Adventures in Central America

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January 28th 2013
Published: January 28th 2013
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Day #1 panama city: We visited Casco viejo today which is the old colonial part of Panama City. It was part modern and part dilapidated, with trees protruding out from the wreckage. We walked through a fish market that would've repulsed most people, but had jumbo prawns for only $4.50/lb! I would like to prepare fish at the hostel but I don't think I could bring myself to clean and debone a whole one. When we tried to get back to the hostel none of the cab drivers recognized it and we didn't have an address! Luckily by the fourth try, the cab driver knew the name. It's so cheap to get around $2-5 to get across town. No meters, just negotiation. We're hopefully gonna take a Spanish for travelers course on Saturday so we feel more comfortable communicating. It's awesome because it's 3-4 hours and they only teach you vocabulary and phrases relevant to traveling such as ordering in a restaurant or transportation. Then we're heading to lost and found via overnight bus. It's near David, which is seven hours from panama city. I'm looking forward to being in the jungle as opposed to the slums and the busy city. The cab drivers are insane! And there's no seatbelts in the public transportation, but so far so good. Not sure what's on the agenda for tomorrow, but that's the beauty of can sit in the common room and just chat the day away with other travelers or get advice for future destinations. Bueno noche!
That night we got a group together from the hostel and went to a karaoke bar a few blocks away. The bar was crowded and the music was blaring. They had so many lasers it could give you a seizure. Despite how uncomfortable the extremities were, we ended up staying until 3am! Three people from our group sang karaoke, a girl from Chicago who sang "I wanna dance with somebody" and two Australian boys did a duet to "Greese lightning." The girl, Kim was her name, had a really nice voice and the boys really worked the crowd. Out of all the locals that sang that night, the 3 from our group were actually the finalists in the competition! The boys ended up winning because of their hilarious antics on stage. After the competition we salsa'd the night away until the early morning hours. Panama City day 2: We had a late night Thursday so we slept in pretty late the next day. We heard about a Spanish school in Casco Viejo that had a 3 hour travelers Spanish crash course for $39. After about an hour of searching for the school we assumed that the construction was preventing us from finding it. Since I hadn't eaten yet and my flip flops were giving me blisters I gave up on the pursuit and instead sought out food. We ate at a tequila bar that had really good mojitos, and the menu showcased an enormous plate of nachos with all the fix ins, so naturally being famished that's what we ordered. I've learned from previous experiences that the pictures on menus in other countries can be deceiving; as in this case. They didn't come out with real cheese on them like the menu depicted, and had chicken all over the top instead of on the side like we asked for. Luckily I dodged that bullet and ordered veggie tacos which were more impressive.After lunch we cabbed it out to the Amador causeway. It was just before sunset when we arrived and rented bikes on the long, lighted strip of land that led to three man made islands. As far as we can tell, you can only get to the first island by bike, but by then it was dark and harder to navigate off the lighted path. The causeway was very luxurious compared to the rest of the city, complete with a yacht club and the first high end restaurants and hotels we had seen thus far. We joked that this was where the wealthy Americans and Europeans were hiding. After close to a five mile ride we decided to head back to the hostel and grab dinner, cup of noodles, how nostalgic. Being a backpacker is the equivalent of a college student as far as budget goes, except that I wish I started traveling while I was still in early college. Day 3: We thought about checking out the canal today, even though we had a decent view from the causeway. That was until we wised up and looked at the map on the Spanish school's website and realized we were walking on the opposite side! The founder was very attentive with my emails so we thought we'd give it another try. We had to head back to Casco Viejo for the third time to register and pay for our class before it started at 3. Instead of heading back to the hostel to kill time before the class we walked back to the fish market to try the ceviche. There are several stands along the fish market that all have about 8 jugs of ceviche and various seafood cocktails. For $1.25 we could share a small cup of corvino, or sea bass ceviche with crackers. Talk about a cheap lunch! The Spanish class was a one on one experience and allowed us to ask all the questions we wanted. Our teacher mostly spoke in Spanish and provided us with a book of vocabulary and phrases. We ended up taking notes the whole time because she never went in the order of the pages, and words she thought were printed were not. Either way the class was very helpful and if we didn't take anything else from it we learned we were being ripped off by the cabs the entire time. Cabs in panama are very cheap considered to the states. For instance, they don't run a meter so you think $4 to drive across town is a steal. Come to find out the rate for all cabs to drive you anywhere in town is supposed to be $2! Alita, our teacher informed us that the law says they should never charge more than $3 no matter who you are, but cab drivers always take advantage of gringos! This one guy in Casco Viejo tried to charge us $10 per person to get to the causeway yesterday. Even before we had the inside information we weren't naive enough to fall for that assholes scam. Today after we took the class the same bullshitter tried to get $15 from us to go to the bus station. That's probably why his cab is always parked in the same spot and I recognized him from yesterday. When we got here we thought it was smart to negotiate the price before you got into the cab. Come to find out it's better to just get in and hand the driver 2 or 3 bucks when you get to your destination. What are they going to say? It's the law.I'm writing from the Albrook mall; where we've been camping at a table in crepes & waffles restaurant for over two hours. I refuse to walk around the mall, across from the bus terminal, with my 25lb backpack on so this is the alternative. Our dinner was exquisite, especially Kevin's. It'll probably be the most impressive meal for the duration of our trip, and that's not saying much. From here on out it's fresh produce and home cooked meals. At least I hope. Most of the markets I've seen in panama sell predominantly fruit, and judging from the fact there was celery on my pizza I'd say a variety of vegetables is hard to come by. We're only 3 days into our trip and what I wouldn't give for some Thai food, or a vegetable stir fry! In panama carne is the main staple, which might account for all the overweight people here. I thought a Mediterranean diet would be easy to follow considering we're on the coast, but meat is the predominant diet. Yay rice and beans for the next month! I'm trying to take a new approach to this trip by not centering my experiences around food or drink. In Europe I thought I needed to try everything because food is such a cultural expression there. Here I knew the food wouldn't be great because I've been to Costa Rica before and was unimpressed. So I decided to put my love affair with food on hold in hopes of cleansing my system with fresh fruits and vegetables and minimal dairy and gluten. This would be easy if I could find them! Traveling as a vegetarian isn't ideal in these countries, sometimes you have to succumb to a lot of junk food to get by. And as I said earlier, you can't just buy a nice fillet of fish in the market, you have to bone the whole damn thing! Here's hoping for a farmers market by the lost and found hostel, or some veggies in there organic garden. Otherwise I'm going to have to learn how to stir fry fruit! I'm so thrilled to be leaving the slums and chaos of the city to venture into the nature and wildlife the lost and found eco lodge boasts. We'll be replacing our pet dog and cats at Mamallena with a kinkajou (cross between and monkey and a bear) and the sloths, monkeys and birds that frequent the lodge. Just have to make it through this 7 hour overnight bus ride, then the adventure begins!The over night bus was an awful experience, not only is it uncomfortable enough to try to sleep on a cramped bus, but the AC was on full force all night long. It felt like it was 50 degrees, no exaggeration. All we had to bundle up in was a light jacket and a hoodie. When we arrived at the bus terminal in David we had to find our connecting bus to Chiriqui where the lost a found hostel is located. That was easy, and to our pleasant surprise there were only five other people on the bus so we put our packs in the back of the bus and spread out. Five minutes before we departed the bus filled with people, blocking the aisle with their bodies and backpacks. This made us nervous because we were in the back and knew we were the only ones not taking the bus all the way to Bocas Del Toro. An hour later on the dot we arrived at a toll booth like the website had promised and anxiously looked for the lost and found sign. When we reached our destination we woke up the entire bus and had to climb over people and their luggage with our backpacks over our heads. It was a struggle to say the least. Everyone looked at us like we were crazy because we literally got off in the middle of nowhere, and the only "building" in sight was a fruit stand. It was so windy when we got off the bus and the sun was just starting to peek over the mountains. Just in time to light our fifteen minute uphill hike to the remote lodge. Lost and found lodge: The lodge is a nature lovers dream, planted in the jungle. The views are breathtaking, the guests are really laid back (until the drinks start flowing), and the vibe is relaxing. Up here there's no interference from technology, no wifi. We have all day to do as we please, even if that means nothing, with no concept of time. Our room is quaint with a big comfy bed and our own personal balcony. There aren't many rules here, everyone is on the honor system and accountable for what they use. There is an almost fully stocked kitchen with prices on various food items they provide and you tally what you take. Every day you wake up to a new card and keep a running tab. The bar is dangerous because during happy hour (which lasts all night) drinks are only $1. That's an easy way to rack up your tab! The bar doesn't open until 8:30, and they have nightly foose ball tournaments. The prize for the winners is a bottle of rum. Last night me and Kevin engaged everyone in f@&$ the dealer and smoke or fire. We had a lot of fun teaching the group new drinking games, and seeing their reactions to the rules. They also have a dare Jenga with some pretty crazy rules that render you either taking your clothes off or pounding your drink! The bar doesn't close until the last person leaves, which makes me hesitant to bartend here. I'm not sure if I can hang until 4am. There's so much to do here without being glued to a computer. There are plenty of hiking trails, day trips, books, games and people to converse with. I'm looking forward to cooking, getting in a workout everyday and practicing an hour of Spanish with Kevin. Today we're heading back to David (an hour bus ride) to go into town and do some grocery shopping at the bigger market and find me some pants. In town the weather is hot and humid but up here in the cloud forest the wind is intense and it can rain at any moment. There's also an Internet cafe there so we can communicate with everyone once in a while. Justin another volunteer just starting out here like us is going to show us around since he spent a couple nights there. Ciao! The lodge: Staying here feels like being back in summer camp, without the busy schedule. Even though the days seem long, we never seem to get bored. Yesterday we attempted to do the lost and found treasure hunt and ended up just hiking around. They created a labyrinth of bushes and trees that hides the first riddle to the treasure hunt. I didn't realize the hikes were so intermediate, and uphill almost the entire way. Some day after I recover from yesterday's hike, and have more time and energy we'll hike to the river or lookout point. The hand drawn map we were using is by no means drawn to scale so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What looked like a quarter mile on the map actually turned out to be three; and the altitude didn't help. It's almost like hiking just getting around the lodge. The bathroom, showers and guest dorms are all positioned on different points of the hill, with stepping stones and uneven stairs to get you there. Two of the highlights of the lodge are our rescued animals; Cloud a white faced monkey and Rocky a kinkajou. I'm determined to make cloud like me but he was abused by the maids at his last home and consequently hates women. I started to butter him up this morning by giving him some apple slices but I'm reluctant to get too close because he bit Kat on each hand and she's been volunteering here on and off for over 4 years! For now I'll just passively sit next to his enclosure and watch him from a distance. He isn't in a cage but instead on a leash that allows him to reach all the trees and points in his roped off area, and stretches just close enough to the walkway that he can reach out and grab a treat. He's fascinating to watch, especially the way he uses his little hands like ours and breaks open branches and digs for snacks. He also frequently gets tangled up in his leash and twists it around the "clothing lines" he perches on. One day we'll be friends, even if its only because I have food in my hands. Rocky, on the other hand, is nocturnal so we can only visit him after 7:30. He is a character! He'll hang down from a branch with his really strong tail and mall your face with licks and gentle nibbles. He likes to chew on Kevin's wrist and bites just hard enough to not break the skin. It kind of feels like a puppy chewing on you, but his size and mannerisms are more like a cat. He's got big black eyes and soft fur and reminds me of a cross between a monkey and a bear. One of the volunteer responsibilities is to take guests into Rocky's cage every night so he can give and receive lots of attention. The poor little guy got his face swiped by another animals claw and as a result makes this snorting, wheezing noise. He sounds like a pug but at least it gives him away when he's trying to come attack your face, bite your nose and search your pockets. The cage is lit by only a small flash light that we carry so without his little grunts he could easily sneak up on you in the dark.Last night a wild Olingo came into the lodge searching for food. Apparently he's a regular, and is blind in one eye. He seemed so tame and comfortable being around people, but since he's a wild animal I kept my distance. An Olingo looks like a jungle raccoon, and I believe there in the same family. Rocky is surprisingly a marsupial. I hope the longer we stay here the more critters we'll see. Training starts today, so from 2 to 9 pm we'll be learning the ropes around here. We had to move out of our private room with our huge comfortable bed into the overcrowded staff dorm where we'll be sharing a top bunk! They said whenever the privates aren't booked we can rent one for half price; but since it's their high season they might not be available often. We convinced Kat the manager to let us stay in the guest dorm, which has 15 double bunks. It sounds like it would be a huge room but the bunks are actually stacked three on top of each other. We're currently on the second level but they want to move us up to the top. I really hope I won't have to pee in the middle of the night! Training: The lodge is so laid back, most of the time you're on your shift you're just bullshitting with the other staff or guests. You're pretty much only required to check people in and out, answer calls and emails, give guests a tour, do dishes, show them Rocky, and clean up after everyone. Easy peasy. The cash out system is pretty weird but we'll get the hang of it. I have a 7am shift tomorrow morning so hopefully I'll be able to learn how to check people out. Kevin isn't even being trained on the morning shift because he doesn't function in the morning. I like the idea of being done by two and having the rest of the day to myself. Plus I feel like the morning shift will go by faster and there's less to do if there isn't a rush of people checking in or out.The wind here is absolutely insane! At night it sounds like it could blow the roof off these buildings. We've already made arrangements to be off Super Bowl Sunday and decided to book a night at this popular hostel in David. There's a sports bar across the street where we can watch the game and not have to worry about getting all the way back to the lodge. Plus it'll be nice to get in some wi fi time. I'm hoping to get this blog posted soon so you all can here about our travels through my corny narration. Kevin has to go back to town Friday for an ATM to pay our tab so hopefully I can convince him to upload it. Luckily I'm scheduled that day so I wont have time to take that long, cramped bus ride. I just hope he can find someone to go with him since his Spanish is lacking. We miss you all and I wish we could be in touch more, but aside from the lack of communication we are really content here. The people are great, the views are incredible, the hikes are challenging, the job is relaxing and the exotic animals are such a rare opportunity. I really don't see this getting old any time soon. We're thinking about buying a phone with prepaid minutes so we can call home once in a while for only 10 cents a minute. There is cell service up here, and $16 for a crappy little cell phone seems worth it if we're going to be here for at least three weeks or more. It's so weird that we stared here because it feels like this is something you would do at the end of your trip and just postpone going home for as long as you can afford groceries. The fact that it's only our second stop and have two more countries to explore is a temptation but I'm sure we'll give it close to a month. Justin might even come to Bocas with us since he doesn't seem to have much of a plan or a time frame. It's awesome being a volunteer now because not only do we not have to pay for our board but we also get all the tours, dinners and amenities for half off. The dinners Marta prepares every night are really good size portions and usually consist of some type of meat, rice, lentils, salad and garlic bread. They're more than enough to share and only cost us $3 now. We've had fun cooking our meals everyday but it's nice to just have your dinner prepared for you once in a while (even though I'll never be able to eat the main course). Heading to bed since I have an early morning, buenos noches! Today we have a group of 30 fifteen year old Dutch students coming to the lodge so me and Kevin are moving into the bar. How convenient! Unfortunately we had to kick all the friends we've been making out to accommodate the group. The students will only be here for one night so seems like a shame to inconvenience everyone else. Luckily you can walk to the bottom of the hill and hail a bus to David, Boquette, Bocas or Changuinolla, so there's options. This older couple hiked up here without reservations this morning and instead of turning them back around we gave them a discounted rate and they're going to join our slumber party in the bar. It's kind of a struggle to get out here; the buses are packed full and the trail up to the lodge isn't fun when you're carrying your backpack, so we're willing to find them someplace to sleep. Hopefully one day me and Kevin will have a bed of our own, so we don't have to keep moving from room to room like gypsies. I got assigned to this mornings shift and had to check out the entire lodge. I haven't had much experience checking people out but after this afternoon I'll be a pro! I got a head start adding up people's tabs last night so it wouldn't take forever. The morning went by fast since I actually had something to do other than clean up after people. I'm excited to get off so I can take a nap, although at this point I'm not sure if I have a bed yet. Yesterday we hiked down this super steep hill just to obtain shitty wi fi outside of a church, in the small town of la Mina. It was worth it since we were able to book a night at the Bambu hostel in David for the Super Bowl. Luckily I did it then because there were only two rooms left. I'm excited to spend the day and night in the city and hopefully celebrate the Niners victory. It'll be good to get back to civilization for a few days even though I like how remote and relaxing our hostel is. Go Niners!!!


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