Sunday, January 17, 2010

Panama – Introduction: Culture Shock in Bocas Town

Panama – Introduction: Culture Shock in Bocas Town

A brief diversion from La Vida Colombiana, here is a vacation to Panama.

It was almost Christmas and I was off to Panama for the holidays. Upon landing I had a minor panic attack because I found out when I landed in Panama City that there is an international airport as well as a domestic airport that are about a 30 minute cab ride apart. Luckily, I had time to catch my flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro.

Before I left Colombia, I had looked to see what the Panamanian currency was - Balboa and U.S. dollar, but the exchange rate for each was the same. Hmmm. I asked a woman at airport information about how much a cab to the other airport would cost. She responded, “Vale 25 dollars.”

OK, so I guess they use dollars here. One 20-dollar bill was the only U.S. currency I was carrying. I had a second moment of panic when my bankcard didn’t work in two different ATMs. I then tried my credit card, no shock that didn’t work either. Credit does not equal debit. On a whim I thought I’d try my Colombian bankcard and presto! How odd to withdraw U.S. dollars from an ATM in Panama using a Colombian bankcard.

I got in a cab and said to my driver, “Vale $20 a Areopuerto Albrook?” The answer was sí.
I had loads of questions about Panama for my cab driver, who ended up being more like a tour guide. I instantly noticed a huge difference between Panama and Colombia – the driving in Panama is sane. Also, the roads were in great condition. I thought this might just be the roads in Panama City, but later found out that all the roads were in good shape throughout the whole country.

I viewed the perimeter of Panama City through a cab window while my cab driver told me what I was seeing. Hundreds of tall, modern buildings line the edge of the Gulf of Panama. From my brief view I didn’t find it to be a beautiful city, but it looked like it was thriving and seemed to have a solid economy based on how new all the skyscrapers were.

Arriving at the domestic airport I saw more white people than I’d seen in one place since I left Oregon, but this was nothing compared to Bocas Town. On my little plane to Bocas del Toro, I’m not sure if there was one Panamanian aboard. I sat next to, and instantly became friends with, a woman named Alicia from Seattle. She was traveling with her parents and we decided that we’d get dinner together in Bocas del Toro.

When we arrived at the “airport” (actually it’s really just a landing strip), we walked literally 3 blocks and were in the center of town. Bocas del Toro is a small archipelago on the Caribbean Sea very close to Costa Rica. Our plane landed on the main island called Isla Colon, and Bocas is the name of the biggest town there. It was peak travel season and the town was absolutely packed with tourists. I was actually having a bit of culture shock. I wasn’t hearing or speaking Spanish at all, and the lingua franca here appeared to be English no matter where the tourists were from. Alicia and her mom, Joyce, had done quite a bit of long-term foreign travel as well and they understood my culture/language shock. Joyce said, “You can tell jokes and make witty comments that people understand.”
Alicia piped in, “You can use sarcasm without people being offended.”
We both shared stories of how we have used sarcasm with non-native English speakers and had it go horribly wrong, unintentionally hurting people’s feelings.

First thing I did was drop off my horribly dirty laundry (see Volcan Totumo). After upgrading hotels I took the first of a series of 4 hot showers over the next 16 hours. Being my first hot shower since July, it was absolutely delightful. I then met Alicia and her parents for happy hour margaritas and nachos at a restaurant overlooking the water. I felt like a complete tourist and I honestly didn’t care. Everyone else was too. I was not the only natural blonde in town. I didn’t stand out at all, I blended in with all the other tourists. I am clearly not used to this.

After happy hour we had a delicious dinner at an English man’s restaurant called the Casbah. Heading back to my hotel I passed several bars and unsurprisingly heard the ubiquitous melodies of Bob Marley. Bocas Town struck me as a backpacker, as well as higher-end tourist, laid back kind of party town.

This is a cute inn (I didn't stay here) in Bocas Town

The next morning was Christmas Eve. I arose early, and as I suspected getting up early would be the way to interact with some locals. After exchanging several buenos días and other morning pleasantries, I went to a bakery for coffee and breakfast as well as checking the schedule of yoga classes in town. At 9:15 I took my first yoga class that I’d had since July. It was at Bocas Yoga and the teacher was exceptionally good. Of course the class was taught in English.

After yoga I looked around town a bit. I learned all the amazing uses of the taqua nut from a man selling jewelry. I ended up buying a bag with a fish mola on it from him. He told me that the word Panama means ‘an abundance of fish’ so, that seemed to be a fitting design motif. A mola is an elaborately detailed, hand-sewn fabric by the Kuna people. (Oddly enough, the origin of the Kuna is in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia).

After my 4th hot shower it was time to move to La Coralina. I had booked this hotel online as my Christmas present to myself. It was the most money I’ve ever spent on a room for just myself, and I honestly think it was worth it. The cab driver picked me for about a 10-minute $10 ride to La Coralina. I was welcomed with a Piña Colada, and instantly met a bunch of other tourists.

The welcoming bar at la Coralina, where happy hour is 12-hours long.

Part of the reason I chose this hotel was because there was supposedly good surfing on the beaches below. I thought it would be a novel idea to surf on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve there were no waves to speak of. I took a swim among the rock and coral, and then took another hot shower.

The coral and rock bottom beach below La Coralina where I took a quick dip.

This was one of the 3 shower heads that were in my bathroom. Notice how the picture is a bit foggy?
It's from the steam of the hot shower.

After dinner, I figured since I was spending so much on my room, that I should spend some time there. I indulged in another long, hot shower (are you getting the point that I really missed hot showers?) and leisurely read in bed while occasionally hearing the waves crashing below.

My incredibly awesome room at La Coralina

Very cool bathroom

The little patio outside my room

an amazing orchid in the garden

The kind owner, Stacey, put a lot of attention into detail - notice the Indonesian wood carved window.

I arose early Christmas morning and checked to see if there were waves. Nope. The ocean was flat. Instead of surfing, I talked at breakfast with other tourists for most of the morning.

The beautiful view, but notice that there aren't any waves.

I did some yoga here

The view looking back at La Coralina

OK, and of course I spent some time with this relative of Sombra - la Perla

In the early afternoon I walked about 20 minutes down a dirt road to Playa Bluff. Upon arriving I found a large beautiful brown-lipped cowry shell. What an amazing Christmas present! Thank you mother nature! I spent some time on the beach until I’d had more than enough sun and then headed back up the dirt road.

Playa Bluff was gorgeous

The beautiful brown cowry

I don't think I will ever tire of a this color combination

The whole reason I had come to Bocas del Toro in the first place was because my friend Rahul and his son Rohan, who live in Portland, were visiting Panama. We thought it would be great to meet up with each other. I returned to La Coralina and, you guessed it, took another hot shower before going to meet Rahul and Rohan on Isla Carenero.

Hasta luego
Isla Colon.

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