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Friday, June 23, 2006

Marie and Chavez, BFF

I guess I had a right to be worried…

How does one compare of week of jet-setting amongst fabulous friends; three cities, five days, countless faces, places, and spaces to a rainy Panama? One doesn’t. One just rolls with the punches. Which I did. Since I’ve been home for a spell, I forgot that every minute on the road isn’t perfect, that it sometimes HAS to rain, and that I’m not going to love every city I go to. Panama was one of those experiences. Not entirely bad, as I really came to like Panama City. But, overall, not my favorite.

I arrived into Panama City after lots of Ecuadorian goodbyes and checked into a marvelous little hotel near the center of Panamanian night life (little did I know…) After stopping for a delicious dinner at restaurant that was exactly how one might imagine a Panamanian restaurant (banana-leaf wallpaper, plastic wicker chairs, high cocktail tables with basketed candles atop (I wanted to steal one), khaki safari and white “Panama hats” strewn lazily on high shelves), I turned in early. I was
a) exhausted from Ecuador and
b) had an early day on the Panama Canal in the AM.
Little did I know, I didn’t need rest. I’d get PLENTY of that over the next few days…

So, they never really reveal to you all the details of day-trip excursions to tourist traps like the Panama Canal. After a 6 AM cab ride, where the cabbie got lost getting to the Canal Zone (Umm…this is your country’s ONE tourist attraction, we’re LOST! Are you KIDDING?), I opted on a half-day Canal trip ($105, meanwhile!). We’d be back in the City by 2 PM. Great, I tend to get a little bored on these learning excursions. As I settled into the boat (comparative to maybe, a Circle Line ship), with my Miami Herald and a book of stories (that I randomly, and thankfully, grabbed on the way out of the hotel), I was eager to start the day. Grannies with straw hats, Chinese/Japanese tourists posing at bow/stern/starward/leeward sides BEFORE we moved away from the pier, solo 50-year old men with bad teeth from Minnesota in fisherman caps, young backpacker couples making out in between free-empanada-from-downstairs-in-the-buffet-bites, and a family with 7 rowdy, dirty blond kids toting Dr. Seuss-in-Spanish readers, made up my cruising partners. It looked to be a very long day. At around 8, we pull out into the water. We must, as our roving-guide-with-a-mike tells us, wait for our Canal appointed pilot (all vessels that pass through the Canal have a licensed Canal pilot steer the ship through the Canal) to come on board and give us our “passage time.” 9-10-11 o’clock. No Canal Pilot. I’ve finished the Miami Herald and passed it on the periodical-less Minnesotan with poor dental hygiene, and I’m on page 100 in my 200 page book. I’m a little warm under the collar, a little stiff from the lack of cushions on the seats of the Pacific Queen, our ship. Then, the people around me start to applaud. Our Canal Pilot is coming aboard. Wa-hoo! Like a mock-celebrity, he swings from the Coast Guard boat to the Pacific Queen’s deck. Our passage time is…..12:30. NO! REALLY? More waiting? Oh my god. This sucks.

Yes, I finished my book before we went through the Canal, and the passage through was, at best, semi-interesting. Considering that the Canal was built in 1914, and is still completely functional today, it’s pretty crazy. Going through the Miraflores Lockes, being raised 27-32 feet higher by increasing and decreasing water levels and pressure, was wild. Slowly, we are raised three times, and then voila! we’re Canal bound. Of course, the whole thing is mildly anti-climactic, but nonetheless, I can now say I’ve traveled the Panama Canal alongside the huge, huge Maersk (what up Nemeth!) tankers carrying loads upon loads of cargo from places far off and distant. By our 4 PM delayed return to the city, I was wiped. I took a quick tour of Old Panama, called Casco Viejo, and while I’ve never been (though secretly long to go) to Cuba, this is what I think Havana would look like. Colorful, two story buildings boasting intricate iron balconies rimmed with half-dead floral vines; the buildings falling apart, but at the same time, vibrantly alive. Spanish music drifting from doorways, men smoking cigars in soiled undershirts and ladies in layered dressed casually swaying their hips around them, stray dogs bark at passerby. It’s a cool scene, in a dilapidated kind of way. Past Casco Viejo, Panama City is modern and brimming with business. The whole city sits on the waterfront, so the view is surprisingly pretty. The nightlife is full-of-action, the various parts of Panama City have their share of trendy restaurants, hotel bars and, even a few swanky lounges. My friend China, from Ecuador, put me in touch with her friend, Alexandra here in Panama. So, my luck, I had a partner in crime to prowl the town with. I know – who comes to Panama and has friends? Me, I guess!

Post-Panama City, I went to two other cities to explore. Pedasi, on the Pacific Coast and Boquete, a mountain town that sits in the middle of two rivers. Unfortately, I left my new friend Alexandra in Panama City, and brought along my old friend, the rain. In Travel and Leisure magazine, I had read about a project on the coast called Azueros. A French architect found the most beautiful palm-tree-lined beaches, and had a vision to build a town in the isolated area. He turned his self-made residence into a hotel, and it looked gorgeous. So, I decided to go to Pedasi to check it out. A four-seater plane ride and one-barely-there dirt road later, I’m at Villa Camilla, a visually stunning estate in the rolling hills of Pacific Panama. But, alas, I am the ONLY guest! With my staff of five men, feeding me, cleaning up after me, getting me anything my little heart desires, I felt weird, not to mention completely isolated. I was literally the ONLY sign of life besides my caretakers in the whole region. The town, about 3 miles off, was merely a sign announcing “Pedasi” and a general store (if you can call it that) and a hostel (for who, exactly?). I had planned to go scuba diving, but the rain and the swell of the sea nixed that plan. The beach was breathtaking, but off-limits because of the rough waters. So, there I was, puttering around my villa, with invisible servants at my beck and call. After two days of elaborately served meals at solitary tables in the study, two more books (I was technologically barren in Pedasi), and a LOT of time to think, I had a car service take me to Boquete.

Boquete, a mountain town where I was SUPPOSED to white water raft and horse back ride, suffered the same fate as Pedasi. A rainy one. So, while my little B&B that boasted the town’s best restaurant and spa, was lovely, and there were plenty of retirement age folk to talk to (Boquete has become, seemingly a haven for American retirees…) about the cost of living in Colorado, Arizona, and Florida versus Panama, I was again, bored and devoid of fun activities, and headed back to Panama City, my savior city, called Alexandra and had a fun Thursday “parting-Panama” party for myself. My big moment finally came when President Chavez of Venezuela (who was staying at my hotel) and I were leaving at the exact same time for the airport. Him, flanked by local media, photographers, press agencies and TV cameras yelling “Presidente, Presidente,” and me, backpack in hand whispering to a nearby bellman “Um…un taxi, por favor.” We’re standing thisclose, only separated by his bodyguards and hotel personnel, flashbulbs bursting all around us. I’m telling you, the Panamanian CBS, NBC, ABC news outfits have their 5, 6, and 10 PM news leads, and I’M ALL OVER IT!
Marie and El Presidente Chavez. BFF.

Onto Bogota today, meeting more friends of China (and Alexandra). Then, Cartagena, which I think will provide more exciting stories and adventures. Sorry so bland a tale this week. Panama just didn’t provide as I thought it would.

More soon…

~ M

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ecuador, Round 2

The past week is a total blur…
Living life, Ecuadorian style, takes stamina. At least the way I was living it!
This was Ecuador, Round 2.

From the plane, I was whisked to Sake, a restaurant ala Bond Street that Jose Luis owns. A dozen rolls, sakes, and catching-up stories later, we rest up for a long day of sightseeing. Teleferico, Statue de Libertidad, Historic Quito, churches, and a quick manicure, one day has gone, and we’re on a plane bound to Cuenca, the colonial city of Ecuador. Me, I LOVE colonial cities. Seemingly, there are four in the Americas that bear resemblance to each other. After this trip, I’ll have hit all four: Cusco (Peru), Antigua (Guatemala), Cuenca (Ecuador), and Cartagena (Colombia). The first I visited was Cusco, a city I wound up helplessly, but happily, stuck in for over a week. Then, when I visited Antigua, I was eerily reminded of Cusco. The buildings in all of these cities are brightly colored, with various iron balconies, stone pillars, and tile work dotting the facades; fabulous gardens lie within each building and cobblestone streets connect one adorable alleyway to the next. They blend both old and new civilizations: ruins of churches stand next to brand-spankin-new white-washed government offices stand next to crumbling poorhouses stand next to restored private villas. Each Plaza Mayor is reminiscent, in both size and feel, to the one before it. So, Antigua reminded me of Cusco, Cuenca now reminded me of Antigua. (I’m told Cartagena is the best of the them all, I can’t wait!). So now, here in Cuenca, I am enamored once again.

Dashing from the charming boutique hotel to dinner with fantastic friends, who are of course, cousins of other friends (everyone is related here in Ecuador), we are served wedding-worthy platters of skewers, cheeses, sushi rolls, cured meats, hummus/pita combinations, olives, and guac/chips. 1-2, 4-5, 9-10 bottles of Veuve are brought out, popped, poured, and overturned back into their waiting chillers. Fruit platters replace the apps, Perrier-Jouet replaces the Veuve (that we’ve gone through a whole bar of….), tipsy replaces sober. The next day brings more long, lingering meals with friends (this time, the brother of another family). 2 PM-4-course lunches become 5 PM-snacks-and-cocktails; same company, easy conversation. Everyone owns magazines; for younger, for older, for the rich, for the traveled, for the gay, the straight, the conservative, the liberal. By the time I left Cuenca, I met all of my Galapagos friend Antonio’s extended family (cousin JD, brother Andres, girlfriend of other brother Yona, Yona’s brother and friend who works at the magazine, blah blah blah….). I have a hit-list of to-dos (restaurants, bars, hotel spas) for the rest of my South American itinerary and about ten new emails to add to the list of people to play with (en Espanol, of course…)

In Cuenca, we walked the town, photo-op here, Ecuadorian sweet there. Then, caught an evening plane to Guayaquil. Next apartment, next unpack, next waiting chauffeured car to whisk us to the next destination. China’s (Galapagos dive partner) birthday! First to have a drink with Roberto and Antonio (kiss, kiss, I love your cousin, brother, future sister-in-law), then onto the Mediterranean tapas place to meet apprehensively-turning-30-year old China and Priscilla, my Miami girl who lives in Ecuador. The girls! I was in serious need of some girl talk about all the faces and places I’ve seen. Drinks, apps, MORE photo-shoots. Back for sleep before the World Cup game (Ecuador-Costa Rica) in the AM. 7 AM wake-up, very early, grrr…. Have you been able to tell, I have YET to sleep? Thursday brings an amazing win for the underdog, Ecuador moves to the next round. The whole country declares holiday, wearing their yellow Ecuador T-shirts, and waving their flags, celebrating their country, the win, in the streets, restaurants, bars, residences, and offices. I feel lucky to be here, to witness. World Cup, something us Americans are JUST becoming hip to, is infectious. Ecuador proves that to me. This isn’t a Super Bowl, this isn’t the World Series, or the U.S. Open, this IS World Cup - completely different animal. Amazing…. Parties all day, parties all night. More drinks, more friends, more festivities. And then, alas….it’s over. And fast as it came, as quick as it passed, it’s over. A week in Ecuador, a week of new friends who feel like old friends, a week of fun. I can DEFINITELY get used to this…

So, now the only think that’s got me riled is:
Shit, will Panama compare?