Death by drowning in Panama

We made it to Panama. Hallelujah. It’s kind of the half way point. The end of a continent. And we got there right on schedule. The border was straightforward and we stayed the first night in Santiago, a nothing city on the Carratera Panamericana (Panamerican Highway). Chris was feeling poorly so I went to a farmacia and bought him some NyQuil equivalent pills for 80 cents. Then I went to find dinner and chose the only place in walking distance: a bar/ discotec/ restaurant on the lot directly in front of our hotel. I walked in to the nearly empty main dance room and ambled over to the bar in the far corner. Upon asking about food I was pointed towards the bathrooms where I walked confusedly and was then led down a hall into the kitchen. In the kitchen the chef came up and gave me a menu and then told me they didn’t have the first few things I tried to order. After a few failed attempts, I went with fried chicken because every place always has fried chicken. She told me it would be half an hour so I waited at the bar over a beer. 

Within moments a man stumbled over and ordered two beers, placing one of them next to my full beer. He started to chat me up and when he wasn’t getting his point across resorted to mouthing words and using hand signals I couldn’t comprehend. The interaction was very amusing overall and consisted of the following: him inviting me to a party at someone’s house, a girl’s house, not his, so I should be more willing to go; his proposal of marriage; his insistence that since my boyfriend was in another building he wasn’t here, he was there, and this guy was here, therefore I didn’t have a boyfriend. His logic was impressive, but finally he gave up, but not before buying me another beer even though I hadn’t started the second one that was already in front of me. 

I then slid down a couple seats and began chatting with another patron who had been laughing at my previous encounter. This wonderful man bought me a bag of chips and introduced me to the greatest discovery of the trip: Lime Chips!  These are potatoe chips, preferably Ruffles, but they come in the Lays variety as well, that are flavored with lime. They are amazing and have been a part of our trip ever since. 

This particular bag was bought in Panama and carried through a boat ride to Colombia and thousands of kilometers later was eaten in the Andes. Still good. 

And then the chicken was ready so I left. 

The next day we arrived in Panama City which is massive and has insane traffic all the time. Many of the streets are one way, but it’s not a grid so that the street heading east is directly followed by a street heading west. It will be three streets in a row that only head east and then a street that heads north that meets up with a street that heads west in like three more blocks. So now your seven blocks away from your hotel instead of just one. And surrounded by a thousand taxis who shove their tiny Kia Picantos into every crevice possible between you and the bus. I have no relevant pictures so here is a box of Panamanian cigarettes.img_6374

But we found the hotel, got a shower and headed to the first restaurant we came across, a Lebanese Sushi place. It was what you’d expect but with super expensive beers too. Remember the beers that dude bought me at the bar in Santiago? Those were 80 cents. These were $4.50. But it was all made better because Kathryn and John walked in and drank some expensive beers with us. Finally we had made it to Panama and just in time to meet these guys. 

We headed over to the hipster part of town, Casca Vieja, walked around the cobbled streets and ate at a much a nicer restaurant that evening. The next day after struggling to find a breakfast place we headed to the Panama Canal to watch algae grow on the sides of the boats as they wait to get through the locks.  If you read the blog within the first two days of its publishing you can thank Rebecca Hinden for pointing out that these are “locks” because they lock the water out, not “lochs” because they contain no sea monsters. 

  It takes an incredibly long time for the water to drain from one side and fill up on the other side, but a boat was about to enter the canal and we had prime standing space right on the railing, so we waited and watched. And waited and watched. And after about twenty minutes of watching water pour out of a drain the boat started to go forward. It gets pulled by these little tug cars, like tug boats, but they’re not boats and they’re attached with lines on either side of the boat, front and back, so four all together. You can see the little gray guy just in front of the boat in the picture. I guess it’s more of a ship than a boat. So they drag him along at a snail’s pace and when they get close they stop and wait some more. I know I’m building the suspense up here pretty good, so get ready to be disappointed. When the water level is equal they open the gates and the ship goes through. The end. I was hoping they would open the gates a bit early and a wave would rush through and the boat, the ship, would go careening along like a water slide. Surely this would increase tourism at the locks, but no one listened to me. And they don’t need any more money because they charge between $100,000 and $400,000 per ship to go through the canal, and they operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, pushing about 40 ships a day through. So that’s why Panama City feels like the US.  

We then made the very smart decision to go down to the bar and watch the next ship over a beer, and from there we saw a mini brontasaurus. There were five or so of them, across the locks, nibbling on some grass between two buildings. From our distance all we could see were their long necks sprouting off their tiny backs. Knowing that it’s unlikely Panama has created a two foot tall Jurassic Park on the outskirts of its city, we asked our waiter about the brontasauri. He told us they were monkeys and those long necks were tails. That made a lot more sense but was a little less fun.  

 And then it was time to go back to the city but instead of getting fleeced by the cab drivers trying to charge us $20, we got a uber for $7. Most of the ubers around Panama City were $2.50, but the canal is a bit of a hike. While I’m marginally against uber because of its business tactics in France, and it’s misogynist CEO, it’s so handy. 

I forgot to mention that this was also Thanksgiving! And now it was time for Thanksgiving dinner. We went to a super cool restaurant down a shady, dark alley, called Humo. It was a BBQ place which is pretty fitting for celebrating the birth of the US. Everyone got things like brisket and ribs, and grilled octopus because it’s still Panama. And I had a bacon cheeseburger because America! 

The next day we were rid of Panama City and off to the beautiful pacific coast town of Santa Catalina where Kathryn wanted to murder me by drowning (i.e. get our scuba diving certification). On the way we stopped at a grocery store to get some supplies and found some amazing products. There were lime chips of course; our favorite rum, Pampero Anniversario; and an energy drink that comes with a free tub of mayonnaise.    

  We stayed in a cute house that had an amazing colony of ants. They lived in the walls, with entrances in the sides of a couple of the outlets, and they dragged giant bugs up the wall into the outlet holes. Unless of course the bug was too big, in which case they reconfigured their angles repeatedly until finally giving up on shoving it through the door to their house and returning to the ground to figure things out. It was like watching a bunch of frat guys try to get a couch into the living room when clearly the doorway is too small.  But the ants could just nibble the bug down until he was the right size and go for it again. Try that frat boys! img_6858

The next day we spent eight hours in a room alternately watching a movie about scuba diving, and taking quizzes about what we learned from the movie. At the end of the day we took a final exam on which we all scored 95. Somehow this qualifies us to go to the next day and start using scuba equipment. This seemed crazy to me because I still had not yet touched even a fin or mask, let alone actual scuba equipment. 

But sure enough, the next day we took a small boat out to Coiba National Park, a group of beautiful islands containing world class scuba diving sites, tons of weird animals and birds, and a decommissioned prison which we were unable to visit. We pulled up to a tiny island with some shade and no other people. It was pretty magical. But then we were thrown underwater with a tube in our mouths and told to breathe. The first breath underwater was pretty amazing, but for me it was the breath I took with my snorkel because I’d never actually used one of them before. Chris took the snorkel a bit for granted, having grown up in Florida. But the last time I used goggles to look underwater I was nine years old and staring at Shana Water Rose Slutzky doing handstands in the pool. Do you remember we used to call you that? You used to call me Ears. 
 
While we were practicing not drowning, Kathryn was applying massive amounts of sunscreen and strolling along the beach where she almost got taken out by a coconut. Instead of death by coconut, she brought it home for a snack. I know this should be embarrassing, but I’m hoping some of you are in the same boat and won’t judge: before this trip I didn’t realize that coconuts have outer shells and insides shells. Like a castle with an outer and inner wall before you get to the treasure.  They’re very tough cookies to break into. 

 
Anyway, here we are breathing underwater and having only minor panic attacks because we can still stand up and breath air. But we do our exercises, learn how to use the scuba equipment and look at little fishes. Next stop is a proper dive where we will not be able to stand up and breath air. Inside I am secretly freaking out because all of this is terrifying for me and I find it really difficult to continue to breathe through my mouth when trying to concentrate on anything else at all, like removing and replacing my mask (a necessary exercise). When asked to complete said exercise at ten meters underwater I accidentally suck some water up my nose, start choking, panic and think I’m going to die. I remember that there’s air coming through my mouth and sort it all out and amazing teacher Julie calms me down enough that I change my mind about desperately needing to go to the surface and we continue the dive. My miraculous recovery does nothing to lessen my fear however. But the amazing underwater world is somehow justifiable enough to continue being in a state of intense fear and panic. 
 
Now that time has passed I have forgotten how terrible it felt and only remember how cool it was to look at fishes (and turtles). But the final day of our course I was still on the verge of a panic attack and questioning whether I should continue. My rationale was that I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. And that we are only certified to go down 18 meters, and I can safely swim to the surface from there in one minute so even if all my equipment malfunctions as long as I can get one breath of air I can make it to the top. So we went down again. 
 
I apologize for the personal nature of this section. I haven’t asked Chris or John what it was like for them. But I will say the following: John wore sunscreen that underwater made him look like a zombie. Chris seemed fairly comfortable after about two minutes. And there was another guy doing the course with us and he was a total weirdo and had no concept of space or where he is within it. He kept on bumping into me and hitting me with his limbs and he wasn’t very friendly. The last day of the course Kathryn dove with us as well as Weirdo’s girlfriend. Weirdo and his girlfriend held hands the entire time underwater: vomit! And she did not even help him with his spacial awareness issues. Thankfully our boys took to diving much more naturally than Weirdo. 
 
And although I struggled with it, seeing the ocean like you are part of it is amazing. We saw a Hawkbill turtle having lunch on some seaweed. He was completely unbothered by us and we just watched him eat lunch for ages. It was very cool. We also saw some white tip reef sharks and some box fish and some puffer fish and a thousand other fish that I don’t know the names of.  

 And during lunch on Coiba Island I wandered around and saw a couple giant iguanas, another small lizard, a few unidentifiable birds and an agouti! An agouti looks like a Guinea pig but with longer legs. It’s about the size of a small cat, has a tiny stub tail, super skinny little longish for its body legs, and a cute in a rodent way face. It was cool to see one. We did not see the local crocodile who frequents one of the beaches on the island and I was relieved for that. 
 
So it comes down to this: I hate being underwater but I love seeing underwater. It’s a very close call which feeling is stronger, but as of now I want to go scuba diving again (we are contemplating the Galapagos, but it’s so expensive). But who can say how I’ll feel next time I’m underwater. 
 
I also didn’t bring the Go Pro underwater cause I’m a dummy, so we have no photos to show for it. Who knows if it even really happened? 

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