Jump Back, What's That Sound? Itomolando!

Published: August 24th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY


Warning - I'm boring. Many of you already know this. But many of you out there actually found my A.D.D. inner-monologue styled stories from a few years ago to be at least mildly entertaining. I feel that this time it may be different & my Blogger Hall of Fame status is in jeopardy. Maybe it's because this was a shorter gig than before or maybe because this time I actually had someone (Nathalie) with me to share the experiences and I wasn't constantly thinking of how to tell the story through this blog. (Yes, I'm already learning how to try to blame her for my faults). Also, I think that when traveling before, my mind was completely chilled out and was looking for something to do whereas this time my mind was simply looking to achieve any level of chill possible & thus didn't record very much. But I'm so badly in need of higher viewing statistics on my stories (to support my blog ego..."Oooh! 4 people read my story! You love me...you really love me!") that I suppose I'll give it a go.

One thing that hasn't changed...I still babble and ramble a lot. I guess I still have a lot to say.

Before I go on, for those not in my normal loop, a brief update is in order since I've not posted for over 3 years. The short version is that after Going Global in 2007-08, I made my way out to Southern California and now reside in Newport Beach. Though this is wildly different than my Suburban Chicago roots, I assure you that the transition to sun, warmth, mountains, beach, wine (and beer) country, and unlimited recreational opportunities has been a smooth one. Though the transition from living out of a bag and spending $1 per meal to living in one of the more ridiculously opulent communities in America was a bit strange...it's safe to say that my hippie travel clothes don't come out of the closet often and I see more Ferraris here than I did in Kathmandu. Other than that, I dig it here so much that I haven't even taken a proper trip anywhere since moving. I've left CA at times, but generally only for family vacations & holidays. I'm pretty happy spending my free time falling down mountains on my mountain bike or visiting delicious CA micro-breweries. CA has a ton to offer.

Another update...in the intro I mentioned Nathalie. So about that...my first stop in 2007 was Fiji, where through a series of random events (aren't they all seemingly random?) I met a guy named Ryan who later became a more regular friend now that we both live in SoCal. In early 2008 he was back in Fiji and through some more random events, briefly met some chick named Nathalie, who was on the final stop of her year long gig. She moved to LA, Ryan got us in touch, I eventually got my head on straight, asked her, and voila...we're getting married next year. Yay for us. Laissez les bons temps rouler! (I haven't yet sent Ryan the bill for the ring).

By now you're asking "Isn't this entry supposed to be about Panama?"

Right, so she had a childhood friend that was getting married in Panama this summer & this provided a perfect opportunity for us to scratch that international itch. Off we went...

We landed in Panama City at 9pm with the grand plan that renting a car with a GPS was a good idea. It may have been...we'll never know...the GPS part, that is.

"You reserved a GPS, yes? I don't have a GPS for you, but I do have a very good map."

By "very good map" he meant the glossy Thrify tourist map that fits all of Panama City onto a single sheet of paper. We called the hotel, got some crappy directions and got in the car. It was dark and raining, we were 25 miles from our goal, and we basically had no map or directions. Awesome. I buckled up and said to Nathalie "This is going to get crazy and I'll try to not lose it, but losing it will likely be part of the next hour of our lives. Don't take it personally when I snap." She said something similar and off we went...trusting that I could simply feel my way to the hotel.

Rather than give a full play-by-play, I'll simply say that there are almost no street signs in Panama (when there are, they list a different name than what was given to you in your directions), there are plenty of narrow one-way streets (several of which we saw 3-4 times), and when you've driven in circles/squares/triangles for 90 minutes it's best to just ask a cabbie if he'll take $4 to lead you to La Estancia (the hotel) on Cerro Ancon before your fiancee has second thoughts about spending any more time traveling together.

"I do"
After a morning walk to see some views of the city, we once again set off in the car in search of our next destination - Gorgona. This was a small non-touristy town about an hour out of the city & is where Erica and Alberto were getting married. More navigational hijinks ensued (though this time in daylight & no rain...still no signs), but this time the feeling navigational system worked better.

Contrary to the travel style we were used to from our backpacking days, we had reserved a sweet 19th floor condo on the beach in Gorgona through the VRBO website. There are some beginnings of development in Gorgona by foreigners and weekenders from Panama City, but it's still very much just a local town, which suited us just fine.

We spent the morning of the wedding walking along the beach...with my hippie shoulder bag stocked with a few cans of Atlas (one of the crappy local beers) to keep us company along the way and to provide some relief from the summer humidity. On the way back to the condo we walked past a guy wearing a faded Urlacher (Chicago Bears linebacker) jersey & I said "Hey, it's Brian Urlacher!". As is often the case in traveling, simply saying "hi" to people can open up the doors of possibilities.

Brian Urlacher turned out to be Gringo Rick - a retired US Army Drug Enforcement type guy from St. Louis but has been living in Gorgona for 12 years. We spent the next few hours hanging with him at a little hut on the beach that fried some of the best fish we've ever had and served some of the most luke-warm beer we've ever had. At one point I was playing in the water with his 10 year old daughter (Josaline) trying not to kill myself on a dodgy-at-best rope swing and I saw Nathalie and Gringo Rick waving their arms to come out of the water. Apparently it had been determined that it was 3:30 and we needed to be at the wedding (in Coronado, one town away) at 4pm. Whoops.

We scrambled and ran through the muddy streets (had been raining for a couple hours at this point) back to the condo only to find that it had actually been only 2:30...which gave us enough time to get ready and actually make it to the wedding for which we traveled thousands of miles.

When the wedding ceremony got to the "I do" part, Nathalie and I had considered jumping up and shouting "Yeah, we do too!" in order to save all the hassle and money of doing our own gig, but thought better of the idea (you're welcome, Mom). After the ceremony, our procession of half gringos and half Panamanians drove through the muddy pot-holed streets back to a sweet house on the beach in Gorgona and salsa-ed the night away. (To be clear, the Panamanians - and Nathalie - salsa danced...I and the other gringos did whatever it is that gringos do)

We stayed in Gorgona a couple more days hanging out with Gringo Rick and enjoying the non-touristy nature of the area. He showed us some local restaurants and took us to an amazing waterfall & swimming hole in the jungle for an afternoon while telling us stories of his travels over the years doing drug enforcement stuff. I believe he's the first person I've met that had Pablo Escobar put a bounty on his head back in the 80's. If that's not a badge of honor, I don't know what is.

One last note about Gorgona...it's on the Pacific Ocean side of Panama, but due to how Central America twists around, the sun actually rises over the Pacific. For people from the Americas (other than Panama), that messes with the mind a bit.

The Canal
I'd be remiss to write an entry about Panama w/o mentioning the Canal...so here it is.

1) If you want to visit the Canal and see some action, don't show up at the Miraflores Locks at 11:30am like we did b/c that's when they're changing the direction of traffic and you'll have to wait until 2:30 to see some action.

2) It's big and impressive, but having grown up taking boats through lock systems on the Illinois River, I wasn't as much in awe and wonder as many others seemed to be.

3) The impressive part to me is that they built it 100 years
Jumping on the Iguanas West EndJumping on the Iguanas West EndJumping on the Iguanas West End

...which is 50m from the East End
ago. Quite a grand scale of a project considering the available technology of that era.

4) My favorite fact: During construction, they drilled enough dynamite holes that if stacked on end would have been been long enough to drill through the Earth.

If you want more facts, check it out on Wikipedia.

Next up was making that long (50mi?) journey across Panama to the other coast. The plan was to fly, but apparently we were a bit optimistic about showing up at the airport and getting a flight for the next morning. (The guy at the airline counter actually laughed at me when I asked).

Until 2010, the road to the other side apparently required something close to a Sherman Tank to make it through certain sections, but now it's paved nearly the entire way. So we piled into an SUV with some other travelers and headed off.

I never would have survived that road in past years based on the fact that I barely survived the twists & turns of the paved version. An Adam Carolla Podcast in my ear, a motion sickness pill in my belly, and a death-grip on the door handle were the only thing that kept me ruining the ride for the rest of the passengers. To be clear, it wasn't a dangerous ride...rather I've just lost my ability to handle motion. Lame.

After a couple of hours, we pulled up to a muddy river bank and piled into the boat that was to take us 30 mins away to Iguanas Island, which is part of the San Blas Archipelago - a Caribbean paradise comprised of roughly 400 tiny islands. Many are uninhabited, many are home to the Kuna indigenous people, and several are set up for travelers like us. There's pretty limited information out there about the various islands, so after hearing a few of them described to us, we picked one and went with it.

Iguanas island is roughly the size of a football field and is comprised of sand, palm trees, a few bamboo huts, and a handful of travelers getting in touch with previously unknown levels of relaxation. There is virtually nothing to do on these islands other than read, snorkle, nap, and drink warm beer or CocoLoco (cutting open a coconut and mixing in some rum). BTW, these activities can be done
Iguanas IslandIguanas IslandIguanas Island

That's basically the entire thing...
in any order & I believe we tried all possible variations.

Everything on the island was very basic. The lodging was bamboo huts with cots, sand floors, and the occasional midnight visitors that come in the forms of lizards, crabs, and cockroaches. The meals consisted of freshly caught fish & lobster. There was actually a toilet and something resembling a shower, but these were basic as well.

Several travelers came and went during our 3 nights there. Germans, Dutch, Americans, Swiss, Italians, French, Russians, and Spanish. After dinner each night, we all would hang around the table and its one light bulb and talk traveler-talk until the generator was turned off at 11pm. It was a nice low-key snippet of the backpacker world that we've been away from for the last few years.

Casco Viejo
Three nights in relaxation paradise was about all we could handle. I claim that the main motivation to return to civilization was the fact that I pretty much smelled like a shoe after 4 days and 3 nights of 90deg F and 95% humidity.

We checked out Lunas, the main backpackers in the old part (Casco Viejo) of Panama City, but it seems that perhaps our desire for that scene has waned a bit & we chose a nicer, quieter, A/C place down the street.

There had been some concern of what we'd do for a couple of days in the city prior to our flight home, but it turned out that Casco Viejo was a great place to hang out for a bit. It's the historically protected part of the city that contains everything from housing projects to the homes of government officials. This mix of cool architecture, Italian restaurants, relaxing street cafes, and a general low-key kick-back atmosphere left us wishing we had another day or two to enjoy the area. But alas it was time to make the journey home.

One final bit of backpacker fun was when we stopped by Lunas the night before our flight in order to set up a taxi for 6am in the morning. We ran into Fabian (one of the Germans from Iguanas) who happened to be talking to a guy that had just set up a taxi for his morning flight. It turned out that not only was he on the same flight to ATL and the same flight to LAX, but he lives one mile away from Nathalie in Redondo Beach. Once again proving that one never knows what you'll find by simply saying "Hi" to others while out on the road.

So...that's all I got this time. It was great to get away and get a small taste (albeit a somewhat better funded version) of the traveler life that we both lived a few years ago.

PS - The last song that came on the radio on the way to LAX when we headed to Panama was "Panama" by Van Halen. Certainly a good omen.

PPS - "Itomolando" is Kuna for "Cheers".

Additional photos below
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Pacific Sunrise(ish)Pacific Sunrise(ish)
Pacific Sunrise(ish)

For those of us in the States, it's not normal to see the sun rise over the Pacific...
Gringo RickGringo Rick
Gringo Rick

This picture basically tells you all you need to know about GR's lifestyle. BTW - This is his other Urlacher jersey...he apparently has several & they seem to comprise most of his wardrobe.
Iguanas Island Night ClubIguanas Island Night Club
Iguanas Island Night Club

A table with one light and some warm beer.

24th August 2011

Marc, It is good to hear from you again. Congratulations on your wedding plans and other good things in your life!! All are doing well on my side. Some ups and downs but mostly pretty positive. If you respond direct, I'll send some specifics. All my best. Marty Plecki.

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