My shoes are sopping wet. My socks are covered entirely with mud, the result of having hiked thirty or so minutes to reach a village where internet is actually available. Panama, as it turns out, is a more remote than I had expected: The past week has been spent in various locations where human life was almost non existent, mosquitoes mauled any uncovered body part (including your face), a day without rain was impossible, and encountering any resemblance of an internet connection was as likely as it would be if you were searching during the 1960s…in Antartica. Otherwise, my first weeks in Central America have been intriguing and relentless. I find that life revolving around the Caribbean is  not so lax off the coastline, but once your surrounded by crystal blue waters things slow down tremendously. I have had a taste of each lifestyle, absorbing the sweet scent of the mountains as an appetizer then the beaches for dessert, with the rain forest being the main course and requiring the most of my efforts. Follow me as I recount the last weeks happenings.
First off, my present bill of health is going to get a little attention. I think my ear is going to fall off or, more specifically, is in the process of falling off. I spent several nights sleeping on a hammock at one of my destinations, whereby I managed to accumulate a massive rash type abrasion on my right ear that appears, much to my dismay, to be getting larger by the second. I think if things continue to go at this dealthy rate, by the end of the week I will look something along the lines of Holyfield after the battle with Tyson – except that I do not have a bad ass fighting story to justify the loss of a lobe nor a plastic surgeon to put it all together again. Let’s hope things don’t spiral out of control too quickly, but with how the have been going I don’t really expect much improvement. Meanwhile, there is more: The left side of my face happens to be deteriorating, more so eroding, and far more quickly than I could have ever hoped. This new development came as a surprise to me, even after the ear began to present an ever growing disturbance. I was looking into the mirror post shower in the cloud forest and noticed a peculiar red spot on the left side of my face. The mark was not razor induced, and piqued my interest especially when it began to grow larger over the next several days, then quickly morphed into three or four larger ovals that now encircled the original. They burn, they itch, and I do not have the slightest clue where they came from or why they are growing so rapidly on my skin. My overall prognosis = not good. Soon enough, I will resemble Two Face from the most recent Batman. You know, right after the gasoline spills on his face and a flame consumes whatever flesh happened to protect his insides.The only difference is that you will have to throw the Evan Holyfield aspect into it, and what a wonderful combination like that will be. I am not looking forward to this metamorphasis, thinking it may be time to visit a Central American witch doctor and see what remedy that can conjure from chicken feet, corn oil, and cow brains. If anyone out there has a better suggestion, feel free to throw it my way. It would be greatly appreciated before my face falls apart entirely. To make things that much better: Apparently, my memory card with all my photos from the Galapagos has contracted a virus, which I would equate to contracting an STD in the virtual world, and thereby prevents any further uploading. I never knew something like this was possible, but just the same I am devastated. To say the least, it has not been a good week.
Aside from the standard maladies, Panama has proven to be a pretty cool place. Lots of sun, humidity to make Ecuador’s swelter to look something along the lines of a cool afternoon in Siberia, this country has been burning me up ever since my arrival. A few days, more specifically four, were spent exploring the cultural epicenter that is Panama City. I wasn’t overly impressed, seeing as the place itself was highly reminiscent of Miami; a preponderance of high rise finance buildings that cast shadows on the sandy shore lines, a large Hispanic population (not very surprising considering it is in Central America, but a similarity nonetheless), and calm blue waters to cool off from the summer’s absurd heat. The national sport, surprisingly, (at least to me) is baseball opposed to soccer and counts as the first country I have visited on this trip that has been different than the norm. Yet, with it being the time of the World Cup, it seems that everyone’s focus is directed more towards futbol than the MLB presently, thereby directing all conversation and excitement towards the sport that holds a special place in my heart: Soccer. Overwhelming, and I have noticed this as a common trend, Central and South Americans believe with total certainty that Brazil will win it all, with one man going as far as saying ”They will ride a gentle breeze all the way to the Finals, where the Cup will be given to them like a present by the team who is in the unfortunate position of being their opposition”. You also have the standard disgruntled fan who declares it a travesty that Panama did not qualify and that Honduras, one of the teams who did, is an absolute abomination and deserve to be disqualified for their ”cheating” ways. The intensity changes with the weather, and seeing as its summer time and only likely to get hotter, the World will probably be getting out of control by the month’s end.
Now, in Panama City, I laid low and did the standard meandering about in search of fun, interesting things to do. Each city I have visited has its own vibe, with Panama City being no exception; this time the difference being that the Latin flare brightens up and inflames the inhabitants minds and souls, until they are boiling over and on the verge of salsa in the streets. The atmosphere is relaxed, with Reggae, Cumbia, and various other Central American beats bumping outside tiendas as you stroll by, each owner attempting to barter with you and hoping to make a sale no matter if the final price is 70% of what they originally offered. Here, as well as everywhere else I have visited, being one of the few white skinned gentlemen out and about on the town, there is a bulls eye on my back and a dollar sign on my head. Eyes grow wide and mouths begin to foam when a street vendor sees my pasty, white countenance looking casually at the items posted outside the window. Usually, as courtesy, I will enter the store, give whatever they are offering a glance, and then pretend to become confused because I don’t understand Spanish – a technique that proves flawless  99.99% of the time – with a high speed exit soon there after to prevent aggressive sales maneuvers from taking hold. If you stay too long you end up trapped, draped with clothing apparel that you have never seen before nor would ever wear, until you are dragged to the register and expected to pay some absorbent amount for things that cost far less than their retail value. Having come accustomed to such methods in South America, I have managed to master a response that negates all further attempts: Look scared, then run. Trust me, it works.
In Panama City there is also an engineering feat known as the Panama Canal. Let me say one thing: It is impressive. Central America is an isthmus and thereby allows those who could perform such a task to establish a trade route between two seas separated by land, combining two distinct, isolated trading markets into one. The United States, with the help of some sketchy diplomacy, managed to overcome such a feat and created the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, much to the benefit of all tradesmen in the Western hemisphere. It is a feat in itself, requiring the manpower of over 80,000 individuals to construct this engineering marvel in a span of 30 years. The lock system is the brainchild of brilliance and the father that gave birth to the surplus of trade that now flourishes between the Atlantic and the Pacific for barters of immense size that are willing to pay up to U$D 200,000 to cross. Watching it up close gives you the advantage of experiencing it in action; the water rising and falling carrying ships with loads more enormous than you could ever imagine – the length of a football field with crates stacked twenty high – granted the time to cross one system of locks takes around 8 hours. The process is slow and tedious, but interesting throughout both visually and aesthetically: The demonstration of the power of man, when his mind and hands are directed towards a goal, he has the ability to combine two seas and make what was once considered impossible possible. I have a slide show waiting to be viewed, but as usual uploading photos is taking some time. It will be out shortly. The journey back from the Miraflores Locks, where I watched the feat of engineering in action, to my hostel in the center part of the city turned out to be epic, in the Homeric sense of the word. My assumption that I could take the same bus that picked me up back to where I wanted to go, normally a pretty standard conclusion, could not have been anymore incorrect. Instead, I sat on a bus with broken window latches for around an hour and a half, sweating profusely while admiring the city’s architecture and lively inhabitants, until I concluded that I must be on the wrong bus, or going the wrong way, because the journey there took no more than 40 minutes. It turns out my calculations were correct, as my fellow seat mates informed me much after the fact. I had veered far from my original path and needed another hour to get back to where I started. I would say, however, that spending nearly three hours in a school bus cruising around various districts is a very effective, and most importantly cheap, way of getting to know a city.
After Panama City, I was in the mood for some fresh air and decided to head to the mountains. The mountains, in Panama and throughout all Central America for that matter, are small compared to those which I conquered in Peru and Bolivia: Hugging the earth, appearing almost like they are weighed down by the immense amount of trees whose canopies display dense green, they are suffocated by the clouds that rest just above their smooth peaks and pound them daily with relentless rain. The valleys below, instead of being carved by rock and precipice as in Huaraz or around the Salar de Uyuni, undulate according to the various shades of farmland and plots that are being cultivated by their owners. It is predominately coffee, but sure enough corn, rice, banana, plantain, and many others find their way in there, only adding to the color spectrum that is woven in the tapestry that blankets the landscape. A visual feast, one that provides a wonderful distraction from the cramped buses and humidity.
Where I went in the mountains was a place called Santa Fe. With a whopping population of 9,000 inhabitants, this village boasts of organic produce and minimal interference from big business or more industrialized methods of farming. It is safe to say, as I was the only backpacker in the hostel and that hostel was also the only hostel in the entire town, that I was the only foreigner amongst the Panamanians during my three day stay. I walked a couple of trails, visited an farm to get in touch with my family roots, swam in a fresh water river, and laid back when the weather turned abruptly from bright and sunny to dark and stormy. Isolated and quiet, Santa Fe provided a nice contrast from the bustling cityscape of Panama City. A perfect place to get lost on a few trails in the wilderness, especially when you may or may not have happened to leave the map on your bedside table. Ooops.
Santa Fe led to Isla Boca Brava, a little island on the Pacific side of Panama known for its large Marine Reserve. This, just like Santa Fe, is an secluded location. It, unlike Santa Fe, boasts of Howler Monkeys, pristine private beaches, and a laid back beach atmosphere for all those who are willing to overcome the difficulties of getting there. Transportation, as a general rule, is sporadic and unreliable: Departure and arrival times are NEVER as they are posted, seeming to vary according to the driver’s preference or for no reason at all other than the bus doesn’t feel like leaving, buses are usually packed with 10 to 15 passengers more than the legal limit (if there happens to be one, which I am not sure there is), to think there is air conditioning is, for lack of better word, foolish, and unless you are absolutely certain where you need to get off and God forbid it is not the last stop, odds are you will miss it because the driver will not remember when you mentioned it to him earlier or where you were trying to go. All of this means that for any passenger, he has to remain aware and awake for the entire duration of the journey with absolutely no time to relax. The benefit, however, is that the remote places you try to go, which also prove to be the more difficult, are always worth the effort. Isla Boca Brava was no exception.
The beaches were great. The Hostel rested high above the shoreline, a steep 5 minute walk from the dock where the water taxi drops you off. But before you can climb those steps, you must take a smaller transportation from Santiago and then negotiate with a bus company heading to David to drop you off along the way at a place called the Horconcitos cutoff. A small, remote village without much to speak for, it acts as the entry point for all those adventurous enough to reach the marine reserve at Boca Brava. The stop literally places you in the middle of an abondoned road, one where you must walk the 13 km into the nearby village of Horconcitos and then take a cab to an even smaller village of Boca Chica. Walking was a challenge in the heat (with the oncoming storm clouds an even greater deterrant), which then meant that thumbing my way to the village was the most ideal option. Thus, I managed to hitchhike through the uphill terrain to Horconcitos in the beat up, open flat bed truck of a local that happened to pass by as I was making my way towards the village. An uneventful yet peaceful ride, one whose conversation revolved around the World Cup, how Americans liked Panama, and my driver’s family dilemmas with brief suggestions of how to resolve them. Twenty minutes later, after reaching Horconcitos, the man offered to bring me to Boca Chica as well, an offer which I could not refuse. The help of a friendly Panamanian made what could have been a lengthy journey into something far more pleasurable, one where my head was propped out the window, admiring the pastures, creeks, and farm animals that hid behind the aged barb wired fences under the hot midday son. From Boca Chica, Isla Boca Brava was a short water taxi ride away.
The island is small, heavily vegitated, and rests in the western side of the Chiriqui Lowlands. It is a great place, if one were looking, to transport drugs down the coastline of Panama as water police are no where to be found and the hand of government enforcement seems to have a loose grasp on things. The locals that I met and became acquainted with at the hostal were more of the upstanding sort; friendly, talkative, in search for a beer on their time off and fish while they were out at sea working to catch the day’s meal. They were also very informative about the not so popular activities of other locals: belligerant intoxication, fights, who was involved with ¨bad business¨ (whose definition was never completely clear, but your imagination can do the rest), and the occasional tale of shipwrecks or malfunctions. These interactions became a common affair as I was the only foreigner in the hostel, and this was the only hostel on the island, thereby making myself the only extranajero within a fifty mile radius and earshot. I mainly kept to myself, read a few books, lounged on a hammock for a few nights and picked up the strange fungus that is now slowly dissolving the tissue on my ear, and swam in the luke warm waters on the various nearby beaches. Peaceful, quiet, and beautiful; the tranquility only to be interupted every so often by nearby Howler Monkeys that let out a shout to the companions on the other side, or a massive insect that was twice as large as anything I had ever seen before and decided to use my body as a resting place.
I could only handle a few nights more in complete isolation. It had been long enough, nearly a week, without having any fellow backpackers nor English speakers. Most importantly, I hadn’t had the opportunity to get on a computer and update my family that I was alive and well, minus the physical ailments that were starting to decay various parts of my face. The intention was to go north, the far north, to a place called Bocas del Toro – a destination that is popular for backpackers and vacationers alike, as it rests in the Carribbean and is a group of lovely snorkeable islands whose waters tingle bright blue in the sunlight. Along the way, however, I discovered a hostel in an area known as Fortuna, that is regarded as one of the best in Panama. The cause of its great reputation is that it is a part of a COOP that produces all organic food products as well as resting near the top of the low mountains in Chiriqui, allowing the classification of ¨cloud forrest¨ to be applicable. As I have never been to a cloud forrest, nor really knew what it would be like, I decided to make the trip out there to check it out also knowing that I had nothing to lose. It turned out to be an exquisite, authentic jungle experience: A camp some 400 m away from the nearest road and resting 1,200m up, surrounded only by wildlife (monkeys, terantulas, golden beatles, etc.)  hundreds of hiking trails, waterfalls, hot springs, petrogliphics dating from the pre Mayan period, and a bunch of super-earthy backpackers that shudder at the thought of inorganic food or, for the ladies, arm pit shaving and, for the gentlemen, sweet bandanas to protect their flowing hair from covering their eyes. It was good to get back to my all natural roots, isolation becoming a commonality by this point and the free organic coffee hard to refuse, I spent four days exploring in the morning then finding shelter in the afternoon as it tended to torrential downpour every day, on the dot, at 2PM. It should be said, however, that I still like my women clean shaven and do not plan on growing dread locks any time soon. Guitar, on the other hand, is something I would like to pick up.
I am now in Fortuna, heading to Bocas del Toro tomorrow. Today has been dark, cloudy, and providing very little to do aside from making the 40 minute trip to the closest town with internet. Not the most ideal weather conditions recently, but since the World Cup has been on I have something to keep me occupied until things clear up (I caught a game while I was in town). For all those who don’t know, the U.S.A. has qualified for the tournament and their next game on Friday. Their first game with England was a 1-1 tie. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. I repeat: a BIG deal. If all goes according to plan, we can advance to the next round, and from there who knows. The World Cup, to many uninformed American’s surprise, is the most popular sporting event in the World and draws over 1 billion viewers for the Final. So, my advice is to get in touch with your Latin and South America roots and start following along: This tournament has been and always will be an entertaining ride, surely something you would not want to miss out on. Until then, all the best and saludos from Panama. Chau.