Week 1: Panamá City
02.07.2009 - 06.07.2009 28 °C
Wow... Panamá City is... different!!!
The trip from Havana (and Cuba in general) to Panamá City has really been a trip from one extreme to another.
I spent my first 2 days quite stunned by it all and experiencing culture-shock: the malls (designer clothes, commercials, billboards), millions of fast-food chains (with drive-through´s), high-rise buildings (and yes, I mean HIGH), massive, flashy new cars... it really is the opposite of what I got used to in Cuba. Panamá City is so much more commercial/Americanized than I thought- it really was a surprise for me.
I arrived here fine. My Copa Airlines flight from Havana to Panamá City was virtually turbulance-free (phew!) and arrived in Panamá City on time (apparently quite unusual for any flights leaving Cuba). I got through customs without any problems and when I arrived, Maudy and Julio weren´t at the airport yet. After waiting about 1.5 hours though, I thought that possibly there was some mis-communication. I had written her the day earlier, saying I´d arrive in Panamá at 10:40, but had a little inkling that I forgot to specify whether that was during the day or in the evening. So, after attempting to get out money and failing (the cash machine was out of cash), I managed to find a friendly man who gave me 25c to make a phone call. I called Maudy and my suspicions were confirmed... but luckily Julio and her had decided to come to Panamá City one day earlier than originally planned, so they came to pick me up from the airport within half an hour.
The first thing we did was go to McDonalds. Culture-shock set in. Wow... quick service and so much choice!
We then spent a couple of hours at the hospital (nothing serious- just routine appointments they´d made before knowing I´d be there with them during the day) and then went to a supermarket... a massive, colourful, busy supermarket, with shelves stocked up, full of products and choices and brands... once again, culture shock. I didn´t think that I would get so used to Cuban life in just 2 months!
That evening, we went to a nice little restaurant on the other side of the Panamá Canal to have dinner- deep fried chicken and curly fries, whilst listening to a live jazz band in the background. Oh, and I also got to try my first Panamaian beer (´Balboa´, apparently the strongest Panamaian beer at 3.8%) and ´patacones´(fried plantains).
The next day, I finally managed to get some money out and, taking advantage of being in the massive mall, bought myself a new pair of flip-flops (I had to leave both my other pairs in Cuba after walking them to shreds). We then went to Julio´s sister´s apartment (on the 18th floor with a 360 degree view- amazing!) and picked up her excitable, gay circus dog ´Jimmy´. We then drove to the Causeway, got a ´raspado´ (shaven ice with blueberry syrup flavouring + condensed milk) and hired a 3-person tandem and started cycling to the first island. After about 15 minutes, we decided to cycle back as a huge storm was approaching (something to avoid when stuck in a metal bike!). We just made it back in time to avoid getting hit by lightning and soaked by the rain and hail.
The storm lasted a while, so in the meantime, we drove to Blockbuster, got out some films, and spent the rest of the afternoon eating popcorn and watching 2 films. In the evening, we met up with some of Julio´s family/friends and had dinner at a restaurant near the Canal. We got back around 1ish and when I was brushing my teeth, the building started to sway and shake and it took me a few seconds to realise it was an earthquake!!!
Julio lives on the 4th floor, so you could really feel the building swaying and the floor literally seemed to be moving in a wave. I was so tempted to hide under the table, and probably would have if I hadn´t bumped into Julio on the way to the living room (embarrasment stopped me). The earthquake probably only lasted about 15-20 sesonds and then next day we found out it measured 6.3 on the Richter scale! Though the epicentre was in Colon (on the other side on the Canal), it was still pretty exciting.
After a quick visit to Julio´s grandaughter the next day, we drove (on the inter-American highway) to Playa El Palmar, a popular surf spot. The trip took about 1.5/2 hours and we arrived there around 2pm. We sorted out our accommodation (a small 2-person bedroom with extra bed) and went to the beach, lazing about in hammocks and reading/sleeping till about 4pm, when the waves were starting to pick up...surf time! Julio, himself a good surfer, taught me how to do it (whilst giving me a helpng push before the wave hit) and I was surprised that I was actually able to surf (after 4 attempts, I managed to stand up on the board without falling off, yay!)... I really enjoyed it! Its hard work for the upper arms, and I think the (arm) paddling bit before the wave hits is the main difficulty in surfing, but its so much fun! Didn´t expect to like it that much.
Once the sun started to set, we showered and made our way to the ´Bayview Hotel´ restaurant. We sat outside, on the seafront, drank a massive fuit-based milkshake and ate mussels, prawn/shrimp stir-fry, yucca (cassava) and a red-snapper + tomato and jalapeño sauce main meal... I was so full after that, was happy to go straight to bed once we got home.
The next day, we woke up around 8:30 and made our way to the beach. I surfed for about half an hour, then got hit on my upper leg by the fin of the surfboard. OUCH! Right on the muscle! So I decided to stop (the waves were getting too high anyway) and sunbathe for a bit instead. I then fell sleep in the hammock (life is good) and woke up to Jimmy´s loud barking/crying, as another tourists´dog (a HUGE great Dane) had literally picked him up in his mouth and was biting him. When the dogs were finally separated, Jimmy was limping and in shock, so we decided to leave the beach early (to get him to the vet). Just before leaving, we bumped into a friend of Julio´s and ended up joining them for drinks and dinner (and Margaritas!) at an amazing Mexican restaurant on the way back to Panamá City. We got back to the flat around 9pm and just before going to bed, we felt another earthquake (this time, around 5.2 on the richter scale!). Not good... apparently they hardly ever have tremors in Panamá... why does this have to happen when I´m here?! lol
This morning, we brought Jimmy to the vet (he was fine), then dropped him back at Julio´s sister´s place. We then went to the mall, did some window shopping and had an amaaaazing sushi-lunch with a friend of Maudy´s. We then drove to ´Casco Viejo´(the old quarter) in Panamá Vieja. Some parts really reminded me of Havana, as the buildings are crumbly and in the old colonial style, but the area is being redeveloped to renew the buildings (all in the same, original colonial style) and you can see its a real tourist area. It was nice and interesting though, especially as you could see all the skyscrapers and modern buildings in the background on the ocean front. We also had the best French (!) ice-cream there... this made the whole trip completely worth it! :-) We then got home around 5pm, watched ´Burn after Reading´and ate pizza... my trip here seems to revolve around food (I am not complaining at all!)
Tomorrow we´re planning to spend the day checking out the famous Panamá Canal, and either Wednesday evening or Thursday morning we´re driving to Pedasi, the seaside village where Maudy and Julio live. I can´t wait to see it and actually be out of the city here. Panamá City has been a bit of a let-down to be honest, as I thought it would be less commercial/Americanized and have a bit more character than I think it actually has. Its just a shame that its such a restricting city as you can´t go anywhere without taking the car (its too dangerous to walk to many places- due to traffic and the risk of getting kidnapped/killed...yes, quite a change to Cuba!!!) But Maudy and Julio have both been great hosts, making me feel so welcome and showing me around everywhere. I´ve been very lucky and am so glad they´re here to show me around.
Oh- also: exciting news.... I´m going to Costa Rica next week!!!!!!!
Maudy needs to leave Panamá for at least 24 hours in order to extend her visa, so we´re going on a little road-trip (yipppeeeee!!!). On the way back, we´re planning to drive through Bocas del Toro and I´ll finally get to see/climb Volcan Baru (whooo-hoooo!). Also, we might go do the tree-track in Boquete!!!! Though, just thinking about this already makes me nervous... its probably not the best thing to do when you´re afraid of heights, but I´m going to try anyway... :-)
So, that´s the news for now... hope you´ve all had a great weekend & keep in touch (I have more Internet access now, so will actually reply your mails!) xx