Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What to Pack for Panama

To start, lay down all the clothes and money that you think you need. Take half the clothes and twice the money.

Bring your adult clothes to Panama, you want to experience some of the city’s legendary nightlife and shorts and flip flops scream gringo and the cool clubs won’t let you in. Flip flops are great for the shower though. Photo copy and laminate your passport because you need ID at all times in Panama but your passport is much safer left at your hotel. Oh, and bring a jacket; the coolest place in Panama is a cloud forest eco resort called The Lost and Found, in the Fortuna Forest Reserve and it gets cold up there. Foot powder has often been my favorite companion but you can buy that here. Most things you can pick up here. Which leads to this important question: Should you bring your significant other, pick one up here or travel solo?

Travel with the opposite sex?

The pre-trip poll of polls says…

50% Yes… 50% No

Traveling and women are a lot alike. You will have a terrible time if you think what you do or say can have any influence. You have to just flow.

Let me take you on the ride that is Panama and Maria. Both girls can provide extreme pleasure or can be a pain in the butt. These are the picks and pans of Panama with my girl:

1) Panama City -- Cayucos’s on Causeway – Maria and I traveled out to along a causeway built with the debris from the Panama Canal, to a series of islands with great clubs and restaurants. The problem is that unless you want to go to the subway there, they are expensive. So we found Cayuco’s on the last island a few restaurants down from the Bennegan’s. Here beer and traditional Panamanian bar grub will get you full and drunk for less than $10 each. We had Sangria, fried plantanes and watched the sun set in the Pacific to my left and massive luxury yachts with the Panama City skyline to my right.

Beginning of trip Poll of polls: 60% Bring your significant other. 40% Hmmm I wonder how I would have done at the cool all night clubs on Calle Uruguay solo?

2) The Lost and Found: We found this amazing cloud forest hostel, took a guided tour of an organic coffee farm, went horseback riding and still made it in time to share a bottle of wine and watch the sun set over a sleeping volcano.

Mid trip poll of polls: 80% Wine and volcano sunsets go well with the opposite sex. 20%

Maria passed out after we drank too much wine and couldn’t hike to waterfalls the next day.
But this was only after 3 days in Panama… we had a month to go.

I forgot to mention a few things about my girlfriend. We knew each three weeks before we started traveling and we decided what better way to get to know each other than to travel together. Travel is life on speed with opportunities and conflicts that in real life only happen in slow motion. Why not find out sooner than later?

I found out that my girlfriend is insane. She unapologetically sucks up life. She pees by the side of the road in full view of traffic. She accepts foot rubs from horny strangers with fetishes. She jumps from sail boats just because the water looked nice. Her motto is: Strangers have the best candy. She smokes weed in front of Panamanian cops. She hops the kiosk counter to demonstrate how to make real fried plantains. She searches deserted beaches for quiet locations to be naked. She came overland from Columbia by herself. She adopts strays. She is a stray that accepts adoption.

The day when we were exploring Bocas town we hadn’t even noticed the entrance to the Wreck Deck bar and we had walked past the street several times that day. But after a few drinks at Mondu Taitu, we followed the crowd to a spot where they were selling the mystery meat on a stick and now the gates nightclub opened up to garden paths that led to pool tables and a dance floor covered by a big bamboo rancho. The dance floor was packed with half locals and half backpackers and surfers dancing to 80’s music.

AT the back was a series of wooden decks overlooking the ocean one of which surrounded a sunken ship. Maria took my hand led me to sit around the square deck and we dangled our feet in the water. Fish attracted by underwater lights illuminating the sunken boat checked out our feet to see if they were edible.

Maria was having a Seco con vaca, a kind of 70 proof distilled Panamanian sugarcane she mixed with milk – what the locals use for a cheap drunk. People were already jumping in and it was like a big pool party with rum flowing freely.

I saw an older couple sitting beside some empty chairs behind us and so I decided to try to steer Maria there instead of the two surfer dudes talking about the phat waves while ogling Maria. The couple was in their 40’s, pasty white from Utah but not Mormon at least. They were talking about 80’s T.V. and for some reason between the three of us we couldn’t remember the theme song for Family Ties. What the hell is it… it stuck in my head and for some reason I couldn’t even concentrate on talking until I remembered this stupid song.

This geeky pop culture conversation isolated Maria and I could see her survey the energy around us looking for an opportunity to join others who might provide more fun. She began ogling the ogling surfer dudes. I liked the bar but I did not like the ratio.

3) The Wreck Deck:

End of trip poll of polls:

40% Travel with your significant other to learn if she is insane or not. 60% I hate the ratio of backpacker dudes to girls and them hitting on my girlfriend and her liking it. And hmmm some of the Panamanian girls are pretty hot.

I attempted to rescue the night. To stop her from wandering I tell the couple that Maria traveled overland to Panama through the Darien. This is course was the intro to let Maria tell her shit story.

She always takes the bait on this one and tells the story to anyone who will listen – she came across a village of Woonan Indians in the Darien gap and was invited to stay. She asked where the toilette was and they pointed to a kind of a platform on stilts (only this time when she tells the story it is a tower) She climbed up and squatted in the open on top of this tower. As she peered down between her legs at the ground below she noticed that there was not much in the way of shit piled up below. She was beginning to think this had been some kind of ploy until shortly after her deposits hit the jungle floor there came a rumbling and movement in the banana leaves. Then suddenly two wild boars charged out of the jungle, quickly devoured her feces then disappeared just as quickly.

Like many of her stories I am not sure how much of this one is true but everyone eats her shit up. She is beautiful and animated even when she is squatting to mime herself taking a dump. Although predictable I was happy to engage her into a circle with a male/female ratio where I would get equal attention… this is important when you travel and shirtless surfer dudes outnumber girls. Every 15 minutes or so a boat would pull up to the deck to take people to a neighboring island for a full moon party. The couple was going and we all hopped on a boat together.

We were early for the party – the moon hadn’t yet risen. The tourist couple was sour that it was dark and the party hadn’t even gotten going. They wanted to wake up early the next day for a full itinerary of sightseeing. I didn’t care. It gave me a chance to get Maria alone on a walk along the beach. Low tide stretched the beach out more than 50 meters and we walked in water only a few inches deep to an exposed part of what is usually the bottom of the ocean. We lied there looking up at the stars. We were silent.

Then we notice dark things flying over us. At first I thought they were bats. Bats often come out in Panama at night and flash so quickly near you that your eyes never quite catch them. But these could not be bats so far out. They were fish. And they were jumping over us as we lay looking up at the stars. We just laid there counting flying fish. Then like magic it became brighter. The full moon was rising.

“How many times have you seen the full moon rise?” Maria whispered to me.
“I don’t know…” I didn’t know.

“Right now there are people working at jobs they hate. When they die, even if they are old, they will realize that they have not had many times to see the moon rise like this.”
Sometimes I thought Maria was immature and I lament our age difference. But then she says things like this and I think she is wise. I mean I can’t even remember the theme song for Family Ties. How many important moments in my childhood, moments so important they shaped who I am, that I will only remember a few more times in my life? How many more times will I lie on the ocean floor and see the full moon rise?

Maria surprised me and reached for my hand and I knew this was one of those travel moments… life moments… a moment that tourists miss because their itineraries are filled with sightseeing.

Tourists often don’t know where they have been. Travelers don’t know where the hell they are going. I brought Maria here to Panama to get a lock on what we were to each other. We were travelers.

Women and travel you can’t control. When you travel – when you are in another country you either accept the differences and embrace them, or you become miserable and frustrated and you quit. Today I know--and accept--that one hour might mean two and that a simple meal in Panama with friends can turn into dancing all night around a beach fire. Or a three month backpacking trip can turn into lifelong friendship.

End of trip final poll of polls – 50/50

Monday, July 6, 2009

Save and travel even in an economic Shit-Storm

So I asked my dad near the end of the first semester to loan me a bit of money so I could eat something other than ramen noodles and I get a lecture on financial responsibility. Hmmm I am the last child of six and my older brothers used to call me After-thought. I remind him that had he “planned” everything he would have planned his kid might ask for money at the end of his first semester in college. He said the lack of planning was mom’s fault and anyway who was I to complain about my conception.

So I reluctantly made friends with ramen noodles.

Funny thing though… I took his advice and the next year, on only loan and scholarship money and a bit of creativity I managed to spend 35% less and use it for a vacation in Central America. I will tell you how you can do it too.

The Conventional Wisdom

These are the no brainers that you just have to get up and do if you can.
1) If you have debts consolidate them and negotiate for the lowest interest rates possible. Interest rates are at an all time low now.

2) If you have credit cards hide them. Don’t let anything plastic distract you. Even many student discount cards lead you into thinking you are getting the best deals. Better than using cards is to write down what you need first, from the grocery store to weekend fun. Then don’t let anything, from air miles to a discount on something you don’t need, distract you.

3) If you have excess cash (savings or student loan money you don’t need at the moment) then:

a) Estimate your living expenses. (You can use www.mvelopes.com)
b) Deposit your living expense money into the highest interest bearing account with no penalties for low balances.
c) Purchase a 90-day CD with your excess money.
d) Repeat each quarter and watch your money grow.
e) Save

I know, I know – if you had excess cash for a CD you would not be reading this and consolidating debt doesn’t mean you magically have enough for a vacation – the quickest way to a vacation unfortunately is using credit. But I had no excess cash. I saved and still went out and did things. Here’s how:

Make a Budget to get you to your goal and then set monthly and weekly targets to save:

1) Pre-buy

For food this means buy bulk. It may sound crazy but pre-buy your ramen noodles, Mac and Cheese and peanut butter as well. But don’t wait until you’ve gone over budget to eat them. Mix them in with the healthy food like whole grain rice and fresh veggies which are always cheap. Never go out to eat after the bars. When you are drunk Mac and Cheese is as good as pizza. Pre-buy the Tupperware too so you can take leftovers for lunch and while you are comparing prices make a note of where to buy those other necessities you want fresh like coffee.

Coffee is one of the no brainers at the top of every list to save money and I saved a whopping $200 dollars in four months here. I bought a coffee maker that had the coffee ready for me in the morning and I limited my coffee to one a day. I kept a nice Caffeine buzz going with tea I bought in bulk and when everybody went to Starbucks I just asked them to get me hot water. You will need to get over the feeling of looking cheap. When I explained what I was saving for, my Starbucks friends respected me all the more and happily got me hot water for my tea. Saving for a cool goal is far different from being cheap.

2) Pre-buy busyness too.

If you don’t have access to a free gym like I did, then shop around. There is nothing worse than blowing your budget and then having nothing to do. One night I had $10 left in my weekly budget. My friends were all going out to dinner and then to see a band that had a $5 cover. So when they were buying pre-dinner cocktails I worked out in the gym. When they ordered appetizers I lay in the sauna and imagined I was on a beach and after dessert as they were forking over $50 each to cover the bill and tip I was showering at home with the stereo blasting Radiohead downloaded free and having a Meister Brau. (Exercise caution and discipline if you buy alcohol in bulk) O.K. lame you think but I made it to the best part of evening and still contributed to a pitcher of beer.

Courses are also good things to pre-buy to keep you away from expensive things. Want to go to Central or South America? Take Spanish or Salsa lessons. Me? I took a cooking course, which you’ll see later, paid for itself five times over while I was travelling.

If you already have an expensive hobby, substitute it. Or if you can’t, then match the amount you spend on your hobby with your savings. After all travel is going to be your new number one hobby right?

OK, Meister Brau? Tea? Cooking classes? You think I became soft – dare you say effeminate – to save money. For those I only offer you this photo of Isabella and Lynette from Panama.


3) Make technology your friend

Are you still not using Skype or VOIP for your long distance calls? Do you still pay for cable and internet when a search of ‘free tv online’ gets everything you want on demand? (If you want to watch on the TV screen ask around electronic stores for a ‘TV out’ of ‘S’ cable.) Do you still have old compact disks you don’t listen to that you can sell at the thrift shop or crap under your parent’s bed that you can sell on Craigslist or eBay? You download your music now, right? You have energy saving light bulbs right? Good. Just checking.

4) Bank your Free Money

Everything you earn that you didn’t budget for is free money and goes directly into the untouchable account. Five dollars for your birthday from Grandma, is five dollars from grandma to travel. And tell her that. She probably only gave you five bucks because she thinks you’ll spend it on booze. A raise? Same thing.

As a student I still found free money. Gone may be the days you can give blood for money (in most places) but I donated sperm once every three months for $50. I participated in a market research project three afternoons for $40 each just to drink beer and comment on beer commercials. (You didn’t know your two favorite hobbies could pay did you?) If your city has a university with a medical faculty then check out the poster boards and have a look at the business faculty for market research opportunities.

5) Form alliances

Networking tools are now endless. Blog your aspirations, use Facebook to form groups or if you are a student check out what clubs already exist through your student’s union or the international center. Also use Facebook to add friends from the country you want to travel to.

Three groups that were the deciding factor for reaching my goals were:

a) My cooking class
b) My college International Center
c) The student’s union poker club

First these groups kept me out of the bars – some of the time at least. In my cooking class I met more girls than the bar, but in the poker club I could still have a few beers – store bought – not beers from $8 beer night in the bar. I also cooked a whole lot more than the previous year and saved a load on food.

Second, these groups actually helped me earn money. The poker club let me host tournaments. I fed them with roast garlic in oil and bread that was a huge hit and cost me next to nothing. In return to hosting and feeding I took a ten percent rake from the tournament which paid for my ante and I even won a few times.

I ended up hosting some kind of party every weekend. If it wasn’t poker it was a potluck with the cooking class. When the cooking class finished I invited some of the students from the International Center (who are always looking for new friends) for movie nights and cooking demonstrations. A Thai girl showed us who to make Tum Yum Kun and showed us pictures of the temples and her family in Thailand. After, the leftovers stayed at my place and made it into Tupperware for my lunches.

My Goal

I wanted to go to Costa Rica.

Flight
(Check kayak.com or bookingbuddy.com)
$ 475
Costa Rica Daily Average
(Use lonelyplanet.com to estimate)
50 (a day) x 30 days= $ 1500
Total
$ 1970


Behind Budget

Two weeks to go and I was behind budget.

Savings over the previous year

Coffee
(Bringing my own saved me $2.50 a day)
$200
Cable
$120
Books
(Bought used books and resold them with class notes)
$230
Alcohol
(Went out less, drank at parties I hosted and ok ok I smuggled booze into the bar with a zip-lock freezer bag)
$250
Home Cooking
$200
Total
$1000

Income

Poker
$100
Sperm
(Damn could only do it once every three months)
$100
New Total
$1200


Short by $770

Here is what I did:

1) Asked Mom and Dad

I know, I know, how could I write about budgeting when I asked mom and dad had to come and bail me out?

I submitted to my dad my entire budget to show our organized and directed I was -- how I was not in the bars, how I spent more time studying and in the gym and that I would practice my Spanish in Costa Rica.

Good luck – didn’t work for me.

2) Birthday part and auction:

I invited EVERYONE to my birthday party, told the people in my cooking class I didn’t want gifts and to bring food I could sell. I made Hurricane punch with cheap booze (no one knew) and auctioned off my stuff.

cds
$10
Food and Booze
(Barely covered costs)
$15
My used clothes for auction
$0
Pre-sold two cartons of smokes and two bottles of liquor
$40

The idea of pre-selling came up from one of my guests from the International Center. Smokes are way cheaper in Costa Rica and so is alcohol – take the money and bring stuff back for your friends. Then the girl from the English Center said, “Why go to Costa Rica when Panama is like a fraction of the price.”

Adjust your Goal

I gave up the idea of Costa Rica and did some research for Panama. Not only is the country cheaper all rough I found a flight form New York City for $260 and I had enough saved right there just by switching destinations. Like Magic. But that’s not all. Here’s how I came back with extra money.

Volunteering in Panama

Evenings of salsa dancers swaying in the glowing nightlife of a vibrant city, hot days on white sand beaches and cool nights by the fire in the cloud forest waiting for the wild animals of the jungle to appear – this is Panama…

Here is a run down on average costs:

Alcohol

A beer in the supermarket 50-55 cents
In a bar in the country around 50 cents
City bar normally $2, but can go to $3
A bottle of national rum(Ron Abuelo) around $6 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
A bottle of national alcohol(Seco) less than $3 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
Transport
Long distance busesTaxis Around $1.50 per hourWorks on a zone system, most places in the city will cost the same fare.Most fares should never cost more than $2, but be reasonable.$1.25 for one person 25 cents
Going out
Entry to clubs $5-$10 depending on the club
Basic meal $2-$5
Medium priced meal $5-$10
Expensive meal How much do you want to pay?

Cigarettes- Marlboro $1.75 in a supermarket


Volunteering was a super idea. The Aussie owner of one of the best hostels in Panama City, Mamallenas, let me put the skills I learned from my cooking class and I hosted family style dinners and charged. I found an amazing cloud forest eco-resort called The Lost and Found, where I did the same… hosted family dinners and volunteered to stay for free. I took care of a honey bear they rescued and did about a half days work in exchange for free accommodation. I couldn’t leave the place and in the two weeks there and between cooking and volunteering I spent next to nothing. I had enough for Scuba diving in the incredible coral in Bocas Del Toro.

When I landed tanned and relaxed in New York City I had $300 in my savings account. Next year? Monte Carlo!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Finally the Quetzal at the Eco Lodge in Panama

You will not hunt for the Resplendent Quetzal – when you are lost in the ambience of cloud forest it will find you – if you are lucky.



OK not my photo... they are hard to shoot.

Travelling Panama is not about the destinations – it is about getting lost and found.

I came to Panama three years ago and built and eco-resort called The Lost and Found. While here I try everyday to appreciate exactly where I am. I try to remember that I am growing nostalgia in the garden of my memories.

Early one evening after a long afternoon shopping for my eco-resort in a sweaty frontier town, I climbed onto a minibus along the Pan-American Highway and played ‘open seat lotto’. To play this game you actually sit in the seat made only for one and a half small children but you don’t spread you legs over the whole seat in an attempt to keep it to yourself. In open seat lotto you make room and see what you get. This trip I had a school girl in uniform, an Indian in traditional dress that smelled of open fire and a toothless farmer with traditional worker’s hat. Most Panamanians don’t outwardly acknowledge my gringoness and this man was no exception. Until his phone rang. (Phones don’t really ring anymore do they?)

His cell phone sang out, ‘Josie's on a vacation far away, Come around and talk it over, So many things that I'd like to say…’

With a machete in one hand and cell in the other he answered, loud and clear in English, ‘What do you want?’

I smiled knowing the act was for me and he looked out the corner of his eye and smiled. I appreciated the song… I stared out the window and The Outfield ring took me back to a memory of a junior high crush.

I have had birders come to my resort and ask questions about birds. In shame I hand them a bird book and plastic pamphlet with pictures. The birds are pretty I tell them. Several birders have come to my resort to and have told me that our place is one of the best birding spots in Panama. Several have written and published what they have seen here.

One birder came hunting for the Quetzal – one of the rarest and most prized birds of Central America. They told me that there was a high probability the birds were here… it is their natural habitat. I took him hiking along the trails of the Fortuna Forest reserve and he was really happy with what he saw. But we did not see the Quetzal.

I am lucky to live where I do because just as I am getting used to white faced monkeys storming my resort or several blue morpho butterflies that dance by, my guests will still remind how special it is.

The day he came I was having a particularly frustrating day. Our water had stopped and I spent all morning hiking searching around our coffee plants looking for a leak in the pvc tube that supplied the water. After an hour I gave up and just sat down to rest. I really don’t know how long I sat there. And I didn’t feel any sensation of being watched. I didn’t hear anything either. But there, only ten meters away, was a male on the branch of an orange tree. He jumped around 180 degrees to face me… waited a moment and flew away. This was more than a pretty bird. And you don’t have to be a birder to know that you have just witnessed something special and I learned that birders are not always after the bird... sometimes they are just there for the moment… to be lost in the present… in the ambience of their beautiful environment. So much so they are aware of what they see and make notes – little notes of who came by to say hi.

You can sit on the beach and watch the full moon rise over the ocean and think about the last person who broke your heart. You can stare at your guide book in the Spanish colonial quarter trying to find a road to a museum when you are in the middle of the most charming alleyway or piazza missing it. You can fill your iPod to remind you of only the past.

If this is you then you need to fill your iPod with this year’s music and then you need a vacation. I know just the spot to get lost in the moment and found by the unexpected.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Coffee Tours - Boquete VS. The Backpacker Hostel

Whether we would like to admit it or not there was a time in our lives when we stuck everything interesting we could find in our mouths. At one time or another we have tasted everything our bodies could produce. And now we have grown out of that right? Now we know what we put in our bodies.

Not!

On a recent backpacking journey through Panama I discovered a charming little coffee town filled with gardens and year round spring like weather called Boquete. I decided to splurge above my self imposed budget of $35 a day to take a coffee tour. The tour is run by Café Ruiz, a local coffee dynasty with a long history in these parts. The day long tour is well worth the splurge and the highlight is, of course, the taste testing at the end.

Rumor has it, according to our guide, that the owner of a famous coffee chain that has a name similar to a Battlestar Galactica character came to taste the coffee before he bought a large amount for the famous chain. He liked what he tasted but then he asked,
‘Before I buy this coffee, I would like to know how much you pay your Indian workers.’
‘Of course,’ Sr. Ruiz said. ‘But before I answer this question and before I sell you my coffee, I would like to know how much it costs for a double grande mocha half caf. Latte in New York City.’

Neither answered the question and both signed the contract.

Before this tour I was quite happy with the blend I had first encountered in high school. It was instant Nescafe, with three cubes of sugar and heaping spoons of Coffemate…. Makes your cup of coffee taste great. But what I learned on this tour came dangerously close to changing my regular cup of joe forever.

We were taken to huge pools of water… floatation tanks for the coffee beans. Those that float are skimmed from the top and sold to instant coffee makers. Why? They float because worms have penetrated the bean and the holes created the porousness that makes them float. I, who thought I knew what I was putting in my mouth, was horrified that I had been quite happy to drink worm penetrated coffee. Could I ever go back?

Boquete is also home to world’s best coffee… no kidding. I learned a few things from the coffee tasting part of the tour. For instance the bitterness of a coffee does not mean it is strong nor has high caffeine content. It just means it was roasted longer. So armed with more information I was ready to try the world’s best – Boquete’s own, Esmeralda Especial Gesha coffee. I would say it had some hints of bergamot, plum, pear and marmalade, with a light but full citrus body. O.K. so maybe I stole that from the Web. But what would happen if I became spoiled and could no longer be happy with my double grande mocha half caf. latte in New York City let alone instant coffee and Coffemate.

My next coffee tour got me back on track.

After the well beaten track of Boquete I found myself in a little travelled area of the highlands -- at a little spot in the mountains called The Lost and Found. A couple of Canadians run a small eco-lodge for birders, hikers and backpackers. Their place, believe it or not, is an old coffee finca nestled around lemon and orange trees. Perhaps they are too busy hiking to waterfalls and day tripping to the Pacific to realize they are sitting on a potential gold mine… especially with the rising value of coffee. The Lost and Found is one of the few places I have seen really contributing to the local economy. Boquete’s fincas are run by coffee barons and foreigners and the coffee is sold on the foreign market. The Lost and Found offers an organic coffee and wine tasting tour with a local named Cune.

I ventured out to Cune’s farm on a guided horseback tour where he proudly displayed his organic growing techniques. Cune has never met the owner of a big coffee chain, has never had a double grande mocha half caf. Latte and didn’t know what one was. After the tour, Cune came with us back to The Lost and Found to bring some of his coffee to sell to the guests. He brought with him some tomatoes, carrots and some of the organic wine he makes as well.
That night we cooked up feast… all of the ingredients were local. With the chicken we made a delicious Panamanian chicken soup called San Cocho. The meat was a little tough – the chickens were free range chickens. The wine… well a little like soft moonshine. The coffee was good. You know… I don’t know if it was good or bad but I liked it and what the hell, I put Coffemate in it and I like it.

Cune did not stop asking me what I thought of his wine. ‘I like it,’ I told him. ‘I love it in fact.’ He beamed. The soup, the wine, the coffee… it was true… I loved it because I could see the work this man put into it. And I saw with my own eyes where the food came from that I was putting into my body.

The coffee had no hints of bergamot and plum and pear that I could detect.
It was the pride that made it taste so good.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Coolest Panama Destinations on the Web

The following links will open your eyes to some really cool stuff in Panama but they are also the easy links contained in the The Lost and Found novel (Short stories of mystery, sex and betrayal on the road in Panama). Hard copies of this are circulating around the backpacker community in Panama but you can write me for a copy to download.

Click on the links.

La Isla Del Diablo -- An excellent rock video set on an island prison inhabited but the ghosts of dead inmates.

The Black Christ -- Documentary about the superstitious pilgrimage to the famous Black Christ that floated to Portabello and refused to leave.

Rough Cut shots of The Black Christ

Lucid Dreaming on TV

How to Lucid Dream

Going Down to Panama Song -- Cool song to get you hooked on coming down.

And finally!!!! The most beautiful spot in Central America!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Capitalinas VS Chiricanas... David - Panama's other city




This guy is:

A) Neil Young ten years ago
B) A typical Chiricano partier
C) The Sasquatch
D) An ad for a beer called Soberana at a
DRIVE THROUGH LIQUER TUNNEL that serves open beers

Drum roll...... The answer is D!!! D as in…

David, Panama’s other city

Capitalinas


V.S. Chiricanas



My Capitalina friend said that Chiricanas are cholitas that wear high heels in dirt.



My Chiricana friend said that Capitalinas are ye ye wanabies that try to trap rabiblancos by wearing high heels in bed.

What? Well just imagine a hot town mouse in a bikini mud wrestling with an even hotter country mouse – the city mouse is pissed they are not wrestling in jello – both are wearing high heals and are ready to use them as weapons.

A Capitalina is a girl from Panama City, sometimes beautiful, liberal and cosmopolitan. In her early 20’s she’s still probably unmarried and not pregnant. She knows who the Beatles and U2 are and knows how old I am when they learn I listen to them. Damn!

A Chiricana is from the resource rich, fiercely independent and beautiful province of Chiriqui. She is always beautiful, proud and sheltered. But with all this parental sheltering they all seem to get pregnant and married (in that order) before 22. She’s in make up and heels to go to the supermarket.

The Capital of Chiriqui is David

At first glance David is a hot, dull grid of streets but a necessary transportation bottleneck. For anyone going to Boquete, The Lost and Found or beyond to Bocas, you first come to David. But David had more than meets the eye – and they have Capitalinas.

For the expats living in their Florida-at-half-the-price gated compounds David is the place to come for the day: 24 hour restaurants, supermarkets and CASINOS, mega mall style department stores like The DO IT CENTER and Price Smart. There is also a major airport and good hospitals and schools. And if you need your comfort food fix there’s FRIDAY'S, KFC, MCDONALD'S and THIS FUNKY LITTLE PLACE McPato which means McDuck. Flippin’ the bird at both Disney and McDonald’s. Here you can get a burger and coke for about a buck.



David is also the place to come to party. Boquete has become a quiet, sleepy town. I know more than a few retired gringos that sneak away from their wives to hit the CASINO to try their luck not only at Blackjack but with the Chiricanas that value stability ($$$) and image over whether or not their man has wrinkles or a sagging waistline. If the retired gringo strikes out it’s off to one of the STRIPPERS where odds are better.

And where do they go if they do get lucky? The Push of course. Ah the push button hotels. I was confused when a gringo once told me how he never took his girl to his house he always took her to the ‘bush’. I thought him quite insensitive until I realized I misunderstood ‘bush’ for push. A push is a love motel where you can drive in, push a button to close the garage door, and push another button to call the reception staff. The plethora of pushes is because almost everyone single lives with their parents.

But for those that have seedy desires to be filled there is a lot as well. La Barqueta is a great beach about an hour away in a cheap taxi. You can tour the Carta Vieja Rum Factory. Rum? Beach? Let’s face it… David is for parties. But you have to know where and when to look for them. The hard part is that Chiricanos don’t go to bars… they go to events… sometimes massive.

The best place to go for information about where and when these events happen is at Bambu – hands down the best hostel in David. Managed by Greg with help from a local, Benny, the team knows where to have a good time. The David International Festival is a huge ten day party of non stop party action. In the summer party season there is a huge festival of salsa rhythms, rum and reggae every other week. And in the down time, the more chilled party at their hostel is the place to be. Not only is Bambu the best hostel… it is the best place to spend the afternoon in David. Internet is free so it ping pong. David is hot… literally and metaphorically so the best way to cool off is with a margarita in a hammock under the Bambu rancho or around the pool. Bambu is the only hostel in Panama with a pool.

What is Eco Anyway?

From time to time I meet a tourist that views me as a neo-conquistador disrupting a culture and spreading upheaval. My crime? Buying land in a developing nation.

This same tourist would charge that the eco-resort I built in The Fortuna Forest Reserve is not a true eco resort at all. It was not built with local materials, it does not have solar power nor does it have composting toilets.

My answer for this charge… My resort is not yet perfectly ‘green’ but is one of the most eco-friendly resorts Panama.

Like many communities in Panama my community has environmentally conscious citizens and others -- not so much. My community, Valle de la Mina, is inside a forest reserve administered by the largest hydro-electric project in Panama, Fortuna, S.A. Right now the environmentally conscious citizens are loosing the battle. The U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and a local businessman tried to organize the cleaning of local streams and the transport of garbage to a landfill sight. They asked for support from the dam administration but there was not much enthusiasm from them or the town. The Peace Corps volunteer left without being replaced. Hunting inside the reserve is widespread, pesticides are overused and our neighbors clear cut their land.

However there is hope. Take for example, Kune, the owner of one of the only certified organic farms in Panama. His coffee is not the quality of the big Boquete plantations. His wine does not compare to Napa Valley. But after a tour of his farm you will taste the pride in his coffee and it may well be the best cup of coffee you have in Panama.

Tourism officials in Panama want to attract wealthy tourists. One rich tourist they believe will spend as much as five budget tourists but leave a smaller carbon footprint. This is naïve. Budget tourists, like our customers, eat Sancocho with local free range chicken, not Australian Black Angus steaks. They stay at local bed and breakfasts not the large international chains. They are providing an alternative industry to many poor Panamanians that could turn to other industries that are not so great for the environment.

Although we have not successfully eliminated hunting in the reserve, hunters no longer use our trails to access the reserve. But the point is not to restrict their actions but to provide them with an alternative. The answer is in the economy not from pedantic moral lessons. One of our customers helped us raise $1500 for a local family that needed a new home. Kune, the organic farmer, gets 100% of his customers from us. Slowly, the community is realizing through our example, that there are dollars to be made in preserving the natural beauty of their environment. The composting toilets are important and will come but toilets alone do not raise the awareness of a community.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thinking of putting your backpack down and becoming an expat in Panama?

With apologies to guest writer Ezra Paskus

If your reasons are any of these two then STAY HOME!

1. I hate what’s happening in: America, Canada, Somalia, Darfur, Iraq, Barbados.

Granted there is probably nothing terrible happening in Barbados, but the point is that if you disagree with the current political/economic situation in your home country, this is probably not a good reason to leave. You cannot escape the effects of American politics nor its current shitstorm economy. Internet access is available from Rio Douche, Panama to Werthefuckamitenango, Guatemala. Unfortunately, so are CNN and even Fox News, although here it’s called Canal Comedia. And if you think your government is corrupt?

2. I hate: my job, my girlfriend/boyfriend, my drinking problem, black presidents, the fact that I’m a giant douchebag.

The problem is a douchebag in Panama smells much the same as a douchebag back home (unless you are French – quite nice there actually). If you don’t fit in where you live now, you wont fit in here either. You’ll be the raving lunatic that everyone calls “Gringo Loco”, trust me; I am still trying to shrug this off. Your drinking problem? Booze is considerably cheaper here.

Ok, so maybe neither of those apply to you, or you’re willing to overlook them, or that last line made up your mind to come to the land of cheap booze, or you have delusions of being a pirate, or you just want to see some funky Latina ‘gina. Read on.

I wanna be an ExPat and I’m willing to overlook the following in order to get to the funky Latina ‘ginas.

• Crazy ass drivers.

Anyone outside of USA/Canada is a crazy ass driver who uses the car horn like my 5 year old nephew honks his wee wee, and some of these drivers are honking their their wee wees and their horns at the same time. In Panama car horn is used to communicate any of the following, not in this order and sometimes all inclusive: you’re a hot chick, you’re in my way, I’m coming through the middle of your car, do you need a ride, my taxi is empty, my taxi is full, you’re not moving, you are moving, how are you, fuck you, you’re a fat chick, you’re a fat chick but if you get in my car I’ll sympathy hump you.

• Crazy ass Latina ‘ginas.

If you have blue eyes it’s easier to pick up here than taking money from the cup of a one eyed legless beggar. I know, I bought colored contacts.

• The combined smell of piss and campfire. This has apparently been bottled in Panama and is one hell of a hot seller especially for public transport.

• Lazy bastards.

There is a reason bribery is popular in developing countries. If you’ve ever tried to wade through ridiculous bureaucracy then you have wished that bribery was popular in the good ol USA. But it isn’t just bureaucracy, it’s on all levels, it’s a general air of undeserved entitlement, sorta like a country full of Kevin Federlines. As one Panamanian told me while we were looking out at the canal, his ancestors worked so hard on the canal he was born tired. You will run into this “manana” attitude everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

• Personal space.

It no longer exists in Panama. I cannot explain this thoroughly enough. Whether it’s the stinky assed armpit shoved in your face on the bus, or the stinky assed ass shoved in your face on the bus, something stinky assed will be shoved in your face… everyday.

• Cops and the disappearance of your “rights”.

Whereas in Britain cops will say “Stop, stop, dammit or I will have to say stop again,” in Panama they point an AK-47 at your head while you cash a check. If you call a cop and they can’t find someone to arrest they will arrest you. And while, “Hey, I got rights, and I’ll upchuck on your shoes if I wanna” might gain you a pity smile and a hardy chuckle, and possibly a phone call in the USA, here it will probably gain you a pistol whippin and laughter from the other 10 dudes loosening their belts in your 4ft by 4ft cell.

Still ready to come?

So sell all of your worldly possessions, which granted may not net you as much as it would in a bright shiny economy, but you won’t need much because you won’t be spending much. After all, loss of personal hygiene, cup ‘o noodles, and sleeping on the beach doesn’t cost that much and, you will be rich with experience and confident in your knowledge that you are a pioneer who will come back one day and write a best seller about all of your spiritual insights with your fellow man and how the girl with the hairy armpits dumped when you ran out of cash for 50 cent beers and had to sell your hemp necklaces and hardened Playdoh “water-pipes” to the unsuspecting tourists. Wait! What are all of these other trust fund hippies doing selling their “jewelry” (crap) on your street in paradise?

Still want to come? Good… I haven’t regretted a single day.

Panama Backpackers Party Here!




Panama is the best city in Central America to party. But here are a few general rules:

1) Taxis are cheap in Panama. The most expensive taxi ride to get to a bar is Isla Flamenco on the Causeway which should cost around $6 but you could be asked to pay up to $8. Negotiate the cab fare first

2) Keep in mind the most expensive taxi ride is $6. If you meet a lady and the next morning she asks for $40 to take a taxi home then you may be in denial. If she asks for $200 for her sick kid in Cali then you have to admit to yourself that you just spent time with a hooker. If she is wearing a skirt made from a gym sock assume she is a hooker. If in doubt ask her what she does for a living and look for hesitation in her voice.

3) Bring a good copy of your passport with a photocopy of the entry stamp. You will be asked for this as police look for the girls described in #2.

4) Bring the address of the hostel with you. Taxis don’t use addresses and your drunk broken Spanish will just put dollar signs in the taxi driver’s eyes.

There are four general bar areas – more detail about each place after

Calle Uruguay is the famous nightlife area but it is slowing declining in popularity as nightlife branches out. There are a couple of classy lounges here with no cover but $4 beers, a couple of great places with strong Latin flair. Saharah has great live rock and 80’s music and La Bodeguita is super for Salsa and is on fire with action – sadly in both places most of the women are working girls. There are also five or six of the big nightclubs with all night partying but be prepared to pay an average of $15 to get in.

Uruguay Bars in detail:

Prive… Look for the two story building just across the street from Kraze. There is no cover here but that doesn’t stop them from making their money with four dollar beers. Wealthy and wannabe wealthy Panamanians put on their adult clothes and there are some pretty funky tunes spun by the resident D.J. It has the big disco feel but is the size of a pub. Worth a look before you dish out the cover at some of the other places around.

Shahara… An institution in Panama for great live bands playing covers of Classic Rock. There is a large outdoor patio visible from the street with T.V.s playing 80’s music. There are two pool table near the back and another outdoor quiet area out back. Caution with the girls here though, many are working. Cover is $5 but it includes a free drink which goes for around $4 anyway so it is almost negligible. This place is empty until around 11 but picks up around midnight and goes hard till the wee hours of the morning.

Moods and the bar right above Moods…

To the right of Moods is a staircase leading up to a little bar with no cover and economical drinks. This is a great pre-drinking place but the party can get lively with dancing to reggeaton and salsa. Great place. But if you don’t like the ratio of guys to girls then you can shell out the $10 cover to see something very similar with lasers, disco balls $4 highballs but better ratio of dudes to chicks.

La Bodeguita… A Cuban bar on Calle Uruguay, playing Spanish music with Columbian hookers. The last point is really too bad but it can still be worth a look as this bar has the most energetic Latin Flair on the street. Cover can be steep at $15 after midnight but it is lower earlier… try before 10pm and try to negotiate a $5 entrance. The hookers are friendly but not aggressive and if you tell them you are not in the market they will either leave you alone or still flirt until someone with more money than savvy with the ladies comes. La Bodeguita is the last bar on Calle Uruguay before Avenida Balbo (towards the bay)

Guru… Also know as The Clubbing Cult and the elite moniker means that yes it is pretentious but the beautiful girls do come here to spend $15 cover or more for special djs. Mostly techno music but from time to time the dj might put on a couple of salsa songs to change it up.

People… This is a good place to see your average middle class party it up with a mix of music that includes a few salsa songs followed by a couple of marenge, then reggaeton (Daddy Yankie) then 80’s then pop then back again. At $10 it is also average for a cover charge.

The Causeway is an excellent spot for dinner, a stroll between the islands for photos of the bay, city skyline and luxury yachts. There are also a dozen or so clubs. The causeway is busy anytime of the day, the air is fresh and you can rent bikes. There is a brand new bar area planned just before the causeway and one or two place have opened in an attempt to start a formal nightclub area like other cities in Central America.

You hardly realize the causeway is made of three islands. The first is on your right with a couple of small restaurants with outdoor seating and just after it is Perico, the second island. There’s a Subway here and juice stand but other than these there are good but pricey restaurant. If you are there on a Friday check the last restaurant, Rincon de Andaluz for three for one bottles of wine. There is a small sports bar (usually empty) with no cover but better is to go to the opposite end (the way you came) upstairs to Sing City. There is no cover and late at night the crowd gets going with slightly less cheesy than normal karaoke. At the back with great views of Panama City (near the Rincon de Andaluz) is Bambu, the best disco on the Causeway.

The best place for pre-drinking is further down the Causeway on the last island, Flemenco. Skip all the cheesy Disney like bar at the Flemenco Shopping Plaza. Before that, just after the Benegin’s is busy place with no sign. It is called Cayuco’s. Great cheap Panamanian grub and cheap bears.

Casco Viejo is the gentrified old colonial area that should not be missed. The nightlife is more subdued but this is the place to come to learn that life is not a road but a series of alleyways and piazzas. Come to sit near the park, listen to jazz and have a $5 glass of wine. New lounges are opening up and there is one club of particular interest called La Casona popular with students and has laid back dress code.

Details: Many new lounges pop up monthly. Follow the rail lines through Plaza Mayor to the tourist cop shop to Indigo.(no cover) Follow the Jazz music past the cop shop and the derelict building where the Bond was filmed and you will see La Planetea for the swankiest and priciest Jazz in the city. Prices vary depending on the band. For late night partying La Casona is a great disco of laid back students and artists. There is a modest cover and usually there is some kind of modern art installation in the large airy warehouse. This is in a bit of a dangerous area near Parque Herrera. You may want to ask the friendly tourist police for directions or make sure your cab driver found the right place.

Around Multicentro

Near Multicentro shopping mall and the Decapolis hotel are a series of bars. The Decapolis is wear you shine your shoes, wear a collar shirt and pass out real estate business cards to actually pretty groovy music. A pedestrian overpass connects the hotel to the Majestic casino. Sometimes there are cheap Texas Holdem tournaments and of course all the other gambling games but casinos are great for good bar food for under $8 and beers around $1.50. On a Friday or Saturday night more Panamanains come for the free live salsa and party than for gambling. Panama’s Hard Rock café also picks up at night and is in MutliCentro. Next door to the mall along is Extreme Planet a complex with a bunch of movie theaters, a Bennigan’s restaurant on the second floor and on the 12th that is also home to Sky Bowling. This complex also has a huge Bennigan’s Pub with dozens of large screen TV’s to watch the sporting event of the day. Beers are around $2 here.

Behind the Decapolis hotel was a bar area that is now slowly shutting down but there are a few places to note. Rasputin is a tiny Russian bar with foosball and Guitar Hero. Great pre-drinking place with cheap beer. A good chic club is also here called The Galaxy in Plaza New York at the end of this street on Calle 50.

Via Veneto to The Marriott

Via Veneto is hard to miss with the Vegas Style hotel and casino of the same name lighting up the street with flashing lights. On a street running perpendicular is Istmo Pub with a pool table and one of Panama’s few micro breweries. The Veneto itself is big casino and right behind it (you can go through the exit at the back) is the biggest and liveliest casino with big stage shows, Fiesta.

A little ways out down Veneto toward Via España on your right you will see a few signs, Capri, Oaisis… these are brothels. But the last one is a great little place to have a beer and watch the street action roll by. If you stand at the McDonald’s and look across the busy Via España you will see two busy streets with light. Down the street where the Continental Hotel is perched you will find a great expat hang out called The Terrace. Street views and pool upstairs this is a great place to pre-drink. While seated here you will notice the Royal Casino and Marriott hotel attached. Right across the street from the front doors of the Casino is Kappas and Beirut. Right across the doors of the hotel is a little cigar bar frequented by gringo who frequent hookers.

Via Argentina

Is the up and coming nightlife area. Starting at its base on Via España just after the Blockbuster there are new nightclubs worth a look on weekends. Further up keep your eyes open for a big gorilla for the aptly named Rockin’ Gorilla where beers are cheap, there’s lots of pool tables and sometimes live music. (no cover) Three minutes walking further up is Taberna 21 across from a park good for cheap beer, no cover and good Sangria. Just past the park is one of the few English Pubs with live music and pool called El Pavo Real. There is no cover, a pool table and sometimes live bands.

These are just a small sample of places to stir up trouble.