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The Panama Parallel

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Yea we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off of it.

Sorry. Still got the song in my head. Seriously, how can you not be happy in Panama. Granted, when the friends you are staying with have a palatial home overlooking the valley, not to mention a sweet little private rental on the ocean too, its tough to wipe the dopey smile off my face. I had an amazing time, with amazing people. It’s not often that things work out so beautifully, and you have no idea how thankful I am they did.

Certainly, the whole trip got me thinking. I am seriously smitten with Panama but it was funny to observe the differences between the two countries. Now, I never got to go into Panama City. I bounced between the highlands and the ocean, so this is not a comprehensive view. So keep that in mind. I’m still getting my bearings in Costa Rica and it’s been over a year and a half.

The first thing that really struck me was how puny the local farmers market was as compared to Costa Rica. Not only small, but not necessarily that fresh either. On the rare occasion I saw brocoli, it was brown and limp. Even the fruit was off, or should I say, not to Costa Rican standards. I was baffled. Here I was in the middle of this amazing tropical valley, and the mangos looked nasty and a guanábana cost over $5!  Go into a local grocery and you will see endless amounts of canned food from every corner of the world and a teeny space for fresh produce. I needed an explanation and this was the consensus:

Because of the canal, Panama can import food cheaper than it is to grow and because they can import anything, what you get is an enormous amount of shelf stable food. Add to that, Panamanians don’t seem to eat fresh vegetables either. It’s a very starch based diet; yucca, potatoes, yams, cassava, some pasta and tons of rice. Even the ubiquitous red peppers (chili dulce) were absent in Panama. The protein is chicken/eggs, or fish. I saw little beef and next to no pork.  My recommendation to the traveler coming to Panama, go for the fish. They may not grow a lot but they certainly know how to fish and I had some amazing seafood. Also surprising, I thought the street food was rather…meh. Think lots of rather bland starch and canned meat.

Overall, Costa Rica has a wider diet, better fresh selection, and many more options for those who are conscientious eaters. People raved about Panama being cheaper, but in the long run (and because I don’t really eat a lot of shelf stable food) I found prices to be about equal, if not more for certain fresh products. While doing a grocery run with my hosts, I commented on how cheap booze was. It’s nearly half the price it is in Costa Rica with double the selection. I saw a bottle of excellent Scotch $20 cheaper than in the US! As explained by my friends…that is why people are so happy in Panama. The US influence in Panama is evident everywhere, especially in the developement of infrastructure. Panama just looks nicer. Then again, I am hanging out with great people, drinking good booze, swimming in the ocean, trekking through the jungles, having an amazing time…what’s not to love!

As I set back to Costa Rica, the rainy season started. The trip back was uneventful. I wore the Panama hat I bought for Rafa’s birthday as I bobbed around the bus station looking for him over the groggy throngs and eager taxi drivers. I am so happy when I see him I nearly cry.

“I didn’t see you get off the bus,” he says squeezing me,  “but I saw this Panama hat weaving through the crowd and I knew that was my girl.”

It’s good to be home.



Insert Van Halen riff

(dramatic pause while you rock out)

Yes. I traveled back to Panama. While I still love Bocas del Toro, this was my first trek to the Pacific side. And my first adventure without Rafa. Now, I write a lot about my travels and well…that’s what you need to do to consume a country (or multiple countries as this may be). So here you go: the Costa Rica, Panama parallel.

Rafa drops me off at the Tica bus station an hour before midnight to catch the red-eye to Panama. He lingers with me and reviews the litany of information he has given me should disaster strike. I stay quite, knowing I am fully capable of whatever craziness comes my way, but also touched at his tender concern. Still, bus travel is rather new to me. Add on that my shitty Spanish, well you never know.

The bus is big. I settle into my hard-fought after window seat and send a final wave to Rafa outside. Strangely enough a Brit plops down next to me and immediately asks to give up my seat for his girlfriend across the aisle. Um, no. He shrugs it off and continues to chat incessantly away. I thought Brits were more reserved. You know, that whole stoic persona. Nope, not this one. I was rather excited about my trip so he viewed my perkiness as an invitation. Apparently, he took a great exception to his “around the world vacation”, at least his part in Latin America, and was more than happy to prattle on about all the ills he suffered, much to the chagrin of other passengers who wanted to sleep away the ride. To tell you the truth, I think his girlfriend was quite pleased to be seated next to a snoring Tico.  It was a long sleepless ride.

For those of you who have never crossed a Latin American land border, my level of writing could never fully encapsulate the experience. Airports are bright, mostly air-conditioned, and contained in a neat package. Land borders have an aire about them similar to the Twilight Zone, “a mixture of self-contained drama, psychological thriller, fantasy, science fiction, suspense, or horror, often concluding with a macabre or unexpected twist”. It’s one of those life experiences that everyone should go through. The Brit was getting it first hand. Sure you may want to fly out of Panama City to Australia, but not having that proof of departure can make for a surreal experience. And why, oh why, must people believe that talking louder makes understanding a foreign language any easier? Being next in line, I smiled and handed over my passport. They stamped it and handed it back over without ever asking me a single question. Que the Twilight Zone music.

The next challenge for me was getting dropped off where I needed to go and not making the whole trip to Panama City. With the shrill voice of the Brit bouncing around the station, I saddled up next to the bus driver and as sweetly as I could muster in my broken Spanish asked him to drop me at km 97. With no luggage in the hold, it would be an easy stop and I batted my lashes for all they were worth. With the issue of the Brit being settled, and people eager to get moving, the driver softened like a puppy.

I found the Pacific side of Panama to be oddly beautiful. It was an endless landscape of dry rolling hills getting larger and larger until they met the spine of mountains in the center of the country. It was cattle land but I saw little livestock and even less agriculture. Go anywhere in Costa Rica and food production is packed into every available space. It’s not uncommon to find coffee growing in empty lots in the middle of San Jose. I tried to pick out produce stands but saw few in the four hours before my stop. The roads were butter smooth and there was very little trash around, even cleaner than Costa Rica. Another thing I found interesting, the cops. They are everywhere! They even stopped the bus…twice! It wasn’t even a shaken down. Just a passport check. And they LOOK like cops. In San Jose it’s easy to mistake a cop. For the most part, they look pretty goofy. They are almost always texting or chatting on their phones, looking disinterested. The female cops always make an effort to glam up their uniforms with dayglow make-up and flashy jewelry. I’m not kidding. I live practically next door to a police station. Never, have I once seen them ever do anything. Even when things are going blatantly wrong around them. But the Panama po-po is paramilitary. Let me ask you: Who would you take more seriously? The cop with neon blue eyeshadow and door knocker earrings, or the fatigue wearing, automatic weapon welding guy who probably had relatives in the School of the Americas?

By the time km 97 came up, I had endeared myself with the driver and was given many flirtatious glances. After a handful of seats freed up after the border, I had been blissfully Brit free for the rest of my journey into Panama (I also got the distinct impression he was a little miffed at me for “abandoning” him at the border…Sheesh, men can be difficult about things).  When I got off the bus the air was like a hot slap to the face. The driver registered my concern and asked if I was going to be alright. I recomposed myself and flashed a grin. “Of course!” I’m in the middle of no where with a backpack and a phone number of my destination and a limited grasp of the native language. Don’t they realize you can conquer the world with cleavage and smile?

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