My mother said there would be cannibals
07.02.2005 - 07.02.2005 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:
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:
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.