Ups and downs

Traveling certainly has it’s ups and downs. Lately I’ve been down. I don’t know if it’s the heat, lack of exercise (due to the heat), not eating well or what, but I’ve been in a funk. Listless, lonely, bored.

I’ve always had full confidence in my self and my own abilities, but pay far too much attention to other people’s moods and how they relate to me. I’m getting pretty tired of the typical reaction from locals. For example, I walk into a restaurant and say “Good morning!” This is met by silence, accompanied by a glare. I ask for a menu. With great effort, as if I’ve interrupted some fantastic movie they were watching, they dain to bring me said menu. This goes on. No “thank you’s” or even smiles like we do in the States after a purchase is made. No “you’re welcome’s” after I say thank you, like politeness calls for. The guidebooks make a big deal of the importance of manners in these countries, but I see scant evidence of it. I have the most manners these towns have seen in years.

Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t take it personally, for I surmise I’m completely projecting all that hostility, and it probably has very little to do with me. That’s just the way they are. It’s like when the dancers used to glare at me and I would take it personally until it was explained to me that they weren’t glaring at me, they were upset because they had just been given a correction or some such thing completely unrelated to me. In fact, it’s incredibly egotistical to take it to heart. But that’s easier said than done.

Marissa came up with a great line that I’ve been musing over: what if the glass, rather than being half full or half empty, is exactly the right amount? I interpret this to mean that life is what it is, independent of how we interpret it. “Life is empty and meaningless”, therefore it’s up to us to impart meaning into events that are by nature completely neutral. There is no “bad” traffic, traffic simply is. We can interpret traffic to be an aggravating mess, or as a useful hour to catch up on listening to our favorite podcasts. This is what I am struggling with at the moment. It has to be done in the moment, to catch my thoughts before they turn negative. This morning at the grocery I was ranting to myself why I have to stand in two lines, one to weigh the fruit, then one to pay – why can’t they do it all in one line, like in the States? But negative thoughts like this are useless – I need to embrace the differences, and find positivity in them. After all, that’s the point of traveling.

So just when I’m feeling morose about the locals, a few key experiences happen that reinforce my faith in humanity.
First, to tell you where I am geographically. I spent a couple of nights in Santiago, an uneventful small city on the Pan-American Highway. From there, I day-tripped up to Santa Fé, a wholly uneventful town that I toured in about 10 minutes, only to spend another 2 hours back on the bus.
Panama is much longer than any other Central American country – I’m still closer to the capital of Costa Rica than I am to the capital of Panama, and both capitals are roughly in the middle of their respective countries.
After Santiago I based myself in Chitré, the largest town on the Azuero Peninsula that sticks out south into the Pacific. Chitré has a pretty church, and in a tree between the church and the market I heard these crazy birds:

The peninsula is very hot, dry, and flat. One day I took buses to several small towns along the peninsula that are supposed to be pretty. [By the way, I wish guidebooks would be more opinionated – instead of just the facts (“preserved colonial town with nice church”), couldn’t they just say, “if you’ve seen colonial towns in Guatemala or Nicaragua, skip these, they can’t compare”. Particularly the Central American guidebooks, whose customers are probably indeed trying to decide which are the most important places to see! But I digress..]

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Lost & Found Eco Hostel

I’ve spent the last five days at a lovely spot up in the cloud forest called Lost & Found Eco Hostel. I couldn’t even tell you exactly where it is.. somewhere on the road connecting the coasts, between David and Bocas. The bus lets you off by the side of the road with nothing around but trees and a trail heading up into the forest. After 1000′ of huffing and puffing you come to a little oasis built right into the side of the mountain with stunning views. It’s clear from the moment you arrive that you’re going to be living in the midst of nature, with all that entails. Maybe that’s why the critters didn’t bug me, because I was clearly in their home, whereas when I find them in my home, I feel they’re invading my space. Here, I was invading their space.

The place was built about a year or so ago by a Canadian guy (Andrew) about my age. The design is really smart – most of the hangout space is completely open to the elements, albeit with a roof. The sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and movie/game lounge are all enclosed. It’s amazing to think how all of the supplies for the place were carried by hand up the mountain. Hundreds of bags of concrete, steel beams, refridgerators, beds, metal sheeting, toilets. I stopped being such a princess and stayed in the dorm instead of a private room. It was fine. Their bunks are three high, but built wide and high. I do like my privacy, but since the bathrooms were far and away anyway, it didn’t make much difference. Plus it was much cheaper. Instead of throwing used toilet paper into a trash bin as you do in Guatemala, you throw it into a metal bucket followed by a lit match. It works perfectly – everything, including the smell, goes up in smoke.  Everything is recycled, naturally. It’s in the midst of an organic coffee farm, and is the only private land within a large natural park, so there are tons of wild plants and animals about.

My first afternoon I took a hike up to a lookout and saw a white-faced Capuchin monkey about 30′ away! Another day I saw some crazy looking large birds, but wasn’t able to identify them. My favorite birds of the area are the Harpy Eagles. These birds are so large and powerful that they come swooping out of the sky and carry off monkeys, sloths, anteaters.. pretty much anything that moves. Cool! One of the staff I befriended showed me a banana spider in it’s web and a hummingbird nest, replete with baby hummingbirds. He also caught a jungle crab which I had never heard of (and neither has Wikipedia, so I’m not sure of it’s real name.) Big cats including jaguars, pumas, and ocelots are also known to be in the area, but they’re near impossible to spot. They see you long before you see them.

Biologists from the Smithsonian come around often to study in the area. I came across some of their rain and field gauges in the woods and sent the photos to Eddie, who provided more info. Check this out – a mere two weeks ago they were on a hike right behind the hostel and discovered an entirely new species of snake. How cool is that?! The best part is that they get to name it. I would love to name a new species of snake – I would call it.. Jasminidae. They also discovered a new type of tarantula a few months ago. Amazing that in this day and age there are still so many undiscovered plant and animal species. In Panama alone there are 125 species found nowhere else in the world. Statistics like that really drive home why we need to save the rainforest.

Living on the premises in a large cage is a rescued kinkajou named Rocky. He is sooooo cute! I want one. They’re nocturnal, so you can only play with him at night. Which is good, since he can see much better at night than in the day. He loves people to play with him. The cage is about 10’x10’x7′, so you can get a lot of people in there along with all his branches and toys. He’s only 2 years old (they live into their late twenties), so he’s still very frisky, like a puppy. He nibbles at your nose and ears, and if he’s biting too hard you just pull on the scruff of his neck like mom would. He has a prehensile tail that is amazingly strong, it can swing him around like another arm. His paws are more like hands – five-fingered, they look like a wolfman baby’s hands – human like, but with more hair and sharp nails.

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What exactly is a cloud forest?

I am picturing a cartoon forest filled with trees that don’t have leaves but instead have big white cartoon-y clouds on top. But I’m sure that Josh will clarify that. Cause that’s where he is! At some nutty eco-hostel with no internet but lots of other wacky travelers.

He called earlier, and asked me to post to let everyone know that he’s just dandy, but can’t update this blog and can’t send international texts (so no twittering). But it is seemingly AWESOME there, with tons of hikes and previously unknown animals. He is apparently planning on adopting this “adorable” creature that is a cross between a raccoon and ferret. ? But more specifics to come, I’m sure.

He said that he’s going to be in the hippie tree-house for a few more days and then begin making his way east. May not be in touch again until he gets to Panama City, though.

And then I thought that I’d take this blog-hijacking as an opportunity to post some other pictures from our time in Nicaragua. Because Josh only put up pictures where my hair looks bad.

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Panamanian highlands

I’m still in David. I just needed a break, to catch up on email, the blog, excercise, sleep, etc. But now I’m feeling the itch, so tomorrow I’ll probably move on.
I moved to a hostel, to be with people and get info about the area. Ironically, it’s more expensive than the hotel I was in (dorm beds are cheap, but I’m just too old for that). Interesting story about this place (Hostel Bambú). The proprieter is a 30-something from New York City. He was the guitarist in a successful rock band for 12 years, touring Europe, appearing on Letterman and Conan, etc. But their last album didn’t sell so well, they got dropped by their label, and he found himself out of work with no work history, no skills, no idea what to do next. So he came down to Panama to hang out with a friend for a while. Eventually, he met a hostel owner who told him how easy it was to open his own. He scraped together $8k from friends and family, found a partner with the same amount, put the down payment on a house (dealing directly with the owners), and opened for business. They’ve done all the work themselves to convert it from a single-family house into a hostel. It’s only been open four months. Having spent five years managing hostels there is a lot I would have done differently, but he’s learning as he goes. He’s just too young to be missing so many brain cells. Actually, it’s a bit what I imagine college dorms to be like. Ping-pong, messy dishes, relaxed vibe, the guitars and bongos even come out at night. Classic.

On my run the other day I met a few locals who invited me back to hang out in the evening. It was good fun although I didn’t understand most of the conversation. The next day one of the girls and I hung out because she speaks English. She’s from Bocas del Toro on the Carribean, where they speak some English. We went to her daughter’s school, then took a bus to a waterfall and swam a bit. It’s always nice being in the company of a local, seeing how they live. Very slow paced – lots of standing in the street and shooting the breeze with the neighbors.

Today I went for a day trip up to Boquete, a town in the Chiriquí highlands. The region is sometimes called “Little Switzerland” because of the Alpine-style houses and the influence of Swiss and Yugoslav settlers. The cool, crisp air is a nice change from the heat of David. To make an analogy to U.S. towns that I know, I imagine Boquete was a bit like Truckee, CA 20 years ago – a pretty Western town nestled in the mountains. But now it’s quickly becoming the Aspen, CO of Panama. I must have walked past 10 real estate shops, all with signs in English. Rich Americans are moving there in droves and driving up the prices. The menus in some of the restaurants would make even New Yorkers blush. So weird – 60km away here in David, the $8 Boquete burrito goes for $2. Someone is getting very rich off all the naive gringos.

Anyway, this week the town is having their annual coffee and flower festival. All the hotels are booked out for this which turned out to be a blessing, since it prevented me from staying there – it was enough to walk around for a day. I had a nice chat with one of the festival workers who was bored. Again, I only understood about 50% of what she said, but it was nice to try for a while. [I’ve been cracking the language books, but it’s slow going].
There is a pretty botanical garden called Mi Jardin Es Tu Jardin that Doug (my father)’s friend recommended. And, I created an adventure for myself by fording the river. Who needs horses, guides, rafts and ropes? Not I!

I would like to do more in this region, but the tour prices are insane, and it’s not clear whether I can do a lot of it on my own. Trying to figure out where to go next. Chloë and I visited Bocas del Toro for a quick vacation years ago and it was beautiful, but I hear it’s pricey and touristy now. Hmm, where to go..

A lot of the locals here call gringos “G.I.’s”, including myself. I assume it’s left over from when the U.S. occupied the Canal Zone, and anyone looking like a gringo probably was in fact a G.I.

Speaking of GI’s.. this past weekend, I had a similar experience as in La Ceiba – I’m waiting for the weekend to roll around when the town will light up, the weekend comes, and.. the discos and everything were all closed on Friday and Saturday. Turns out it was Martyrs Day, when they commemorate 22 student protesters getting gunned down by the U.S. Army in 1964. Reading the history makes me ashamed of my country (as if I need another reason).

Saw my first movie in a theatre since leaving the States – The Day the Earth Stood Still. Good fun, although I thought the ending was a bit wimpy. Thank dios they didn’t overdub it, or I would have surely walked out.

It’s difficult to find a healthy meal. I see vegetables in the market, but they’re rarely put into the food. Where do they go? Lots of fried meat and starches instead.

Here is a video of the kid shaving ice to make a local snow cone.

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