirj fgvear rorojf o;eroi rofj cao. Que? I meekly replied. This exchange of abject confusion went on for ten more minutes, with the Commandante growing increasingly frustrated that this idiot gringo didn't understand a word he was saying. Finally, as if the heavens opened to reveal their secrets, I managed to glean a bit of what this well-armed man was trying to say. You want a ride? Si Senor, djksdjc unerkjfj c erf; aij ere orijfc cceildr oe er oo roier. Well, why didn't you say so, please, get in. I bolted out of my seat and opened the back door, hastily pushing empty Cheetos bags and half-filled bottles of seco off of the seat so the Commandante could be comfortable. The man proudly sat down, waved to his subordinates, and we were off. You can imagine the nervousness that accompanies chauffering a high-ranking Police Commandante to his headquarters when you can't understand a word the man is saying. Just a few km up the road. We can do this. Surely he won't put a bullet in the back of my head and steal the car, not to mention the attractive rubia (blonde) seated next to me? A few km ahead, the Commandante spoke. Estan aqui por negocios o placer (are you here for business or pleasure)? Oh, solamente placer Commandante. Bueno, bellowed the man. Mira, esta estancia, es solamente cinquenta mil pesos (look, this estate is only 50,000 pesos). Many Americans come here to buy land and live (translated) said the Commandante. If you want, I can show you many fine estates for sale (again, translated). Over there, that finca (farm) is only 75,000 pesos. I allowed my intestines to relax slightly, as it seemed our guest was more intent on getting a commission for the sale of real estate than in robbing us. This was quite possibly the most insane moment of our adventure. A few more km up the road and we found the small town the Commandante was in charge of. I pulled over and allowed the man to exit the Nissan. He waved and thanked us in a manner befitting a Commandante, as there were several Police officers under his command milling about outside the station, and he didn't want to appear weak in front of his subordinates. We waved back, ADIOS COMMANDANTE Y GRACIAS (for not killing us), and drove on. Stunned and gape-mouthed, we couldn't believe what had actually just happened to us. A National Police Comandante, to whom we had gratefully given a ride to his station, had tried to sell us real estate. This was, without any doubt whatsoever, the single most unusual event to occur on our Panamanian adventure. So far. A quick shot of seco and a smoke were in order, if for no other reason than to calm our nerves.

A few short km up the road, and we saw a sight that really should have given us a clue as to what lay ahead:

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A cemetery. Granted, a very nice cemetery, but still. Portobelo doesn't seem to be so much a town as a rambling of structures somehow associated with one another. We tried the first place that came to us (in the guide book). Sorry, all booked up. It was a cute little surfers hostel too, so dammit. Driving on, we found another place that had potential, but alas, the Spanish conquistadores had closed this particular hotel many centuries earlier:

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OK, it was more like a fort, but it had potential. The guide book said there was a nice 4 star hotel just up the road, but when we pulled in to ask (in the parking lot), the man said they too were all booked up. But, he said, you might find a room on Isla Grande. He was gracious enough to call over to one of his friends working at the hotel. Unfortunately, it was at this precise moment that I accidentally hit the alarm button on the key fob for the Nissan. The claxon rang out rather disturbingly, and it interrupted the poor man's conversation. I finally found the off button just as the man was explaining to his friend that two idiot gringos needed a room for the night. There was a room available, thank the Adventure Gods, as it was getting dark and there was no way we'd make it back to Panama City before nightfall.....driving in Panama at night is ill-advised. Senor, just drive on and the parking lot for Isla Grande will be there. Parking lot, for an island? Si Senor, you will find it. The lot was just a few more km up the road, and as we parked, several men approached us, inquiring if we were headed for the island. Si, where do we go? Senor, take your baggage over there and wait for the boat, I will call them. Fair enough. There were party-goers all around, so we made sure to lock up as we were only going to mule 1 metric ton of luggage to the island, leaving a full metric ton of our possessions behind. The boat came in a few minutes, and on board we were. It was a 5 minute ride to Isla Grande, and I gave the boatman 2 dollars for his services. Apparently, he thought me cheap, as look on his face was as such. Alas, we were down to our last 10 dollars of actual currency, so every dollar counted, especially if we encountered the extortion children again on the way back. In the hotel lobby, or what passed for such (it was the bar), a woman told us that they did not accept traveler's checks. Swell. How about a credit card? Si Senor, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. OK, this would work. Yet the hotel had limited access to such novelties as credit card approval. Damn. Finally, the charges went through on the antiquated phone system. $45 for the night. That would be fine, gracias Senorita. Here is your key, you are in room 210. Up the stairs, 4 km to your left, stop and ask directions, then 3 km ahead. Yes, it was that far away. Carnival had it's grip on Isla Grande, as people were literally strewn about in various states of inebriation. Finding our room, we peeled back the paper that was the door and walked in. The walls were also well papered, in fact, made entirely of paper. The room reminded me of a transient hotel in a large American city. Nonplussed, we set down the luggage and made for the bar. People were celebrating with abject abandon, rollicking around the hole that was the pool, the beach, the bar area. There were a shocking number of National Police about, also celebrating, their machine guns slung over their shoulders as they consumed ever more beer. I have always found beer and machine guns to be a bad mix, but no shots were fired on this occasion. Whew. We brought a couple of beers down to the beach and sat down. A nice dip on the water, that would calm our nerves. Not really, as a glance over our shoulders brought the image of several dozen very large vultures picking at a very large pile of garbage at the far edge of the beach. Nice. It wouldn't wash into the sea with a good rain, would it? Um, yes, it would. Tempting fate, we dove into the water. The ocean was cool and refreshing, restoring a rapidly waning faith in us. It was about time for a bite to eat, so we toweled off and made for the open-air restaurant. They weren't going to accept travelers checks, so we made it cheap: a couple of burgers and two cold beers. $4.50, that still leaves us with $5.50 for the boat and any extortion kids. Cool. We finished up, then strode around the beach watching the festivities. The occasional firework startled both the police and the vultures. Still, it was a festive mood all around. As the evening wore on, the celebrations grew much more raucous, and people were beginning to party like it was the end of the world. We thought it better to make for our room, just in case there was any anti-American sentiment going around, particularly from the well-armed police. Back in the room, things just got worse. The party goers were really having a ball, and they would randomly pound on doors as they staggered down the hallways. As the doors were made of paper, this gave us pause that someone would fall through our door at any moment. We occupied our time with the remaining seco and a lovely game of Rhumb-Line, a nautical game for two pirates (so says the package). The celebrations went on well into the early morning hours, as did our game. We were not in the mood for sleep, as someone armed with a small thermonuclear device could be falling through the wall at any time. The crowd was getting a bit ugly, with the odd fight breaking out here and there. We finally drifted off to a less than satisfying sleep somewhere around 4am. This was to be the most unsettling night of our adventure.

Stay tuned for Day Doce, or twelve in the local parlance, wherein we barely escape from Isla Grande without getting shot and manage to make it back to Panama City, sleep-deprived and sorely in need of some pampering, as true adventurers need sometimes.

Posted by beerman 10:51 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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