Well, well, what do you know? I’ve gone and done what I swore I would never do again, and that’s let too much time lapse between posts. I never learn.
So I left Bocas del Toro on a night bus, thinking I could get some sleep and save money on a hostel, but I quickly realized that it was a mistake. I was the last one to board, but somehow I got the coveted, cushy front seat with windshield views right behind the driver. However, the bus attendant (pretty much every bus in Central America has one…guys who help people put their bags in the luggage compartment, take their tickets/payment, etc) kept yelling at me for putting my feet on the seat, on the rail in front of me, even for allowing my sealed water bottle to roll into the back of the driver’s seat. Once I understood all the rules, I had to focus on not freezing to death. I don’t know what the temperature in that bus was, but fortunately I came prepared with a sweater, hoodie, and two scarves, all of which I utilized. Sleep, however, was still not an option, as the bus stopped constantly, and with every stop the lights came on. Oh, and did I mention the loud reggaeton music that was blaring the whole time? Moral of the story: don’t take night buses in Panama, and if you do, don’t sit in the front.
I arrived in Panama City around 4:30am utterly exhausted, and after a short cab ride I ended up at Panamericana Hostel in the old quarter, Casco Viejo. Fortunately, the staff allowed me to check into my dorm room, and I immediately crashed. I later awoke feeling refreshed, and I went for a walk around the old quarter; with every step I fell deeper and deeper in love with Panama City, and my heart was captured by the time I saw the sparking skyline looming out of the crystalline waters across the bay. I’ve always assumed I was a city girl, having lived the last ten years in Dubai, Seoul, and Los Angeles. I tried my hand at small-town life in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a year before I started this trip, and I wanted to scrape my eyeballs out with a fingernail clipper. Well, as you could probably tell from my last few posts, I was starting to get a little depressed, and I didn’t quite understand why. I was sick and tired of beaches and sand and salt water. Well, all my despondency melted away and my travel blues disappeared as soon as I saw that skyline. I had a new spring in my step! I had lunch in a real cafe with lentil soup and grilled cheese and a real chai latte! Comfort food. My broken backpacker soul was healing.
There was a crazy American girl staying in my dorm room. When I arrived, her entire bunk (top and bottom, mind you) was covered in clothes, shoes, books, bags of Cup Noodles, cosmetics, unidentifiable crap, two pairs of 6-inch stripper heels, and ICE SKATES. In Panama. I thought that deserved its own paragraph.
Anyway, the next day was the start of a three-day Panamanian holiday: Independence Day from Colombia followed by Flag Day followed by Colon Day, whatever that means. I woke up bright and early to the repetitious cacophony of marching throngs of uniformed schoolkids beating drums, Central America’s go-to strategy for celebrating holidays. I wandered around for a while until my head couldn’t take any more, and I ducked into one of the neighborhood’s only open restaurants, a pricey Italian joint with tasty portobello ravioli. Part of the healing process. That night my old pals Clare and Jove arrived, and we spent several hours over cheap boxed wine catching up on the last week.
The next day was pretty much the same as the day before, but on a much larger and more advanced scale: endless parade of drummers with some other instruments and dancers thrown in for good measure.
Tuesday was the last day of the holiday stretch, so Clare, Jove, and I decided to escape the drumming extravaganza and check out the Panama Canal. Being a bit of a closet how-does-it-work? machinehead, the Panama Canal was the sole reason I went to Panama City in the first place, and I was not disappointed. I’m not going to bother describing it, but it was an awesome experience and a true testament to the brilliance of 100-year-old technology. We managed to watch three different ships squeeze through the narrow canal, with just inches to spare, and a cruise ship was coming through just as we left. After the canal, we went to the mall for a quick coffee and teenager-induced headache before heading back to Casco Viejo.
That night, over another box (or three) of cheap wine, I was somehow convinced to trash my plans for the very clever 2nd chance tour back up to Guatemala and take a sailboat down to Colombia. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the only way to get from Panama to Colombia is via boat or plane, and most people make a little adventure out of it on private sailboats that sail around some islands for three days before embarking on the 2-day open water crossing. For the last three months, all anyone has talked about is how amaaaazing this trip is, ¨Trip of a lifetime!¨, ¨Best part of my whole South America/Central America trip!¨ I still wasn’t convinced. I’ve done multi-day sailing trips before. Okay, fine. Let’s be honest and go really deep here: the very last thing this former ghetto-booty gymnast-thighs donkey-calves running-man-dominating soccer-player who’s now an insecure paraplegic on crutches who’s traveling alone and is less than eager to strip down to a bikini in front of strangers who may or may not but will probably uncomfortably ogle her skinny-ass meatless dimply in all the wrong places deformed twisted contorted paralyzed butt, legs, and feet…where was I? Oh, yes, a sailboat with strangers equals nightmare. Anyway, once I realized that my insecurities were holding me back, I agreed to the trip. Another milestone for me. Gulp.
So the next day I went to the mall on a swimsuit mission (remember I somehow lost both of mine) that turned into an all-day shopping spree. Bikini, shirts, leggings, running shoes (the soles of my other ones were falling off) were the makings of some serious retail therapy. Unfortunately, as I was leaving the mall with all of my goods, one of my braces snapped in half. Fail. That night, a guy in my hostel helped me MacGyver up my brace with duct tape and a fork handle and I was almost as good as gold.
The next morning, Clare, Jove, and I booked our sailboat to Colombia (double gulp), I wandered around Casco Viejo one last time, and that night we ended up at some Adidas DJ night thing in an old theatre for some music and table dancing (meaning I hold onto a table for dear life while quickly bending/straightening my knees and bobbing my shoulders to the beat of the music. It’s all I got.). I was out pretty late, so the next morning I had to drag myself out of bed and off to lunch in time to make it to the bus station with Clare and Jove. Our next destination was the seaside village of Puerto Lindo, where we would catch our catamaran for Colombia!
I went all the way down to Panama City solely to see the Canal, and I spent an entire week falling in love with this beautiful city. It has officially earned a spot on my list of ¨Places to Live After My Trip.¨ My time there was a much-needed break from dirty backpacker life, rice and beans, beaches. If there’s one thing I learned about myself since leaving Dubai, it’s that I have grown to appreciate the finer things in life (Read: I’m spoiled.). I had been doing the whole budget thing for so long that it was starting to eat away my soul, so I’ve decided to raise my daily budget a bit and not kick myself for going over it. Because sometimes a girl needs lentil soup, a grilled cheese, chai lattes, and new bikinis.