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Voyage to the Isthmus of Panama Day 3

My mother said there would be cannibals

sunny 40 °C

Day 3. Ah, New York….no wait, that was another blog. Ah, Panama. It seemed the Chinese food from the night before had digested quite nicely, though, as always when eating Chinese food, we were hungry for more. So a quick dash to the restaurant for coffee and cooked meat products was in order. The place had not lost its charm from the night before – the silk wall hangings and lanterns still shouted “You could be in Shanghai”. We shared breakfast with a bus full of tourists who eagerly devoured everything in sight. It seems they were on a “Seniors Tour”, so one had to be of a certain age to be there. Oddly, the people were a mix of elderly caucasian men and equally elderly Oriental women. They chatted and laughed their way through eggs, meat, and flat Panamanian breads as if the day was their last. This brightened our hearts even more with the thought that these old folks were having the time of their lives, and that they might be thinking there would be sex later tonight.

Checking out of the hotel to the gracious thanks of the front desk staff (I think her name was Graciela), we muled our 12 metric tons of baggage back the venerable Nissan. And while loading the car, one of the oddest sights came upon us. Next to the hotel was a little shanty of sorts that catered to not only breakfast for any passersby, but also contained a car wash, complete with hoses, towels, and soap. Talk about the entrepreneurial spirit. This was a gold mine, and the patron saint of car washes was proudly displayed in a large mural on one wall.


The road beckoned, and in short order we were off, well sated by a novel Chinese Panamanian breakfast. Now where the hell was the highway again? Oh right, left, 4 km, then right again. Santa Fe was our destination, a mere 135 km down the road and up the mountain. The highway itself proffered a somewhat bleak landscape…..OK, it was dry-ish season, and not all was green and lush as we had been led to believe by my mother’s talk of cannibal-infested jungles ripe with malaria and bananas. But it was still more scenic than Interstate 90 between Rockford and Chicago. Small towns came and went, all looking remarkably alike. Men in straw hats grouped together chatting and women laden with all sorts of their daily shopping carried on with their lives. Plus there was the occasional mule or small horse, who had such wistful looks on their faces that they no doubt were daydreaming of verdant green pastures and clear-flowing streams. Oh, and it was still hot. Really hot. But as true adventurers, we were not to be swayed by having to use the a/c. The winds whipped through the car, offering a slight reprieve from the humidity that was hanging in the air like a London fog in April.

A mere 90 minutes after our departure from the Guacamaya and we arrived in Santiago, a bustling city of 60,000 or 285,000, depending on which website you choose to believe. Regardless, this was city life again, and we braved the city traffic with little knowledge of where we were or where we were going. What did that road sign say? Dammit, I wish my Spanish was better. Still, I had the opportunity to teach Gretchen a few words of Spanish that would undoubtedly come in handy along the way. “See that? Muebleria. It’s a furniture store. And that? Carniceria. It’s a butcher shop.” These were phrases that all humans needed to know. Furniture and meat, what else would anyone need?

Deftly navigating through the complex of one-way streets, going the right way for a change, we found ourselves very nearly confused. The only thing to do was to follow the creed of the Seasoned Traveler: ask for directions. I pulled over and asked a completely unsuspecting woman where the hell we were and where was the road to Santa Fe. She stood there, half tempted to run for her life and half tempted to laugh uproariously, but her instincts quickly returned and she told me in far too many words that we were in Santiago and all we had to do was drive ggbbbiillngdrrrroopbblllllrrrppps (that’s really what it sounded like) over there and turn left, and we would find our way. She could have been directing us to the church for salvation, or the police station, but she was dead on. We found the road, and a bit of salvation, and turned north. Oh look, a sign for Santa Fe!!!

Over the course of the next fifty kilometers, we found ourselves climbing in altitude. How did we know this? Well, the humidity was certainly dropping, and we hadn’t seen a carnivorous mosquito swoop by for a bit….oh, and our ears were popping. And there were precipitous drop-offs around every bend in the road. This was Gretchen’s favorite thing in the whole world, precipitous drop-offs. But my driving skills and the Nissan were up to the challenge. Just outside Santa Fe, we found the Hotel Santa Fe, the finest hotel in the area. We parked and sauntered stiffly to the front desk, as adventurers are apt to do after a drive. Si, Senor, we have a room for you. Dos noches? Si, we can do this. $13 a night. Were we in hotel heaven? We found our room without the help of the baggage sherpas and checked in. The oscillating fan was a welcome sight.


Splashing a bit of cold water on our faces, we prepared to make forth and explore. Back in the trusty Nissan, we made for town, just 2 minutes further up the road. Gretchen was pleased that the precipitous drop-off on her side was protected by several tired horses and a few brahma cows peacefully munching away at the road signs. This was to be foretelling, as there were very few road signs in Santa Fe. Apparently, road signs are a delicacy among the local livestock. It took 30 seconds to drive right through town. And then, a sign. Not from God, but for the Rio Muluba. Turn right Gringo. And we did. But wait!!! We had to navigate this road?


“Not on your life my dear!!” C’mon, it’s only a dirt road , and the washouts are only two feet deep on either side. The Nissan can handle it. It has 4-wheel drive. “It’s not the car I’m worried about, it’s our lives”. OK, fair enough, and besides, we were down to a quarter tank of gas. If we were to continue exploring, we would need more SUV juice. Backing up and turning around as delicately as I could, we made the return minute trip back to town. “I didn’t see any gas stations here”. Neither did I. (This is one of the great stories of this trip). So we parked at the town square and walked to the Farmers Market, hoping that someone could advise us of a solution to our dilemma. The Farmers Market was a series of stalls in what looked to be something like a large band shell in the center of an old Iowa town, but with less paint. There were only four or five vendors hawking a few items each to virtually no one but us. No one even spoke (the hawking was very quiet). We approached one woman and asked about petrol. No Senor, no hay gasolina aqui. Dammit, someone must know. We forged on, asking another vendor. Oh Senor, no se…..momento, hay una mujer que tiene gasolina. SI? Bueno, donde esta la mujer? The woman directed her 14 year old nephew to get in the car with us and show us where the mujer was. Muchas Gracias senora!! The boy nervously stepped into the back seat of the Nissan and directed us to drive ahead. Alli, y entonces alli, no, a la derecha, y ahorra a la derecha otra vez. We felt rather like Albert Schweitzer navigating the Congo in search of souls to save, guided by a mildly nervous child. We drove through what passed for the suburbs of Santa Fe for what seemed like 30 minutes, until finally the boy exclaimed “AQUI!!”. We pulled into the drive of a modest little home surrounded by chickens, goats, some laundry on the line, and 300 children. A woman came out of the house looking rather puzzled at the sight of two gringos dressed in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and driving a rich car. The boy quickly explained to her that we were in search of gas. Oh, Si, cuanto quieren? Um, uh, tiene cinco gallones? My Spanish was poor. The woman furrowed her brow momentarily, scratched her chin, then signaled to the 300 children to bring fuel for the gringos. At once, children poured from under the porch with 5 one gallon Wesson oil jugs. The woman directed me to open the gas lid, then she pulled out a plastic siphon hose. No, you’re not really going to siphon gas for us? Si Senor. In one massive effort, the woman had the hose tucked into the tank opening and was happily siphoning gas into our tank. One jug, then two, then all five. This woman had talent to say the least. I sheepishly asked this brave woman what she wanted for the gas. Again, she furrowed her brow, calculating what the market price for 5 gallons of gas was for 2 nattily dressed gringos. Gas was $2.50 in town, and I could see this woman calculating like Einstein on a physics problem. “Doce y media”, the woman finally said ($12.50). She was fair, not trying to rip us because I believed that she was an honest, hard working woman. I reached into my pocket and found I had only $20 bills. I gave her one, and she again furrowed her brow and rubbed her chin about how she was going to get me change. She began to signal the 300 children to retrieve cash from the house when I said “momento Senora, el cambio no es necessario (the change isn’t necessary) porque tu eres muy simpatico (because you are very nice).” The woman looked at me with mouth agape, as if I was the savior come down from Heaven. She was shocked, stunned, and very nearly without words. The words returned very quickly, and it took about 15 minutes of hugging and blessings and more hugging until this woman would let us leave. We were certainly grateful, but she would have none of my thanks. She was too well occupied blessing us on our journey, and after the hundredth “Vaya Con Dios y Gracias”, we were allowed to leave her presence. A bit stunned ourselves at our fortune, we drove the boy back to the Farmers Market. We returned our reluctant tour guide to his aunt, thanked them both profusely, and made for the river once again.

“You’re sure we can make that?” Yes dear, we will survive – we have been blessed, and no harm will come to us on this adventure. And down the hill we went, pausing only briefly for a horse and cart to pass before us. The bridge held our weight well, and we drove on. In four-wheel drive, just in case. Where’s the river? It’s got to be here somewhere. Again, as true adventurers do, we had to stop for directions. Several men were waiting at a ramshackle bus stop, so we figured they had our answer. Si Senor, bbbrrhhhgglooopddssiillaeeerpperrssszz, y alli, entonces, al la derecha. Was everything off to the right in this country? Apparently so, because we turned down a road that would barely pass for a farm field road back home, past several small houses, and came upon the river of boulders. The real river was just past the river of boulders. Good thing we had four-wheel drive, because there were some sizable boulders.


Relax dear, it’s a rental. And besides, there’s an old Chevy pickup further on ahead….if he can make it, so can we. We parked as out of the way as we could and strolled to the water, as well as one could stroll over boulders the size of large watermelons. We waded into the waters, soothed by their coolness, and sank below the surface as we water babies tend to do. Fortunately, the girls who were washing their hair in the river were downstream, so we missed the shampoo floating by. We luxuriated in the water for some time, until a small group of school boys came by and decided that they enjoyed the music coming from our car (the Desperado soundtrack) so much that it was time for a bottle of seco (fermented sugar cane - Panamanian rum) and a bit of partying. Not to worry dear, they are children out for some fun. It was time to go anyway, we had survived the river of doom. Braving the river of boulders and the hill of despair, waving to the boys as we left (who waved back), we made it back into town and to the hotel.

It was late in the afternoon when we finally made it to the hotel restaurant. It was a smallish place, with 5 or 6 tables scattered around the room and open to the balcony overlooking the hotel grounds.


We were greeted jovially by the waitress (the owner’s daughter), who eagerly brought us a couple of beers to enjoy. The sun was just setting, and the air was still, yet the atmosphere was golden. The gardens were magnificently in bloom with all manner of flowers which scented the air heavily. We ordered two meals of chicken and something, something being a Panamanian specialty, and were joined by other hotel guests. A medical student from New York and his girlfriend, a doctor named Gary from Oregon, and two doctoral candidates in Botany from the University of Florida who were on a mission to harvest exotic orchids. The New York woman went on about how excited she was that they were going to rent some horses the next day and go riding, while Gary pretty much kept silent, but for the occasional nod of agreement or disparagement. The two students were quite entertaining, telling stories of their research and where they had been. This lasted well into the evening, and our hosts seemed pleased that business was good……we all consumed many beers.

Drowsy from the beers and the days’ adventures (blessings can be draining, let me tell you), we lay down, kissed each other goodnight, and drifted off to sleep, assured that our next adventures would be good – hey, we had been blessed after all. And so endeth day 3 of our voyage.

Stay tuned for Day 4, wherein we find out why high maintenance New York girlfriends shouldn’t ride horses, and how to talk agronomy with the local County Fair Extension Agents…..in Spanish.

Posted by beerman 10:28 Archived in Panama Tagged family_travel

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