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Jan 28-Feb 6, 2013

The Panama hat is not even from Panama. It’s from Ecuador. At the opening of the Canal, Woodrow Wilson was hastily given the closest hat on hand, since it was deemed ungentlemanly to be without one. People around the world marveled at this new, stylish and dandy sun protection device and the name took off. While in Panama, it will be offered to you many times, in every size and color, to the point where you’d think Ecuador is only making them for the tourists in Panama.

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The history of Panama is a pretty crazy one, right from the beginning (read a short summary here). Once part of Colombia, it became its own republic in 1903 with the help of the US. In return, the US was allowed to build the Canal, keep watch over it, and forego any tolls. Around how much is the toll to pass your ship through, you ask? Today, it’s around $200,000. How many ships pass through daily? 25-30. You do the math. It’s the fastest growing economy in Central America. In Panama City, skyscrapers are going up faster than you could say ‘sandia’. There’s road and building repair and renovation everywhere you go, so you could almost call this city Dubai Light. The prospect of 0% tax for your business, 2-3 hours of paperwork to open said business and a guaranteed residency with proof of your established business, attracts entrepreneurs from around the globe.

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The first stop after the border with Costa Rica is Boquete, a beautiful, secluded mountain town an hour or so north of David. I keep thinking it looks German. The temperature here is great, and tormented travelers coming from Panama City, warn of the heat and humidity there, making me stay longer than planned. Hot springs, hiking, rock climbing, cloud forests, are just a few of the nearby attractions. More importantly, the town just seems to exude a peaceful tranquility that sticks with you. To this day, Boquete is one of my favorite places. There’s also plenty of interesting people travelling through.

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There’s Rachel, who left New York to come and write about coffee, in a self-published book, When Coffee Speaks. She lives, breathes and works on coffee farms, and is the perfect guide to take a small group of us around an artisanal coffee farm up in the hills. There’s Daniel, who left the States many years ago, and opened a french restaurant with great food and wine (the first place I’ve had escargots and crepes since New York). His daughter Sara, drove with another girlfriend all the way from Austin, Texas to spread the joy of yoga. There’s Christine, master jazz singer and Erik, a filmmaker, both from Montreal. With these last two, I strike a friendship based on sarcasm and joie de vivre, and we travel together from Boquete to Santa Catalina, and then on to Panama City.

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Santa Catalina is a piece of heaven, if only still pretty underdeveloped: the one paved road ends quickly, the power goes out for a good 6 hours at night, and the beaches are still pretty untouched. Of course, therein lies its beauty. 5-7 years from now, it will be another tourist-infested beach town with 20 surf schools and bottles of Heineken at the bar. We just miss the snorkeling boat to the Coiba National Park, which is supposed to hold some of the most amazing underwater sights in the world. We rent surfboards and spend the day paddling in and out. I catch so many waves that I get greedy to the point of exhaustion, and only the sunset and a destructive hunger pull me out of the water.

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Who gets stuck in the sand? This guy.

After two days, we go to Panama City, a no traffic sign, no lane-marking, nightmare of a city to be driving in. Nobody cares about anything, and while in Costa Rica drivers were slow and tedious, enjoying the fast lane at 20mph, driving in Panama is more like a scene out of Braveheart. There’s mopeds, motorcycles, accidents and constant, prolonged honking. The closest I can compare it to is driving in Cairo. But even that was a continental breakfast compared to this. Google Maps has no idea what it’s talking about: one-way streets are marked incorrectly, other streets simply don’t exist, so either PC is changing too fast, or Google last visited in 1999.

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We stay in Casco Viejo, the old part of town, where the President lives – and because of this, there’s police everywhere in various shapes and forms. Casco also has the best view of the city, both at night and during the day, making you think you’re looking at a downtown Miami. Many of the skyscrapers that you see across the water don’t light up at night, giving way to rumors they’ve only been built to launder money. Even though the President is here, and there’s magnificent colonial buildings and expensive restaurants, you only have to walk a few blocks to enter the poor and dangerous slums. This discrepancy snaps you back to reality.

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The first night, right on the border of the slums, I stay in a hotel with beautiful old interiors, and cockroaches in the morning. The windows only have shutters which won’t fully close, while mosquitoes and an angry German couple above me, keep me up at night. The next day, I move to Luna’s Castle, an apparently famous hostel. It’s easy to see why. They have a ping-pong table, happy hour and without a doubt, dozens of the most attractive girls from around the world. I sleep in a 6 person dorm, in the basement, where the industrial size AC is blasting cold air with no remote or buttons to turn it down or off. I grab an extra blanket from the car, only to wake up dying of heat at 4AM. The AC has been turned off. By 6AM, people are already brushing their teeth and trying to find their socks at the bottom of bags, in the dark, with the glare of a cellphone. Needless to say, I don’t sleep very much this night either.

I meet Guillaume, who has been traveling and working around Central and South America. On his way here from the bus terminal, he took a cab to find a hostel. The moment he stepped out, the taxi drove off with all his bags, money and passport, right into the night. Left with nothing, he went to the police station, where he was told to go sleep it off and come back the next day, if he *still* wanted to make a report. Somebody from the station took pity and brought him to Luna’s, where he was allowed to sleep on a small couch in the lounge. Knowing the pain of not having a passport, I buy him a few beers and we cook some mean spaghetti. He tells me how he was able to borrow money to buy some tshirts and underwear, which turned out to be kids’ underwear, so that’s why he’s adjusting his crotch every so often, in case I’m wondering.

The third night, I move to a 4 person dorm, on the 2nd floor, with two large fans, but no AC. The temperature is better, if still a little hot. I sneak Guillaume in the top bunk, since he hasn’t had a proper bed in two days. Around 3AM, a drunk couple stumbles loudly into the bottom bunk across from mine. They’re wayyyy too loud, so I tell them to shut it. They apologize, the guy mumbles some swearwords in Spanish, and they start whispering. After another 20 minutes or so, the whispering turns into kissing, which turns into heavy petting, which turns into sex. I don’t pretend to be asleep, opening my eyes here and there, switching positions and wondering if the right thing to do is to be looking. I’m not going to tell them to stop, because that’s bad karma. Since I’m sharing the cost of the room, and the last time I saw something like this was in Amsterdam and I had to pay an entrance fee, I decide to keep watching with a clear conscience.

After many moans and groans, ‘Mas fuerte’ and ‘Aye, me gusta’ – mostly from the girl – the guy finally goes to the bathroom. It’s now 4AM, and in two hours I have a plane to catch to Cartagena. I turn the lights on to start packing, and the girl turns over, the bed sheet covering her behind and not much else. Her breasts are touching the bed, but she’s not making any effort to cover them. ‘So, did you watch anything?’ Only the good parts, I tell her. She laughs and asks me where I’m going. She’s from Colombia, so we talk about where to go and what to do, and how she wants to visit Romania, all of this in broken English. ‘I hate English. Why do you people speak it? It’s a stupid language’.

The guy comes back and chides her for talking to me. She yells back harder, so he gets in bed, turns over and grumbles every minute or so for her to shut up. I realize Guillaume has been sleeping this whole time, snoring only like a Frenchman can, so I wake him up, say goodbye, and jump in a taxi. In the rear-view mirror, a Panama hat is staring back from the backseat. The driver is definitely on something, he keeps rubbing his nose, singing loudly and turning the volume higher than I think is possible every time he does it. We’re doing 70mph in a ramshackle of a car, windows down, blazing through the empty lit highway to the airport. The wind is hissing, and the break of dawn gives light to the waves breaking on the beach on my right. On the radio, Yotuel’s new single, ‘Me Gusta’ is playing. From now on, only private rooms for this guy.


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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.