Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Panama City, Panama: No Hablo Español... Todavía

Synopsis: Since I've known Jairo (about 1999), he has invited me a few times to go with him to Panama, whenever he was going back to visit family. After never taking him up on his offer for over 10 years, I am ready to do this. But he hasn't invited me yet, so, I'll invite myself!

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Arriving at the Panama airport around 8pm local time (after 17 hours of traveling) and I am met by Jairo and his family. It is hot and humid outside, but I am just happy to be here. First, we stop to say hello to few folks, and let them know Jairo's in town. Then, we drive home and Jairo introduces me to the family at the house in San Miguelito.

Thoughts: In the house, there is no air conditioning, no hot water, no internet, and no microwave. Despite that, everyone is happy and very friendly. I am the only person in the house that doesn't speak spanish and only Jairo speaks english too. This is going to be interesting!

Bienvenidos in Panama

Jairo in his room

Jairo's mom, Nieve, and me

Day 2: I slept with the fan blowing on me all night and I was still hot! A rooster directly outside of my window was crowing all morning, starting at 3am. I'm gonna be eating rooster soon...

Today is just a phenomenally beautiful day. The sun is shining, the air is calm, and I am on vacation. As Jairo and I walk around the neighborhood, we see banana trees in the neighborhood, chickens walking around, and people everywhere. We go out to the main street and stop for some fresh mangoes. Delicious! Then we head over to an internet cafe, so I can email my parents and let them know I made it fine. Jairo sees old friends from childhood, hanging out on the same corner from when they were kids.

Everyone has heard the news that Jairo is back in town and people are coming by the house to say hello and catch up. I have no idea what anyone is saying, but they all keep talking to me like I do and hugging me like they know me.

Later in the evening, his dad, Enrique, picks us up and takes us over to the city. We go to a restaurant for drinks and to talk a bit, before heading back home.

Thoughts: I met the rest of the family throughout the day, as they just pop in and out when they want, since the front door is never locked. Jairo is like a hero around here, since he "made it out" and moved to the U.S. and is doing well for himself. Everyone is confusing me for his older brother, Josh, who does resemble me. I see people everywhere running outside at night, since it's too hot in the day and they wait until nightfall. 

the view

front of the house we stayed at

this rooster sat right below my window and cock a doodle doo'ed from 3am!

These buses were everywhere. 35 cents to ride!

they just got banana and mango trees in the neighborhood

eating fresh mango

Enrique, Jairo, and me

Day 3: Wake up and Chadai, 3 or 4 years old, is playing with my camera, trying to take pictures of herself. I get out of bed and play with her and Hennessy, 1 or 2 years old (those are two human children, btw) for a bit. Their mother, America (who speaks no english), is Jairo's cousin and lives around the corner, so they are always at the house.

Today we are going to the Panama Canal. On our way, we stop at a restaurant on the side of the road that looks like it was built in 4 days, but the food is amazing and very inexpensive. They bring a plastic water container, like the one you keep at home in your fridge, to the table for us, for free.

So, we continue on, as we drive past the lakes and dams and bridges, until we reach the actual gates of the canal. We drive through no problem, but nothing is happening (because we are on the bridge and that's how the canal works) as we cross over. We get to the other side and check out the lake that the canal pushes and pulls water to and from. Then, we head back to cross the canal but have to wait, as a boat passing through, and there is a traffic jam and cars everywhere. I have no idea where they came from. This time, as we pass the canal gates, you can see the water being pushed out.

Next, we head to Colòn, a major port with shopping and a park on the water. We walk around the waterfront and enjoy the beautiful sunset before heading home.

Thoughts: Chadai and Hennesy never have clothes on, mainly because it's so hot and likely also so they don't get them dirty, since they are adventurous and explorative girls. The canal was pretty interesting, although the visitor center was closed and we couldn't get a closer look. I have a spanish for beginners e-book on my iPad and I am using that to communicate with the kids and adults as they attempt to ask me questions and learn about me.

Chadai was a bad mamajama! But she was so lovable!

This baby is named Hennessy. That is her real name. Hennessy. In real life, her mother named her Hennessy.

Getting ready for day 3

Some crazy unsafe bridge we decided to cross

we ate 13 square meals everyday

tell me those aint good prices!

The day's adventurers

Madden Dam

crossin' the Panama canal

the lake on the other side of the canal

that boy is brave

the hydroelectric dam at the canal

the gates of the canal

emptying the canal after a boat passed through

Setup the camera on a timer and ran back into the photo

have no idea what that means

some of the buses had really nice decorations

you can tell what the women look like in that country by looking at the mannequins

futbol everywhere

what is a latin american country without a Christ the Redeemer statue?

some big #$& ants!

Sunset from Colòn

Day 4: We have no plans in the morning, so we decided to head down to the local school gym to workout a bit. What were we thinking? It is like 5 billion degrees outside and the gym is not air conditioned. No one is in the pool because it is only open after school. After working out, we head back to the house to eat.

We head out again, toward the city, to go visit Jairo's godmother. We stop at a shopping mall on the way and the prices were just amazingly reasonable. Good thing I'm not a shopper, or I would have spent a small fortune. We grab a bite to eat.

We finally get to Jairo's godmother's house and she has a huge pot of soup waiting for us, and to be polite, we eat it. We actually tried to tell her we weren't hungry, but we are "skin and bones and need to eat for strength", and who can argue with that logic? Jairo's godmother, who does speak english, is telling me stories of him when he was a child and how she helped raise him. It was a good time.

We get back to the house and everyone heard about us working out earlier, so they are imitating us and asking us questions about how to workout, using a homemade barbell thing.

Thoughts: I love warm weather, but humidity and heat do not make for good exercise weather.

so since we ate so much, we decided to workout. cost us 50 cents to use this gym for an hour

takin' my boy through his firs crossfit class

and then ruined all that hard work with more food

see how cheap those jeans are?

Jairo at his godmomma's house

i was there too

yup, eating again!

we tried to get the whole family working out. Yatsuri gettin' her swol on

Day 5: I'm up before Jairo, so I hang out with the family a bit and play with the kids. When Jairo wakes up and his dad arrive, we are going to Punta Culebra Marine Exhibition Center. It is in the Panama bay, well off the coast, about a mile on a bridge to the island where the center is. It is like an aquarium and nature preserve, where you can see the local flora and fauna, native to Panama. Pretty interesting, plus they have some hands on stuff as well.

From there we grab a bite to eat and then head to another of Jairo's family in Altos de Santa Maria, that he has to see while in country. They live in a very nice home, with air conditioning, ceramic tile floors, and an amazing view of the city from their dining room.

We leave and then head to the store, to buy some food and drinks for the block party being thrown tomorrow in honor of Jairo's return. Again, the prices are so inexpensive. I see all the same stuff we have in the U.S. or in European stores, plus a few special items specific to Panama.

One of Jairo's cousins is a club promoter and invites us downtown to go to a club. When we arrive, it is the firs time since I've been here, that I hear a lot of people speaking english. His cousin gets us into the club and we start upstairs in the VIP lounge area, until we decide we want to go down and dance. After a few hours, some local artists jump on stage and do whatever it is they think is music, which is strange to me, but everyone else there seems to be into it. The normal music comes back on and we shut the club down.

Thoughts: Every morning Chadai or Hennessy are trying to get into my room. They are so adorable, I can't be mad that they keep waking me up. It's not like the rooster hasn't already beat them to it.

aw, lil feller is all tuckered out. rooster already woke me up

She is so cute!!!!

Hennesy! She was the best baby I ever seen. In a baby contest for best baby, she would win best baby

day 5, leggo!

Smithsonian is everywhere

google map this. we were on a lil itty bitty peninsula

Hello, Aquaman?


Patrick, where's Spongebob?

sea anenememenome. at least thats how you end up saying it

señor lobster

electric cit(eel). That's clever, I don't care who you are

I can fly. I'll never let you go

yup, more food

Panama cityscape from Altos de Santa Maria

look at the prices!

not sure if you can tell, but that big black dude is holding a protect the grocery store

hot tamale

Club People

Day 6: Today we have to go to church for Jairo's godson's baptism. Since Jairo's dad is busy, we have to catch the world's smallest cab there. Halfway there, the cab runs out of gas and we have to pull over. The driver says we have to call another cab and then proceeds to push his cab down the street. Wow. We hail another cab and then go to the church.

It is 9 in the morning and we are in a church with no air conditioning, and we are wearing slacks and long sleeves (Jairo has a suit on). The service is 3 hours long and in spanish. I am STRUGGLING to stay awake. I go to the bathroom (in a shed outside the church) at least 4 times, to splash water on my face. Then, we get to the end of the service and they forget to do the baptism!

After church, we head around the corner to another of Jairo's family and we eat. From there we head around the neighborhood, talking to different cousins and childhood friends. Then we head back to the house.

All the ladies have already left to go to prepare for the party tonight. We hang out at the house until about 9pm before heading over there. When we arrive, we greet the 15 or so people already there and then we sit down to eat.

Around 11pm and more and more people are showing up. I ask Jairo, "won't the neighbors be upset with all the noise and music?" and he said, "no, they are here partying too!" As the night advances, more people show up and the music is blasting and there is a 7ft (2m) by 13ft (5m) terrace being used as the dance floor. Every girl at the party asks me to take a picture with them; I feel like a celebrity.

We are taking pictures, dancing, people are drinking panamanian beer (which I didn't like), and just having a great time. We don't leave until 6am, and there are people sleep on every soft surface in the proximity, and others leaving the same time as us. When the Panamanians say "we party" they literally mean everyone in the country comes to the party.

Thoughts: I talk about cab prices a lot in my blogs, but Panama was hands down the cheapest I've ever seen. It cost us $1.50 for the first part of the journey, about 25 minutes, and $0.46 for the last 10 minutes to the church.

At the party, I gave my camera to one of Jairo's younger cousins and he took hundreds of photos, a lot them really good, and even got some video of the dancing. Jairo's uncle, who we just called "Tio", was hitting on every girl at that party. I learned to bachata and tried a drink called abuelo, a rum that they mix with milk. Not bad.

boy looking dapper!

ok, why am I the only one disturbed that our cab just ran out of gas halfway to our destination and it was hot and i was hot cuz it was hot, and we have to hail another cab, in the heat?

Jairo's godson

c'mere lil baby, I'm gonna eat ye

neighborhood block party, celebrating Jairo's visit

Of course, there is good food

Everyone just assumed I was part of the family

Party started gettin' crunk around 1am

Everyone on the dance floor 

Day 7: Today, we are heading out to the beach, about 15 people deep. After last nights' amazing party, and getting back home just before daylight, and after only a few hours of sleep, we are heading to Coronado Playa. We stop at a restaurant on the way and everyone sleepily eats, but we wake up as the meal progresses.

Finally, we arrive at the playa and head over to stake out a good spot under a grass hut. We go out into the water and swim and play around. I get buried in sand and then we walk along the rocky reef. Once we come out of the water, some sandwiches and chips and drinks are waiting for us. Yay for beach food!

From the beach, we head into the forest, to a hidden river, that is a popular destination for alligators, but "not during this time of year". What? I'm going to make sure I stay in the middle of the group so if we see a gator, I'm not exposed. We play and hang out in the river, climbing and then jumping off the trees hanging over the water. Plus there is a small creek that you can sit in as the water rushes by.

Following the gator-chaser adventure, we head back to the city. We stop at some of Jairo's family's house, so he can say hi and they can catch up. By this point, everyone is beat and, just as we arrive at the house, a torrential downpour begins. Everyone starts falling asleep, so after a short visit, we hop back in the car to head home.

Thoughts: All I could think about in the river was the movie Lake Placid.

beach party!

Enjoying the very calm waters

Buried in the sand

car was packed

at the river

hangin' out in the creek

The pitter patter of rain + a day of swimming in the sun = sleepy time

Day 8: Today, I fly back to Brussels. Jairo and I walk over to the internet cafe, that we have not been back to since day one, so that I can email my parents and let them know I'm still alive and heading home. I say my final goodbyes to all who come over and then we head to the airport.

Thoughts: Thanks to our trip to the beach and lake yesterday, I was sunburned all over my shoulders and back. My spanish has gone from one word, "hola" to several words and phrases. Plus, I learned how to do a few gestures in spanish.


Final Thoughts: Definitely one of the best trips I've ever been on. Not only just getting to spend time with one of my best friends, but also my first time in Latin America (not counting Mexico) and being immersed in a country where I literally could not communicate with 99% of the people. It wasn't a vacation but like an immersion program. I loved it. I'm definitely going back!

I don't think I ever said I was hungry, the whole time I was there. Before my stomach could signal my brain that I was hungry, one of the ladies was already asking me "tienes hambre?" I single handedly ate an entire forest worth of plantains. I also never prepared a single meal or even a snack. I can't even remember pouring myself a drink! I was so well taken care of. Even if all the mothers were trying to marry off their daughters to me.

As soon as I learn a decent level of Spanish, I am going back to talk to all those people and tell them how much I appreciated their hospitality and whatever else I learn how to say by then. Voy a 'learno' ahora!

Location: Panama, Panama


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