Panama or Bust

My trip to Panama

The original plan didn’t quite work, but what happened might have been a blessing in disguise. I had sold my truck and bought the car, intending to drive to Boquete, a trip I figured would take about ten days or so, apparently in my total ignorance. When I was turned back at the border and had to make some last minute plans to fly, I was a bit panicky considering it was Christmas Eve and all. Not only would it be very difficult to even book flights, but everything closed up early for Christmas Eve. On my trip back I doubted BCAA would still be open by the time I made it there.


To my considerable surprise BCAA was open until 5:00 and the lovely Mary was most helpful. Not only did she find me excellent connections through to Panama City, but the price floored me. When I had been comparing flying with driving I had been coming up with prices in the $1400 range to fly. The decision came down to having a bit of an adventure on the road at marginally more cost, depending, of course, on nothing going wrong, which was a big “if”. Now, with no choice left, I dreaded the price she was going to quote me. Needless to say I was delighted when she told me $790 – cheaper than the gas to drive. Bonus!

My driving down plan meant the car was stuffed to the gills with whatever I could think I would need when I got to Boquete, so, now that I was flying I had to dump half of it, at least. Items got a rating of “must have”, “can’t throw out (like pictures), “not worth carrying”, “not worth paying extra for” and so on. After almost fifteen years in the Okanagan, it was an interesting exercise.

Two items I debated a lot, meaning they got put out and back over and over, were my pool cue and my rollerblades. Karinthya had not really known about the roads for blading, but I had seen a new development where the new roads looked awesome. I didn’t want to get here without my blades, only to discover the roads were as good as they looked and I had no blades, so they ended up going with me. As for my cue, it was a bit awkward to carry, so it got debated a lot, but it went in eventually.

Mary at BCAA had quoted me $69 for the Greyhound to Vancouver, but, because it was Christmas Eve day, they were closed so we couldn’t actually talk to anyone about the schedule. It was to be in Westbank at 11:35 pm, so she said to get there early. The depot would be closed, so I knew it was me and my luggage standing outside in the cold. I looked at my big winter coat and gloves, and decided against them because I would no longer need them, I hoped. Big mistake!

The cab dropped me off around 11:15. I had worn my very light leather jacket and nothing else. The wind cut right through me in the first few minutes, and all I could do was pray the bus wasn’t too late. I had to keep moving and stamping my feet to keep the blood flowing in my feet as I was starting to not be able to feel them. 11:35 came and went and it got colder and colder. I was beginning to regret that no one had been able to drive me to the depot so I could wait in a nice warm vehicle, but it was Christmas Eve and everyone had much better things to do than deal with my problems.
Just after midnight a cab came by asking if I needed a ride. When I told him I was waiting for the bus to Vancouver he said the weather was really bad from Calgary and the bus would probably be at least an hour late. He laughed and said if I was still there at 12:35 to keep waiting, because it would come along “eventually”.

He was right, because just about the time that I could no longer feel any extremity I have, and started thinking this is as far as I’m going to make it on my journey, the bus came along. Turns out it had nothing to do with the weather. The mechanic was just late checking out the bus and apparently being this late is normal for Greyhound. $300 to fly; $69 for the bus. Now I knew why.

I thought because it was Christmas Eve that the bus would be quiet, because everyone would already be where they were going. Wrong again! It was packed and I could hardly find a seat. The seat I did choose was open for a reason, I soon discovered. It was right over the rear snow tire, which also was out of round. As soon as we pulled away I could feel the tire tread right up my butt, and the seat rocked back and forth, which gave a feeling exactly like someone was shaking you awake. Sleeping did look like much of a possibility. This time I was right. Not a wink all the way to Vancouver.

We finally pulled into the depot downtown around 6:00 am. My first joy of the trip is that where the buses drop you off is about a million miles from where the taxis pick you up. I had eight bags and two arms. Not exactly workable. I saw a lady and, I assume, her son and they had one bag between them, so I asked if they would be so kind as to help me. The lady took one of the pieces that had wheels and the kid took my pool cue, leaving me with all the other bags to lug. Then they took off at what can only be described as a brisk clip, meaning the donkey had to keep up. I had visions of them disappearing into the night and never seeing my stuff again.

Got my cabbie and he barely managed to fit everything in. It was my first ride in a hybrid though and it was so quiet I couldn’t tell when it was running. The driver said he saved a lot of fuel with it.

We headed off to Money Mart for me to put the cash that Chris had given me on my MasterCard – no point in taking Canadian where I was going. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise and saved my butt. Off to the airport – only about six hours before I needed to be there. Now all the fun stuff with the luggage started all over again. What was I thinking? I realized I had to do this luggage miracle several more times before I got to Boquete. The regrets on the pool and the rollerblades set in pretty quickly. They were the pieces that broke the camel’s (me) back.

When I finally struggled to Mexicana Airlines the clerk looked at all my luggage and then looked around for the other person, or persons, travelling with me. She quickly informed me that I was limited to two pieces, and I was only over by six. They were very helpful though because they have these big zippered bags to put more than one bag in and then they only call it one bag. Great, except that the kind gentlemen from Mexico who helped me and I managed to destroy two bags trying to fit things in. The final tally was $50 for what I thought was the excess freight charge to Panama City. Wrong yet again.

With no sleep I hardly remember what exactly I did to kill the time. I went to a place for breakfast ( a small fortune at the airport) and signed up for internet access, which I had thought was free at the airport. No such luck. It was $10 for an hour and $15 for twenty-four hours, so I went with the 24 hours. This was the point where I realized I was about to lose my Telus email account so I spent the time reorganizing my inbox and transferring things to my Hotmail folders. By boarding time I was beginning to lose it a bit, but I do remember chatting with Wade for a bit.

Since prior to leaving the first time I had been trying to reach Karinthya online, with no luck. She didn’t even know I had sold the truck and was leaving to drive down. I would now arrive later than planned, so I needed to know what was happening with the house. Then when things changed to flying down it was really critical that we connect so she knew I would be there much earlier and I needed the key. I also had not been able to make any plan to get to Boquete from Panama City, so I needed her help desperately. I was hoping beyond hope that she came on while I was at the airport in Vancouver, but it was Christmas Day after all.

The flight from Vancouver was excellent. Great plane – Airbus 315 I think. No idea why I asked for a window seat, because Vancouver was socked in, of course. The sleep deprivation must have kicked in because I have no recollection of who I sat next to, or if we talked. I do know that I didn’t manage to get any sleep, which I so desperately needed.

We arrived in Mexico City on time at around 6:45 local time. Then the nightmare began. I had booked the Holliday Inn East, which showed on their map as being only a couple of miles from the airport. The fact that the hotels actually AT the airport were $300 and mine was $80 should have been my first clue. Mexico City is a huge airport. Naturally we landed at one end and had to walk and walk and walk to customs. There isn’t a lot of English speaking staff around. I had stopped to use the banos. Yet another huge mistake, as I lost all the people from my flight – the ones who actually knew where they were going.

I don’t know who designs airports, but they sure don’t do it for travelers, especially ones who do not understand the language. I took more turns than a taxi driver and ended up at security. I asked where I got my luggage and the guy pointed to security. Okay, I thought, so I go through security and then get my luggage, which seemed a bit strange. Other flights had landed so the end of the line for security was just out of my sight – only maybe a hundred people in line.

I made it through without much trouble and found myself outside, where people who aren’t flying are. Again I asked where my luggage was and another oh so helpful person who only spoke Spanish pointed the direction to go. After about a kilometer of walking I found myself in domestic arrivals, not exactly where I had come from. I again asked for my luggage and was pointed in the other direction – the one I had just come from.
When I got all the way back where I started, an official looking person pointed to security, where I had come through earlier. I had to have everything checked again, only to get back almost exactly where I started an hour earlier. There were my lonely little bags, sitting all by themselves because everyone, who knew where they were, had picked them up long, long ago.

I struggled to load them all onto a cart and headed for security. This time a hundred people from new flights had now landed and there was the same huge line. The lady at security gave me suspicious look and I was just waiting for her to ask me if she had seen me somewhere before. She had – an hour ago.

A curiosity at Mexico’s airport is that you load all your stuff onto a cart, go through security and then through the doors to the public area, which is about ten feet from where you loaded them up. This is where they take the cart from you, so you have to find another cart to get to the exit doors, only about ten feet further. Dumb system! By now I was wishing I had only brought a carry-on backpack and left everything at home.

After two hours I finally made it to the outside world and got to enjoy my first cigarette in hours. I asked about the Holliday Inn shuttle and was told I was standing in the right place. Sure enough, in barely the time for me to have my smoke, along comes the Holliday Inn van. As I prepare to lug all my bags on, the driver asks me my destination. Turns out the shuttle is for the Airport Holliday Inn, not the one a million miles away – my hotel. My shuttle apparently only comes once an hour or so, not the ten minutes every other one comes along. I get to sit and watch the other Holliday Inn shuttle come by over and over, until mine finally arrives.

My driver, who introduces himself as Victor, is great though. When we finally get to the hotel, which isn’t in what you would call in the better part of town, the front desk clerk informs me that the restaurant is closed. I am dead exhausted by now, having been up for some forty hours now, and starving, so I ask Victor if I can hire him to go find me a burger and a drink. While I waited I managed to get internet – free, and finally connected with Karinthya. We made a plan for me to get to Boquete, albeit in the middle of the night, so she booked me a room at a local hotel in Boquete – one open 24 hours.

Victor brings me back what had to be the biggest burger I have ever seen in my life – three patties and it had to be at least six inches around; three cheeses and even a pineapple ring – quite the feast. The room was excellent and I crashed pretty well the minute I had eaten.

In the morning I got my first surprise when I ordered the “American” breakfast, which I thought would come with bacon and hash browns and toast. Apparently my explanation about “no eggs” got interpreted as “no anything”. All I got was dry toast.

The next surprise was about my stupid traveler’s cheques. These days it appears no one will take them anymore. They all want plastic. I had no choice but to use up cash I had very little of.

Mexico City airport is as bad by day as it was by night. When my driver arrived a porter jumped to the van, offering to help. I had read about these guys before, so I negotiated the deal before we left. He joked that where we were heading was about a kilometer, and I knew he wasn’t lying, because I had done the walk the night before – twice. We agreed on ten US dollars, and headed off.

He was a very friendly guy and we chatted all the way to the other end of the terminal. He put me in a line of people then showed me where he unloaded my luggage, in front of the Mexicana counter. I reached into my pouch and handed him the ten dollars. His demeanor changed instantly and he went very quiet and looked extremely pissed. Off he went, with my muchos gracias in his ear. I had no idea what I had said or done to suddenly offend him, that is until I realized I had given him a ten dollars PESO coin – not US dollars as we agreed. So he got a dollar – no surprise why he was pissed at me. While I stood in line I tried to watch for him bringing someone else’s luggage to pay him, but I never saw him again. Maybe he quit in frustration at stupid “gringos”.

In the line in front of me was a guy from Guatemala. We started talking about the roads in his country and my plan to have driven down. He got that same stunned look the porter had given me. He then proceeded to tell me that the highway, such as it is, is all under construction and a total mess. He is also said it is sugar cane harvesting season and the trucks go very slow. He said you have no choice but to pass, even though in some places the road is only single lane and narrow. He said he would NEVER drive there and it’s his country. He made me feel so glad I had flown. No question about that now that I heard this story.

After I had checked my bags now I was hungry again. Dumb as it sounds, I had the best coffee from Dunkin Donuts at the airport. With everything I had been through I didn’t think my stomach was ready for Mexican food, although if you judge Mexico by the airport, it’s all American food anyways. I recognized every chain’s name there. Seating was limited again, so I asked a pilot if I could join him. He flew for Copa Airlines and we had a great chat.

The flight from Mexico City was a carbon copy of the first one – nice new plane, great service and smooth flight. The airport was unfortunately designed by the same idiot who designed Mexico City’s. Miles of walking, again. When I saw what looked like the security area I was very wary because I did not have my luggage. Oh no! Not this again. It turned out to be immigration, not security. You get your luggage after clearing immigration. I don’t know what happens to your luggage if they don’t let you into Panama?

Standing in yet another huge line I am confident that I had everything I needed. In Mexico City I bought my tourist visa and, after talking to a lovely young girl about how I prove I am “leaving” Panama, had bought a ticket for the cheapest airfare out of Panama, from the equally lovely Lillianna at Taca Airlines. After choking me with the $272 fare, she pointed out that it is fully refundable after I am in Panama. I guess they know the drill. Mexicana had given us a form to complete to get into Panama and I had this complete as well. I get all the way to the front of the line, where I am informed there is another form no one told me about. I have to go back and complete this form and get in the line all over again. There has to be a better system for all this! So frustrating!

I get through immigration, who I don’t think even looked at my airline ticket out – so much for proof you are leaving, and head for baggage claim. I got my stuff and headed outside. Man was it hot! I think the temperature was around 97 Fahrenheit, but, with the humidity, it felt warmer than that. I was very glad I was not living in Panama City.

I knew from Karinthya that I had to find the Albrook Mall, which is where the bus station was. I was also desperate to find somewhere to cash my stupid traveller’s cheques, not one of which I had managed to cash.

When I explained what I needed as best I could, the captain introduced me to Spencer, who turned out to be a real life-saver. His English was better than mine and he turned out to be a fountain of knowledge about Panama. First he took me to the casino in the Sheraton Hotel, where he talked the cute young thing in the cash office into cashing my cheques. He was no doubt motivated by the fact I told him I could not pay him unless she got some cashed. Not true, but an incentive for him.

He then took me through what I can only describe as Panama Las Vegas – all new glittering buildings with enough neon to kill a generating plant. He knew so much of the history of Panama, all the way back to the fifteen hundreds. He would be an awesome guy to spend a day with around Panama City. What really surprised me about Panama City was all the fabulous Christmas decorations. I had no idea they celebrated it as much as we do, maybe more.

Spencer took me to the bus depot; checked the schedules and got me the express bus to David; and hauled my luggage to the waiting area. I managed to find yet another cute seniorita who watched my luggage while Spencer and I went to have something to eat. Yup, we ended up at Dunkin Donuts again.

The bus ride from Panama City to David was another eye-opener for this dumb Canuck. The bus would be whipping along at maybe 90 clicks, then suddenly drop down to ten, so that he could navigate through the giant gaps in the pavement. Sometimes he would almost drive off the road because the main part of the road was so bad. It seemed to have something to do with the local authority because there would be stretches where it was brand new, then miles of broken pavement. I was oh so glad I didn’t even attempt this. My tranny would have ended up somewhere along the road, but not with me.

Spencer had introduced me to a lady, Maria Elena, from Boquete who was standing in the line for the bus. Her English was pretty minimal, but we somehow communicated that we would share a cab from David to Boquete and she would look after me on the bus trip and get me to my hotel, which she did. She works in a store here and I am going to visit her soon.

We arrived at the hotel around 6:00 am, and thanks to Karinthya they were expecting me. The room was pretty minimal and all I could think when I saw it was how badly it needed renovating. I could hear the sounds of rushing water though, so even as tired as I was, I had to investigate. There’s a gorgeous rushing stream right through the courtyard. I went back to the room and opened all my windows so I could be lulled off to sleep by the sounds of the rushing water.

All too soon there was what I can only assume where the cleaning staff trying to open my door. I had dead bolted it, which apparently made them think it was somehow broken, so they didn’t give up trying until I was wide awake. Seeing as I had been surviving for two days on mostly donuts I decided I better head off for breakfast. In the daylight the hotel grounds were truly amazing. It was a beautiful sunny day with a gentle breeze blowing. It was my first chance to see the surrounding mountains, which are amazing.

The restaurant was out of orange juice, so I had to suffer through freshly squeezed pineapple juice. Excellente! This is the heart of coffee country and the coffee, although strong for me, was delicious. I just had toast, as I wasn’t quite ready to risk the “beefsteak”.

There are no phones in the rooms so I headed to the front desk to call Karinthya to check about her Mum coming to get me. This is where I met the first love of my life in Boquete (okay, second after Karinthya), the oh so gorgeous Helga – a true vision. She had no bra on; didn’t need one; long gorgeous hair; and a body to die for. She wore jeans that didn’t quite come up to where they should, which got me thinking lusty thoughts. Her English was pretty good as a bonus, although she denied it when I told her it was good. She phoned Sonia and Karinthya and made arrangements for Sonia to come and get me. She refused the money I offered as a tip, but I have something much better for her later (I hope she dances).

I had no idea what to expect with her Mum and they must have thought I was mucho loco with this one. I thought maybe her Mum was walking over, so, with all this luggage I suggested to Helga that Sonia meet me at the house and I would take a taxi with all my luggage. She told me Sonia had a car, so I said I hoped it was el grande for my luggage. Not only did she pull up in a 2006 Mitsubishi SUV, but we could have spit and hit the house from the hotel. This must have thought me nuts to think of hiring a taxi. It took longer to load the luggage than to drive. I had confused this house with one Karinthya had found that was 7 minutes out Boquete.

So, at long last, after more than my fair share of challenges getting here all the way from Westbank, I finally arrive at what I hope is my new home. Although the pictures did give me some idea of what the house was like, when I actually saw it up close, well, it’s the “before” picture they use on Extreme Makeover. It is in dire need of a major renovation, to say the least. And, as much as I hated the luggage I did bring, I soon wished I had brought the whole house with me. Beyond the basic couch and chairs, a table and a single bed, there’s nothing else. I do have a propane stove, but no fridge. No dishes or pots and pans or anything I need to live.

Sonia took me shopping to the Romeros, where I had to buy just about everything in the store. I bought a couple of foam coolers for now, but I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do about it. Sonia misunderstood and took me to an appliance store, and as much as the prices are really low for a new fridge ($300), I could not quite get the question understood about how much I would get for it if I am not allowed to stay in Panama, much as I don’t even want to think what that will mean to me. I will have much bigger problems than what to do with a fridge.

The renovator in me was immediately wandering around thinking of all the good things I could do with this place, but, of course, this all has to be discussed and approved by Sonia’s mother. There are signs that they’ve started things, like patching the outside walls and painting, but nothing too major. My kitchen sink taps don’t work and some major things like that.

The strangest thing would come as quite a shock to a Canadian. I was searching for the hot water tank, but couldn’t find one anywhere. When Sonia came over to turn the power on, and brought her husband, Garcia, I was really shocked to discover that there is no water heater.

My shower has this electrical thing above the showerhead which apparently heats your water. Has some taped up wires hanging above it. I was wondering about water pressure and hot water for showers here, and was pleasantly surprised that my shower at the hotel was perfect – good pressure and lots of hot water. Not the case here. I’m scared to even get into this shower, and I can’t imagine that this little heater thing is going to give me much hot water anyway. This also means there is no hot water anywhere else, for things like dishes or laundry. Another challenge and a big one at that. The stove is propane, so I assume any water heater is also going to be propane, but even here I doubt it’s something cheap, and I just don’t have the money for any major expense, not at least until the house sells.

The house itself is big and the grounds are amazing. There are fruit trees everywhere and lush gardens all around the place. It is perfect for a renovation, but this will be later, but hot water now would be nice. I’ve paid for the house now, so moving is not an option. I hope to spend a little more time with Karinthya over the next couple of days, so I might just be honest with her to see if she can talk to Hosman’s mother about it. It may just not be as easy as I first thought to rent it out to someone else the way it is. If she pays for materials and I do the work, maybe it will work out in the end.

I met a fellow gringo, Harland, my neighbour across the street, an American. He has his kids here from the States and they are leaving tomorrow, so we only chatted briefly, but he owns a lot a raw land around Boquete and he’s a former general contractor. I discussed the idea of renovating older places for longer term rentals for people waiting for their new homes to be completed and he said my timing was “perfect”. We’re getting together tomorrow to talk about it in more detail.

Sonia and I ended up having a glass of wine and a delicious meal of chicken off the spit which came with yummy potatoes – $14. I could grow to love this place pretty darned easily.

Harland also told me there is a new internet service that just installed down our street, so we are going to get our service at the same time. The installation charges? $4.95. Shaw would have a fit at that one.

Before they came to turn on the power I was sitting out in the backyard, marvelling at all the birds. Around 6:00 o’clock the breeze turned into a wind and it cooled down in a few minutes. Sounds just like the Okanagan, eh?