Panama Trip (Apr 2015)
Palmer Family Blog: Living in Central America For a Year
Apr 13 (the Panama City lock-down and the Argo movie)
When Obama is around, everything is in lock-down mode! That’s what we experienced when we arrived in Panama City where the Summit of the Americas (VII) was underway. Harper was also in attendance but it was Obama, as usual, who was stealing the show (and Cuba). The military and swat teams where everywhere… virtually every block had someone in uniform standing guard with a gun. Choppers were flying overhead and 2-man motor-bike units were constantly buzzing about with machine guns at the ready. It was fascinating at first but as the days rolled on, it was becoming an eye-sore… not to mention a wee bit unnerving having hawkish eyes continually scanning everything and everyone.
(Leaving Costa Rica enroute to Bocas Del Toro, Panama)
Within this circus we embarked upon a city-tour (it had taken us awhile to get ahold of an English-speaking guide… just something to keep in mind for anyone coming here) – what a beautiful place! Much more than we all anticipated, for sure. So modern (the financial hub of the Americas) in certain districts with towers that were stylish and architecturally aesthetic to the eyes. We visited the famous Canal and took a plethora of pics… and we learned they’re building an even larger canal – a massive project that’ll bring in more income for the Panamanian economy.
We moved on to the “Old Panama City” district… very similar to Old Quebec in ways. Narrow cobblestone streets, bakeries, sidewalk vendors, etc. And then there was the “Old, Old Panama City” – another district a distance away that was the original site of the city 500 yrs ago. 500 yrs… wow! It was just the foundations in pieces (bricks and stones), but fascinating nonetheless. Our city tour guide was excellent.
Some interesting observations:
1. We trekked through some malls (had to get our urban fix after being in the jungle for months!) and there were hardly any strollers… the babies/toddlers were mostly held (Catharine’s observation)
2. Most Panamanians wear pants in the heat… don’t know how they do it…!!
3. The sidewalks in certain places are atrocious… holes can be anywhere without any safety guards or pylons. You can easily sprain or break an ankle if you aren’t constantly aware of the ground in front of you
4. It pays to negotiate (as in other places in C. America) – you can always negotiate your cab fares down or anything else involving services. For example – we took a cab from our hotel to the Hard Rock for a dinner… it only cost $7 but when we were heading back to our hotel, the cab guy said it would cost $30…! Lol We got him down to $10
5. Standard of living is cheaper here than Costa Rica
6. Very stylish clothing fashions here (again, Catharine’s observation)
And then the morning arrived when we’d be leaving the country. 4:30am: I awoke to my alarm. I checked the photocopied document (again)… good, it was still safely tucked away in a zippered compartment of my computer bag. I was guarding it with my life because this little piece of paper (explained in my last blog… the “Immigration Incident”) with some Spanish words and a signature on it (from Immigration) was all that was keeping us from being detained by authorities (again). Repercussions would be HUGE if I were to lose this document. The officials wouldn’t be so cooperative the second time around.
(eating dinner at the Cosmic Crab restaurant on Easter Sunday)
We packed up the luggage and then hopped into a cab for the trip to the airport. I couldn’t help but replay the movie Argo in my head over and over again – the last nail-biting scenes when the Americans are leaving Iran. I mean, it’s not like we were in Iran with the possibility of executions, but I kept on thinking that at any moment, we’d be stopped by Panamanian officials and then detained because I might have misplaced our Immigration paper. (I checked for the document again in my computer bag… still there). And I had visions of me yelling out, “You don’t want an international incident!!!!” It was then and there I realized that maybe I watch too many movies. (Argo was an awesome movie, though! 2 thumbs up)
We arrived at the airport. So far so good. Shifty eyes everywhere. Paranoia was sinking in. The lineup was huuuuge because, as we quickly learned, their computer system was down. Or was it?? More shifty eyes. “C’mon Mike, get ahold of yourself,” I muttered. After 2 hours in the lineup we got our bags checked in. So far so good. And then we walked nervously to security. This would be it. The big fork in the road. What would happen if they didn’t accept our photocopy? Maybe they required the original?? Argo, Argo, Argo… the scenes were blaring through my brain loudly. I need a shot of bourbon, I thought. I handed off the passports to Catharine but then I couldn’t find the flippin’ Immigration document!! Because I had moved it to my side pocket in my shorts… <whew> “Passports please,” “Sure, here you go,” Catharine replied. The sweat was building. My eyes didn’t blink as I watched the official, serious in demeanor, review our documents. “Here you go. Have a nice flight,” Freedom… almost.
Aside from the usual tantrums (re: the kids fighting for windows seats), the trip to our next port-o-call was uneventful. Upon our arrival at customs, the sound of our passports being stamped (“click-click”) was music to our ears. Now we were truly free.
Apr 11 (The Immigration Incident)
Travelling Tip Alert: Always, ALWAYS check that your passport has been stamped. You do not want to be detained and branded as an “illegal alien” with kids in tow! More on our Immigration Incident later…
Bocas Del Toro (Panama) was certainly beautiful… everything we hoped for, minus a few hiccups. And then it was time to embark upon a 4-hr drive to the district of David through the mountains.
(Ryan snorkeling on a reef in Bocas Del Toro)
No incidents during our ride… <whew> and we quickly settled into our hotel… that had the smallest elevator ever! Must have been built by Hobbits. We desperately needed sleep before our early morning flight to Panama City.
Despite the comfortable rental home we had stayed in back at Bocas during the previous week, we didn’t have any hot water during that time so enjoying a hot shower at the hotel in David was like being a kid in a candy store! I must have sat on the floor with the water cascading over me for at least 20 minutes… ahhhhh! So refreshing as the grime peeled off. A new person.
After enjoying a good dinner with the fam, we all settled into bed… zonked! A busy day of travelling. So why did I pull out my laptop and watch Zero Dark Thirty at 10pm?!? Excellent movie by the way but it wasn’t over until 1am and we were heading to Panama City early that morning.
Which brings us to the “Incident”.
April 6. A sparkling sunset arose on the horizon. The birds were singing, the coffee was brewing, the snakes were slithering. A beautiful day, I thought! What could possibly… well, you know the rest.
It’s funny because during breakfast, I remember vividly telling Ryan, “It’s always good to arrive at the airport early… you never know what delays will happen and it’s good to build in some extra time. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Always have Plan B’s…” (we didn’t have a Plan B for what was about to unfold)
And as we packed up (… and, yup, I swiped all the “complimentary” soap… its part of the rental fee, right? Fair game. Same goes for the shampoo!!!!) and rushed to the lobby to catch our cab, a parade unfolded on the street in front of the hotel. Right at that very moment! All traffic, halted. I couldn’t believe it. I checked my watch a few times as the bands and masses of school children marched by… not sure what the theme was but I didn’t care at that point. We couldn’t miss our flight.
Finally, it ended and our cab showed up and we were off. But the omen had unravelled back on the road in front of our hotel. We were moving toward something bleak and dreadful… like a dark side… of the sun, shall we say. Coincidentally, my first published book was entitled Dark Side of the Sun (if you’d like a copy you can goto http://www.michaelandrewpalmer.com… Shameless plug! Shameless plug!)
(Trying out some new locks)
After arriving at the airport we walked nonchalantly towards security like we always did – guzzling to finish off our water, telling our kids not to talk about bombs or guns, stuffing the last few muffins into our mouths. “Passports please,” “Sure. Here you go,” Catharine replied. Enter the gong show.
“Where are your stamps?” Furrowed, steely eyes become, well, more furrowed and steely.
Catharine and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. And then the circus began. I don’t know how many officials we went through but within 30 mins we were detained at the airport and then Immigration was called in. Not fun. Kids were getting hungry… I was freaking out because we were missing our flights… and then the officials were suggesting we’d be fined $2,000… $2,000 freakin’ bucks!!! And they said we’d have to be escorted back (4 hrs) to Bocas – our point of entry into Panama – to haggle with the officials there to get the proper evidence uncovered for the stamps. Who knows how long that would’ve taken. Needless to say, I wasn’t in a good mood. Luckily Catharine was strong in Spanish and heavy in patience. She got us through it all. She negotiated and conversed with the myriad of officials… and 7 hrs later, we were free, legal aliens… courtesy of a little slip of paper with some words on it and a signature from Immigration (they couldn’t stamp our passports due to bureaucratic red tape). That piece of paper kept us afloat – and if we were to lose it while in Panama… well, we definitely didn’t want to go down that route (that piece of paper stuck to me like glue after that. I would have fought to the death to hang on to it). Luckily our fine was reduced from $2,000 to $35 and Immigration paid for new flights for us – being that their ineptitude at Bocas caused this whole nightmare.
Our trip was back on the rails again and we were Panama City-bound…!
Apr 6 (Bocas Del Toro, Panama and the Drunken Lunatic)
Ahhh… Panama. Beautiful country although we did have a recent incident involving an extremely drunk Panamanian attacking us for money… blood flying everywhere! But let’s roll back the clock to our Costa Rican departure aboard a 12-seater Nature Air plane that took us from the village of Nosara to the sprawling metropolis of San Jose before we changed planes and made our way across the border through the clouds toward the islands of Bocas.
(Andrew at the Panama Canal)
The flights were without incident which was shocking (lol)… but maybe our family is getting used to the organized chaos of travel now. We seem to know what to prepare for and expect… which is one of the beauties of living “unorganized” (in certain ways) for a while. Spontaneity is blossoming wonderfully.
I always envisioned Panama to be flat and dry… a wasteland of sorts but how wrong I was. It’s just as lush, diverse and beautiful as Costa Rica – full of rain forests, gorgeous beaches/mangroves, and mountainous terrain. And the cost of living is a little less than Costa Rica.
Our rental home was along the beach where the waves lulled us to sleep that first night… whacked after a day of travel. There were the usual impediments during the ensuing days – one of the kids broke a plate accidently… I stepped on a piece of glass (plate) and cut my foot… our wet clothes in the washer (in separate facility next-door) got locked within the complex overnight – had to get someone over to open it, etc… but aside from these, we enjoyed ourselves immensely – milling about with the locals, enjoying the surf, sunsets and cuisines… and the snorkeling on the reefs! The highlight for everyone… so colorful and beautiful. A different world below the waves.
But the snorkeling trip wasn’t all roses… it was a 6-hr excursion with a boating company that looked a bit shady at first. And before we loaded onto their boat at the dock, it was pouring rain and we got dressed (in our bathing suits) in the most disgusting change-room (bathroom) we’ve ever been in. I mean, I can handle a lot of filthy situations if need be, but I was almost dry-heaving in there (as was Catharine). But once we got on the boat, it got much better. And the sun began cracking through the clouds!
(beautiful Panama City in the background)
After the snorkeling, our driver took us to this remote restaurant in the middle of nowhere (pics of it on our Facebook album) and it was beautiful for its pristine location. And as we’re eating (and drinking Balboa beers), some locals fired up a guitar and started singing some songs. Excellent! They were great. Nothing better than watching passionate people do their thing.
Which now brings us to the drunk Panamanian lunatic. After the dining, we drove off through some mangroves to take in some of the wildlife. Later, we pulled up to a dock to enjoy a nearby beach and as we roped up, we could hear this lunatic shouting off fifty feet away. He made his way toward us (just us and the driver) staggering a ton and mumbling in Spanglish. He looked about 50. He wasn’t hulking, but he was a good size. He was shouting something like, “I want money,” and, “I give you my money, you give me your money”. Our driver was a small guy and timid, staying back a piece. I thought the drunk was just all talk and nothing more as he reached our boat and just stood there shouting incoherently. As I stood on the dock I threw a glance at our driver and was beginning to laugh at the ludicrous scene unfolding but then in an instant (before anyone could react) the drunk lunges into our boat toward Catharine, Ryan and Jenna scaring the bejesus out of them! But the guy trips and slams his head hard against one of the wooden seats and then blood from his mouth/nose/etc. splashes everywhere…! Sickening… I was just about to jump back onto the boat to wrestle the guy off but the guy slithers back and falls into the water… and he can’t swim! The driver and I darted over and grabbed hold of the guy, hauling him up onto the dock with blood still spurting out of him. He sat on the dock gasping for air before another guy comes along and, with Catharine’s insistence, starts to help the drunk into another boat to get him back to Bocas to a hospital for stitches.
Needless to say, the kids were a little shaken up – Ryan said he’s bringing his Lord of the Rings bow and arrow with him on all future trips.