Sunday, January 24, 2010

Final Days in Panama

With our time in Panama coming to a close, we've decided to settle in (a relative term during this kind of travel) for a short week in the Western Highlands town of Boquete to relax together before going our separate ways at the end of the month. This has afforded us some time to reflect on all the places we've been and to appreciate the number and diversity of the people, communities, and landscapes that we've met along the way. Since our last word, we reunited with Emily's close college friends, got some more time in Barrigon (Kayla's Peace Corps site), ventured deep into the surrounding jungle and emerged to timidly step foot onto the dance floor of a Panamanian music party.

With a smile on his face, Ben endured some serious girl-talk time in Panama City before Emily, Kayla, Katherine, and Micaela headed to the remote San Blas Islands for a New Year's weekend. With slackline and hula hoops in tow, the ladies brought the circus to their tiny island, which took no more than two minutes to circumnavigate on foot. While they practiced their tricks, they got the thirty or so international travelers -- hailing from England, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina -- to join in. The excursion provided plenty of time for swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing and, most importantly, long-awaited quality time amongst best friends.

Micaela hoopin' on the San Blas beach:

After a couple more days in the city, we bussed back to Kayla's house in Barrigon for some time in her hammocks. Of note during our time there was an extended visit to the town's own master woodworker and his shop. Completely engineered and built by himself, Fernando's shop is set up at the bottom of a small waterfall. All his tools -- table saw, hand saw, drill press, lathe -- are handmade by him and powered by nothing but the falling water itself. He can, and does, build just about everything, from rocking chairs to window frames to sugar cane presses. We caught him in the process of making stacks and stacks of perfectly uniform, detailed bed posts and other bunkbed parts. He then allowed us to squeeze our own sugar cane juice in his homemade press -- what a sweet treat!

Six Puget Sound Loggers in Panama City:
Ben, Emily, Katherine, Kayla, Micaela, Molly

Fernando's water-powered workshop:

Fernando using the lathe to make bedposts:

Pressing sugar cane into juice:

Then . . . things got wild. After consulting with Kayla and some local geography experts, we (Ben, Emily, Katherine) embarked upon a trip unlike any we had done before. With two good maps, a sketchy itinerary (at best), a short list of helpful names, a couple of bags of rice, and a lack of certainty of the trail ahead, we began our multi-elemented trek from Kayla's house, through the jungled mountains all the way to the Caribbean Coast. Promptly, we ran into mud and didn't emerge from it for two full days. Often knee-deep and occasionally close to tears, we also took time to appreciate the gorgeous scenery and pristine jungle constantly surrounding us.

On the morning of Day Three, we awoke in the tiny community of Calle Larga to the good news that the owner of the only motorized boat in town was able to scrounge together enough gasoline from his neighbors to make the three-hour trip downriver to the coast. Our relief quickly turned to terror when it dawned on us that the leaking (like a seive) twenty-foot wooden canoe would be carrying us over winding Class II rapids. As the boat bounced off rocks and the frail planks made audible hints of splitting, we bailed water frantically while the hired helper up front fended us off boulders using his long wooden stick. Miraculously, we arrived at the coast, unharmed, in the small town of Belén.

The next morning, finally dried out and confident in our boat-riding abilities, we boarded a slightly sturdier boat to head west down the coast. As we were leaving town and pointing directly at several rows of large breaking waves, however, our confidence was shattered when our boat driver yelled over the engine noise to ask if we knew how to swim. Minutes later, drenched with spraying saltwater, we were able to release our white-knuckle grips on eachother and enjoy the cliffs, jungles and sandy beaches that made up the coastline.

Day 5, at last, was less harrowing than the previous four. We walked (strolled, sometimes) along the coastline that alternated between sandy beach and forested trail (pleasantly reminiscent of Washington´s Olympic Coast). Day 6 brought our return to civilization, but not before another scary boat ride up another river, five more hours of trudging through mud, and a truck ride up and down steep gravelly roads and across seventeen (we were counting) streams and through four large, deep, rushing rivers.

Oh yeah, and we forgot to mention that it had rained torrentially upon us for a good part of the last six days. Hence the mud. And the rivers crossing the road. And the absence of a single piece of dry clothing between the three of us. This just made our arrival at the hostel (with warm showers, cold beer and clean, dry, comfortable and insect/flea-free beds) that much better.

While our account here might sound a bit nightmarish, we actually had a lot of fun and reflected most nights on how lucky we were to experience a chunk of Panama that is, unfortunately, missed altogether by most outsiders. Along the way, we met an incredible set of people - people who guided us, gave us directions, took us in, cooked for us, and helped us in a number of other ways. Most days we would enter a village totally unsure of where to go and how to reach our next destination, and within 15 minutes we would find a family to stay with, someone to prepare our rice and lentils, and a good lead on how we would proceed the following day. The experience as a whole was unforgettable.
Ben's feet covered with ruin-your-socks mud:
Katherine and Emily at the end of Day 2 - Notice the thigh-high mud stains:
Emerging from a mud pit:The boat and drivers that took us down the river and over the rapids:
Crossing the mouth of a river on the coast:
Crossing back over the same river the following day, this time at high-tide:
A jungle path along the coast:
Ben and Katherine walking the shoreline:
Katherine and Emily:

In the days following the trip, the three of us reunited with Kayla and spent some time on the dry, sunny, warm Pacific Coast. We also got a chance to go to a "baile," a traditional music concert/dance. Luckily for us, this particular baile was hosted by two of the most reknowned accordion players in Panama, along with their respective bands and their personal yodelling/yelping accompianists. The dancing, made up of hundreds of aggressively-shuffling couples of all ages, continued until dawn. We tried our hand and quickly became the spectacle of the cement dance floor, but we were only able to last until 4 a.m.

With all that adventure behind us, we said a tearful goodbye to Emily's friends and headed here to Boquete, a beautiful mountain town with lots to do and see. We've been glad to be able to slow down and enjoy each other's company for these last few days.

Since arriving in Boquete, we have:

Strolled through an impressively-landscaped garden, adorned with kitschy wooden babes:

Learned about the "bean-to-bag" process of coffee farming:

Cruised around on rented mountain bikes:

Gotten Ben's hair cut:

Toured the countryside on a scooter:

And hiked to a hidden waterfall with a perfect picnic spot.

But don't be fooled -- we've spent the bulk of our time here playing cards and sipping locally-grown coffee.

So what's next? Together, we'll take a bus over the border to San Jose, Costa Rica, where we both have flights to catch. Emily flies out on Tuesday; she'll return to Los Angeles and work on preparing to leave for Senegal, where she'll be a Peace Corps Volunteer starting on March 10th. Ben flies to Mexico to rejoin the crew of Ohana to help them make the return back up north for a month before boarding a 55-foot motoryacht headed for the Galapagos Islands.


  1. Sounds like a wicked time.'re going to the Galapagos?...are you gonna travel futher south n the mainland? You should come to Bolivia or Peru and frolick with me!