I basically saw zero percent of Ecuador since I spent only four days there, all of them in Guayaquil, and only one of them doing anything besides competitive exercising. That was enough, however, to present a biased and extremely narrow list of reasons why Ecuador is great.
- The taxi drivers are nice. We always carried too much gear into the cab, took too long getting out, never had the right change, and were basically nuisance passengers, but the cabbies invariably were polite and patient. Ecuador is possibly the only country in the world where this is the case. You may still feel your life is at stake due to the driving - wouldn't be much of a cab ride if you didn't - but you at least feel that that the cabbie's maniacality starts and ends at the road.
- Empanadas made out of plantain instead of bread. I'm not sure this is actually possibly without some sort of corn or stabilizing agent, and they're still deep-fried and thus not Paleo, but they're nonetheless damn delicious, so who cares.
- Iguana park. El Parque de la Iguana delivers exactly what it promises - a park full of iguanas. No, seriously, that's why it's on this list, it's really that cool. The skepticism of my teammates/readers aside, there are literally just herds of iguanas in this small, well-kept park in the middle of the city. Big iguanas, too - they look like dinosaurs. Or dogs, as sometimes they lay sprawled out with their legs splayed out behind them, changing positions only to scratch themselves around the ears. They also lie in trees and on roots and fight over food in comical fashion, just like on Isla Iguana. To top it off, the oldest cathedral in Guayaquil sits in the background, complete with giant stained glass "centerpiece" where a clock would be, and a statue of two boars fighting sits in a corner of the park as well, which is just badass.
- Sacajawea dollars. Equador, much to my surprise1,, uses gringo dollars, which could be a reason alone why it's great (not that I care about the dollar in particular - I just like not getting gouged by money changers). But far better than the US dollar is the fact that the Ecuadorians throw around Sacajawea dollars like candy. Let's face it, coins are way cooler than bills: they jingle, they have heft, you can do coin tricks with them, and throwing them to a bartender and saying, "Sorry about the mess," is far slicker than if you have to scatter a few pieces of paper on the table and hope somebody doesn't slam the door too hard and cause them to fly off in the wind. Alas, the Sacajawea dollar never caught on in the States, but I feel like I have a joke about it with my brother, so that makes it cool both legitimately and ironically, and thus its place on the list.2
- Cleanliness. Probably not as good as godliness, but since it's even rarer than godliness in large Central American cities, it wins a spot on the list.
- Statues. Maybe it's the Roman scholar in me, but I love a good statue, so Guayaquil's abundance of them was quite pleasing. First off there were the two spiky boars fighting; then there was the general looking regal; and finally there was the extremely expressive interpretation of Guayaquil's independence, which contained symbolism so obscure and in quantities so vast it'd make an art history major weep. But it also contained the gamut of human emotions in statue form, which trumped the need to understand it on an intellectual level, so it wins points.
- No Montezuma. Or maybe there's some other indigenous Ecuadorian leader who takes his revenge, but we did not feel his fury. Which is luckier than it sounds, because every time I travel, I say that I'm going to follow the food rules of traveling, (especially when I'm out for competitive exercise and need to be tip top). You know, don't eat any fruit you didn't peel yourself, no vegetables washed in local water, no seafood, etc. Naturally I broke all of those almost immediately, and apparently just as naturally, to no ill effect. Good thing, too, as Ecuador has produce even more varied than Panama, I do believe, and certainly far cheaper. Carton of raspberries for a dollar? Yes, please. Fruit I've never heard of grown only in the Andes that's related to the passionfruit? I'll take it3. Sweet cucumber that tastes nothing like a cucumber? Give me another.
So that's Ecuador/Guayaquil in seven lovely bullet points. Might have to go back to see the rest of it...
1 - My first conversation with a non-customs Ecuadorian went like this: "Do you accept dollars here?" "Yes." "Ok, but what's the principal currency?" Thinking that maybe they take dollars but principally use quarfarkian pesos or something. "The dollar." "Like, gringo dollars?" "Yes, North American dollars." Perfect.
2 - And for those keeping score at home, yes, I did try to use a Sacajawea dollar in Panama, but I got sideways looks, so I took it back. Sacajawea dollars are damn cool, and if you can't appreciate them, well, you don't deserve to get them. Besides, we have the Martinelli here, which is a one dollar coin named after the president. I always feel like I'm going to lose them, though, as they are apt to go the way of loose change, except that in this case you'd be losing a dollar instead of seven cents.
3 - Wikipedia tells me it's called a "banana passionfruit." You can't just take the names of two different fruits and put them together, that's cheating.
And so, having spent all of about 15 hours in Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos, we left.
The park ranger asked us, "You're leaving already?"
"Yep, your park sucks!" we responded cheerily. No, we didn't really say that - I'm sure it's quite beautiful, when you can actually see it - but we decided that more fun could be had elsewhere (i.e., everywhere else in Panama). "Everywhere else," however, does not a good destination make, so I cracked open my Almanaque Azul and started perusing. The options were wide open, climatically speaking, since rain wouldn't rear its messy head (or shouldn't, Parque Omar Torrijos making the obnoxious exception). But still being wet and cold, we decided to start looking towards the coast and the searing littoral sun.
When I came across this entry under "Playa Los Azules":
"If you want to visit a remote beach with dramatic landscapes, this is the place for you. Although there are mansions nearby, this beach is not well known and is visited very little, due to difficulty of access."
Well. You don't run across an entry like that every day. Or ever. So of course we had to go.
We headed out of the mountains and entered the sunny tropics once again. Mountains and valleys gave way to hills, which in turn gave way to champaign. Colors once more shone brightly - a lake of a blue sky, expanses of green fronds, even the dry brown grass looked vibrant in that sun. It occurred to us that it would have made far more sense to just kip out in the middle of a field with tent or hammock and then drive the 20 minutes or so to the National Park, rather than camp in the park itself. Indeed, I've always wanted to look out across a landscape like that and pick a distant point on some hill and say, "There, that's my destination." And then I'd start walking and routing and rerouting and bushwhacking til I got to my arbitrary destination. At which point I'd probably have to camp out in the middle of nowhere. I think all of that would be very freeing; you would feel that you could go anywhere.
But we had beach business, so we kept on driving. Nonetheless, a pit stop became necessary: after all, it is watermelon season in Panama, and when you see melons like this one -
- all stacked in a big pile, like these ones -
- well, you have to stop and make inquiries, and probably purchases. Apparently we had stopped at a watermelon farm, since there was just a big open field of grass with a bunch of dudes off in the distance hunched around doing something, but at any rate which resulted in heaps of melons. I took in the air and the wide open panorama, feeling rather like I was in an equatorial Sergio Leone movie whilst waiting for the nice lady to come out, at which point we had the following exchange:
"How much are the watermelons?"
Pause. "Dame dos palos pues" - "Give me two bucks." Serious concern here for an exacting business deal, obviously. I peruse the gourds and select one.
"Take a bigger one," she says. Exacting business tactics indeed. So I grab the enormous melon pictured above and make off with it, wondering how in Zeus' name this fine exemplar of Citrullus vulgaris is going to survive the rest of the trip, much less the journey back to the city, and all in a hot car to boot (or in a hot boot, if you're English). On the other hand, if the damn thing exploded in liquid gourd shrapnel or otherwise got putrid, I'd only be out two bucks, so I left the fruit farm with my mind at ease.
Enough about fruit. We kept on driving and hit the Panamerican Highway, which we took in the direction back towards the city. We passed loads of vendors by the sides of the highway with great heaps of watermelons (ok, I lied about the fruit). It's quite lovely when you think about it: burning down the I-90, you don't exactly get the opportunity to stop and pick up some homegrown or homemade delectables. In fact you're quite far removed from everything on a six or eight lane highway, which in turn "necessitates" massive signs advertising gas stations and chain restaurants and the like. Quite ugly, all things considered. And then of course you have to be bothered to get on and off the highway in the first place (though that does make highway re-entry rather safer than the Panamanian peel-out-to-merge version of things caused by the lack of onramps...)
But we already had our roadside delight, so we continued on to a small town where we gassed, watered, and iced up before heading off into...nothingness. It's strange - here's a town with a modern gas station and nicely air-conditioned convenience store, and then five minutes away there's a dirt and gravel road. Sure, we passed through a much smaller, more rural-feeling town before getting to the boonies themselves, but the transition is abrupt all the same. We passed through by a big produce market, the small central plaza of the town, and hit the dusty gravel road amidst wide open fields.
At this point I made two mistakes. Well, the first I had already made, in that, when you're tired and cold and have been driving around a lot and spent most of your time setting up and taking down tents, and you're supposed to be on vacation (or at least arbitrarily submitting yourself to the travails of travel for the sake of finding fun and sun), you shouldn't go driving around more looking for hidden destinations that are frickin' hard to find. One must alternate the fun with the travails, after all. This had occurred to me in the back of my mind, but I also didn't want to miss the opportunity to hang out at a beach described as "remote" with "dramatic landscapes" when we were already so close. So the little voice of romantic adventure whispered to me, "Go for it! It'll be fine!" and thus we went for it. Which isn't the end of the world, after all, since you just have to patiently wait a little bit to find the fun and sun and romantic adventure.
Except that then I made my second mistake and turned the wrong way...
Next Time: Will our fearless adventures find the remote beach? Or will they give up, head back, and eat the entire watermelon in despair? Stay tuned to find out!
To reset the scene from last time: we're in a Panamanian National Park in the mountains, with gray crepuscular light quickly turning to black foggy darkness, whilst gusts of wind make merry with our tent, accompanied by that snapping plastic sound that big flags make, except cheap plastic sounding and not distinguished heavy cotton sounding. Fortunately we've got a visitors center right by our improvised campground, so we take cover there and see what's what.
Food, of course, is pretty high on the list of that which is what, so we check out the supplies we've brought for making fires and cooking food, both to use and to test out for efficacy. To whit: (1) two types of firestarter, (2) charcoal, (3) hatchet, (4) lighter, (5) matches, (6) one of those clicky lighter thingies with the long tube so you don't burn your hand, and (7) a mini grill (yes, this is indicative of the amount of crap we brought. I thought car camping would be easy, what with the huge amount of space and all, but apparently bringing back ups to your back ups' back ups makes finding stuff in the trunk rather difficult). Clearly a wood fire was out of the question, so we busted out the grill. Sadly, this came with various small parts that had to be put together, which I did posthaste, only enjoying the experience insofar as it gave me an excuse to use my multitool (a Gerber Suspension, for those keeping score). I'm always baffled by the people who say, "I use my multitool every day! I couldn't live without it!" when I find that mine sits in my luggage most trips. But then maybe those people are radio repairman working part time as motorcycle mechanics stationed in Zimbabwe where they ran out of real screwdrivers.
Anyways, grill, charcoal, fire starter bricklet, go. Ani, my faithful partner in adventure, and I have been eating a rather stricter diet (CrossFit, blah blah, exercise, blah blah, Paleo), which makes food preparation more difficult. That is, rice - or even better, dehydrated rice packed with dehydrated imitation boneless pork rib preserved by sorbitan monostearate (???) - just travels better.
It also does things to your intestines that your intestines are supposed to be doing to the food, however, so we stuck with packing in the meat, yuca casserole, spinach/sausage casserole, fruits, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and miscellaneous foodstuffs inside three coolers - four if you count the mini bag-like cooler that cools nothing and results in a brackish tarn of water floating your now putrid lemons. I personally don't, but whatever, the point is we were equipped to eat like Caveman kings (Cavekings?)
As we were munching on yuca/beef/tomato casserole and sipping wine, I realized that, in spite of a total lack of rain, and in spite of being under cover of the patio roof of the visitor center, everything we had was slightly wet. Not soaked, mind you, but a dash of rivulets covered the coolers, the food, the utensils, our bags, and the rest of the pile of crap we had trucked out of the car and to the camp site. This, my friends, is a little mountain phenomenon known in Panama as "bajareque," which I had always taken to mean "a light mountain drizzle," but which apparently means a "light mountain mist spontaneously generated in the air that never falls but rather transpires onto everything." Rather adds to its mystique, all told. Besides, it's fun to chant ("baja-RE-que, baja-RE-que!"), and it also happens to be my favorite Panamanian coffee, so I was feeling quite bajarequelicious (go on, chant it, you know you want to).
Other than for the fact that all the gadgets and gizmos were now getting wet and/or rusted. Not to ruin the surprise, but this would be a theme of the evening.
By now it was getting late (well, outdoors late, all off 9:30) since the casserole had taken so long to lukewarm up in our little grill, so we started throwing the valuables in the tent and trying to cover up everything not made of plastic to protect it from mountain damp. We hunkered down in our comfy sleeping bags and pretended that we were having fun and didn't want to be in the cabin, or better yet, on a nice sunny beach.
And then the rain started.
Light mountain mist, spontaneous humectation, bajareque - call it what you will, it was a thing of the past, now replaced by out and out water.
"Is it getting in the tent?"
Pause for contemplation. Should we go outside and stow everything better? If the bajareque could defeat roofs, surely a Panamanian downpour would rout them.
"Just move the important stuff away from the edges of the tent. The water's mostly there."
And back to sleep.
Sleep is of course a strong word, as it really involves varying states and gradients. I do believe I entered from time to time a state on the deeper end of the gradient scale that would properly be called sleep, but then the wind would blow and the tent would whack me in the head, rousing me and causing me to roll over into a pool of water (I swear I was on the downhill side and had the bigger lake; thankfully the sleeping bags and an isomat my brother had provided us were pretty solid ground cover). Then it was back to rolling around, trying to find a dryish spot on the isomat whilst not laying too hard on the shoulders whilst not spreading my legs wider due to the sleeping bag. Tricky business, all in all, but I was more preoccupied with the state of our kit: we had piled most of it in between us in the middle of the tent, but of course the peak of the tent had a mesh "skylight" that was covered by a piece of plastic that attached to the poles on the outside so as to simultaneously offer "ventilation" and "rain cover." It certainly ventilated the rain well, making sure only the finest drips got in and landed on our pile.
And back to sleep. Denial is a beautiful thing to the weary.
Somehow we managed to "sleep" (don't worry, the air quotes will stop soon) til 8 or 8:30 - an eternity in a camping situation. We reviewed everything and found it, if not in pristine order, then at least in working condition. My lack of preparedness baffles me, by the way. I used to be obsessed with waterproofing my gear on travels, putting the important effects in multiple Ziploc bags; the bigger valuables and electronics went in waterproof bags1; anything that needed protection from dampness got wrapped in a plastic shopping bag; and everything then got thrown in garbage bags. As you may surmise, this strategy got tiresome when it came time to remove any given item from my pack, and indeed, it was mostly youthful traveler's naivete that caused me to do it, since I read about this method in The World's Most Dangerous Places, which was fairly obviously talking about packing for Bornean jungles. But hell, for my first big trip, when I went to Asia, it at least made decent sense: Viet Nam's no Borneo, but it ain't no Mediterranean seaside resort neither. And in retrospect, it did pour rats and unconsumed dogs there, at least in the mountains; rather like Panama, now that I think about it, except with less obsession with avoiding the rain and more obsession with umbrellas. Thing was, I did about zero travel in jungles and wild areas and stayed in cities with hotels and hostels, so the waterproof never really showed its true value. And then I started traveling in Mexico where it rarely rained, even in the Yucatan (though I may have been there in the dry season...the things you learn living in the tropics), and both times I traveled in Panama, it most certainly was the dry season. So I got tired of digging through six bags to get out my toothbrush and got comfortable in the knowledge that I would hardly ever get wet, much less the crap I had stuffed in a bag.
Having nearly lost a cell phone here on a three minute motorcycle ride, and having damaged multiple paperbacks, I can say with assurance that that knowledge was wrong.
Fortunately, irony was not feeling too cruel, so we escaped with minimal damage. But as we surveyed the terrain (i.e., the fog enclosing us), we realized that it was highly unlikely that the day would clear up and allow us to take in any mountain vistas. The trails, moreover, would be a soupy mess that would lead us right back to where we started - in the middle of nowhere, only now colder and wetter and with no sightings of blue-bellied yellow-livered bonking thrush to show for it. Plus swimming in a waterfall sounded downright unappealing, even one with so hilarious a name as Chorro Las Yayas. As we carried our impedimenta to the cabin to cook breakfast, I could see in Ani's eyes that we found out about all we had needed to know about Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos (the look in her eyes and the fact that she wasn't getting excited about coffee and breakfast - I'm not sure I've ever seen her be unenthused about those things).
And I had too. I was actually having a ball, in spite of all my poetic descriptions of tent misery - I like that feeling of being wet and cold and tired and destitute, all the while working bit by bit to better the situation and endure. If there's been a theme to my travels and adventures - and the theme to a book about them, I suppose - it would be about what is possible to endure. Not in the Shackleton sense of Antarctic endurance or what have you, as I'm apparently too level-headed (i.e., scared) to go forth and mount a dangerous expedition; but rather in the sense of a slow opening of the door into the possibilities of what one can take as a passive observer (I suppose that passivity precludes mounting expeditions as well). That description sounds more dramatic than it is, but on the other hand, it has allowed me to have no real fears of being poor or lost or outside the pale of a settled civilization or inside the pale of a violent civilization. Each trip and each experience, whether hiking high points in New England with no gear and almost no water, or hitchhiking Central America and Mexico with almost no money, gives me a little more experience, a little more leeway to say, "Oh, well that wasn't so bad." I have no illusions that those things were technically difficult or beyond what anyone could do given the necessity, but it's nice to remind yourself every once in awhile that you can lay down in a pool of water on a mountain and mutter, "It could be worse," and go back to sleep peacefully.
Having considered myself reminded (and having failed to realize that in the area there's an organic farm where they use hand tools, and the wreckage of the plane that Torrijos died in), I didn't see much need to stick around, so we prepared to make tracks...
Next time: To The Beach!
1 - NOT waterproof, by the way. Thanks a lot OR - that'll teach me to swim from Isla Grande to the shore with an electronic key inside your crappy equipment that I may or may not have been using outside its intended purpose.
So I lied that I would throw out three posts last week, which I'm sure was a huge disappointment to all, but that was only because I was doing blog background research (i.e., preparing for and going on a trip) so that the contents of the posts would be more fascinating than gymnasium beer-drinking and chocolate cake transportation. Actually, on that note, I plan on starting up a travel guide site in the near future, which will contain advice and details on traveling in the Panamanian Interior, as well as stories of the adventures that resulted in having such advice and details. I want to make sure it has a strong theme and clear perspective (somewhere between the specificity of "tracking the blue-bellied yellow-livered bonking thrush in the province of Herrera" and "traveling in Panama"), so any feedback on what people want to know about this country and traveling inside it would be greatly appreciated.
So as to offer the highest in random-ass story quality, I went to two places this past weekend that no one in Panama goes to, the first being devoid of visitors due to in fact sucking, the second due to its obscurity. The two places could hardly be more different - climate, elevation, ecology, you name it - and in fact only have in common their unvisitedness, but they lay no more than two hours away from each other. That's one of the nice parts of an isthmus I suppose: everything is close due to extreme narrowness. Coast-jungle-mountains-jungle-coast, ascending and descending thus. Apparently Chile is the same way, though with half the coasts, and likewise Ecuador, though it's not as skinny as Panama or Chile.
And indeed, even traveling the country lengthwise, obscurity is never far away. Our first destination was Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos, which is perhaps three hours from the city - not exactly at the ends of the Earth. I knew basically nothing about the national park, other than the fact that it's named after a Panamanian dictator/revolutionary leader of the people, depending on whom you ask, and that it looks big on a map. In the three or four Panamanian travel guides I've perused, I've only seen it mentioned in one or two of them, and then only to say, "Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos exists," sometimes remarking that it has camping and trails; 5 minute Google searches, moreover, have turned up no trip reports or anything. Which struck me as good signs: it's a big park with the potential for long hikes leading to epic views and econaturesonation business, and off the beaten path to boot.
But then I discovered even more information in the form of a real travel guide called Almanaque Azul (Blue Almanac). Researched and written by Panamanians, it's what I would consider, if not the optimal format for a travel guide, at least a far more useful example of the form. Look, I know Lonely Planet and Frommers and Moon Guides and Fodors and all those other lovely people have to sell their shit, and I know that most people buying their shit are looking for info on hotels and restaurants and tours and guides and sites - that is, looking for someone to hold their hand whilst vacationing - which is fine. Those can be great trips. Unfortunately, that being the travel guide business, we are left with no decent sources of information on traveling to more challenging destinations (think The World's Most Dangerous Places, only less war zoney and more specific). Yes, I realize the irony of asking for info on the unknown - if there were more info, it wouldn't be unknown, and in fact everyone would be visiting the now-known unknown - but I happen to like people to give me directions so I don't have to waste lots of unpaid time wandering around asking people. Yes, I've spent literally days waiting around for a guide to show up so I could ask him how I could cross from Mexico to Guatemala, but I was sleeping in hammocks and on Mayan ruins and had no particular obligations other than the ones I had made up for that day/week/trip, so it was all gravy. Now, however, I could drive down one of those two lane roads that jut off at regular intervals from the Panamerican Highway to see what there is to see, and I plan on it, but good weekend vacations such strategies do not always make.
Which makes having a modicum of guidance useful, particularly if that guidance is implicitly accepting of getting ones Converses a bit dirty. To whit: the Almanaque Azul contains some info on camping for most of its destinations (e.g., if there are a lot of mosquitoes, if the tides are going to wipe out your erstwhile campground, etc.), as well as fairly specific directions to those destinations - including walking directions. For a travel guide, that is mind blowing. "Take a taxi, or follow this road for 10 km, or about an hour." That is priceless (actually I think it was $5.99 on my Kindle), and rare for any country.
Naturally the Almanac told us exactly where to turn off the highway, to the point of specifying three different landmarks, as well as what camping facilities and hiking trails there were. When I read this section, it gave me a bit of pause, as none of the trails were longer than a few miles, which would rather preclude epic hikes. But the park is big, so I figured there'd be some game trails or cowpaths or one of those mazes of abruptly starting and stopping and twisting dirt paths that always confound me, but which a local could surely guide us through, plus there's a waterfall to splash around in. And of course, there's always that draw of a place where people don't go. You have to ask yourself, if there's a clearly marked national park, with signs and facilities and lots of nature to frolic in, what keeps people away? That's how you find secret gems.
Or you find out firsthand why people don't go there - and it ain't cuz it's out of the way. Sure, it's a bit off the Panamerican Highway, and the last 20 minutes or so require 4WD, but those reasons aren't the stuff of impenetrability. No, I could see the reason why Omar Torrijos might not be considered a gem from several miles away: as we were ascending the mountains through gorgeous evening light striking the verdant foliage, cyclopean rock formations, and jutting valleys, I thought I could see in the distance some seriously gray clouds over the mountains towards which we were headed. Well.
You have to understand something about Panamanian climate to really get the country. For 8-9 months of the year - that is, 66-75% - it rains. Hard. Not every day, and not all day, but most days there's precipitation, and most days that precipitation is fairly significant in either its force or duration, and often both. This is a Pain in the Ass. Walking across the street ruins your footwear, traffic gets worse as the city sewers fail to drain and rivers form across the streets, motorcycle travel becomes decidedly unpleasant (not to mention the I-just-swam-the-Canal look you get going on afterward), and basically, it's impossible to plan any extended endeavor outdoors. Which makes camping and beach trips and travel difficult to plan.
Except during the other 3 or 4 months, that is, when the rain ceases, the country dries up, and the sun makes merry with gringo skin, the way God intended the tropical sun to do. During this Panamanian "summer," cruising the Interior with tents and hammocks and grills is a great way to go. Unless of course you go to el Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos, where someone forgot to tell ecology that it's summer. I blame God.
Stepping out of the car at the ANAM ranger station, we noticed that it was a bit nippy, a nippiness which was quickly turning into chilliness. Not to mention windy. Not to mention gray. Basically, if you can imagine a tropical Scotland, you've got the idea of what it was like.
Well we were here to do some camping and communing with nature, dammit, and a little bit of inclement weather would be no obstacle! The park ranger opened the cabin for us to use for free, but that would have not been rugged at all, so we decided to see how our twenty dollar tent would hold up in the wind. (Actually it cost $15.99 on sale, but I feel that its original price is more reflective of its quality - as I like to call it, the best sixteen dollar tent money can buy). It immediately brought me back to childhood family vacations, putting down the trusty blue tarp as a ground cover with rocks on top to keep it from flying away; bending those crazy segmented tent poles, hoping they and the elastic string holding them together don't snap; pounding tiny little stakes into the ground, expecting them to be pulled out of the ground at the next big gust; and so forth. The rocks holding the tarp down went on top of the stakes and strings as well to keep the whole rig in place, which seemed doubtful; but I was relying on my childhood memories of the tent always seeming like it was going to blow away, which it never did.
Those tents probably never cost sixteen dollars either. Should be an interesting night...
Next up: Caveman cooking! (and how our plucky heroes survived the night, and what they did in Parque Omar Torrijos [hint: not much])
It's been nigh a year sans blog post, so we'll get three snarky ones up in the next week just to show how easy it is to make fun of stuff on the Internet and feel smug about it. This in turn will be the start of a grand project to say something that's not just easy snark (i.e., actually say something). I recently read what started out as a humorous article poking fun at Go-Gurt, but as I kept reading, I had this sneaking suspicion that the article wasn't actually funny at all, as Go-Gurt pretty much wins the award for a Thing Most Easily Made Fun of. Which meant I was reading jokes that were cheap and easy and that had nothing to do with anything (I mean, do you really have put much analysis into why putting processed sugar with traces of lactose into a plastic tube is a terrible idea?)
I recently went to the International Panamanian Beer Fest, which was significantly less epic than the name would suggest (ok, snark first, then substance). But seriously: it took place in the Atlapa Convention Center, but the Fest itself was inside a giant open room that felt like a high school gymnasium, complete with plastic tables and fold-up chairs. There were a bunch of vendors selling beer, which was fine except that most of the beers were ones you could get at the German style bars in the city, at the grocery store, or at any bar anywhere in Panama. The festival was International insofar as Panama is an international city and thus has imports, but I don't believe anyone came from another country specifically to attend the Fest, which makes the title "International" a bit disingenuous if you ask me. So there everyone was, shouting over bad rock music in a school gym atmosphere, drinking the beer they always drink, and standing in line a lot, and well, I thought, that's Panama for you.
However, several good bits to the evening stuck out.
1) Good company
2) A display of the biggest ATVs I've ever seen (sadly no pictures)
3) The biggest beer jugs I've ever seen (though I can't say I've seen a lot of beer jugs)
Here's the drinking vessel:
And here;s some of the good company with the outsized beer bottle (this could have only been better if I could have captured all three in one pic - girl with beer bottle on giant ATV. Oh missed opportunities).
(No camera picture is too blurry for this blog, by the way. If it's good enough for Bigfoot, well, it's good enough for me).
The other thing that struck me was that, in spite of the festival itself not being terribly international in the organizational sense, the human milieu was quite the opposite. Looking around, I realized that I probably couldn't accurately identify the country of origin and/or heritage of more than 15% of the room. Panama itself is extremely diverse anyway - after all, it's the connection between two continents and, due to the canal, the connection between two hemispheres. Indigenous Indians combined with Latin mestizos of some European descent combined with black creoles of some Caribbean descent combined with Asians of all descents - there's no one typical Panamanian look. Add to that the many expatriated Venezuelans, Colombians, gringos, and Europeans, and you've got a wild blender puree of looks, cultures, and heritages. I wonder if the non-existent "typical" Panamanians feel like they're swimming in a cultural smoothie, or if they just see it as their country and that's that. Sounds like another blog post...
I've got a backlog of blogs (a blog of blogs?) to catch up, so without any notes or any real plan of how I'm going to structure this tale of adventure, water hoses and hogs, I begin.
First I believe a description is in order of what los Carnavales entail exactly for those who haven't experienced it. Even I'm not sure about it all, but here's an outline of what it looks like to a gringo on the fringe:
1) Leave the city for four days unless you're poor, have to work, or just don't give two hoots (or are two gringos who just showed up and didn't realize that Carnaval in the city is lame).
2) Buy a lot of beer. Put it in a cooler with a ton of ice. Tote cooler around everywhere, ignoring signs that say "no cooler." Use the word "cooler" like it's Spanish.
3) Stand in a very long line Panamanian style waiting to drag your cooler into the "culeco," which as far as I can tell is just the central area where everyone hangs out, but which sounds incredibly dirty to me ("culo" is "ass," but naughtier).
4) Get patted down by police, have them check your cooler, wonder what they're looking for, and then pay people to let you take the cooler in. Pay more if you have foreign beer.
5) Enter the culeco, drink a lot. Toss any half-finished beer if it gets warm and get a fresh one from the cooler.
6) Pick your way through the crowd, trash, and puddles on the ground to get to the front of the culeco. Hang out there, dance, drink, listen to reggaeton at ear plug-bypassing levels, and get sprayed by hoses of firefighter proportions from tanker trucks full of water.
7) Recess from the culeco in the afternoon so they can set up for the parades. Don't stop drinking unless you absolutely have to pass out for a bit so you can make it to the night (then it'll be easy to stay awake).
8) Head back to the culeco and watch the parades. These involves floats of giant gladiators, tropical birds, trucks loaded with bleachers on which bands play the same Carnaval songs with a heavy instrument bias towards brass and percussion, and trucks with daises on which stand and wave beautiful teenage girls, most of whom have braces. Don't waste any time thinking about sexual exploitation, developing a culture of objectifying women, or teaching lessons to young girls.
7) Follow the floats around, drink and dance more, drink coffee, eat greasy food (this is Panama after all), etc. Do this through the night. Don't sleep, even if you have a place, which you won't, since everyone's friends of friends of friends are crashing the same house.
8) Take a break around 10 AM, sleep for a few hours, then head back to the culeco.
9) Wash (figuratively - you think there's time for showers?), rinse (literally - yay water hoses), repeat.
Wow, I'm proud of that list, I don't think I exaggerated once and still managed to paint the ridiculous picture that one sees all through Panama. Now before you call me a prude, you better call me a hypocrite first because I merrily participated in the shitshow. And before you say that this only happens in Las Tablas or Penonome or the big cities or whatever, know that splashing people with water Carnaval-style is universal: we'd be driving on rural roads that absolutely no one takes but touring gringos, and there'd be these kids by the side of the road with water guns shooting at us. Or in the tiny mountain town where they flung buckets of water at Dave and soaked him and almost caused him to run a kid over. Small scale soaking for a small scale place.
So, now that we've seen Carnaval, the trip. It began like any good trip begins: we said, "That over there looks cool. Let's go check it out." And we did.
The trick to travel is to have a few things you know you know you're going to do, a couple of things or places you might want to do or go see farther down the road, and enough initiative to let that plan go to hell if the vagaries of the road call for it (which they will). Likewise, we had a windsurfing appointment for Dave at a beach about an hour and half from the city, a few friends to see in cities farther off, a solitudinous beach way far off that sounded cool, and lots of time to mess around along the way. So we left.
At the silly hour of 5:30, which I would normally have been fine with, except that I slept about two hours the previous night. Perfect time to hop on a motorcycle and drive in the dark on roads you've never been on before, at speeds you've never driven at before. It took me til about the second day to realize that here I am wallying off on this vehicle that I started driving about three months ago, flying headlong into the inferno of drunk Carnaval drivers, highway driving, and highway traffic - no interstates here.
But such thoughts do not great adventures make (you can justify anything if you use enough Yoda voice). Besides, it's impossible to fall asleep on a motorcycle, and only once in the trip I even felt remotely tired whilst driving. True, I got off that morning and nearly fell over from inarticulate body tiredness, but you don't lose points for looking stupid after you get off, only for being stupid while on the bike.
At any rate, we got out of the city and headed to Punta Chame, where we were greeted by this sight.
(That's not nearly as impressive or beautiful as it was, but I feel less bad about my lame photography skills after Googling Punta Chame images and getting nothing better). Where I promptly went crashed out on the beach and went to sleep.
I came to realize two things during that nap. First, I realized that the tropics are absolutely beautiful in the morning, but their beauty diminishes as the day passes into the afternoon, regaining their vibrant color and life in the evening once more. In the afternoon, the sun shines too hard and everything is sweltering - it's hard to breathe, the air doesn't move, and the light is too bright and dulls the colors of the surroundings (as you can see in the above picture - it was probably about 11 AM and already starting to heat up). But in the morning, ah, there the sun shines pleasant strong, highlighting the blues of the ocean and sky, the greens of the trees, the Crayola palette of the flowers, and the browns of the earth.
And indeed, there was a huge amount of brown to be seen everywhere in the countryside. It was quite surprising, though I suppose it shouldn't have been: it is the dry season after all, and hasn't rained hardly at all in the city at least for months. But everywhere we went, there were leaves on the ground so brown you could hear them crunch. Yellow grass, bare trees, dry dusty soil - it looked like a late autumn Indian summer in Ohio with palm trees. Which I found rather trippy myself, but it was beautiful.
But we hadn't gotten to that part of the country yet - we were still beachside, where I had my second realization. I was lying there sleeping and using for a pillow my pack, which I had brought in case I needed a book, swimsuit, fast cash to buy a yacht, or, well, a pillow. I had no shirt on, and my old dirty Chucks that took me up Vulcan Baru were lying next to me (perfect for fire hose water Carnaval lakes in the culecos). I imagine I had the windswept look going on with my hair, as well as the look of someone who hadn't slept the night before and who had driven in the humidity for several hours. So it shouldn't have been surprising when I briefly woke up and saw two guys eyeing me suspiciously, fell back asleep, and then saw them again as they woke me up: "Everything cool?" "Yeah," I said thickly as my brain functioned and refused to respond in English, "Estoy dormiendo." Idiots. I hate when people wake me up unnecessarily to point out something stupid like the fact that I'm sleeping. Yeah, moron, I know, I'm doing it for a reason. I'm sorry you feel the need to assert yourself and point out this state that's making you so uncomfortable, but check it, sleeping isn't just for beds. Which is why I respond with something equally obvious and insipid like telling the person I'm sleeping, hopefully in a lightly mocking tone that gets the point across ironically that I think their mental capacity is approaching that of a seven-toed sloth (apologies to the seven-toed sloths of above average intellect).
Anyway, what I realized was that, in spite of traveling via motorcycle instead of someone else's car or (horrors) a bus, I'm still basically a grungy backpacker who looks like a hippie and who looks like he needs a bath and a hot meal. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, if I'm keeping it real or am a failure from the perspective of a life development coach, but whatever. I have a motorcycle and drive it around an equatorial country like a filthy hooligan - if that doesn't plaster all arguments for more responsibility, I don't know what does.
But I wasn't done napping. We tooled around Punta Chame a bit, which didn't take long, and saw the Nitro City extreme sports center, which looked fairly low on the extreme scale, though we did see a dude wakeboarding with a kid and throw him really far into the water, which was a bit more extreme. My only question is, if there's no wake because it's done with a cable and no boat, is it still wakeboarding?
We headed back and decided that, while we could go to another beach, that would involve driving and finding it, whereas if we stayed there, we could sleep in these hammocks in the windsurfing center much more lazily. Which is what we did.
Before my gentle readers die of boredom, rest assured that it gets more Carnavally and crazy soon enough.
Fast forward ahead: road time, beach time at Santa Clara, barefoot beach run, soleus burning for days, sunscreen-less skin still not burning, more road time, getting dark, vying to get to our uncertain destination before nightfall.
Dave had a friend in Penonome whom we were supposed to stay with but who wasn't answering his phone, so Dave led us off and remembered where the house was. We show up, receiving a warm welcome from the friend's sister, but then get some bad news from the less warm mom: we can't stay there. Dude was asleep and Mom wasn't having any of it with this unknown guest nonsense. Can't say I blame her, there were forty people staying there already partying at all hours of the morning. It was a very nice house, but it wasn't built to accommodate that number of smelly human bodies at the same time by any stretch.
If I were a better travel writer (i.e., a wuss/exaggerator), I would have built up a dramatic situation of how tired we were (we were, we took naps on the lawn of this house), how scared we were of getting robbed during Carnaval at night (we weren't, that threat is just annoying, not scary), how lost and confused we were (we weren't, we were dazed and confused. Which makes me Matthew McConaughey. Hmm, probably only time in my life I'll ever call that one). But I'm not a better travel writer so I'm not going to feign concern - we had camping gear if the night had to turn boring, plus we were just looking at the stars from the lawn and BBMing people like mad looking for a place to stay. Mostly I was concerned at how bad my astronomy skills were, and how I started seeing so many orange stars ("Oh look, Mars! Oh, no, it's over there. Wait a minute...")
Eventually the friend woke up and brought us into the fold. Which of course was awkward since we had just been kicked out of the house by the matriarch about a half before, particularly for me being the friend of the friend, but whatever: I've brought so much awkwardness with me whilst traveling that it's practically a part of my luggage. My constant carry-on that reassures me that I'll always have a new blog post.
Everyone was fairly partied out after the previous night, so they didn't head into the notorious Carnaval of Penonome, which suited us, having started the day at 5:30 that morning. Thus an impromptu karaoke party started, which involved a huge range of music, from traditional Mexican songs to Michael Jackson to reggaeton to "Baby Got Back." Dave went to sleep and so I sat there drinking quietly, watching all these people whom I had just met sing ridiculous songs.
And it was fun. It was sort of like this rare glimpse, not into the life of someone else, but rather into a moment or situation, a family reunion. And to see the dynamic of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and kids and everyone not quite knowing each other but with a close relationship here, a friendship there, and all drinking and singing together and thus breaking down the barriers of discomfort such that discomfort never seemed to be a part of the equation in the first place. It was warm and cheerful. I liked it.
Then, to keep with the theme of the day, I went to sleep in a hammock.
I know I'm promised more excitement and delivered Granny singing "Auld Lang Syne," but I promise that my next promise of excitement won't be broken. I promise culecos y culos. And if you're not a Spanish speaker and that joke wasn't funny to you, pay more attention next time.
The blog's had a bit of a hiatus due to a whole lot of unbloggable things happening to me (in the sense of really boring to read about, not in some cool scandal sense). But Carnaval just ended, which for this guy involved a four day motorcycle trip going hither and thither and other archaicly adverbial ways to the Interior of Panama. To put it mildly, it was epic. Scandalously so. Which means that there will be much of bloggery.
Before I get to that, however, there's something on my mind. Namely police. The police just love me here. They love to stop me, ask me where I'm from in horrible English, look at my license, read my license plate to their friends over the radio like it's a hot chick's phone number ("Miguel" is the Panamanian phonetic code for "M," in case you were wondering, which goes nicely with NATO's "Mike"), check to make sure my lights work (they don't, but the brights do, suckers), and generally look at me like they're disappointed I don't seem more criminal. Someone must have boosted a blue motorcycle or something because I got stopped twice today alone but for like two minutes total. The one guy didn't even look at my license, he just saw I had what well could have been a library card and waved me on.
Which is good, because if they want to give you beef, they're going to. For example, about a day into the trip, my buddy and I turned off the Panamerican Highway to some mountain road. We drove about five feet past the turnoff, stopped, confirmed that it was the road we wanted, and cut back across to the turnoff. We stopped to gas up, at which point we were accosted by two officers of the law.
"License." Ok, here ya go bub. "International license?"
"Uh, no, you don't need one." Idiot. Technically a U.S. license only counts for the first three months you're in the country, but so far no cops have bothered to enforce this law. Either way, an international license is an absurd thing to request in a country where you can own a car or motorcycle or submarine or whatever on a tourist visa.
"You can't cross the highway like that. You have to go down and turn around at the designated spot."
There was about zero traffic at this point, and the Panamerican isn't exactly an eight lane interstate, not to mention the fact that we flitted like butterflies on the bikes. When I try to turn my semi around in the middle of the highway, then you may cite me.
I started to protest, but the surly officer cut me off: "Next time." Well. I'm glad we had that conversation.
The next time, however, I wasn't so pleased the way the conversation went. On our last day out, we were struggling valiantly to put in kilometers and get close to the city, all the while going through long lines of traffic and resisting mightily the temptation to stop at whatever bakery looked interesting. At any rate, everyone was headed back to the city, which created massive gluts of cars on the same roads as they got choked up in towns or turnoffs. There are a lot of highways in Panama, so pretty much everyone takes the same routes at the same times.
Fortunately, the bike helps with that. Zippity-do-da and you've darted around all those unwieldy contraptions. Which we did with aplomb, as is our custom, we who navigate the city and its impossible traffic with quotidian frequency. Unfortunately the cops didn't get the memo that that's how you drive a motorcycle in Panama.* Thus it was that we arrived at a major turnoff and were flagged down by the poli.
Now I make fun of the cops in Panama a lot for how they basically stand around in the shade all day by the side of the road doing...nothing. I thought that very thought about 73,000 times on this trip, apart from the little chuckle I share with myself everyday driving down the Cinta Costera where there are these bike transit chicks doing nothing but watching. I mean, if you aren't in your vehicle when Speedy Gonzalez passes by, how are you going to catch him and cite him with the worst Mexican accent ever? You're not, that's how. What you are going to do, however, is radio ahead to your friends and tell them to stop the short guy with the fantastically skinny mustache and massive sombrero and inform him that he was clocked doing 90 culturally offensive faux pas an hour.
Sadly we didn't have any fantastic facial hair to give us away, but they did stop us at the intersection due to a radio call from their compañero that their were two guys on motorcycles driving like hooligans. Or crossing a double yellow line. Or speeding. Or something. Possible all of the above, but the point was that we had to wait for this guy to come and write us a ticket.
We played the no Spanish card, which was honestly the most challenging part of the whole endeavor. To pronounce Spanish so awkward bad was like scratching nails on the chalkboard of my soul. In truth I don't think we would have been amiss speaking the language in that situation, since they weren't out to get a bribe and so we couldn't slow them down with ignorance, but whatever - I don't think we could have slowed them down no matter what. Their chillbro from back down the road pulled up and looked pissed. Must have missed his shade. He mentioned something about speeding, then changed his mind and left it at "manejo desordenado," which is basically reckless driving. Which sounds damn cool - I wish I could say that I had earned that in some sick peel out-wheelie-multiple donut way deserving of the name. Sadly I only cut through traffic like a man who wanted to sleep in a bed that night after multiple consecutive nights of hammocks and ground.
Dude was on a mission. He Blackberry messaged all our data to someone (that's about as Panamanian as it gets; I can't imagine another country where the BB network gets so much use), then used his little machine to print out tickets (my name is now my first name plus my Mom's address that's on my driver's license, such that I shall henceforth go by the appellation "Evanmohican"), all in less than 10 minutes. I'm still confused as to why all that nonsense about double yellow lines and speeding came up if he was indeed so intent on giving us a disorderly driving violation and really wasn't looking for a bribe. But if he was looking for a bribe, he's pretty much the worst grafter ever - he gave us like zero opportunity to offer up some green. All of which is fine, but I'm pissed: he ruined my immaculate ticketless driving record. In Panama.
That means the line to pay the ticket will be more painful than paying the ticket itself. Heads is gon' roll.
Clearly those guys weren't susceptible to gringo charm. Or logic (which maybe should be a clue that we really were breaking traffic laws and didn't have logic on our side. Still, in a country where stop signs involve optional stopping, I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to blaze through the surely byzantine tome entitled "Panamanian Traffic Code" or whatever so that I can forget it faster than high school geometry).
Other cops aren't so stubborn, fortunately. My personal favorite cop experience in Panama occurred on the trip at some obscure side road near a beach. I had stopped to star-stare and not be on the bike for a few minutes. It had been a long day of driving, and I still had a bit to cover to meet back up with my buddy, who had rushed ahead to meet up with some friends for Carnaval, and I wasn't quite ready to finish the drive. And ocean facing stars are nice.
And then the cops showed up. I was packing up the bike on the side of the road with no lights except my headlamp and basically no nothing at all nearby. I said, "Oh no," which is a pretty stupid thing to say aloud with police in hearing distance, but my tone of voice was already on the self-mocking ironic side. I mean, there's no way this was not going to get awkward, but by the same token there's no way I was going to let anything bad happen here, innocent as I was and surely always am. These are always the most fun times to talk to cops. It's like buying a used car: you know it's going to suck, you know you're going to have to deal with a lot of bullshit and bad haircuts, but at the end of the day you're going to get out of it fine. So I put my best gringo smile on and waited.
I was all ready to do one-legged pistol squats for them to prove my soberness, and contemplated requesting that we change locations to a place with a railing so that I could demonstrate pistol walking on a 2 inch beam, if they were having a slow night. But that wasn't on their minds:
"What are you doing here?"
"Heh, I was just meeting up with a girl." I winked rakishly. I figured if I played the manly chum card, it might go better than if I told the truth that I was stargazing. That would have just sounded like a lameass euphemism for smoking weed, which would have resulted in a search, which would have turned up nothing, but which would have resulted in me having to repack everything in the dark, most likely leaving behind something important like my dignity, or my traffic ticket (hah! Just kidding, I didn't have the latter yet, and never had the former). People always think I've got drugs on me; must be the long hair. One time two years ago I slept outside in Parque Omar in Panama and the cop who discovered me in the morning made me go through all my stuff, item by item, explaining to him why I had weird alien signalling devices (i.e., a bright silver space blanket), loads of unmarked pills (gotta take them malaria pills for a month after you're out of the malarial zone; does that make them postphylactic? Postprophylactic? The potential tense shifts are Murakamian in proportion), and other camping gear. And then on that same trip when I entered the States, the Customs officer was sure I was smuggling in pills. But no, check that in your pill encyclopedia, go through every single pill and confirm that yes, they are all indeed doxycycline and I'm not trying to get in that one last hit of Mexican ecstasy.
While I'm getting extremely unsequitured here, I have to continue here for a second because that reminds me of a conversation I had at a mini-rave at the beach at Venao. This girl was telling me about some bad trip her friends had. It went something like this: "And we were looking for E but I think we took K! My friends were like, 'This is weird, but did they give us?' And I was like, 'Well it was supposed to be E. But I'm pretty sure it's K!'" And then my head exploded in an alphabet soup of disbelief that such people exist and have such conversations.
Back to the story at hand. Stargazing, soul of a poet, lying, assignations, etc. At this point the good officer intimated to me the sketchiness of what I was doing - by the side of the road, in the dark, wearing no shirt - it's the tropics and I don't do shirts - doing who knows what. What could he do but stop me?
"Just packing up my stuff, officer."
"Ok, but the people here expect us to protect them. Like that property back there" - he gestured to the wall 15 feet behind me - "those people will get nervous with someone on their property." Whoa. Slow your roll. At this point polite happy Evan went to his special place and viciously logical Van came out.
"Ok, when I'm on their property, let me know," I said harshly. "Surely this is public property."
"Yes it is, but maybe we take you down to the station and review what's going on here."
Incredulous stare and chuckle: "Why?"
"Because it's dark."
Oh, well in that case..."It's night." I left that one hang there; happy impolite Evan had decided to make an appearance.
"Ok, just be careful, there's a lot of bad people out there." Then we had a nice conversation about how people think the Interior's safe and let their guard down, and then it's worse because there's no one around to help. I intimated my felicity that they were around to protect us foolish city folk. Then I drove off and laughed hysterically for several kilometers.
So you can see, the police here are a never ending source of entertainment. In truth, many of them are quite nice: I had pleasant conversations with a Kuna cop about San Blas and with another guy about last year's Carnaval and some Canadian who was driving drunk around the beach on his motorcycle and nearly wiping people out. And I feel no ire towards any of them who stopped me (well, minus those jokers who thought we ought to maneuver the highway on our bikes like we were driving armored personnel carriers). On the contrary, they would not be remiss in feeling ire towards me for Internet-immortalizing them in a blog depicting their foibles.
When I write a travel book and they make it in their, then we'll really be even.
*I actually have no idea if that's how you drive a motorcycle in the States. It's entirely possible that I'll return and drive like a savage and get a lot of strange looks/traffic violations.
I spend a lot of time pushing motorcycles around Panama City. I know what you're thinking: "Van, why don't you get on and drive instead of pushing?" I know, I know, the wheel was a great invention, but the internal combustion engine may surpass it by a teensy margin, depending on how hippie you are and how electric your car is.
Well my friends, I am neither hippie nor electric (kool-aid acid tested), but there are various aspects to the internal combustion engine that make it inferior to the wheel well-pushed, such as the need for, well, a combustible, as well as the need for various cables and switches and thingeemajiggers to be connected, flipped, and jiggered respectively. Allow me to explain.
Let's take last night, for instance. You're whipping around town, taking in the skyline, thinking mindlessly along (a true art), and accelerating much more rapidly than you're used to because you're finally getting the hang of this motorcycle thing (so long as it involves straight lines and minimal turning). But this need for speed creates a need for gasoline as well, which I'm guessing is not linearly proportional but probably logarithmic. Something like this:
Gasoline Required = Van's Need for Speed ^ 2.73
Except more detailed. The point is, driving faster than I had been previously caused me to burn through the petrol faster, so I hadn't filled up like a responsible adult. To be fair (to myself, who else?), the gas gauge doesn't exactly work, and inconveniently faces away from the driver's seat anyway, so knowing when to fill up involves some guessing. Or opening of the tank to look inside and do the eyeball gauge, but like I said, fuel maintenance responsibility hasn't yet made it on the priority list occupying my hindbrain like eating meat, or trundling off cartloads of women, or braking and swerving and honking simultaneously all have.
Fortunately I sputtered to a halt about 40 meters from a gas station, so my hindbrain's loitering in learning proper motorcycle maintenance was forgiven. Obviously it doesn't always happen this way. For instance, the first time I ran out of gas, I didn't know where the nearest station was, and I didn't know there was a mini reserve tank to give you another 50 miles of range either. So of course I asked where I could find the nearest petrol establishment, which wasn't that far, except that I turned down the wrong street and had to backtrack. Again, not so bad, except that I don't waste my time walking with a vehicle when I can run. Now, I say braggingly that when I train, I don't usually stop or slow for lack of air (which is really a complimentary way of saying that I suck too much at muscular endurance and thus have to stop or slow before air comes into the equation). So you can see that when I say that I was gulping oxygen like a fish out of water and possibly out of the atmosphere in outer space, running to push a motorcycle is taxing work. Especially up hills. And then you end up sweating massively inside your helmet (what else are you going to do but wear it? Eat it and store it in your intenstine?), which is just delightful.
Fortunately all of this ends at some point as you fly at 10 kmh into the gas station and ask gaspingly for five bucks of the orange. (Then they invariably ask you if you mean 91 since we're not in Mexico and no one has the charming habit of ordering gas by the color on the pump, and instead everyone just goes about it the normal way and orders by the octane). If gas is not the issue, however, then the pushing might theoretically never end.
My own Sysyphian adventure started when I left the bike out overnight in the safe(r) end of Casco instead of parking it in its normal indoor home. I had an appointment the next day, and when I went to collect my conveyance, I was pleased to see that it was still there. I was less pleased, however, when I put the key in and saw that the lights had been left on all night. Hmm. That didn't sound like me, but maybe my hindbrain wasn't as committed to headlight operation as I had thought. Either way, much to my lack of surprise, the electric start did nothing of the sort. I lowered the kickstarter and tried to nuke that thing as hard as I could. Nothing. Hmm. This was awkward. I had started her once with the kickstarter, so I knew that it took some mustard to get it going, but was I really being that weaksauce?
I called my friend who owned a motorcycle. "Put it in second, hold the clutch down, get it up to 20 kmh or so, then pop the clutch and it should start." This sounded like voodoo magic to me, but it also sounded cool, and I didn't really have a lot of options - or time - so I once again took off in a dead sprint of extreme slowness, pushing the bike. Hmm. I watched the speedometer climb like a bored spider and realized that I would never make it as a bobsledder. Undaunted by my newfound narrowing of career options, I began the push-run to the nearest "hill" I could think of, the baby by Relic that leads to the Cinta Costera for those in Panaman keeping score. I wasn't that close, however, so I got a nice general sweat going, as well as a went-swimming sweat inside the helmet. But I figured it couldn't be illegal to push a motorcycle the wrong way down one way streets since you're walking, not driving, and that strategy saved me some distance.
Finally I got there. I waited for traffic to clear, put it in second, and kicked off as hard as I could to get it going down the hill, which wasn't very. But gravity played ball and got me to the requisite 20 km/h, at which point I let the clutch out and felt a jump - she cranked once, then whined in lame protest, at which point I put the clutch back in to try it again, which in turn caused the wheels to lock up and give me sensations of sliding and wiping out. Fortunately those were only sensations, but unfortunately I was now at the bottom of the hill with a still unstartable motorcycle.
Welp, there was only one thing to do: push it back up the hill and try again.
Of course I ran up, and I thanked the hill for not being larger. I got her ready again and began floating down once more. And once more, a crank, a whine, and a pair of locked wheels. Well.
At this point I was getting a lot of looks, and as much as I like giving people a good show, there's only so much schadenfreude at my expense that I'm willing to countenance. I also didn't have a lot of hopes of the voodoo start method working, so I sat there in the middle of the street being generally ineffective.
A few minutes later, a rather burly, camouflaged cop came over (there's no military here, technically, so some police do wear camouflage). "What are you doing?" He seemed like he was going to be skeptical of any response I could possibly give, which was fine, I was pretty skeptical myself at this point.
"Battery's got no charge."
"Well just come over and use mine." This as if I was an idiot for not having thought of this earlier.
"Oh, really? That's nice of you, is your bike close?" It was. It didn't look like mine. There were lightning bolts on its side, and I did not doubt that the bike deserved them in a non-cheesy way.
The cop took his seat off, but then realized the battery wouldn't fit my bike. "Let me see it." He got his massive frame on my bike and proceeded to kick the living shit out of the kickstarter. Seriously, I thought he was going to break the damn bike - the frame was bouncing up and down, the shocks were absorbing brutal punishment, and the kickstand was getting jackhammered into the concrete. Still, if this man of excessive proportions couldn't get it to start with such kickstarter smitings, it pretty much cleared my mind that I had been giving it no-mustard weak sauce attempts at starting before.
The bike was still off, however, and my motorcyclical comrade informed that it was not due to a lack of discharged battery. At that point, I probably would have started pushing the damn thing around again, but fortunately his motorcycle knowledge exceeded my own by a fair margin. He looked under the gas tank and proceeded to grab a cable and plug it back in. Well. Guess I won't leave it outside over night again. He then started it in fine fashion. "What is it, a 125?"
"Yep," I said. "Yours?"
"530." (It may have been something else, I sort of glazed over after I heard the five hundred part).
I thanked him profusely and blazed off, getting up to a blistering 40 mph to get to my appointment on time. Well, I probably could have gotten going a bit faster on burly cop's bike, but then, I probably couldn't have gotten there at all and would have died in a massive explosion of awesome.
At least I drove and didn't push to get there.
I spent last weekend at the pleasant beach of Santa Catalina, the first two days of which I recounted here. For those just tuning in, I had spent a chilly night contemplating life, the moon, and why I insist on always being so minimally prepared in spite of all logic. Mostly the latter. But suns do rise, and even lazy beach bums follow suit, and so began day number three.
La Cucina Lenta
I wandered down to the little Italian/seafood restaurant that's part of the surf camp and that happens to be where the starving go to die in a special Tantalus-esque hell. Don't get me wrong, the food is lovely, but the service and more importantly the speed of delivery leave something to be desired. Namely you're left desiring decent service and speed of delivery that involves fractions of the clock and not multiples of it. Our first night in Santa Catalina, after seven hours on the road, we ate at the joint, which involved a lot of urgent thumb twiddling and clawing of the tables as various dishes came out to certain people, but not to others. And then when the last of our food did come, the three of us bit into pasta that could only be described as "al dente al dente - almost raw," as one guy put it. At the time I figured they had goofed up our order, and so in a rush to get it out to use, they took the pasta out of the water rather too soon. Little did I know that the restauranteurs there are never in a rush, and must just like al dente pasta, as it came out that way on other occasions. Or maybe they can't cook, who knows, but as I said, the taste was excellent.
Fortunately I wasn't ordering pasta for lunch and I beat the crowd, so I downed some fish in garlic sauce and headed back to the beach. Drinking and surfing were in full swing, and it was time to do a bit of both.
Surf and (S)unburn
Yes, I went on a surf trip and almost didn't surf. As soon as we got to Santa Catalina, I finally allowed myself to admit to that I don't give two hoots about surfing. People I meet on the road have been asking me since forever two questions: 1) Are you from California? and, 2) Do you surf? It's even worse in Panama, since everyone and their mother surfs. So maybe I just got sick of people asking and crossed my arms stubbornly just to show them.
Then again, I just can't see surfing as a useful endeavor to spend a lot of time on. You can't kill zombies with surfing (maybe with the board itself, but that's another skill entirely), you can't cross oceans with surfing (unless you're Polynesian), you can't make barrels of cash (unless you're a professional and have long blonde hair and are actually from California). Just think about the role you've seen surfing play in action movies (yes, action movie skills are the only ones that matter) - I come up with Brosnan's Bond surfing into North Korea to infiltrate a military base, which doesn't require any analysis to elucidate how ridiculous it is, and Keanu Reeves surfing in Point Break to infiltrate a gang of surfing bank robbers, which requires even less analysis to elucidate how ridiculous it is, if that's possible. Now don't get me wrong, I love Point Break, and the Bond surfing scene is actually kind of cool in retrospect (though those cuts are irksome - do they really expect us to believe he rode one wave all the way from the insertion point in the ocean to the beach with so many cuts? Cuz that's how waves work, right? And why are there tank traps and WWII-era concrete bunkers on the beach? Did the producers get North Korea confused with Nazi Germany? I digress), but I think you see my point. To my utilitarian mind, I find more diversion in lifting rocks or practicing shooting spear guns than in paddling out into the ocean and getting swept back in on a plank of wood.
I was also hesitating because I do believe I was waiting for a bit of instruction. But that's the thing about activities that are so culturally ingrained that everyone and their maternal unit does them - people just sort of assume you know how. It would be like in the States waiting for someone to teach you how to throw a ball before going to play a game of catch. No idiot, you just put the thing in your hand and make it go that way, and then when it comes back, try to get the thing back in your hand, or at least not in your teeth. Surfing's the same way here. One dude who has surfed since age fifteen tells people he doesn't surf because he means he's not the pimp shit surfer or something. But of course, for someone from a landlocked state, that's a rather considerable bank of experience, even if only as a hobby.
The upshot of all this is that when I went into the water with a borrowed board, I was still pretty clueless, and my nearby friends in the water had had rather too much to drink to simultaneously surf and instruct. So I laid around and observed and waited. And then waves would come and I would either a) get tossed about whilst doing nothing whatsoever or, b) get pushed under the water whilst trying to stand up. But then I received a bit of surf philosophy from one of the coaches at the gym, which I think applies to life in general:
"It's just a burpee."
If you don't CrossFit, that won't make any sense or be funny to you, which is tough luck for you because I'm not going to explain everything there is about burpees and why they are so valuable to human existence. The point is, a basic miserable exercise movement is the key to riding the waves, possibly metaphorically, certainly literally. Because then I stood up on the board.
Granted, I jumped off about .37 seconds later, but I now saw the process involved for this whole ocean endeavor. And it was fun. Was it drive several hours in a car and wake up at 4 AM fun, the logistics serious surfers undergo to play? Not for me, but I would definitely do it again.
At that point, however, I was questioning how irresponsible I could get away with being, as I had neglected to put on any sunblock before going out, so I headed back in. Much to my surprise, I didn't get burned at all - a little red here and there, but I've gotten worse discolorations in April in Ohio. It's always amazed me how weak the Panamanian sun is, in spite of the fact that we're here less than 9 degrees north of the equator in a tropical zone. In the city, I can go outside, work out, come back, and never notice the growing skin cancer; friends who visit laugh at my utter lack of tan. At the beach it's a little brighter depending on the hour - my arm got torched through a bare patch in the trees while I was hammocking - but one would expect rather more. Can't say I'm complaining! I'll take being white over worrying about sunblock and leprotic levels of peeling any day.
Eventually night fell and we headed for more epically slow Italian food - just to give you an idea, one couple ordered fish and found out an hour later that their food would not be arriving because there were in fact no fish to be ordered - and long day's night relaxation. Everybody was winding down, preparing themselves as well for an early surf session the next day. I, on the other hand, was just gearing up.
I went back to the cabanas and looked in the cooler - only thing left was a bottle of Chilean red. Well, it was that or nothing, so I chose that. Perfect. I proceeded to write my brother the longest email ever sent on a Blackberry, but even I run out of things to say at times, so I eventually I just sat sipping and listening to tunes. Unfortunately, sleepiness hit me like a truck, but I was having none of it: there was a perfectly good final night to enjoy at the beach with a perfectly good bottle of wine to finish with a perfectly good full moon to repose awash in. Sitting clearly was not going to work, so I arose, bottle in hand, headphones on ears, hour and a half long track of French rap on play, and empty beach in front of me. Then I started walking.
The night was rarefied, as if an unseen energy, cool and crisp, was being conducted just behind the visual spectrum. The temperature wasn't chilly but the night itself looked chilly; the moon shed a too bright white light. The most beautiful and Romantic moonlight is the silvery-blue that makes everything purple, like the first night at Santa Catalina or the night I spent in the Mayan ruins of Calakmul, and the eeriest and most lycanthropy inducing moonlight is the light Halloween orange that often occurs during the setting of the moon. That night, however, the moonlight was harsh and bright and aggressive - perfect light and clarity for a wandering adventure.
I walked on the sand, looking out at the bay and in towards the land, seeing no lights, no people, no signs of civilization. I walked with a bizarre purpose, as if there was a fate out there waiting for me around the bend, behind a rock, hidden in a shadow. But I didn't look for it in any of those places, but continued on without distraction, driven forth by the constant pounding of bass and unintelligible French and red wine.
Before I doubled the point, I looked back with surprise at how far off the lights of the surf camp were. All tiredness was gone, however, and so I went on, navigating the rocks rather awkwardly due to the brilliant footwear choice of sandals. After awhile I ran out of beach and looked for alternate land-based avenues to find the beach again. I went up a rise and crossed a stream, nearly losing a sandal to the amazing suction power of the mud. I shucked the sandals and went on barefoot through the rough grass. Attempting to swing back towards the ocean and hopefully concomitant beach, I turned down a rocky draw, seeing silvered ocean ahead. I descended and discovered that nature was teasing me: there was but more rocks and crashing waves here, with no decent stretch of sand for strolling.
At this point, I felt the tug of sleep once more, so I lay down amongst the rocks to rest my eyes for a bit. This worked surprisingly well. I don't know how long I slept for, but I felt refreshed when I awoke. Unfortunately, the bottle had fallen over in the meantime, which meant that I would have to return sans wine. I warded off the ensuing trepidation and steeled myself for a long journey.
Things were going well if slowly when I encountered a little point of rocks I had doubled around before, except that now the water appeared rather closer to the rocks than it had been when I had first passed by. Well tides do change, so I hitched up my shorts, protected my iPod, and made it around with minimal misting.
But then I saw where the tide was reaching up to on what before had been sandy beach and what was now turbulent water. I trudged on, but my suspicions soon came to be realized when I hit a point where I could go no farther without submerging myself and thereby the electronics as well. The lateral route it was. I headed inland again, but this time by climbing up a small wall of boulders. I continued on, ignoring the no trespassing signs, hoping for an easy route back to a clearer section of beach.
Naturally, this was not to be the case.
Before I go on, I should point out that Central Americans have a fascination with barbed wire, a fact I had come to know intimately while bushwhacking my lost self off a volcano in Nicaragua. In that particular instance, there were cattle and horses around, so it made some degree of sense, but in general, the location doesn't matter, barbed wire can and should go up. The sides of the road, the boundaries of a property, cutting arbitrarily through a property - no place is sacred.
Thus I wasn't terribly surprised when I encountered a barbed wire fence in my path. Well that was fine, I'd been there before. Heck, I didn't even have any pack to throw over like normal. Course, I also was wearing shorts and no shoes, but I wasn't going to let that bother me. I stepped up to the fence, bracing myself on various trees but not quite reaching the point where I could reach my leg over to brace myself on trees on the opposite side. I maneuvered slowly and delicately, but patience succumbed to muscular fatigue from holding myself in place for so long, and thus I finally planted my bare foot on the barbed wire fence, pushed off, and jumped down. Well, let's hope I don't have to do that again, I thought.
Unsurprisingly, I walked about fifty feet more before I did it again, this time rather more rapidly. Honestly, if you're going to put a barbed wire fence up, it should at least have enough barbs to serve its purpose. Otherwise, leave well enough alone and let me cross your damned property without having to engage in drunken gymnastics.
Eventually I made it back to camp and hammocked out for several hours, awaking fresh as a daisy. A muddy wilted daisy, perhaps, but I felt quite nice. Which left me ready for the long drive back to reality, where there are no waves to surf nor moonlight to bathe in nor hammocks to sleep in. Well, at least until the next long holiday weekend...
Twas a long Panamanian beach weekend, which felt like being on the road again, and that can only mean one thing: horrifically long blog posts. Let amused sniggering abound. Read on for more such amusement!
Long Roads and Landlocked Seafood Restaurants
Panamanians love holidays - there certainly are a boatload - and they love beach weekends, and so my turn to play the Panamanian came when the gang from CrossFit PTY took a surf trip to Santa Catalina, a secluded beach known for its waves about five hours from Panama City. I threw a hammock and board shorts in a bag and went along for the ride.
Now before I jump into the fun, allow me to emphasize the "ride" part. Five hours turn into seven when you're in a caravan of multiple SUVs full of hungry bored kids, which was fine because it meant we stopped to eat a lot - I fully support that project. Most notably we stopped at Los Camisones, a famous (or so they tell me) seafood restaurant on the road in the middle of nowhere. This became more notable when I ordered cuttlefish, which I assumed was, well, fish. Call me crazy, but when I hear a name, I make associations willy-nilly with the words that constitute that name. So for example, if I read "tibialzebra" on a menu, I'm going to expect to eat me some zebra leg, not horse ass.
Sadly, no one told the cuttlefish that it's not a fish but a mollusc. I'm sure it was as confused as I was when people gave me a hard time for ordering it. That said, it was pretty darn tasty. As would be expected of a cephalopod, the texture wasn't great, but it was cooked well enough and flavorful enough that I could mostly ignore that. Plus, now I can say I've eaten cuttlefish; as someone who enjoys new things, culinary or otherwise, the long lunch on the long road had already made the trip a success.
But let's cut to the chase. Beach.
As you can see, I was looking forward to some relaxation, looking around at beautiful scenery, and general mindlessness. That last is an acquired skill that I had finally learned to appreciate in San Blas, and I was happy to exercise my newly hypertrophied muscle of utter vapidity. I'm sure my friends on the trip thought I was an unhappy misanthropic git, but frankly after the sturm und drang of the last few weeks, a bit of antisocial lazing was the order of the day.
It was actually rather necessary the first night we arrived, as I had slept a grand total of two hours the night before, and not more than that in the car, so I wasn't going to last long with wicked partying. Thus I took my hammock and trudged off in the direction on the beach where there was nothing, leaving the tequila behind. I rigged the hammock up and crashed.
Now, you have to understand about sleeping in hammocks, especially about sleeping in hammocks that aren't the dedicated sleeping units, bed-like in their width and extension, that people keep in their homes (i.e., the kind that fit in your pack). There are about three positions to sleep in, none of them comfortable. The principal position is lying on the back, which is fine as it goes, but I invariably end up with my legs getting hyperextended at the knee due to the curve of the hammock and wondering why my legs are cracking so much the next morning, and why I'm walking like an asshole. I usually then flip over into a fetal position, but too much time spent there and various body parts invariably end up falling asleep in rather drastic ways, to the point where I question whether they'll function again. Arms, legs, feet - no extremity is sacred. And if all the appendages do manage to stay awake, the shoulders inevitably take a beating. You just can't take a mobile joint like the shoulder, put it on a moving surface like a piece of cloth, and expect it not to get torqued in and out of place. (I usually like to torque my joints in place, but maybe that's just me). You can try laying on the stomach, but you've got to have a pretty darn tight hammock to not get a hyperextended spine. I'm sure some joker somewhere will suggest that you lay with various limbs dangling off the hammock, but that's just a recipe for more numb limbs. In summary, sleeping in a hammock involves a lot of waking up and readjusting and being fatigued the next day.
So you'll understand how tired I was when I say that in these conditions, I slept twelve hours.
I awoke the next day to a lovely climate - somehow not too hot - and a lovely bit of sun, with surf striking the rocks below me. Santa Catalina has a long tide - warning: foreshadowing - and it was flowing across the beach quite pleasantly. I *could* have gotten up, but that would have been silly. I read a bit, looked at stuff, thought about stuff, thought about nothing, and basically comported myself like an invalid.
Delta Force Versus Tidal Force
Eventually such lassitude gives you a sort of white noise buzz demanding movement, so I did get up and wander back to camp. Everyone was wondering where the deuce I had been, at which point I told them and wandered off again, this time into the water to refresh myself and check out the point. For you see, there was an island in the distance, which immediately had become my goal: whenever I go to a beach and get bored, I always plan an epic swim to the farthest island within reason. This doesn't always happen, but it's nice to have an excessive adventure planned for when doing nothing gets old.
So I wandered out to see how far it would be starting from the nearby point, and it seemed reasonable, which I marked down in the mental notebook. Then I went back to marking down other tidbits in the mental notebook, like what I was going to do with a story I had been working on with my brother that had developed intractable narrative problems (the story, not my brother, though who knows, no one is safe in this postmodern world). But I sent those problems into traction by wandering aimlessly and swinging a lot of sticks around and once again making people think I had antisocialitis. But the beach is a great place to focus the errant mind, and I took full advantage.
But then my mind erred towards other topics. I realized that I hadn't yet solved all of the story difficulties, so I continued exploring the area. This mission led me to the river that cuts through the beach, which caught my attention due to an apparent anomaly: it seemed that the current was flowing towards the land and away from the ocean, i.e., the opposite of upstream and the opposite of what should be possible. Such riparian shenanigans would not do, so I dipped my toes into the muddy water for some of the ol' science.
I put one of the sticks I had been waving about fiercely in deep thought into the water, and then proceeded to gently drop bits of debris into the water to see what they did. First I let loose with a tiny stick, which proceeded to run hurriedly away from the ocean and towards the land. If before I was confused, now I was utterly baffled. I then dropped in a leaf, which acted as is proper of river-borne detritus and went merrily on its way towards the ocean. Well and good, but rather inconsistent. I put in another stick and another leaf, which acted like their respective brethren. Further investigation was warranted, so I headed off into the mud of the river like Bogey in the African Queen, minus the leeches and torpedoes.
It really is quite amazing how quickly the terrain can change. The beach is so bright and vibrant and alive with color, but not fifty meters away, the river becomes a different ecological zone completely, alive more in the circle of life sense, with decay and verdure right on top of each other. The thick squelching mud of the river stood in stark contrast to the clear ocean water, and the brackish standing water stood in stark contrast to the crisply crashing waves. It felt more like a quiet Ohio forest than a littoral zone.
Eventually I found a point where I was certain that the current was flowing out and not in, as is right and proper. It had occurred to me that near to where the river met the ocean, the tide would flow in sharply and cause water - and some debris - to move inward, in cycles if nothing else. And perhaps the little sticks had aquadynamic properties that let them be whored out to the tide of the ocean rather than being faithful to the steady current of the river. I also put the water on my lips and tasted that it was fresh and not salt, whatever those damn sticks may have thought.
If you were bored during that last bit and wondering what in the world I was doing, fear not and feel not alone - I told some people over lunch where I had been and why, and I got those awkward laughs you hear when someone does something socially uncomfortable but not so uncomfortable that you can call them out on it. But then I told them a story of being lost at night on a Nicaraguan volcano and lighting a fire to sleep by that nearly burned down the surrounding area, and that made things ok.
Out of the Wild and Into...the Wild
A bowl of warm mollusc can only take you so far, which meant that it was about time to head into town and scrounge up some grub. And yes, when you're in a one-horse town, you do indeed "head into town" and do things like "scrounge" and eat "grub." Imagine yourself in Podunksville, Idaho, saying you're going to head downtown to dine - it just doesn't work.
There was in fact more than one horse in Santa Catalina town, but there wasn't really more than one fonda, or anything else for that matter. I was looking for a few items, not the least of which was a machete to open coconuts with, but they didn't even sell basic hardware here. Crushing.
They did sell chicken, however. When I went to the little restaurant at the side of the bar, the cook told me all they had was chicken and patacones (double fried plantains), saying it a bit ruefully as if that were insufficient. Au contraire, mon cheri, that's perfect - I don't even have to turn the rice down like I normally do in Panamanian fondas.
The bar was a large open affair populated by several already beyond gone drunks (it was about four in the afternoon). Well, when there's nothing to buy and nothing to do - no machete fights, no poetry circles, no members of the opposite sex you haven't known your whole life - you pretty much just drink. I mean, I say that as if rural communities are worse on the drinking scale than cities, but I think it's just more obvious on the farm.
I tried to order water to accompany my grillables, but I was informed by one of the drunks that the only water to be had came in the form of a can labeled "Balboa" or "Atlas." I was planning on training later, but what's a glass of wine with dinner among inebriates? I ordered the can of beer and sat sipping, reading, and watching.
It was sort of strange to realize how comfortable I felt in that environment. That's to say, I'm obviously an outsider - blond gringo tourist - in a place where the locals see loads of outsiders on a regular basis. I remember being in the massively touristy Vietnamese city of Nha Trang (see pic above) where there are more gringos crawling by than roaches, and yet the Vietnamese folks hanging out would call me over and invite me to drink their wicked "wine" (read: hard liquor probably brewed in a bathtub) and share their food and language. I was always confused and touched by that. Maybe they called everyone over and I was the only one fool enough or bored enough to check it out. Maybe it's that I sit there and read my book and eat my food and feel tranquil and don't cause machete fights or massive awkwardness or whatever it is tourists think is going to happen when they sit in a local joint, and I just get subsumed into the background. I suppose I have an inoffensive look to me, or maybe I look like I fit in somehow - the drunks thought I was Argentinian, bless their souls for not picking up on my accent - but I think it's more my own lack of awkwardness or ulterior designs. I just sort of do these things with a certain degree of unaffectedness, and I think people pick up on that and feel curiosity rather than animosity or mischievousness. That's not to say that the drunks don't call me out from across the bar, but that's why I sit outside with the cardplayers.
Which is the other thing people do besides drink in a greater-than-one-but-not-a-quorum-horse-town - play cards and dominoes - and just because I sit outside doesn't mean that I've escaped the drunks. Enter the extremely wasted, extremely not handsome matron wearing an extremely not unobvious yellow thong. Coherency was a thing of the past. A thing of 10 AM, if then. That didn't prevent her from asking me if I was looking for girls. Now, whenever I hear that question as a tourist, I can never tell if people are asking if I'm looking for a hooker or if I'm just looking for a nice girl to chat with and swap potato salad recipes with. In the interests of safety and probability, I invariably respond that no, I'm not looking for girls, just minding my own business twiddling my thumbs. (Shocking people ask). I could basically see where this was going, but I politely ignored her insistent entreaties to wave at the girls passing by, which eventually turned into insistent entreaties to wave at her, metaphorically speaking. I then forced her off me, literally speaking, and decided that this was about time to make my exit, though not before being called out by one of the drunks and offering in turn to participate in a macheteless machete fight with him if he so desired. He declined to be able to stand up, and so I went back to the beach.
Workouts were done, bonfires were built, tequila was drunk, hammocks were strung up, sleep was begun.
I say "begun" because in spite of bringing my trusty towel to use as a blanket, the cold prevented continuous sleep. The night before had been brisk, but I got through it in fine fashion, and so thought that the towel would suffice for this night. Sadly even that venerable standby of the hitchhiker was lacking, so to top off the aforementioned challenges of wrestling with position comfort, the cold kept me rather alert. That was ok though - the night was beautiful, the waves rolling in and out, silvered by the full moon. Moon gazing will warm the soul, if not the body, and what good is it to sleep when such a night can be had?
Next Time: Surfing, Wine, French Rap, and More Moonlit Adventures!